The 10 best restomods of 2019

It’s more than mere restoration
by Tom Ford | Dec 31, 2019
PHOTO: TopGear.com

You’ve probably heard the term ‘restomod’ by now—and if not, what rock have you been hiding under? It’s a not-so-new trend for updating classic/retro vehicles with more modern running gear and accessories.

But restomodding isn’t really new—it’s been happening since the late ’30s when someone first had the bright idea of dropping a cammed-up Flathead V8 into a Model A Ford. Except that became known as hot rodding. And there are some differences—hot rods tend to be one-offs, unique-looking and deliberately so.

Restomods are allowed to be more subtle, newer and less obsessed with candy paint—mostly—but even so, the lines are blurred. But the appetite for remade older stuff continues unabated—and 2019 was a good year for jumping on that particular bandwagon. So here’s our vague and thinly-veiled excuse for looking at pictures of weird and wonderful modified old stuff from the past year. Sorry, not sorry.

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1) Expedition Motor Company G-Wagen

A classic Mercedes-Benz ‘Wolf’ G-Wagen 250GD restored and upgraded to provide another lifetime’s worth of service. This isn’t some root-and-branch 1000hp/wide arch/32-inch racing suspension upgrade, but an initial ground-up restoration that subsequently includes some judicious fettling to make the classic G slightly less... military.

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So you can heave in some extra soundproofing, aircon or a decent stereo, build out the vehicle to suit your needs with better seats and bits of trim-slash-accessories. This isn’t a company that looks to subsume the character of the car—more bring it slightly more in line with those who want a classic Geländewagen without the menace of a vintage drivetrain that’s had hard use for 30-plus years. Bulletproof they may have been, but time will wear away even the most committed G-fan’s patience for oil leaks. These are cars that appeal to those who want a classic G-Wagen intact, but improved. They start at about $90k. We’ll take two.

2) Porsche 959C by Canepa

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Whoa. A restomod Porsche 959? There is such a thing, and it’s produced by US legends Canepa. With only 292 959s ever having left Porsche’s factory, this is a fine line between upgrade and ruin.

But Canepa has history here: Bruce Canepa bought a factory-fresh 959 in 1988 and was instrumental in gaining the ‘show or display’ legislation that meant the car could be driven in the US—the car was never officially exported there. And having driven the car for a bit, Canepa decided that there were weak spots, and started upgrading. There have subsequently been a couple of versions of the upgraded 959, culminating in the 959C by Canepa—a 763hp/861Nm monster—bearing in mind that the original cars only had 450hp...

Of course, lots of other stuff gets the giddy-up to cope, including a parallel twin-turbo set-up (the original is sequential), upgraded fuel system and wiring harness, exhaust, clutch, ignition, plugs and a myriad of other engine components. Then there’s an upgrade on the suspension that includes titanium coilovers and an inch drop in height. Bespoke Michelins and upgraded headlights are some of the other mods, making for a car that performs and handles better than it ever did, while looking largely stock.

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Canepa insists that its version is probably how the 959 would have ended up if Porsche had continued developing the car. We would respectfully put it out there that the only way to tell would be to have a go. Please?

3) Mil-Spec Hummer

Is a HumVee retro yet? We kind of think so. Sort of. Ish. But that doesn’t stop the Mil-Spec Automotive Hummer from being absolutely fascinating. Mil-Spec essentially modernizes military Hummer H1s—the blocky, massive US Army vehicles more usually seen in various theaters of war. And ‘90s rap videos.

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So you get a remade HumVee with a 6.6 DuraMax V8 diesel putting out 1,356Nm and 500hp, a six-speed Allison 1000 automatic, new diffs and portal axles, new suspension, brakes, wheels and tires, electrics and...pretty much everything else. You can have hardcore textured body coating instead of paint, a ceramic-coated (and remade) chassis, hardened aerospace-grade aluminum body panels, lights, snorkels—the lot.

On the inside, it gets marine-grade leather and much texturization—you get the feeling that this is a truck that’s been designed to be used and used hard—as well as all the modern conveniences of electric everything, modern air con, rearview cameras and the like. After that, it goes bespoke, and the world is your oyster. Or intimidating, better-than-new, not-quite-a-tank, as it were.

4) Emory Motorsport

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We’ve long been fans of Emory Motorsport and its Porsche fettling—check out its restoration of the 356 SL, the various Emory Outlaws and the wild Emory RS (which features the suspension from a ‘90s Porsche inveigled under the shell of a 356). But the one that caught our eye is the 1959 1/2 Emory Outlaw Transitional Speedster.

One, because it is beautiful. Utterly, utterly captivating. Hunchback and all. And two, because it’s a little mad. Some 205hp from an upgraded 2.4-liter flat four (the original motor was a 1.6), Koni adjustable damping and remade suspension, brakes and ... pretty much everything else.

Which you need, since the car weighs well under 850kg, putting over 200hp into some sort of perspective. The detail work is exemplary, and even thought this car might well make purists cough—there were no Speedsters in ’59 as they ended production in ’58, and this car was originally a coupe—no one can doubt that this car is a standard-setter in terms of understated elegance. It makes us want to give it some sort of ovation, just for existing.

