Fixing up an old car... where do I start?

I wrecked my beloved 2000 Jetta today… yes, I need a big hug… but in the middle of the sadness I’m trying to strategize a replacement car strategy.

One appealing, and very money-saving, idea floated by my dad is to adopt his '64 Biscayne. It’s been a longstanding dream of mine to steal the car away from him and put money into fixing it up, and who knows, this might be just the chance.

Here’s the status, as best I know it: mechanically it’s running fine, though I’m sure there’s areas for improvement (I haven’t made a complete checklist - I seem to recall the gearshift being kinda wonky).

Aesthetically is where it needs some real loving. The gold paint is old and ugly and there’s a few small rust spots. The front-right fender is dinged from a run-in with a stop sign 15 years ago. Interior’s not much better - the ceiling fabric is gone, seats need recovering, door panels are a similar story. So for looks, besides the handsomeness of the car itself, I’d give it a 1.5 out of 10.

(It’s also got no A/C, but I have a few months of winter before I need to deal with that.)

Okay so enough prologue. My real question is, how do I even begin with such a big project? I’m guessing I’ve got about 3 grand coming my way from the insurance company, enough to do some decent work, but I’ve got no idea what to prioritize, or where my buck will get the most bang. I’m not trying to go for crazy rap-video looks or anything, but I would like it brought in the long run back to basic respectability.

What’s your opinion? Any good “Car Restoration For Dummies” resources I can check out, on- or offline?

While we wait for the car restoration gurus to come along, I’ll offer my opinion. You are nuts. Do nothing. Drive it as is. If you’re not going to properly cherry out a '64 Biscayne then don’t go half way, just drive it into the ground and enjoy the low cost transport.

If you don’t have experience doing auto restoration, this project will take you many months to do well. And you really need to love what you’re doing, which isn’t the scenario you’re describing. This idea stinks. Forget it.

A '64 Biscayne, huh? My grandmother had one of those…cool. Hers was a blue 4-door sedan, yours is gold, but a sedan or hardtop? 2 or 4 doors? (Just curious.) You need to choose your own style and approach, but I’d start out doing the car as a rusto-rod. The idea is to take care of mechanical stuff first, and leave appearance issues for last (if ever). You might take preventive action to stop the rust you mentioned from getting worse, and if the seats are really bad, just throw a cheap blanket over them for a start.

First thing I do with any used car I’ve ever bought is brakes and tires. For the Biscayne, I’d swap on front disc brakes from a more recent Chevy. The big 1LE brakes have the best coolness factor, but you can use standard Chevy disc brakes; you’ll also need a new master cylinder. Just a straight brake replacement for the rears, but be ready to replace the wheel cylinders. Take a good hard look at the condition of the brake lines; you can get all new tubing for that car (I think its even available pre-bent). For wheels, I like steelies and you can get a set of 15x8’s (allowing wider tires) from the salvage yard for around $100-150. Just paint them the color of the car and use dog dish hubcaps. I think nice tires will do wonders for the car’s appearance: I’d guess off the top of my head that something like 235-60R15’s would fit on the car using the steel rims I suggested.

Check the balljoints and the rest of the steering and suspension (including the bushings on all the parts). Obviously, repair or replace anything with problems. If the springs are sagging front or rear, now’s the time to replace them. Get the alignment checked and (probably) fixed.

Find out what’s wrong with your shifter linkage and fix it. Flush and fill the cooling system. New upper/lower radiator hoses; new heater hoses; new thermostat: they’re all relatively cheap, so just replace them unless your Dad did it last year. Give it a complete tuneup: plugs, wires, rotor, condensor, distributor cap, clean (or rebuild) the carburetor; set the dwell and timing. All new belts for the engine accessories. How’s the condition of the exhaust system? Go over the stuff you need for a state inspection: lights, wipers, horn; we already talked about brakes, tires and exhaust. At this point, I’m thinking she’s ready to drive, while you decide what needs to be improved next.

Take or leave any of my suggestions; it’s YOUR car. I might argue with you, but my best friend and I argue about what’s right or wrong for each other’s cars all the time. (As in, “You heathen! A Chevy engine in a Plymouth? That’s just WRONG!!” Then, I helped him install the engine. I even fixed up a Ford master cylinder from the salvage yard for him to use: his other buddies are always asking him where he got the totally bitchin’ master cylinder.) It’s just part of the fun.

