Restore A Muscle Car

Every classic car project presents it's own unique challenges, and muscle cars will add a few more.

1965 GTO project

Sheet Metal Repair

Old trucks and muscle cars have one thing in common--they were the most abused and beat-up vehicles out there. Backyard engineering, such as cutting out front and rear fenders to accept larger than stock tires, were all too common.

What Does "Numbers-Matching" Mean?

With few exceptions, engines and transmissions in American cars were coded from the factory at time of manufacture. Most carry a number/letter stamping that corresponds to the vehicle it originally went into. Of course, these can be altered (which is illegal) so you have to be careful. Familiarize yourself with that year and model to help spot a non-original motor.

Muscle Car Restoration

If you find a real numbers-matching muscle car, many of the original components could be long gone by now. The first things that usually "disappear" from an old muscle car are the motor, transmission and factory wheels.

Engine Build

For motorheads, the most satisfying part of an old car restoration is rebuilding the engine. Muscle car engines are big and heavy, so you'll need an engine hoist and a good quality engine stand.

389 Pontiac engine

Engine Hoist - Buy or Rent?

To remove the engine from a muscle car, you need an engine hoist. I've always rented or borrowed one when needed. Most major auto parts stores offer two-day rentals, but you must leave a deposit, usually with a credit card.

1965 GTO project

Shop: Two-Ton Engine Hoist

Remember that you'll need an engine hoist at least twice, once to remove, and once to reinstall. If you think you'll be doing more than one engine removal, consider buying one.

Muscle car engines are just about the heaviest engines ever put into passenger cars. For example, a Gen One small-block Chevy engine is about 535 pounds, and a Chevy 454 big-block is about 650 pounds. A 318 or 340 Mopar engine weighs about 525 pounds, and a 440ci motor can weigh anywhere from 670 pounds and up. A Gen Two 426 Hemi weighs in at 765 pounds, but add an alternator, water pump, p/s pump, manifolds and brackets, and that figure can be 850 pounds or more.

V8 Engine Stand

You can rent or borrow an engine hoist, but you need to buy a quality engine stand. Stay away from those cheap $40 specials - get a good, heavy-duty stand. Look for one with a 1,000-lb minimum capacity and dual front wheels.

Chevy small block on engine stand

My engine stand is a Hein-Werner with a 1,250-lb capacity. I've had it for over 30 years and it's seen several big V8 motors.

rebuild a muscle car engine

Engine Removal Tips

Before removing the hood, mark where the hood hinges go. This will help re-install later. Pulling the engine out with the transmission still installed is harder, so try to separate them before lifting the motor out. Most of the time you will not have to disconnect or remove the steering column to pull the engine out of a rear-wheel drive car.

With the engine securely on a stand, you can start the engine tear-down. Clean and tag everything taken off the engine and put in boxes out of the way. Once the engine block is completely stripped, it's probably taking a trip to the machine shop. This work may include chemically cleaning the block, installing new cam bearings and freeze plugs, and boring the cylinders if needed. Your engine may also need head work.

1970 Chevelle muscle car restoration

Stock Exhaust vs Headers

There's not too much that sounds better than a high-compression V-8 with headers. They help unleash horsepower and increase an engine's efficiency. But although headers add more horsepower to your muscle car, they usually decrease it's value.

Emissions Equipment

Muscle cars are worth more in factory-stock condition, but the majority of them (late sixties early seventies) have had the factory smog equipment removed at some point. It could be that a previous owner was trying to get more power, or could've been the parts weren't working correctly.

Read: Understanding Emissions Systems

If your old car is missing the air pump, it's probably also missing the manifold tubes, check valves, diverter valve, mounting bolts and brackets, as well as hoses and clamps. Many of these parts can still be found in new or used condition.

Drum Brake vs Disc Brake

Most sixties muscle cars left the factory with drum brakes front and rear. You'll want to leave these in place if you're restoring a muscle car back to stock original. If you plan on driving your muscle car 1,000 miles or less a year, four-wheel drum brakes are fine (they just take more effort).

Read: Overhauling Drum Brake Systems

For those of you who are building a street car or want to do some competitive track time, a front disc conversion is in order. Disc brake conversion kits are available for most old vehicles. A popular swap for 1964 to 1967 GM A-body cars is using later 1968-1972 A-body front disc brakes.

Stock vs Aftermarket Parts

Classic muscle cars are considered to be more valuable when they have their stock or original parts, or at least a high percentage of original parts. Unfortunately, these get harder to come by with every passing year.

By using original parts whenever possible, you'll be adding significant value to your car. This is why, if you have a chance to buy a new OEM part versus an aftermarket part, don't bid or haggle - buy it. While you're researching the part and trying to find it cheaper, someone who has already done their homework is clicking the "Buy It Now" button.

Like all old car projects, good, level-headed planning is key to a successful outcome. This is why spending time doing research is so important. Use your time and energy wisely.

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My first muscle car restoration was a small-block, 4-speed 1970 Chevelle. I purchased this car in 1991, before prices started rising out of the hands of the average enthusiast.

1970 Chevelle muscle car project

The Chevelle was my daily driver for a several years. When I bought it, the rear fender wells had been cut out and fiberglass-mesh fender flares were added. This modification may have been cool in the seventies, but did not belong on this classic muscle car. Removing the flares and repairing the quarter panels would be the most time-consuming part of the restoration.

muscle car sheet metal

Read: Automotive Bodywork

In 1993, I had the opportunity to buy a 1965 GTO convertible. It was weathered, battered, and neglected, but a PHS documented, Tri-power, 4-speed car.

muscle car project

Another muscle car malady is when non-stock hood pins are installed, leaving unwanted holes in the hood and in the radiator support. This was the case with the GTO.

1965 GTO project

I ended up replacing the radiator support, then fabricating and welding in metal patches for the holes in the hood.

restore a muscle car

In the 13 years it took me to complete it, the GTO was worth five times what I had originally paid for it. I'm not very sentimental about certain things - I sold it and moved on to the next project.

restore a muscle car

Buying A Muscle Car Project

There are still worthwhile muscle car projects out there, and a quick glance at price differences between finished and un-finished examples shows you just how important the restoration process is.

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My friend Ray has owned this 1965 GTO for five decades. After all that time, it's just about done...

1965 GTO hood painted

Read: Dual Quad GTO

The Muscle Car era was short-lived, but gave us some of the most memorable cars in automotive history. Today, some of the most highly sought classic cars are original muscle cars from 1964-1974.

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Related Articles:

Muscle Car History 1964-1969

Pontiac GTO History 1964-1965

Project Car Buyers Guide

Restore A Car On A Budget

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