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Unrequited Restorations

I was talking with a friend the other day about “unrequited restorations”; car restorations we might have undertaken if we were in a different place in our lives when a desirable old car was available for purchase. We had a nice conversation talking about several cars we had been made aware of over the years that were either total basket cases or in some cases maybe barely driveable. We noticed a few other similarities as we talked. Almost every time, the restoration candidates would require scads of money to restore, and always substantially more money than we might ever hope to realize should we choose to sell someday. Another thing we noticed with many of these basket cases; there was hardly ever anyone else in-line to buy the thing. Sometimes, the seller wouldn’t even put up the charade of “the other guy” coming over for a look that afternoon. The city we live in is not that big, and there are only so many people with the right sort of mush for brains that would ever seriously consider dragging home some horribly clapped out antique car to the surprise of our disappointed wives and children, who would now be looking for other means to pay for college! Smarter people would have spent good money to have such an eyesore hauled off and recycled, likely making tomorrows refrigerators and washing machines out of yesterday’s Packards and Pontiacs. Sacrilege to the average automotive restoration visionary.

Having concocted several harebrained ideas over the years about potential automotive restoration projects myself, I’ve grown pretty talented at recognizing when a restoration project is doomed to failure even before the car is pulled from the seller’s barn on four locked wheels. Just for fun, in case you ever find yourself joining the ranks of the delightfully insane and are considering bringing home a restoration project of your very own, check your plan against some of the statements below, and learn from those who’ve gone before you. I’ve personally attempted restorations under all these scenarios, except for the last one. You may be treading on delusion if:

  • You lack appropriate garage space: Ever an important consideration. Even the smallest of cars will take up three times its assembled size once you dismantle it. When I was 19, I very nearly bought a disassembled basket case Austin Healey Sprite. My plan was to restore it in a rented single stall garage behind the apartment I was sharing with my college roommate. This garage was a dungeon, really, with no running water, a single 40 watt light hanging from one of the roof trusses, and a little extra daylight from the windows of the hinged carriage-style doors (with a couple of broken panes for added charm). Dark and dank, it seemed like the perfect place to slowly resurrect an old British car. My landlord, for some strange reason, though the prospect of a starving college student living in her apartment dragging home a car mostly in boxes to restore was not the best idea and politely denied my request. I should send a portion of the money she saved me as a gift. Award yourself bonus points if the roof of your garage leaks so badly that you have to shop-vac water out of your trunk after every rainstorm. And count your blessings; at least the trunk of your project is solid enough to hold water!

  • You lack the proper tools: Even amateur mechanics know; a toolbox that is so light that you can move it yourself is missing the vital tool you will soon inevitably need. Car restorations require lots and lots of tools. And even if you have lots of tools, you’ll still find yourself running out to the store for something you thought you had but can’t find. Or you find a Whitworth fitting and can’t make anything else work. Or you drop your timing light on the ground and break it. Or you realize the gauges you bought to sync the dual carbs on your motorcycle don't work so well on the three Webers on your TR-6. The deep well sockets are not always deep enough, and the breaker bar (aptly named for its ability to break your hand) is never long enough. Restoring old cars with the wrong tools is no fun. Award yourself bonus points if you’ve convinced yourself you’ll just borrow the tools you’ll need from friends and neighbors to complete the restoration.

  • You lack time: Restorations take time. Sometimes unbelievable amounts of it. As an added bonus, you’ll soon discover that these hours are not always fun. In fact, they can be some of the most stressful hours you’ll ever spend, as those of us who have received the wrong camshaft from the UPS man, or dropped a freshly painted fender, or scratched your freshly painted motorcycle frame reinstalling the engine can attest. Extracting snapped bolt heads, setting panel gaps, or chasing out shorts in a cloth wiring loom that was woven when Churchill was running England; they don’t make vacation brochures advertising this type of activity for a reason. It’s work. A few years ago, I restored a Honda CB400F motorcycle I’d disassembled two years prior. After dis-assembly I got distracted with other projects (building a new home), and everything sat. For a long time, I swear, all the parts would sit in my garage and gossip about what was taking me so long until I couldn’t take anymore, finally got serious, and pulled about three weeks of nearly continuous all-nighters until the thing was back on the road. It was worth the effort, but I did it before I had children. Would never happen now. Bonus points if you’ve taken on a basket case project while knowing you’ll be moving within the next two years.

  • You lack funds: Been there, done that. It’s amazing how delusional we can become about money when considering a restoration project. (I’m not judging anyone here; the line starts behind me). Often, the purchase price of said basket case is insignificant in comparison to the baskets of money which will be required to rebuild and restore. I’ve fallen for this trap on more than one occasion, but I have also snapped myself out of a trance while looking a ratty Jaguar or big old Coupe De Ville sitting in a dusty barn on the middle of nowhere. On more than one occasion I’ve fallen asleep with a Moss or Classic Industries catalog on my chest only to wake up the next morning ready to pass on a potential project, as if the prices for everything needed were revealed to me through osmosis. There is a passage in the Bible about counting the cost of building a tower before commencing, lest you are unable to finish and be ridiculed by all who see it. We all think the reference is to a building, but I think it’s just as likely that scripture is referring to that rusty MGA with parts in peach crates you’re looking at. Award bonus points for those of you who are organized enough to have used parts catalogs to make some sort of budget for your project and chose to proceed anyway. Damn the torpedoes. Double bonus if you brought home a non-running project car without discussing the idea with your spouse, significant other, or parents first and have lived to talk about it.

  • The car you’re buying is already disassembled: Stock up on the Advil, and call your financial planner; you’re in for a painful ride. Bonus points if the car (excuse me, collection of car parts) you’re buying has not been properly tagged and bagged or parts are stored in multiple locations. You’re about to break one of the seminal rules of car restorations; proceed with caution! Double bonus points if the car comes with what you believe is everything you need, except a title. Be sure your loved ones know where the local DMV is located. When you go missing, that’s the first place that should be checked.

Of course, many have bravely proceeded with complex, expensive restorations, and many have been successful. It’s so easy to look at an old and dusty car sitting in a dimly lit barn and see potential, the car of your dreams, before you. Happens to me all the time. For those who restore cars or motorcycles, there is hardly anything more fulfilling than watching a project come to fruition; countless hours of planning and hard work, all to create something beautiful. It’s why people who restore and rebuild cars do what they do, despite challenges like the ones above. In any event, if you’re in the throes of restoration, or thinking about restoring an old car and enjoying the process of finding the perfect candidate, enjoy it. After all, the worst day in the garage is better than the best day at the office… That must be true, or restoration projects would never get started!

As always, Happy Motoring.

Michigan Automotive Inspection Services provides professional pre-purchase inspection and appraisal services for automobiles located in Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio. The company is independently owned and provides courteous and personalized serviced to our clients. Our work is never contracted to third party inspectors or appraisers.

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