Not to be a wet blanket but what are you going to do for a car? My point is if you need to drive x miles to work every day then beater car + $3000 is prolly not going to get you into a daily driver. IME these old cars that are still hanging on just can’t take daily (ab)use.
That being said beater car + $3000 is a good start on getting said car into shape for Sunday driving and it would be awesome to take on a project like that. I’d start with the cosmetic stuff. I find it’s easier to find money to fix mechanical problems on a car that looks good then it is to find money to fix cosmetic problems on a car that runs well.
Take it down to a local body shop and find out what they’d charge to fix the rust and paint it. At a minimum you’ll know right off the bat what you’re getting in to. You didn’t really say what kind of mechanical abilities you have but if you’re starting from scratch, it’s more likely you can learn how to fix brakes/batteries/etc before you learn how to do body repair.

There’s a first time for anything anyone does, but unless you already have basic auto mechanic skills, & tools, and a place to work, and alternate transportation, then you’re mostly looking at paying other people to do the work for you. And $3K is a minor down payment on what you need done.

30 years ago, I owned & operated a shop that did refurbs like that. Not making show cars, just taking damaged or ratted out then-20 year old cars & getting them back to more-or-less factory fresh. We took in a lot of projects where somebody started on something where they couldn’t do much more than wash & partly disassemble before the got out of their depth. If they had enough extra money, they came to us. If not, they sold it at a loss to somebody who did. In those days it took $10-15K to bring a 1960s car back to respectable. And it took a few hundred expert man-hours.

Nowadays the costs are higher, but the availability of free advice on the 'net is some offset if you’re a decent DIY mechanic already.

Bottom line: A project like this needs cash, expertise, and time. You can trade the three factors off, but there are minimums for each. The minimum cash required, assuming you have infinite expertise & infinite time, is still more than $3K.
Unless you just a want to throw a blanket over the seats & drive it until something else breaks. Which is a valid way to get transportation, but not in any sense a restoration project. And if you’re driving it daily, you can’t do any restoration that you can’t be sure to finish over a single weekend.

Maybe my OP gave the wrong impression. I’m not coming from zero on auto knowledge - I’ve replaced my own brakes, timing belt, etc. And to repeat, the car is very drivable mechanically, just fine for a daily driver. Obviously $3k isn’t going to get me far on a total rebuild or anything, I’m just looking for suggestions on what to do first. (3acres, thanks for all the mechanical ideas!)

The shop next to mine does some classic and hot rod mechanical work. The body shop behind us does a hot of hot rod and resto projects.
A guy brought in a 1956 Packard Clipper that needed some carb work. It loked to be in nice condition… from 20 feet away. Up close there were a few small rust holes above one headlight and a little bit of other rust issue, but mostly bad paint. Chrome needs help, big time.
Any the owner has visions of a show winner. He budgeted about $6,500 for a paint job, new chrome, and to get the body in proper shape.
The body shop guy came over, and laughed. He said to do it right and make the car a show winner it would have to be a body off restoration. He gave a ball park number of about 30 kilobucks.
Many things have gotten stupid expensive for old cars. On a mailing list for British sports cars, one guy just commented the other day that he spent $2,500 for redoing the chrome on his Austin Healey. :eek: Your Biscayne has more square footage of chrome in the front bumper and grill than he has on his entire car.
If you are going to restore this car, you will need a daily driver, as sure as hell you can’t drive the Biscayne when the bbody is off so you can paint the frame.
Think about it.

I don’t think the OP is looking for a concours type job, though - just something with no ripples in the bodywork. That said, I don’t think $3,000 is anywhere near enough.

If it was something a bit more common, with parts available in every salvage yard (something more recent, in other words), I think you could probably get the whole thing fixed up for $5k from the condition you describe - but for that car, you’ll be ordering a lot of stuff from aftermarket replica part suppliers, and that ain’t cheap.

I understand that the OP isn’t looking for a show winner, but from the OP

Rust is like termites in my experience, for every rust spot you see, there are several you don’t. Fixing 3 or 4 rust spots that are visible, but then having your new paint job bubble from rust that is coming from the inside, is false economy. The OP will wind up doing the job twice.
Again a story from the shop next door. They had a super sweet '57 Chevy in last week. Gorgeous. Bright red, this car is a head turner. Problem is when the resto was done the body wasn’t taken off the frame, the frame has rust now, and the body mounts are bad. Guess what the owner gets to pay for?

Missed the edit window
The OP needs to do a complete impartial survey of the car and what it needs. If it is drivable, take it to a couple of resto shops and talk to them. Talk to an upholstery shop, search the net for catalogs for old car parts. Swing by a body shop if the resto shop doesn’t do body work.
Then add up the costs. Next add up the time. If using a shop(s) double both. If doing the work yourself, or spliting it between you and a shop(s) double the money, and quadruple the time commitment.
Johnny LA just went though this with his MGB, maybe we can get him to stop by and tell you a few stories about that project.
Lots of people start these projects, most don’t finish.

The MGB was such an ordeal I wasn’t going to post to this thread.

