Paint Shop Tips For Imperial Owners

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Question from Imperial64 (Editorial note: The prices quotes in this advice is from 1996):

Well, I am FINALLY ready to send my '64 in for a paint job! Anyone out there willing to give me an idea of how much they spent? So far, I have one estimate of $3,750 if I pull off all the chrome myself. I have another estimate of about $4,000, and friend just paid over $7,000 for his LeBaron at a restoration shop. Should I try to send it to a resto place for more $$? Or take my chances on a low-cost body shop with good recommendations? I don't want anyone to "bare their souls," I would just like more opinions.

Just for the record, my '64 Crown has a dented front fender and a little bit of rust in the lower rear quarters behind the wheels. There are some minor dings in the side of the body, but the paint needs to be completely stripped because it's cracking. (In other words, I think it's out of Earl Scheib's league, but it's not a complete disaster.) I'm painting it the same color--Royal Ruby, a dark red.

Let me know what kind of trouble I'm getting myself into!


From Tony:

Well, based on MY experience, make the best estimate you can, and then triple it! I have no good advice for you on how to get the finest-quality work for a low price, since my track-record is awful. Paint-shops and restoration shops see me coming, and dollar-signs appear in their eyeballs!

From Nancy:

Another note on the price of body work. Is it really worth fixing this car at the prices you quote? You could probably buy a nice original for some of the higher quotes and it would not need body work. 

Decide what you want and what you can afford. Do you want a show car job or just a nice looking car? You might get it cheaper by taking the car to a more rural area where they work cheaper ie lower cost of living. You might also try to split the body work and painting but then you could get into finger pointing by the two shops. You should probably ask fellow enthusiasts in your geographic area about costs and their experiences.

IF your body work is done you could try someone like MAACO. Some of their work around here is quite nice. We just had our '83 painted by them for $320.00. It is guaranteed against peeling for 6 months. It looks good but Chic says one spot may be peeling so they will probably get it back. This MAACO shop was recommended by a friend who had good experiences with them. The car had its body work done elsewhere, actually mostly do it yourself and a little finishing by a professional body man. It was not rusty. Just had been in a sheet metal type accident which is how we came to buy it.

From John:

I paid $1,300 to get my '65 painted at a smallish local shop owned by Max.

Based on the research I did, this seems to be about the bottom end price for an acceptable job. This bought me a good but not great job. I think I got my money's worth.

For this price, I pulled some of the chrome myself. In my madness I figured I could get the bumpers off myself...hah! The shop pulled the bumpers, grille,

and some other stuff. The rest (door handles, windshield & glass trim, and the fender trim) was masked off. I needed some minor body work, mostly to the

front fenders. No rust repair, but the usual dings. The original paint was thin and faded, but was good to serve as a base for the new job. Most shops do not want to go to bare metal if they can avoid it. This is not from laziness, but that original paint makes great primer as long as it's in decent shape.

At first Max was going to use a urethane enamel base/clear finish, but he was unhappy with the color match as it came back from the paint supplier, so he used an acrylic enamel base/clear instead. Two color coats and three clear coats. I was surprised and very pleased that he matched the original color (Moss

Gold) perfectly. He painted the inside of the trunk lid and hood, and the wide flat areas in the engine room where you lay your tools. I did not have him do the door jambs or the rest of the engine compartment. After the paint cured about a month, he had me bring it back for a final buffing. Then it really sparkled. There were some noticeable imperfections in the hood, so he filled those and repainted the hood at no extra cost, and no hassle other than time.

I'd never gotten a car painted before, and the whole thing was nerve-wracking and took about a month. Max is sort of a wing-nut and his shop gets backed up. However, I picked him because he seemed to have the right attitude and he understood what I wanted: a durable job for a daily-driver. I live in Tucson, and my car lives outside. I have no driveway, much less a garage.

He gave me a 5-year guarantee against fading and peeling. There are a couple of spots I want to have him look at where the paint has chipped or flaked near detail areas. This bugs me. But I predict he'll take care of it. Otherwise, it looks great. I get compliments all the time. No one has ever suggested I got less than my money's worth. Sure there are imperfections, but guess what? I'm the only one who's ever noticed, and I worry less about getting a gravel chip than if I'd spent a gazillion $$ on a flawless job. Now, had this been a convertible, maybe I'd have approached it differently.

Sorry for all the verbage. The moral is, to move your paint job those extra few inches toward perfection increases the cost exponentially. Search around, look at other cars with good paint jobs, get it in writing, Talk to the body shop and gauge their attitude. If they get impatient with you, go elsewhere.

From Tom:

My one and only experience could only serve as a bad example. The experience was so bad that I didn't even want to talk about it to my friends. After reading some of the comments I don't feel quite alone.

I gave my 56 to a local body shop run by two fellows who were doing some guy's 56 Chevy. The work I saw was quite adequate. I didn't want to get into the gazillion dollar range either. They really seemed to take pride in their work.