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5) Zerolabs Bronco

Sometimes things don’t sound like they should work, but do. And that’s the case with Zerolabs’ Bronco. A dissected and re-created Ford Bronco with detailing that would make a jeweller weep, the cleanliness of the build isn’t even half the story—because this is a classic Ford truck that has an utterly modern heart—and it’s electric.

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Yep, while Ford is busily creating a furore amongst Mustang fans with the EV Mustang Mach-E SUV, Zerolabs has been cooking up a Ford with character coming out of every pore, and precisely nothing coming out of the tailpipe. Not that it has one, but you get the idea.

The basics are pretty much the same as with any of our favorite re-imaginings: forensic attention to detail wedded artfully with top-of-the-line componentry and a generous dose of plain, old-fashioned hard graft. From the ‘Eames inspired’ center console (you could stand one up as a piece of art by itself), to the delicious tactility of the stainless and aluminum switchgear and controls, this thing is born of simple lines and timeless vibes.

And then there’s the drivetrain; a 70kWh Lithium-Ion battery drives a pair of electric motors to deliver 440hp/376Nm to all four wheels, via Currie differentials and a manual gearbox. Yup—you even get to change gear in this EV, making it more involving than the norm—and keeping some character of the old, even though the process is somewhat different to a standard ICE-engined ‘box.

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The specification is literally too long to list here, but includes carbon-fiber panels, leather or vegan fabrics, walnut or bamboo trim, an Atlas transfer case, digital gauges and military wiring, FOX suspension, a new chassis—TIG welded—custom four-link suspension...the list goes on. It really is as good as it sounds—and Top Gear has already taken it on a little adventure, so keep an eye out for that soon.

6) Icon Derelict 1949 Hudson / Icon Bronco ‘Old-School’

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One of the stalwarts of the remaking scene, Icon has produced some standout vehicles over the past few years, and this year is no exception. First up is a new interpretation of the company’s Bronco BR series, this time hiding all the new tech and high-dollar re-engineering under a decidedly OEM exterior theme.

Called the Icon Bronco ‘Old School,’ it uses original/retro color palettes, OEM style accessories, and a calmer, more restorative vibe. The concept is that it’s a more authentic vintage attitude than Icon’s usual fare, with stock-ish bumpers, wheels and trim, but modern running gear—the 5.0-liter 426hp Ford ‘Coyote’ from the Mustang V8 remains.

And the good stuff is still there—a bespoke chassis, FOX suspension, Dynatrac axles, disc brakes, modern HVAC. The list is extensive. And better than that, where the original cars had plastic/Bakelite switchgear, Jonathan Ward’s ‘no plastic’ mantra translates. Better than new, but older (looking) than usual. See also the Gateway Broncos.

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The other Icon flagbearer is another in the company’s line of ‘Derelict’ re-engineering jobs. This time a ’49 Hudson Coupe with an unrestored—and the better for that—exterior and a monstrous LS9 V8 under the hood.

That’s 638hp and 819Nm of modern combustion engine, driving through a four-speed auto and modern independent suspension. Inside, it’s all gone a bit hunter/gatherer, with hand-stitched alligator trim, analogue original dials re-jigged to accept digital signals and knobs and switches re-created in aluminum, as well as the usual modern aircon, LED lighting and electrics. Now that’s what we call a full-on restomod...

7) Automobili Amos Delta Futurista

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An Italian coachbuilder that takes a Lancia Delta Integrale and does a top-to-toe re-working job? That sounds like something we can get on board with. The £270k (P18 million) price possibly less so, but you pay for quality.

And there’s plenty of that in evidence—from a widened, hand-beaten aluminum body (this one won’t melt in the rain and salt slush of a UK winter), to carbon fiber front end, hood and rear panels, you’re getting a car that shouts Integrale-plus. And those panels have a practical application, too—the Futurista weighs 90kg less than the original car. With 1,250kg to push around, the fully overhauled engine should make for a very interesting drive—mainly because with a bespoke water-cooling system, exhaust and intakes, Amos’ modern take on an Italian classic pushes out some 330hp. Good thing that the diffs have been rebuilt and the transmission reinforced to cope...

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That’s not to say that Delta owners wouldn’t recognize the thing, mind. The interior is delightfully retro, even given that the seats are now modern Recaros and the switchgear now contemporary—even though it looks like it has Back-to-the-Futured itself straight from the 1980s. Now where’s our open-necked shirt?

8) RTech Fabrications

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Specialising in 1967-1972 General Motors metal—specifically Big Trucks—RTech’s mantra is ‘we build trucks to do truck things.’ And boy, do they mean business. Actually, the company means business all the way from minor rust repairs to full-on show trucks, but the stuff that appeals is the re-engineered and upgraded vintage monsters.

