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See Homepage. This page: Classic & vintage car renovation companies & garages, advice on choosing one to use.

Having your classic car restored.

Own an old car for long enough, and the time will often come when major renovation is required. Weekend fettling and maintenance will usually keep unexpected repairs to a minimum, but the creeping rust-bug knows no sleep. Once it has made a start on your car's coachwork, if left un-checked, it's only a matter of time before those once-innocent specks of rust grow into a major problem. Use a car regularly and it will wear out. Use it infrequently, and parts will begin to seize up, corrode, and become increasingly unreliable when asked to do their job - brake components, hydraulic wheel cylinders in particular, come to mind here. Gifted mechanics, with plenty of free time and modest levels of disposable income, will be able to tackle a full-blown restoration when the time comes. But what are the options for someone short on free time, who wishes to restore their classic or vintage car to respectability once more?
There are many garages and restoration companies around who will happily take on your car, promising to return it to as-new condition. But who can you trust with your pride and joy? There are many reputable restoration companies out there, but how do you find them? and how can you trust them to keep their word? Hopefully this article, based on my own experiences and tales I've heard from other people, will help in that search.
Some cars are beyond realistic restoration

Before you start - how extensive a restoration do you want?

Before engaging with any prospective company, sit down and decide on exactly what you want. Some things to consider include:
  • Do you want a full, nut-and-bolt restoration, from the ground up? Be realistic.
  • Do you just want the car mechanically overhauled, but leaving the trim and paintwork original?
  • How quickly do you want it completing? do you have a deadline in mind?
  • What will the car be used for once completed?
  • Do you want it to remain in standard specification, or with certain parts improved?
These are just some of the questions that any reputable garage or restoration company would ask when you first pop in for a visit, so it is well worth taking the time out to decide on what you really want. This way you'll be able to present a clear description of your requirements to the restorers, and there'll be less likelihood of being talked into something that, perhaps, you don't want to agree to. Now, taking the above points into consideration:

Do you want a full, nut-and-bolt restoration, from the ground up?

The condition of the car may well dictate how extensive the restoration will need to be. A derelict Morris Minor Traveller for instance, with creaking woodwork and non-existent floors, will require a full restoration if the job is to be done properly. You may save money in the short-term by patching it up for the next MOT, but if this is a long-term keeper, patching it up every year or two may well cost more in the long run than having it done once, and done properly. Budget constraints, and the agreement of your wife/hubbie/partner or whoever may lead to a compromise having to be met here. Perhaps you can do some of the work yourself at home, and just employ the restoration company to do the more specialised aspects of the restoration.
You need to be realistic. Can you really afford to pay someone 50-100 GBP per hour (or more) to have your classic or vintage car restored? Even if you have no plans to sell the restored car afterwards, the final value of the car, and the likely cost of restoring it, have to be factors (even if only in a minor way) in the decisions you take about how far to go with it. Don't under-estimate the cost of replacing a worn-out interior in a tired, once up-market, motor-car, or fettling the corroded bodywork of even quite a mainstream classic such as a Mini or an MGB. Costs escalate surprisingly easily, and no matter how much of a brave face you put on things afterwards, having 25k in a restored car that may only be worth 7k-8k might not be something you'd be comfortable with once the dust has settled. Of course the cost may be not be a priority, and the pleasure gained from owning an immaculate example of a car overrides any worries about the cost of getting it to that condition.

Do you just want the car mechanically overhauled, but leaving the trim and paintwork original?

Low mileage cars may need overhauling, but may not require a complete stripdown. In fact many car enthusiasts prefer original cars, even if the paintwork is a little tired and the trim showing its age - after all it isn't a new motor. Often the best bet with a very original car is to have all the mechanical components checked and re-furbished as necessary, making it a safe and reliable car, while retaining the original look (and smell!) of a car that has been cared for, rather than stripped and built back up, often with inferior-quality reproduction parts that litter many autojumble stalls nowadays.

How quickly do you want it completing? do you have a deadline in mind?

A fixed deadline for a restoration project to be completed by can really help a restoration company, and a car's owner, maintain close focus on getting the car completed within a reasonable timescale. But it must be a realistic deadline, otherwise there is a risk of jobs being rushed and shortcuts taken. Considerations to bear in mind include: How easy or difficult is it to locate parts for the car in question? Will the budget extend to work being done on the car continuously, or will it need to be in stages, as and when your bank balance allows? How busy is the company on other projects - do they have sufficient resources (staff, equipment) to do everything that they say they will? Time for unexpected developments also has to be factored in - for example the engine may need more work than was originally planned-for.

What will the car be used for once completed?

If the car is to be used as a daily driver, then perhaps the emphasis will be on reliability, driver comfort, economy and safety. However if the car is to be a "high days and holidays" car, brought out on sunny Sundays only, then maybe originality will be the over-riding concern.

Do you want the car to remain in standard specification, or with certain parts improved?

