Restoring a classic car should never be taken lightly, or without a plan, or with a small budget. It takes a painstaking amount of hours to restore some of these monsters that have been beaten up and left to rot and rust in barns and forests and deserts. Most car restoration projects take tens of thousands of dollars to embark upon. But the end product can easily be well worth it, and fetch ten times that amount if the car is in high demand.
Finding the perfect car to restore is a chore. As you will see, most of the cars on the “Before” side of this list really look terrible and unusable. You can only imagine the amount of time and energy that went into restoring these things. But the ends justify the means, at least in the case of these fabulous vehicles.
Many of them are classics from a bygone era: muscle cars from the late ‘60s and ‘70s, old iconic sport roadsters of the ‘50s, even cars that look like they belonged to Meyer Lansky or Al Capone from the ‘30s—and with histories just as dubious as those fellows. The bottom line is that the cars of yesteryear had much different DNA than today’s cars. They were built with metal and muscle, which shows in the rust and muscle weakness. But the magnificence of these cars never dies.
Here are 12 amazing restorations that shouldn’t have been possible, considering where these cars came from.
24 Before: 1935 Bugatti Type 57S Atalante
Before Bugatti became best-known for selling ridiculously priced, high-end exotic supercars, they were a manufacturer of classics like the Type 57S Atalante.
This rare Bugatti disappeared shortly after its purchase over half a century ago by a reclusive doctor.
It was discovered a few years ago by the children of Dr. Harold Carr, who had passed on recently and left the garage to his family. When they opened the garage, they found this magnificent car, though it was rusted over a bit, as you can see.
23 After: 1935 Bugatti Type 57S Atalante
The kids of Dr. Harold Carr really didn’t know what they had on their hands when they discovered this Type 57S in their late father’s garage. Even though modern Bugattis sell the most expensive production cars on the planet, for over seven figures, even cars like the Chiron and Veyron pale in comparison to what this ’37 Type 57S fetched at auction. This 80-year-old beauty cleaned up and was restored before finally being evaluated and then sold for $8.8 million.
22 Before: 1967 Jaguar XKE Roadster
The Jaguar XKE, or E-Type, is one of the most iconic cars of the ‘60s, and one of the most popular sports cars of all time. When first unveiled in 1961, Enzo Ferrari called it the most beautiful car in the world—and he’s the maker of Ferrari! This particular XKE had been parked in the same location sine the 1970s, in a simple car port. In the ‘80s, the port was enclosed with three walls, leaving the front open. In the ‘90s, a brick wall was erected, entombing this Jaguar without light or contact with the elements…
21 After: 1967 Jaguar XKE Roadster
Finally, in the ‘90s, the owner of this beat-up beauty listed the car for sale, knocked down the brick walls entombing it, and allowed a buyer to remove it.
That buyer then had it restored and thoroughly cleaned, and afterward the car was still intact and healthy.
Today, this Jaguar XKE looks impeccable, harkening back to its former days as one of the most beautiful cars on the planet—if not THE most beautiful, according to Mr. Enzo Ferrari himself.
20 Before: 1964 Porsche 911
The Porsche 911 is another one of the most iconic cars on the planet, one that is instantly recognizable and really made Porsche the superstar sports car manufacturer they are today.
This stunning ’64 911 sat in a barn for over 20 years, just collecting dust and rust.
A 911 of good quality can fetch quite a pretty penny on the collector’s market (Jerry Seinfeld paid $400,000 for one in 1996), but this one in particular was purchased for exactly $9,500.
19 After: 1964 Porsche 911
After the great purchase, the buyer surely knew what he had on his hands. He did a whole lot of careful cleaning and mechanical maintenance and did some upgrades, until it was restored to its original 1964 glory, in near mint condition. For a car that’s been in production for 55 years, this beauty—a second-year model from the first generation—is one of the marque’s most beautiful renditions. The ’64 911 still used air-cooled engines, a practice that was eventually thrown aside in 1998, still to the chagrin of many Porsche collectors today.
18 Before: 1973 Datsun 240Z
The Datsun 240Z, also known as the Nissan S30 or the Nissan Fairlady Z in Japan, was the first generation of Z GT two-seat coupes produced by Nissan. This car was brought stateside in 1969 to huge acclaim and success. It came equipped with a 151-hp inline-six engine that did 0-60 mph in eight seconds, and the car was reliable and fun to drive. Unfortunately, this particular one has seen better days, as the back wheels are missing, the door’s about to fall off, and the whole thing is in an utter state of disrepair.
