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Barn Fresh - Beware of 'steals'

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Originally Published: 9/1/1998
Mitch Silver

Seventy percent restored… needs work… complete, original... running when parked five years ago."

Those common phrases from classified ads send shivers down my spine directly into my wallet, especially when I think about novice collectors who are buying cars like that for what they think is a steal.

Do you realize what it costs to restore a car? Most people don't.

I talk to people every day who price out a restoration as follows: $500 for a paint job and body work including rust repair; $300 for chroming the bumpers; $400 for replacing the interior and $200 for a new set of tires.

So, the reasoning goes, you buy a tired GTO for $2,800, spend another $1,400 on restoration, and - presto - you've got a No. 1 car that you'll sell for a fat profit in Sun Valley.

Well, not quite.

Consider, for example, a 1941 Oldsmobile Business Coupe that I recently acquired. There are fewer than 50,000 miles on its odometer, the interior is excellent (although fragile) and the car runs well.

It's currently worth $1,800 to $2,000. Restored to No. 2 condition (we define that as excellent - having the appearance of a car only 1 to 2 years old), the Olds will be worth anywhere from $4,000 to $5,500.

But here's the rub: Completing a proper restoration will cost substantially more than the car's restored value.

Here are some realistic costs:

Paint and body work, a minimum of $2,000.
Tires, $400.
Chrome and stainless, $1,000 minimum.
Interior plastic covers to save original seats, $350.
A good used steering wheel, $150.
So you've already spent at least $3,900, and remember you're dealing with a car filled with parts that are 52 years old: steering, drive train, exhaust, front end, brakes.

I bought this Oldsmobile and I'm glad I did. We should save these lovely old cars. And if I keep it long enough, I'll probably get back what I put in - and maybe even make a profit.

But please don't buy a fixer-upper expecting that you're going to make a killing. Buy a car like this because you love it and would like to see it shine again. If you expect to make a fortune, you're probably in the wrong hobby.

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