Restoration Advice from the Experts

Eastwood has been in business since the late 1970s, and a lot of us were into old cars even before then. We have seen it all and done it all and learned from our mistakes along the way. The following advice might be of value to you in your pursuit of your old car restoration, some of it might be worthless, but we are sharing it for free so it is definitely worth more than you are paying for it. And in the restoration hobby, when does that ever happen?

The Case of the $500 Mercedes

The Persistent Barn Find Urban Legend

Not all of our stories have to make a moral or technical point, sometimes they simply point out the need for good sense before getting one's hopes. This barn find story is the quintessential automotive urban legend, along with the divorcee story, and the veteran that goes to war and leaves a car at his parent's house.

An antique hunter was traveling through northern Wisconsin looking for pot-belly stoves. Stopping at a gas station, the attendant directs the picker to an old farmhouse nearby. He knocks on the door and asks lady of the house if she might have an old pot-belly stove he might buy. She indicated she did and took him to the barn, but once there he immediately lost interest in the stove.

In the barn, to the dealer's delight, covered with years of accumulated dust and pigeon droppings, was an obviously pristine, and low-mileage, 1956 Mercedes 300 SL Gull Wing Coupe (Shelby Cobra, Jaguar XKE, Corvette, etc). The grill had been damaged in a minor fender-bender which occurred back when the car was new. The story goes that her late husband had bought the car on a trip to Chicago in 1956. He had had a minor accident on an icy road shortly after his arrival back home.

The result was the need for a new grill and radiator. With the nearest Mercedes dealer all the way in Milwaukee, the parts were never purchased. The car languished for years until the gentleman's untimely death. At that point the widow just let the car sit. "Would she sell it?", asked the antiques dealer, trying desperately to contain his enthusiasm; his hopes were at a fever pitch. "Of course I would!" The inquisitor was now smiling ear-to-ear. "And I did!" the woman continued proudly, "I sold the car to another young man from the city for a hefty $500. Yesterday. He's off fetchin' his trailer to haul this thing out of my barn."

Help to Determine Auto Restoration Authenticity

You can't count on your car being original. The older a car is, the more likely that it's been modified, even if only in the course of normal maintenance and repairs. It may even have been restored. Did the previous owner correctly perform the restoration? It's possible that a previous owner may have modified a part or botched the research.

The best advice we can give you is to join the club. There is an owners' club for just about every car ever made. Join one appropriate for your make and model classic and, typically, you will be able to obtain shop manuals and restoration guides for that specific automobile. You'll be able to meet and talk with club historians and single-car experts with a wealth of knowledge and experience that they are usually happy to share.

In addition to the marquee- and model-specific car owners' clubs, there are generalist clubs that offer a wealth of information to members. For example, the huge Antique Automobile Club of America in Hershey, Pennsylvania has great judging standards and they make copies of those rules available to members.

You can reach the AACA and find club lists from a number of books, such as the Hemmings Auto Almanac, or at a number of web sites including,, and

Rarity vs. Value!

Often Confused, But Very Different Things

Another frequent myth associated with the old car hobby, and especially related to collector car values, is rarity. Just because something is rare does not automatically make it worth more than a more common item. There are many things that are rare for good reason, and you'd still only get scrap value for it from the junk man.

Rarity of Vehicle

How many times have you been to a car show and seen a sign on a car that reads, "Only one of 308 ever produced!"? Was it a true limited edition vehicle? A car of extreme high cost, engineering excellence or exclusivity? Or, did they sell only that many because no one wanted to drive the ugly thing? Could it have been grossly overpriced compared to similar vehicles? Cars are rare for many reasons; some build collector value and some reinforce why the car didn't sell in the first place.

Not many Duesenbergs where built, mostly because of cost and the economics of the time...they're certainly among today's top collector cars. Ford only produced 76 Edsel convertibles in 1960...not because the car was especially bad, or ugly, but production was cut short as the entire Edsel line was dropped shortly after introduction. Yet, these too are highly collectible.

Without trying to offend any of our readers, cars such as the Hudson Jet, Henry J, and King Midget never sold in great numbers due to missing some element that would attract the masses. As collector's items these cars are but a few of many that continue to lack some certain appeal that would yield high value. Some modern factory "limited editions" are "limited" to only as many as the factory can sell.

Rarity of Survival

There are certain cars that, while built in lower volume than most collector cars, seemed to be perceived as "special" from the start. Examples include; ’55-’57 Thunderbirds, Ford retractable hardtops, Avantis, Chevrolet Nomads, early Corvettes, Chrysler Town & Country convertibles and sedans and so on. These cars sold well, due to exceptionally appealing styling or filling a specific marketing niche, and many were delegated to "Sunday's only" or at least a little pampering.

How many times have you gone to car a show and read the most dangerous sign of all: "Only one of 3 known to exist in the world today!"? Known to whom? By what standard? By registrations? By some formula? We can practically guarantee that if you place one of these signs on your car at a major car event, an identical car will pull in next to you!

