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Wrenching Tips: How to Pick Your First Project Car

Tim Odell March 22, 2012 Featured, Wrenching Tips 88 Comments

After a bit of a break (for you, definitely not me), we’re back with a Wrenching Tips that gets to the heart of Redusernab. 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

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. We 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  for $3500

…but might consider either for $3500 (somewhat overpriced, it seems)

 …or maybe 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.

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.

(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.

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…

is in great shape, but $4500 might be a bit steep:

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.

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 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!

  • topdeadcentre

    I'd definitely spring for the Amazon or even the Dart as a first project car. They're fairly uncomplicated, easy to work on, and parts are available. The Dart might need something a little more build-uppable than the 318 V8, but it's not too bad in stock form.

    The BMW is likely to be a very expensive proposition.

    • M44Power

      A BMW is always an expensive proposition when you are shopping in project car territory.

      And yes, that Dart Swinger is awesome!

      • facelvega

        You could probably still run an E30 or E28 fairly cheaply for a few more years, until the junkyard parts supply starts to run out.

    • facelvega

      The mopar mags and websites have long, heartfelt pieces about how you can get a 318 into fire-breathing territory for under $2000 in parts (and over 2000 hours of your own labor, we must assume). Heck, mopar muscle claims to have got 320hp on the dyno out of a mere slant six. Think I'll take the Amazon, though.

      • topdeadcentre

        After an hour spent reading on the web, I am now enlightened.

        I have fond memories on working on a stock 318 back in the 80's, located in the immense engine bay of a friend's '73 Charger SE. Even though it was the "economy" engine, driving the Charger didn't feel horribly underpowered.

  • Double 97

    My daughter begged me to let her buy a six-years-since-running 1987 Porsche 924S with the cylinder head lying apart in the wrong end of the car. As all project cars should be, it has been frustrating, difficult and dirty. But the opportunity to bond with my teenager over this project makes it all worth it. My first-project-car tip is to view it as an opportunity that has nothing to do with fixing a car.

    • "My daughter begged me to let her buy a six-years-since-running 1987 Porsche 924S"

      …let's all just let that sink in for a second.

    • OA5599

      Some purists consider a 924S cylinder head to be in the wrong end of the car when it is still in its factory-installed location.

      And way to go with raising your daughter properly. Teenage girl hoons have the added benefit of cheaper insurance rates than teenage boy hoons.

      Oh, and "…let her buy…" instead of "…buy her…" You've got the golden touch.

      • pj134

        Gentlemen, this here is a classic case of being a man amongst boys.

        • Deartháir

          Agreed. I think I speak for all of us here when I say,

          <img src=";

      • duckedtapedemon

        So why did the 924S overlap with the 944? Was it just a case of tooling already being paid for?

    • hedgedigger

      you get dad of the year nominated.

  • Truck: check
    Wagon: check
    Motorbike: check

    I guess I need a 944 LS1 Project, right? ONLY $750!!!

    • Fej

      ooooohhh…. its got the staock tranny. rare item that…

  • My suggestion for a first project: Jeep CJ/Wrangler.
    – Easy to work on
    – Cheap parts (easily interchangeable parts in AMC era)
    – Cheap to buy and own
    – Reliable
    – Tons of used parts (junk yards too)
    – Amazing after-market
    – Watch for rust

  • Fej

    Where was that first picture taken? It looks like junkyard heaven…

  • hedgedigger

    so who can help me decide what would be the sanest project:

    porsche 914
    international scout
    or an early '60s lincoln continental

    all very different craigslist obsessions of mine.

    but my wife wants a galaxie 500 convertible.

    • buzzboy7

      I'd go Scout just for the practicality and ease of working on.
      The porsche will have good aftermarket support but will be expensive.
      The Lincoln will be much harder to get parts for.
      Old convertibles are scary, only for seals. I am terrified of seal repair.

      • coupeZ600

        Man, you get into a 'Binder and you have to go All In. I love them, driven them for decades, but my brother will fight tooth and nail with his F-750 rather than own another International.

        • Smells_Homeless

          It totally depends on if you live in a rust zone or not. Once a Scout's rusty, whoo boy are you in for it.