I started out with the best of intentions. I found a '66 MGB on eBay that was complete; and though it had been sprayed red at one point, it was originally Old English White like my firs '66 MGB. And it was only three figures. I knew the floorboards would have to be replaced, but I reckoned I’d have new ones welded in, get a temporary coat of paint, and fix it up as I went along. Here’s the rub: I lived in an apartment and didn’t have a garage. I have no experience with metal working. I thought I’d get the body sorted and the engine rebuilt and I could turn wrenches and screwdrivers for the rest.

Enter ‘J’. J is a T-series MG guy who belongs to an MG club in SoCal who said he could get the restoration started. He had a friend who could strip the car for me. After the car was tubbed (in April) it went to another of J’s contacts; Antonio of A To Z Auto Works. (I’m using his real name because I’m still mad at him.) J’s friend ‘H’ has a machine shop and the non-body parts of the car when there. J would work on the car in H’s shop. Antonio said the main crossmember and a couple of longitudinal pieces were rusted and needed to be replaced. He said it would take him six weeks to finish the body.

Six weeks later I called Antonio and he said it would take six more weeks. In six weeks I called back. ‘Oh, chipping away at it. Maybe about six more weeks.’ In six weeks I called again. There had been some sort of falling out with Antonio’s employees, and his wife was seriously ill with an aneurysm. She nearly died. I cut him some slack. After all, I’d lost my dad three years before and I know what it’s like to lose a loved one.

Every time I checked on the car I got the same answer: ‘About six more weeks.’ Why didn’t I find a new body guy? For one thing, the country had been shaken by the WTC attacks and as a news junkie I was distracted. For another thing, I wasn’t in a hurry. I’d seen Antonio’s work on other cars and it looked pretty good. He assured me I’d have a ‘show winner’. And there were day to day interests that took up my time. And then there were lay-offs at work. My employer knew that I wanted to move to Washington, so I was put on the list. The deal was that the company would try to keep everyone they could, and that if the listed people did not quit we’d receive a retention bonus when we were laid off. I told Antonio that he needed to finish the car before I lost my job.

It turns out we weren’t laid off (and the company gave us half of the bonus anyway). So time passed. Then in October of 2003 (a year and a half later) there was a purge. A month and a half later I was moving into my house in NoWA. I kept in contact with Antonio, and now the story was ‘Two weeks.’ I called every two to four weeks and got the same answer. But being over 1,200 miles away I couldn’t put much pressure on him.

I needed a convertible for the summer, so I found a '63 Triumph Herald 1200 in Sacramento. Some friends and I took a road trip, then decided to continue down to L.A. I’m not a little person, and I was the smallest of the three of us. One of my friends, the one with the shaved head, and though he totally looked Caucasian is half-Mexican and had hung around gangs in Long Beach when he was a kid, stood back and glowered at Antonio when we went to check the car. The other (larger) guy frowned at Antonio a bit. (By this time there was actually paint on the car!) It was very shortly after our visit that I was informed that the body was finished and the car was at H’s shop where J would complete it.

Only J seemed to like buying parts (with my money) more than actually putting them on the car. I started getting calls from H asking when I would get my car out of his shop – oh, and don’t tell J he was complaining because they’re friends and he doesn’t want to get him mad. Calls to J, trying to be diplomatic. Even after repeated calls, H said he hadn’t worked on the car in months.

Then my company hired me back and I moved back to L.A. I found Chris, an Englishman who used to work for a resto shop in Anaheim who was building his own shop. I had to wait a few months for his shop to be finished, and there was another car ahead of mine; but I arranged to get the car to him.

Chris was disappointed in Antonio’s work. The engine work (by a guy H knows) was great. The components J had bought were great. The ‘work’ that J did… not so much. Chris had to redo it. Unlike the other clowns, Chris actually worked on the car and had it finished in six months after he got it.

What I got was a car that was virtually new. Better than new. Except for the bodywork. The doors almost fit right, but they’re not perfect. The bonnet doesn’t fit right, and the left side looks like it’s open, because Antonio did not align the fenders correctly. The boot lid has a gap on the left side, and it overhangs the rear panel by about 1/16 inch. It looks great from ten feet away, but it still needs some work.

Chris did a stellar job and I’d recommend him. Antonio is heartily not recommended.

There have been two glitches with the car since I’ve been driving it. First, a freeze plug popped out of the engine. American engines use ‘cup’ shaped freeze plugs, and English engines use ‘discs’. Chris said the English plugs have to be hit with a hammer until they make a certain sound. The engine guy works on American engines and didn’t know this. (He really did do a great job on the engine. He builds race engines. He just didn’t know about this type of plug.) New freeze plugs were installed by a shop up here and the problem has been resolved except for the engine paint that was stained by the glycol.

