Brutal Honesty about Restoration Costs
Things most restoration shops don't want you to know!
I get e-mails and phone calls all the time asking, “How much will it cost to restore my Triumph?” Normally this is either preceded or followed by a comment that they want it “highest quality and 100% like brand-spanking-new”. The second part is easy, because we naturally gravitate toward the highest levels of quality and workmanship. It’s the “How much?” question that’s the hard part.
Auto restoration is a lot like buying a yacht. If you have to ask the price, you probably can't afford it. If you’ve read anything about buying collector cars, then you’ve probably seen the universal recommendation to buy the best car you can afford, and leave the restoration to someone else because the cost of a restoration will always exceed the value of the finished car. This is absolutely true, especially if you have to pay for the services of a professional. Start with the wrong car and you can quickly find yourself upside down, even if you are providing most of the labor yourself. The classifieds are full of cars described as “needs restoration” or “restoration started”, and you can bet that those owners have discovered it’s not as easy as it looks on TV. It’s also not something to undertake on a tight budget. Just keep reminding the wife that there are plenty of worse habits you could have, and perhaps your car will stay out of the classifieds!
By now you’re probably wondering why anyone in their right mind would restore a car. The answer is that there are plenty of reasons, but making financial sense isn’t one of them, at least not in the short run. The white TR4 restoration shown elsewhere on this web site was completed at Macy's Garage for a Triumph collector who had his TR3A restored in 1991 at a cost of $30,000. At that time you could have bought a superb example for $10K, and the absolute best TR3 in the country could have been had for under $15K. Was he crazy to spend this much to have his TR3A professionally restored? At the time you might have thought so, but he received a quality restoration and he’s pampered the car since the restoration was finished. Today it’s still one of the nicest TR3’s you’ll ever see, and if it were for sale (it’s not) he’d have no trouble getting every penny of the restoration cost back. The values for these cars keep steadily increasing and now he’s solidly in the black, but the biggest reward is that he’s been able to drive and enjoy the car for the past 23+ years. As they say on TV….….Priceless! (Obligatory disclaimer: No part of this text should be mistaken for financial advice.)
So why does anyone restore a car? One of the best reasons is that the really good cars are very difficult to find, and the best ones are in private collections and seldom offered for sale. On the rare occasion that one of these better cars does become available, the exchange is normally among a tight inner circle of friends and club members, without the chance for an outsider to ever know about it. Many people understand that they'll spend lots of time and money chasing all over the country to look at cars that are never as nice as described, and will probably have to sink more money into a "nice" car after they get it home and dig below the surface. They know that unless they're really lucky, it's better to have one restored to their specifications and know that it was done correctly, and exactly what they're going to have when it's finished.
Another reason for restoring a car is that some folks just need a hobby, and they get a huge amount of enjoyment from the process, whether they’re rolling up their sleeves and getting their hands dirty or just making decisions and writing checks. Plenty of cars are restored because they have a special meaning, such as being a part of the family for years or being just like the one they owned (or wanted) way back when. Maybe they have a burning desire for a special color combination that they’ve given up hope of ever finding, and some just have a soft spot in their heart for old cars that have suffered from abuse and neglect. Whatever the reasons someone may have for restoring a car, breaking even or making a quick profit at the end of the journey should never be one of them. It's exactly the same as remodeling a house. We all know that it's unrealistic to expect that we'll get a dollar for dollar return on our investment, but we do it anyway because it makes us happy. It's the same thing when purchasing a new car, furniture, or season tickets to a sports team. No one ever expects to get a return on the expenditure of discretionary funds, but they spend them anyway because it makes them happy. When restoring a car, just like remodeling your home or buying most anything else in life, do it because it will make you happy, not for what it will be "worth" to someone else. The only return that really matters in the end is what it's worth to you!
At this point, I hope we can all agree that a complete restoration is going to be expensive, which brings us back to the “How much?” question. I wish I had a crystal ball to answer that question for you, but the truth is that even if the car was sitting in my shop and available for close examination, there’s no way I can accurately estimate a final cost for anyone, my own cars included. While these cars all started out the same, and will be the same again after a quality restoration, each one has been driven down a different road to here and now. While we are experts in restoring Triumphs, the cost required to restore your car cannot be directly linked to any of our previous projects because every car is different at the start of the process. Some have been treated well, but most have been abused, received poor maintenance, and suffered from years of neglect and bodged repairs.
There is no way to tell what’s hidden under the paint until it’s completely stripped, or which parts are going to resist all attempts at disassembly until the wrenches are actually in place. We cannot fully understand how that little bump from a Buick back in 1964 is going to affect the panel alignment until all of the body parts have been properly repaired and straightened. We also won’t know that half way through the process you will decide to bite the bullet and re-plate all of the chrome, add an overdrive or wire wheels, or replace the interior that you thought would be okay at the beginning of the project. Restoring a 40-50 year old car is an evolving process as new secrets of the past are revealed and understood, and if someone gives you a restoration estimate over the phone, by looking at a few pictures, or by walking around the car for an hour, I recommend that you run just as fast and as far as you can, because you’re about to be led down the garden path.
