It’s such a simple question: What’s it cost?

We obsess over it at auctions, where the prices of even common collector cars like Mustangs and Triumph TRs approach $40,000. We think that’s crazy, but isn’t that just another way of saying we conveniently ignore the flip side of that purchase cost? I’m talking, of course, about the cost to restore a car.

I’ve been spending a lot of time on that flip side restoring our Mini Cooper project car. When I first looked at this car, the owner was asking $10,000-and boldly told me that it was worth $25,000 when it was done. I explained to him that he was absolutely right: Once I bought his car for $10,000 and put another $25,000 in it, it would be worth $25,000.

He sheepishly cut his asking price in half and I bought the car.

Fast-forward a few years, and we are nearly done restoring this cool little numbers-matching 1967 Mini Cooper S. On the plus side, in concours condition it is now worth more like $40,000; on the minus side, it was (of course) way rougher than we originally thought. We just got finished with nearly 200 hours of welding and fabrication just to make the shell perfect again.

That’s the nature of restoration costs: They’re nebulous. They grow over time. They also tend to stay hidden, since a reluctance to face bad news (or one’s spouse) means the receipts are often hidden, ignored or lost. Even if they are tracked religiously, they rarely include the costs of sorting a newly rebuilt car.

It all adds up to this: Not many of us really know what it costs to restore a car. That’s especially true for those of us who do at least some of the work ourselves. We don’t calculate how much time we spend in the garage, and how would we assign a cost to it if we did?

Nevertheless, let’s try a little math here. So we bought a Mini for $5000, and spent $10,000 at Mini Mania for parts. Let’s not forget the used door and other pieces we got from Heritage Garage-better add another $1000 there. We spent a few thousand in machine work doing the head and rebuilding the trans-mission. We bought Vredestein tires and Koni shocks; this set us back another $1500 or so. We spent another $2000 rebuilding the rest of the suspension, since we decided to stick with the original displacers. A paint job is going to set us back $5000, and that’s only because our paint guy takes real, real good care of us. We got a new wiring harness from British Wiring, an insulation kit from Quiet Ride Solutions, and we had the original heater rebuilt by Ron Jernigan.

Chock up another grand or two. We sent the gauges to Nisonger, and while they come back perfect every time, that cost a few bucks as well.

Add this all up, throw in the additional $5000 in miscellaneous expenses that I know this car will need before it is done, and we have a grand total of nearly $35,000. Right off the bat, we’re $10,000 over the $25,000 cost I quoted the original owner when I bought the car. We always seem to underestimate costs-plus, as we have mentioned, although this car was very original and had all its numbers matching, it had been ridden hard and put away very, very wet.

At least I can comfort myself with the idea of a $5000 profit on my projected $40,000 sale, right? Yes and no. Notice that we haven’t talked about labor. Along with my buddies Jere and Tom, I have some 500 hours in this car already. At $20 an hour, that’s about $10,000.

At a more realistic $50-$70 shop rate, that’s a cubic crap-ton of money. And if this car was more complicated, like the Sunbeam Tiger project we did a few years ago, that number would be more like 2000 hours.

Obviously, my accountant would tell me that none of my hard work makes any sense. Going to auction and buying a nicely restored Mini at auction for top dollar looks like the deal of a lifetime, right?

Not so fast. We haven’t figured in my savings on therapy costs, and let’s face it, a good shrink charges more than even the most expensive shop rate. And since most of us crazies would spend our time (and money) on some other bad habit if we weren’t out in the shop, I consider myself money ahead for every hour I spend there.

Back in the real world, though, if you’re a bottom- line kind of person, purchasing finished cars is the way to go. If you can get a car at club-newsletter prices, you’ll win big, but even if you pay all the money at auction, you’ll still save time and dollars over trying to restore it.

If, however, you are like me and you do this because you love it, then you can’t put a dollar figure on what you get out of bringing old cars back to life. I have restored more than 40 cars in the last 30 years, and as I near the finish line with our Mini, I am already getting excited about the 1958 Tornado Typhoon I’m going to do next. After all, I’ve spent way more r on stupider stuff.

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