Restoring or rebuilding cars is an expensive hobby. There is no way around it. Whether you build them or buy them, you either pay with time or cash invested.
As enthusiasts, we also realize that our cars are an investment. Each dollar spent adds value, and each hour of labor increases on that investment, right? Maybe. There are some obvious enhancements that add value, like a quality paintjob or fresh upholstery, but some modifications might not add the value you hoped.
This Impala belongs to Joe Clotfelter, and he's had it since the late '60s. Little has changed in that time, but maintenance still ads up.
If you want the best value for money spent on the products and labor for paint and bodywork, is it better to go with a factory color like Marina Blue on Mike Millican’s Malibu? Or is it better to do something custom like Brain VanAagten’s black with flames Malibu? They’re both Chevy Chevelle Malibus, two-door hardtops, and clean as heck. But, which would pull more at an auction? The answer is a little more complicated than you might think.
These are the same make and model of car, and they are only one year apart from each other. But, they're very different builds.
Let’s look at the mechanical side of things? When looking at buying or selling a ’57 Chevy, where’s the real money? Is it in something like Ken Beach’s original, fuel-injected car? Or is it in Andy Millican’s Pro Streeted ’57 210 sedan running a big-block with a Procharger? Both are ’57s, but about as far apart as you can get.
Same year, totally different builds.
While we live and breathe cars, we aren’t experts on sale prices. We might watch the occasional televised auction and spend infinitely more time perusing the Cars and Trucks section of the local Craigslist page as we do watching political debates, but that’s about as far as it goes. With that in mind, we reached out to some of the authorities in the field. We contacted Craig Jackson of Barrett-Jackson auctions and Tim Fleming at Kelly Blue Book to get their thoughts on what changes we make to our cars do to their value.
Each expert provides a window into their own specific field: Craig is an authority on all things collector car, and Tim is experienced in modern applications and general trends in the automotive market. While the market is constantly shifting and it’s hard to pin things down to an exact science, our experts can give us their thoughts on general trends, and help us understand where the market is and where it’s going.
How do you feel about the custom color of this truck? It’s close to factory, just a little brighter.
Is Paint Only Surface Deep, Or Does A Splash Of Color Do More?
For many years, custom cars struggled to bring top dollar. – Craig Jackson
Was that high-end custom paintjob worth the extra couple bucks, or should you have played it safe and stuck with the color code listed on your VIN or cowl tag? While the whole subject is subjective and dependent on personal perspective, the exterior paint color may be more strongly affected by personal taste than anything else.
“For many years, custom cars struggled to bring top dollar,” Craig explained. “We’ve seen Corvettes that are numbers matching and maybe not the ultra-rarest, but a desirable car nonetheless, be outperformed by a relatively simple restomod. I would also suggest that my 1961 Chevrolet Impala bubble top built by Boyd Coddington – which is considered by many as one of the most exotic custom, classic Chevrolets in the world – would be worth more than a barn-find bubble top.”
This Boyd Coddington-built '61 Impala bubble top is the kind of custom that brings in the big bucks at auction. (Photo Credit to Barrett-Jackson)
“However, vehicles that feature a few custom elements, like graphics, paint, or pinstriping, do not typically impact how the market values a vehicle” he continued. “Those one-off custom elements that can be easily removed or replaced to suit a buyer’s preference are becoming a non-factor.”
Since paint color is relatively easy to change, it’s often not a deal breaker. That being said, it’s actually one of the few things that can poorly affect the value of a car. “Believe it or not, a truly ugly paint color can affect a car’s value,” Craig said, “While a decent paintjob might not make the value of a car skyrocket, a really ugly coat has the potential to drag down values.”
This 1960 Impala, built by Troy Trepenier, is an example of a custom build that would preform very well at auction. The builder’s reputation and quality are part of what help it do well. (Photo Credit to Barrett-Jackson)
Is There Added Value By Loading Up Options?