In talking with many other Triumph owners (especially those who have brought their cars to Macy’s Garage to be repaired and made driveable after an expensive "restoration" elsewhere), I keep hearing the same horror stories over and over again. One of two things is sure to happen when you receive a sweet sounding estimate up-front, and most times you’ll get a combination of both. The first thing that will happen, after your car is in their hands and disassembled, is that you'll receive the bad news that something they didn’t or couldn’t see has been discovered. Your restoration has just taken the first step up the ladder of escalating costs, and it will continue as more and more discoveries are made. Before you know it, you’re well past the point of no return, and all you can do is hang on and pray that it’s all over soon, or drag the disassembled carcass home and store it in boxes for the rest of your life.
The second thing that can or will happen is that the shop who cheerfully offered a “guaranteed” estimate up front is going to take every short-cut they know to get your car ‘finished’ at the estimated price. You can be absolutely certain that they’re not going to lose money on your job, and you won’t like the results of these short cuts when it’s done. One more situation that I should caution you about is the 'collision specialist' body shops who offer to work on your car “in-between other jobs” or “to keep their employees busy during slow times”. They may even offer you a reduced hourly rate if you agree to be patient, and while this sounds like a terrific deal, 98 times out of 100 those ‘slow’ times never happen and after a couple of years pass without much progress you’ll run out of patience and pull the car out of their shop. If you’re really lucky, none of your parts will have been lost while your car sat in a corner and waited.
At Macy’s Garage, we restore Triumph TR2/3/4/250/6 sports cars on a time and materials basis. I wouldn't be able to sleep at night if I gave people a low price to set the hook or took short-cuts and produced a restoration that wouldn’t continue to look great and perform reliably for many years after completion. You'll find several shops that require huge payments up front, but we choose to invoice twice monthly for only the work that has been completed and parts that have been received. I wish I could tell you how many times I’ve heard about unfortunate folks who made big deposits and payments in advance, to places that never got around to working on their car, and then went bankrupt or disappeared in the middle of the night. Unless you're really close and can keep a watchful eye on everything, making payments in advance is something you should avoid like the plague. If you live on the far side of the USA as many of our clients do, we provide photos and detailed descriptions of everything on your invoice, so you'll know for sure that your restoration is moving forward. If you’re close by, we invite you to stop in as often as you’d like to check the progress.
We believe in honest billing, and we don’t make any part of your job take one minute longer than it has to. We restore nothing but TR2-TR6 Triumphs, and our intimate knowledge of these cars means fewer billable hours to have your car restored here than you’ll encounter anywhere else. (Hardly a week goes by that don't get a phone call from a "professional restoration shop" somewhere that wants our help to restore their customer's car, and we have to wonder how much time was added to their client's invoice while they stood around scratching their heads trying to figure it out.) If your car has already been taken apart, we can grab parts from any of your boxes and know instantly what every piece is, where it goes, and how it’s supposed to fit without adding hours to your bill while we try to figure it out. Our rural Midwest location means lower overhead than places near the big cities, and you’ll be hard pressed to find a complete shop with our capabilities anywhere that bills their time at or below our current $68 shop rate. Heck, you can’t even get an oil change at a Toyota dealer for that! We also guarantee that as long as we are continuously working on your project, you'll be immune to any increases in our hourly shop rate from the moment we commence work until your restoration is complete.
Although TR2’s and TR3’s are pretty simple cars, the roughest examples can require between 800-1000 hours for a complete frame-up restoration. The TR4 thru TR6 cars have lots of extra complications and places for rust to hide, and could need more than 1000 hours for a concours restoration of the worst examples. But if your car is that bad, we’ll probably recommend that you find a better car to start with. Better cars will always require less time to restore than the worst ones will, and you can normally plan that 50-60% of the cost to restore an average TR will be devoted to rust repair, body work, and paint. The best estimate we can give anyone for a full frame-up restoration is that you should budget for the worst case scenario, be happy if your car is completed for less, and don’t be surprised if it runs over. (If you've ever built a new house, you'll understand!) The bottom line is that these numbers still amount to nothing more than guesses, and while it may seem like a huge amount of time and expense, the June 2008 issue of Road & Track featured an Allard that required 2400 hours just to rebuild the body alone, and there are many restorations and custom vehicles that require 7-8,000 hours (or more) to complete, and all at much higher hourly rates than ours. (See the 1947 Bentley Mk VI in the June/July 2009 issue of Car Collector for just one example.) While Triumph owners aren't normally known for bragging about the number of hours or the high cost to restore their cars, you won't have to look too hard to find plenty of examples of other restorations that make 1000 hours at $68 per (plus parts) sound like a bargain.
If you’ve done the math by now you might be thinking that you can't afford to have your car restored, but maybe you don't have to have the body removed from the frame, or perhaps you could lower your expectations from the “highest quality and 100% like brand-spanking-new” or "concours winning" restoration to something you can still enjoy at a little less cost. Maybe you'll only have to hire someone to do the hardest or most critical parts of the restoration, and complete the easier tasks yourself. Call me so we can discuss your options. You deserve to receive the best value for your Triumph restoration, at whatever level you wish to attain, and Macy’s Garage is the one place where you’re going to find it. And all of our customers (and now friends) will heartily agree.
To learn more about the difficulties of estimating restoration costs and choosing the right establishment to restore your car , read "Estimate Expectations" and "Dealing with Shops" by Richard Lentinello in the July 2009 and February 2012 issues of Hemmings Motor News. Hemmings subscribers may read these articles online HERE, or back issues may be ordered from the Hemmings web site HERE.