Restoration 101: How to Restore a Classic Car

Learning how to restore a classic car is a step-by-step process that is best done in the right order to avoid problems. Before you start restoring your vintage car, make sure you have a clear idea of what the end result will be and know what you need to get there. Classic car insurance both during and after restoration will protect your investment.

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Rachel Bodine graduated from college with a BA in English. She has since worked as a Feature Writer in the insurance industry and gained a deep knowledge of state and countrywide insurance laws and rates. Her research and writing focus on helping readers understand their insurance coverage and how to find savings. Her expert advice on insurance has been featured on sites like PhotoEnforced, All...

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Leslie Kasperowicz holds a BA in Social Sciences from the University of Winnipeg. She spent several years as a Farmers Insurance CSR, gaining a solid understanding of insurance products including home, life, auto, and commercial and working directly with insurance customers to understand their needs. She has since used that knowledge in her more than ten years as a writer, largely in the insurance...

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Reviewed by Leslie Kasperowicz
Farmers CSR for 4 Years Leslie Kasperowicz

UPDATED: May 9, 2022

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What You Should Know

  • Following the right steps can make classic car restoration go smoothly
  • To qualify as a classic car: older than 15 years old, driven less than 5,000 miles a year, in mint condition, used as a second car
  • It is recommended to buy parts in advance of each project, rather than buying all of the parts at once

Are you now the proud owner of a classic vintage car? There’s nothing better than hitting the open road in a sweet new ride. But what if your ride is less than sweet? Whether it needs a little TLC to run or you just have some awesome mods in mind, restoration work on a classic car isn’t quite as easy as falling in love with one.

Before you go and take apart your new (to you) vehicle, take a step back and cover your bases. That starts with research—you’re already in the right place.  

In this guide, we’ll cover the basic process of how to restore a classic car so you can start turning your dreamy new classic vehicle into something even better. From the steps of restoration to classic and collectible car insurance, read on for more.

Before you learn how to restore a classic car, take a moment to get that car (or any car you own) insured. Enter your ZIP code above for free quotes from top auto insurance companies.

A Step-by-Step Guide to Restoring a Classic Car

Restoring a classic car can be a fun process, but it can also be frustrating. Be prepared before you start, and follow this step-by-step breakdown so you’ll avoid potential problems.

Like a recipe, reading through the steps and knowing what needs to be done in what order will make your restoration go smoothly.

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#1 – Visualize the End Result of Your Restored Car

Before you even think about picking up an impact wrench, take a long hard look at what your car looks like now, then ask yourself, where do you want to end up? What’s the end goal? 

Dive deep into the world of mods and restoration jobs to create a list of changes you’d like to make and how they’d fit together into one slick car. 

Find Concrete Inspiration

There are plenty of places to start when it comes to gathering information on the classic car restoration process:

  • Classic car restoration websites
  • Before and after videos on YouTube
  • Car magazines, especially those that focus on classics 
  • Car shows, where you can chat with fellow car enthusiasts
  • Online forums and chat rooms for restoration buffs
  • Your local classic restoration garage

Try to find an inspiration photo of exactly what you want your car to look like when it’s done, or else create a collage of different upgrades. Print it out, hang it in the garage, make it your desktop background—whatever helps you stay focused and engaged in the process. 

#2 – Start Dismantling the Car

Plenty of people jump right into the dismantling process and set themselves up for failure by taking things apart without a solid organization or tracking system.

Luckily, there are a few different ways to make the dismantling process seamless so you can avoid future bumps in the road.

Document, Document, Document

No piece or part is too small to document. Take as many photos and videos as you can throughout, including:

  • Photos of the original car with all the pieces in place
  • Photos of all the dismantled parts for each specific system

As tedious as it may seem, you’ll thank yourself later. 

Stay Organized

Photos are an extremely handy tool but only if you can actually find those parts later on. Organizing your parts as you take them apart will help you down the line.

Consider sorting based on:

  • Tiny parts – As you take off nuts, bolts, and any other tiny parts, put them into clear plastic bags or compartments in a tool kit, sorted based on where in the car they came from. 
  • Slightly bigger parts – Too big for a Ziplock? Feel free to write directly on the parts with a permanent marker in a contrasting color, then pile the corresponding parts together in a corner of the garage.
  • Wires –  These tiny, thin parts are also tricky to keep track of. For this, masking tape is your best friend. Attach a piece of masking tape to each wire, write where it came from and take a picture of its original location for reference. From there, you can also bundle related wires together with an elastic band, twist tie, or zip tie.

#3 – Create a Roadmap

Notice how we didn’t tell you to make a plan before you took the car apart. That’s because classic cars often have surprises under the hood—literally and figuratively. After you’ve dismantled your vintage car, you’ll have a better idea of what needs to be done. 

Chances are you’ll need to work on several areas of your car. It can be easy to get overwhelmed, so create schedules and checklists to simplify your life.

Make Lists

After dismantling, you should be able to see exactly how much work you have ahead of you, whether you’re looking at a:

  • Complete restoration – From the driveline to the paint job, everything must go (then come back again, new and improved).
  • Body-off restoration – If your car has rot or rust, body-off restoration is a must.
  • Body bushing restoration – If the rubber bushings are breaking down, you’ll have to add body bushing to your list.
  • Mechanical resurrection – Return your car to driving condition and beyond with mechanical fixes, including:
    • Complete engine rebuild or replacement
    • Fuel and coolant leak repair
    • New brake system or clutch hydraulics 
    • Transmission repairs
  • Cosmetic restoration – To clean up your vehicle’s appearance, you might want to fix up any paint chips, scratches, exterior rust, broken windshields, and so on.

