How To Restore A Classic Car: Your Ultimate Step By Step Guide


Restoring classic cars is a praise-worthy task to encounter. Those who restore classic cars give the rest of society a glimpse of what it was like decades earlier while giving the driver a sense of pride and accomplishment.

Restoring a classic car isn’t easy though and can often be a frustrating process. However, it’s certainly doable, especially for those who have the motivation of completing such a task.

It’s okay to ask for a little help when you need it during a car restoration. Whether you’re a beginner or have done this several times before, it’s always helpful to know some additional tricks from someone else who’s done it. I have restored several classic cars myself and have been able to compile a step by step guide on how to restore a classic car. These are the steps I took with each of my classic cars that have proven to work well.

Step 1: Determine Your End Goal

Before starting on any classic car restoration, the very first thing you need to do is determine what your end goal is going to be. Take a few days and decide what you want your classic car to look like when you’re finished with restoring it. Look online or in some car magazines to get some ideas of what you like best. Perhaps you could even talk with some friends or family members about what they think so you can verbally discuss your options.

Once you decide what you want your classic car to eventually look like, print the picture or cut it out of a magazine and hang it somewhere you know you’ll see it constantly. This can also include making it your desktop background or using it as the background on your phone.
Small things with the vehicle will change over time. You don’t necessarily need to pick every nut and bolt that will go into it before you start, but just getting a general view of what you want will suffice.

Deciding what you want before you actually start the restoration process saves you a lot of time and money in the long-run. You won’t be going back and forth about decisions, especially after you already buy something then decide against it. This will also provide you with more motivation of the potential beautiful machine you could have sitting in your driveway, depending on your hard work and determination.

Step 2: Dismantle

This step is extremely important and a lot of people actually do it wrong. It may seem like this would be a hard step to get wrong, how could dismantling really be done other than one way? The thing that people get wrong is dismantling everything without labeling or videoing anything and simply throwing everything in a pile, assuming they’ll be able to remember how to put everything back together.

It’s extremely important that you take videos and pictures while you’re dismantling your classic car. Invest in a tripod so you can have your phone or camera do the work for you while you’re taking things apart. Take as many pictures as possible before and after taking parts off. This will save you a lot of time and frustration in the future when you’re putting everything back together.

Another important step a lot of people miss during the dismantling process is not putting small parts in labeled zip-lock bags. When you take off any nuts and bolts, put them in labeled zip-lock bags that has a detailed description of where they came from on your classic car. Even if you plan on reusing some of these parts, it’s a good idea to hold on to them when it comes time to buy new ones; you’ll have a reference of what thread bolt you’ll need to get.

For smaller pieces that are too big for zip-lock bags, use a black or silver sharpie (whichever will show up best on that specific part) to write on the actual part of where it came from to help you remember where it goes. Be specific about “right,” “left,” “bottom,” “rear,” etc. on your description.

Any wires you snip or disconnect will need a piece of labeled masking tape on them. Write where you took it off from and also take a picture so you know exactly where that wire came from. The pictures is also helpful in case the tape gets ruined and is unreadable. For other helpful tips on restoring a classic car, click here.

The amount of dismantling you’ll need to do entirely depends on the condition of the classic car you are restoring. If it has a lot of rust, you’ll probably need to disassemble a lot of the panels as well as the carpet to fix any rust as needed. If your classic car is in decent shape, you may not need to dismantle as much. You can determine how much dismantling is required on your specific classic car restoration.

Step 3: Work On One Project At A Time

After you’ve dismantled the vehicle, it’s easy to get overwhelmed about where you should start and easily get distracted by working on one project here and another project there. Keeping your focus is really important at this point.

After dismantling everything, it will give you a good idea about the actual condition of your car restoration. You may have uncovered a few additional issues you didn’t previously know. As annoying as that is, that’s a very normal occurrence during a classic car restoration.

This is the time to divide your classic car restoration into separate projects. Take time to write down and list the different projects required to complete your restoration. This will help keep you organized and more focused as you have a list to check off. Seeing a checked off list can really give you empowerment to keep going forward.

As you will be working on one project at a time, remember to only buy parts when you’re ready to bolt them in or install them. Don’t get ahead of yourself and buy a whole bunch of parts way ahead of time or before you can actually use them. This often leads to lost or damaged parts from sitting in the corner of the garage for too long. You’ll lose a lot of money by doing this.

Step 4: Body Work

Now that you’ve dismantled everything that needed to be taken off, you’ll need to begin the body work on your classic car restoration. Assess if you need new fenders, corner panels, grill, bumpers, corner taillight housing, roof, pillars, etc. Any of the metal work that needs to be done should be completed in this step.

