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Project Car Pitfalls and How to Avoid Them

rusty car ran when parked

Not everyone works on cars because of money, or out of necessity, some people enjoy tinkering and working with their hands. It is very gratifying to turn the key and step on the gas, and know that you are being propelled down the road thanks to your own abilities as a mechanic. But for every classic or enthusiast car you see being driven, there are likely two of them sitting in garages and driveways that are only ever going to turn a wheel again when hooked to the back of a tow truck.

Let's take a look at how to keep your project car from being one of those rolling scrap heaps.

  • Start with a reasonable plan - If you have never turned a wrench before, don't know how to weld, and can't even paint a bathroom without getting drips and runs, you have to face the fact that you are not likely to produce a professional looking show car in your garage. But, that is okay! Half of the fun and reward is in learning new things as you go. And maybe you don't care about how it looks? Perhaps all you care about is the number on the bottom of the time slip when you take it to the drags, or how well it can negotiate the rocks at Moab. Without a plan at the start though you will eventually suffer from "mission creep" where you start to think, why can't my drift car have an excellent stereo, or why shouldn't my rock crawler have fantastic paint. Once this happens, the goalposts start moving, and you may never be finished with the project.
  • Have a realistic timeframe - If you have been watching car restoration TV shows, they all seem to involve restoring a rust bucket to a show car in just seven days, all with an eye on the budget. It may be called "reality TV", this is far from reality. A week isn't even enough time to properly paint a car and rub it out, let alone fix rust and dings, and rejuvenate the chassis and running gear. It is possible to make a well-preserved barn find drivable in a weekend, but don't count on it. The old saying in home repair and improvements is to estimate how much time and money the job is going to take, then double it - this is a good rule of thumb for automotive projects as well.
  • Budget accurately - Much like when shopping for a house, you want to buy the best example you can find, even when looking at "fixer-uppers". If your budget to build a BMW 325 track day car involves finding all the parts and the car itself at way below the average price, you probably can't afford to finish that project. When planning your project, before you even buy the vehicle, look up what the parts you are going to need will cost, and make a list. Often times when you add it all up, you'll find the initial cost of the car is not all that relevant to the final cost of the project.
  • Keep the horse before the cart - How many times have you seen half-finished projects for sale online with shiny aftermarket wheels and decade-old tires with no wear on them? It can be tempting to jump in with both feet and make a significant change, like wheels and tires, right off the bat. But you are better off with four old, bald tires (as long as they hold air), than sinking money into tires that are going to be trash due to dry rot or flat spots by the time you finish. Start with the most important things, like a running motor, a shifting transmission, brakes that work, suspension that handles predictably, and reliability before dropping thousands on a paint job, upholstery, or fancy rims and tires. You may need that money if you hit a snag, like a cracked engine block.
  • Avoid someone else's project - Someone else's project can seem like a bargain, since they are often sold way below market value, but you have to ask yourself "If finishing this is so easy, why haven't they?" Maybe someone was trying to restore a car, and all you want is a "rat rod"? Maybe they were building a daily driver, and you want a racecar and don't need smog legality? Unless you really know all the facts though, buying someone's stalled project is bound to come with buying their pitfalls. "Lost interest" is constantly cited in ads as the reason for selling a project cheap, but usually means "...when I discovered how hard it was going to be to get a title" or "...when we found the frame rot".
rusty 1957 Chevy Bel Air

Those are five of the most critical considerations to make before you start, but what are some of the things to watch out for if you are down in the thick of it?

Talk to anyone who enjoys working on projects, and they will be happy to relate anecdotes of stupid mistakes they've made, and mystery problems which took months to solve. Next time you see an intriguing car at a show or race, be sure to ask the owner about the process involved in building it. These stories are seldom straightforward and often amusing and educational.

Here are some pitfalls we've been caught in or heard about from other enthusiasts.

  • Hidden damage - We touched on this above, but it happens all the time. You buy a clean project car, only to find the floors are rusted from the inside out due to a clogged sunroof drain. Or, when you go to replace a body panel that is bent or rusted, you discover that the undamaged panel doesn't fit because the whole shell is sagging or twisted. There are a million variations to this story and a million ways to deal with them, but just remember there is no way to plan ahead for every problem.
  • Unavailable parts - The car above is a 1957 Chevy Bel Air, and you can probably find used or reproduction replacements for any part of it. The obviously missing windshield can be found for a reasonable, and you can order it from any automotive glass shop. But even if you are working on a popular model, you can run into availability issues. 
  • Big Ticket Item - When Manuel Carrillo had his Project Stork 911 in our US workshop (for the better part of a year) he was stymied by the need to overhaul the motor, which can easily be a five-figure process on an air cooled Porsche. Looking down the barrel at that potential cost stopped the project cold. After months of deliberating, we pulled the motor, checked the compression, and replaced the valve seals to deal with the oil being pumped into the exhaust, and managed to make it run again. It turns out the motor was sound, the fuel injection is just gummed up, and the muffler plugged with oil.
  • Ability Gap - Maybe you are good with mechanical work, but lousy with body work. Maybe you can do body work but have no idea when it comes to interiors. Often the big ticket item that stops a project is having to pay for a professional to do one aspect of the job. This very stumbling block is what gave rise to people driving ratty cars left in primer paint and rust because the builder was saving up to have a good paint job done. Don't be afraid to ask friends, or other car enthusiasts online with different skill sets for help. Often in exchange for help on their car, they will gladly help with your project vehicle.
  • Low Morale - As mentioned, projects can balloon with unforeseen issues and costs, and all of these will slow down the process until it seems like you will never finish. When this happens it can be hard to maintain enthusiasm for the car you had such big plan for. A good way to boost your morale, and get ideas for your project, is to go to car shows, races, or museums to talk to others and appreciate all the work they put into their finished vehicle. You never know, you may even learn of a shortcut to the problem that is holding your project up or find someone with just the parts you are missing.
  • Tool Gap - This is probably the easiest obstacle to overcome because there are many companies out there offering tool hire schemes; even some of the big parts retailers offer such schemes. A quick Google search will throw up plenty of options in your area. If you need a bigger tool, like an engine hoist or tow dolly, you can typically find these at reasonable day rates from a local equipment hire company. And if you need a bay with a lift, or a shop with an air compressor and paint booth, you can usually find a shop willing to rent space and facilities for a reasonable daily or hourly rate.