32 Best American Cars to Restore
June, 2010 - Richard Lentinello
Judge for yourself, do you agree with the premises set forth below?
Restoration is an expensive proposition. Even if you can perform most of the work yourself, it's still going to cost you a tidy five-figure sum to buy the necessary parts, materials and paint supplies needed to transform an old car from a worn-out relic to a dazzling show beauty.
If you've decided to restore a particular old car because you have a longstanding attachment to that model and are not concerned about its value or whether parts can be easily found, then we applaud you--that mindset should be the primary focus of this great hobby of ours. However, if you enjoy old car restoration but prefer your projects to be easy and relatively cheap to do--with, perhaps, the added bonus of making a few dollars on it when it's done--then these are the cars you should consider for your next venture.
Of course, the majority of these cars won't make you stand apart from the crowd at a show or cruise-in, but you will be able to complete their restoration far faster and a whole lot cheaper than if you chose a car that was rare, or had only been made for a few years.
Another factor to consider is the actual purchase price of the car. While some of the cars listed here can be bought for around $5,000, others will cost four times as much even if they're basket cases--but keep in mind that those higher-priced cars will also bring four times the money when sold, so it kind of equals out.
But the one common feature enjoyed by most of these cars--and the main reason why they are on this list--is that they're backed by a huge parts supply, making them a lot easier to restore than something rare like a Pierce-Arrow, a Forties-era De Soto or a V-16 Cadillac. The availability of an extensive line of reproduction parts, especially new body panels and exterior trim, makes restoring these cars incredibly straightforward. In fact, their restoration will be so uncomplicated that you'll find yourself interested in undertaking more restorations in years to come.
Sometimes going mainstream has its advantages.
Buick Riviera -- 1963-'65
There's no question that this is the absolute best-designed American car of the post-war era--it's simply spectacular. As a result of that fine styling, more people are starting to restore and collect these beauties. Expect to pay a premium for the 1964-'65 versions with the dual-quad carb setup, though all models are well worth restoring. Several companies are now beginning to offer reproduction parts, which will make future restorations less difficult than they are now, should your car require replacement panels and trim; reproduction seat covers and door panels are already available, and they're excellent. Restored correctly, an early Sixties Riviera will remain forever on the Most Wanted list.
Chevrolet Bel Air -- 1953-'54
If you love Fifties-era Chevys, these cars make a great alternative to the ever-popular Tri-Five models, especially as more and more Bowtie enthusiasts are starting to appreciate their handsome yet conservative looks. Reproduction parts continue to increase in selection, and the prices are very affordable. All mechanical and electrical parts are easily bought, and for reasonably low prices, while used parts are easy to come by. Disc brake conversions and other high-performance upgrades are also readily available.
Pontiac GTO -- 1971-'72
Even with the prices of early GTOs, especially those with Tri-Power and Ram Air-spec V-8s, beyond the price point of the average Joe, you can still own a Pontiac with those three little letters on the front grille: Just consider the 1971-'72 models. They're an extension of the reshaped A-body that bowed in 1968; apart from a few changes here and there, they still retained that menacing look of a GTO. Tons of body and trim parts have been reproduced, along with a whole host of go-fast goodies to tweak your car for better performance. This country is filled with GTO fans, so values will continue to rise, but only for factory-correct cars that have been restored well.
AMC AMX -- 1968-'69
Clearly the best looking of all the AMXs built, interest in these cars continues to grow as more enthusiasts realize just how special and fast they really are. You'll pay a premium for the 390-cu.in. Go Package models, but the non-Go Package 390 is equally desirable. In fact, even the smaller 343 V-8 models are now sought after, with the 290 V-8 less so. Reproduction parts are available, but the line isn't that extensive, although it continues to grow, and many mechanical parts interchange with those from the Big Three. The cars are pretty basic, so they are not hard to restore. For American Motors fans, these are considered the AMC muscle car to own, followed by the 1970 version, so there will always be a market for them.
