How to Choose the Right Project Car


We’ve all seen dusty project cars languishing away in garages. It’s a sad sight for sure. Beneath the piles of clutter heaped on top of a sad old car is the hope and vision of some guy looking to make a dream come true.

You can’t help but wonder what happened. Is the owner just lazy?

Probably not. He most likely just picked the wrong car to start with. Big projects like frame-off restorations or complete car builds usually fail because the owner dove blindly into a car that didn’t really fit his skills, time, or money. Or, just as significantly, the project didn’t fit in with the stuff he really liked to do — the ‘fun factor.’

But you don’t have to fall into those traps. Here’s how to start planning a car project to come up with one you’ll really enjoy … and actually finish!

Picture your ultimate car
First, have a clear picture of what your all-out, fantasy car project is. Don’t worry if it’s feasible, affordable, or possible with your finite resources. Just dream for now. Maybe you have your heart set on a perfectly restored ’69 Dodge Hemi Charger. And that’s a fine notion to start with. Enjoy the picture in your mind.

Look at what you like to do best
Now, let’s bring in reality. Okay, so maybe you dream of doing a ground-up restoration on that vaunted Hemi machine, but in fact you really don’t enjoy spending more than an hour or two at a time in the garage working on stuff. In that case, you’re setting yourself up for disaster by taking on a huge, complex project like a nut-and-bolt, frame-off rebuild.

If that’s the case, instead aim your plans toward a good solid car that you can drive as you fix up. This is, after all, supposed to be a hobby — FUN!

Look at what you can afford (honestly!)
Next, add up how much money you can put into the project. And don’t fudge the numbers. The financial realities of any car build can be brutal. For example, you may not think much about the cost of spray paint, but every time you pick up a couple cans at the store it’ll eat 20 bucks or more. That can quickly add up to hundreds of dollars over the course of a big project. Likewise for other ‘small’ items like sandpaper and fasteners. So count your available funds carefully and consider the detailed costs of everything it might take.

Then double or even triple how much you think you’ll need. That will get you sort of close.

Dig deep to find what you’re in for
Some types of cars are way more expensive to restore than others. So don’t just trust your gut on what it will cost to take on a car project. Get opinions from people who really know the type of car you’re thinking about. For example, restoring a ’65 Ford Falcon may actually cost more than doing a Mustang of the same vintage, despite them both being largely the same under the skin. Unlike Falcons, the supply of Mustang donor cars is still pretty strong and ‘Stang reproduction parts are common as bellybuttons. Things like this might not be an obvious factor if you’re a beginner. So ask around and find the hidden traps of the car you crave.

Regroup and reframe
Maybe after going through these questions, you realize you can’t even afford a derelict hulk of a car to start your dream restoration project. And perhaps when you looked at how much time you truly have available, you figured out you’ll probably work on that car only one day a week — meaning it’ll probably take six years instead the six months you were hoping.

Ouch. The truth can really hurt. But it’s better to have discovered these things now rather than halfway into a frustrating project. And, armed with the facts, you can plan a project that you’ll really enjoy and actually finish.

Consider alternatives
Finish the process up by narrowing down the alternatives. Take all the information you’ve learned and work out a short list of cars that are really, honestly workable. For example, if you don’t have much time or patience, a good, solid, driveable car is probably a better pick for you than trying to salvage a scrap-yard refugee in your spare time.

Yeah, those ’69 Hemi Charger visions will probably still be dancing in your head. But instead of dreaming of “someday,” why not step into a less pricey 318-powered example? Or, to cut the cost even more, maybe you could switch that dream to a ’73 Charger instead of a big-money ’69.

Yeah, the later-generation car may not be your ultimate, number-one pick. But at least you’ll be out there driving, while the dreamers are sitting on the sidelines drooling.

Action always beats wishing. So get going!