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Rust In Peace - - - the economics of restoration projects


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Rust in Peace

Not every car that has ever traveled down a country road or city street is a good candidate for restoration. Some are just better left as a memory. I’ve seen these relics of the past come in all sorts of forms, from a basket case, to a slightly used and abused muscle car, to a very tired, old neglected vehicle. Some are “found projects” that bring out a gleam in the new owners eye. They could be a barn find, off of the internet, or at a car auction. And, as with most of these rusted-mostly forgotten rides there’s a reason it was left in the condition it is now. Sometimes, the story behind it all has more entertainment value than the car ever will.


They arrive at the shop in all sorts of ways, with all sorts of owners. Sometimes the owner has already started on the project, and after years of fiddling with it they finally threw down the wrenches, or it could be a project they’ve always wanted to restore, but never could find the time. Every now and then I run into one of these characters, you know the type, the ones with the two car garages but only room for one car, because the other space is used for storing the tattered remains of a car under a tarp. Of course, sitting outside, dealing with the elements is the spouse’s new car. While the unrestored shell slowly disintegrates, leaving a fine dust of material on the garage floor.

The last “basket” case was literally in baskets, milk crates to be exact. It was an old Honda, probably one of the first ones ever brought over. The owner bought it cheap enough, and wanted to see if I could make it road worthy again. Despite the fact that the engine was in scattered pieces in several milk crates, almost all of the parts were there. It actually turned out to be a decent little car after all the work was done.


On one occasion a customer brought in an 84 Corvette he wanted restored. As the tow truck brought this guy’s new found deal towards the service bay, you could easily see there were a lot of damaged fiberglass parts everywhere you looked. Basically, anything that was fiberglass was going to need replaced.


All the windows had signs of water damage, and the water intrusion only got worse as I opened the door. The car reeked of mildew and sewage. There were signs of water clean up to the headliner. I tried the hood release, nada… wasn’t budging. Both hood cables were sheared (rotted) off. Now the challenge was just to open the hood. I finally got both latches popped, and as the hood leaned forward I was in for a big surprise. Not only was the interior smelly and nasty, but the engine compartment was as well.


There was dried plant material still hanging on the exhaust manifolds and intertwined in the coolant fan. The valve covers looked as if they were paper thin. I leaned over and touched this odd frail looking spot on top of one of the valve covers. My finger went right through it. Everything that was aluminum or magnesium had simply deteriorated away to almost nothing.

Turns out the car was bobbing around in the Gulf of Mexico for several months before it washed up against a dock. Seems an extremely upset Ex drove it into the ocean, just before the divorce papers were signed. The cost of restoring this one was going to be astronomical. After a lengthy deliberation with the owner, he finally decided to send it back through the auction where he originally bought it.

Older models will still be the norm for restoration. I doubt you’ll see a lot of modern cars restored in the quantity as the “pre-electronic” era cars. This does bring on a whole new set of problems, as those cars and trucks age even more and leave even larger piles of dust in the garage. Things that weren’t a problem before are now going to be an even bigger problem. Restorations are one thing, rusterations are another.


It really comes down to the economics of it all. You have to ask yourself, “What is the emotional attachment worth? Or, what is that fantastic deal actually worth when it’s finished out? Sometimes the emotional attachment is much stronger than the bottom line, and you can bet the cost isn’t going to be a factor on those. But for those fantastic deals, or those bargains of the century, they soon don’t look as good when the owner gets a grip on reality and realizes the cost involved.

The latest rusteration was a 1950 Plymouth the owner has kept in the family since his college days. The owner was well into his 60’s by now, and wanted to see what it would cost to restore it back to its original glory. For a time it was under a tarp in the garage, but as the kids grew older and space became a premium, the old car was left to fend for itself behind a shed. By the time I got a chance to see it, it hadn’t been started in more than ten years, the gas cap was missing, and the fuel tank was brim full of water. Mice had set up housekeeping in every corner of the interior. It wasn’t a classic model, just a plain Jane four door sedan, and definitely not a museum piece. More like rust on rust with a touch of broken glass and a few dangling chrome accessories.


The fact that you could see through the rocker panels from one side to the other was the first clue that this car might be too far gone. The original flat head straight 6 was still in place, and after hanging a gas can on the roof to gravity feed fuel to the carburetor the darn thing actually started, sounded pretty good too. But, every freeze plug leaked (rusted through), the carburetor leaked, the water pump leaked, and there wasn’t a whole lot of good things to say about the overall condition of everything else under the hood.

“Let’s see what a 4 door 1950 Plymouth sedan sells for in tip-top shape,” I told him. A couple of internet searches and he had his answer.

Eventually, the estimated cost of restoration prevailed over the sentimental value. As he told me, “I think I waited too long to restore this car. When it would have been feasible to restore it, I didn’t have the money. Now that I have the money, it’s too far gone.”

There are a lot of instances where the car is worth the time and money to restore, then sometimes not. I feel obligated to let them know whether or not their car is a good candidate for restoration. I’d rather lose a customer and gain a friend than make enemies out of us all over a restoration that’s gone bad. Sometimes it’s best for some of those old rusted relics to remain where they are, and let them … … … “rust in peace”.


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We have all been down this road. Sometimes we can resurrect these machines, sometime better to leave them dead.


One of my favorite "rusterations" was on a 66 Buick Riviera. The customer looked for years to find one. He wanted to surprise is father with it for his 70th birthday. This is the car the family had growing up, so it had a lot of sentimental value. It was not in the best of shape, but it had promise. We did all the mechanical work on it, leaving the body a little dull, but acceptable.


My customer drove it from New York to Chicago to present to his father on his birthday.

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I don't know where they get their info from, but when it comes to restoring a car some of them think it's no big deal. Like, I can get every part for every model with no hassles, and with one phone call. One guy (years ago) told me that I didn't know what I was doing because car parts are like going to a hardware store. Every part is there you just have to know which isle its in.


I really wanted to find a 2X4 and smack this guy with it. Seriously, dude... I might be able to take a few boards, cut them to shape and make something out it, but, It's not like a can whittle a carb. out of a block of aluminum. geezzzz.

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  • 3 weeks later...

When I do restoration work I bill out the parts & labor and add 10% profit & 10% overhead (like most general contractors) on the total bill, never had anyone complain, but you list a thermostat for some old p.o.s. at 95 bucks for a 20.00 part that takes 1-2 hours to locate (of course they don't understand why it takes time) the'll flip out every time.

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  • Have you checked out Joe's Latest Blog?

      Most shop owners would agree that the independent auto repair industry has been too cheap for too long regarding its pricing and labor rates. However, can we keep raising our labor rates and prices until we achieve the profit we desire and need? Is it that simple?
      The first step in achieving your required gross and net profit is understanding your numbers and establishing the correct labor and part margins. The next step is to find your business's inefficiencies that impact high production levels.
      Here are a few things to consider. First, do you have the workflow processes in place that is conducive to high production? What about your shop layout? Do you have all the right tools and equipment? Do you have a continuous training program in place? Are technicians waiting to use a particular scanner or waiting to access information from the shop's workstation computer?
      And lastly, are all the estimates written correctly? Is the labor correct for each job? Are you allowing extra time for rust, older vehicles, labor jobs with no parts included, and the fact that many published labor times are wrong? Let's not forget that perhaps the most significant labor loss is not charging enough labor time for testing, electrical work, and other complicated repairs.  
      Once you have determined the correct labor rate and pricing, review your entire operation. Then, tighten up on all those labor leaks and inefficiencies. Improving production and paying close attention to the labor on each job will add much-needed dollars to your bottom line.
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