Vehicle Restoration: A Complete Step-By-Step Guide on How to Restore a Vehicle

INNOVA Restoring a Vehicle

We give you five comprehensive steps to making your vision a reality.

As auto aficionados, there’s nothing more challenging, fun, and rewarding than restoring a vehicle from the ground up. We’ve all desired those amazing rides we see in shows like Overhaulin’, Jay Leno’s Garage, Fast N’ Loud, Top Gear or any of the other great car shows. Shows like that really get our creative cylinders pumping and yearning for the same experience in our own garage. But, could we really do this?

YES! You can restore any vehicle with a bit of vision, planning, and patience. However, it will take a good sum of money, so budget accordingly.

Projects like these are amazing when you share with a loved one, or with a special group of buddies with similar interests. It can seem intimidating at first, but we’re here to help break down all the necessary steps and show you just how approachable and rewarding restoring a vehicle can be. Let’s begin...

STEP ONE: Plan Ahead

There is a saying that goes, “Start by doing what is necessary, then do what is possible, and before you know it you will be doing the impossible”. This statement seems to resonate with us when approaching a project of this scale. The “necessary” in our case is to create a meticulous plan that keeps your budget in check, sets realistic expectations and timelines, and looks out for any surprises that may stray you from completing your restoration.

Define Your Budget

Remember the shows we mentioned? Are you striving for that type of “WOW!” customization, or are you simply trying to bring it back to life? Whatever your vision is, you will want to research prices for everything on your wish list – the vehicle, parts (new vs. salvaged), accessories (rims, stereo, rear spoiler, etc.), tools & equipment (borrowed, rented, or purchased), resources & vendors (painting, chrome plating, transmission machine shop, etc.), waste disposal fees, and state licensing fees. Once you have a price list, decide on what is most important now and what can wait for later. For example, maybe the custom rims can wait before rebuilding the transmission. And keep in mind that restoring a vehicle comes with a few surprises that may require a bit more cash than anticipated.

Find the Right Vehicle

Selecting and purchasing the right vehicle is essential to a smooth and cost-effective build. But purchasing the “wrong” vehicle could deplete your entire budget (and desire) halfway through the project! Don’t be swayed by an amazing deal or a slick talking seller. On the flip side, stay true to only spending the maximum you can afford. Ask lots of questions and inspect everything before handing out your cash. Some essential things to bring along include: a flashlight to look for major rust or other undercarriage damage; an OBD2 diagnostic tool (1996 & newer) or an OBD1 code reader (for older cars) to scan the vehicle’s computer systems and uncover hidden issues; a magnet to check for body fills; and a trusted buddy that knows their stuff. Also, consider the parts the vehicle will need. Are the parts readily available or will they require extra effort (and cash) to find? Take your time as this is the most important step.

Set Up Your Work Area

INNOVA Restoring a Vehicle - Setup Work Area

Selecting a good location is important, but being organized in your space will do wonders to your motivation and productivity. So, before you bring the vehicle, get yourself organized with the tools, equipment, and parts you will be using during your restoration. Get a bunch of bins, containers, labels, and markers to sort and organize the parts during disassembly.

On the tools and equipment, consider having the following:

  • Good Lighting – handheld work light, overhead lights and/or shop lights to see what you are doing.
  • Fire Extinguisher – use one that is rated for electrical and chemical fires (Rated B&C).
  • First Aid Kit – regrettably, tending to a couple of minor wounds is part of the restoration process.
  • Socket Set & Open-Ended Wrenches – select a complete set with metric and standard sizes
  • Complete Set of Drivers – a Torx-head, Allen-head, and Ball-head drivers are necessary.
  • Torque Wrench – some vehicle engines require a precise torque specification, so check to see if the vehicle you are trying to restore requires it.
  • Breaker Bar – to help break those stubborn and corroded head bolts on an old engine block.
  • Floor Jack & Jack Stands – always use a 2-ton or higher capacity jack with 4 stands.
  • Workbench with a Vice – you’ll need a good surface to work on, and adding a vice will help secure parts tightly to make repairs.
  • Trim Fastener Remover – easily removes interior and exterior trim without damage.
  • Cordless Drill/Driver – it just makes life easier.
  • Dremel / Grinder – essential for cutting, removing rust and other metal work.
  • OBD2 / OBD1 Diagnostic Tool – on modern vehicles, it troubleshoots engine computer modules and analyzes other system issues.
  • Timing Light – a bit old school, but invaluable to make the engine purr.
  • Digital Multimeter – vital to check for faulty electrical circuits. Select one with a 10MegOhm impedance.
  • Mechanical Testers – use to identify damaged pistons, burnt valves, fuel leaks, vacuum leaks, and more.
  • Engine Crane, Stand & Vehicle Dollies – needed to safely remove the engine block. Keep in mind that these can be rented. Use lots of caution during their operation.
  • Air Compressor and Air Tools – a bit of an indulgence, but they can make things way easier during your restoration. Investment could be substantial; however, these can be rented or borrowed.
  • Welder – a must for joining metal parts.
  • Porto-Power – hydraulic tool to perform minor body repair.
  • Hammer & Dolly Set – to perform body work repairs.
  • Cleaning Equipment – a shop vac and other cleaning supplies are necessary to clean up the mess during restoration. Plus, having a neat and tidy workspace helps keep your mind organized.

