From muscle cars and classic trucks to iconic imports, these are the top 10 best cars to restore.
Like having a child or moving to another country, deciding to restore a car is a deeply personal decision not be taken lightly. What car enthusiast hasn’t found themselves at some point cruising down a rural highway and caught sight of a hobbled 1950s GMC pickup hip deep in the tall grass and thought, boy, wouldn’t that make a great restoration project. This, regardless of your mechanical know-how or financial wherewithal. But for those with a least a modicum of either or the will to acquire them, a restoration project is perhaps the purest form of automotive worship there is. It’ll require devotion and imagination, but the journey is made infinitely easier by choosing the right car to restore.
For this, our list of the top 10 best cars to restore, we tried to balance a number of different factors. First, the ease of the project. Older cars are indeed easier to work on than modern ones, but not all are equally simple. We tried to lean toward ones that are not only forgiving for the novice mechanic but also popular enough to have a devoted following and active forums to help with troubleshooting. Next, we chose cars with available parts. Some will be more challenging than others, but none are prohibitively difficult to procure parts for. And finally, we chose a wide variety of cars from different eras to satisfy the varied automotive tastes of our readers.
It doesn’t get much more classic than a 1960s Ford Mustang. There’s a lot to choose from with the first-generation Mustang, from the basic six-cylinder models all the way to the 428 and 429 cu.-in. Cobra Jet and Boss V8s. The latter are probably easiest if you’re looking to do a genuine restoration, bringing the car back to its original stock form. But if you’re interested in restomodding your Mustang, Ford as a wide selection of crate motors for oodles of additional horsepower. Due to their popularity then and now, there are lots of examples still out there and loads of devoted and knowledgeable fans to call on for advice.
The Volkswagen Beetle’s attraction has long been its simplicity. Equal parts cute and practical, the OG of urban runabouts is an excellent candidate for a restoration project. Like the Mustang, the Beetle is a known entity and its basic air-cooled boxer engine one of the most accessible for entry-level mechanics. Another attraction is that there were literally millions of Beetles produced, making parts relatively easy to find and decently cared-for examples abound. The biggest question with a Beetle restoration is how you’ll want to personalize your project. Do you go beige on beige original paint and interior or go all out on a psychedelic dayglow scheme based on the Beatles’ Yellow Submarine album?
Breathing elegance back into one of the best-looking Cadillacs of all time? Sign me up. The sixth-generation Cadillac Series 62 is arguably the peak of 1950s American luxury car design. With its double headlamps and double bullet taillights, monumental fins, long hood and even longer rear deck, and chrome, chrome, and more chrome, the Series 62 is a beautiful car that beckons for a proper restoration.
There are few projects better suited for a literal shade tree restoration than the C/K line of Chevy pickups from the 1960s. The first two generations are our favorites, with their squared-off, no-nonsense designs. Restoration projects are often inspired by emotional connections we had to the cars of our youth. For those pining for a time when men were men and pickups were for work, the C/K pickup is the perfect choice for a restoration.
The Ford Model T might have been a logical choice for a restoration project. Its historical significance, the fact at there were millions sold (meaning many surviving even today), and a century worth of shadetree mechanical knowhow would all make the Model T a viable option. But, as we noted in our article on how to drive a Model T, they’re not the most modern or straightforward of cars. Therefore, we suggest its successor, the Model A. Nearly as old as the Model T, the Model A is significantly more modern. It also came in a number of different body styles from sedan to coupe to truck. And of course, the Model A is about as mechanically simple as a car gets.
John DeLorean may be more well known for his DMC-12, the car made famous by the Back to the Future movies, but his more successful creation was the Pontiac GTO. Obviously, the GTO is among the greatest muscle cars of all time and though just about any of the muscle cars of the era would make for good restoration choices, the GTO is just a cut above. Our favorite look was the 1971 model year with its shaker hood scoops and wire-mesh grille. The real question for restorers is the choice of powertrains. You may be lucky enough to find one with the 455 H.O. V8 (good for 335 horsepower), but if not, you can always start considering an engine swap.
Another classic, the Chevrolet Bel Air would shortly go on to spawn another restoration favorite, the Chevy Impala, but back in the mid-fifties the Bel Air was a defining car of the decade. The Bel Air’s first and second generations bridge the gap between the stylings of the 1940s and early ‘50s, heavy and robust, and the sleek and swooping stylings of the later 1950s and early 60s. Though the car came in a variety of body styles we’d recommend seeking out a late model two-door convertible with either of the small-block V8s. The Bel Air restoration will earn you a lifetime’s worth of cred at your local Cars & Coffee.
Some cars build their reputations on speed or luxury, but the Mercedes-Benz W123’s legacy is largely one of durability. Sure, today’s Mercedes are so chock full of gadgets that can go haywire, the workhorse W123 and especially in its diesel form, is renowned for its longevity. Refinement, durability, safety, and build quality make the W123 in many ways the smart person’s car. Styling is admittedly on the dull side. But for some of us, an ocean of beige starts our nostalgia meter clicking. The W123 was probably underpowered, even for its time, but the ride quality remains sublime even by modern standards.
The classic British sports car formula of lightweight and nimble derives from cars like the MG MGB. Of course, the MGB’s origins make it a more challenging build, but also all the more rewarding. The case for the MGB is simple: if you’re going to spend oodles of money and mountains of time restoring a classic car, you’ve got to be confident that you’ll enjoy the results of your labors. The MGB was designed as a pleasure car most at home on crisp fall afternoons for a jaunt through the countryside. This charming roadster was in production for nearly 20 years, so there are plenty of decent examples out there and parts availability is still good.
The first generation of Datsun Z cars, like the MGB, will be more challenging to procure parts for. Despite this fact, the 240Z, 260Z, and 280Z harken back to early days of Japanese performance cars. Similar to the GTO and Mustang, the 240Z does pose the basic question of resto or restomod, to upgrade or recreate a bit of automotive history. The iconic status of the 240Z has led to a ton of folks making the leap to restomodding them, dropping in all manner of alternative engines from LSs to 2JZs.