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Car Restoration and Antique Car Collecting Part 1:

How Do I Get Started?
by Vic Donnell

The world is full of old cars (and assorted other types of collectible vehicles) that are gathering dust and gradually rusting away toward oblivion. The world is also full of people like yourself, who are looking for some automotive treasure that they can restore to like-new condition. Please remember this definition. Restored means that the car has been disassembled to its smallest components, every nut and bolt removed. Then each component is cleaned, repaired, or otherwise renewed, and then reassembled such that the car is “as it was when sold ‘new’ by the dealer.” Anything short of that state can only be labeled (or represented) as rebuilt, refurbished, or otherwise “fixed up.” You might not want a fully restored car. Most of us who have given the effort and expense of a full restoration, are reluctant to drive that vehicle. So, you may be more satisfied with a vehicle that is refurbished to the point that you feel proud, comfortable and safe driving it for fun.

This article is intended to explain how to look for a vehicle, how to purchase it and how to get it home. Even if you have already purchased a vehicle, you should be able to learn some additional techniques from this article. There will follow, a series of technical articles that will illustrate how to do a complete restoration, whether you "farm out" a lot of the tasks or do everything yourself.

Choosing a vehicle

The choices are endless, from early 20th Century cars, to post-war models, to 50s tailfins, to 60s muscle cars. The problem isn't one of finding a particular vehicle, the problem is deciding which one to buy! Here are some guidelines to follow:​

  • Is there some particular vehicle that you always wanted but were too young (or poor) to buy?
  • Did a certain vehicle play a part in some moment of your life? Were you married in a '59 Ford, or go to the prom in a '66 Mustang?
  • Do you want to get back into a car like the first car you ever owned?
  • Do the styles of the 1930s turn you on?
  • Do you favor the European cars of the 50s or 60s?

First, think about what your interests are, then list on paper your top 5 or 6 candidates. If you need some help, go to the library and look at car books. There are many examples of all types of restored cars (and a few survivors) from all eras. You'll find books on all subjects, eras and makes, so spend a little time narrowing down the ones that appeal to you. While you're creating that list of candidates, take the time to look up values in pricing guides (Old Cars, CPI, NADA, etc.) found in the library.

In my case, I must have heard the same story a hundred times (I never exaggerate), told by my dad about him and his cousin Troy, driving his dad’s three window coupe, running through a barb wire fence and trying to conceal the damage from their parents. And that was just one such story. So, when I found a 34 Ford three window coupe, I decided that was the perfect car. They hardly took any notice of what I had done and they thought it was really dumb. I didn’t find out till years later that their story involved a 28 Ford Model A three window coupe. Oh, well. Guess I didn’t ask enough questions.

Take a ride in some early vintage cars if you haven’t ever experienced it. One of the most stimulating rides I ever got was in a 1905 one cylinder Cadillac. Cars from before the Great Depression are still plentiful, such as the Model A or Model T Fords. One of the most stimulating aspects of riding around or driving cars built before the Great Depression is just how connected you feel to the road and to the car itself. You’re an integral part of the machine and unlike modern cars, you drive it, it doesn’t drive you. That alone makes owning automobiles from this era a distinctive pleasure unlike anything else riding on four wheels. But for me, the single most enjoyable aspect of driving pre-depression cars is how you’re better able to appreciate your surroundings. The slower speeds that these old machines travel at allows you to see things that you never would have seen if driving faster.

Cars built during the depression and prior to World War 2 are also distinctive in the feel of the adventure. The auto industry was maturing and many of the cars took on the feel of modern driving without many of the hands free luxuries of today’s cars.

As we emerged from wartime rationing of World War 2, the auto industry rushed into production of new cars to treat the rising need in America. Most were warmed over models looking a lot like the 1940-1942 cars with a modest face facelift. Around 1949, the industry had retooled and began building more modern, jet age designed cars. By the 60s, the marketing edge began shifting toward speed, performance, and new accessories and color schemes, and BIGGER cars.

In the 70s, there was a shift to smaller and more economical cars driven by an oil shortage crisis. As we marched past the 90s it seems to me that all cars look alike. I call them the jelly bean design cars. Seems to me the only vehicles distinctive enough to tell them apart are trucks. So they are now becoming collectible.

Now it's time to narrow down that list. First, cross out any vehicles that you can't afford or are so rare that it's not worth looking. For instance, if you have a Tucker or Duesenberg on the list you'd better have a lot of money!

Decided on one? Now how do you find the "right" one to buy? Find out in Part 2.