How Long Does It Take?

By Tim Suddard
Jul 23, 2015 | Tornado | Posted in Columns | From the April 2015 issue | Never miss an article

I have been building, restoring and racing cars for 40 years-and have put them together at the rate of more than one project a year. So you would think that I have enough experience to make me one of the world’s best at estimating exactly how long it takes to restore something. At the very least I should be able to forecast the time needed to rebuild an engine, fabricate a mount to install an aluminum radiator, or install a set of shocks on a Mustang, Miata or Maverick.

Nope. I absolutely suck at estimating the time needed to repair, rebuild or restore something.

Right now I am restoring an old English Ford-based special for our sister magazine, Classic Motorsports. One of the first things I did was to ask my longtime friend and body guy, Tom Prescott, to come over and take a look so he could help me figure out what it was going to take.

Tom was visibly shocked at the deplorable state of the fiberglass body: The terrible body gaps showed the thing had been assembled badly to begin with, and it had then been hit, repaired poorly, and hit again. It was also riddled with mysterious holes. (Why do all the past owners of fiberglass cars seem to have an insane need to drill and drill and drill extra holes all over the damned things?)

Tom shook his head and said, “Man, that’s a lot of fiberglass work to get that thing right.” I clearly (and painfully) remember scoffing and saying, “It’s just fiberglass, what’s the big deal? I don’t want to have $10,000 in this thing, so I’ll just do the glass work myself and bring the body to you for final paint.” I knew-KNEW-in my heart that there was just not that much work there.

So my buddy Jere and I dug in and started the job. Both of us are more accustomed to working with metal, so at first we were surprised first by how easy fiberglass is to work with (assuming you can get past the hor­rible dust and itching that this work creates). Our easy feelings changed, however, after we had Blast Masters strip the body. Neither of us suspected how badly dam­aged it all was and how much work was really there.

After two months of work, we finally guaranteed Tom that the body would be at his shop and ready for paint the first week of November, before the SEMA Show.

We were lucky to get it there before Christmas. Why can I not learn? Is it a left brain/right brain thing? I confess I tend to be more artist than math­ematician, and am also a bit of a perfectionist. So time tends to take a back seat to desire.

For instance, rather than just slap a wood or alu­minum dashboard on this project, as had originally been done, I decided to take a couple of Volvo Pl 800 dashboards that I had found at the Import Carlisle meet, and modify them to create a dash that looks like it belongs more in a 300SL Mercedes than a fiberglass special.

The root of my problem, I suspect, is that I get lost when I am in the shop. Apparently I have learned nothing from 40 years of sweating, cutting and bruis­ing myself, never mind the damaged hearing and strained relationships with fellow family members. I still love being out there. Whether I’m designing, cut­ting out and welding a bracket or bead-blasting and painting suspension pieces, the shop is my escape from my hectic life.

This may sound weird, but shop time is like making love: You know it’s going to be good, so why would you need to measure and estimate how long it’s going to take? Isn’t a time limit kind of a mood killer?

I have this luxury because I don’t make my living in the shop, at least not directly. For those of you who do, how do you do it? How can you possibly estimate what you will find when you tear down that blown-up engine? How do you determine just how rusty parts are, and how many bolts are going to snap when you replace those differential mounts? And how do those of you with employees figure this out by proxy? How do you learn how fast or good they are at doing these jobs?

My hats are off to the professionals, because I don’t know how you do it. If I opened up a race or restora­tion shop, I would be out of business in six months. If you guys have some ideas, tricks or tips for better estimating how long a job will take, let me know. Heck, there might even be a story or two here.

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View comments on the GRM forums
7/23/15 3:37 p.m.

While I have actually measured the number of beers it takes to restore a Healy, ( 1,248)I have not actually documented the number of hours to do the task. From something that I read quite a while back, the number that sticks in my head was that it takes 1000 man-hours to restore a car.

This 1000 hours is for the most part independent of what vehicle we are restoring since all cars have pretty much the same systems that have to be gone over.(body, drivetrain, suspension, interior, Trim) This number was also based on the work being done by the relevant experienced trades with the right tools, and not an amateur figuring out what the hell they were doing.

Of course, concourse quality and high end luxury cars will skew the number as high as you want to go.

I am like you, happy in the shop and in no hurry to get anywhere as long as I have a mechanical challenge in front of me.

HiTempguy UberDork
7/23/15 4:12 p.m.

The previous girlfriend continually started getting tired of me saying "I'll be there in 3 hours" and then showing up after 4. I finally started giving absurd timelines for things... and actually managed to meet them

At work, we cost everything out and then proceed to double it. Works out perfect every single time.

scottdownsouth Reader
7/23/15 5:28 p.m.

How long does a project take? Don't ask my wife... I was serious hoping that one of the car shows would pick my project up and finish it for me , but they would most likely screw it up in my eyes. I need help,motivation and a sack of money. Wet or dry.

Junkyard_Dog SuperDork
7/23/15 6:11 p.m.

Beer. Drink enough of it in the shop and you either get stuff done or don't care that you didn't. It's a win either way.

At least you finish projects. I get half way through and sell to finance the next flight of fancy. Sometimes not even that far. It sucks seeing potential in everydamnthing.

Type Q
Type Q Dork
7/23/15 6:29 p.m.

I use the rule of Pi. Take the largest most conservative estimate you can come up with as to how long it will take and how much it will cost and and multiply it by 3.14.

Duke MegaDork
7/24/15 7:01 a.m.
Type Q wrote: I use the rule of Pi. Take the largest most conservative estimate you can come up with as to how long it will take and how much it will cost and and multiply it by 3.14.


kb58 Dork
7/28/15 3:33 p.m.

"...You know it's going to be good, so why would you need to measure and estimate how long it's going to take? Isn't a time limit kind of a mood killer?"

Well said. I tell people much the same when they explain how long projects will take. I ask them, if they were planning a backpacking trip, would they have a rigid schedule for where they'll be each day, or just enjoy the journey, stopping to investigate something further if the mood suits them.

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