When I decided to restore a vintage race car. I had little idea what it would lead to—four months of late nights, early mornings and weekends, in a cold garage, an empty wallet and more fun and satisfaction than I thought possible.
I first became interested in racing in the late ’50s, when my older brother began racing a Sprite. Although I crewed and attended many events and tried other forms of motorsport, I never got behind the wheel of a road race car. After attending a vintage race in Sears Point in June of 1986, I decided it was time to give it a try. I also decided that rather than buying a completed car, I would restore one.
My choice of car was an MGB. The ‘B was chosen for a number of reasons. First if was a car I liked, perhaps the most important consideration for anyone buying or restoring any car. Second, the cost of the car, parts and maintenance would fit my budget. Availability was also a strong consideration. Finally, I felt the performance and reliability of the MGB would satisfy my needs.
Although the ‘B was complete and ran, it sat unattended for many years. The body was in fair condition, but because of the age of the mechanical components, everything would need replacing or rebuilding. All of the safety equipment (belts, roll bar, etc.) was outdated.
The first step was to completely strip the car and evaluate each part. With nothing but a bare body shell, the job of cleaning and repainting the undercarriage began. Virtually all the suspension was replaced with new parts meeting the specifications of the era.
Next, with a rolling chassis, the car was sent oil for bodywork and paint. While (his was being done, work went on with the engine, gear box and other mechanical parts. Every part and component of the “B” was cleaned, repainted, rebuilt, or ordered for replacement. It was about this time I got on a first name basis with the UPS driver with his deliveries from Moss. With the body and paint completed, reassembly began the first of December. This left about one month to complete the car for the tech inspection. I didn’t keep track of the hours, but every minute out side of working and sleeping was spent with tools in hand. My wife put my meals through a slot in the garage door.
I tried to plan carefully the parts that would be needed, when they would be needed, and an order of disassembly and assembly. This helped greatly with the case of completion. There were some hitches, but this should be expected with any restoration. With the exception of a few details, the car was finished on time and passed the tech inspection with no difficulty.
This was a true ground-up restoration and was completed, from time of purchase to completion, in less than five months. Did I learn anything? Yes, the first thing to do is attend some races and talk to the competitors. Most vintage racers enjoy talking about their cars. Don’t be bashful, ask questions. You have to learn somehow…be observant. Watching can be worth a thousand words. Contact the vintage race groups you will run with. Even though safety requirements are basically the same, car and driver, eligibility can vary greatly. Check before you start buying or building.
Next, buy the most complete car with the least amount of body damage you can find. If you are planning a complete restoration, most mechanical components will be replaced or rebuilt anyway. So their condition is of lesser importance than the body. This is especially true if you are building a car for competition. You are putting yourself and fellow competitors at risk. Unless you have good first hand knowledge of the car. consider Its mechanical parts useless. This way you will avoid unpleasant surprises and overdrafts to your budget. Expect the worst…if it isn’t, you’re ahead of the game.
When you’ve found the car of your choice, examine the body and chassis carefully for rust. Check the floors and critical areas around mounts and suspension pick up points. Check old body work. Is it covering major damage or rust? Is there frame damage? With the exception of rare models, if you find heavy rust or damage, look for another car. Good ones are out there, although they arc getting harder to find.
Keep in mind that although most standard parts may be readily available, many vintage type performance parts are no longer available, or difficult to find, and can be costly. If your car has them…great, but again, know what you are buying.
Choose a machine shop or engine builder that is familiar with your type of car. There are many tricks to increasing performance and adding reliability. You should draw on someone’s experience. This may cost more than doing it all yourself, but can save money in the long run. Why make a costly mistake that someone else knows not to make?
When you are starting out, spend your money on the things that will add reliability. You want to spend your time on the track, not under the hood. Generally, as horsepower increases, reliability decreases. It will take some time to learn to drive in competition, and you won’t need a ground pounder to learn. Don’t under estimate the value of preparation, general maintenance, and paying attention to detail. Take time to adjust valves and carbs, to check nuts, bolts and fluid levels. If a part is suspect, rebuild or replace it. Build a collection of spares of those things that are most likely to fail under the strains of racing. All of these things will translate into more track time.
Buying a completed car is certainly the easier way to get started, but restoring your own is a satisfying experience. Seeing all the hours of effort coming to completion makes owning an old car all the more exciting. More than that, it makes sitting behind the wheel all the sweeter.
By Don Huston