      • GlassOnion9

        "The porsche will have good aftermarket support but will be expensive. "

        Yes, because the aftermarket support for the IH is so cheap.

        In all honesty, though, the Scout is an AWESOME project vehicle. Just watch out for rust.
        It is an International. It WILL have rust. The concern is just how much and how far it has gone. Otherwise those things are indestructible.
        The Galaxie would be pretty sweet, too, but convertible issues are terrifying.

    • Kinda depends on what you want out of the car…

      In the Scout you can do things and go places that you wouldn't otherwise.
      The 914 could be fun open-top motoring, but beware of rust and a generally disintegrating chassis.
      The Lincoln would be awesome, but probably the hardest to justify owning. Parts are tricky, it's very very thirsty and hard to fit anywhere.

      If we're talking about the price ranges in the article, I'd stay away from almost all convertibles unless you live somewhere very dry. Keeping them water tight is a very costly endeavor, but if you can just thow a tarp over it for the 5 days per year it rains (in LA), then go for it.

    • aastrovan

      "but my wife wants a galaxie 500 convertible"
      Case closed ,decision made.

  • Excellent advice. The only project car that I bought in pieces (an '85 Omni GLH) left in pieces when I wasn't motivated to build it. Later I spent more and bought a fully running GLH, and had a lot more fun with it, despite the fact that it needed work as well.

    And yeah, there's a point in every project car ownership where you will hate the car and not want to see it again. Those are the times where I am SO thankful to have a "normal" daily driver that I can rely on when I just want to shut the garage door on my project. In fact, having a decent daily driver is probably my first rule in getting a project car.

    • Alcology

      Very important. If you get a project car with no other car realize you won't be driving it nearly as much as you think you will or want to!

  • Andrew

    I have an unfortunate tendency to gravitate toward towards 1970s Jaguars whenever i play the "craigslist project car" game…

  • cbaccus

    Someday a used 80s 6-series is going to wreck my retirement plans.

  • OA5599

    Another point to consider is an exit strategy. Before you bought your project car, it was someone else's unfinished project, and perhaps someone else's project before that. Face the fact that you, too, might end up having to get rid of it before you finish. And while you might have been able to drive it home under its own power, there's always the chance you'll get halfway through overhauling the differential or converting from auto to stickshift before you lose interest or need the cash for the surprise bundle of joy coming your way in a few months. When you need to sell under those conditions, be prepared to suffer a big loss.

    There are some cars that are worth as much as donors as they are as drivers. Maybe it is the extra high performance version of a model usually sold in base trim level. Swap the manifolds and computer, for example, and someone's base model can become a real sleeper. I like to look for cars where, in a worst-case scenario, I can spend less than 8 hours with a set of hand tools and remove at least 4 items exceeding my cost of entry. That way, if your sloppy timing chain takes out half the valvetrain, you still have the sport hood, limited slip diff, pristine upgrade interior and the unbroken air dam to earn back your outlay. If all of those items are broken, too, pick a different car.

    • FuzzyPlushroom

      This is how I chose my $200 745T winter beater. The exhaust manifold, cooling fan/relay/wiring, and wheels were worth that, and I could make back my purchase price rolling it off for scrap with a few hundred bucks in parts missing.

      Planning on selling it either as a LeMons car or (should it be necessary) to a friend in need of cheap/roomy/mildly bearable transportation for twice that with the aforementioned wheels replaced with less-desirable ones, having sunk only a couple hundred in parts in over time, so hey – success is mine, really.

  • I have owned a couple of project cars in various states of disrepair. While the '67 Imperial Convertible I had used the standard Mopar 440 V-8 and 727 automatic transmission, pretty much EVERYTHING ELSE was Imperial specific and unavailable. The brake calipers and pads were pretty much impossible to find, except for maybe ebay, if you were lucky. Also, that car was VERY rusty, another bad mistake. But it was a blast to cruise around in a loud, rusty, faded, HUGE convertible. The carb was tuned a little rich, I'm pretty sure I got a guy that was sitting behind me at a light with a "thumpin'" stereo to roll up his windows by dropping it in neutral and revving it up an extra 500rpm or so.
    My other project car was a Fiat 850 Spider. I bought it running, but somewhat disassembled. Eventually realized I had too many projects/ was in over my head. It was rusty too. I tried to sell the whole car no takers. I ended up parting it out on ebay and actually made a profit! I believe parts of that car are now on four different continents!

