I chuckle when I hear the statement, “I don’t want or need to restore a car because I am savvy and I will just buy one done, it’s cheaper.”  This article is a follow-on to the Restorations Build vs. Buy post.  I will reiterate my statement in that post;  Do you really think guys are going to loose their ass and sell you their meticulously restored car for the same price as an auction dealer fluff and flip car? The answer is hell no!  Please learn what a concours restored car is and a show car restoration is. The extent and quality will not be the same. Moreover you just paid huge auction fees to buy that “done” car.

My intent here is to share my experiences, specifically the estimating process,  in restoring a classic car. Restoring a car should be fun.  I don’t want you to feel ripped off or disappointed when you a). see the price of a restored car, and b). overspend your hard earned money re-working or going backwards to achieve your end goal, oh, and c). establish a good price to pay for a project car.

With that said, what is your end goal?  If you are looking for a Saturday evening cruiser,  or a trailer queen, concours award winning car, I hope this article will provide you with guidance and insight.  Give this decision a lot of thought.

Even a driver is a blast. I have a couple I call my “bar cars”. Good cool drivers/hot rods and a cream puff that can withstand a box store parking lot or a cruise-in riddled with toddlers and drunk idiots.  Still a great time visiting with like-minded car guys about their rides.  The drivers were built with this purpose in mind. Even if I were to have bought them done, which I rarely do, I am safe on the money.  Remember this is a hobby after all and not a business. From time to time I don’t mind being upside down in a car.  Your job is to NOT spend near concours restoration money on a driver, regardless what the seller claims. Why spend the money twice if your end goal is to someday restore the car?

We have covered the difference between a survivor car and a restored car in the post noted above. Now will will delve into the restoration project and related costs. Trying to predict the cost of a build is tricky and often times impossible. There are many variables depending on your end goal.  As a project manager by profession my job is to manage cost and schedule in a given project.  Because I have historical data AND real world experience with automotive restoration, I can predict within reason what a restoration will cost and how long it will take. In the absence of data there are methods to perform a build-up of costs.

You will see on most of the restoration car pages here on my website there is  a build and acquisition cost listed. You will also see the year the work was done and whether the work was outsourced or done in my hobby shop. All of these things are factors in restoration costs.

No tricks here just get our your pad and paper and start listing, purchase price, parts and labor.  Let’s break each down parts and labor and discuss the variables. I use an Excel spreadsheet on every car.

Parts: Depending on your end goal, quality and extent of restoration, the parts needed, and or restored and re-used, or replacing missing parts, will drive this section of your cost build up. Often times you wont know every single part you will need until you tear the car apart. i.e. a heater box diaphragm.  You also may not know the sticker shock or the price of a used or hard to find part. Regardless start your list and identify the costs.  Leave yourself a 20% reserve of your total parts line.  See the “Pieces & Parts “article about sourcing parts.

Next are the labor costs. Sorry but as a hobbyist your time is not able to be charged to the project. Turn key shops will obviously cost the most. Having a hobby shop with heat and mechanicals like I did will save substantial dollars. Having a space to do tear-down, do blasting and light parts painting will save big dollars.  However building a $30k garage to restore one car is not conducive to the one car build. Even in a two car garage or the third stall in your suburbia home, a lot of disassembly and assembly work can be done. You don’t need a hoist.  Store completed parts in your basement. Get a lawn shed or an enclosed trailer to store parts or other items.

Farm out your engine and driveline components and re-assemble in your existing garage. Same goes for upholstery, either do these items yourself or haul them to an upholstery shop to have professionally done.

Tear Down & Blasting: This is an easy area to save money. Tear down and take apart your own car. After all you are the one who will be putting it back together. This will also dictate the extent or your restoration project. Of course take pictures. Even though you have manuals, pictures work the best for re-assembly. If you don’t have a blaster haul your car and parts to a sand and media blasting shop. Stay away from the dustless blasters. Have a plan once your parts and car are stripped to bare metal for the means to apply primer sealant.  Don’t plan to allow a car sit in bare metal for even a month. This is something that needs to be taken care of in days, not weeks or months. This is a great time to revisit your parts list now that you can see what parts are savable and usable.

