A Special Report by Hagerty Insider

Collier AutoMedia proudly brings you Market Insights Powered by Hagerty Insider each month.  “Restoration” is by Colin Comer, a sought-after expert for top collectors worldwide, the author of several books on the muscle car era and Shelby-American, and a noted car collector himself.  He is also a panelist at Hagerty’s Valuation seminars, and an advisor for the Hagerty Price Guide. We hope you enjoy this edition and that it fuels your passion.

I restored my first car when I was thirteen years old, and I did everything wrong. Not the actual work, mind you, but the very first step. The one where I decided to restore the car. In the decades since, Ive talked more people out of restoring cars than into restoring cars. Thats a pretty surprising statement from a guy who owns a restoration shop, but allow me to explain.

The main consideration people tend to gloss over is financial. Restoration shop rates hover around $125 per hour, and the average billable labor time to restore a reasonably solid and not overly complex car is 1000 hours. That math may be just fine on a Ferrari 275GTB/4 worth $2.5 million, but it sure doesnt map out well for your $10,000 Datsun 280ZX.

"Nothing can transport us back in time like that old high school car." Photo courtesy Hagerty.

Another trap is the belief that you can partially” restore a car. The cost of even limited work is rarely returned come sale time unless it has corrected major sins, such as an incorrect color change or significant rust or damage. And it is often a very slippery slope that ends with runaway costs. For example: A car with paint, chrome, and trim that all show consistent age cant just be repainted without making the chrome and trim stick out like a sore thumb.

Also consider that some of what you might be fixing” is a part of the cars history and character. The tide is turning in the collector car world. Originality and preservation are becoming far more important than perfect paint and new leather, and the market is reflecting these changing preferences. Weve seen it time and time again with Mercedes-Benz 300SL Gullwings. These are hugely complex and costly cars to restore, yet ratty barn finds” often sell for as much, or even more, than flawlessly restored examples.

"Restorations should not be entered into lightly." Photo courtesy Hagerty.

Even when restored cars get more, its often not that much more. A woman recently contacted me whose husband had passed away while his vintage Shelby Mustang was being restored. Theyd owned the car since new, and while it was in nice original condition, it had been in storage for years, so the husband decided to send it to a shop. The goal was to get it cleaned up and running, then sell it. But as the wife discovered sifting through her late husbands bills, he had gone down the dangerous path of If we do this, we should also do that….” The car was more than five years and $130,000 into a concours restoration.

I visited the shop on her behalf to get a handle on what stage the restoration was in and to plan what to do next. The work was about 90 percent complete and had been done to a very high standard—the car looked great. I reviewed the invoices line by line and found the charges more than reasonable. The only thing the shop may have done wrong, I told the widow, was not telling her husband plainly how little their work would add to the cars market value. A running, driving, one-owner Shelby with tired cosmetics and some visible issues would have been worth somewhere around $100,000. Spruced up a bit, maybe it would have been worth another $25,000—about what that sprucing may have cost. But after a concours restoration that will ultimately cost about $150,000? I suspect the car will be worth $175,000. Which is to say the widow can expect a dollar back for every two spent on the restoration. (Of course, Id be remiss if I didnt point out that such a car is an excellent buy. A car thats just been restored typically represents a 50-percent-off sale, with none of the headaches. Just be sure to verify that the work was done correctly, by a reputable shop.)

There are exceptions to this rule. Find a significant car languishing in a barn, restore it regardless of cost, and win a meaningful award such as best in show at Pebble Beach, and the value equation can change greatly. Many collectors have tried this and missed, though; only a few, truly special cars win these coveted awards.

On a smaller scale, lets say you find a long-lost 1965 Shelby GT350 and get a great deal on it. Due to the high value of stellar 1965 GT350s, and the reasonably inexpensive cost, comparatively, to restore a Mustang to concours condition, you could haul it around to important judged Shelby and Mustang national shows, collect a trunk full of validation” trophies, and come out ahead in the end. Plus have a little fun along the way.

"A car with paint, chrome, and trim that all show consistent age can’t just be repainted without making the chrome and trim stick out like a sore thumb." Photo courtesy Hagerty.

But dont let this example lead you astray. Many people think hot” vehicles like 1966–77 Ford Broncos offer an opportunity to restore for fun and profit. They do not. Even though theyre simple and parts are cheap, youre still on the hook for those $125-an-hour shop rates. You just cant make that rusty Bronco into a $150,000 truck for less than $150,000.

Perhaps youve read this far and decided you simply dont care about the cost. You have a car you love and want to restore it to enjoy it more. Thats commendable, but let me assure you it often isnt that simple. To start, youll lose the use of the car during the restoration, which could be months but is typically years. When the car is finished, youll most likely not use it, for fear of damaging its expensive, flawless restoration. And if you do use it, youll do so knowing every mile is chipping away at this dearly purchased perfection.

Im not saying youre wrong to spend far more on a cars restoration than the car is worth because youre going to keep it forever.” Trouble is, Ive rarely seen that actually be the case after the dust settles. Either the completed car just isnt as enjoyable as the owner hoped, or they are afraid of damaging it, or the restoration process itself was such a scarring experience that seeing the car makes the owner relive the horror.

Getting the job done on a restoration project. Photo courtesy Hagerty.

Please dont get me wrong: I love restoring cars. I want to make them perfect, and lots of intelligent people dive head-first into restorations knowing they will easily exceed the value of their cars. As long as the reasons for doing so make sense to the person writing the checks, the rewards, albeit not financial, are often far more compelling and worthwhile. Especially when one chooses the right restorer and the finished product meets all expectations and is enjoyable to use. After all, nothing can transport us back in time like that old high school car, or piling  your family into the same station wagon your parents drove you around in.

Yet, no matter the reason, restorations should not be entered into lightly. Carefully consider what you hope to gain. Physically review your car with a professional familiar with the exact make and model, and make sure to discuss what you want in the end.

The solution I frequently recommend: Make a list of the areas or defects that detract from your enjoyment and focus on those. The benefits are many, not the least of which is a huge savings of cash and downtime for your car. When approached sensibly, much of this work wont have to be re-done if you decide later to embark on a total restoration.

Above all, if you love your car and enjoy using it the way it is, dont restore it in an attempt to please others or increase its value. Because the real value lies in the pleasure we all get from using our cars, and I find a lot more joy in adding stone chips than fearing them.