    Trucks make the best project cars because they are so simple. Stick with GM and Ford for easy parts availability.

    Also, stay away from large heavy cars. There is a good chance you will end up pushing it at some point!

  • buzzboy7

    Body work has been my killer… story time!

    I bought my beetle right after the body work had been done and it had gotten fresh paint. This made me happy. The motor had some mileage but ran good and was in good shape. That I knew of, nothing wrong with the car. I spend HOURS under and inside that car. Some of the work self imposed(3" lift kit or the engine I built seizing) and some of it not(rusted out front beam, holey floor pans). I probably put $2k into a car I bought for that much. So I sold it. Great running car. New owner got lucky with a car that had good paint, and all the rust fixed already. He kept it a project and drives it probably less than I did but a good project passed on.

    Searching for my second car I was looking for a few specific things. Good running, good body, a driver. I got my car from inland South Carolina. It looked great, but I had to buy it sight unseen. Had it towed to a friends house nearby and went to see it a few weeks later to get it. I GOT LUCKY. The car ran great and looked great. While getting the car I added front turn signals, replaced a starter solenoid(died while I was driving it) and other small things. Drove it 7 hours home with no problems. The car treated me great. The only things I did were kill the clutch(doh!) and did a new headgasket just because. The car runs great. Sadly I started to strip the paint around the trim holes to shave the trim and I found the rust(it wasn't under the car) around all the trim holes. I sanded and primed them but as a college student I don't have time or money for the proper fix. Alas, she's for sale as I don't want such a cool car to rust away on the NC coast. A good running project that needs seals and mild body work to be the next guy's fun project.

    • Alcology

      Pimp out your work buzz! Check out the the hooniverse forum for sale section to see this.

    • buzzboy7

      Ah yes, of course, pimping…
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  • TurboBrick

    So today I was browsing my local source of awful ideas and I saw this…

    Now I'm looking at pictures of rustbuckets in an attempt to sober up a little.

    If anyone wants a project car to tinker with and to do it on the cheap side, can't go wrong with a Volvo 240 or 740 – it's like it's made of adult size lego blocks, just go to the junkyard and start swapping pieces.

  • flr1975

    For California residents, I would add: be realistic about your project's ability to pass a smog test. I had to let go of my E12 project over this, as the needed repairs simply made no economic sense. Easiest way around this: buy 1975-or-older models.

    • lilpoindexter

      Google SB 1224…help might be in the cards for '76-80 models.

  • smalleyxb122

    Sure, a first project car is good, but what you really want is a second project car. You'll then be able to refocus your attention on a different project when the first one pisses you off. When the second car inevitably pisses you off, hopefully your hatred toward the first will have waned sufficiently to take up where you left off on it.

    Yeah, two project cars is alright, but now you're thinking that if you just move one to the back yard, you can get this basketcase that is totally worth the price in parts, although you know that it is just too nice to part it out. You're going to restore it.

    So now you've got three project cars, and you aren't really sure of the exact day that your wife left.

    Welcome to the cult. Just don't drink what looks like Kool-Aid, because it's really ATF.

    • Smells_Homeless

      Project house hell is also very good for this.

    • The red Kool-Aid is ATF, but what about the really sweet stuff that looks like it might be lime flavored?

      If you spend any time with a project car you should be able to identify leaking fluids by taste and smell.

      • Alcology

        Or what it does to your eyeballs when it sprays into them

  • hedgedigger

    also, i'd like to point out that this a great post.

  • dukeisduke

    Tim, where the hell is that place with all the R5s, BMWs, Celica AllTrac Turbo, etc.? Looks like either a candy store, or project car hell.

    • That's Jack's place.


    • "Looks like either a candy store, or project car hell."

      It's both, actually.

  • My first project car was a non-running 1990 Tempo. ~$40 later and two weeks after I bought it, I got it running. And its been running ever since.