Take the 1972 Chevrolet K50 Crew Cab known as ‘The Duke.’ Extended from a standard cab, it gained extra doors, a tilt bed, full-resto, 40-inch tires and a big new 550hp Cummins diesel, as well as a bewitching interior re-trim featuring ‘Highlander plaid’ in abundance (tweed, to us Europeans). A similar conversion would cost around $150k (P7.6 million).

Then there’s the ‘Ponderosa,’ pictured above, a similarly multi-doored version of Chevrolet’s 1964 to 1966 beautiful work truck. Never built with four doors in the original format, the Ponderosa features vintage aesthetics, a 550hp, 5.9-liter 12V Cummins turbodiesel engine (although any engine/drivetrain specification is available—it’s essentially customer-led), Bilstein 6100 series remote-reservoir damping, custom 60 gallon fuel tank, new Dana 70 axles, new brakes and braided brake lines, new leaf springs and LED lights all round.

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There’s a ton more—but essentially you get a modern truck with the style of the old, the authentic-ish looks with a ridiculous amount of personality and useful convenience. In fact, browse RTech’s website, and you’ll find conversions for a myriad of GM metal, all given brilliant names like ‘The Drill Sergeant,’ ‘Bulldog,’ ‘Cowboy’ and ‘Texas Longhorn,’ the overriding theme of being remade, re-imagined Big Trucks. And they’ll make you any variation on any of the themes. Insanely inappropriate for Europe, it doesn’t stop us wanting one really quite badly.

9) Mechatronik

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Mechatronik GmbH is a company bathed in the light of Mercedes’ three-pointed star. Based near Stuttgart (where else?), it is a modifier of properly aristocratic Mercs—specifically the W111 and W113-series. Thus, we get the Mechatronik M-Coupe and M-Cabriolet and the M-SL, dubbed the ‘New-tech’ cars. But it’s the M-Coupe and Cab that floats Top Gear’s boat. Having been in business for a couple of decades, this might not be the first time you’ve heard of Mechatronik, but the conversions/upgrades have been evolved over time, so the contemporary cars are much different to the original M-SL from back in 1997.

So, the basic story goes something like this: you can convert your own venerable German, or have Mechatronik make you a complete new build, and the company only does five of each per year. So these cars are pretty exclusive.

But what do you actually get? Well, the company says that “We either replace or add the engine, drivetrain, suspension, brakes and safety features such as ABS and ASR, thus bringing the car technically up to the standard of a new vehicle, which makes it suitable for everyday use.” But they keep the exterior looking completely original so that the vehicle “retains its personal charm and its unique outward form.”

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Engines are two versions of the proven nineties M113 V8, either in 5.0-liter (306hp, 0-100kph in 6.5) or 5.5-liter (360hp, 0-100kph in six dead) format, chosen because of its reliability, size and weight (lighter than the original, allowing the cars to handle more precisely), driving through Merc’s own five speed auto.

New suspension and brakes—both bespoke—are added, and an endless combination of colours and trims can be optioned. Midnight blue with the ‘black chrome’ option would look particularly good, if it’s your round at the Mechatronik bar. After that, it’s any interior trim you wish, including the addition of, well, anything you like. But the tasteful, super-low profile and original-looking versions look best. Of course, the actual spec-list is longer than a large-print Bible, but it’s basically ‘50s Mercedes style with 2020 performance, convenience, reliability and safety. It doesn’t get much cooler than this.

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10) Factory Five ’35 Hot Rod Truck

Hello and welcome to the curveball. Because this period-looking hot rod from respected outfit Factory Five Racing isn’t a restomod original... but a kit car. Kit truck. Whatever. The ’35 Hot Rod Truck kit is essentially an in-house-built bespoke chassis and suspension, plus vintage-looking mid-thirties-inspired body.

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You simply add in whatever powertrain you wish, mix in accessories to taste and serve up hot rod/restomod goodness without all the messing around. With complete ‘build it yourself’ packages for under twenty thousand dollars, it’s certainly a more cost-effective way of getting going in some viable metal, and there’s obviously a million different ways of making the base package your own.

A quick scan of the $19,990 spec sheet reveals that the list of parts basically includes everything apart from engine, transmission, rear-end (as in diff setup), wheels/tires and paint. The tube frame is set up to accept Ford small block motors, as well as Chevy SB and LS, even Ford’s ‘Coyote’ 5.0-liter from the modern Mustang—a popular-use conversion engine. The idea of a twin-turbo LS with 800-1000hp is probably a very bad/good idea.

The body is composite laminate with aluminum panels for the inside of the cab, boot and engine bay, and there’s inboard Koni coilovers for the front suspension and a four-link rear. You also get the brake and steering systems, cooling set up, driveshafts (depending on your choice of motor), gauges and electrics. There’s a full interior (black), LED lighting all round and even a full pedal box and all the fasteners needed to put it all together. So it’s not a restomod as such... but it does make you think what you’d do with the basic kit, the limit being your imagination. And not rust.

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NOTE: This article first appeared on TopGear.com. Minor edits have been made.

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PHOTO: TopGear.com
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