Labor of Love

Although it took much longer than expected, Paul Newman has no regrets about restoring his 308.

Labor of Love 1
July 31, 2009

When Ford mechanic Paul Newman says that his 1979 308 GTB (s/n 29007) looks and feels new, he’s not exaggerating. “My original intent was just to paint the car,” he explains, “but I soon realized that everything was tied together. I had to pull most of the interior trim to remove the glass, and everything attached to the trim was tired, anyway. I didn’t want to do a half-assed job, which meant I should also pull the engine and clean it up, and do the suspension bushings…and at that point, it’s a restoration. There’s nothing left to do.”

Ground-up, nut-and-bolt restorations are nothing new in the land of rare, vintage Ferraris, but Newman brought this extremely time-consuming and expensive mentality to his 308. “I took apart every subassembly, and repaired or replaced everything,” he says. “Every bearing in the car—the rear hubs, the front hubs, the cam drives, everything—was replaced, every seal is new, every little bolt and screw got replated. The alternator and fan motors were completely rebuilt. I even took apart the gauges in the dash and cleaned them up, since the little gasket that keeps dust out was visible and driving me crazy.”

He pauses for a minute, then shrugs. “It was a little ridiculous.”

Labor of Love 2

PEOPLE BECOME FERRARI FANS for all kinds of reasons. For some, it’s racing. For others, it’s the sound of a screaming V8 or V12 engine. And for the 39-year-old Newman, who lives in Barrie, Ontario? He doesn’t really know.

“Back in 2001, I was going to buy a Factory Five Cobra,” he says. “I was ready to order the kit, but for some reason I went online, to AutoTrader.ca, and typed in ‘Ferrari.’ I’ve no idea why. I didn’t know anyone who owned one, and I never thought I could afford one. Like a lot of people, I thought you had to be a millionaire to own one. I never realized you could buy one for $30,000,”

That online search opened his eyes to a world of more affordable Ferraris. A 1979 308 GTB (s/n 29007) in Toronto, about an hour south of his hometown, caught his eye, so he went to look at it. “I really liked the lines,” says Newman. “It was a half-decent-looking driver, with a few rust bubbles on the door and a tired interior. It seemed mechanically okay, so I played down the problems, pretended like I knew more about it than I did, which was nothing, and took the plunge; I bought it. Then I test-drove it. It was backwards, but it all worked out.”

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Newman drove the car home to Barrie, where he worked out a plan to keep it safely on the road. “The license sticker had expired in 1988, and the car had been stored for eight years before I bought it,” he says. “I knew it needed a major service, so I decided to rebuild the carbs and replace the cam belts. I ended up rebuilding the engine and transmission, which crunched when it went into third gear. I put in higher compression pistons, balanced the rotating assembly, did some minor port work, fitted a single Euro distributor and rejetted the carbs.”

Newman drove the 308 for the next two years, covering a little over 3,000 miles. He really liked the car’s handling, but wasn’t entirely happy with the overall experience. “Aside from the aesthetic issues, the car clunked, it rattled, it made funny noises over bumps and rough surfaces,” he remembers. “Some things just didn’t work, like the parking brake and some of the switches on the console.”

He decided to take the restoration plunge in late 2003, and began taking the car apart that November. On December 30, Newman posted a photo of the partially disassembled 308 on FerrariChat.com, where he would document the entire process. He wrote that he hoped it would be finished in the summer or fall of 2004—little did he know the restoration would take more than five years.

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THE 308 WAS THE FIRST FERRARI Newman had worked on, but he had been wrenching on cars for much of his life. “My brother got me into Mopar, and at age 16 my first car was a 340 Duster,” he says. “I soon started working at an autowrecker, and learned about cars there, which led to an apprenticeship and dealers and so on. I became a licensed mechanic at age 21, and that’s what I’ve been doing ever since.”

Over the years, Newman had owned and restored several muscle cars, most recently a 1968 Plymouth Hemi Road Runner, a 1970 Plymouth AAR Barracuda and a 1971 Dodge 440 Challenger Six Pack. “I was moving to a house with no garage, I had those three cars and I was ready for a change, so I sold them in 2001,” he says. “I like working with my hands, which is how I got interested in the kit car. But then I bought the 308.”

