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The evolution of the hobby, when did car owner's stop being car restorer's ?


1912Staver
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It seems to me that somewhere in the later 1960's / early 1970's the typical structure of the hobby changed. Car owners ; particularly owners of the more desirable cars , took less and less of a role in the restoration and maintenance of vintage cars.

 During the 1940's and 1950's I get the impression that most vintage cars owners were also quite involved with the restoration and maintenance of their cars. Even reasonably wealthy owners in many cases.

Specialist jobs like plating and machine shop jobs were often done by outside people , but by and large the owners were pretty hands on.

 This seems to have considerably changed these days. Any thoughts ?

 

Greg

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Owners had people that could show them how to fix/do things to keep the cars working well. Those people learned their skills pre WWII, now most if not all are gone. Shops to keep the cars going emerged as owners got to advanced years and found it difficult to crawl under cars, lean over a motor for hours etc. I have experienced this myself, My days of leaning over a car to make repairs for hours on end are over. Still love to do it but for much lesser amounts of time.

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Know a fellow who likes owning old cars, driving old cars and being seen in old cars, but absolutely despises doing anything more to them than washing them. 

 

He bought a fairly comprehensive set of Cornwell tools some 30 years ago, but as me dad would have said "the new ain't worn off of 'em yet".

 

Some do it for the love and enjoyment of doing the work themselves, some for financial reasons, some for trust reasons. Others would rather write a check to someone else. I'm kinda in the middle. Like Walt, leaning inside an engine bay now makes me hurt for days.😖

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I have limits on how much cash I am willing to toss into the wind for my old cars. I do all my own mechanical repairs, component  rebuilds and maintenance. Some exceptions are I take my stripped down engine block in for machining, I do the rest.  Paint and body work? I’m delaying. I may dabble in some sheet metal welding and repair. Paint? Doubt it. Some interior work I think I’ll try my hand at. 
 

I’m mainly fixing up drivers I guess. Paint, re-chrome and upholstery? I’m on the fence about paying large sums of money to a professional for a quality top job. The idea goes against my instincts. I am programmed to stretch my dollars where possible. Do things myself and learn. 

 

 We all know the monetary return on investment when restoring most old cars is usually quite poor.  Often not so 20-50 years ago. Yet we do it anyway, for love and satisfaction.  The old car scene is a hobby for most of us, not a business. With respect @Matt Harwood.  I know it can be trying at times. 
 

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Another issue is that in the 1980s it became customary / expected for many salaried (vs hourly) employees to put in 60 hrs / week vice 40 to demonstrate their commitment to their employer.

 

That said, much of it is that the skill sets are no longer taught in school nor encouraged by parents.

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I have done a lot of work on a number of cars over the past 2 1/2 decades or so but had never done a complete restoration. Over the past 3 years or so, on my 1938 Buick Century, I did about all of the work for a total restoration except the fine metal work and paint. I took the car to a professional for that. Being 60, it was probably not just my first total restoration, it was probably also my last. 

 

One other major reason that fewer folks can do a typical owner restoration is the changes of paint technology. The days of spraying lacquer paint in your back yard are sadly over. The protective equipment needed for modern paints is not condusive to the home restorer.  The EPA has also contributed to the astronomical cost of metal plating. You can no longer find too many small local reasonably priced chrome shops around. They have been regulated our of business. 

 

While the educational system changes have made the skills needed for a restoration less likely to be found in school, the advent of the internet has actually made it easy to learn those skills. If I had not followed Gary Wheeler's 1937 Buick restoration on this forum, I would have never have attempted my 1938 Buick restoration. Between this site and a few others, it is still possible for a guy with decent mechanical aptitude to learn how to do a restoration.     

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20 minutes ago, Grimy said:

Another issue is that in the 1980s it became customary / expected for many salaried (vs hourly) employees to put in 60 hrs / week vice 40 to demonstrate their commitment to their employer.

 

That said, much of it is that the skill sets are no longer taught in school nor encouraged by parents.

How true, many times my commute was to the airport and then to someplace in the USA or foreign country for one to two weeks at a time.  When I got home the family stuff took precedence, as it should.  There was garage time too but never enough to ever do a complete restoration.  It’s a Catch 22, make enough to get into the hobby by trading off free time to enjoy it. 