Body Shop Jail:  Finding body guys to do restoration work is tough. Body guys generally go for the easy collision work to make more money. Can’t fault them for that. Stay away from the collision shop that will take your restoration in as “side” work. This almost always turns out bad. Your project sits, parts start to turn up missing, and months can turn into years. This has happened to many of us. Before I had my own hobby shop I outsourced a lot of paint and body work. Once the relationship deteriorated due to missed deadlines and empty promises, I was not shy about just showing up with a car trailer, a long cable, and loading my car.  Live and learn.

Knowing I was going to do several restorations I built a hobby shop. It doubled as storage and a man-cave. Overkill for sure with AC and in floor heat but what the hell. I do miss it but it served me well. Something to consider if you have the space and means. I went one step further and hired paint and body guys to work for cash at an hourly labor rate vs. a loaded hourly shop rate in my own pole barn. I paid for heat, AC, yes AC, the repairs to the air compressor, garage doors etc.  I could control and track material costs and usage with my own facility.

Look for a body shop with lower overhead. Be cautious of the guy charging $90/hour out of his back yard pole barn out in a rural area. Does he have shop insurance against fire and theft? Probably not. Is there a crew there where 2-3 people will be working on your car for the $90/hour?  The sweet spot is a 1-2 man shop that do restorations only, maybe light repairable work. Make sure they are a real business for anything over $40 bucks an hour. Get a discount for cash. Get an estimate on cost and schedule. Let them make the estimate and let them pic the schedule. Then remind them that they picked both and you will hold them to it. Progress payments are normal but always do a 15% withhold payable when the entire project is completed.

Don’t get wrapped around the axel so to speak about an hourly rate. Get an estimate. Work with the body guy to do an hourly build up by part if he is unable to tell you how many hours for each phase.  Metal work, rough in, paint and final cut and buff are good phases.  If he refuses to work with you on an estimate walk away. I generally wait for them to tout their 20-30-40 years in doing body work.  If that is the case then they should have no problem providing you an estimate, or work with you on a build up.  200 hours-600 hours? Is the $90/hour for 1-2 men or just one? $90/hour may actually be $45 depending how you look at it. Who is paying for materials?  Is there a mark upon materials? Where do they get their materials? Have them give you the estimate in writing. Generate your line item price for body labor from the hourly rate x their hours estimate.

If you are are working on a project someone else started or have to switch body guys, be wary of the guy that criticizes the workmanship of the previous body guy. This negativity is bad news and a true sign of an attitude you don’t want to work with. This belly aching is not productive. Look,  shi* happens and while re-work is expensive it is not the end of the world. Move on.

Good help is hard to find. There are old school body guys out there that enjoy doing restoration work. Network and make good connections. Ask your local auto-parts store that mixes automotive paint for names of body guys.  Ask your fellow car club members.  Another reason to join a car club and attend the monthly meetings. See Car Club Article.

At this point your project plan and cost estimate should be filling up. Revisit your numbers and list your outsourced items along with the business that will be doing the work.  Common misses are exhaust, brakes, bulbs and fluids. These small items can add up.  This data  can now be used in determining what you will pay for a project car.  Buying knowledge is buying power so you don’t overpay.  Use this estimate on other project cars you are looking to buy, or the one you already have.

Now that you have a good cost estimate think about what your end result will be. Is it what you want? Is it a restomod? An OE restoration or a combination? For most the hunt and restoration journey is part of the dream and most certainly garnishes respect. Also a great sense of accomplishment.   Working though this estimating and then the restoration process can be challenging but in the end is well worth it. If you work with good vendors and shops the experience can be grand!  In the end you know what you have for a car.  Now ask yourself if that done car you were looking at buying in haste at an auction, with no back story, with no true knowledge of the type or extent of restoration performed, is something you want to pay big money for?

Please think of this. Your buddy with the thirty thousand dollar bass boat, a few grand in tackle, another couple grand in fish finders etc., he does not think how much he can sell the fish for that he catches, in fact he may throw most of his catch back in the lake! Classic car restoration is like fishing, it is not about the value of the fish you eventually land in the end, but the experience of the journey it took to get the fish in the boat. 

– Jake