Wrenching Tips: How to Pick Your First Project Car


After a bit of a break (for you, definitely not me), we’re back with a Wrenching Tips that gets to the heart of Hooniverse. Were we some kind of cult, we’d require each member acquire a mostly drive-able project car so that he or she might partake in fellowship of the busted knuckle and greasy fingernail. While preaching our gospel of cheap cars and DIYness, we often hear from those who are curious, but unsure and scared to make the leap into project car ownership. The process is not without pain or cost, but our goal is to minimize unnecessary quantities of either.

Today’s advice isn’t for seasoned veterans. The goal today is to guide first-time crappy/old car buyers towards a vehicle that’ll give the right balance of “valuable learning experiences”, fun and usefulness. The goal isn’t to take some “rotting under a tree” find and spend 5 years in the garage building into the Tobacco King. The goal is to find a decently fun car for a reasonable price and alternate driving it and fixing it for as long as you please. 

Let’s get into Your First Project Car…

Know What You Can Get Away With

Crowded Driveway

Project cars most commonly die when owners find themselves unable to keep, upkeep or fix them. Before you get into any of this, think about what money you’re going to buy the car with, but more importantly what money you’re going to fix the car with when (not if) it breaks. About that breakage…if your solution is “my friend Tim has a lot of tools and a big driveway”, you need to find a solution of your own: a space to park it and at least to minor work. Landlords, neighbors and homeowners associations are known killers of projects; all along the lines of “get that piece of crap out of my sight”. A car cover may be a worthwhile investment.

Spend like Goldilocks

For almost any genre, you can pick up a decent project driver for $1500-4000. There are plenty of wrong reasons to spend too much money on a car, but being too cheap can take the fun out the whole thing. Don’t pass on a great buy just because it’s a few hundred bucks more; you’ll likely thank yourself in the end. Note I said a few hundred bucks more, not thousand. Typically the difference between a $7000 car and a $3500 car is wheels, paint and a stereo…none of which make it more fun or less in need of a new clutch.

Find Something That Makes You Smile

Duh. But don’t overlook the importance of this hooptie having some trait that just makes you happy to own it…because there will be days (nights, usually) when you hate this car. It won’t seem worth it and you’ll be wondering why you even bother. Then, in the case of my Falcon, you fire it up and listen to it rumble and it makes you grin just like the first time you heard it.

Pick Something That’s Actually Useful To You

Obviously wagons, SUVs and pickups earn points here, but maybe there’s a case for a fuel-sipping import. 2000lb cars with sub 2 L engines can only get so bad of mileage, regardless of tune. If your other ride is a hybrid crossover, a classic sports car might serve as a valuable dewussifying agent.

station wagon cargo
That's an M30, Two Transmissions and a Pile of Suspension Parts

Similarly, don’t buy a car that’s redundant to any other part of your “fleet”. Already own a pickup? Don’t buy a second as a project. You’ll almost never use it. Same goes for any other car role you want filled. Give the project a real reason to be driven and you’ll be surprised what it does for your motivation to fix and/or drive it. Also, using a classic or project for honest work (or honest top-down-in-the-sun cruising) is far nobler than just driving it so the carb doesn’t get gummed up. My Country Sedan and Wagoneer saw/see regular bulky-crap-hauling duty.

Buy a Runner (or Very Close to it)

There’s nothing so fun as driving your new purchase to work the Monday after you buy it. Particularly for a beginner, it’s orders of magnitude easier to keep a car running than resurrect one that hasn’t been.  Do not, under any circumstances buy a car that’s incomplete in some major way, even if the engine comes with it. They will sit just taking up space. You will be annoyed and lose interest long before it ever moves under its own power.

As tempting as it is, I’d stay away from this “just add engine and transmission!” El Camino for $3500

…but might consider either this semi-running 510 for $3500 (somewhat overpriced, it seems)

 …or maybe this super clean, but 5 years dormant Ford-powered Benz for $1800

Know Your Limitations

The biggest mistake I made with my Country Sedan was buying a car that needed body any paint work. The need was obvious the day I bought it, but I just kinda brushed it aside, “oh yeah, I guess I’ll have it painted some day”. If it was just bad paint, that would’ve been fine, but the rusty way-back floor and tailgate needed more than a Maaco spraybomb; they needed real metalwork that was well beyond my reach.

