Learn To Fix Classic Cars (Like A Pro)


Classic car engine

I’m a mechanic for over twenty years and I still get a kick out of fixing classic cars. Learning to care for, fix and maintain your own classic car is all part of the fun.

There are many different ways to learn how to fix a classic car. The most common options include :

  • Enrol in a classic car maintenance course for hands on experience
  • Help a knowledgeable friend or neighbor with their project
  • Purchase a digital “how to” classic car repair course

In this post, I’ll outline the skills and knowledge you’ll need in order to care for, fix and maintain your own classic.

Owning a classic car, even on a modest budget is absolutely doable, especially if you’re prepared to roll up the sleeves and learn some new skills.

You don’t know a torque wrench from a carburetor? doesn’t matter. There’s room for everyone in this hobby, there’s a ton of good advice out there and you’ll find all us gear-heads love to help each other out.

Skills You’ll Need To Fix Classic Cars

Rustyautos.com workshop

Obviously, stripping and rebuilding a V8 engine with little know-how is a recipe for trouble. Building your knowledge base is a better strategy. So instead of starting your classic car repair journey by rebuilding an engine, start with a more modest project.

A car that already runs pretty good, but just needs mechanical maintenance, electrical repairs, and light bodywork is a great starter project.

Or if refurbishing and rebuilding seem more like a job than a hobby, consider buying a really good car that you can simply love and preserve for future generations to enjoy.

A classic car project that needs everything, and by everything I mean full mechanical rebuilds, fabrication, welding, paintwork, electrical, and coachwork will seem like an elephant.

Your first project needs to feel achievable, of course, you may already have an elephant on your hands. If that’s the case, know that there’s still lots of work you can do, but you’ll need a professional for highly skilled and technical parts of the project.

So what kind of skills will you need to fix up your own retro wheels? It depends on how much love your car needs. A typical classic car project will need love from the following skill sets:

  • Mechanical
  • Panel beating
  • Fabricating
  • Welding
  • Paintwork
  • Electrical
  • Coachwork
  • Detailing

Mechanical Skills

clutch plate

My father ran his own gas station, car sales, service, and repair business. As a kid, I spent my summer holidays working in various areas of the business.

We had sales, service, detailing, collision repair, painting, mechanical repairs, and alignment I quickly found I preferred the exciting and greasy mechanical side of the workshop.

The thing about working on cars is, lots of the skill-sets overlap, sometimes it’s hard to say which hat you’re wearing.

The best way to learn basic mechanical skills is to just get stuck in, reading about a mechanical repair while trying and doing builds your experience really quickly.

I’ve been working on old and new cars since I was about ten years old. I look on that time as my bank of experience, learned usually through the school of hard knocks.

If you decide to start your own mechanical journey, you’ll learn a lot and you’ll make mistakes, but that’s OK, it’s a lodgment in your own bank.

Get yourself a good toolbox and gain some experience, you’ll soon find lots of other uses for your new skills.

Panel Beating Skills

Mustang

Panel beating is a skill you’ll likely need, old cars can’t help collecting dents. But unlike some skills, panel beating is something you can gain experience in quickly and with very few tools.

Lots of dent removal tools and kits are available for small dollars, they’re pretty effective and easy to use. A panel would have a range of hammers and dollies for shaping sheet metal.

The goal of these tools is to remove the dents without breaking their paint. No broken paint means no extra cost in a paint shop, so it’s a skill worth mastering.

Like all skills, there are a few tricks and hacks to learn but get an old fender from scrap and some dent-less removal tools and practice, you’ll be surprised what you can do after only a few hours of practice.

Fabrication Skills

Fabricating old car repair

So what’s fabrication? Basic classic car fabrication is the making of small patch panels. Not every classic car will need fabrication, and so this may not be a skill you’ll need to learn just yet.

It’s common to replace sections of body panels, floors, and chassis rails that are corroded, but in many cases, brand new replacement panels and sections are available.

Basic fabrication isn’t difficult, you will need some sheet metalworking tools like metal snips, metal folding hand tools, and sheet metal material.

An old fender is a great practice tool for all kinds of metalwork skills training.

Welding Skills

Welding kit

Welding is a skill you can pick up pretty quickly, a MIG welder is the easiest type to master and it’s perfect for sheet metal work.

Welding goes hand in hand with fabrication, so if you’re not fabricating then you’ll likely not have much need for a welder.

But a welder is a very versatile tool and I’d be lost without mine. I use it a lot and not just for bodywork repairs. It’s useful for exhaust repairs, bolt extraction, and tool making.

Paintwork Skills

Old Mercedes

Painting is one of those skills you won’t pick up easily. Getting a professional finish will require a sophisticated spray gun system, years of experience, and a spray booth oven. Painting is best left to the pros.

But you can still save a packet by preparing the car for paintwork yourself. Stripping all brightwork like door handles, body moldings and bumpers will save you on labor costs. You can treat all corrosion and have any Bondo work completed.

A good paint shop will likely want to do their own priming and final prepping. They’ll hand you back a fully painted car, which leaves you with one of the most satisfying jobs – The rebuild!

Electrical Skills

You can bet old cars will have wiring problems, and they can be a chore to trace unless you know a few tricks.

Testing fuse with test light

Most problems aren’t serious, usually bad ground straps, rodent damage, bad terminals, and corroded wires.

Fault-finding wiring problems are one of those skills you can learn pretty quickly. Wiring systems aren’t complex, they’re logical and when explained you’ll be fault-finding wiring problems like a pro.

You’ll need the right tools to do the job. A wiring diagram for your model car will always be helpful and obviously knowing how to read it. I wrote a post about exactly that, you can check it out here “How to read wiring diagrams”.

Control module

And you’ll need a few other electrical fault finding tools like:

  • Test light
  • Volt meter
  • Wire strippers
  • Wire crimp
  • Soldering iron
  • Terminal assortment
  • Contact cleaner

Coach Work Skills

Aston interior

Nothing worse than a tatty interior. Repairing car seats is another one of those specialized jobs that take years to perfect. It also requires commercial-grade sewing machines and steamers.

But like car bodywork, there’s always some of the work you could handle, jobs like replacing new carpets, floor insulation, re-sticking the head cloth, dashboard repairs, cleaning and moisturizing leather seats, and timber re-varnishing.

But steering wheel or seat recovering or patch repairs are best left to the coachwork pros.

Detailing Skills

Buffing red car

A skilled detailer will be able to remove paint imperfections, scratches, small dents, curb rash, glass scratches, headlight, and tail light discoloration and the list goes on.

Yes, it’s a skill but you can learn this one easily, as you like cars you likely already have some of these talents.

Good tools make the job and a detailers tools include:

  • DA Buffer
  • Heat gun
  • Paint-less dent remover
  • Color match paint
  • Color match polish
  • Compounds
  • Clay bar
  • Vacuum
  • Compressed air
  • Chamois cloth

Related Questions

What increases the value of a classic car? Original details like matching engine and chassis numbers will increase the value of a vehicle, but overall condition and scarcity will have the greatest effect on value.

John Cunningham

John Cunningham is an Automotive Technician and writer on Rustyautos.com. I've been a mechanic for over twenty-five years, and I've worked for GM, Volvo, Volkswagen, Landrover, and Jaguar dealerships. My passion is cars. I use my knowledge and experience to write articles that help fellow gear-heads with all aspects of car ownership, including buying advice, maintenance, and troubleshooting.

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