Definition: Restomod [resto-mod] v. (note: totally made up definition!)
A restomod car is a classic or vintage vehicle that has been restored and modified with modern parts, technology, and conveniences to improve its performance, safety, and reliability while retaining its original appearance and character.
Restomod cars typically feature upgrades to the engine, suspension, brakes, and transmission, as well as the addition of modern amenities such as air conditioning, audio systems, and navigation. The modifications are often done in a way that complements the original design of the vehicle, blending old and new seamlessly.
Restomodding has become increasingly popular among car enthusiasts who want to own a classic or vintage car that performs like a modern vehicle while still retaining the charm and nostalgia of a bygone era.
So you’re sitting pretty with your American classic. The beautiful lines. The gleaming chrome. That signature V8 rumble. The image of perfection. The epitome of American Exceptionalism.
Reality sets in. That absolute stunner you see in your mind is a lot more rough than you remember. Dang thing is more rust than car! Doesn’t matter, you love it anyway. Fact remains, your ride is in need of restoration.
Maybe you’ll go the traditional, show car or concours route. Numbers matching, all factory original everything! Even bias-ply tires! Nah, that’s not what you’re feeling. Classic car restoration purism doesn’t really interest you. The restomod style seems to better suit you. Something that looks traditional, but drives like a modern day sports car.
What is a Restomod?
Different wheel and tire combosA consistent theme amongst restomods is moderately larger wheel and tire packages. Rims in the 17-18” in diameter and 8-10” in width are commonplace due to their increased performance capabilities.Wider tread width means more potential grip, and larger diameter wheels means larger, higher performance brake packages than originally available.
Modern tubular suspension and lower ride heightsIn their efforts to make classic muscle cars and trucks handle like their modern counterparts; most restomod builders have opted to swap out stamped steel suspension parts, heavy coil springs, and stiff rubber bushings for tubular control arms with synthetic (poly/delrin/solid/etc) bushings and optimized geometry, adjustable coilover shocks, and large diameter sway bars. These upgrades will mostly be of the bolt on variety, and will enable you to adjust your suspension feel and ride height. Modern brake packages – With an abundance of real estate afforded by the increased wheel size, most restomods can be found sporting larger diameter, late model disc brake systems on all four corners. Since vehicles from this era typically had drum brakes out back, and either drum or more regularly small and heavy disc brakes up front, this is one of the best bang for your buck upgrades. Advantages gained by upgrading here are twofold: increased brake performance and decreased unsprung weight.
Modern enginesThis is a big one. This, to me, is really what separates an actual restomod from some car show survivor with big wheels. Swapping out the original engine for a late model mill is the big ticket. Most common one everyone’s heard of is the fabled LS swap. From a price and performance standpoint, this is the standard. Modern V8s have numerous advantages over their predecessors; such as vastly improved cylinder head design, higher compression, on demand fuel and ignition tuning, intake manifold runner tuning, and variable valve timing. So why not give your hot rod the benefit of a modern heart?
Modern transmissions and drivelinesConsidering vehicles from this vintage came from the factory with at worst a two speed automatic, and at best a 4 speed non overdrive stick, it’s clear to see why most restomods have moved on from the factory equipment. Moving to an overdrive transmission, you gain a few advantages. Lower RPMs at cruising speeds, higher top speed, less RPM drop between shifts, some say (myself included) an improved driving experience, among others that are configuration and situation dependent. Other upgrades through the driveline would be moving to a different rear end (I run a Ford 9” in basically everything), adding or upgrading to a limited slip differential or locker, and upgraded driveshaft and u-joints.
Upgraded cooling systemsFactory engine and transmission cooling systems didn’t even work that great back when new. Definitely not leaving “well enough” alone here. You will commonly see things like oversized multi core aluminum radiators, auxiliary engine oil coolers, auxiliary transmission coolers, dual electric cooling fans, etc. Always a great move. You can never have enough cooling system.
Upgraded safety/comfort/interiorA lot of performance upgrades suddenly got you feeling a little unsafe on those bench seats in your non A/C, no factory seatbelt, radio delete ‘62 Bel-Air? Well, you’re right there with the vast majority of restomods with some subtle safety, interior, and comfort upgrades. Commonalities here would be bucket seats, a roll bar, 4 or 5 point harnesses, a stealthy bluetooth radio that looks like a factory radio, or some Vintage Air retrofit A/C.
Upgraded electrical and monitoring systemsOk, this one is a bit of a tie in to the last 4 parts. To sustain a modern drivetrain, and upgraded cooling system with electric fans, and aftermarket A/C, you’re going to need to upgrade the electrical systems. A lot of this work will go sight unseen; but for those with an eye for the details, you’ll note relocated batteries, aftermarket fuse panels, and slimmed down wiring harnesses. On the monitoring side you may find upgraded instrument clusters, or additional gauge pods on the dash, steering column, or A-pillar.There’s a ton more even more specific examples, but you get the point.
Restomod or Restoration, What’s the Move for You?
So now that you have a general idea of the similarities and differences between a car show-concours style restoration and a restomod, it’s time to determine what’s the best course of action for you and your classic. For my money (and time, for that matter), I prefer the restomod route for a few reasons:
Cost – Though the eventual total cost may not be all that cheap (FAIR WARNING), restomods can typically be put together in steps or phases. Start with the engine and trans swap, then go for the suspension, then the brakes, etc. Concours cars are typically done in a single, multi year restoration process that are heavily cost involved, sometimes upwards of $150k+.
Performance – Though I do love the styling of the classics, the performance has always left a lot to be desired. I want to do more than 115 mph, and I want to carve corners. I don’t want to be stuck in the box of show car-street/strip cruiser.
Drivability – As previously stated, I want versatility. I want to carve corners. I want to road race. I want to drift. I want to street cruise. And yes, I also want to hit the drag strip. Face facts, vintage muscle cars just don’t drive all that great. A concours restored car literally drives exactly the same as it did 50+ years ago.
Usage – A concours restoration is pretty much going to be relegated to trailer queen/show car that almost never gets driven. Gotta keep that mileage low, and can’t risk exposing the investment to possible danger. I don’t know about you, but this isn’t my idea of a good time. I want to beat the crap out of my car. I also don’t want to have to worry about taking the car anywhere I feel. It isn’t a million dollar car. It isn’t numbers matching. Replacing a fender with an aftermarket part isn’t going to grossly affect the value.
Here’s where you have to be honest with yourself. Do you want to drive the thing? Or do you want a show queen? Do you have $100-200k to drop on a car that is in no way better than when it rolled out of the factory back in the 60s? Is numbers matching important to you? What is more important to you; resale value and rarity, or drivability and performance? Only you can answer that question. I hope that I was able to provide you a little insight on one of my favorite subjects. Be on the lookout for more!