Nostalgia vs. restoration reality

I get a lot of requests from seniors for advice on restoring cars they own that have great sentimental value to them. In most cases, the cars are not outstanding examples of automotive art. In fact, they are usually just old grocery-getters. Their appeal is emotional and, as heirlooms and snapshots of people’s lives, they are invaluable. But their value as heirlooms should sometimes be checked with the rest of the family before being restored.

The reason I say this is that I have far too often restored such cars only to find that, a year or so after the owner’s passing, his or her car is listed for sale. Too many times — after having had a king’s ransom spent on them — these cars become more of an albatross than a prized possession. The emotional appeal may be far less or even totally nonexistent to the children or others to whom the car is passed.

Too often I hear, “Well, we just don’t have anywhere to store Dad’s old car” or “we never drive Mom’s old car” or “we can’t afford to maintain Dad’s old car.”

There are those who even willingly trade their parent’s old car for the money to buy a new kitchen renovation or snowmobile.

There are definitely times where it is worthwhile to restore an old car as an heirloom — and, in some rare instances, it may even prove to be a worthwhile investment. But, most often, the opposite is true.

I have had clients spend as much as $250,000 to restore a car that, when finished, was worth less than $10,000. In these cases, I certainly have spoken to these owners like a Dutch uncle, but the mists of nostalgia can blind people to the cold, hard facts of fiscal reality. Sometimes, they don’t care about the price, the end objective being more important than the cost of getting there. In other cases, people have entered into a project with all the appropriate warnings at the beginning, but they choose not to listen despite the fact the project may end up creating real financial hardships — and, sometimes, strife in the family.

I keenly remember one young woman sitting in front of my desk demanding to know why I was letting her father spend her inheritance. In fact, it may have been that the father in this particular case may have been doing it to spite her. Mind you, it seems unimaginable that someone wouldn’t want a pristine, black, three-on-the-tree, bottom-of-the-line six-cylinder 1954 Pontiac coupe.

Another couple brought me the rustiest car I have ever worked on — and that is really saying something. When it arrived at the shop, it had lost more than 40 kilograms in weight, which had to be swept out of the trailer. It also broke in half when it was being loaded. Despite that, the owners plunged in and did a comprehensive restoration.

There were some obstacles. For one, they did not want to use any replacement parts and went ballistic when I bought another car to supply bits and pieces. I actually had to cut the frames of both cars to bits and splice them together to keep as much of the original car as possible. The same thing occurred with the body and I had to splice pieces together from two or more donor cars rather than replace them. Even the air cleaner on the motor looked as though it had been peppered with bird shot — yet they would not approve a replacement and I had to rebuild the original.

With that restoration, money was never a complaint and it clearly created no hardship. At the end, they stood, tears in their eyes, looking at the car.

This was the car that the man’s father had bought new, given him to go to college, used during the couple’s romance and betrothal and during their first years of marriage. The cost of the restoration ended up being more than $200,000. The car was a 1967 Pontiac Catalina with bench seats, radio and trim delete. The price new was likely around $2,000; its value as a restored car would not exceed $10,000 if you could find someone who wanted a green four-door with bench seats.

I am often approached by people in their 60s or 70s who have retired and who still own their old sports car or boulevard cruiser, which they have kept since their teens or 20s. Sometimes, it is realistic to restore these cars.

But, no matter how much someone may want to capture at least a flavour of his or her youth, restoration is not a good idea if the owners are on fixed incomes or living off savings. Too much can go wrong — and even the best shop can run into unexpected problems that blow a budget to hell.

This is not to say people shouldn’t invest in their dreams. I have had the good fortune to accompany many people on journeys into their past and, often, it makes for the most satisfying kind of restoration for the owners and me. But these projects should never, ever become a financial burden or affect people’s lives in a negative fashion.

In some cases, it may be a lot more fun to sit on a beach in Costa Rica than pass on a 1975 Chevy Vega to the kids.

Sure, that 1973 Chevrolet Cosworth twin cam Vega means a lot to you, but will your kids benefit from its restoration?
Photograph by: Morven, Wikimedia Commons