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Classics 101: An Introduction to Classic Cars
The articles are presented with the permission of the publishers and authors with full credits on each.
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Restoring a Classic

Many years ago, a knowledgeable old car enthusiast told me that a car collector considering restoring an automobile should "buy as much car as you can afford because the cost of restoring a Pierce-Arrow isn't much more expensive than restoring a Ford Model A," alluding to the similarities in sheet metal, upholstery and mechanical work.

My first collector car was a 1929 Ford Tudor, which I restored with help from my grandfather. I'll never forget watching him fill his mouth with upholstery tacks and transfer them to his tiny upholstery hammer as he installed the headliner. That day I learned that he had been an upholsterer for the Hudson Motor Car Company in the 1920s!

When I acquired my first big Classic, I learned that the fellow who told me there was very little difference in the cost of restoring a Classic versus a non-Classic had probably never done it.

It's true that painting the fender of a Packard is not a great deal different from painting a Chevrolet or Studebaker fender. As one restorer noted, the "cosmetics" for the Classic and non-Classic are quite similar. Bodywork may be the only realistic comparison – but there's still far more sheet metal in most Classics, and finishing detail was generally much higher for the Classics.

One factor that sets the Classics apart from the non-Classics is one that was true when the cars were new--cost of parts. With a few exceptions, the cost of parts for a Classic is higher than for the non-Classic. Most Classics were expensive when new and were produced in lower quantities. And, there is less support within the collector-car hobby for the high-end Classics. Hence, parts are rarer and far more costly today.

Sometimes, replacement parts simply can't be found. That's when it helps to have a friend who is also a machinist (I do, and he's terrific). One restorer of big Classics recalled how he finally gave up searching for a clock for the rear passenger compartment of a custom-built Cadillac V-16 and made the clock from scratch – at a cost of nearly $5,000.

The interiors of the Classic and non-Classic automobiles show a significant difference in workmanship. In fact, for many Classics, the interior appointments were the showplace. Most Classics featured expensive wool, hand embroidery and leather upholstery, wool carpets and spectacular woodwork. The workmanship can be truly breathtaking. Replicating these interiors today is sometimes the most expensive and time-consuming part of a restoration.

The instrument panels of many Classics are especially complicated and require a great deal of time and expense in their restoration. Some feature photoengraving or elaborate wood graining.

Chrome plating differed, too. Everything tended to be bigger on the Classics, and they often included unique accessory lamps and horns

The difference between the Classic and non-Classic automobile is very apparent in the chassis. One long-time restorer describes it as "night and day." The wheelbases are longer, the engines bigger and more powerful and the suspension systems more sophisticated. Some Classics, such as the Cord 810 with its front-wheel-drive and pre-selector transmission, or the Wills Sainte Claire's V-8 engine, were quite complicated for their day.

Many of the Classics featured vacuum power brakes and vacuum clutches as well as hydraulic silencers in the engines. The engines used in the non-Classic automobiles tended to be simpler, albeit nearly every bit as durable.
Again, parts are scarce and require ingenuity--and money. The same restorer who recreated the Cadillac V-16 clock had to build, from scratch, five wheels for a rare Delage at a cost of $20,000, and spent $400 recreating the label for a Bugatti brake fluid reservoir. Had it been a more common Classic, such as a Packard, the cost of that label would have been $12.

Some restorers of Classics try to utilize as many original parts as possible from the car they're restoring. This can also be expensive and time-consuming. One restorer re-used every single fastener and snap in the restoration of a rare Bugatti.

Not all restorers know how to properly set up a restored Classic chassis. I remember a low-mileage original Lincoln K that was restored by its new owner against everyone's advice. The car was truly more unique in its all-original condition than it was sporting a sparkling, body-off restoration. Most significantly, once restored it didn't drive or ride as nicely as it did when new.

This is ironic since the level of restoration performed on many Classics results in a car with final fit and finish better than new. This is done, of course, to ensure that the car is a perfect, award-winning automobile.

Which brings me to another of my favorite subjects--over-restored cars. Simply stated, I believe an over-restored car should have points deducted from it in the same manner that points are deducted for an incorrect restoration. Since most clubs state that their purpose is to restore cars to as-original status, this has always made sense to me.
Can someone spend too much on a restoration? Certainly. But as one restorer who recently restored a 1948 Chevrolet for a family said, "You spend money to enjoy yourself and preserve a piece of history." The family spent nearly $150,000 to restore the car, which had been in the family since new. Who's to question them?

This article originally appeared in the June, 2007 issue of Hemmings Classic Car.

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