Lincoln Continental -- 1961-'66
Rarely will you meet someone who doesn't like early Sixties Continentals. Their upscale, classy shape means they'll never go out of style, so there will always be a strong demand for these models. While some body and trim parts have been reproduced, there isn't an overly huge selection, although most mechanical parts can be found fairly cheaply, and pretty easily, too. It's perhaps not a car for a first-time restorer, as these were essentially hand-assembled automobiles--an experienced specialist may be needed to make it right. But just try to find a more affordable four-door luxury car that can be easily located and quickly sold, and that's fun to cruise around in with five of your buddies--we bet you can't.
Ford Model A -- 1928-'31
This is the Mustang of the pre-war era. Literally every part is available, including new body panels and all trim pieces. There's also a growing aftermarket of speed parts such as performance cylinder heads and five-speed gearboxes. A huge production run means lots of cars to choose from--and cheap. Support from two large international clubs means that experts ready to provide help are everywhere. Best of all, the cars' simplistic nature means that they are very easy to rebuild. Roadsters and coupes seem to bring the most money, but even a Fordor sedan has a market. Still, don't expect to make any money restoring one, because the Model A market is, and will most probably always be, a buyer's market due to their popularity and availability.
Packard -- 1951-'54
Fifties cars continue to climb in terms of desirability, and the absolute best-built models are those with the Packard nameplate. Aside from the Caribbean, which is too pricey to include here, these are beautifully styled cars that are very well constructed, with lots of quality detailing throughout. Nearly all mechanical and electrical parts can be bought new, and for lower prices than you'd think. Body and trim parts may be a little difficult to locate, but if you know where to look, there shouldn't be any problems; good club support means you'll be able to find what you need quickly. You'll never have a problem selling a well-restored Packard. Of course, once you drive it you may never want to sell, as the experience will make you feel oh-so-special behind the wheel.
Ford Mustang -- 1964-'68
Mustangs make ideal first-time projects because practically every part you'll ever need is only a catalog or website listing away. In fact, we can't think of any part that hasn't been reproduced. And there are literally dozens of companies supplying all the parts and accessories you'll need. Mustangs are also backed by excellent club support, with numerous experts everywhere. Projects are still easy to find and, when restored, early Mustangs almost sell themselves.
Chevrolet Camaro -- 1967-'69
Same as the Mustang: Everything you need to rebuild one, no matter how rusty it may be, is available brand new. As Terry McGean, editor of Hemmings Muscle Machines, put it, "The '69 Camaro is the '32 Ford of today," which means there will always be a huge demand for these cars. You just can't lose restoring one. Best of all, they are fun to drive, reliable, and can be made very powerful thanks to a huge aftermarket for performance parts. The only downside is that even rustbuckets and rollers can no longer be had for $2,500.
Dodge Challenger -- 1972-'73
It's the same story as with the Plymouth 'Cuda listed later. While most Mopar fanatics seem to prefer the 'Cuda, the Challenger is actually better appointed and detailed, with a more upscale look about it. Reproduction of parts continues to grow, making even the rustiest project car salvageable. These later models with the small-block V-8s are the most affordable to buy and the easiest to find, but they sell quickly due to an ever-growing demand for E-bodies. This is one of those collector cars that must be restored to exacting factory-original standards for it to be worth anything.
Pontiac Grand Prix -- 1962
It seems to be every Pontiac fan's favorite Grand Prix: If you had to restore a GP, this would be the one. Its popularity never seems to wane. Basically, it's a full-size muscle car, but at half the price of a GTO--yet it, too, is powered by a 389-cu.in. V-8. Reproduction parts are increasing in availability, while every mechanical part (not to mention lots of performance parts) can be bought new, and at moderate prices. Interiors, including door panels, have been reproduced. Their handsome styling and racing heritage make these first-year Grand Prixs the ideal Sixties-era Pontiac for those seeking something different. With more than 30,000 built, they're not hard to find; as an alternative, consider the Catalina, which is a bit less expensive.
