Restoration Project Part 2 – How Deep Do You Want to Go?

Andrew Atwood
Okay, so now let’s say that you’ve found your dream car to restore, you have the perfect place to carry out your project, and all the tools and equipment you think you’ll need to complete this task. However, you should not touch the car until you’ve set some specific goals for your project.

Restoration Tips
Andrew Atwood

 
How Deep Do You Want to Go?
 
Part Two of an ongoing series on restoration

 
Last installment, I discussed preparing your workspace to undertake an extensive restoration. Okay, so now let’s say that you’ve found your dream car to restore, you have the perfect place to carry out your project, and all the tools and equipment you think you’ll need to complete this task. However, you should not touch the car until you’ve answered the following questions.

Answer these questions first

First, what kind of restoration are you attempting to accomplish? Are you looking for just a clean driver or a 100-point concours-quality restoration to earn medals? This is a critically important question because one will cost as much if not more than the car’s value and potentially take your car off the road for up to 10 years.

Second, the timeframe in which you have or plan to complete this project in is also a very important factor in deciding how in depth the restoration will be. Setting ambitious goals within a very short timeframe is a recipe for unnecessary stress or frustration.

Third, if this car is to be more of a driver than a show car, are there any modifications or updates you plan to perform during the restoration? The answer to this question will determine what other departures you will take from maintaining originality.

These questions will help you decide how much of the car you take apart at the outset, and also what will be carefully preserved and rebuilt and what will be tossed and replaced. I can’t stress enough the importance of the answers to these questions. Too many times I have seen vehicles torn down to their bare frames only to wind up lying in pieces in the back of the garage or yard, never again to grace the road, and eventually ending up being sold off as scrap or spare parts. How may times do you see partially restored cars for sale with tens of thousands of dollars invested in them only to be offered for sale for a fraction of the original investment?

You don’t need to be one of those examples if you plan carefully and responsibly. What I mean by that is know your limits in what you can do personally and also how much money you plan to spend on the car. With everything I’ve talked about and warned about, I’m not trying to scare any one away from restoring a car. On the other hand, I’m hoping more people will do their own restorations correctly with this advice. As G.I. Joe said, “Knowing is half the battle.”  

Levels of restoration and costs

With your answers to these questions in mind, I believe there are three basic types of restorations.

The first and easiest restoration project is the refresh, which is primarily cosmetic and does not require any major surgery or heavy mechanical work. It consists of removing all the chrome and bright work for paint and bodywork, having damaged chrome or bright work repaired, and then replacing all the rubber weather stripping. Aside from the paint and metal work, any careful amateur with enough time and space can handle these projects. This level of restoration can also include minor cleanup and detailing of the engine bay and interior, which will require some additional sweat and elbow grease.

Unless you are well versed in this area, I would leave the bodywork and paint to the professionals for several reasons. First, it’s hard to hide bad bodywork; even with the best paint job, the car can look like a piece of corrugated steel if not done correctly. Second, a good paint job requires a very sterile environment to prevent bugs and other debris from permanently embalming themselves into the fresh paint. Third, automotive painting can no longer be performed without meeting significant environmental regulations in many locales.

Check around with a few shops before you start to get some ideas of pricing and ask them to show you completed examples of what your finished car will look like. Based on my experience, here’s how I’d break the costs down to refresh an average 1960s or ’70s Mercedes-Benz sedan or roadster. Assuming the car owner does all the disassembly labor – with exception of the body and paint work – you can expect to pay somewhere in the area of $2,000 to $3,000 for a Maaco-quality paint job and between  $9,000 and $10,000 or more at a premium paint shop that specializes in restorations. For the rest of the refresh job, rubber kits will cost anywhere from $900 to $1,500 and chrome repair can go for $900 to $3,000, depending on how much chrome and bright work needs repairing. If the interior needs to be cosmetically refreshed as well, this can add another $2,000 to $3,000. As you can see, it adds up quickly; but planning ahead will help prevent disasters and perhaps even save your marriage.

The second, more in-depth restoration project includes everything above with the addition of removing the engine and transmission assemblies and overhauling or refreshing them, as well as making some suspension repairs. Again, even with the car owner doing the labor and only parts costs are added in, the additional work can push a restoration project far beyond typical recreational budgets unless carried out over three to five years or more.

Engine and transmission rebuilds can easily cost $10,000 – even more in the case of an M189 or M100 engine – and if the fuel system needs a rebuild, you can add $1,000 to $2,000 more. With these additions, you can be looking at $20,000 to $35,000 in costs. Nevertheless, this might be a feasible option if the project is budgeted and carried out over several years.

The third option is the complete restoration, often referred to as a “frame-up,” “bare metal,” or “complete nut-and-bolt” restoration. As these project terms imply, everything is stripped from the body down to the last nut and bolt and shard of paint and either replaced or completely restored. A project like this can easily be as high as $40,000 to $60,000, and there are actually few practical limits on the cost. I recently saw a restored Pagoda on which the owner spent nearly $200,000. Let me stress again – these costs are just guesstimates and they don’t include outside labor costs if you have to pay someone to do the teardown and assembly. The more effort you put into planning, the better your chances of being successful.

Several views of a 170S that will be refreshed, but not restored

What am I going to do with my restoration?

To answer these questions regarding my Heckflosse project that I described in the last installment, I started with my love of the marque and model. I have no problem spending more on the car than it’s worth because I don’t plan to sell it for a profit. Therefore, what I would do to the car and how far I would tear it down for restoration was only limited by my imagination – my wallet limited only the rate at which I could complete the project.

In addition to wanting a car that was perfect in my eyes – one that I could take to shows for a year and display my mechanical prowess – I wanted a reliable driver that my wife and I could enjoy on cross-country trips for many years to come. This required some creative thinking on my part. First, the W112s aren’t known for their outstanding reliability and spare parts are difficult to find if they break down on a road trip. This gave my restoration a different direction and set of engineering goals than a 100-point concours restoration to original specifications would have done, so I had to plan accordingly. 

My end goal was to have a very presentable car to take to events, but not to enter in concours judging, that was as reliable to drive as a W126 from the mid-1980s. I knew the air suspensions on the W112s are notoriously problematic and very expensive to restore, repair and maintain, so looking for a reliable option has led me to a couple of after-market solutions. Second, the wonderful but also temperamental and expensive M189 engine and K4 transmission were to be replaced with a workhorse of an engine-trans assembly in the way of a M117 and a 722.3 combination.

I’ll explain my strategies to achieve both goals in depth in later issues, so stay tuned. Now that I had my overall plans defined, I could lay out my tasks accordingly, starting with a complete teardown. In the next article, I will start explaining how I accomplished my objectives.

The engine compartment of a 170S that has been detailed, but with the engine in place, since it didn't need to be rebuilt.

This engine from a W111 280SE has been removed and rebuilt, then carefully detailed along with the engine compartment surrounding it, in a Level 2 restoration.
 

This blue W180 220S is an example of what can be done at a level-two restoration without taking the car to pieces.

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