If you think about it, there's really a pretty short list of things that truly separate mediocre cars from the ones that draw all the attention and envy at a show. Sure, extreme fabrication and customization, an outrageously powerful or exotic engine, a well-sorted suspension with a great stance, and kickass wheels will all get you noticed. But if the paint and bodywork is subpar or nonexistent, you're guaranteed to field endless queries along the lines of, "When are you going to paint it?" That's because appearances really do matter, and the car will always be seen as unfinished if it isn't sporting a slick layer of color over straight sheetmetal. That's just how it is. In our opinion, if you never do anything else to your project, paint it.

For this paint and body special, we had a unique opportunity. Typically we pick a strategy, such as low-buck DIY, or show you how the industry pros do top-level paintjobs, but this time we're going to a place where amateurs, hobbyists, and enthusiasts learn the skills to become professional: Los Angeles Trade-Tech College.

Los Angeles Trade-Tech College is a fully accredited college with an expansive curriculum with disciplines ranging from Art Trades to Fashion, Mathematics, and Sciences. Brian Ferre, an experienced custom painter and restorer, teaches students in the Automotive Collision Repair department. The classes are a combination of classroom instruction coupled with hands-on training where students learn welding procedures, body panel alignment, metal finishing/shrinking/filling techniques, body section replacement, structural sectioning practices, body damage estimating techniques, paint application, and standard body shop practices. Basically you can walk in as a total newbie and walk out with a very hirable and in-demand set of skills.

While the curriculum tends to focus on the common types of collision repair that students will see on late-model cars, Ferre also likes to show the students that there are plenty of fun, lucrative jobs to apply their skills to in the hot rodding world. That's why when Ferre got wind that we were looking around for a place to spray some color on a '68 Mustang, he suggested we let him and his top students have a crack at it. We loved the idea of working with the next generation of paint and body experts and letting them show off their skills, so we accepted.

Disassembly & Examination Originally our plan for this Mustang started as a "scuff and shoot," with minimal bodywork, but that quickly escalated. The car appeared exceptionally clean and straight in every way, and we actually knew nearly the entire history of the car back to 1970. (It's a family heirloom.) Nevertheless, we once again learned that unless you're starting with a new body from Dynacorn, there are going to be surprises in any 45-year-old car, especially one that was regularly driven for most of those decades.

Step one in any paint and body project is assessing the paint that's already on the car and deciding what to do with it. Ideally, that's as little as possible. Unless you have rust, improperly repaired old damage, or paint that's too far gone to work with, it's usually best not to strip it to bare metal. (Interesting factoid: We were able to satisfactorily restore an old repaint using Mothers products back in our Nov. '12 issue when we did a weekend resto on our '68 Plymouth Valiant.) Bottom line, if the original factory primer and paint is in good condition, it's an excellent base on which to start. Plus, stripping to steel requires much more time, material, and money that can be better spent.

In our case, the Mustang still wore its original paint under a couple of super cheap resprays. Unfortunately, in a few spots the differing contraction of incompatible paints had resulted in cracking and flaking away of all the paint. That can make it difficult to simply sand down to the good original paint, and use glaze and filler primer to level the surface. We're never proponents of painting cars with the trim and bumpers installed, since it's guaranteed to spoil the seamlessness of the colors and invite overspray. It also provides a good opportunity to fully inspect the car, and in our case it's a good thing we did. During our disassembly phase to remove trim and other parts, Ferre spotted a few things that needed to be investigated.