    • lilpoindexter

      I bought an '87 two door GLS…white with grey and red trim, and very nice seats…The 2.3L and 5 SPEED!..Mine was $500, needed an idle control motor…all my friends laughed at me, but I thought the car was great..

    • topdeadcentre

      FTF, we're glad you're here!

  • theTokenGreek

    seconded on the old pickups! There's less of a stigma about beater trucks it seems, so you can push bodywork further down on the to-do list without shame. BTW, does "Pilot" in your name refer to a Honda or profession/hobby?

    • This is actually @PilotMan

      …crap, my bad. I saw a duplicate comment and deleted it, but it seems I managed to duplicate the original.

      Feel free to re-post.

  • while certainly not my first project car nor, hopefully, not my last, this olelongrooffan has always found it handy if the seller owns a really big forklift..

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    • You're setting a bad example…

    • craigsu

      Yeah, but that's only because it was sitting on top of a dumpster full of alligators.

  • emaren

    I intended to get a project car.

    Unfortunately I got a project motorcycle in the shape of a mid sixties Triumph.

    I paid a premium because all it needed was 'carb work' and I was assured that up until recently it had been in daily use.

    That was several years and many, many dollars ago.

    I have ridden it twice in the intervening years. The 'carb work' turned out to be a little more

    – 'New' carbs from the bay-of-E which needed to be completely rebuilt.
    – Existing carbs had to be completely rebuilt – this is not only not cheap, but parts are a nightmare.
    – cracked and super wobbly frame (may have been a factory feature I am not sure) braised along with new bracing and powdercoat.
    – Hubs rebuilt with new bearings (insanely hard to find), new rims, spokes, rim tape, tubes, tires.
    – NOS forks, original forks rebuilt, NOS forks rebuilt and sold.
    – Complete engine overhaul, 60 thou overbore, custom pistons NOS rods (one was slightly bent).
    – Balanced and lightened everything.
    – addition of second and fourth gears to the otherwise mostly serviceable gearbox
    – new loom
    – straight bars
    – seat recover
    – seat re-recover
    – NOS tank
    – repairs to heavily filled NOS tank
    – repairs to and sealing of original tank
    – NOS speedo (did not need repair, electric drill confirms it works)
    – I recent got a NOS exhaust system and the appropriate gaskets. It is 'in transit' at the moment, let's hope that it is truly NOS and not polished up and then covered in grease like so many 'NOS' parts turn out to be…..

    I am still on the hunt for a few pieces, luckily with my father living in the UK, he often finds pieces and gets them shipped over.

    I am not going to admit how bad a money pit this thing has been…….

    • Ouch.

      I didn't really highlight it in the article (figured it was obvious and beyond the interests of this crowd), but trying to actually "restore" something with NOS parts and the like is a terribly expensive and (IMO) un-fun way to play with cars (or bikes).

      It has it's place, but in the end, you spend cubic dollars to get to something that can (and should) be appreciated…but not really enjoyed.

    • Bikes can be shocking money pits. One autumn some years back, in the space of a month I needed to put a radiator in both my Kawasaki KLR650 and my '96 Ford Thunderbird… the car's radiator was 10x bigger and $100 cheaper.

      That same KLR now needs a motor, or at least some important motor bits. The balancer chain drive tensioner failed (due to a poor design), causing excessive wear to the drive sprocket which is integral to the left end of the crankshaft. The new parts from Kawasaki are so expensive ($300 for a left crank end, $600 for a crank, etc.) that I'm thinking of getting an engine, but they go for $900 on eBay at minimum and I've seen $1600 for lower-mile motors. Meanwhile this is a bike that's maybe worth $1000 since it has 50,000 miles on it. I'm about ready to call up the nearest bike salvage place I know of (south of the Twin Cities… 4 hrs away, one-way) and see if it's worth the gas $$ to haul it there and leave it in their hands.

      • P. Frere

        It's a safe bet that your bike salvage place has several KLR650s there with exactly the same problem. Please don't ask me how I know. And yet, I still love KLR650s

  • facelvega

    I take issue with one point in the article: Look for the 'Good One' should have been "Look for the obscure Good One, but not the Usual Suspect." With Tim's examples of the country sedan and the 85 toyota truck, the market won't recognize the difference between the more and less desirable vehicles. But for a lot of project cars, the supposed good one is the big engine or fancy package, which only means that it will cost twice as much to buy and have already been thrashed by the last three owners.