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53 minutes ago, rocketraider said:

Like Walt, leaning inside an engine bay now makes me hurt for days.😖

To be a bit more specific in my situation - all my cars have been pre WWII for about 90% since the mid 1960s when I got into "old cars". Current cars here are all with hoods in two pieces hinged at the center ,access is from the side over a fender . That fender is usually at least 2+ feet wide and in some cases a side mounted spare tire has to be worked around or over. then once past that you reach in to get to the part of the motor to work on what you have too, Most often leaning way over to get to the part of the motor that is even with the chassis. So you are arching your body ( human chassis) in a upside down U shape. This is not a complaint - just fact for those of you who read this and have never done that due to the age of the car you own. All of my cars are straight 8, on the 1940 Buick spark plugs on the right side of the engine, the 1930 Packard at top center. Just have to remember not to bash your forehead on the folded /raised hood. All this seemed so much simpler and less tiring decades ago when my hair wasn't totally gray and I had most of it...........

Edited by Walt G
typo correction (see edit history)
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50 years ago the number of guys with real mechanical skills was probably 10-20 times what it is now.   Hard to be a restorer when you don't have any skills.

 

The number of Bodymen, mechanics,  machinists, etc is dramatically less than it was in 1970.   Even a mechanic today is typically called a "technician" and they work by plugging a computer in to a port on the car to diagnose issues.

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I turned 73 in Dec., and my mind hasn't realized my body is that old yet, so simple things take much longer and the "lay down a minute" areas get more work-outs, ha !  BUT, I'll keep thrashing, I love fooling with them, just try to prep myself that it is going to take a LOT longer than it used to,and keep the pain creme and non-aspirins with a bit of black coffee handy.  Doing a power window install and a "better radio" as she says install on the brides fake Mini ( BMW version ) and have a brand new disc brake kit for the 55 Studebaker to install next !

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In the 50's wrecking yards were full of cars and parts. Good parts, and good cars. You are down to just a few vintage bone yards now. The wrecking yards now are full of good cars and parts. If you are younger and have a 2003 F-150, I bet you can find nice parts in different yards. Younger people still work on their cars, go to a big salvage yard. Lots of people pulling parts every day. The old stuff is just drying up. I would say more people work on their own stuff now. Because of the cost involved in having a shop do it. Look at the info on youtube. You can look up anything, and see a how to video. The days of picking this stuff is going fast.

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I still think a "You Pull It" salvage yard is a fun place to go.  Last time I went I found a 1957

license tag for my Ranchero.  On another trip, a friend found $242.00, while I found a rachet wrench.

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Well, I’m not old enough to compare observations for more than +/-40 years in this hobby, but I don’t think much has changed in that time period. 

As far as I’ve seen there has never been very many individuals, be they owners or hired hands/“professionals”, that could be fully considered “restorers” of antique/classic/old/vintage cars in a true sense of the word.

I mean individuals with ability, skill sets & willingness to personally do a lion share (50+% ?) of the (hands on) work required to fully restore an entire car to as good (or better) condition of its original construction.

 

Even most of the big name “professional” restoration (or paint, plating, etc) shop owners don’t actually do much of the work themselves, they’re mainly managers (or as couple of “colleagues” have mentioned in the past, babysitters or kindergarten directors).

 

7 hours ago, alsancle said:

... a mechanic today is typically called a "technician" and they work by plugging a computer in to a port on the car to diagnose issues.

... and usually just replace, rather than rebuild/repair the component their diagnostic equipment tells them to be faulty. 
I mean how many today’s “technicians” (which to me, sorry to say, has a ring similar to that of a “beauti....” ) or even so-called “professional” restorers can actually rebuild/repair automatic transmissions, ignition distributors, power window regulator assemblies or water pumps ?

Edited by TTR (see edit history)
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I don't think it has changed all that much. I grew up as a child-member of several antique car clubs. There were many wonderfully skilled craftsmen in our clubs, who did masterful work. But there were also a great many more people who couldn't do any but the simplest tasks. My dad had a reputation as a pretty sharp guy with figuring out how to solve problems with the mechanical systems on old cars. And as I recall, many of those folks came to him for assistance with projects which he considered fairly simple. 

 

However, it is also true that the trades which developed those skill sets within our workforce have gone offshore. The local chrome platers, body men who specialized in shrinking metal and/or applying lead, and that one guy in the neighborhood who turned out excellent paint jobs in his home garage are all gone. Those skills are now developed in other countries...not in the USA. 

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I am 67 years old and do all my own antique car work.  All help is in the community, library books, you tube videos, local restoration shops will bail you out if you are over your head, plating shops make everything you send in look beautiful, you can buy tires, etc.  People say it is rewarding, even small progress is grand and when you are out showing or cruising your car ( assuming you finish ) you can tell the public I did it myself.

 

Regards, Gary

 

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 I am a "hands on" type of a guy. I like to do new challenging projects to keep my mind in shape.

 

 Lately i have been giving the finish body and painting work to others as I feel that it is not challenging enough. Not to say that they are not skilled craftsmen, but I have painted most of my life and now I feel that is is too time consuming. (besides that, I own a body shop with very fussy craftsmen.)