It’s no secret that a fully loaded ’67 Camaro is going to hold more value than a base-model version. Low-option cars are more common, they were cheaper then, and they’re cheaper now. We do wonder though if you can offset that difference by adding more options of your own. Could you save some money buying a low-option car and load it with exactly what you want?
“The collector car market continues to evolve. Many new people are coming into it, and the rules from 50 years ago don’t really apply today.” Craig explained. “ Again, it really depends on the buyer’s preference as to how much of the original components are intact or have been upgraded. So many collectors today want the convenience of modern technology and performance. They love the look and feel of a vintage car, but have also been conditioned to appreciate contemporary high-tech vehicles.”
These are both beautiful Camaros, one is fully customized and the other is restored to original.
One change that we’ve noticed brings particular controversy is modern safety features like shoulder harness seatbelts, so we asked Craig what his thoughts were on that. “Purists will usually tell you that any alteration, including shoulder-harness seatbelts, devalues a car’s provenance.” He continued, “Fortunately for those who have upgraded components on their cars, not all buyers are purists, but I would always suggest that original parts be kept.”
Tim also had some valid input with this question. While KBB focuses exclusively on modern vehicles, their input is still valuable, because it provides an alternate perspective with a broader application.
“Many options enhance the value of a vehicle, especially technological improvements that haven’t been widely adopted across the industry just yet,” Tim explained. “Over time, as these options become more prevalent across all makes/models, the value of these options declines, as we’ve seen with A/C, power windows, ABS, and numerous other features. This will be true of many features being added to vehicles today, many of which are safety-focused, such as rear-view cameras and automatic emergency braking.”
This LS3-powered Chevelle features many of the modern conveniences that Craig was talking about, including A/C and improved braking.
Tim’s comments are applicable to the future of our hobby as we look at how much more common it has become to put a modern drivetrains and features like A/C in our classic cars. Will it ever get to a point where features like A/C, cruise control, fuel injection, and modern drivetrains are so popular that they become the norm? We’ll have to wait and see.
What’s The Deal With Wheels And Tires?
This is actually an interesting section, and we think you’ll be surprised by the answers from both Tim and Craig. People take their wheels and tires very seriously, they are crucial to the overall look of a car, and they can make or break a build’s appearance. We thought they would play a big part for the value of a car, but we thought wrong.
Sean Root‘s Chevelle has some nice Chip Foose wheels, and they certainly add to the look of his Chevelle, but do they increase the value?
“Unless the wheels are the original equipment that were on the car when it rolled off the production line, it usually doesn’t matter,” Craig explained. “Wheels and tires are both easy to upgrade or switch out. Plus, it’s getting to be almost impossible to buy high-performance versions of the original tire sizes. So instead of putting 15-inch radials on a car, many prefer to go to 17-, 18- or even 19-inch performance rubber. Ultimately, if you want to make upgrades, just keep the originals.”
“In general, wheels are a very subjective matter for car buyers – Tim Fleming
Tim’s take on this question was only slightly different than Craig’s, and again offers a similar viewpoint with a different perspective on the topic. “In general, wheels are a very subjective matter for car buyers,” Tim explained. “We see a lot of data here, and it indicates wheel size has a more substantial impact on the value of a vehicle than the style of the wheel. Of course, better tires should be more valuable than discount ones, but being a wear item, their added value will be limited in many cases.”
Few cars retain their original wheels and hubcaps. Ken Beach’s restored fulie ’57 is a perfect example of a car that should keep the original wheels and tires. It wouldn’t make any sense to go to the lengths Ken did for an original restoration, only to use aftermarket wheels and different tires.
The bottom line on this one, do what you want with wheels and tires and just understand that they really aren’t going to bring the value of your car up to another level. If it’s a really nice car already, it’s like the whipped cream on a mug full of hot chocolate: it’s a nice bonus, but you still would have gotten the hot chocolate without the cream.
