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25 Resto Tips and Tricks

We present 25 tips and tricks to help you stay on top in the constant struggle to keep vintage muscle on the road.

Photography by Car Craft Staff

We're labeling this a resto piece, but consider it the Car Craft version of restoration. That means not all the subjects and methods covered here are necessarily restoration in the concours-correct, exactly-as-the-factory-meant-it sort of way. You don't build your cars that way, so why would we tell you how to reproduce a factory chalk mark or where to find date-coded glass? We're more into making stuff look good and run better so it can pound the street or track regularly. Considering that our cars usually start out rough and that we're typically over-eager to drive them, we might be considered experts of a sort on what we like to refer to as "practical" restoration techniques. We're also experts on having lots of cars in pieces, for what that's worth. Actually, we've focused on things that have worked well for us in the recent past, and most of it is stuff we wish we'd known about sooner. So reap the benefits of our late nights in the shop, and get out there.

Polish Old Glass

You probably already know how annoying it is to try to see out of an old, sand-blasted windshield, but have you ever noticed how much better cars look from the outside with fresh glass? Check it out at the next car show. Of course, new glass is usually an option, as it's available for even obscure old stuff these days, but it's not cheap. Instead, try to polish your existing glass. We've seen it done with fine body-shop compounds, but Eastwood actually offers a kit with the proper polish and an arbor and buffing wheel for a drill motor. It won't eliminate anything you can catch a fingernail on, but it will get rid of small scratches, acid-rain spots, and hazing.

Save Stainless Trim

The older a car is, the more bright trim it's likely to have. That might have contributed to its sharpness when it was new, but now much of that trim is likely dinged, dented, and scratched. Like lots of old car parts, new stainless trim is available for many popular '50s, '60s, and '70s cars, with more applications turning up all the time, but don't expect bargain pricing. So before spending the bucks, investigate the possibility of repairing your old stuff. Stainless steel is very workable; it can be reshaped and refinished to look like new with the right techniques. Granted, those techniques require skill, but if you're adept with tools and have some patience, you can probably make your stuff look better. If not, maybe someone with skills can assist.

Hand-Paint Dash Details

Lots of old interior trim bits can be refurbished at home with simple tools and finishing products, but what separates the hacks from the heroes lies in the fine details. Take this instrument cluster from one of Smith's Chevelles, for example. It could have been sprayed with some aluminum silver and reinstalled, but instead, he masked off the perimeter, coated it with Krylon Dull Aluminum, then came back with a small, model paintbrush and carefully touched in the raised lettering around the ignition switch. His Olds F-85 has recessed lettering, so Jeff sprayed some aerosol paint in a cup, dipped a pin in it, and let the paint flow into the letters. Nice touch.

Renew Faded Lenses

Another detail item that can have a big impact on a car's appearance is the condition of the lenses. Parking and tail lenses tend to get dull with age, and now that '80s cars are a couple of decades old, the early plastic composite headlights are commonly clouded. Again, between the aftermarket and the OEs, lots of new stuff is available, but you might be surprised how much hazing and how many fine scratches can be eliminated with polishing. You can experiment with body-shop compounds here-pros advise starting with the least-aggressive stuff and moving up as needed-but Eastwood offers a kit for this as well. If you're dealing with heavily clouded plastic and are willing to take chances, we're told fine-grit wet/dry sanding followed by polishing can be very effective. We haven't tried it yet, so proceed at your own risk.

Use Factory Assembly Specs

We all know how to spin wrenches, and most of us are convinced we know how to take apart and reassemble our cars blindfolded, but do you really know everything you should? Unless a factory assembly manual was used to glean techniques, procedures, and specifications, you probably don't. For example, the subframe on an early Camaro is pretty easy to bolt up, but did you know there are alignment holes in the floorpan to help square it up? Misaligned subframes, either from improper installation or worn-out bushings, are the source of much body-panel-gap frustration. Most factory manuals are either reprinted or sitting in an auction on eBay right now, so see what the guys who built your car the first time had to say about it.

Lube Door Seals

This one is simple but might save you some aggravation. The original door seals on many cars are coated or even impregnated with silicone when manufactured to help prevent them from binding and squeaking. If you've replaced yours with repro stuff, the new seals may not have this feature. If the seals seem to be "grabbing" the painted surfaces they mate with and/or squeaking, try a light spray of silicone from an aerosol. A quick call to the tech line of your seal manufacturer is advisable to make sure there will be no detrimental effects, though.

Brighten Lamp Housings

Dull, uneven lighting makes a car look dilapidated. (That means junk-like.) Correcting the situation can be simple. Pull off the offending lamp assembly, and take it apart; chances are, the inside is weathered from faulty seals. After freshening the lenses as prescribed in tip No. 2, clean out the flakes of old paint or silvering, and treat any rust, then mask off the socket and lay down some bright, yet flat, silver or white paint. If the lens is of the clear, parking-light variety, install new amber bulbs. Finally, screw the lens to the housing using a fresh set of gaskets. The difference with the lights on will be surprisingly dramatic.

Form Your Own Bezel Gaskets

If, upon dismantling the taillights or parking lights to clean out the inside as prescribed in the previous step, you find that the seal gaskets are shot and you can't get new ones, you may have to improvise. We've used black silicone gasket sealer to repair voids in seals, and it can work well. Use the small tip, and squeeze some into the repair area, then cover it with clear plastic wrap-we like to wet the wrap with water or even spray it with WD-40 or cooking spray so the silicone won't stick. Carefully press the gasket into place, and put the lens in. If you don't use too much silicone, you should be able to get the stuff to conform, and when it sets up, the wrap should come off.

Factory-style Gauge Lighting

This isn't really a resto tip, but it can help to lend a factory feel. Add-on gauges are standard fare for musclecars, even ones that are mostly restored, but it looks cheesy if their face lighting stays on whenever the car is running, and driving at night without gauge lights is aggravating. What many don't know is that a lot of car manufacturers provided a simple means of adding gauge lighting by putting a terminal in the fuse block to tap into the factory gauge-light circuit. Plug your aftermarket gauge lights in here, and they'll come on with the lights and even dim when the knob is twisted.

Door-Lock Ferrules

This will seem like a trivial detail, but we have a pet peeve regarding junk door-lock buttons. As small as they are, they're also obvious, and for some reason, on older cars, they've often been replaced with either the wrong type or universal parts-store junk. When the wrong buttons are used, they can bind and rattle in addition to looking lousy. New ones are offered for lots of popular cars all the way back to the '50s, and they can make a big difference in interior feel and function. The lock buttons on this '67 (left) Camaro actually serve to guide the mechanism; new buttons and new ferrules were the best $5 we ever spent. The others are from a '93 Mustang, and they have felt inside for smooth operation and no rattles. They work on older Fords, too.

Alternative Power Source

Back in the '60s and '70s, there wasn't so much in the way of electrical accessories to add to a car, but that's changed. In addition to today's killer sound systems, it's common to add electric fans, high-amperage lighting, aftermarket power windows, and so on, not to mention all the little items, such as extra gauges, upgraded ignitions, and, well, you get it. Instead of having a snarl of wires stuffed into the stock fuse panel (most of them likely hooked to the wrong side of the fuse), why not add a fuse or switched-and-unswitched relay panel to manage the extra load? Smith made this one using stuff from M.A.D. Enterprises, and it prevents him form burning down his Chevelle.

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