Create a Timeline

All manufacturing processes require a fixed schedule that outlines assignments/tasks, sets durations, marks deadlines, offers contingencies, lists risks, assigns persons, and shows costs associated with each task. Not to say that you have to create a similar project Gantt chart, but having set timelines and expectations is necessary to keep the project moving along. Set yourself some realistic deadlines and make sure to leave room to have fun during the build. And be certain to attach a budget to each task. Doing so helps you keep track of your costs and alerts you if you need to make any budget adjustments.

STEP TWO: Preparing the Vehicle

INNOVA Restoring a Vehicle - Preparing

With the vehicle and work area ready to go, perform a complete assessment of everything that needs to be repaired, replaced, or modified. Make a list of everything you need by breaking it up into four sections: mechanical, electrical, body and interior. Document everything during this process! Also, consider what you uncovered when you purchased the vehicle – particularly the results of its diagnostic scan. Take lots and lots of photos before and during disassembly to document every step. Use the labeled bins and containers as you take out every component. And use a journal or other method to keep track of everything you do. All of the notes and photos you take will be invaluable as you put it all back together. Also, don’t throw out any old part until you’ve finished the build.

  1. 1. Begin by removing the battery and emptying all the fluids – fuel, transmission, oil, etc.
  2. 2. Remove the bumpers, grills, lights, side trim, and other exterior decorations. Be careful as these are quite fragile; and depending on the vehicle, could be the most expensive and most difficult to replace.
  3. 3. Remove the windshield, rear window, and side window glass.
  4. 4. Remove the door panels, seats, carpeting & insulation, dashboard / instruments, and other interior trim.
  5. 5. Continue by removing the steering column, pedals, and heater box.
  6. 6. Remove hood, trunk lid, and doors. (TIP: scribing the hinge edges can act as a guide to help you remount them later)
  7. 7. Disassemble the drivetrain by lifting and securing the engine, removing the transmission, removing the rear assembly, and taking out the suspension from the back to the front. (TIP: make sure to mark their orientation)
  8. 8. Remove the wire harness starting in the rear and moving to the engine compartment. Finish with the dash. (TIP: label ALL connections)

Once everything is disassembled, use your compiled list of required components and parts to negotiate the best deal at your local parts store, online retailer, and/or salvage yard. At the same time, send out all parts that need to be re-chromed. At this point you will also want to identify if you will want to rebuild the transmission and engine yourself, or if you want to send it out to a machine shop.

STEP THREE: Bodywork

INNOVA Restoring a Vehicle - Bodywork

Depending on the condition of the vehicle you purchased, the bodywork may be the most labor-intensive process. In this step, you begin by striping the paint from the vehicle (body, top, and bottom). Next, you will identify and repair body dents, body fillers, corrosion, scratches, weld new metal parts, and correct other body imperfections.

Tips to assess and repair body dents:

  • Use your hands to “feel” the dent. You are trying to evaluate how the damage occurred.
  • As you “feel”, use masking tape and a marker to mark the direction of the hit, the center point of the dent, and the outer perimeter of the damage.
  • Following your markings, use a hydraulic tool to rough out the dent.
  • Next, use your hammer and dolly set to fine tune and reduce the dent by following the direction of the hit. Be careful to not overwork the metal.
  • Sand the area with 120- to 150-grit sandpaper and complete with a good quality body filler.
  • Finish by working in the filler and smoothing it fine with a 180-grit sandpaper.
  • Prime it and send it off to paint.

Tips for repairing body rust:

  • Use a grinder to remove paint and body rust until you reach the bare metal.
  • Use a wire brush on areas the grinder can’t reach.
  • Use fiberglass repair gel to fill and repair the holes. Smooth out with a grinder.
  • Use regular body filler to fill any remaining gaps and smooth to a fine finish.
  • Prime it and send it off to paint.

STEP FOUR: Assess the Engine & Other Systems

INNOVA Restoring a Vehicle - Engine

During this step, you will be assessing the engine’s performance through its operation and dismantling. The reality is that there are a ton of steps to dismantling an engine, so we recommend that you reference a good manual like Hayne’s or through Cengage Learning that explains the process in detail. The plan here is to disassemble and evaluate each component (i.e., pistons, cylinders, camshaft, rods, etc.) and determine if they need replacement or repair. Another exciting part to consider is that you have the option to install a completely different engine to further personalize your vehicle.

Once you have the engine of your dreams back in the vehicle, take the time to perform some research on what you can do to improve your vehicle’s engine performance.

At this point you will also want to assess what other systems will need to be rebuilt or replaced. This may include the suspension, fuel system, brakes, cooling system, exhaust, and other major systems.

STEP FIVE: Finish the Build (The Reveal)

At the start of step five, the bodywork is done; the engine, the transmission and all other systems have been installed; and most of the wiring is completed.

We finish the build by adding the final finishing touches like special lighting, customized dash instruments, new seats or re-upholstering the original seats, special mirrors, new stereo, or anything else that will complete your vision.

For the final reveal, fuel the car, and top off all fluids. Start the engine and go out for your first test drive. Ensure that everything is running as expected and make any necessary adjustments as needed.

Now, stop reading and go make your “impossible” ...possible!