How To Restore Classic Car Bodywork

When you look into restoring a classic car, your first thoughts probably go to the engine, transmission and everything else that makes the car fun to drive. Aside from choosing a paint color, bodywork is probably far down on your list of priorities. However, this part of the restoration process is crucial to the look and function of the vehicle. It’s also an expensive, time-consuming process that can rapidly get out of hand. By making the right choices for your project, learning how to restore classic car bodywork, and knowing when to call in professionals, you can keep costs and project time under control.

What Makes Classic Car Bodywork Different from Newer Vehicles?

Classic cars weren’t built to the same quality level as modern cars. Orange peel and other paint imperfections are common, while body panel sizes varied a lot, creating gaps and fitment problems. If you want a car that can compete in original classes, these factory flaws must be matched or replicated. If you want the best looking car possible, it’s going to take a lot of fabrication and preparation to address these problems.

Old cars are constructed differently, so they require different tools and techniques from modern vehicles. Windshields and rear windows are held to the body with giant rubber seals, instead of being glued on. Interior and exterior pieces that would be clipped or glued onto a modern vehicle are screwed into body panels. Parts that are plastic on new cars are metal on older ones.

Parts can be difficult to find, increasing the time it takes to make repairs. For example, if you own a classic British car, you may need to order parts from the United Kingdom. Each time you find things that need to be replaced, you can end up waiting weeks on shipping before you can start working on your car again.

What are the Steps in the Body Restoration Process?

The steps you take will vary, depending on your goal. Let’s say you want a complete body restoration. The process begins with stripping and assessing the vehicle. Old vehicles can hide rust, dents and poor repairs that aren’t easy to see when you first get the car.

Next, bodywork repairs are made to prepare the vehicle for painting. The car can be masked off and sanded, or individual parts can be removed and media blasted. This often reveals body filler and more hidden rust. Even if the body panels only need a little work, there are always replacement parts that need to be sourced. Doors and windows need new rubber seals, hardware may be missing or damaged, and chrome trim may need to be re-plated or replaced.

Once this work is done, it’s time to paint the car. Every piece is thoroughly cleaned, then coated with a series of paint layers. This can be a modern clear coat paint process, or a period-accurate single stage paint over a layer of primer.

Finally, the vehicle is reassembled. Adjustments can be made along the way to address panel gaps and fitment issues. In the end, the car won’t just look new, it will work better than it did from the factory.

Your experience will depend on your desired result. If you just want a driver, you may leave the body gaps as is. If you like the rusty rat rod look, you may choose to clear coat over the patina to preserve it, instead of applying a new paint job. You might leave the engine in the vehicle and only paint the outside, or take it out, so the engine bay can be painted with the rest of the car. You can keep the original drum brakes, paint them to match the vehicle, or replace them with disc brakes. The body can be kept original, shaved for a hot rod look, or modified with a hood scoop for more engine space or a tub to fit bigger rear wheels.

How Do I Make My Classic Car Restoration Project Affordable?

The biggest cost in a restoration project is labor. When you’re pricing out your project, you have to decide what you want professionals to do, what you’re willing and able to do yourself, and when to replace parts instead of restoring them.

This starts with buying the car. Generally speaking, paying more a car that’s in good shape is cheaper than restoring a cheap car that’s in bad shape.

If you want a vehicle built to a high standard, you’ll want to rely on professional help as much as possible. However, if you learn how to restore classic car bodywork, you can do some of the work yourself. This cuts costs, leaving money in your budget for steps that require professional tools and skills.

For example, sanding is time-consuming and expensive, but you need a smooth surface to get a quality paint job. Fortunately, this is an easy skill to learn, and sanding tools are inexpensive. However, painting requires a considerable amount of skill and expensive equipment to get a high quality result. Most hobbyists choose to do most of the prep work themselves, then pay someone to do the paint job. Painting the car only takes a few hours, but sanding and bodywork can take hundreds of hours.

Where Do I Find New Body Panels and Trim Pieces?

If there’s a market, companies will make reproduction parts, no matter how old the vehicle is. This makes restoring common cars easier than restoring rare ones. For example, while the first generation Ford Mustang and Mercury Cougar are mechanically identical, body part availability is much higher for the Ford. However, there are times where original parts are preferable. Reproduction parts aren’t always accurate, and even if they are, variations in the car’s original construction can cause fit problems. This is especially common with large trim and body panels.

Getting original parts takes time, searching salvage yards, antique car parts catalogs and swap meets. Car clubs are also a great source for parts, as members may have spares, or know where to get them. You may also find that the best option for sourcing parts for a project is by buying a parts car.

How Do I Get Started?

Join a car club. The other members will have experience with your vehicle, so they’re a great source for advice. The members will know the best places to get parts, and they can help you find shops that do quality classic car restoration work.

Find every factory shop manual, third party manuals and restoration guide you can get for your vehicle. The more you can learn about your vehicle, the better.

Technical colleges often offer courses aimed at enthusiasts. By taking an online or night course, you can learn repair methods for your project, including bodywork, welding and upholstery.

Most importantly, remember that a project car is a project. It can take years of work to complete, so choose a vehicle you really want to own and set goals that you’re sure you can tackle

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