The previous point leads neatly into this one. If the car is to be used regularly, then maybe certain components would benefit from an upgrade. Drivers of a Ford Pop may wish to upgrade to 12 volt electrics for example, giving better lighting, while anyone doing motorway mileage might look into fitting an overdrive gearbox (where available) to their car, or a diff with taller ratios. Power steering, air conditioning, and a modern stereo might also be on the shopping list. If however your plans are more circuit- rather than road-oriented, as with the Austin shown below, then even more extensive plans will need to be drawn up and agreed to.
Car restored for racing

Assessing a restoration company.

No-one wants to take their prized vehicle to a company that will damage it, bodge it or do half a job before disappearing into the night with your money. Fortunately most restoration firms are professional outfits rather than cowboys, but it pays to do your homework nonetheless, before even visiting a company for the first time. Try and make contact with previous customers to gain their assessment of the work that they've had done, this can tell you a lot about how a company operates once you've signed them up. Do some online searches, not just for the company's name but also of the people who run it, and carefully read any feedback that this brings up. A number of websites list company information. Some charge a small fee for copies of directors' reports, and the financial history of a company. Hunt around though and you'll find interesting nuggets that don't require any expenditure at all, but add to the picture that you begin to build of a company's reputation and organisation. Have they undergone numerous re-organisations and re-namings for example? Do directors come and go with regularity? The more information you can uncover, the more comfortable you'll be in making the right decision.
With some basic homework out of the way, pay the company a visit, perhaps on-spec initially then followed by a more formal pre-arranged meeting to discuss the project details. While you're at their workshop, have a good look around. Are the premises clean and tidy? Does it look like a professional company? Two blokes operating out of a lock-up with a battered welder, tools all over the floor and a grimy mug of tea propped up on the front wing of a customer's car tell a lot about how they go about business, and how much they respect another person's vehicle. Any signs that show the company is serious about what they do, adds confidence. A professional sign above the door for instance, a well-designed business card and letterhead - that includes both their address and landline telephone numbers - add weight to the belief that they plan on being in business for a long time to come. An established website is another good indicator of a firm that is worth doing business with. For it is business - it may be your hobby car, a weekend interest, but employing a company to restore your car is a business decision first and foremost, and has to be treated as such from day one until project completion.
Try to establish how much of the work will be done in-house, and how much will be farmed out to other specialists. Large, well-established, restorers will try and keep a good proportion of the work they manage in-house, as this helps maintain standards. But rare is the company that can handle all restoration work internally. Re-chroming is a classic example, this is invariably entrusted to outside firms. Engine overhauls too may well be passed over to a third party during the restoration of a car, and information about the company who will actually do the work should be sought at the first meeting also. A level of outside sub-contracting is to be expected, but I'd be very concerned if this formed the majority of the restoration process. If the company is simply acting as project manager, employing others to do the bulk of the work, most of which will be done un-seen and off-site, then I'd be questioning how quality standards can be maintained with so little being undertaken by the firm you're speaking with.
Do they charge by the hour, or work to a set fee? Perhaps a combination of both? Again, establish this in detail before committing to anything.
If they advertise the fact that they have a team of professional, qualified, restorers working for them, ask them to specify the qualifications they do in fact hold. Anyone up-front about their business and services will be only too pleased to list the relevant qualifications they, and their staff, hold.
Insist that all invoices accurately describe the work that's been accomplished, and at the pre-agreed labour rate. If you require a further breakdown of costs incurred at any time, ask for it and withhold payment until this has been received, while being reasonable at all times.
Discuss all aspects of the prospective restoration - including financials, timescales, upgrades, and all the points raised previously. Agree on what will constitute the finished vehicle, and the stage at which you'll be signing it off. Document all these discussions after the meeting, perhaps in an email, then send the company a copy and keep a copy for yourself. Although it might sound over-dramatic, keep a record of all correspondence, with dates, times and the names of those involved. Emails you send, and emails you receive, should all be kept both on your PC, and printed off in a file, just in case. You would do all this in a business environment, and it must be done here too, because - believe me - one day you might just need to rely on this audit trail of documentation, should anything go awry or differences in opinion between you and the restorers emerge in later months.
One item easily overlooked is insurance. Who is responsible for the vehicle's insurance while it is in the restorer's workshop, and during any spell of time that the car (or components) are with an outside contractor? This must be clarified before the car is delivered to them, and again confirmed in writing. Assume nothing, check everything.
Most people have a budget in mind when considering having their car restored. Make this clear from the outset and ask the company to detail their planned work schedule, bearing the budget in mind. Unexpected costs can be virtually guaranteed as restoration planning is never an exact science, but costs must be born in mind with every decision they take.

The restoration commences.