The other problem is electrical. What are the odds an British car would have electrical problems? I have a Pertronix electronic ignition. The car ‘misses’ and eventually quits. I wiped out the distributor cap and it has been running fine since then. I don’t know if this (graphite?) dust in the cap is the problem, but old British cars have quirks and this is just one I’ll have to keep in mind.

In short, listen to Rick. Restoring a car takes longer (four years in my case) and costs more than you think – especially if you’re not equipped to do the work yourself and have to have it done. Know what you want before you start. I never planned to make the car as good as it is. I just wanted a '66 MGB to drive that looked OK. But things got out of hand, and were it not for Antonio’s body work I’d have a concourse car.

I love my car. It’s a blast to drive! :slight_smile: But let’s call this How Not To Restore A Car.

Photos here.

I know you don’t want to post numbers, but as say a percentage what was the final cost vs your first estimate?

FIRST estimate? Probably about ten times as much (based on my original plan). I’m guessing that once I decided to go all out it’s about three times as much as anticipated.

Something I forgot: I could have saved A LOT of money if I had just bought a new body. The British Motor Heritage Trust is still stamping OEM sheet metal, up to and including the entire body/doors/fenders/lids. Rebuildable hard bits such as the engine, transmission, and so on; and things like brakes, differentials, and other running gear generally have to be bought used and reconditioned. But virtually every thing else including the afore-mentioned sheet metal can be bought new. So you really can build a new car from scratch. And except for the body, this is what was done with my car.

Scary story, Johnny. This is why I’m NOT looking for a show car, just wanting to pretty up the family heirloom a little bit.

I think I’ll put a premium on mechanical fixes, go for the easy fixes on the aesthetics (e.g. the shift knob is broken), and just think long-term for major stuff like upholstery and paint. I’ll see what a body shop has to say about the rust, though.

Yep. That was my intention too, at first.

Hehe, touché.

No experience - but have thought about this a lot.
I say go with mechanics first, all the way. Well, that and rust repair.
Then the interior, saving the exterior for last.
The longer you leave the paint job, the less you need to worry about that first ding! :stuck_out_tongue:

Oooh, car restoration.

From my experience of Dad’s restoration of a classic bike and his subsequent assimilation by a car club I have to ask… have you a spouse/partner/SO?

Expect resistance to the work at hand if so :smiley:

Problem is when it is all done, you just have a 64 Biscayne. It is not a sought after loved car anyway.It is not even the Impala or SS. It cost less than 3000 new.

Just a Biscayne? Not valuable? That’s not nice, gonzomax. :slight_smile: Actually, we don’t know that for sure; happywaffle hasn’t told us which engine/transmission the car has (unless I missed it). Unlikely, to be sure, but if it’s one of the '64 Biscaynes with the 409/4-speed, then that’s going to make a lot of people interested. I’m less certain about this one, but there may have been some built with the two-4 barrel version of the 409, the one with 425 hp. That would make a lot of Chevy guys drool uncontrollably.

Even if it’s a more plebian version, even a 4-door sedan with the 230 cubic inch straight-six with 3-on-the-tree, manual steering, manual brakes, radio delete, heater delete, plain floor mats (I think that’s about as bare-bones as you can get), it could still be a lot of fun. Here’s a 1961 Biscayne that got fixed up pretty nice. Here’s a 1966 Biscayne that someone felt was worth the time. A lot more money spent on both of these than happywaffle intends, at least at the outset, but they are Biscaynes. Oh, and here’s Chicayne…but I’m not sure if it started out life as a '62 Biscayne or a BelAir.

I wouldn’t argue one single moment with what anyone said about the expense and occasional headache of commuting in an old car. When I did it in the past, I did it knowing that stuff would break, but I didn’t mind. I even took 'em on road trips. I have some great stories about breaking down alone in the middle of nowhere on a long trip in a 40 year old car. I’d say if happywaffle breaks down and walks 20 miles to the nearest phone thinking, “if I get out of this alive, this will make a great story to tell my buddies*”, then the car should get put into service. There’s an awful lot of room between letting the car rot and doing a frame-off concours restoration. I like cheap and fun.

happywaffle, I like CarCraft magazine (and their website) for lots of how-to articles. In the past I’ve seen stuff you’d be interested in: doing minor bodywork, headliner replacement, door panels, etc. They even take the incredibly bold step of telling the reader what they paid for parts and services. I’m not clear if you’re looking for restoration-style parts or not. For carpeting, headliners, and seat covers, the first place I’d check would be JC Whitney. For spark plugs, wires, carbs, valve covers, etc., I check NAPA and Summit Racing first. If you want OEM parts, there are lots of places; YearOne is one I know of.

*I broke down in Kentucky in a DeSoto; ended up getting a ride all the way back to St. Louis in a Saleen Mustang that was basically flying under radar. :smiley: There’s w-a-a-a-y more, but that’s the gist of it.