Newman planned to do all the work on the Ferrari himself. “Being a mechanic, my view is that a car’s a car and an engine’s an engine,” he explains. “It’s very time-consuming, but there’s no magic about it. I knew I’d need help locating some components, but doing the job wasn’t a problem; it’s what I’ve been doing since I was 21. Besides, I wanted to be able to say I did it all. And this way, I know what was done, and if something goes wrong, I know it was me that screwed up.”

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As the pieces came off the 308, Newman started to get a feel for what Ferrari was like back in the late 1970s. “Some of it made me laugh, there are a lot of crude things,” he says. “The welds on the frame look like a kid did them, and it may well have been an apprentice working on it, but the frame itself is very accurately assembled. The door-skin stampings are so crude, even compared to those on my Ford F-150 truck. I bought NOS door skins, put them on and the door hit the quarter panel and the rocker. Since you can’t adjust the skin, I had to reshape the lead filler that Ferrari used in generous quantities; basically, you have to custom-tailor the car’s body to fit the door. It’s clearly a handbuilt car, from a company that didn’t have unlimited funds.”

More challenges awaited. The wiring harness was mostly a mix of single-blade and interchangeable connectors, rather than the multi-blade, fits-only-one-way plugs found in more modern cars. Newman took “a lot” of pictures and drew numerous diagrams so he’d know how to put everything back together. As he wrote on FerrariChat, “I measured every bolt, stud and washer, recorded head diameter, length, bolt size, color, location and any special markings on a bolt head. This way, they would get plated the color they were and go back where they belonged.”

These extensive notes came in handy when, for example, Newman was tracking the four different types of studs that mount engine to gearbox. “There are several different studs of the same overall length and thread size, but threaded more on one half than the other,” he posted. “It’s crazy, really, and would be insanity if notes and thousands of pics weren’t taken.”

Labor of Love 6

AS THE RESTORATION CONTINUED, Newman had to make some decisions about the finished Ferrari. “I wanted a kind of European flavor, and I also wanted to lighten the car,” he explains. “It’s a U.S.-spec car, so it had the U.S. bumpers; replacing those with Euro bumpers shed 100 pounds. I bought a set of 308 QV wheels, which are made of lightweight magnesium. I wasn’t being slavish to originality, so I also wanted to install modern insulation and stuff.”

He also decided to fit a Euro rear valance to go with the new Euro bumper. This allowed him to lower the trunk floor, which meant removing the original floor—and there, he discovered rust. “[Ferrari] fabricated the rear boxed frame sections surrounding the tube chassis and packed them with insulation,” he wrote on FerrariChat. “That’s fine if they made an effort to seal the boxed sections, but they didn’t. They start at the rear firewall and run to the rear bumper, but are open at the engine-compartment end. When you wash the car, water runs past the engine louvers and down the rear wall to the open-ended box. It then gets to the insulation and keeps it wet.”

Newman fabricated new floor supports and welded them in place. He then built a new aluminum front wall and floor, gaining three to four inches of space in each direction.

Labor of Love 7

Next, Newman cut rusty patches out of the left rear and right front fenders, and hand-formed replacement sections, which are metal finished to eliminate the need for filler. He discovered more rust when he dug into the putty scattered around various parts of the body. “Where pieces of metal joined, I found a wad of putty had been jammed in the hole and painted over,” he says. “Or where the windshield fits in its frame, they used putty to hide the gaps.”

With the metal work completed, the frame and suspension members were sandblasted and repainted. The more delicate body panels were blasted with soda, then the Ferrari was sent off to the painters. “The car was originally a dark grey with a red interior, sort of a burgundy color,” says Newman. “I didn’t really like the color, and I wasn’t going to go to all this trouble for a color I don’t like! I wanted to be period-correct, and it came down to red, yellow or black; I picked yellow. But I didn’t want fly yellow with the burgundy interior, so I changed it to black. Everything inside except the dash had to be replaced, anyway.”

Newman had been careful not to spend all his time in the garage working on the Ferrari—“I wanted to have a life, you know?”—but events regularly conspired to slow the pace of work. For example, during the course of the restoration he moved three times, dragging the Ferrari and all its parts with him.

