How to Choose a Restoration Shop for your Classic Car - Part 2 - Shop Selection

Keye Luke as "Master Po", Kung Fu
Not surprising, but there are some strong opinions and emotions held by a number of classic car owners when it comes to the subject of Restoration Shops. To be fair, among those we have heard from following our earlier article by BRYAN SHOOK, Esquire of Vintage Automotive, the majority confirmed that doing homework and having a contract in hand made the experience worthwhile or at least "tolerable". However, the nightmares were heard from too, even having done reference checks and having a contract in hand. You can only imagine the cries of agony from those heard from who had neither a reference check or contact.


Steve Linden of Newsday (2/18/2013) wrote of three individual restoration projects with totally different outcomes.

The first was of a 1970 Buick Skylark Coupe: the vehicle was said to be a good, solid car with minimal rust work to resolve. Without a contract, the owner handed it to a restoration shop based on a verbal statement to expect a total cost of $50,000. Two years later, and $160,000 later, the car remained in pieces and no where near ready to finish. The owner had to pay the outstanding balance of work claimed, had to pay to have the car removed from the first shop and had to find a second shop willing and able to accept the car for completion. In the end, it will be a $200,000 restoration. Most of this could have been avoided with contract in hand.

The second example was a 1968 Cougar GT Convertible: found to be in average condition and was reported to need a slightly more comprehensive restoration, including new floor panels. Short version - after more than $100,000, the quality of the work was so poor the car has been declared to have literally no value. The future for this owner will be to recover some of his investment in selling the car for parts and then taking the shop to court for the balance. Even with a contract, the owner's error was not making regular visits to the shop for an in-person inspection of the work being performed.

The third example is especially painful, but a best-case instance of what can go wrong during a restoration for a 1967 Shelby GT350. With a defined budget in the range of $150,000, the owner and shop prepared a detailed contract of the work to be performed including a payment schedule and completion deadline. You'd think this was the ideal scenario with a great outcome...

The finished car did come in on budget, but was more than six months late. The owner was irate because he lost the entire summer driving season. The shop was annoyed because they felt they did a great restoration and in their opinion, "time should take a backseat to quality" and were not getting the recognition they felt they deserved. Based on an inspection of the finished car, the work has indeed been judged to be second to none - just what a good restoration job should produce. The lasting opinion - they have a fantastic car, but an unhappy owner and restoration shop.


If you accept the detail and paperwork involved with a home mortgage, investing tens of thousands of dollars in the restoration of a classic car should not rely on a few notes scribbled on a piece of paper. Responsibility goes both ways, and accepting your share is a key element in a successful restoration project.

Among the first considerations is to define (and put in writing to yourself) exactly why you want to start a restoration project and what your expected outcome is. Yes, superb examples of restored cars have a great value, and values are continuing to increase. But unrestored cars also have great value, and depending on the make, model and year, may even be more sought-after by collectors.

Do not believe the work and time required as seen on reality television programs is typical - it's not! TV producers have tremendous power in pushing a vehicle thru a shop to meet a planned televised deadline. Also, rarely do the shows give you any indication of the actual time elapsed.

Be realistic with your finances. Virtually every example we found confirms the reality that a contact budget should (and will) vary by +/- 10%.  Expect to go over the written budget by at least 10%.  For a $100,000 budget, that means you'll need at least another $10,000 available. Do you have that much reserve available?

Be very diligent in your shop qualification and selection process. Word of mouth is a good start, but by no means the only evaluation process you rely on. If you are a member of a local car club, ask your fellow members the who and what of shops they have had experience with. Attend car shows and speak with owners of the same make and model car you're thinking of restoring for a recommendation if they have had their car restored.

English Wheel
When you visit the prospective shops, make a note of their facilities. Perhaps some of these pieces of equipment may unrecognizable, but ask to see them. A well prepared restoration shop would likely have a metal brake, an English wheel, a shrinker/stretcher and a bead roller, welding equipment, sandblasting equipment and a press. If this equipment is not on site, your car will likely be sent to another shop on a sub-contracted basis, which will cost you more as you will pay not only the transportation costs, but likely at least a 30% margin on the costs your restoration shop pays a sub-contracting shop.

As for specifics to notice here are a few indications of who and what you are dealing with: is the shop size - large/small, is the shop activity busy/slow, is the shop generally clean or disorganized. Is the work done indoors or outside? Are all vehicles in their possession stored indoors during non-business hours? Do they carry insurance to cover vehicles in their care? Will they provide you a list of references representing recent restoration work completed? Yes,they will - good; No - find another shop. In many respects, common sense should guide the way when evaluating a shop just as you would evaluate any other business or professional services you were seeking.


One source makes a strong distinction between two sources of services that might seem to be one and the same. Some restorers urge caution against equating a restoration business and one that primarily does paint and body collision insurance work. They believe the skill set between restoration and collision work are vastly different and the speed, attention to detail and processes used are considerably different. 


Bill, of the Buick Club of America wrote a list of lessons he learned as having restored a number of classic vehicles.  We think his experiences are worthwhile to pass along as some of the responsibilities as the car owner involved with a restoration shop.

  • I will put minimal money up front, I will pay for work done on my car, but I will not fund your shop while you work on other cars.
  • I will give you a deposit to hold a place if you are busy, but I will pay you for work done.
  • I will pay on time. If I don't I expect to have my car move to the back of the line. I do expect you to stop work on my car if I fail to pay you promptly.
  • I expect to be provided pictures and a time sheet of what you have done in the time you are asking me to pay for.
  • I will pay periodic visits to your shop and see the car as needed. If I can not see the car on my schedule, you are not the shop for me.
  • I expect you to tell me what you need and when needed, if  I am chasing parts for you. You can expect me to keep you informed on the parts progress and delivery dates.
  • I will promptly pay you if you are getting parts for my car
  • I will know and keep track of what I deliver to you, if you lose it, you will find a replacement and pay for it.
  • I will pay promptly for actual work done, but I already said that.
To read Part One, click here

In our next article in this series, we'll pass along what we what we have learned when it comes to having a Restoration Contract prepared, some of the costs to expect, time required for a restoration project, and some specific areas to consider when preparing a contract with a shop.

Until then - drive safe...