It is quite possible to take off any old panels yourself and weld the new ones on. A lot of this depends on your experience with welding and your comfort level is doing such task. Welding can be easily learned though it does take practice and I don’t recommend you have your classic car restoration be your first experimental project with your welding skills. If needed, ask a welding friend to come and help you out.

If surface rust is an issues with any metal, sand off any of it that you can see. A lot of people prefer to sand blast the body of their classic car. While that’s a good option, it’s also very expensive and usually requires a professional to do it. I use a polycarbide abrasive wheel that I attach to my angle grinder and it does the job excellently. Though sanding the body yourself will take more time, you’ll save hundreds of dollars doing so. Click here to see my list of recommended tools for a classic car restoration.

A lot of people assume that bondo should not be used on a classic car because that would deem it “imperfect” and that a true classic car should be bondo-free. This is complete nonsense. Every single car that you see that wins car show will always have some sort of body filler on them. Even from the factory you’ll get cars with little waves in the metal that require body-fill. It’s impossible to get the metal on body work manufactured completely perfect.

Don’t be afraid to use body filler in spots that need it. Remember to not use it on anything deeper than 1/4 of an inch as that will manifest problems in the future; bondo was not made for deep dents. If you have deep dents, you’ll probably need to replace that panel completely.

Once you get the rust off, the new body panels on, and taken care of any dents, you can go ahead and prime the body yourself. This will provide opportunity for you to spot any small dents you may have missed so you can fix them and re-prime that spot.

The next step will be paint. I do not recommend you paint your classic car restoration yourself, even if you feel you have a good set up in your garage. Painting a car requires specialized equipment and practice to get it to look right, so this is something you will need to leave for the professionals.

You’ll want to do the body paint now while all the big components are out of the car (such as the engine and wiring if you’ve had to take them out). Painting while the classic car is bare bones will give it the best look it possibly can without any obstacles to paint around.

Step 5: Reinstall The Large Components

Once you have completed the body work and have waited a few days since the paint job, now is the time to start installing all of the large components to your car restoration. Such components will include the engine, transmission, exhaust, and drive lines. These large components will require the most room that’s needed to install them, so not having the small stuff around really helps with the installation process.

If you need to rebuild any of these parts, now is also the time to do it as your classic car is ready for it’s installation. I recommend starting with the engine and transmission rebuild first if needed because once those two are installed, all the other large components will be much easier to install.

Step 6: Axles, Suspension, and Brakes

After you have installed the larger components, you can now start working on the next size smaller components such as the axles, suspension, and the brakes.

The first one out of these you’ll want to pay attention to is the axles. Make sure they are in working order; this is something you don’t want to skip over.

Next you’ll want to work on suspension. This is usually something you’ll have to replace most of the components on during a classic car restoration. Shocks can lose their compression over time and leaf springs often rust together and become inefficient with their job.

Once you’ve tackled axles and suspension, you’ll want to focus on the brakes. Most classic cars come with drum brakes which is seen nowadays as outdated. While drum brakes still work, they’re not near as efficient as disc brakes. There are a few options you have with your braking system. First, if you have drum brakes, you can simply add a brake booster. Second, you can convert your front brakes to disc brakes. Third, you can convert all four wheels to disc brakes.

Each option is doable, though most people prefer the safer and more comfortable option of converting their brakes to disc brakes. It’s entirely doable though is quite expensive to do, so decide what is best with your budget as this time and go from there. Hold off on installing the master cylinder and brake lines for now.

Step 7: Fuel System

Now that you have the larger components installed on your classic car restoration, you can start getting into steps that requires lines and wires. Now is the time to start installing the fuel system.

The components of the fuel system you’ll want to focus on are installing the tank, fuel lines, fuel rail, and filler neck. This will be fairly simple to install because you’ll be able to route the lines around the large components and know where they can go without getting disturbed by other parts.

Step 8: Finish Braking System

In step six we’ve already tackled installing that larger part of the braking system such as converting from drum brakes to disc brakes. I told you to hold off on installing the master cylinder and brake lines then. Now is the time to install those components.

Along side with installing the brake lines, you’ll also need to install the master cylinder. Again, with having all the large components installed already, these lines will be easy to place now that you know what areas are available to place them.

While installing the master cylinder, be wary of any residual brake fluid you may come in contact with. Brake fluid is extremely corrosive and can burn your skin or burn through parts it has dripped on outside from the master cylinder. Make sure to always wear gloves if you are handling a used master cylinder and/or brake lines.

