Preservation Detail

To preserve or restore, that is the question.

If you’ve ever been to one of the really big car shows, I’m sure you’ve seen a beautiful classic restored far beyond how it looked the day it left the factory. There’s a time and place for the full-monty restoration, but it’s not something that really interests me. I’m far more interesting in taking a “driver” and seeing how good I can make it look just with thorough cleaning and modern coatings. After all, iI=t’s only original once. A good preservation detail can correct years of neglect and bring a car back to 90% of its former glory, all while preserving old paint. Below is an example of doing just that.

This ’72 DeTomaso Pantera was a barn-find.  

Off the road for about 12 years, the interior was full of mold, but the leather itself was in great condition. You could smell the mold with the windows up from about 10 feet away. The new owner was trying to decide whether to flip it; restore it; or just get it running and enjoy it. After the preservation detail, he decided to get it running and enjoy it.

What does a preservation detail typically cost?

Our industry exists between two extremes: There’s a decontamination wash & vac at the low end of let’s say $75 – $100. Ignoring the Pebble Beach Concours frame-off restoration which can be infinitely expensive, let’s define the high end for a daily driver as the $10 – $30K restoration.

A regular detail with sealant might be $250 – $300. A decent vinyl wrap might be $3 – $5K. A restoration detail sits somewhere in the middle of those last two, $500 to $2K depending on condition and services selected.  A typical project involves deep cleaning, paint correction, polishing, paint touch-up, ceramic coating, interior deep cleaning and leather color refresh and costs $600-$750. How much depends on how long it takes and how big the vehicle is.

Below are examples of recent projects.

What’s involved?

Start with the interior and luggage compartment.

Is it full of mold? Has it been home to many generations of rodents? Can you smell it with the windows up? Is it wet? Preservation always starts with cleaning. Vacuum up loose debris; kill the mold and mildew; remove any dead animals or feces; and deodorize. Then thoroughly clean with chemical agitation and steam if necessary. Assess the condition of leather surfaces and preserve or restore the leather as appropriate before reconditioning.  Perform a similar set of steps in the luggage compartment, paying special attention to any original tool kits or paperwork. Often the difference between a #2 and a #1 car (which can be tens of thousands of dollars) is the presence and condition of a tool-roll.  

Next, move on to the engine compartment.

We aren’t concerned with getting the engine to run (that’s someone else’s problem). We just want to make the engine safe to work on. That means free of mold, animal feces, and animal nests. The goal is degreased and clean, any shine is a bonus. A clean engine has two advantages: it generally runs cooler than a greasy one, and it is easier to spot new leaks. Because the chemicals used may be harsh on exterior painted surfaces, we want to clean the engine compartment before moving on to the exterior to avoid rework. 

Finally consider the paint.

What is know about the age and type of paint used? Is it 50 year old single stage lacquer or think two stage with a clear coat from the ‘90’s?  Has the whole car been resprayed or just parts? What’s the thickness of the paint in those parts? Have parts of the car faded more/differently than others? Paint thickness only tells part of the story. We often measure thickness in the door jams to get a baseline and then compare various panels to that value. If the jams are 3-4 mils thick and most of the car varies from 6-8 mils, then chances are the paint is original. If parts are 6-8 and others are 8-14, then chances are those thicker panels have been repainted. The hard part comes when it measures thick — like 9-25 mils. Is that many layers of paint or body filler? Usually when it gets thick with body filler you can hear the difference by tapping on the panel or see very fine cracking that cut through it as various surfaces off-gas at different rates over the years.  Whatever the condition of the paint, the goal is the same: clean; uniform color; uniform shine; and a solid layer of protection to keep it that way as long as possible. For that reason, we prefer to use ceramic coatings over other sealants or waxes. It take more time in the preparation stages, but pays off by being easier to maintain over time.

Click here for another example of a preservation detail of a BMW E36M3.