The View from Faraway Farm: Rolling Restorations

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Sometimes life is just too short to wait for the total ground-up, frame-off restoration of a car or motorcycle that you'd rather be enjoying. I am of the opinion that frame-off total vehicle restorations are for the rich or the retired. At this point in my life, I have at least two major projects waiting for a time when I am semi or fully retired. My attitude towards these projects is no stress. If I get to them, great. If I don't, I will either be dead and gone, or I will have come to the conclusion that I can't tackle it and simply sell the components. In the meantime, I have two, OK, probably three rolling restorations going on as I write this. Two of these vehicles don't have frames in the traditional sense, they are unit body construction automobiles so you couldn't do a frame-off if you wanted to.

The first one is a 1982 Mercedes Benz 300 CDT, a very stylish black coupe with a five-cylinder turbo diesel engine. I've made considerable progress with this car, and it is now a joy to drive. On a rolling restoration, it pays to start with a running, stopping and starting vehicle with little to no rust. This particular Mercedes was clearly well cared for when I got it, but certain things were tired. The paint was dull, the radio was a joke, the windshield washer didn't work, the driver's seat sagged and the sunroof leaked. I had the paint buffed out and now it looks very good for its age. I had a Bluetooth AM/FM CD unit installed, I installed a new washer pump, had the sunroof sealed and I purchased a seat repair kit that I haven't yet installed. I lucked out when I found a gorgeous wood and aluminum handmade Nardi steering wheel with the Mercedes star in the horn button, and it transforms the interior into something exceptional. Yeah, there are still more things to tackle on this car, but I drive it quite a lot and it has been a true joy.

My second rolling restoration is a 1980 MGB sportscar that I stumbled upon a month ago. It starts, it stops but the clutch is inoperable, even though I've driven it sans clutch. This one has a bigger list of needs than the Mercedes has ever had, but the little Brit has character. It too has a Nardi wood steering wheel, probably the most valuable thing on the entire car. The top is new, the body is just OK, and the paint is questionable but that little engine runs strong and starts first time every time. I've fixed the cracked dash top with a replacement, and I got the directional signals working with a new flasher unit. This winter it will receive new seats and maybe a new clutch. After periods of dormancy, MGB clutches tend to stick to the flywheel, so that may be the issue ... we'll see. That brings us to my third rolling restoration; the one that hasn't been rolling in a very long time.

The third unit is the `82 Ford F-100 pickup that I bought on eBay for $500, flew to California wine country and drove it home through a blizzard on Donner Pass. I had a Mustang Street drag car drivetrain installed in the Ford pickup and promptly blew two automatic transmissions. It has been sitting for years now, patiently waiting on a beefier transmission. Beyond the transmission I had the leather interior from the Mustang put into the truck, and when I was able to drive it, it was a truly cush ride with scary power. I can't really say that the F-100 is a rolling restoration at this point, but it has potential.

When you have a rolling restoration truly rolling, that's the fun part of the whole process. I enjoy sourcing the parts as they are needed and checking each little defect and improvement off the to-do list. Depending on the vehicle, cosmetics don't really figure into the equation until the mechanical issues are fully sorted. The MG and the Ford pickup will both need paint and bodywork. When things work out this is a very satisfying endeavor. At times you have to be creative to get work done, to source parts that are hard to find, to solve problems that require more money than you have to fix. When you get to drive the thing that has been the object of all your efforts it is a reward unlike any other. Know what happens next? You drive it for a while then set it free, and start the process all over again with another needy but interesting ride. If I had the money to avoid the searching and running it just wouldn't be as much fun or anywhere near as rewarding. That's a rolling restoration.

Arlo Mudgett's Morning Almanac has been heard over multiple radio stations in Vermont for nearly 30 years, and can be tuned in at 92.7 WKVT Monday through Saturday mornings at 8:35 a.m. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of the Brattleboro Reformer.


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