Basic Car Restoration Tips

The first step in car restoration is to make a list of what needs to be done and to plan out the project. You don't want to miss something essential and risk damaging a new paint job, or find out that your car looks beautiful but won't run. Go around the entire car and make notes as to the repairs and other restoration processes. 

Here are some things to include on your list:

  • Seats: If the seats are torn or worn, look for used seats from a junkyard. If you cannot find decent used seats, consider recovering the seats.
  • Headliner: Make sure the headliner is not sagging or torn. You can order headliners and install them yourself. If you are not comfortable installing a headliner, some detail shops provide this service.
  • Carpet: Replace any carpet that is worn or torn.
  • Dash: If the dashboard is cracked, it must be replaced.
  • Rubbers: Check all of the rubber on the vehicle, including the trunk rubber, the window rubbers and the rubber stops for the hood and trunk. If you find cracked or rotted rubber, start looking around for signs of rust in the floor pans and side panels.
  • Dents and scratches: Make sure all dents and scratches are filled in or pounded out. Paint the car with black primer to make dents and scratches show up better. The black primer can be removed later.
  • Engine compartment: Clean the engine compartment. Add chrome accessories to the engine compartment to "shine it up."
  • Engine: Make sure everything is working. Park the car over some white posterboard for a day or two to look for leaks. If the car has been sitting idle for an extended period of time, consider replacing all belts and rubber gaskets.
  • Wheels and tires: If the wheels are shabby-looking, you can replace them. Some wheels can be cleaned up so they look new again. You can also opt to paint the wheels.

This is only a partial list. As you look at your car, write down anything you want to change and everything that needs to be repaired or freshened up. After you create the list, call local speed shops and auto parts stores to price out the items you need. Make three columns. Call at least three places for each part needed; this helps you find the best deal on parts. You can also check for speed shops online. Sometimes, even with shipping costs, the part is less expensive to order than to buy locally.

Planning the Project
With your list of repairs in hand, you're ready to tackle the restoration. It's best to proceed in the following order:

  • Transmission: If there are problems with the gears or clutch, pull the transmission first and get it running properly. Replace the clutch and all gaskets if you need to pull the transmission.
  • Engine: Make any needed changes or repairs once the transmission is back in place. If you'll be driving the car while you restore it, don't worry about chrome accents at this point.
  • Electrical: You may need to pull apart pieces of the car to run replacement wires. Do this step once you're sure the engine and transmission are in shape, so that you'll know any electrical problems are the result of wiring and not mechanical issues.
  • Suspension: Tackle any major suspension changes before you get too far into bodywork.
  • Interior: While you can tackle the interior at any time, it's best to do this before you start work on the body, especially if you'll be removing seats or replacing the dashboard.
  • Body: Don't start priming and painting until all other elements of the car are sound. You can add chrome elements to the engine compartment at this point as well.
  • Wheels: Wheels and tires can be replaced at any time. These can be expensive parts, so wait to buy them until after you've dealt with any mechanical issues.
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