Automotive Project Management

Yellow car on a trailer.

Starting a new project car is usually an exciting time. We all start with grand ideas of how the car will look when completed and are anxious to get it done. However, more often these projects are doomed to take much longer than originally planned and cost a lot more than we thought. Using proper project management skills can help control delays and manage costs.

Starting off a project

At the beginning of a project is usually when we have the most energy for it. This also means that often a lot of planning mistakes can happen. Usually the biggest mistake is the lack of any planning. Instead of just jumping in and spending money on a project it is best to take a step back and do some planning.

The first thing to do is look at the vehicle, and by look, I really mean take a good hard look. Often when buying a new project, we can get wrapped up in the idea of the car. This can lead us to not really looking as hard as we should when we first get it. To get a true idea of what is going to be required the car will have to be disassembled. Not all the subsystems will need to come apart at this stage but hidden areas on the body will need to be exposed to check for rust or accident damage.

stripped 912 for project management
1967 Porsche 912, Stripped and ready for media blasting

Expectations and goals

With the car somewhat apart, the next step is to set your expectations for the car. Are you looking to perform a full restoration? Or just a quick freshen up? Will the car be an outlaw and require extensive modifications? All these questions will need to be answered before moving forward.

restored 911T
Restored 1971 911T

The next big item on the list is the budget for the project. This is usually the biggest deciding factor on what can really happen and when. The budget number must be broken down into specific areas of the car. How much will be spent on bodywork? What will be spent on mechanicals? Or wheels and tires? All these areas will need to be addressed.

Project Timeline

Now that you have defined the goals and have a rough budget set for the project it is time to set the schedule. Setting a hard deadline is never a good thing to do as it does not consider new unforeseen problems or delays. Trying to have a car finished for a particular event or date can often lead to problems and unnecessary expenses. It is however good to say that project should take approximately 12 months to complete.

The next thing to do is to validate your budget and schedule. If you plan on having most of the work done by a shop, then you need to call them and check what their current schedule looks like. There is no point saying the car will be painted and ready to reassemble in 3 months if the body shop has a 6-month wait before they can get to it. Also, depending on how much work will need to be done will determine the length of time it will take.

Rough Pricing

Don’t forget to ask for some rough pricing. No shop is going to give you a hard number. That is just impossible with an old car. They should be able to tell you that “depending on condition” it will be about $xxxxx.xx, this number needs to be plugged into your schedule/budget. You need to make this call to all the shops that you expect to use for rebuilding/restoration services.

Cash, Project management.
Stacks of Money, the restoration process can be expensive

Another thing you will need to consider is the pace of the job. If money is no object and you just want to stick to the schedule, then you can just power ahead. However, for most of us money is a concern and often we can’t just absorb big bills. This means spacing the job out so that we can pay as we go. Some shops will offer you a small discount if say they only work on the car a little at time. Or offer you a supervised trainee/apprentice to do some of the work on the car. It may take longer but will cost a little less.

Adjusting the schedule and budget

Whenever we undertake a project like this, there will always be changes in price and time. We need to have preset plans that we can put into action when one of these events happen. As far as the time goes this usually is not a major concern, we can just push back certain operations until what ever the hold up is can be resolved. Money, however, is another thing that can be harder to adjust for.

Let’s say you are working through the body side of the vehicle and they find a large amount of rust. And it is going to take another $4000.00 to fix. If you have allowed enough of a buffer in the body budget, then it will most likely only cost you the difference in time. But if you don’t have the extra money set aside the entire project may need to be put on hold until you can afford the extra work required.

Rusted Headlight bucket, project management
Hidden Rust can show up anywhere

Setting trigger points for your project

One of the most common mistakes made when doing a project car is not planning out all the sublet work. Even if you plan on doing most of the work yourself there all still going to be items that you will need to have machined or rebuilt by specialists. Items like carburetors or MFI fuel injection systems, transmission, or the distributor, require skilled labor and special tools to complete. Often these items can have a long lead time due to limited shops to do the actual work.

It is important that the lead times need to be considered when scheduling work. Let’s say you estimate the time to rebuild the engine is going to be 10 weeks, barring no major surprises. But the lead time to rebuild the MFI components is 12 weeks plus 2 weeks of actual work time. This means that we must budget 4 extra weeks for the engine to be complete. This means that the entire induction system needs to be removed and sent out about a month before the actual engine work is started.