 

 I also have been buying small parts that I used to make myself because I feel that they are not worth my time to make and I've been there, done that.

 

Edited by Roger Walling (see edit history)
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To further elaborate my earlier commentary:

 

With exception of hugely grown influx of inexpensive(ly made*) replacement components/parts I don’t wish to knock someone’s effort to replace instead of rebuilding their cars existing (OEM ?) items.


The availability (& cheapness ?) of replacement parts has probably to a some extent made the repairing of older cars easier for many hobbyist and “technicians” (sorry but I can’t get use to that word in the context of vintage cars).

 

While I have personally worked on rebuilding,  refinishing, repairing & restoring just about any and every aspects or kind of components found in most 50+ year old vintage cars, I do at times find it easier (and cost effective) to subcontract some of it to those specializing in specific tasks and are better equipped to do them.

 

* Again, I’m not blaming manufacturers of such items. It’s a fault of consumers who insist on “cheap”.


 

 

I just spent most of this weekend re-engineering/fabricating/machining/making parts for “No Longer Available” original equipment replacement components for some +/-50 year old exotic sport cars. 
Ironically, there are couple of other “manufacturers” supplying similarly working items** for about 1/4 of price what I need to get for mine, which look and work close enough to authentic, OEM parts to likely pass muster under any Pebble Beach level judging scrutiny.

 

** They look like something out of Harbor Freight or Rock Auto “99 Cent” basket, but unfortunately my intended market is very small and while the subject vehicle values range between a half to couple of mil., there’s still plenty of owners who apparently prefer to opt for “cheap”.

Edited by TTR (see edit history)
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2 hours ago, Mark Shaw said:

Modifying old cars into "Jalopies" started when servicemen returned from WWII.  

Personally, I believe “it” started decades earlier, but became culturally “popular” phenomenon after “that” war.

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I completely agree TTR. Many of the " speedsters " of the late teens ad early 1920's were older touring cars { circa 1908 - 12 or so } that were stripped down and modified by owners to resemble either the more expensive Stutz Bearcat / Mercer Racabout factory built speedsters , or the fenderless " race cars " of the era. A used 7 passenger touring was most likely quite cheap once it was several years old , but under the wood and sheet metal it was more or less the same car as the more desirable factory versions.

Many period photos show such home built , sports body cars. You could call them the grandfathers of the post war " Hot Rod ".

 

 

Greg

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As long as somebody is willing to turn the wrenches,stitch the cloth,slap on the paint, to keep this teased out junk rolling is the main thing..

How much you do yourself or farm out is not that important and never was. 

When the day comes and you hit the "Pearly Gates",

there will be no mention of it! 

 

 

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This thread is interesting to me, coming in from the electric railway museum scene.  One good question is, what does “restoration” mean to you?  How complete a scope, how big a budget, or how perfect a finish are expected from a “typical” restoration?  Or, what is just a slight cleanup compared to a full restoration?  And do you think that meaning has changed over the years?  That might lead to some answers to the question in the thread title, but I’m not near experienced enough to suggest any myself.

 

That meaning of “restoration” sure changes from collector cars to mass transit preservation.  Where I stand, restorations take years unless you’re ready to throw down at least a quarter million AND one of the few worthy shops in the world are available for your job.  So 95% of the time, you get your volunteers (or if you’re lucky, your paid shop staff) to pick away at the restoration punch list.  For years, even over a decade sometimes.  Good project management can halve your project budget and timeline, bad management can easily double both.  And often work moves at the same pace as your fundraising efforts, so good social media and fundraising people can sometimes make more difference than highly skilled craftspeople.  But you better have both!

 

Everyone who’s hands-on tries to take tasks they have some skill in, and you try to build others’ skills where possible.  Some tasks nobody is good at already, so someone steps up (or “gets volunteered”) to learn.  In my case, that was putting stripes on a 1922 Wason Car Co. streetcar painted for Johnstown, PA circa the 1950s.  No one had much experience with the new stripe tool, and if I could put decal stripes on 1:160 scale passenger cars, I guess the restoration head figured I could handle it.  Multiply that one example task across all the different systems and their individual steps, and that’s how you fix up a derelict trolley car for which there is practically no spare parts market.


 

I don’t see why that sort of spend-time-to-save-money approach wouldn’t work for something as small and simple as a car.  At least, I sure hope that model will work, because that’s what I’m doing on my bus.  It’s slow going, but it’s working so far.

 

So add one young 30-something restorer to the tally.  Or, maybe don’t count me, since I really don’t care much for cars! 😝

 

-Steven

 

 

Edited by Brill_C-37M_Bus (see edit history)
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