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Do Coastal and Desert Area Classic Cars
Really Make the Best Candidates for Restoration?
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Vol. 1, No. 11
December 7, 2002

Which Cars Are Best for Restoration?
by Ken Wilson

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Do classic cars from the coast make better restoration candidates? Yes and no. To read the ads of collector cars offered for sale, you'd think a car located in California is almost as good as one that's been stored in a museum since new! This isn't always the case. Some will even conclude that a car from California won't have any rust on it, since that climate isn't conducive to causing rust. But you need to determine if the car has always been in California. If not, it might have been exposed to salt and other elements early on.

You've probably heard the story about the guy who found his low mileage original classic car sitting in a garage in Florida. The story normally goes something like this: It was owned by a little old lady, and was only used to go to church on Sundays. Everything on the car is original, and it hasn't been driven in recent history. And so on...

Initially, this might seem like the ideal car for a restoration, but a closer look is warranted. While Florida at first glance might seem like the ideal climate for a car, there are a few things to consider about this locale. Determine if the car has been stored near the water. Why? Salt water spray from the Ocean can be spread by the wind and cause damage to the car in areas that are hard to see.

Even if the car was stored 5 or 10 miles inland, there could still be damage. Humid areas such as Florida can be an ideal climate for rust, add salt spray in the air to the mixture, and you will find ideal conditions for the development of rust. Also consider if the little old lady bought the car new in Ohio or Michigan before retiring to Florida. If so, it may have been exposed to a few harsh winters with heavily salted roads before heading South. If that's the case, the damage probably started long ago.

It's important to consider what locations the car was operated and stored in, going all the way back to when it was brand new, if possible. Just because a car is offered for sale in Florida, California, or Arizona doesn't necessarily mean it's always been there. These retirement hot spots are good locations to cruise for a classic car, and they can still be found in the possession of the original owner. Although at first glance the car might appear to be rust free, a look deeper into its inner panels often reveals something quite different.

Areas that were once tightly sealed at the factory can be a breeding ground for rust. Sealants originally applied to keep air and water out of inner panels can shrink with age, and allow moist air into areas that don't have good air flow, so they don't dry out. Often these areas are only accessible for inspection by unwelding body panels. Cool nights can cause condensation to form as well, which adds additional moisture to the area.

A car delivered brand new to the Phoenix area might be the best bet, if it's always been stored there. But the desert climate has its own drawbacks. While moisture and humidity is bad for metal components, it's beneficial to soft trim and rubber items. A car that has been stored in the desert since new will likely be rust free, but could need all of its soft trim and rubber replaced. If the car is upholstered in leather, this can be a considerable cost. If there's real wood trim on the vehicle, the cost goes higher. And if you haven't priced molded rubber weatherstripping lately, you might be in for a shock. Typical replacement cost of all the molded rubber on a car can run in the $1,000+ range, not including installation and shipping. At the very least, you can plan on stitching in the upholstery and headlining to be rotted, which normally requires a complete redo of these items.

Purchasing a classic car is often an emotional decision; so the shiny chrome and sparkling paint might initially indicate that the car is indeed a well cared for original. And we all want to believe that when we're confronted with the opportunity to purchase our dream car. A few additional minutes spent inspecting the car might prove to be a wise move.

Often the people selling old cars know what others are going to look for, and they can be very keen at hiding secrets that might be objectionable to a new buyer. So you have to not let your emotions get the best of you, which is hard to do when you're looking at a car that you've always wanted. A new paint job, rechromed bumpers and new upholstery can really make a car look great, but if what's lurking beneath those fresh surfaces is rotting, they won't look good for very long.

Buying a car that's spent a good deal of its life in a coastal or desert area can be very beneficial, but remember these locales by no means guarantee well preserved cars. Inner panels of deck lids, hoods, fenders, rear quarters, and in the roof area can literally rust from the inside out, which makes the areas readily visible to the eye look pristine, all the while there is extensive damage developing beneath. Sometimes you will find a solitary spot of rust in an unusual area as a hint that there's something sinister going on. On an otherwise nice car, the first reaction might be to disregard the spot as an isolated incident. And perhaps it is, but it might be a preview of things to come.

Even the design of some cars encourages rust. Belt moldings around the base of vinyl tops are frequently contributors to the development of rust. Take a look at a 1978 Cadillac Eldorado or 1976 Continental Mark IV. Often, you'll see a small bubble just at the edge of one of the roof belt moldings. Water from washing the car over the years eventually gets trapped in these areas, and gets right down to the metal. Water by itself can create quite a bit of damage. The molding actually protects the area where the damage begins, since you can't see it under the molding, and it never really gets dry under there. A small split in a vinyl top can do the same thing, and if it's padded, the padding insulates the area and causes it to stay damp constantly. And if the factory scored the paint when the roof material was trimmed, or if they were sloppy with the caulking materials where holes are located for trim to be attached, there's an invitation to rust.

Don't allow yourself to not take the same inspection precautions on a car in Florida or California that you would on a car in Michigan or Wisconsin. In fact, you might spend extra time on the cars that appear to be in excellent condition. Normally, such cars will carry a price tag that is dependant on their condition, so extra time and steps are worthwhile. More than a few people have been conned into spending top dollar for something that really wasn't all it appeared to be. They will all tell you that they wished they'd spent a little more time looking the car over before handing over payment.

The bottom line is, while cars that have been maintained in dry climates may have less rust and corrosion, they will normally need more attention to soft trim and rubber items, which can be very expensive to restore. Cars that have been in the "rust belt" might have much better interiors, while suffering the effects of metal rot.

Repairing rust is normally the more expensive proposition, and a rusty frame on a unibody car is almost a death certificate for that car. So, don't place much value on the current location of a vehicle. It could have very well spent a good part of its life in another climate. And don't get lax with your inspection because of the location, sometimes things aren't always as they seem.

Copyright © 2002 Automotive Mileposts, Inc.
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