Labor of Love 8

BY EARLY 2007, the body and frame were back in his garage, and Newman turned his full attention to the Ferrari’s mechanical components. The fuel tanks, shifter, heater, dashboard, steering column, wiring harness and suspension components were all redone and reinstalled, the steering rack was refurbished and new hoses were made for fuel and coolant. The original brake lines were replated and reused.

Although the engine and transmission had been rebuilt a few years earlier, they were pulled apart to replate the studs. Newman considered replacing the carburetors, but eventually decided to restore the originals, as replacements were both hard to find and expensive.

Soon, it was time for the engine-bay hardware to be cleaned. The valve and timing covers were glass-bead blasted, as was the upper differential cover. The transfer case cover, engine block and gearbox case were all acid-washed, then scrubbed until they looked like new; they were then clear-coated so they wouldn’t darken over time. The headers were painted black. Then the rebuilt accessories were bolted back onto the engine, and the axles were freshened.

Labor of Love 9

Newman had saved the glass and interior pretty much for last. The window motors and regulators were rebuilt and reinstalled, as was the window trim. New carpet was fitted, the seats and door panels were recovered, the instrument-panel trim was re-anodized to brighten up the dash and the rear-bulkhead insulation and covering were fitted.

There was still plenty of work going on elsewhere. By April 2008, the braking system had been installed and the wheels fitted—the car was finally sitting on the ground. The engine was fired on July 13. Newman was happy to have the V8 buttoned up and back in the engine bay, but wasn’t very impressed with its sound through open headers, however: “Picture two rusty Civics revving their brains out where the front pipe is broken off at the manifold.”

The car was still far from finished, however. In mid-August, wrote Newman, “As much as I despised finishing the spaghetti up front, I decided to tackle it. What a royal pain that was. The heater cores, the plumbing every which way over lapping on one another….screws, brackets, rivets, I’ve had enough! The spare-tire tub, the air-horn compressor, the blower motors and hoses. Oh yeah, the washer jets, too.” But that still left the weatherstripping, anti-roll bar bushings, exterior trim, headlights, door handles, hood-release cable, center console, airbox, window switches, glass, custom exhaust, air-conditioning compressor, license-plate lights….

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BY NOVEMBER 2008, the Ferrari was sent to a bodyshop for some final painting touch-ups and detailing, and there was just one major component remaining—the front grille, which didn’t look right with the new European bumper. Newman disassembled a used Euro grille, traced the shapes onto paper and programmed them into a water-jet cutting machine. About 20 minutes later, he had a brand-new grille, which he then assembled, test-fitted and sent off to be anodized.

The car was back by mid-January, and the grille was in hand a month later—but even then, the interior wasn’t complete. Speaker grilles, the steering wheel, step plates, radio-delete panel and air-conditioning vents still remained outstanding.

The project officially ended on May 4, 2009. “I got a temporary plate, added road coverage for the day and took it out for a spin,” Newman wrote on FerrariChat. “I spent an hour behind the wheel, brought some spare tools and something to put out a fire in the event I had some excitement, but I needed none of it. I’ll fiddle with the carbs more, fool around with a few things and that’s it. DONE!”

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After its five-plus-year restoration, how did the finished Ferrari turn out? “I like the feeling of newness—the gauges, the switch gear, everything works,” says Newman. “The car is very tight and solid over bumps, and I like how it feels very agile. It’s easy to drive, too; the steering is light, and it’s very easy to shift. Once I got it on the road, it only took a split-second to realize how great a 308 really is when it’s new again. I have a newfound respect for the model.”

Looking back over the project, Newman wishes he’d been a bit better organized—“I wasn’t prepared for the sheer number of rivets and bolts that came off the car; the buckets of bolts I sent off to be plated were unbelievable!”—but the big change he’d make has to do with the timeline. “I’d do it faster,” he states. “I’d never want to take five years out of my life again, more like one or two. The next one would be a lot faster.”

Although Newman once said that he’d rather restore three AAR Barracudas than another 308, that doesn’t mean he is against doing another Ferrari. “It doesn’t turn me off, now that I know what I’m in for,” he says. “Working on the 308 was a good primer for doing something bigger…like the Boxer I bought a few years ago!”

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