RESTORATION BOONDOGGLES PT IIIby bill orth
Afriend has been involved with the restoration of one of his older cars for the past two years, and a recent conversation with him brought up the old adage about restorations: Get the most accurate estimate possible for the job’s time and expense, prepared by the most knowledgeable expert….and double it. If you’re lucky, that’s what the job will entail. The more common reality is: triple it!
Why should this be so? What could be so difficult about figuring out how much time & money it should take to repeat a job that has been done before? Well, let’s see! Sometimes the overruns aren’t very significant when the job is less than a full-blown restoration. An engine overhaul, for example, on a relatively recent-vintage car should be accurately estimated by any competent shop. No more than a few weeks or perhaps a couple of months should go by and parts pricing should be fairly stable, so such a limited-scope job has fewer opportunities to run wild….but still occasionally do. Here’s an example: Ferrari’s 330 series V-12s often needed freshening up after 40 or 50,000 miles, and usually no more than new rod and main bearing shells, piston rings and a valve job would suffice. The cylinder bores didn’t wear badly on a decently-maintained car and a good honing and fresh rings often allowed reusing the original pistons on an “economy” rebuild. However, one car that I was restoring had been allowed to sit idle too long in a poor environment and the rings had corroded into the pistons so badly that new ones were necessary. This was an unplanned-for surprise and the 1983 price for a set of pistons was $1200.00. Today, that looks like chicken feed, but I felt like my heart had been cut out at the time, since it was over 10% of what I had paid for the car! This development more than doubled the anticipated cost of the overhaul.
A very critical point that many folks forget is that the very nature of a restoration is the rebuilding of an old car. A car that has been subjected to harsh elements, that has seen a lot of use and may have had significant damage or inept repairs done years ago promises to be a source of many surprises that will destroy the most diligent estimate. The hourly schedule provided by a manufacturer that states how long it should take to carry out a given procedure was calculated in the manufacturer’s own shops, with all the trick tools and on a brand new car! Thirty years later, half of the nuts and bolts in many cars are either hopelessly rusted, stripped, crossthreaded or rounded off. What once would have taken fifteen minutes can easily now take three hours. Anyone who has ever survived a restoration has gotten the endless phone calls from the shop explaining what new problem has cropped up. Let’s look at what sounds like a relatively simple task: Make the heater work in an older Ferrari. Hell, hot water in a car is free, so that can’t cost much!
OK, if there’s no heat, there’s probably no hot water getting to the core, so the technician goes to the valve that taps hot water from the engine and sends it down a hose to the heater core. The thirty-five year-old aluminum valve is corroded solid from inactivity and the hard water some unfeeling owners put into the cooling system years ago. Attempts to free up the valve only succeed in breaking the eroded body. Well, let’s get a new one; it can’t cost much. However, they stopped making them thirty years ago and the last new ones disappeared ten years later, since they really weren’t all that good to begin with. Yes, an aftermarket universal valve could be used, but we want the car to look original under the hood for concours purposes—and judges look for these things, because they’re usually missing! So, a three-week search on the internet and calling every advertiser who deals in vintage Ferrari parts produces nothing other than a $200 phone bill and offers of other buggered-up valves worse than the one you have. Finally, a call to some obscure shop in England finds a good used one! And its only $450!! Funds get sent, two more weeks go by and after a couple more transatlantic calls, the tracking process begins. The box is finally found stranded in Inglewood, CA, not Englewood, CO. After another week it arrives! The box is torn open and the “new” valve looks….just like the one you have.
But let’s be optimistic. A week of soaking it in penetrant actually frees up the shaft so the valve is now functional. Before installing it, however, the shop recommends flushing the offending water out of the system, replacing it with the correct stuff and fresh anti-corrosive antifreeze. Well, since you’re going to drain the whole system, wouldn’t this be the ideal time to change all the hoses and thermostat, too? The shop calls back with the news that the water pump has been seeping, and since we’re going to be in there anyway, it would only make sense to rebuild that now, too. The job cost just grew another 40%. Well, the car takes a couple of odd-shaped formed hoses that can’t be easily replaced with generic stuff, so back to snooping around for another 10 days to find them (let’s not talk about what they cost). OK! The system is full of fresh, clean coolant and the refurbished heater valve and rebuilt water pump are in place. Start the car, let the water get hot and open the valve. Whoa! There’s water leaking into both foot wells, soaking the carpet. Quick! Shut off the valve! Investigation reveals that the heater core (some old Ferraris have two!) has long since become a crumbling sieve, and is completely unrepairable. Naturally its some oddball size, so finding a suitable replacement will take tremendous patience and research. But on the bright side, by now you’re so hot, you don’t need the heater anymore!
That little parable will be repeated during the restoration of every system in the car, with only the specific parts differing, but I’m sure you get the idea. Want a real scare? How about this: You have left your valuable car at a shop that proceeded to take it ALL apart, and after a year or so of regularly writing progress checks every month, you notice that the invoices have stopped coming. So you drive over there to see what’s up. A locked door is what’s up, with a sign announcing that the IRS has seized the business and everything inside! It will take months to prove that the car is yours and get it released, but in the meantime, creditors have pawed through the place grabbing up everything they can find to mitigate their losses—including substantial parts of your car. Your cylinder heads that were sublet to some machine shop for work, but never paid for, were sold just days before you finally tracked them down. And where is the box in which all the beautiful little badges and emblems were carefully put? Some kid is now selling them on e-Bay. I have personally known two people who had this happen to them, so don’t think its too far-fetched to worry about! It takes stout resolve to see a restoration through to the finish, and an even stouter wallet. My hat’s off to anyone who has soldiered through the chasm of debt to bring some tired old car back from the abyss. Without these stalwart individuals, the rest of us would never get to relive the beauty of some rolling sculpture from another time. Whenever I stroll around a concours and see the beautifully restored masterpieces sitting in the sun, I think about the enormous amounts of money and suicidal thoughts that went into every one of them.
Restorations, as I have been discussing them, imply going through nearly every part of the car to make it function as well as it looks. There’s another kind of restoration, though, many examples of which will be crossing the blocks at the prestigious Scottsdale auctions this month. These are ones in which a car is painted and buffed up to look great from a short distance, but little attention, if any, is spent on making it actually usable. A fatal quirk of human nature seems to make bidders assume that what they can’t see is as impressive as the outer surfaces, and the trap is waiting for the unwary. No one can really tell much about what works and what doesn’t when looking at cars at auctions, and real caution should be exercised. Just about every year, we will have some car brought to our shop that someone bought in an Arizona auction. In far too many cases we have to tell the owner some pretty sobering news. Like: The overheating isn’t caused by a stuck thermostat like the auctioneer claimed. Instead, a blown head gasket, plugged radiator core and an .080 overbore are the real problems. Idling at 3 mph across an auction ramp is a bit different than going 70 mph down a real highway….when the front suspension is completely worn out, the (unobtainable) rear shocks are frozen up and all the steering gear is thoroughly shot. And if being able to actually see, feel and touch the car in person can lead to such undisclosed misery, what about a car that you have only seen pictures of on E-Bay?
-- Bill Orth --