Step 9: Electrical and Wiring Harness

Once you have all the other lines hooked up and ready to go in your classic car, the next think you’ll focus on is the electrical components and the wiring harness. This also includes smaller components in the engine bay such as windshield wipers, radiator, fan shroud, etc. Anything that’s includes or has to do with the electrical system. You’ll need to pay special attention to how you do your wiring because any wiring done wrong can cause problems and even make your classic car not start.

Make sure you do this before you install any interior items such as carpet and seats; that way you can route your wires underneath the carpet and under rails or trim panels easily. Then once you install all of your interior, your wiring will be completely covered and any passenger wouldn’t know the difference.

Electrical components and wiring harness is probably the most frustrating component to deal with on a classic car. It will probably take you a considerable amount of time to get it all right, so don’t be hard on yourself if it takes times. Often times you can find YouTube videos or diagrams online that can help make your wiring a lot easier.

Step 10: Interior

The next step in your classic car restoration process will be installing the interior components. A lot of people like to jump the gun and do this before everything else which is a big mistake. Restoring a classic car takes a good amount of time to complete and it’s not necessarily the cleanest of jobs. Doing interior before all the other dirty jobs risks getting your interior dusty and dirty which could ultimately ruin some parts of it.

The first part of the interior you’ll need to focus on is installing the carpet kit and headliner. Then you can install your seats, radio, gauges, air conditioning, heater, etc. If you prepared the electrical wiring well and labeled everything, installing items in the dashboard should be easily accessible and can be completed quickly.

Step 11: Wheels And Tires

Adding the new wheels and tires to a classic car restoration is like adding the cherry on top. This last piece will make all of your work come together and really make your restoration glow.

Many people make the mistake of getting new wheels and tires way too early in the process. People do this because it’s obvious visual progress. People also spend way too much on new rims and tires and burn out their budget for the next few months which leaves them with nothing to work with for a while. We know that restorations take time, usually more than we’d like, so you also run the risk of getting flat spots in your new tires because you aren’t using them.

The truth is, you’re not going to be using those tires until you can actually get your restoration started, so it makes sense to wait until the end to get your new set of wheels and tires. That way they’ll be clean and crisp and really give your restoration that last little needed shine.

Step 12: Troubleshooting

I wish I could say that this next step is for you to take your classic car restoration out for a ride and enjoy the fruits of your labors, but we’re not quite there yet. This next step you’ll need to troubleshoot your classic car restoration, meaning you’ll need to test everything and try to get it started will fixing any small issues along the way.

You’re always going to have small problems come up that you don’t expect. It’s very easy to get frustrated during this process, but know that this is completely normal in the process of restoring a classic car and you are not the only one experiencing this frustration. We’ve all had to experience this.

Things like your driveshaft is too short because something moved and you need a new driveshaft or certain electrical components don’t work and fuses are blowing because you hooked up the wrong ground wire are all examples of issues you might run into. Again, this is all normal and just a part of the restoration process.

If you simply cannot figure out the issues that are going on during your troubleshooting stage, don’t call a mechanic just yet. Get online and join a few forums that are are discussing your specific classic car. You’ll be able to bounce ideas off other members in the forum and possibly find the solution.

Or you could attend some nearby car shows and talk with some owners that have the same model of classic car as you and see what they have to say. Car enthusiasts are very willing to help and give ideas, some of them may even be willing to come over and help because they love this specific classic car so much.

Step 13: Enjoy Your Ride

Now is the time for you to take out your classic car restoration and show off to the world all the hard work you’ve done. It may have taken you a bit longer and more money than you would have liked to complete your restoration, but once you take it out for the first time when it’s finished it makes it all worth it.

Don’t forget to be active with those online forums that was mentioned in the previous step so you can help other restorers when they’re stuck. You’ve accomplished an amazing thing and have learned a lot, so share your knowledge for others to enjoy.

Remember to maintain your classic car properly and to store it correctly for the winter. Taking care of a classic car is a little different than maintaining a regular car.

Related Questions

Is there a difference between a restoration shop and a collision/body work shop? A restoration shop and a collision/body shop are similar in many ways and both can work on car repairs and restorations. However, a restoration shop usually focuses more on restoring cars and a collision/body shop mostly focuses on repairing newer cars.

What kind of condition should a classic car be in to restore it? You can restore a classic car that is in any condition. A lot of this depends on how much time and money you are willing to invest in such a restoration. The worse the condition, the more time and money it will cost.

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