Many members at these forums have shared stories about an older 4x4 that was "the best 4x4 they've ever owned". Some have suggested they would like to get that older vehicle back and restore it. Others have actually found the vehicle or a similar one, and the restoration process is underway.
I have given a lot of thought to automotive restorations. Having done many professional motor vehicle restorations, including a string of mainstream 4x4 magazine projects, I have reached several conclusions about restoring older vehicles—and which 4x4s are worth restoring. I have rebuilt and mechanically restored models ranging from utility 4x4 trucks to high-end collectible cars, some with notable provenance and museum pedigrees.
When do I restore an older 4x4 vehicle and for what reasons? Well, here we get more subjective, as there are many reasons why an older vehicle restoration can be worthwhile—and many motives for doing a restoration. Subjective is about opinions, and here, I would emphasize, are mine...
When I was young, used vehicles had much appeal. Postwar Baby Boomers had parents who'd lived through the Great Depression. For many, a motor vehicle meant images from John Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath, those decades old cars and trucks that needed constant work.
The 'fifties ushered in an era of American prosperity unrivaled in history, many had access to family-wage income, there were plentiful jobs, and extensive onshore manufacturing provided an unprecedented standard of living and consumer buying clout. New cars, trucks, homes, appliances (durable goods) and food seemed readily accessible to more Americans than ever. So impressive was that buying power and living standard, with short term low-interest loans and revolving credit to back it up, that the 'fifties and 'sixties have become the benchmark for America's "good old days".
Not born with a silver spoon in my mouth, I thought that used cars and trucks made great sense. As a budding motorhead, working on cars, trucks and motorcycles seemed just part of the fun! I quickly learned that shop manuals and literacy paid off, and my automotive projects had happy endings and satisfying results. My "academic" automotive bent has served me for a half-century now, and in that time, I've lived and breathed the American automotive culture down to the nuts and bolts!
Yes, there are many good reasons for restoring an older vehicle. First, though, let's separate those vehicles that get restored for "nostalgic" and "collectible" value. Nostalgia and investment vehicles generally involve discretionary spending. Nostalgia projects have a wide range of motives, often unrelated to either transportation or the utility use of the vehicle.
Instead, I'd like to focus on motor vehicles used for transportation, recreational pursuits or for work use. Let's begin by asking ourselves a basic question, "How much of my income and lifetime earnings do I want to invest in motor vehicle transportation or work vehicles?"
Some argue that a new vehicle is essential or practical because it requires only a minimal need for service and repairs. So, let's look at what that so-called "peace of mind" is worth...When my folks bought the new 1964 Jeep CJ-5 with F134 engine, T98A truck four-speed transmission and 1/3-2/3 front seat, the price for that shiny new Jeep was $2300. An extra $300 or so bought a Whitco cloth top, Cutlass free-wheeling front hubs, a dealer installed Jeep heater, right side wiper and a drawbar hitch. Out the door, the Jeep 4x4 cost about $2700. Adult jobs at the time paid in the neighborhood of $3.50-$7 per hour. At that rate, a normal down payment and 15-20% of monthly income would handle a short term, low-interest rate new vehicle loan. (Add insurance, DMV fees, fuel and normal maintenance to that cost.)
Moving along, my folks stepped up for a new Chevy K10 4x4 SWB pickup in 1970, equipped with 350 V-8, automatic transmission, power steering and heavy-duty rear bumper. Out-the-door price: $3700.
Note: For a not so heartening look at our standard of living since 1970 (1973-74 was the peak of U.S. wage-earning prosperity), consider this information: http://economix.blog...type=blogs&_r=0. If you can come up with a more glowing view or statistics, please share them.
If you prefer a graphic view of income between 1964 and the present, this will help. Skeptical? Please challenge these U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics-based findings if you can.
As a coincidence, just after the peak of U.S. real dollar wage earnings, the mid-'seventies saw a dramatic hike in new vehicle prices. As a heavy-equipment operator working on the I-80 bypass at Winnemucca, Nevada, I looked at a new high-boy 1976 Ford F250 Lariat 4x4 pickup, loaded with available equipment, in the fall of 1975. Dealer sticker price was near $4,600. In less than two years, that same truck would jump to $6000-plus. The rest is history, as we've watched similarly equipped trucks reach the $40,000-plus price range today.
Keep in mind that all trucks and cars are new at the beginning, and as they say in the car business, "There's a butt for every seat." The concern here is what percentage of your income goes toward a motor vehicle, and for how long? Interest and financing now reach to 84 months in some cases.
The renewed popularity of leasing hints about the growing inability for buyers to build equity from a new vehicle purchase. New vehicles, known to depreciate "like a rock", leave a low down payment, long term contract buyer without any equity or means for bailing out or trading off the vehicle—for many years.