    I say, avoid the Fox-body Mustang GT, but get the Mustang LX 5.0, heck in notchback if it's way cheaper. Forget the E28 535i, get a grandpa-owned, always-garaged 528e for less than half the price. In most cases I think it's worth avoiding the faster engine if the price is double, particularly because a new focus or say an 8-year-old Accord V6 will outrun most "fast" classics anyway. Any money you can put into the maintenance fund will be worth more than a bigger engine waiting for a new starter motor/timing belt/transmission rebuild.

    • I'm still kicking around the idea of getting a 528e as a daily driver. If they are anything like the E30 eta cars, they are just a diff swap away from fun. My 87 325, it would have been a 325e but was the base model, was a total dog that could barely get out of the way with the stock 2.91 or so rear end. A trip to the junkyard and a swap to a 3.25LSD rear end turned it into a fun little car. but with $4/gal gas the 2.91 rear might be a good idea.

      • facelvega

        Well, the eta 325 with a diff swap is bound to be sprightlier than the heavier 528e, but I imagine it would be pretty easy to wring out some driving pleasure from the handsome 5er as well.

    • I guess it comes down to the price premium The Good One comes with.

      Sometimes you can get all the parts used or aftermarket to turn a Z28 into an SS killer for less than the difference. Sometimes the chassis, suspension or drivetrain differences are so profound there's no way to justify the cost of upgrading a lesser model.

      Thinking about it more, the real emphasis should be towards "avoid The Bad One". There's no bummer quite like learning that you're stuck with some kind of orphan year model for which there's no aftermarket support or easy way to bolt in better parts.

      A chipped and lightly fiddled-with 528e is a legitimately better car than a badly maintained 535i, but I'd bet you can't cover the difference between a wheezy 318 and a 325 for the price difference between the two.

      • facelvega

        Actually, "Look for the Good One" still works, because the work you mention to figure out the right year/options would also tell you which variant is the most fixable and the best bang for the buck.

        I wonder about those 318is E30s, though– my brother thinks they are the best ones because they're lighter and handle better (I have to take his word on this), but the power gap is as you mention painfully wide between them and the six-cylinder models.

        On the cheapie refurb end, I used to want to grab a 2004 Mazda-engined focus hatch and add in the SVT suspension with the cheapo kit that Ford made available, as this evidently gives performance on a par with the real SVT. It seems these days the hot Foci are trading cheaply enough to make the difference meaningless though.

        • From everything I have read the 318is E30 is the poor man's M3. I think they both came with something like a 3.91 or 4.11 rear end which helped make up for some of the performance gap.

      • Lex

        I had to make the 318/325 choice, or to some degree it got made for me because a 318is came up first. I'm ok with the M42. Yes, you have to really wind it up to get the not so much power it has out. However, it's got the "drive a slow car fast" thing going on in spades, while capable of being an economical DD. (This is easier for me to say as i'm almost 200 miles from anywhere with a speed limit above 55.)

        Rumor has it that an aluminum flywheel makes a huge difference in acceleration, and that's where the 318is falls short.

  • I_Borgward

    The voice of experience is clearly heard on this thread!

    My two cents, most all of which I learned the hard way:

    Body work is by far the most expensive and most difficult thing to deal with, bar none. Hold out for the best condition body/chassis you can find, as it will always cost a fraction of what body and paint work will run you. Engines and transmissions and such are relatively easy to deal with in comparison.

    If you want the body to be nice, take care of it first, then you'll have something actually worth bolting all those new parts to. Don't be tempted to throw hundreds of dollars of parts on a bent-up rust heap, it will never work out the way you want it to and you can easily lose your shirt if you have to sell. A $500 rust bucket with $1,000 worth of parts bolted on is still a $500 rust bucket.

    Do LOTS of research well before you go looking at prospective examples of your dream ride. Hit the web, talk to your local parts counter, talk to a shop that deals in your particular obsession, check out boneyards for potential parts sources.