Ironically, cars such as the ones we've listed above, while being "blue chip" collector cars, have seen relatively stable fluctuations in value. No rapid jumps, no skyrockets, but a solid, constant demand that has allowed them to climb slowly in value and yet remain less volatile.

Rarity of Options

Yes, the third famous ill-fated car show sign: "One of only 3 known to exist with hi-po 454 engine, factory air, lighted tissue dispenser and special order DO9 code Burgundy paint!" Yes, some of these factors can matter to the purist, but in the overall hobby market you won't find too many sympathetic ears. Good, solid, basic collector cars don't need gimmicks or obscure options to prove solid value. Of course, some high-performance car engine options can mean a whole lot. That "R" code as the fifth digit in the serial number of your 1967 Mercury Comet can more than double the car's value, as it would indicate a super-rare 425HP/427-cu.-in. V8.

Rarity can help you car's value, but it isn't everything. Originality, low miles, restoration authenticity, quality of construction on restorations and especially street rods, can mean a lot. As a matter of fact, condition, condition, condition is paramount in collector car valuation. So grab that Eastwood catalog and head for the garage—a little resto-upgrade may be more important that rarity.

The Case of the Unavailable Part

We recently were at a car show and ran across a 1956 Cadillac Coupe de Ville 2-door hardtop. The car was a very nice, totally stock vehicle, and in no way an overtly modified vehicle. The only external modification was the installation of narrow whitewall radial tires. What threw us for a loop was the fact the car was fitted with a bone stock, base model Chevrolet 350-cu.-in. V8 of no particular distinction, with a 2bbl carburetor. Why did this surprise us?

Basically, because the stock Cadillac 365 cubic inch V8 would have provided 285 HP. We had to inquire with the owner why he made the swap, when the car was clearly not a street rod or presented as a modified car. The answer only made things worse.

He proceeded to tell us that the car ran great with the Cadillac engine in it, but he wanted to drive his car on antique car club tours and to car shows, and he was under the impression the "old" 1956 engine would "not be dependable". Also, he was sure he "could not get parts for it anymore" if it did break down. Yes, he was a little disappointed about the performance of the anemic stock 2-barrel 350 he had installed, but he knew he was now safe on the road.

Myths all of the first order! His stock vehicle had a better, more powerful engine, loaded with gobs of torque. The GM Hydramatic was a well-proven transmission, and parts are as available as any copy of Hemmings Motor News, the Cadillac-LaSalle Club magazine, or one of the new Cadillac sites on the Internet. There is no need to ditch a ’50s or ’60s car's drive train unless you're planning a killer street machine, not with next day shipping and the internet.

Restoration Equals Vehicle Value

A shop in our area told the owner of a 1962 Buick LeSabre 4-door that his car would be worth the equivalent of his restoration bill once completed. When the bill came with a $32,000 price tag, the owner was horrified. He quickly found none of the collector car insurance companies would insure it for more than one-third the restoration cost. While the owner did not mind spending the money on his grandfather's old car due to personal ties, the insurance company did not share his nostalgia and would only insure it for replacement value. The owner was angry at the shop, his appraiser and the insurance company. The truth is, he did not do his homework, and he let his fond memories of childhood trips with Grandpa cloud the issue.

In the late 1980s, car values were skyrocketing. One could hardly buy a car and not have it escalate in value quickly. Restoration costs were taken for granted, and presumed to reflect assured return on investment. Speculators jumped into the hobby seeing quick bucks to be made. The auction area was filled with convertibles quickly painted "resale red", netting the non-hobbyist investor his reward.

By 1991, the collector car market underwent a severe "adjustment". Speculators were gone and cars began to return to value levels comparable to the mid and early ’80s. In some ways this was healthy. We've seen car values ever so slowly begin to creep back up, at a proper inflationary pace. The hobbyist is back in control.

Fewer cars are getting quickie restorations for resale. The serious car collector/restorer or even street rodder is doing it for the fun of it once again. We are seeing wonderful products such as Eastwood's Hot Coat Powder-Coating System making the job easier and quicker. It's still possible to find the car of your dreams and fix it up at great savings. The result depends on your ability, willingness to learn, and the quality of supplies and tools you use to build your car. Products like paint have taken huge leaps in quality and application, but so has the cost. What once was a $1000 paint job may now cost $3500. Other products today save you time and money.

Car restoration and modification hobbies are great fun. They're hobbies anyone with a little time, talent and money can enjoy. Restoration also permits you to spread the cost of your dream vehicle out over a longer period of time. You can control the quality and authenticity of the restoration. And, yes, you can even control the cost via hard work and perseverance. But don't expect that every penny will be returned to you at the time you sell the vehicle. If you want a sure thing, put your money in CDs at your neighborhood bank.