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So you want to restore a classic or build a kit car? Think twice.

by | May 23, 2024

For reasons that have more to do with personality than pragmatism, I recently considered anew the possibility of restoring a classic car, or perhaps building a kit car. It’s an itch I’ve thought about scratching since the days when Popular Mechanics regularly featured ads for the Bradley GT, a kit car based on a VW chassis. The ads implied that I’d “made my mark” and thus should now “make (my) Bradley GT.” The pitch deeply resonated with me back in the mid-70s but had the opposite effect on my late dad, who reminded me that men who have made their mark don’t still live with their parents.

By the generally accepted chronological measure, at least, I’ve been a grown man for quite a while now. Which means that when a childhood dream like this one rears its ugly head again as it sporadically does, I do what responsible, mature men do, and Google something completely self-serving in the hopes that I’ll be rewarded with exactly the answer I’m hoping to receive. Specifically, “What does it take to restore a classic car or build a kit car?”

But when I did, apparently the digital Oracle of All Things was feeling out of sorts, and replied with this, among a slew of other results that were less than supportive. I’ll save you the time of reading the multitude of tales of woe, financial ruin, marital stress, hard men reduced to sobbing, et al, because they all boil down to this admonishment: if you’re not an experienced mechanic with the tools, skill, patience, garage space, and above all else, time, DON’T DO IT.

Many belt gauges use a series of teeth, placed in the belt's grooves, to determine wear.

This is in fact why the Bradley GT kit, although popular for a heartbeat of time back in the day, never really took off. Sources say that only about 6,000 were bought and built from 1975-1981. Or for those of you who are kinetic learners, that means that if you lined up all the Bradley GTs ever built end-to-end, the line would stretch all the way from one side of Jeff Bezos’ house to the other. Maybe.

Building the alleged kit car required a greater-than-average amount of mechanical skill than the ads implied, much to the chagrin of kit buyers. It didn’t help that the relatively few finished GTs that made it from kit to completion were neither “grand” nor at all suited for “touring.” The Bradley GT was about as sleek and fast as the humble VW Beetle living underneath its fiberglass body panels and tacky quilted seat surfaces. In other words, as appealing as a lot of things that never made it out of the 70s, like leisure suits, the AMC Pacer, and Greg Brady.

Bradley GT Kit interior shot

Photo: Bradley GT BaT.

Fact is I should have known better than to revisit the idea of restoring anything more mechanically complex than a pedal car, based on my own grim, albeit limited experience when I helped restore Dad’s 1954 MG TF. He’d bought that rolling wreck of a ragtop when I was in college, and one summer break, I helped replace and reassemble its eccentric components and prepare the body panels for repainting. I would compare the experience to attempting to solve a Rubik’s Cube while wearing mittens and continuously inhaling British Almond Green colour paint fumes.

Unsurprisingly, many of the online cautionary tales of car restorations and kit car builds gone bad are from professional auto techs, some of whom were the beneficiaries of those abandoned projects when would-be builders threw in the towel. If you make your living wrenching, you’ve done your share of undoing well-intentioned but badly executed repairs (and hey, feel free to share your horror stories in the comments below). My father’s MG met a similar fate: After spending hundreds of labor hours and thousands of dollars on parts and paint, our amateur-hour restoration looked like it. Disappointed in the results but undeterred, he sent the car to a professional shop. $26,000 later, he had a fully restored, show-quality TF that he thoroughly enjoyed for several years, which is more than I can say about the vast majority of mass-produced vehicles I’ve owned.

For now, I’m going to bury – again – the idea of building a kit car or restoring a classic. I’m convinced I don’t have the skills to do it right or the money to pay a professional tech to do the heavy lifting for me. What I DO have, though, is a warm and indelible memory of a shared experience with my father. And I’ll be holding on to that a lot longer than any vehicle.

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