    Don't overlook the suspension. On many older vehicles, suspension parts are no longer available for any amount of money. Again, do your research!

    Stock good, modded, often not so good. Highly modded? Run, do not walk, unless you _really_ know what the hell you're doing.

    Finally, if you want to stay happy, solvent and sane, NEVER, EVER borrow money for a project car! And, as with gambling, never put down more than you can afford to lose. Get over any ideas about making a buck right this very instant… do it for the love. If you can break even when it's all said and done and sold to the next hoon, you'll have done very well indeed.

    • facelvega

      Oh, I think frame work can beat body work often enough. But yes, generally better that it come with no engine than that it have three or four spots of rust-through. Unless it's old enough that the panels come right off, and common enough that you can get new ones without fabricating them yourself.

  • Eggwich James Dio

    I just want a foxbody i can beat the shit out of and throw affordable parts at. Is that too much to ask out of life? Or a Fairmont or LTD, even.

    I'll buy one someday. In the meantime I'll spend my freetime on craigslist.

  • lilpoindexter

    Ok…ok…my turn…
    A 1978 Chevy 1/2 ton short bed step side, three on the tree and straight 6…i bought it for $1500…I've put in a T5, power steering, etc….great fun

    Second…my daily driver….
    I was looking for a E39 BMW…but a Bronzit 1988 BMW 528E with automatic, working AC and a 2 inch thick stack of service records-kept popping up on craigslist….I made arrangement to "just go see it"…The guy told me people would call but never show up…he was selling it for his mother in law…I told him if it passed smog, I'd buy it…a smog test and $1600 later, it was on the back of the AAA flat bed on the way back to my house….I love it…I remember seeing these things all over SoCal when I was a boy in the 80's…the mother in law even had the driver seat re-upholstered!

    Street sweeping day means I have to get up 15 minutes early to move all my junk around, but so far, it hasn't become a big hassle.

  • Is this where I ask you Hoons to talk me intoout of projectifying my '96 Thunderbird that I've had since the late '90's? By this standard it fails in needing some bodywork (hood due to a deer, rear bumper cover due to its having an idiot for an owner, being a snow-country car and needing some cosmetic rocker-panel attention) and it overlaps with the Challenger a bit (being another ginormous RWD coupe with doors that outmass some high-schoolers.)

    • facelvega

      well, there are different levels of project, from trailer queen down to rustbucket runner/Lemons fodder. I'd say that the thunderbird could reward something closer to the latter, maybe in the well-sorted beater bracket?

  • Alcology

    Sounds like everyone needs an AMC eagle project

    • topdeadcentre

      Sounds like everyone needs an AMC eagle AMX, Javelin or Rebel Machine project.

      Or at least I do… 🙂

  • craigsu

    There's a 1993 Jaguar XJ6 (aka XJ40) in British Racing Green with Camel leather interior just 2 houses down from me that has been sitting in the driveway since at least 2004. The car was the pride and joy of the husband of the widow who lives there. I've run the VIN and it has the 4.0 litre L6 FI DOHC 24V engine. The paint is cracked in one place on the roof and is fading in spots but the clearcoat seems OK. The Jaguar side markers were forcibly removed by some opportunistic SOB with a screwdriver. They attach using the same keyhole-type slot as my Volvo 245 so I know the screwdriver wasn't necessary. There is also a minor piece of trunklid trim missing. The interior looks fine except for a worn side bolster on the driver's seat and some peeling clearcoat from the center console wood trim (easily repaired).

    I know a local Jag specialist who will perform a top-to-bottom pre-sale inspection for $89 (the cost of which is deducted from any repair work they do) so I know I can get a fair evaluation. I don't know what the engine bay looks like (full of squirrels, probably) but I assume all of the rubber bits should probably be replaced along with some wiring.

    I have always looked at the car when the widow isn't home as I'm afraid to ask her about it. I sense she is holding onto it for sentimental reasons but, then again, I'm also afraid she might actually offer it to me. God help me; the Prince of Darkness beckons.