17 After: 1973 Datsun 240Z
Luckily, this ’73 240Z was given new life and a second chance. It might not be quite as beautiful or styling as the Jaguar E-Type, but it certainly took some styling cues from it, and it also cost much less. We think this brown, hard-top is a pretty sleek color. If you’re picking one up for restoration, know that these cars like to rust from the inside out. If the car seems to be in decent condition, be thorough in checking your rust checklist. Once it’s up and running, though, it’ll run like a much more mechanically-engineered Scion FR-S.
16 Before: 1950 Ferrari 166MM Barchetta
As you can see, this classic ’50 Ferrari 166MM was in pretty poor shape when it was found. It was found resting in a barn in Italy before its exciting discovery.
It was then purchased for the small sum of $8,000, and its discovery made highlight reels in Ferrari collector circles.
This was the car that made Ferrari an iconic brand, and what it really needed was to be spit-shined to its former glory. And that’s exactly what happened next…
15 After: 1950 Ferrari 166MM Barchetta
As you can see, the gleam from this car’s restoration could blind a deity. After being found in the barn and bought for a small sum, it was shipped and managed by a group of resellers. The car was spiffed up and eventually sold for over $1,000,000 to collector Manny del Arroz. This Ferrari 166MM is a monumental achievement of restoration, and nowadays it’s also a hot topic on vintage luxury car shows like the Palo Alto Concours d’Elegance, as it rightly deserves to be.
14 Before: 1969 Ford Mustang
The progenitor of all pony cars, and the reason for the market niche in the first place, is the Ford Mustang. Since 1964 these cars have been turning heads, and the first generation (1965-73) especially was an epiphany in the car industry stateside. T
his particular model was apparently found in some bushes, terribly rusted and almost unrecognizable.
It’s almost unforgivable to let such a beautiful and iconic car stoop to such a state of disrepair, but luckily a restorer got hold of it…
13 After: 1969 Ford Mustang
And aren’t we glad they did! We doubt that there are many ’69 Mustangs in this excellent condition, so maybe it was a blessing in disguise to see such a disreputable Mustang lying around in the evergreens. This small, light vehicle is a great car for custom work and do-it-yourself people, which is pretty obvious when laying eyes on this beauty. It’s all there: the pristine white paint coat, the black racing stripe over the hood, and even the BF Goodrich tires look exquisite.
12 Before: 1969 Chevrolet Camaro RS
Perhaps the last muscle car on our list is the one that’s probably the most popular (besides the Mustang), the Chevrolet Camaro.
For a car that was manufactured from 1967 to 2002, then from 2009 to the present, the Camaro has had its fair share of time in the sun.
And this one, literally, has had WAY too much time in the sun, and in the boonies. Rounding out the classic muscle car trifecta, the first-generation Camaro (1967-69) was a heavy-hitting pony car that can take on the Mustang. Unfortunately, this one isn’t taking on anything, in its current state…
11 After: 1969 Chevrolet Camaro RS
As you can see, in its beautiful orange, restored sheen, this ’69 Camaro could definitely take on a Mustang. The car had eight engine options when first released, and by the end of the first generation, that list grew to 12 strong. With massive engines and a little creativity, the car was a handling beast.
For classic muscle cars and restoration projects, you really can’t go wrong with the Camaro.
The RS “appearance package” included hidden headlights, revised taillights with backup lights under the rear bumper, RS badging, and exterior bright trim.
10 Before: 1955 Chevrolet Bel Air
The second generation Chevrolet Bel Air (1955-57) is a very iconic and classic car. There’s really no mistaking it at first glance: it’s rounded bubble top combined with long, radical tail fins.
The Bel Air was sold from 1950 to 1981, but the second generation model is the most popular and the one collectors are most interested in.
These cars have been steadily climbing in value in recent years (maybe with the exception of this poor excuse for a Bel Air), but if you can get your hands on a restorer and the right parts, it could be a fruitful endeavor.
9 After: 1955 Chevrolet Bel Air
Subsequent generations of Bel Air tried to copy the second generation and the success of this model, but none of them ever came close. Unfortunately the car went on to a rather inconspicuous disappearance in the early ‘80s and hasn’t been seen since (except for an unremarkable concept in 2002), but that just means that restored, glorious versions like this teal beauty are in high demand.
