Skip to main content

5 things to look for when buying a project car

5 things to look for when buying a project car

Project cars are a very British thing. There’s something we, as a nation, like about ignoring the manufacturers that have ploughed millions into research and design, and instead opting to build a car ourselves in our shed. Our of bits of other cars. Or shelves. Or Tupperware.

The thing is, many people set off on this road with good intentions, but then very quickly come to the realisation that finishing a project car is in fact quite difficult. As such, online auction sites are awash with unfinished projects, deep with dust and with a slight whiff of failed ambition. 

This is no bad thing though. Happily, their part-built ubiquity within the classifieds means you can get one for a fraction of what the previous owner ploughed into it. But do so with caution.

You’re not buying from a dealer here, you’re buying from Geoff’s shed. And Geoff might not be telling you everything you need to know. So, with that in mind, here are five things you should look for when buying a project.

01 Identification

Project cars can have dubious backgrounds.Are you looking at a Metro body on a Discovery chassis? If so, what is it? Metro, or Discovery? Has it been changed at some point, or worst of all, is it in some sort of legal no man’s land due to being sat for so long?

Therefore you need to be sure of the vehicle’s identity. If you’ve got paperwork for any engine change, that’s not a problem, at least it gives you a known platform on which to build. But if it’s got no identification, or if the paperwork doesn’t add up, walk away.  

02 Accidents

Not the ‘oops, I’ve hit a tree type’. No, we’re talking about the kind of accidents caused by overzealous home mechanics that have plenty of enthusiasm but limited skill. Have they dropped something on the frame?

Are fibreglass parts cracked or full of holes in the wrong places? Has anything been cut or drilled where it shouldn’t be? You need to check for all this, or you could end up buying what is essentially nothing more than some scrap metal. 

03 Running gear

Apart from ascertaining the identification and origin of any running gear, you also need to be sure it’s not complete junk. Chances are, you’re not going to be able to hear it run, as it’s probably been disconnected, or sat for an age.

What you can do though is ascertain how well it’s been stored/preserved. Are wires neatly cut and labelled, or are they just a frayed mess? Can you turn the crank pulley by hand or with a bar?

Have parts been carefully removed or have they been cut for a speedy extraction? If the latter, you know you’re dealing with a clueless seller.

04 Bodges

The man in his shed is not subject to quality control, he is his own creator, what he says goes, but what he says may be rubbish and possibly dangerous. So, look for bodges, look for jobs that have been done on the cheap, check the car over thoroughly.

You are literally putting your life in the seller’s hands the moment you take to the road, unless you take it apart and start from scratch.

Check every nut and bolt, look for mismatched bolts, look for questionable wiring, look for cable ties and tape and then, when you find them, question whether or not this is car you trust?

05 Is it worth the effort?

It’s easy to see a project car and get carried away, usually through the frames of rose-tinted spectacles. Maybe it’s a car you used to have back in your youth. Maybe it’s something you’ve always wanted for a reason so simple as just because you like it.

That’s nice, but if we’re talking about a mundane, average car, you have to ponder if it’s worth the effort. Could you save a bit more money and get a better one, or are you dealing with a car so rare that you must pounce on it, irrespective of condition? This is the time to let head rule heart.

About the author

Chris Pollitt is an award-winning automotive word-wrangler, editor of the website Not 2 Grand and a keen collector of crappy old cars.