Cadillac -- 1965-'66
"Big, bold and beautiful" best describes these comfy land yachts, which offer perhaps the best bang for the buck of any Sixties-era collector cars. Every mechanical part is available, and at very reasonable prices, although some trim parts are hard to find. To replace body panels, you'll have to settle for used parts, but that has the advantage of being cheaper than new panels (if they were available). Engines offer plenty of power, and the spacious interiors can accommodate a family of six. Best of all, it won't cost a fortune to buy one; they're far more affordable than you might think.
Studebaker Golden Hawk -- 1956-'58
More than just Studebaker fans covet the classy Golden Hawk: This is one of those cars that it seems everybody wishes they could own. Plenty were built, so you should have no trouble finding one to restore. And a whole lot of body and trim parts have now been reproduced--plus, there's a good supply of NOS parts remaining. Quality construction throughout means that Golden Hawks aren't any more difficult to restore than your average Chevy or Ford. Thanks to their upscale character and show-stopping good looks, a well-restored Golden Hawk will command a premium price tag.
Pontiac Firebird -- 1970-'73
Early second-generation Firebirds, just like the Camaro, have become highly sought-after these last few years in response to the soaring prices of the first-generation F-bodies, which are now beyond the reach of the average enthusiast. Although the high-performance Formula and Trans Am are the most desirable models, their higher values don't make them as accessible (if you can find one for a good price, though, those would be the models to buy). There are lots of reproduction parts available, including many new body panels. The cars are easy to restore and easy to sell, assuming you restore them correctly to factory specs.
Chevrolet Bel Air -- 1955-'57
Due to the fact that you can buy just about every single part to build yourself a brand-new model, including all-new body shells for the '57, how could we not include the lovable Tri-Five models? The huge following of enthusiasts worldwide ensures that these cars will always sell quickly and for good money; demand for them will probably never falter, at least not in our lifetime. Thanks to being produced in large numbers, there are still many project cars available; '55 models are the most affordable. Stripped-down 210s are the cheapest, but they, too, are fast becoming very collectible--it's not just about the dolled-up Bel Airs anymore.
Mercury Cougar -- 1967-'68
Below the skin, the Cougar is all Mustang, which makes finding mechanical and electrical parts a breeze. But even some body panels and trim pieces have been reproduced for the early Cougar, so restoring one is not a hard proposition. Complete interiors are also available, along with tons of performance parts, brake upgrades and suspension parts. Solid club support means there's lots of knowledgeable enthusiasts to assist you, and a solid demand from both Mercury and muscle car collectors. The supply of restoration-ready cars is plentiful; also consider the 1969-'73 models, especially convertibles.
Oldsmobile Cutlass -- 1968-'72
While muscle car enthusiasts prefer the more expensive 4-4-2, the less powerful Cutlass offers the same great ride and inspiring good looks. Its chassis parts interchange with all the other GM A-body cars, so finding brake and suspension parts is a piece of cake, and highly affordable, too. Exterior body and trim parts haven't been reproduced to the same extent as a comparable Chevelle, but lower production numbers means that these are a lot rarer--and yet not so rare that you can't find one to restore. They're out there, and for reasonable prices, too.
Ford Falcon -- 1964-'65
Like the Cougar, the inner structure is all Mustang, so brake and suspension parts are pretty much the same. Lots of body, trim and interior parts have been reproduced, and the line of aftermarket parts to increase power is very large. Many Falcons were built, so they are easy to find today. And their simple design makes them a great project for the inexperienced. The models that will return the most money are the hardtop and convertibles, especially the better-performing GT versions. Also consider the earlier 1960-'63 Falcons, because many fans prefer the early, rounded shape over the later, squarer body.