1967 912 Body in Paint
1967 Porsche 912 painted Body

So, if we are trying to budget our time so that when the body is finished and out of paint, we are ready with all the sub systems to begin reassembly. If the expected body shop time is between 6-7 months, then our trigger point for the engine project is when the body is about halfway done. That way when the body is complete the engine will also be complete and ready to install.

Adjusting the project schedule for money

Trigger points for completed work are great if the money is flowing, but if money sets the schedule then things must be set differently. Usually I will always start with the body work and paint. This is because a painted body will get better with time. The paint will toughen up making re-assembly safer with less chances of chipping or scratches.

Starting with the engine or transmission is not really the best idea. The issue is that a completed engine that sits for months or even years can degrade. Usually it only has assembly lubes on many of the surfaces leaving other areas of the internals open to corrosion. This can result in rust particles forming inside the engine and falling off on the first start. Exposed and cleaned transmission gears can also rust creating contamination and damage.

Rubber parts like suspension bushings or seals can deteriorate with time. Buying these parts too early and not putting them into service can shorten their life expectancy when installed onto the vehicle. So, it is always best to buy the parts when you need them and are ready to install them.

The other issue can be with warranties. Buying a part or having an item rebuilt then having it sit for months or years before using it can lead to issues should something go wrong. Calling a shop 2 or 3 years after having work done with a problem can result in issues. Most warranties will expire between 12 and 24 months. So even though the part may have been sitting on your shelf the warranty is still expired. Now most shops will offer some good will service but if a manufactures part is bad then it may be just too late.

How I would do it

When I ran my shop, I used to have a standard disclaimer that every customer would sign. It stated the timeline, the proposed budget, and what we would do if an unforeseen issue would come up. It also had a clause that said, “At the halfway point I will not call up and complain about the amount of money spent, and the current progress of the car”

This is because the halfway point of a restoration is often the toughest point of the job. You will have spent a ton of money and have very little to show for it. The body will usually be ready for paint and the engine, transmission and other systems would be in process. Very little will resemble a completed car. You will also still be looking at a lot more time and money to get to completion.


As said earlier the body was always my starting point for the project. Not only is usually the longest part of the project it is also the most expensive. And as I said it is the best part to sit if a project is put on hold. I would always get the suspension parts rolling next. This is because a car that cannot move around the shop or is on a dolly can be hard to deal with. Most of the time I would travel to the body shop and install the suspension when the paint and body was completed. This made it easier and safer to transport as well.

911 Engine and Transaxle assembly
911 Engine and Transaxle out and ready for disassembly

Engines, transmissions and fuel systems were often not even started until the body was back and the suspension installed. This way I could do the disassembly on those items and while things like crankcases and cranks were being machined, I could work on installing other parts into the chassis like wiring and interior components.

This meant that work could continue smoothly and once the major mechanicals were complete, they could be installed and started immediately. It also meant that if there was ever a problem with money, we could always stop work without having a large number of items in the pipeline.

What you don’t want to do

Poor project management is nobody fault but your own. For years I have had people call me and tell me that they are finishing a 3 year restoration and just need the carburetors done so they can make it to the local cars and coffee next week. Then they would yell at me because I would tell them it would be 8 weeks before I could even get on to them and another 4 weeks to do the job.

Weber 40 IDA carburetor
Weber 40 IDTP Carburetor ready to be installed

The other thing that I have seen is paying more to get in line faster or spending extra money for expediated freight. Both options don’t help and only end up costing you more money. Even if you get the car done a little faster it always needs a couple of weeks to shake down all the little issues and finishing touches. I would typically keep a car for about two weeks after completion. Just so that I could get enough drive time and shake down time on it to make sure everything was right.

Finishing it off

One last thing to remember is that the final finishes always take the longest. Putting the big pieces back into the vehicle are easy. It’s the little things that will take the longest, but it is those little things that make the car a success. For me I usually budget about 100 hours to re-assembly a car once all the sub-assemblies have been rebuilt. I can have the all the major components back in the car in about 20 hours so the car will roll and start, but it takes another 80 plus hours for all the detail work to be complete.

My advice to you, set attainable goals both financially and time wise. Don’t waste money on expediating things or rushing. Only buy what you need when you need it. Lastly have some fun with it, enjoy the process and then the end product.


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