  • Jim-Bob

    For a first project, buy a 3 cylinder Geo Metro. It's the simplest car sold in the US in the last 20 years and an easy way to learn the ropes. Plus, when you are done, you'll have an interesting car to putt around in that will also save you a ton of money when gas hits $5 a gallon. Did I mention they are cheap? My daily driver only ran me $250 and I was actually able to drive it 10 miles home (but it did leak a quart of oil in that time). Okay, I know. I am one of the only Geo Metro fan boys on this site and I am always bringing them up but really…. just buy one. It's easy to fall in love with them.

    • We fully condone your Metrovangelism.

  • Pixel

    Another really important part of "Buy a Runner (or Very Close to it)" is that it allows you to test all the other systems in the car. Even if the car has the rod knock from hell a quick drive around the block will tell you if the brakes/suspension/transmission are all at least basically functional so you have a better idea what you are getting into. Whereas buying the car that "only needs a new starter" that you never see running could have a lot of extra surprises.

    • Indeed.

      If it's been sitting, parts that look intact may well disintegrate the first time you go down a freeway on/off ramp.

  • Lex

    I think i've done ok. Granted, the e30 318is isn't really a "project car" in the sense that it needs anything right now, but i know that it will. I spent under my budget; got a rust free runner; and the only non-stock thing are the wheels which aren't bad, just not my first choice.

    Now that i own two vehicles, the one will be the project car while the other is the driver. So this summer i'm hoping to treat the old Yota as a project and drive the e30, and then flip them in the winter … or that's my plan that will surely go awry. But since i've spent less than $6000 on cars in the last seven years, i can also afford to take one of these to a mechanic if need be.

  • .co.za

    Thinking about a 1st generation Celica as a first project. That'd be a nightmare and a half. A beautiful one.

  • josh

    Yes, they really did make the S4 in '93. In fact I think 92 was the first year. Powered by a 5 cylinder turbo mated to a manual transmission. They do tend to go for about $4k even among those who know the most about the vehicles, and about half of them have a laundry list of well-known and accepted mods (maybe 1/3 of which are just better quality replacement parts). They're absolutely awesome vehicles. There's nothing like hearing that turbo'd 5 cylinder with a proper exhaust buzzing down the freeway, and the turbo spool up as the power comes on like a freight train, the speedometer needle passing 100mph before you realize it. Also they're ROCK SOLID in the winter, even on standard all-seasons, carving through 6+ inches of snow without a care in the world. HIt up to learn more about the classic Audi's.

  • glenn chladek

    I’m a Toyota fan. My son and i want to do a rebuild together. Corolla from the 80’s or early 90’s is on my list.Is this a good idea? I would value your advise?

    • Fungus

      They are pretty easy to find parts for and they are one of the top drift cars out there

  • tony

    Just picked up 1974 Monte Carlo 3000.00 clean lines barely any body damage runs rough. Here we go

  • Jen

    My first car was a 76 MGB convertable, sort of. It was once I got my top in! This was back in 1993 and I enjoyed working on it as much as I did driving it. I am considerably older now and have a working vehicle that is too high tech for me to work on. I also have kids. Can anyone point me in the direction I need to be looking? I drool over the old wagons and anything with bench seating for 6. I am close friends with Bondo and as a woman I don’t have any issues with cute or girly. I am hoping for under 4K, drivable, Florida, and seats 5+. Thanks in advance!

    • Ethan Almashy

      ford bronco

  • texpat

    Great advice. I really need to get cracking on reassembling the long block for my ’04 WRX currently sitting in the garage. If you can find a cheap WRX is reasonable shape w/ no rust, then it’s a great platform for whatever you can think of.

  • adriana

    Hey so I’m just looking to find a cheap nice looking project car, however I mostly want an old classic car that doesn’t have to be maintained as much and can just drive me to school and back. I’m don’t care about interior or exterior quality, just mainly that it runs and drives good! Looking for help thanks

  • adriana

    I also wanted someone to review this post I found on Craigslist. Does anybody know if this is a good deal or a good car??

  • Metalhead

    When I get my Welding Career kick started, I want a 1967-1968 Pontiac Firebird, I even found the top trim level ones fully restored for $20,000 at the most, I take it that classic car enthusiasts don’t like these years of the Firebird? Good, because I like these years.

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