Shortly after they took my car in, the two guys split up and I found that the guy who kept the business was kept in line by the other guy. I guess the second guy got tired of batting his head against the wall with the partner Anyway, my car was stripped to bare metal and all questionable metal was replaced. I thought to myself, this guy isn't so bad after all, until I drove by his shop on my way to work one day during a snowstorm and what do I see parked outside but my bare metal 56 Imperial.

I couldn't even work. I called a tow service and met him at the garage and pulled my car out of there. The story is longer but I'll save the rest for another time. I finally got the car painted and, to this day have not added up all the bills. The only thing I can add about painting is to check out the shop's paint booth. If it's not constructed with good exhaust and kept extremely dust free you could end up with the problem I have in the sequel.

From Chris:

I had the unfortunate pleasure of needing to repaint my formerly #2 original 1967 Crown 4dr HT about three years ago. It seems the garage I was renting for it only appeared to have a roof, when it was actually just a sieve to slow down the rain fall and channel it more precisely onto my car cover where it could pool up and stay on top of the car.

I was in Germany for two weeks on business while it poured in LA, then stopped and became warm and sunny. Upon my return I immediately went to check out my baby and was shocked to find steam literally rising from the pools of water on the cover. Removing the cover revealed the darker tragedy: the paint had bubbled and was flaking off underneath where each of the pools had collected on the cover. I had steamed my car's paint off!

Heartbroken, I was relieved to find that my 30-year-old weatherstripping had allowed only a small amount of water into the interior, though it smelled damp. I stacked newspapers onto the carpets in the footwells (thankfully, my interior is black) and let it sit in shaded sunlight for a few days with the vent windows open. This completely dried out the interior without putting the dash pad at high risk for sun damage, and the slightly open windows allowed the moisture to escape. The weight of the stacks of newspapers (about 3" each) helped them draw the moisture from the carpets and padding.

Nonetheless still heartbroken, I spoke with friends about getting it repainted and worked out a deal with a friend who also does work for me in the car advertising business, preparing and transporting my prototypes for photo shoots. (Though I think the same principles apply with an ordinary body shop: follow your comfort level, be very specific, and check in frequently. Further, to make the cost manageable, do all that you can correctly do yourself but no more than that, then pay qualified people to do the rest.)

My best friend Randy, who passed away last year before seeing the car completely finished and whom I miss terribly, helped me remove every piece of trim from the car. In retrospect, I'd have removed more of the interior to protect the leather and weatherstripping better from the dangers of the paint-shop chemicals and drying process. Once the car was completely stripped of all trim, bumpers, fender caps, etc. (but not paint - I did not feel I was the best candidate to do that), I reattached the taillights and the rear license plate for the drive to the shop. Randy followed me in his 81 Imperial.

The shop stripped my car to bare metal and found not an ounce of Bondo or filler, as I had expected. The process of repainting began as soon as I could witness the bare body, so there was no risk of the new surface rust (but this was in LA, so I probably could have waited weeks). Epoxy primer, blocked and sanded between coasts, formed the basis of the finish (8 coats total, which is a little excessive - two are enough, and without proper sanding three could be too many). From there, the shop mixed the paint to match the chip in the Color & Trim guide I provided, assuring an exact factory color (Charcoal Grey Metallic, just as it was born). It was important for me to stress to them to keep the metallic level low, for a more accurate appearance on a mid-60s metallic - I've seen too many overly metallic paint jobs that look like 80s or 90s colors on 50s or 60s cars, and they just scream "repainted" even in low light.

Anyway, three coats of base color coat (low-gloss) were applied and wet-sanded between each coat. I came over to the shop to see the car and photograph it every few coats. (By the way, definitely take pictures: it not only makes for a fun scrapbook, but it's a great excuse for checking up on your car every step of the way without making the shop feel like you're checking up on them - which you can and should be doing - and it shows your interest and enthusiasm for their work.)

Once we had a nice color finish, free of fisheyes and dust under the paint and to my liking, we proceeded with the clear coats. Normally, one or two is enough, but with proper prep and timing I was able to have a few additional coats for a finish so deep I can read the overhead freeway signs in my hood while driving. A little "too perfect" to be 100% factory-correct, I know, but it was my only concession to modern times and I know it will protect the car and last a long time. By the way, one luxury I had having friends do the work was time: extra time to slightly cure the primer and paint coats before applying the next really helped see the surface quality with each round, but it did mean the total paint job took nearly a year.

With the final wet-sanding done and the first polish-wax applied (it had cured for six weeks before I took the car home), we were ready to reinstall the taillights and license plate and drive off. Randy was there with the 81, and at his house were all the parts and hardware we had removed, each set labeled in its own Ziploc bag, plus all the parts we had had re-chromed.

(Of course, it took three hours to get the car to hold an idle after sitting for almost a year, and we almost ran out of gas in the process, but a tune-up and some real driving cleared all that up - I even passed Smog Check a week later.)

