The Adviser

Before you dive into a restoration, read this

by Colin Comer
29 July 2022 3 min read
Image
Photo by Gabe Augustine

Recently I saw an Instagram post about a 25,000-hour restoration. It turned out to be apocryphal, but true or not, it got me thinking.


Restorations have been around almost as long as cars themselves. Then as now, the term is open to a great deal of interpretation. But no matter your definition of “restoration,” we can all agree on two things: The process has changed greatly over the years; and, crucially, not all cars should be restored—especially when you consider the cost involved and any potential return on that expenditure.


That last bit has not changed over time. My first real job was at a Wisconsin shop in the mid-1980s, where every car that rolled in was a rust bucket. The labor rate was $30 an hour, and even at that, there were several cars that didn’t warrant even the most rudimentary restoration given the value of the car. I recall a 1953 Packard Caribbean convertible that sat forlornly at the back of the shop for years because the owner abandoned the project when the bills exceeded either his budget or the value of the car, or perhaps both. I think it was sold for parts.


The cars that did get restored back then were done to standards that most body shops today would scoff at. Patch panels, body filler, “close enough” colors, and the like were commonplace. Most customers similarly didn’t care too much about a frame-off restoration, let alone long discussions about proper plating of hardware or making sure every part on the car was date-coded correctly. The rule of thumb back then for a “high-end” restoration on a ’60s muscle car was 1000 hours of labor plus any rust repair needed. With the escalation of standards in the hobby, today that number is easily doubled. Shop rates have quadrupled, too.

Few things are more rewarding to a car enthusiast than the before-and-after photos of a restoration—like this 1967 Sunbeam Tiger Hagerty brought back to life in 2016. Yet it’s worth keeping in mind the potential financial pitfalls. (Top photo by Gabe Augustine, bottom by Alexa Hughes)


My friend Alex Finigan of high-end restorer Paul Russell and Company has similar memories from the dark ages. “When I started restoring cars in 1975, I was paid $5 an hour and our shop rate was $19 per hour. Nut-and-bolt restorations were uncommon, but even when we did one, it was to standards that would be completely unacceptable today. A full restoration took somewhere around 2500 hours. Our current shop rate is $135 an hour, a restoration generally takes 4000–5000 hours, and we have a three-year backlog. In fact, many of our customers will have a car completed and trade it out for another one so they always have one in the works!”


Even the most basic math applied to these numbers shows the labor for a true concours restoration today is well into six figures and can easily exceed $500,000.


If I had another three pages, we could get into why such a restoration could also devalue a great original car. It’s a slippery slope, so if you have a solid, unrestored car with original finishes, fabrics, and parts that is still presentable, please consider sympathetically maintaining it rather than erasing that history with a restoration. Purists like me—and your wallet—will thank you.


But let’s say you have a car that is well past the “survivor” stage and well into the category of “well, at least it survived!” Or maybe you have a nice #3 car with an older restoration that does everything it should, but it’s not going to win any shows. At this point, you need to determine if spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to make it new again is logical, as well as what your motivation might be. Is it to bring Grandpa’s old alloy Ferrari 275 GTB/4 back to the way it was when he bought it from Enzo in 1967? Sure, go for it. But if you want to see a rusty LS6 Chevelle hardtop bring top dollar on the auction block, you may want to take a hard look at those numbers. My suspicion is that they don’t work.


Of course, these are extreme examples, and a happy middle ground can always be found between owner and restoration shop—one that would allow you to take that old TR6 and make it reliable and spiffy enough to enjoy driving it again. Just keep in mind before jumping in that “restorations” aren’t what they once were. Today, given the cost and time involved, they can be a fool’s errand.

This article originally appeared in Hagerty Drivers Club magazine. For more from Colin, check out his new video series, The Appraiser.

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Comments

  • Paul D says:

    I have restored several cars over the years as a hobby, doing everything myself that I can and contracting out what I can’t. But I’m likely done. Cost of labor and materials just to paint a car ( once I have stripped the body to a shell) now exceeds $30k, at a minimum. When I started you could get a very nice paint job for $5k to $6k. It wouldn’t be show but it would be way nice. With shops charging $150 an hour with backlogs of two to three years, it gives credence to just buying a decent driver rather than restoring your dream car yourself.

    • Robert Wingerter says:

      I am the home restorer as well and not too bad if I may say so. I do paint, however, I have a very special Camaro that needs (deserves) a very high-end paint job above my current skills. I handed a bare steel body with the only work being three small rust areas, each being slightly bigger than a quarter. The chassis, pan, suspension etc, I fully restored so this is only body shell paint. I waited 18 months to get into the shop (then the estimate was $10K-$12K)… got the call last year that I was in the queue & bring in the car… BUT the price now was $12-$15K. It’s been there right at 1 yr and they just laid down the first prime and block… but now cost is estimated to be $15-$20K. The additional cost wasn’t because of new found damage which is common; the cost went up because of labor that they can’t keep and paint & supply prices have doubled (at least). He swears he’s probably making less money on the car now than when he initially bid $10K. He is very down on the industry as a whole and confided he’s taken on two more cars since mine but otherwise, he is now permanently closed for new business with a 3-year backlog. Once he is done with current commitments, he’s shutting down… done. Talked with another restorer (also 3 yr backlog), just bought paint for a red 1970 Chevelle SS… his cost was $10,000 in just in paint material!! He echo’d much the same. Overall, very sad.

