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5 Things You Must Know Before Starting a DIY Restoration Project

So, you got yourself a classic car. You are excited to get wrenching on it. You get yourself ready and stare at it not knowing where to start. This is normal, as working on these cars is no easy task. If you find yourself in this situation, I’m here to help, with a short guide on how to get going on your newest project.
Masinistul's 1993 Mercedes 320CE 9 photos
Photo: Calin Iosif
Masinistuls' 1993 Mercedes 320CEMasinistuls' 1993 Mercedes 320CEMasinistuls' 1993 Mercedes 320CEMy 1986 Dacia 1310My 1986 Dacia 1310My 1986 Dacia 1310My 1986 Dacia 1310My 1986 Dacia 1310
This is everything I wish I knew before embarking on this project, so let's not waste any more time and get to it.

Also, this guide only applies to DIY jobs. While having a dedicated shop do it for you would be nice, most of us can’t afford that - or you want the experience working on your car yourself. Either way, these are the things to know before embarking on such a project.

#1 Choose your car wisely


I’m not talking about the model of the car. Just get whatever you like. But, in the midst of the enthusiasm, try to make sure that you can fix everything that is wrong with it.

My 1986 Dacia 1310
Photo: Calin Iosif
Inspect it meticulously, and know what jobs you can take on and what you can’t. Your most fierce opponent will be rust, so try to choose a car that requires minimal bodywork. When it comes to engine work, things are easier. That doesn’t mean you should play them off as being easy, just be more afraid of bodywork.

The prime example of 'this is not how you buy a car' is yours truly. When I was looking for my Dacia, I turned down multiple options because they needed some patching on the floor panels. I went, on a cold winter morning, and got one that had a great floor at first sight (it doesn’t). Fast forward, and my car is torn apart with multiple rust spots, including side skirts and frame rails.

But this is my fault. I’m not blaming the seller. He told me that the car needed work. I was too oblivious from my excitement and that’s how I ended up in this position.

#2 Have a good, well laid-out, plan


As per my experience working on my project car and helping others with theirs, I can guarantee that things will go wrong. A lot of unexpected problems will appear out of nowhere, so you need a solid plan to keep you going smoothly.

Masinistuls' 1993 Mercedes 320CE
Photo: Calin Iosif
Said plan will vary depending on the condition of your project. But as a general rule of thumb, try to follow this. First, take care of bodywork. Rust spreads like the plague, and if it’s structural, it should be your number one priority. Then, take care of the mechanical side of things.

Dial in the powertrain, brakes, and suspension - it’s your safety at risk. And only after you do all of that you can worry about aesthetics and upgrades.

#3 Get a good set of tools and do your homework


They say a good mechanic never blames its tools. That doesn’t apply when you have no tools to blame. Don’t blow your entire budget on the car itself and save some to invest in a good set of tools. I’m not saying that you need a multi-thousand-dollar state-of-the-art tool chest. You should have the basics that will ensure you can get any job done. Invest in a good one, or you’ll spend more time screaming at a pile of metal and throwing wrenches than actually fixing your car.

Also, inform yourself. Try to find every book, YouTube video, or obscure forum dedicated to your car. It will greatly help you with diagnosing and solving a lot of problems. Don’t go blind into a job, be prepared.

Masinistuls' 1993 Mercedes 320CE
Photo: Calin Iosif

#4 Lower your expectations


This is a DIY job. Don’t expect it to turn out as good as you see a professional do it on YouTube. Acknowledge the fact that your abilities are limited. There’s nothing wrong with that, just don’t embark on something that you can’t do.

My 1986 Dacia 1310
Photo: Calin Iosif
That said, if you do take on making a car showroom-condition, get ready for a lot of headaches.

One of my friends and fellow automotive journalist is taking on such a project with a Mercedes 320CE among others, and safe to say I’ve seen him happier and less stressed.

#5 Get ready to eat only noodles and crackers


Joking aside, you will abuse your wallet. I know, things can be done on a budget. But even so, there will be unexpected expenses that will take a toll on your budget.

Best case scenario, they are minimal, but they will still appear. No matter how prepared you are, things will go wrong, so set some money aside for when that happens.

My 1986 Dacia 1310
Photo: Calin Iosif
I hope this article won’t set you back from getting your dream car and restoring it. I encourage, even urge, you to do it. They are like nothing else in this world. And nothing would make me happier than seeing more and more of them out and about, being loved and enjoyed.
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About the author: Călin Iosif
Călin Iosif profile photo

Călin’s origin story is being exposed to Top Gear when he was very young. Watching too much of Clarkson, Hammond and May argue on TV turned him into Petrolhead (an automotive journalist with a soft spot for old pieces of... cars, old cars).
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