Hopefully your assessment of the company in question has gone well and you decide to go with them. Clarify for a second time how the project should be managed, how often invoices will be raised, whether there is a monthly cap on expenditure that they must adhere to, and any other considerations that are important to you. Again document everything, never ever rely on an informal chat as memories can fade over time, and facts become distorted. Make it clear that you'll be paying regular visits to check up on progress, and in return ensure that you pay all invoices within a reasonable timescale and insist on receipts for everything. Don't just say that you will visit regularly, make sure you do it. Turning up un-announced allows you to gauge progress on the car, and the mood in the workshop as a whole, although don't expect them to drop everything just because you turn up out of the blue. If you have something important to say, arrange a meeting that all key players in the restoration can attend.

Keeping an eye on the costs.

Keep a log of all expenditure, backed up with copies of all invoices raised, receipts given, and everything dated. It isn't unheard of for companies to intentionally under-estimate on a job, simply to get a customer's vehicle in the workshop and underway, although this is rare nowadays. The last thing you'd want is for the car to go to a workshop, only for the budget to be exhausted in a short time, with the car still a million miles away from being completed. Unlikely perhaps, but not impossible. If you're unlucky and this does happen, you have to consider your next move - continue with the restoration, and accept that it'll cost far more than you'd ever planned for, or return the dismembered car back home and either complete it yourself, or try and find someone else to take on the remainder of the work. Most companies won't touch a project that someone else has started, and I don't blame them either. Plan for a reasonable level of overspend at the outset and this will minimise any shocks further down the line, but question everything and if you're not happy with how things are progressing, raise it as soon as it becomes an issue, preferably following it up in writing.
If the costs are running away out of control, discuss this and establish a) why this is the case, and b) what has happened that couldn't have been predicted at the start. Professional restorers will be able to assess the likely costs of a restoration, and give an estimate somewhere within sight of what the final cost ends up being. Assuming there have been no great surprises along the way, you're well within your rights to question why the budget has, or is likely to be, exceeded. As mentioned, costs of restoration tend to exceed the initial planned-for figures, often as standards increase along the way in line with a customer's requirements, but they should not spiral to 2x, 3x, 4x or more the original maximum budget, if the deadlines and requirements have remained broadly constant from day one.

Question everything if necessary.

It would be very easy simply to have a car delivered to a workshop and leave them to get on with it entirely. If unforeseen problems with the car emerge, which invariably they will do, it's no good talking about them months afterwards. Keep an open line of communication with the restorers, and keep in regular touch even if you can't visit the premises regularly. If you're not happy with the finish of a particular component, or don't like how something has been done, or something has been done that directly contradicts the ground rules laid out at the initial meeting(s), raise it good and early and expect a reasoned reply. You're quite within your rights to ask for work to be done again, and not be charged a second time for it.
What you can't expect though is to keep changing the boundaries and goals of the project, and not be charged for any extra work that this entails. Ask most restorers and the thing that winds them up most is customers changing their minds, wanting things done differently or in a way very different to the original agreement, yet expecting the original budget and timescales to be met. Play it fair with them, and you are perfectly entitled to receive the same treatment in return.

Visit the workshop regularly.

As already hinted at, I think it's really important to pay regular visits to the workshop. Firstly, it lets the company know that you're serious about having the car finished, to budget, on time, and to a professional level of finish. Secondly, it keeps them focused on the job. Builders regularly take on more jobs than they can actively progress at any one time, and many garages are no different. If they don't see you for six months at a time, there's a good chance that your project may begin to play second fiddle to other projects in the workshop, ones where the owners are constantly on their back, chasing for progress and updates on the work done.
Even if you find yourself having to dispute something, or discuss aspects of the work that you're not happy with, always keep a professional, calm manner about you. Ranting and raving doesn't get you anywhere, doesn't endear you to anyone, and makes for an un-happy relationship. Make your point politely and concisely, firmly without being beligerent, and you're more likely to achieve the results you're after than by going in, all-guns-blazing style, demanding this, that, and the other. And, I know I keep saying this but it's important, keep a record of every important discussion that has a bearing on the project, and keep it all in a neat file should you need to refer back to anything.....even after you've brought the car home.

Signing off the finished car.

As you'll have pre-agreed the stage at which the car is deemed to be complete, you'll know soon enough when the project's time with the restorers is drawing to an end. If you agreed to a partial restoration, only sign the project off once each stage of the rebuild has been completed, and tested where appropriate. A full restoration would normally see the classic or vintage car completely finished, furnished with a full MOT, and suitably tested, ready for use. Don't accept any skipped stages.

Handling disputes.

Hopefully the project will now be finished, and you're enjoying the use of your classic car. Unfortunately things don't always go quite to plan, and you may need to seek professional advice if the restoration firm decide to ignore or deviate from any of your pre-agreed, documented requirements. If this happens, you'll be jolly glad that a full log of all correspondence has been maintained (a bulging restoration file makes for an interesting read after the job anyway, and helps when it comes to selling a car later on).
Trading Standards can be a big help with any dispute between a car's owner and the firm entrusted with its refurbishment, the Supply of Goods and Services Act 1982 and/or the Sale and Supply of Goods to Consumers Regulations 2002 can be very useful, and worth a read of.
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