Comprehensive Restoration Projects Part 1 – Planning the Project

Andrew Atwood

RESTORATION TIPS – PART 1
 
Planning a Comprehensive Restoration Project

Article and photographs by Andrew Atwood
 
I’ve been a professional mechanic managing my own shop in Phoenix, Arizona, specializing in Mercedes-Benz cars for more than 25 years. Seven years ago, realizing that I was doing more management than hands-on work, I decided to do a restoration myself in my spare time, in my own garage. With the project now finally coming to a close, The Star magazine editors asked me to share my story in a series of articles and provide some tips I learned along the way – lessons learned through painful experience on the right way and the wrong way – to carry out a project like this.

My madness for Mercedes may have started when I was about three years old, living in Sydney, Australia. My great-grandfather owned a mid-1950s Adenauer and my great-aunt, whom I called “Aunty Owl,” owned a 1963 300SE. The three-pointed star was so burned into my young brain that while driving around with my Mum, I would point at every Mercedes and comment, “Look, Mum, an Aunty Owl car!”

My dream car as a restoration project

As a teen-ager working at a service station in Sydney, I bought my first Mercedes, a 1963 220SEb W112 Heckflosse (Finback) sedan from my boss who had been using it for transportation and to deliver parts. The car was rust-free but in need of some TLC and was very temperamental to start.
I replaced two burned valves in the engine, removed all the metal trim to be anodized and rechromed, and repainted the car. I even installed an eye-catching red interior from a donor car I acquired for spare parts. This car was my baby – so much so that when it rained, I would often ride my motorcycle to work rather than get the car wet. I would sometimes go for long drives around the north shores of Sydney just for the sake of driving.

Since then, it’s always been in the back of my mind to acquire another Heckflosse. In about 2006, I saw a car that I wanted. Parked around the corner from my mother-in-law’s house was a sad-looking 1963 Heckflosse sitting down on the ground with a for-sale sign in the front window that looked as if it been there for 10 years or more. It was love at first sight. I could already see the final picture of it in my head. Now this is where I made my first mistake: As a professional mechanic, I knew these cars and their issues, and yet I still purchased the car on impulse.

In this first installment, I’ll discuss how I began the restoration project. If you’ve been thinking about buying a project car and restoring it yourself, before you purchase the car, ask yourself why you are doing the restoration, where will you do it, and how you will go about it. In my case, the “why” was clear: I wanted to re-create a car that I remembered fondly, but wanted to use my experience to make the re-creation even better than the original.

Where to do the project

The second vital question that needs to be considered is where the project will be carried out. Being brutally honest, a decent restoration will take at least three years, and I’ve talked to many restorers who took as many as 10 years to do the work. Adequate space will be needed for a work-in-progress and it is easy for items to get lost and/or damaged if there isn’t enough storage space.

Many projects are stalled simply because they get pushed back to make space for other things. My friend’s father began restoring his ’66 Impala, got as far as a paint job, and then ended up with the project buried in his garage under clothes and furniture for almost 15 years before it was dragged out by one of his children and finally finished. Because it was so inaccessible, it had been forgotten.

When you think about where to do your restoration, count on needing workspace for your restoration that is twice the size of the chassis – plus storage space, a roomy workbench and additional square footage for special equipment in different phases, such as parts cleaning and media blasting equipment in the project’s early stages. Nothing is worse than discovering – after the car is mounted on jack stands and wheels removed – that the rear axle won’t come out because it hits the garage wall. Don’t ask how I know.

With that in mind, I trailered my 1963 Finback back to my house (a story in itself) and immediately parked her in my back yard, where she sat for nearly three more years. The reason was simple: I valued my marriage too much to take over our two-car garage.

Fortunately, we have a good-sized piece of property behind the house, so after exploring several options – including renting a space or extending the garage – I opted to purchase a steel construction building. I found a manufacturer offering a special deal on a 40 by 60 building with a 16-foot ceiling height. The kit cost me $21,000 – delivered, but not assembled. This solution kept our daily drivers out of the hot Phoenix sun in the regular garage, and would make the project much easier. However, before even beginning the restoration, I had used up half my original budget. But at least by waiting a couple of years and constructing a proper building for my project, it made my life so much easier in the long run.

Not everyone can build their own shed. Another option is renting a storage unit that has adequate lighting and power and allows the renter to work in the space. There are several storage rental companies around Phoenix that allow work to be done in the units – other cities likely have similar places as well. But when I thought about buying or renting, I noted that a $21,000 building is comparable to a storage unit at $200 per month for almost nine years. Either way works, but this is still an expense that needs to be planned if you don’t already have a suitable working area.

At this point, I was able to start mapping the workspace and tear-down area. Be sure to have heavy-duty shelving on which to store parts, keeping in mind you’ll be storing engine parts to suspension parts. I was fortunate; a friend of mine working on a shopping plaza demo gave me more than 100 feet of heavy-duty shelving. For others, cheaply priced used shelving can often be found at stores being remodeled or going out of business, and home-supply stores offer inexpensive variations on “gorilla-brand” shelving.

As for installation, I tried to keep the shelving as far from the work area as possible to keep sparks and other debris off the valuable parts – and to keep them out of the way, period.

How do you learn restoration skills?

I can’t remember how many times I’ve been asked, “How did you think of that fix?” or “Where did you get the idea to solve that problem?” I do admit that most of my mechanical training comes from a four-year technical degree earned in Australia. However, I can’t discount what I’ve learned from my father, from magazines, and from working with smart mechanics since I was a teen-ager.

Nevertheless, it’s hard to beat hands-on experience in creative problem solving, and I like to think I have an edge there. When I was young, I liked to make model airplanes and spent hours painting and adding details, such as spark plug wires and hoses, on the engines. This helped me learn that – rather than just looking at a problem analytically or mechanically – I could use my creative-thinking skills to come up with a solution. What I’m trying to say is: Think outside the box of normal solutions and take time look at a problem before jumping in with a solution that seems obvious and is supposed to work. Like a chess player, you want to think through every problem, with all its possibilities, to the end, before making your move.

Of course, there is a wealth of knowledge on the Internet, so there’s a good chance someone in the online world has already tried to solve the same problem; you may be able to learn from their experience and advice. Hopefully, I will also be able to teach a few of my tricks and techniques as this series progresses to make your own project just a little easier.

Still, it’s possible to fail the first time on any task. Another restorer once told me: “If you’ve never done a task before, you’ll probably have to do it twice.” It’s through this process of failure that we learn about ourselves and how we manage the task at hand. In the end, that’s really what a complete automobile restoration project is all about.
 

The look of love: the 1963 Heckflosse as I first saw her. Who could resist? Certainly not I. 

The long and winding road: My new/old Finback in my new garage. There’s work to do.

The interior was sadly a little rougher than when it first left Sindelfingen.

Every restoration starts with disassembly, first removing the drive train.

Somehow everything begins to look a little better when a coat of primer finally goes on. 

Accessible storage with good shelving is a critical element in a successful project.

As a true Mercedes-Benz fan I couldn’t miss this! Finding an old army uniform, I flew to the U.K. to see the famed Silver Arrows together again at the 2012 Goodwood Revival.
 

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