Managing Your Automotive Restoration

They say if you do what you love you will never work a day in your life. A passion of mine, second to restoring cars is managing projects. As a professional project manager by day, a Project Management Professional (PMP) certified by Project Management Institute, I use many best practices when restoring cars as a hobby. To date I have about fifteen true restorations under my belt. When there is not an unlimited budget, and when there is not an open-ended time frame, astute project management techniques will add immeasurable value to an automotive build. My dream, my passion, my goal is to guide my fellow hobbyists who may be lost in a project get back on track, or help those who want to explore doing a project.

Restoring or even fixing up a car takes money and time. In the project management world these two things are referred to as cost and schedule. If you are outsourcing any of the work now you have introduced vendor management into your project, another passion of mine. Managing your own expectations as well as the expectations of a vendor or subcontractor in the areas of cost, schedule and quality are paramount in a build. I will outline below many of the techniques I have used on the restoration projects contained on here on my hobby website, www.jakesgeneralstore.com

First we need to establish your end game. Take a shot at answering the questions below.

  1. Are you restoring your car as an enthusiast and hobbyist? If yes, proceed to next question. If no, I doubt there is nothing of value for you here.
  2. Are you interested in restoring or building a car or truck, and maintaining a planned schedule to; a.) Establish a budget and then remain in that budget?
    b.) Achieve the quality you desire? And
    c.) Adhere to a pre-planned time schedule? If yes, read on. If no, move on.

Planning your build:
The first goal is build a project plan that you will use to adjust the main elements of cost and schedule until your plan works for you. i.e. what you can afford and the quality you desire are the big drivers here. Since most of us have more time than money, yet desire safety and quality, schedule takes a back seat. A common saying in project management is “ plan your work and work your plan”. I used to cringe when I heard this after being in the trenches of managing projects for fortune 500 companies. There are many outside factors that can affect even the best laid-out project plan. Most often it is the client or owner, and their desired changes in project scope, that will derail a cost item or an established schedule in a project plan. A good project manager will build in cost and schedule reserves to mitigate these changes affecting the project. Managing expectations is half the battle here. For car hobbyists like us let’s just try and manage our own expectations, and maybe the expectations of our spouces.

Step 1. As I stated above, it is important to know what you want to end up with before you begin a project. It is also important to know what resources and or skills you have.

Resources are things like money, a garage, a shop, a truck, a trailer, tools, and time. Next think about what amount of work you want to do. Are you a do-it yourselfer? Do you enjoy the dirty work of a tear down? Do you have the patience to put in a headliner? Are you comfortable vacuuming up rat and raccoon crap and coming face to face with live snakes? Are you ok with getting stung by a swarm of bees? The answers to these questions will determine what if any of the work on your build is outsourced. Often times even though you have the skill to do something, it is a better value to outsource.

Examples are; honing your engine block, porting heads, sandblasting parts etc. There are service providers who have the tooling and equipment to do the work. Buying the equipment to use once, or even twice is not prudent.

Another example is a simple as a car trailer. A car trailer can cost $2-$3,000. You many only need to haul your car 2-3 times. A tow truck service even at $120/per haul might be a better value. Moreover storing the trailer may not be an option where you live. Another example is a welder, even though you took that welding class in high school and know how to weld, maybe having a professional welder do the work is a better way to go. Don’t get me wrong, having a car trailer, a small sandblaster, a blasting cabinet and even a small 220 AMP welder are very fun, effective tools to use as an automotive hobbyist.

Above we talked about understanding your skills and resources before you begin your project. These decisions will drive the next exercises, the cost or budget of your build, and the timeframe or schedule you expect on your build. Many tasks on your project, even though they may be a better value, can still be performed by you, after all this is a hobby and doing the work on your build is up to you. Learning a skill and understanding the tooling used is very fulfilling. Moreover, they both can be used on future projects. Once you complete your first project plan or estimate of cost and schedule, you may need to come back and re-consider what work you will be doing. We also need to do an exercise on what vendors you have access to. Keep that in the back of your head for now.

Step 2- Secondly think about what you want to end up with. First and foremost it should be something safe if for use on public roads. If you want to kill yourself out in the desert or woods, have at it. I feel sad for your friends and family but I can’t fix stupid. From there, the level of quality and functionality (performance) are also considerations for you to decide on. Write down on paper what you want. Find pictures of what you want. Build out what you want on paper, lay it all out on your kitchen table. Get what is in your head out in front of you to look at. Maybe the build you want already exists, or a least a close version of what you want? Go talk to that owner and go see that car in person, ride in it if you can. Ask what they would do differently etc. This is the fun part. Research.

Step 3 -Costs: To establish a budget on your build. Start to gather your costs. I use software spreadsheets. I have a pretty standard template I use for all of my builds. Short example list of the categories below;

Task or Item Work Done by or Vendor Cost Time- days
Acquisition Cost Wife $15,000
Tear down Me 20
Engine build AMC Machine $8,000 60
Valve covers Rock Auto
Tires Tire Rack $500
Sandblasting L&E Blasting $1,200 14
Body Work & Paint Itz Custom Cuz Stock Sucks $15,000 120
Assembly Me 90
Re-chrome Bumpers $700
Stainless polishing Me 7
Trans rebuild BJE Transmission $1,200 14
Partial Total $41,600

Separate the outsourced work from the work you will be doing. Then separate out parts from outsourced labor. Group similar items together. Run a total in each category and analyze. Then run a grand total. Build out your spreadsheet so as each cell or value changes the category total and grand total will change. Do these costs work for you? Can you realistically afford this? Re-adjust items and or re-source less expensive parts and or look for a better value.  You are collecting estimates for your project. You are determining how your project will be executed. The more time in planning and researching the more options you will have to decide on how your build will be executed.  Take your time here. Be as accurate as you can. SWAGS ( silly wild-ass guesses) should be avoided or eventually defined because numerous  SWAGS will corrupt your the data and cost estimates you are using and making expensive decisions on. I also use the spreadsheets for historic reference so include web-links to vendors and their phone numbers. I track parts received and returned as well, along with order numbers.