It took only one generation for Chevy to figure out how to sell the Bel Air, and two more generations for them to drop the ball completely. If you can get your hands on a second-gen model, though, do it.
8 Before: 1957 Ford Thunderbird
Another absolute classic in the collector world is the first generation Ford Thunderbird (1955-57). This car lasted for 11 long generations. Ford hit the nail on the head from the get-go, and the first generation Thunderbird was essentially the best and last real Thunderbird. The iconic styling set the tone for future cars, even though future generations would slowly disappoint consumers and wander further away from what made this car spectacular. Clearly, the owner of this one didn’t know how valuable the car could be if it was in the right hands…
7 After: 1957 Ford Thunderbird
The Thunderbird was actually introduced as a rival to the Chevrolet Corvette, which seems like a foolish undertaking, but it really isn’t when you realize the Thunderbird outsold the Corvette 23-to-1 in its first year.
The second generation was also extremely successful thanks to the addition of a four-door model, but it didn’t really represent what this car set out to be in the first place.
The car saw many iterations of its V8 engine throughout the years, even featuring a 300-hp supercharged mill toward the end of its life. A car in this pristine condition is quite rare, and could fetch quite a nice bundle.
6 Before: 1970 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am
The Pontiac Firebird was introduced in 1967. It took styling cues from both the Pontiac GTO and the Chevy Camaro, but it was also its own animal. The first generation was great, but the beginning of the second generation is really the one that is most interesting (and fetches the heftiest prices). This ’70 Firebird Trans Am was found in a barn, sitting and rotting, which is no place for a classic muscle car. As you can see, the wheels were missing and it was terribly bent out of shape…
5 After: 1970 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am
But boy did the restoration team do a wonderful job of bringing it back to its original glean! It’s complete with the white racing stripe, new wheels and a clean cut.
Luckily, as a GM vehicle, many parts of this one are shared with other muscle cars of that era, so the parts weren’t too hard to obtain.
This definitely comes in handy for a 1970 model, which was produced in only half the numbers of the average that it usually was due to a worker strike.
4 Before: 1970 Dodge Challenger R/T SE
We would be remiss when mentioning muscle cars if we forgot about the Dodge Challenger. Initially built as something completely different, in 1970 the Challenger became a pony car worthy of… ahem, “challenging” the Mustang. Unfortunately it had a relatively short run of just four years before coming back as a terrible import in 1978 to 1983, and then disappearing again until the 2008 revival. And as you can see, this rusted out, beat up aluminum bucket here has seen better days.
3 After: 1970 Dodge Challenger R/T SE
After stripped completely of its colors, it was repainted with this brilliant blue coat, then fixed up internally until it became a spick-and-span reminder of the better days. This ’70 Challenger is an R/T, the “Road/Track” performance model, which had between 335 and 390 bhp, and it’s also arrayed with the more luxurious SE specifications, which includes leather seats, a vinyl roof, a smaller “formal” rear window, and an overhead interior console that contained three warning lights (door ajar, low fuel, and seatbelts).
2 Before: 1934 McLaughlin Buick Coupe
Peter Trant is a restorer of old cars, and his prized possession is this Canadian-built, ultra-rare, 1944 McLaughlin Buick Series 80 Victoria Coupe. He paid $300 for this dilapidated pile in 1966, when it was 33 years old.
In 1979, he took it apart for restoration. He finally finished the restoration 33 years later.
Trant spent 44 years teaching future shop teachers at the British Columbia Institute of Technology. He was initially going to do a quick restoration on this Buick and take it for a road trip across Canada…
1 After: 1934 McLaughlin Buick Coupe
Instead, he took his 1947 Lincoln Continental convertible on the road trip, and set this thing aside to really put the time in to make it pristine and beautiful. And as you can tell, he succeeded. He found under the floorboard after disassembly an imprinting that said “Not For Production.” He’s never heard of another one of these cars, and thinks it could be a protoype built by GM using parts shipped from the U.S. Eventually, he gave it a top-quality restoration, and what you see here is the magnificent end product.
Sources: driving.ca, autopartswarehouse.com, thecoolist.com, autowise.com, cnn.com