Diesel Restoration: What’s It Really Take?

There’s been a ton of talk over the last few years about taking older diesels and restoring them, instead of buying a new one. For a person who’s addicted to modifying, like myself, spending money on making something wholeheartedly yours versus buying something brand new and stock, just makes sense. The level of enjoyment I’d get out of a used truck and a pile of new parts is something a brand new, stock truck will never give me. But what exactly does it take to pull off? A few big things come into play here: cost, performance, reliability and comfort.

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Cost is all about what your end goal is. The more comfort/power/amenities you want, the more it’s going to cost. But, for example, I’m looking at taking my 2001 F-250 and restoring it as a 500-rwhp luxury tow rig/occasional drag truck on a bottle. It’s not that old, but it’s gotten to the point where everything is starting to fail—door locks, window regulators, suspension bushings, engine sensors, injectors and pumps, etc.

So I did some math, in round numbers, and with doing all the labor myself, I estimate that for roughly $6K I can get the interior nailed. New(ish) leather seats, headliner and carpet from a wrecked 2010 Super Duty will cost about $2.5K. New window regulators, door locks, a modest stereo is another $2.5K. Plus there will be a thousand for those unforeseen things that will always pop up. To do the entire drivetrain (engine, trans and rearend) I came up with roughly $15K. Throw a paint job, new lights, bumpers, mirrors, plastics and chassis bushings its way for a few thousand and, all in, it’s $25K for a brand new truck. We all know projects never hit their budget spot-on, but even if the budget were doubled, it’s still cheaper than a new $50,000-plus pick-up. And then it’s my truck, with everything I want on it, not everything Fomoco, Mopar or the General want me to have.

Getting late model performance and reliability with older rigs is the easy part. Starting from scratch and going the most inexpensive route, take a 1989 Ram with a Cummins, for example. You can pick up one of those trucks for less than $5K if you do some looking. Modifying it to make 400 hp while still being reliable doesn’t take too much more than head studs, injectors, a turbo, and some pump mods. Throw a few thousand at miscellaneous parts and you’ve got a good, reliable, bare-bones 400-horsepower pickup for under $10K. Not bad at all.

All of this got me thinking about something else: I spent a decent part of my childhood restoring what I considered “vintage” cars with my Dad. But, these cars probably weren’t as “vintage” to my Dad as they were to me. He grew up around them when they were brand new and I’m sure he didn’t consider himself vintage, just like I don’t consider a 1980s truck or myself vintage. But the fact of the matter is, first-generation diesel trucks are becoming vintage vehicles quicker than we would like to admit. That aforementioned 1989 Ram, it’s 26 years old today. The Classic Car Club of America considers vehicles of 30 years or older to be classic or vintage rides. The 1989 I can just barely see as a classic due to the body style, but a 1993 Ram? No way. Believe it or not, in a little more than a few years, that second-gen 12-valve will technically be a classic. DW