Rusty floorDSC_0134

In general, I discourage people from buying cars that need body work, because it’s expensive and un-fun to do yourself. Endless unbolting/bolting jobs are doable (or learn-able) for anyone reading this, but actual metal patching should either result in a massive price decrease or disqualification.

Beware the Aftermarket

Be very, very careful about previous owner modifications. They’re tempting, as aftermarket stuff typically adds less than 1/4 its retail price to the cost of a car, potentially saving you money on upgrades you were already planning. Talk to enough serial car buyers (myself included) and you’ll find previous owner mods just never seem to play out in the end. They end up being not what you want, not done right or distracting from more basic maintenance issues. It’s a classic rookie mistake (that I made at least once) to get all wrapped up in “it’s already get like five grand in mods done!”, without realizing that five grand is only the first half of the bill to make it all work. Typically, you’re better off to start stock(ish) and just drive the thing; then upgrade what’s actually keeping you from enjoying it, not what everyone on the forums says you need.

This early Audi S4 (did they really make S4s in ’93?) is the aftermarket false-economy poster child. $4,000 price tag, a long list of mods and talk of >300hp. Has the makings of a very expensive good deal.

Look for the “Good One”

For any car of any generation, there’s always a “good motor” or “good transmission” to be had. The aforementioned model-specific forums are good for this kind of knowledge. Chassis and drivetrain variations across sub-models or years can save you tons in future modifications as well maintain future resale value. Case in point: as a wagon, ’67 Country Sedan was equipped with the “big bearing” 9″ rear axle with 31 spline axle shafts, an upgrade over the lesser 28 spline “small bearing” example found in most sedans and 2-doors. Similarly, the “Z-code” 390ci V8 meant it was 10.5:1 compression instead of the lesser 9.5:1; both saving lots in upgrades if I really wanted to make it scream. Another quick example from Toyotaland is to hunt down a 1985 vintage truck or 4Runner, as they’re the only years with EFI and a solid axle.

Parts Availability is Your Friend

My Falcon is based on a chassis that was used from 1960 to 1980 for at least six different models, including the hojillion-selling Mustang and Falcons. The 260ci V8 shares almost every maintenance item with 40+ years of Ford small blocks. There are almost no Falcon-specific (functional) parts, and for those there’s falconparts.com or five minutes on eBay motors.

Ford 260 Windsor (1)

I’m not going to say everyone should run out an buy a Falcon, but being able to walk into any Badly Tattooed Untrained Sales Associates with Mediocre Computer Systems Auto Parts store and buy the parts you need is a great benefit. Look into long-running models or those that share a lot of parts across models and generations. It seems (at least for American Iron) this starts in the early-to-mid 60s; anything older is unlikely to have much parts carry-forward into more modern times. From personal experience, there’s tons of year-to-year parts continuity in BMWs from the late 60s to late 80s, and Toyota through the 80s in the mid 90s.  If there’s no easy parts support, look at models with well-networked victims owners that know exactly where to get what you need. I’m looking at you British sports car people.

A Few Examples

Based on everything we’ve covered, let’s see if we can’t find a few good candidates…

This early Toyota 4×4 is in great shape, but $4500 might be a bit steep:

This ’84 BMW 633csi brings a lot to the table. There will definitely be some BMW-specific agony involved, it’s a very well engineered platform to keep running. Asking $4k.

This Dart appears to have recently popped through a wormhole originating in 1972. You could keep the green-on-green-on-green look, or butch it up a little bit with a set of cop-car steelies and some glass packs. At $2500, you better get going if you want to beat me to it.

More than any of the above, at an asking price of $4500 this Volvo 122 wagon is the perfect mix of reasonable price, condition, utility and ease of ownership:


That’s all for this week. Happy project car hunting! If you’re serious about picking something up, be sure to drop us a line, we’d love to help you through the process and write it up!

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