  • Don Homuth says:

    If the sole or even main purpose of a restoration is to make a profit from it, I’d advise mostly abandoning that idea. Few do. But let me put in a plug for doing the restoration anyway IF owning and driving the car touches something other than one’s wallet. I just went through a 7-year restoration – to a 95+ point standard — of a car that I doubt many people would want. But it and I have a history, and the memory of it 56 years ago still stands as pivotal in my life experience. I had the money to do it right, did it right, and now owning and especially driving it is a real joy. I’d have done it no matter what. The financial calculation was done afterward — were I to sell it now as it is, it would probably bring maybe $10,000 or more Less than I put into it. But I own it outright, and I fully intend to have a lot of fun showing and driving it for the next 7-10 years anyway. I consider that to be more than compensatory for the difference in cost and potential sales price later. At a recent show, when a pretty serious person was asking what I would sell it for (Along with that “everything has a price” nonsense.), when he got up into Serious money, I finally told him “Bill Gates doesn’t have enough money to buy That car. If he wants one, he can have someone else build it for him.” It’s not that money isn’t important — clearly it is. And no one should ever go into debt for a restoration in the hope there will be a payoff for it. It’s just that the money is Not the most important thing. If a car speaks to you — to something inside you not located near your wallet — they yeah, do the restoration. If it doesn’t, let someone else do it and buy their loss. Or keep looking till you find a car that Does speak to you.

    • G French says:

      I’ve been restoring them myself, for myself for 40 years. Cars and motorcycles. I couldn’t agree more with what you wrote. For me it’s never been about the money.

  • Thomas Webb II says:

    I think it would make a great article to identify exactly when this stopped being a hobby and became a “only restore it if it’s going to be worth something” business. I am now old enough to remember when guys would buy a Model T Ford for $100 – or less – from a neighbor or the local scrap yard, and restore it for “something to do” and it was “fun”. Your wife or girlfriend maybe helped with the upholstery or door panels while the guys typically l did the mechanicals and the two of you took the neighbors for rides when you were done. Maybe you joined a club, maybe you didn’t, but it was generally a hobby shared by most everyone in the family. Nowadays I wonder how many nice old cars could easily be turned into not-perfect, but interesting, drivers – but never will be – because they’re not “worth” anything.

  • Rick McCarty says:

    In the old days between real jobs I flipped a lot of cars. No they were not quality restorations but I made them look good and drive good. So I made a profit on most of them and learned the hard way when the rust was to much to handle. And I got to drive a lot of really cool cars and trucks so it was worth the effort. I would not do it again though.

  • Ken Sousa says:

    Many of the popular cars of the Muscle Car era were unibodies. Hence I’m always amused when a current owner advertises one as a
    “frame off” restoration. I have a driver quality ’60s convertible that is far from a bolt by bolt restoration. The car gets admiring comments whenever I take it for a drive. It runs considerably stronger than any full on resto. I’ve owned it for 24 years now and it has won 33 awards and trophies at local car shows. It’s been a thorough joy. On the other hand I owned a concourse quality car of the same vintage for about 7 years. Everyone drooled over it but owning it was more like being its curator. It, too, won consistent awards at local shows but it just wasn’t any fun. I auctioned it off at one of the Monterey weekend auctions.

  • Richard P Senatore says:

    If one is lucky, particularly with LBCs (little British Cars) like MG Midgets, MGB/Cs, Triumphs, etc., the costs to refit a “solid,” minor rust specimen for a few thousand bucks and then “refitting” it rather than “restoring” it can be quite fun and profitable. Why? Because the British never stopped making many parts for them, including complete body panels, frames and even complete body shells. Search British Motor Heritage on line. All other components from lights to engines and trans can be easily sourced.

    I go for “refits” so as to have, and sometimes sell, fun, roadworthy cars.

  • Ken Kyle says:

    Remember the old adage: If you want a restored car, buy a restored car. You’ll get instant gratification and save a ton of money.

  • Demon 340 says:

    I’m a Mopar guy but the Chineseium restoration parts flooding the market just suck for the most part. Even the “good” suppliers are selling them, no other choice. Poor quality, don’t fit right or don’t work right. The car I’m trying to finish now I may just part out, then I’m done!

  • Thomas Benvie says:

    So you buy a brand new car and in a short time it is worth thousands less. I do not see the problem losing some money on a restoration at all in comparison.

    I have done a number of restorations for myself. Did a six cylinder 1970 Javelin because it was so nice before I started. The buyer bought it for everyday transportation, stating the money spent on it was way less than on a new car and it had a “cool factor”.

  • Mike B. says:

    I’m currently at this junction with my own classic muscle car. It is rare with an increasing desirability, but it is quite rough in appearance and has a lot of past accident damage (#4 condition, IMO). The cost of even a modest restoration will likely equal (if not exceed) the current value of the car (Hagerty says ~ $65k), but taking it to a #2 condition will basically double the value of the vehicle ~ so approximately a break even proposition. However, scraping together the money to perform that restoration is itself a daunting prospect.

    So for now, I continue to drive and enjoy my ratty muscle car as is.

    https://youtu.be/pZFugjDqgY0?t=198

  • jane don says:

    For Most of us it’s just a hobby–not unlike knitting/stamp collecting ect ect– Rarely do people make money from their hobbies-
    we do it for Enjoyment & the satisfaction of accomplishing something–

  • E Carlsen says:

    There is the old addage…if you want to make a small fortune with cars you must start with a large one!

  • K Mashburn says:

    I ponder the risks associated with taking my Aunt’s 68 Bonneville convertible that has been under a pile o’ crap in the garage and has not been moved in 25-30 years. While it has been out of the weather, the thought of what the damage that has been incurred in that time by bugs, reptiles, vermin, mold & humidity in South Florida makes me rethink the deal. The costs to get the thing running for weekend driving and in a condition to show off would be what – $40K? And then upkeep?

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