How Do We Feel About Upholstery, Stereo Equipment, And Drivetrain Upgrades?
This was another interesting section, because we assumed that any upgrades to interior would have a positive change on the value of a car, but again, that’s not entirely true. Craig’s advice indicates that it’s best not to change anything unless you plan on changing everything.
This '56 Chevy restored by Mike Halladay of Spokane Valley, Washington, is a perfect example of what an all-out custom interior is. Would those bucket seats alone look right in an otherwise original car? Definitely not. But the entire look has been altered and everything on this build works well together.
I’m not an advocate for modifications unless you’re going for a full custom to change the dash and everything – Craig Jackson
“I’m not an advocate for modifications unless you’re going for a full custom to change dash and everything,” Craig detailed. “If tastefully done, these can be very popular. The most important factors are incorporating moderate technology. Tablets, sound systems, and wireless charging are often the driving force behind these alterations. More comfortable seats are no longer the biggest reason interiors are upgraded.”
When it comes to stereo equipment, there isn’t as much of an impact as you might expect. Craig explains that stereo equipment is so easy to replace that it doesn’t make much of a difference. “Those components are easy to replace with original, rebuilt, or new. Now, they actually make radios that look like the old ones.
The Retrosound radio in this ’57 Chevy is nearly indistinguishable from the factory radio, but is setup to play bluetooth and make and receive calls hands free.
Tim’s advice was somewhat similar, but a little different as its application is geared toward modern cars. “In general, yes,” Tim explained. “It varies depending on the class of the car, but a premium audio system from a name brand is generally worth a couple of hundred dollars on a 3-year-old vehicle. This value will diminish as the vehicle ages.” That last part is the key to his advice however. The age of the car diminishes the effect of a new stereo on car values, and since we are talking collector musclecars from the ‘60s and ‘70s, that pretty well exceeds the range of effectiveness that Tim is talking about.
And of course, any engine or drivetrain modifications add value, right? Again, the answer is more nuanced than that. “If the car was a rare model (like a Z/28, L88, Hemi or a Boss), but the original engine or transmission is replaced by a modern but more common one, that may decrease the value,” Craig explained. “It’s important you aren’t trying to upgrade an ultra-rare car, because that won’t improve the value.” Don’t swap out the original Z/28 engine for an LT1 or an LS engine, you’re not doing anyone any favors. A six-cylinder car is a much better candidate for a drivetrain change, but again, keep the original engine if you can. They’re only original once and you never know what could be valuable someday.
So, Should I Do It?
The answer is simple: it’s your car, do what you want. Most of us do it for the love of the hobby and a passion for cars, not for a love of money. If everyone was in it for the cash, then it wouldn’t be much of any fun. Whatever you change, just keep the original stuff and have fun.
Jim Nardo's pickup is propane powered. That may not be a high value modification, but it certainly doesn't hurt the value of his truck. Not only that, but it means more to him this way and that's really what matters.
“If it’s just a regular car and you want to make upgrades, there are a lot of things you can do,” Craig explained. “Upgrading a car with drum brakes to disc is always popular, as well as adding an OE-style air conditioning system. Fuel injection can be a popular upgrade, as well as tasteful but factory-style interior upgrades. Simple changes can improve the value of the car as long as the car is not ultra-rare.”
In the end, it’s your car, so do what you want. The orange and black color scheme on Mark Palmer‘s Nova wagon may not increase the value over any other color scheme with the same quality paint, but it looks great and it’s just how Mark likes it.
While you are working on your project, just keep in mind that while done right, little changes can make a difference in the value. Do it because it’s what you want for your car, not because it’s going to make it worth more, if and when you decide to sell it. After all, according to Tim, the best thing you can do for the value of your car is a good detail job. “A thorough clean and detail of the interior and exterior, repairing minor dings and dents, and ensuring proper mechanical condition with no warning lights will more than likely add more value to the vehicle than the cost of the work,” Tim explained.