Note: Leasing moves new vehicles off the lot and also creates a resale market of more affordable lease turn-in vehicles. Consumer/leasers simply abandon the idea of vehicle "ownership" or building any kind of equity. Instead, they make leasing payments, much like an apartment or home renter. Some leases now include service and warranty coverage during the term of the lease. This makes the overall cost of operating a vehicle that much clearer. There's only the soaring cost of fuel to contend with...In a positive sense, at least the consumer can budget for the perpetual, never ending cost, in real dollars, of having an un-owned vehicle in the driveway or garage.
So, fast forward to the present, what some now refer to as the post-Great Recession era economy. Average wages in real dollars are lower than ever, new vehicle costs are still high and climbing, and there's apparently no way to contain fuel costs. Yet we continue to depend upon motor vehicles for our transportation, work chores, leisure life and, let's admit it, status as Americans.
Observation: When we lived at Southern California during the 1980s and mixed with virtual strangers at social gatherings, the three questions invariably thrown our way were: 1) "What do you do?" [the employment/income question] 2) "Where do you live?" [the real estate holdings question] and 3) "What do you drive?" [the most universal consumer status question].
New versus restored older vehicle? The lines between practicality, utility and basic human needs get blurred when status, cultural conditioning or the innocent fascination with all things mechanical get in the way. With motor vehicles, an additional consideration is your safety and well-being. Clearly, we do need to protect ourselves and our families from the perils of motoring, from unsafe and outdated technology, and from getting stranded in the middle of nowhere with an unreliable vehicle!
To what lengths do we need to compensate for these threats? As informed consumers, we can discriminate between old, questionable technology and more modern, safer equipment. In my Jeep CJ Rebuilder's Manuals (1946-71 and 1972-86 editions, Bentley Publishers), I discuss and illustrate the conversion from an inadequate vintage Jeep 9-inch diameter drum brake system to modern four-wheel disc brakes with a safer dual master cylinder. Similarly, Saginaw steering and a one-piece tie-rod made this 1955 Jeep CJ-5 prototype safer.
By knowing the difference, I was able to upgrade a vintage 4x4 1/4-ton utility truck for better performance on public roads, making the CJ more than a "parade vehicle". I also replaced the F-head four cylinder engine with a 231 Buick V-6 to keep safely up to speed with other highway traffic.
Restoring an older 4x4 truck, one with a good foundation for performance, traction and safety, can be rewarding in a variety of ways. Restored to "as new" operating condition could cost a mere fraction of a new truck's pricing. If an older model will satisfy your utility, work chore, transportation, towing, on- and off-highway safety, driving pleasure and other needs, wouldn't this be a good choice? Well, maybe...
For some, there are good reasons not to take the older restoration option: 1) not enough time to do the restoration, 2) the need to sublet nearly all the work, which can drive costs through the roof, 3) no place to perform the work, 4) inadequate tools for the job, and 5) lacking the necessary skills to perform safe, reliable, professional-grade work. This last point is the most critical reason to opt out of restoring an older 4x4 vehicle.
The internet is a wonderful learning resource. There is good information available, and unfortunately, there is a lot of misinformation as well. It has taken over 45 years of hands-on professional experience to learn what I know—and also where to look for the right information when I do not know. A clear sign of an unprofessional approach is to minimize a mechanical task or be dismissive about the need to research and find the right troubleshooting or mechanical steps needed to perform a task professionally.
I can rebuild a newly designed, complex automatic transmission and expect professional results. How and why? By having the ability to research and follow professional procedures to assure safe, predictable and reliable results. When I taught automotive technology and drafted lesson plans, my aim was to enable the students to "think like a professional mechanic/technician". Each of my seven Bentley Publishers books targeted that goal.
Unless a restorer is willing to invest time and energy in "thinking like a professional mechanic", the restoration project will be unsuccessful. Even with a one-shot, never again project, the outcome depends upon professional work habits, following professional steps and procedures, and thoroughly understanding these steps involved. This distinguishes professional grade work from hobby or shade-tree work. We're now in an era where an "older" 4x4 could have EFI, an electronically controlled transmission, a lock-up converter or ABS. There's no room for shade tree or shortcut tactics here.
I am a strong advocate for restoring older vehicles and keeping them as safe and reliable as a newer one. If you're willing to raise the bar and professionalize your mechanical skills and work habits, the results can be financially rewarding, esteem building and satisfying. You will be less dependent upon others while meeting your transportation needs, and you will be far more self-reliant in the kinds of situations that a 4x4 light truck, SUV or Jeep® might find itself!