Your list could include any number of these items. Once you have that, see if you can break the entire project up into different tasks, then check them off as you work. 

Work Project by Project

Now that you have it all written out break down your master list into lists of parts that each project will require.  

It can be tempting to buy or order everything you need for the entire car restoration project, but this can make it easier to lose track of things. Plus, certain parts can get damaged just from sitting around for too long. We recommend buying parts in advance of each project rather than buying all of the parts at once. 

Ask for Estimates 

As much as we wish we could do it all, some tasks require the help of a seasoned professional. If that’s not you, you’ll want to inquire about estimates ahead of time to speed along the process later on and secure the best deal. 

As with any large project, a documented plan will help make your classic car restoration a much smoother process. 

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#4 – Classic Car Body Work

Now that you’ve taken a good long look at everything to do with your classic car restoration, you’ll have determined what metalwork needs to be done. You can assess whether you’ll need to work on or replace parts like the:

  • Roof
  • Grill
  • Bumpers
  • Corner panels
  • Fenders

Welding

If you’re comfortable with it, you can save money by handling the metalwork yourself. However, only do so if you feel you have enough experience in this area. If not, you can see if a more experienced friend can help or visit a shop and trust the professionals to do it.  

Sanding

It’s tempting to take the car to a shop for a sandblast, but that’s often very expensive and not always necessary. Sanding the body yourself will take extra time, but it’s also one of the simpler tasks that you can easily take care of and easily save money on.

Painting 

Whereas many DIY projects call for painting as the last step, car restoration is unique in that you should actually paint the car before you put everything back together. This will give it the smoothest look since there will be fewer obstacles to paint around. 

However, we don’t recommend that you paint the car yourself. Again, it can be tempting to cut out the middleman, but it’s best to leave this to the professionals as a car paint job requires both expertise and specialized equipment for the best results. 

#5 – Reassembly of a Classic Car

Once the body is freshly painted (and dried, which can take at least a few days), you can start reassembling piece by piece. Again, it’s best to work through your list one section at a time.

Major Components

The first step in reassembly is to install the largest components. This includes major systems like the:

  • Engine
  • Transmission
  • Drivelines
  • Exhaust

Of course, depending on the initial state of your classic car, you may need to rebuild some of those individual components. The engine in and of itself is an entire project that can take some serious hours. Now is a good time to get started on that.

Small but Major Components

Once the largest components are reinstalled, the next step is to put the smaller components together. This includes pieces like:

  • Axles – You should first start with the axles and make sure they’re in peak working condition. 
  • Suspension – In classic car restoration, suspension often requires the most replacement parts since shocks and leaf springs become inefficient over time. 
  • Brakes – Most classic cars come with drum brakes, which are now considered outdated. You’ll have to decide if you want to stick with the drum brakes and add a brake booster or if you want to convert all your drum brakes to more reliable disc brakes. Leave the master cylinder and brake lines for later. 

Fuel System 

The fuel system involves plenty of lines and wires, so working on it after the larger components have been installed allows you to route the lines around them. 

Finish the Braking System

Because the brake lines and master cylinder involve multiple lines, it’s best to wait until all large components, including the fuel system, have been installed. 

Electrical and Wiring Harness 

You’ve hooked up all the other lines, so now it’s time to work on electrical components and the wiring harness. This includes anything related to the car’s electrical system, like the wipers, radiator, fan shroud, and so on.

#6 – Interior 

Only once all the major restorations are in place can you begin working on the interior. If you start interior work earlier, you risk dirtying the inside while working on other parts. 

Now, you can start on:

  • Reupholstery, including the:
    • Carpet kit
    • Headliner
    • Seats
  • Dashboard components, such as:
    • Gauges
    • Radio
    • Air conditioning
    • Heater

When this is done, it’s on to the final steps.

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#7 – Finally, Wheels and Tires

A lot of amateur restorationists install new wheels and tires too early, simply because it’s easy visual progress. But installing wheels and tires too soon can put your tires at risk of flat spots because they aren’t being used during the months-long restoration process.

We recommend waiting until the end of your restoration to install your new set of wheels and tires. They’ll be the last shiny addition that really pulls everything together, and of course, makes your car drivable!

Insuring Your Classic Car During and After Restoration

Like any car—classic, restored, or brand-spanking-new—your vehicle will need to be insured. You’ll want to find the best auto insurance for your sweet ride, but classic car insurance has some additional stipulations. 

In order to qualify as a classic car, your vehicle will need to meet a combination of most of the following: 

  • Older than 15 years old
  • Driven less than 5,000 miles per year
  • In mint condition
  • Used as a second car 

Classic car insurance is a little difference from your regular car insurance policy. The biggest difference is that classics are insured on an agreed value basis, in which you and the insurance company decide what the car is worth, and the company agrees to insure it for that value. This is also known as stated value auto insurance.

Classic car coverage also differs in cost and coverage levels. It’s designed for cars that aren’t driven often, and can include extras like on-trailer coverage.

Now that you know how to restore a classic car make sure you know how to insure it. Enter your ZIP code to compare auto insurance quote for classic cars from top companies today.

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