Plymouth 'Cuda/Barracuda -- 1972-'74
Hardcore Mopar fans want the 1970-'71, while the later models, especially the 1973-'74 cars, are the cheapest to buy (and they're even cheaper with the smaller 318- or 340-cu.in. V-8s). An extensive supply of new body, trim and interior parts makes restoration a breeze. Just make sure the body isn't twisted due to serious rust, because there is no frame. In time, values will rise for the later models, as well as those small-block engine cars. Demand will always be there thanks to their good looks and wide appeal.
Chevrolet Impala -- 1965
Since the majority of 1961-'64 Impalas have been either customized or turned into low-riders, the next affordable full-size Chevy duly became the 1965 model, followed by the '66s, '67s and '68s, etc... In fastback form, the '65 has a racy character to it, thanks to its sloping roofline and six separate taillamps. While reproduction parts aren't as plentiful as for the early models, there are plenty of new parts available to make even the rustiest project fairly easy to complete. Mechanical parts are very inexpensive and can be bought everywhere. Of course, the SS model is the most valuable, but even those with straight-six engines are becoming highly sought. The huge Chevy fan base ensures that values keep increasing steadily.
Cadillac Series 62 -- 1957
With more than 32,000 produced, finding a good, running but restorable example of this Cadillac model is quite an easy task. All Cadillac sedans made this year were of the hardtop body style, so they all have that fantastic Fifties look and great style. Although these can be a tad too difficult to restore for first-time home hobbyists, with a little help from the Cadillac-La Salle Club's many members and specialists, it can certainly be accomplished. For body parts, you'll have to make do with used pieces, but at least all the mechanical parts are available new. These '57 models are the most modern-looking of all the Fifties-era Cadillacs and make a great alternative to the '57 Chevy; believe it or not, they can be bought for about the same price.
De Soto Fireflite Hemi -- 1955-'56
Fireflite Hemi-equipped De Sotos may very well be the most affordable Hemi-powered Mopars in existence, which is why they made this list. While it doesn't possess the same muscle as the later 426 Hemi, the smaller 291- or 330-cu.in. Firedome Hemi still lends the car a certain level of superiority. Reproduction parts are basically nonexistent, so you'll have to search for used body and trim parts if needed. But the car's build quality is very good throughout, which should make it uncomplicated to restore. Running project cars can still be found for sale without difficulty, and for only a four-figure sum--yet their rarity will set you apart from the crowd.
Chevrolet Chevelle -- 1971-'72
Aside from the early Mustang, more parts have been reproduced for GM's line of A-body cars than any other. The 1966-'70 Chevelles are already kind of pricey to buy, so instead, go for the more affordable 1971-'72 hardtop or convertible models--they're substantially cheaper, yet nearly all the parts are the same. Restorations are straightforward, thanks to their basic body-on-frame construction. Having many admirers means they'll sell quickly and for a reasonable price, but like most muscle cars today, they have to be restored to stock specs.
Chevrolet Corvair Corsa -- 1965-'66
If you want to restore a car with parts that are plentiful and cheap to buy, then look no further than the Corvair. Nearly every part has been reproduced and can be bought from several sources. They offer simple mechanicals and are easy to work on, and there are plenty of specialists and club members to provide help. The Corsa's four-carb 140hp engine is more desirable than the standard 110hp version, as is the 180hp Turbo engine; these models bring the most money. But even first-generation four-door sedans have a following. Regardless of which model you choose, Corvair restoration is fun, fairly inexpensive and very rewarding, and they're a blast to drive, too!
Ford Thunderbird 1961-'66
If you can't afford an early 'Bird, then these models are the next best thing, and a whole lot sleeker, too. We love the square 'Birds, but they still don't command the same level of interest as the early Sixties models, although that is changing. Each year, more and more parts are reproduced for these '60s Thunderbirds, making restoration easier, although not nearly as easy to the 1955-'57 'Birds (for which nearly every part is available). Demand is on the increase for these 'Birds, yet prices are still relatively low. And they sell quickly, too.