A note on outsourcing: In other blog articles I discuss vendor management, finding body shops, machine shops, upholstery shops etc. Remember, join local car clubs, go to swap meets, network and learn who is who in your area. Get more than one source for a given task. Go talk with them in person and see their shop. Use your gut because you will get what you pay for. Using a buddy’s brother in a back woods pole barn with a dirt floor to assemble your engine is not worth it. Paying some guy on the side with cash who is a “tweeker” working out of his garage will turn out bad. Price is one thing, but actually getting work done in a quality form is more important. The cost of having body work re-done or an engine blow up 2 miles down the road is no good. Get a time frame from the vendor to do the work. Hold them to their timeline. There are some common talking points in negotiation I use here. Negotiations and managing expectations begin at the estimate stage in any procurement.

Step 4- The Schedule: We covered resources and skills used to get the work on your build done. What work will you be performing on your build? For outsourced work, what were the timeframes received back from the outsourced work? Lay this info out on your spreadsheet or a timeline. Use a day count or a month count of need be. Generate a total.

Step 5 Compile the plan- Bring it all together. You now have your project plan. Adjust the plan as needed to fit your goals and resources. Analyze, re- shop, rethink and re-research.

Executing Your Build

Time to rock and roll and get things underway. Take-a-part starts. The basis here are bag and take and box. By now you have chosen your outsourced work and vendors. Long- lead items, things that will take the most time, are determined from your return time estimates provided by your vendors. Re-Chroming bumpers and misc. parts I have found often take the longest. Get your long-lead items to the vendor so they can begin work. Body and paint is often times another long-lead item. Get your car to the shop. Managing the body and paint vendor will most likely be your biggest job. The supply and demand of skilled tradesmen are not in your favor here. Decent body and paint people are in short supply.

Go through your parts list and determine availability. A parts list can grow and change. Determine what you will buy online, or at a local parts store, and what you will need to find used. Look for bulk buys and coupon codes for online suppliers. Be careful here. Often times using several parts suppliers vs. using one close to you, and or one who will work with you on returns is more valuable. Here again the relationship will win out every time. Look for total value not just price.

Parts & Labor Cost Received Order #
Motor rebuild $4,900.00
Clutch, Bolts $439.55 yes 595062
Idle Solenoid $153.89 yes 1159146
Alternator $112.48
Battery Cable, Coil & Parts $98.38
Exhaust Manifolds $249.00
Alternator $148.88 yes 1157207
Radiator $895.00
6 pack carb rebuild $922.00
Misc. $94.53
Exhaust system $1,000.00
Polyglas Tires $1,335.00
Brake Booster/ Master $1,150.00
wiring/ Filter $1,006.20 yes 21782
Dash Pad $750.00
Interior $1,174.50 yes 22390

Managing Changes
The largest risk to keeping any well laid out project plan on time and on budget is the owner. In this case the biggest risk is you. Changes changes changes. Again this is a hobby project and not a multi-million dollar IT software or an outer space expedition so changes are allowed and no one is going to get fired. Like construction, subcontractors salivate when the Change Orders come. Change Orders are common and often times priced much differently than originally scoped and priced work. Unforeseen changes in scope are expected, i.e. until the car was sand blasted, or until the ¼ skin was removed, the inner wheelhouse sheet metal now needing replacement was not known. Expect an additional charge for materials and labor. Ensure the price is reasonable and move on. This is where the 10-20% budget project reserve comes in handy.

Assembly and Finishing
Second only to the hunt and the find this stage of the restoration project is very exciting. If you are doing the assembly work yourself in your garage, the smell of mice piss is long gone. New parts start to arrive like Christmas, the smell of new paint is in the air, and your garage or shop starts to look clean again. Have a garage party the day your ride comes home from the body shop. Get some encouragement from your friends and family to finish it off.

For kicks re-visit your project plan and add a column called “actual cost”. In this column start to populate what things ended up costing. How close were you? If you are very anal you can create a third column called variance for future analysis. This will show you the areas and items you were off in your estimating. This data will come in very valuable on your next build. Also known as lessons-learned.

Take your time on assembling your car. Remember most of us have more time than money, so if you blow your scheduled time frame for assembly, no harm no foul. Sure you will run into stuff you forgot to order or buy, and no one has an entire hardware store bolt and nut section in their garage. Countless trips to your local hardware store are expected. The good news is spending money at a hardware store on nuts and bolts far exceeds blowing cash on pull-tabs or over-priced beer at a swanky downtown bar. In the end you have an amazing ride that YOU built, with a plan.

Summary- The spectrum of getting a car build done for everyone varies. At one end of the spectrum you have a completely outsourced build to a restoration or speed shop. Known as Turn-Key.  On the other end is the do-it-yourselfer who will go at their own pace, in their own place. Your preference coupled with your resources will determine where your build will fall on the spectrum. A properly planned project will cost less, be of higher quality, and take less time, then an unplanned build. Go at your own pace, go as you can afford the project. For goodness sake, if you don’t have the money upfront, please do NOT use credit cards to build a car.

Plan out your work like planning a road trip before GPS. A prudent person would never head out on a cross-country road trip without a plan including an idea of costs, what roads he will take to get there. Once done, enjoy the ride.-Jake  612-518-7425

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