Randy I spent the weekend putting back all of the trim except the badges, which I still needed to finish restoring by hand-painting all of their edges in matte black, leaving only the faces in chrome. And I had yet to find a new insert for the hood ornament (though it has one now). But we got it 96% done, and we were proud, tired and happy.

As for the paint? Three years later, people next to me in traffic still lower their window to yell "nice paint." The car looks good at shows as well. But most of all, it's a romantic experience just to wash it and wax it and feel the smooth surface under the soft diaper as I buff the finish, and it's still a smile and a half just to stand back when I'm done and admire my big, beautiful, shiny Imperial. Suddenly thirty years have been shed from the earth... it's 1967 again.

That's what makes a good paint job worth all the time (including the time spent waiting to be able to do it right) and all the effort (yours and that of dear friends and dedicated professionals)...

It helps make the time machine work.

From Ken:

I used to work part time in a friend's paint/body shop, for $4.00 an hour, sort of a "I'll help you around the shop, you teach me how to paint" thing. I was mostly the "nuts and bolts" man. I took things apart.

Anyhow...a lot of the cost of labor is in the stripping of the old paint and the trim, but it's something that's pretty easy for anybody to do. I think stripping a car was usually two full days of labor at my friends shop, at least.

Get a book on it, and if you have a place to do it strip the old paint yourself, and then take the car to them that way. It can save a couple hundred if you dicker, and then you can spend that money on re-chroming and stuff. It also alows the shop to point out what needs to be done to the body, and they can give you a better estimate right then. Keeps them more honest too. You don't get those phone calls weeks later saying; "well, we found this and that", and they can't charge you for "this and that" after they have covered it up with paint.

From Brett:

I just sent my '59 Adventurer into the shop for $5,000... This is what I'm getting: Labor to restore the car as a very nice "driver" along with the paint materials. The labor also includes pulling, going over & detailing the engine. Extra expense items include stuff like chrome plating, rebuilding of mechanical parts, any non-paint materials like engine gaskets, rubbers, etc.

All in all, the total project will probably end up costing twice the body shop price.

Let's not kid ourselves, painting an Imperial is a big pain-in-the-butt for most shops. The car is HUGE, heavy and has irreplaceable parts & clips on it. Most places would much rather make the same money banging out insurance jobs for collision work. So, if they hint like it's going to be a pain or they don't really want to do the work, take your business elsewhere.

Once you've found a shop that's ready to take the project, ask them about the paint they'll use, how they plan to repair the rust and so on. What you're really after here is not so much the detailed answers but a feeling of experience with concrete answers.

"Yeah, we've done a lot that, it shouldn't be much of a problem." isn't a good answer.

"We'll strip to the metal to see how far the damage is, then cut out and replace it with the same gauge metal..." is the kind of answer that explains exactly what they intend to do.

I think it's also important that the shop's representative ask you questions too. This shows that they're interested in performing to your expectations and want to avoid disappointments.

In addition, take the time to listen and learn about all that's involved in painting a car. A lot of paint & body workers are frustrated at the general public's lack of appreciation for their craft. A good shop will usually be thrilled to expain how they work to an eager audience. After your "schooling", you'll have a much better feeling about the money you're about to spend too.

A few final thoughts... make sure you write down every little thing you want done so they have check list. Point out any "sensitive" areas of the car. (I had a body shop paint a $400 NOS steering wheel because they couldn't get the white packing film cleaned off it. Arrrrrrgggggggghhhh!) Give the shop one of those little disposable cameras so they can document their work. Be realistic when working out a payment structure, knowing that you'll likely have additional expenses.

From Mike:

Quite a tough subject! FIRST TIP: I've had a couple of cars painted at 'Fast Food' shops (Earl Scheib & One Day), and the biggest thing seems to be PREPARATION! Although you wouldn't think so, minor flaws don't get hidden under the new paint, they get WORSE!

SECOND TIP: I have also found that a short drive to another shop of the same name can give much different results. Don't assume that all MAACOs, or all Earl Scheibs will give you the same work- they don't!

THIRD TIP: Look at something that they've done to see the quality of their work. They may even have photos around so you can see the 'before' as well as the 'after'. I've seen freshly painted cars that had relatively minor body work done first, and panels don't line up or patches look bad. Not very reassuring, to say the least.

The main thing these shops have stressed to me is that they are volume-oriented, and don't have the space or time to do the same work as a 'custom' shop. This means multiple layers of paint without sanding between coats, or settling between coats. When I looked at a few of their completed cars, there seemed to be noticeable 'orange peel' (texturing of the surface).

When asked, the shop manager told me that it was normal if you forgo the sanding between coats. My '66 Chrysler 300 still looks better with this minor (?) texturing and fresh paint than it did with the original, faded, and worn-through paint. It's still a SPECTACULAR daily driver. Total cost (with half-price coupon)- about $250.00 for paint and a few hundred more for minor bodywork and prep. I'm glad I did it, but caveat emptor.

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