Plymouth Barracuda 1967-'69
Although reproduction body panels aren't as readily available as they are for the 1970-'74 E-body Barracuda, more and more parts are being reproduced each year. Factory-correct interiors are now available, along with other trim items, making restoration of these good-looking pony cars a bit easier than before.
All mechanical parts are available, including a long list of aftermarket performance parts. Prices on project cars still hover in the $3,000 to $6,000 range, depending on body style. The fastback body seems to be the most desirable, and with E-body values beyond the reach of young enthusiasts, these Barracudas make a fine alternative.
Chrysler 300L -- 1965
Of all the Letter series models, the L is the most affordable to buy and the easiest to restore; it shares many body and trim parts with other mass-produced Mopars.
Like the cars that came before them, L models are very well built and finely appointed, with distinctive trim and robust mechanical parts. These cars will continue to rise in value, although finding one to buy to restore may take time, because only 2,405 hardtops and 440 convertibles were built. However, that means there will always be a demand for them. More importantly, it won't cost any more to restore a 300L than a comparable Imperial or Fury, so choose a 300L if you can.
Plymouth Duster -- 1970-'73
If you love Mopars but can't afford a 'Cuda, Charger, Challenger or similar muscle-type model, here's the next best thing. Dusters are easy to work on, supported by numerous specialists and parts suppliers, and because they were mass-produced in big numbers, they are easy to find, with many well-used examples being offered for sale everywhere. Prices, however, are starting to climb, as fans get pushed out of the higher priced segment of the Mopar hobby, so Dusters (and Demons) are seen as the next-best thing. The 340 model is the most desirable, but expect to find mostly 318 V-8 cars for sale.
Ford -- 1957
Interest continues to increase for these great-looking Fords. Because they were built in large numbers, it should be easy to find one to restore. And because they're backed by a fairly large offering of reproduction body, trim and interior parts, not to mention easy-to-find, inexpensive mechanical parts, restoring one will be a straightforward exercise. Their simple body-on-frame construction doesn't complicate matters, while an extensive range of high-performance parts will only add to the car's fun factor. While it may take longer to sell than a '57 Chevy, that's changing--enthusiasts are starting to realize just how special these cars really are, and that you just don't see them very often.
Chevrolet Corvette -- 1978-'82
One of the best-styled Corvettes is the late Seventies fastback: Its forceful, aggressive lines never fail to make a splash, and you can buy one in good running condition for less than $10,000. Plenty were built, so finding a decent example is easy. With dozens of Corvette specialists selling just about every part needed, including new reproduction parts and high-performance speed parts, restoring one is a relatively simple process. Backed by excellent club support and specialists, it's no wonder demand is on the rise for these models--but only those cars that are restored to original specs will bring top dollar.
Dodge Charger -- 1968-'70
Beauty and brawn all in a single package makes for a very special car, as is the case with these Chargers. Considered by many to be the best-styled muscle car of all time, the Charger's outstanding design will ensure its popularity for decades to come. Every mechanical part is obtainable, with the list for reproduction body panels growing daily. Like many cars of this era, rust can be an issue, but all patch panels are available. Production totals were fairly high, so they are easy to find. The bigger the engine, the more you'll pay, but it will also be worth more in the end. But regardless of which engine provides the power, Chargers are a blast to drive, handle well and look fantastic. You can't lose.
Chevrolet Nova -- 1968-'70
This model Nova is the Duster equivalent for Chevy fans. Large production numbers (over one million built) equals affordability today, making the Nova an excellent first-time restoration project for those on a budget--just avoid the four-door model due to lackluster interest. Filled with low-priced Chevy parts, this just may be the cheapest car on this list to restore. Numerous performance parts and large disc brake upgrade kits are readily available to enhance its drivability. Keep it looking stock, though, and it will be far easier to sell down the line, especially if it has a small-block V-8 under the hood.
As stated above, this article originally appeared in the June, 2010 issue of Hemmings Classic Car. You can contact the company to order back issues of Hemmings Classic Car or subscribe.