How to Select a Project Vehicle

It is impossible sometimes to stop a friend (or yourself) from selecting the wrong project vehicle. After all, the heart wants what it wants, as they say. If you fall in love with an incredibly rare car, you may have no choice. Condition and completeness are less of an issue when you find the only Humber Super Snipe within 500 miles after 6 months of searching.

For the rest of us, looking for more typical cars, there is hope. Below are some tips to make your project an easier one.

Play to Your Strengths


What is it about this hobby that you enjoy doing most? What parts of old vehicle restoration are you good at? What are you hopeless at? What are you going to have to farm out, no matter what?

If you are the kind of guy who likes the dynamic systems, like drivetrain, brakes and suspension, a well preserved car, even one with no motor or transmission is going to be much better than a car in need of extensive body and interior work. If you can whip up interiors in a flash, a car that lived a hard life, with a saggy headliner and ripped seats, that smells like someone has been living in it might be an easy fix for you. If you are an ace collision bodywork guy, or an artist at rust repair, you should look for a body shell that needs the kind of work you excel at.

Nothing is worse than having a project that gets stalled at a plateau simply because you need a major piece of work done that you can’t handle and don’t have the money for. This is why you see beautiful shiny cars that still blow smoke out the tailpipe, or good running cars with rust holes, ratty interiors or dents in them. Be realistic about your abilities, and shop for your project accordingly.

Nothing But the Best

This suggestion seems kind of silly to have to say, but buy the best example of the car/truck you can find. If after a few weeks or months of searching you can’t find anything but rusted out hulks, which are home to a family of squirrels, maybe you just don’t have the budget for this particular car/bike/truck. Garages and yards are full of projects that seemed simple, but snowballed, got too big, went downhill fast and overwhelmed their owner, never to be finished.

Look for the least rusty, least wrecked example you can find. There is a reason people all over the country (and the world really) shop for cars from California, Arizona, New Mexico and the like: The dry, snow free climate is good for old iron. Cars from the desert areas of the south west tend to be almost mummified they are so well preserved. Sure, the paint may be baked, or sand blasted off by the wind and the desert, but the underlying bones of the car are going to be there to build on.

Know What Is Available

Do some research and find out what parts for this particular project are hard to find. For some models there is no source for trim besides going back in time. But for popular cars like Mustangs, of nearly any vintage, you can practically build a whole new one from the VIN plate up.

Sometimes even similar cars share almost no trim and have no aftermarket support: 1959 and 1960 Chevrolet Impalas, for example. And for some corporate cousins, parts may be easier to come by for the value brand, like Plymouth and Dodge, and next to impossible to find for the Desotos or Imperials of the same era.

For other cars the drivetrain is the hard part. You don’t find Cosworth Vega or ZR1 Corvette motors at your local wrecking yard these days. The Pantera may use common, easily sourced Ford V8s, but if that ZF transaxle is bad, you are going to spend a lot of money for a rebuild or a replacement.

Think Small


What is the goal of your project? If you just want to have a cool old car to cruise around in, or to build an awesome street/strip car, “numbers matching” isn’t doesn’t get you any advantages. If you don’t think your project is going to end up on stage at a Scottsdale auction for big bucks, start shopping the bargain rack. Most top of the line muscle cars go for big bucks, but their run of the mill cousins sell for relatively little. When you get done with a project 1964-67 Tempest, it likely going to be a better car to drive than a bone stock GTO of the same era, so why pay the premium price for a GTO project car? A built crate motor will drop into a slant six powered Challenger just as easily as it will a 340 car, thanks to aftermarket support these days. And in many ways an Impala is just a Biscayne in its dress uniform.

Crate motors, 5 and 6 speed transmissions, disc brake conversions and all sorts of aftermarket modern goodies are widely available these days. This has made it easy to build a car dynamically better than anything the factory turned out when these old cars were new. Even a dedicated race car, like a first generation Shelby Mustang Trans-Am car, would have a hard time beating a run of the mill pony car of the era rebuilt with modern brake and suspension upgrades and a fuel injected 302 crate motor backed with a 6 speed manual transmission.

Other People’s Projects

There are bargains to be had buying other peoples projects, especially from a seller motivated by an angry wife or neighbors. But this method has more pitfalls then buying a decrepit old hulk. If the body work and paint have been done, be extra careful when looking for signs of major rust repairs done with a trowel and a wheelbarrow full of Bondo. Typically, it costs more to restore a car properly than the market value of the car, so buying an almost finished project usually gets you a bargain. Just be sure you know why it’s only almost finished, and make sure you can get over that hump, whatever it is.


Often times, one of the things that can doom an almost finished project are the legalities of the paperwork. The laws from state to state vary widely when it comes to registering an old project car. Some states need an original copy of the title, signed by the last owner or you’ll have a hard time even trying to sell the car for scrap. Some states will accept a bill of sale scrawled on the back of a cocktail napkin, as long as your check clears. Some states, California for instance, can require you to pay years of back registration fees for a car if it wasn’t taken off the road the officially sanctioned way.

Be sure to know what the rules are in your state before dropping a large sum of money into a project. You may end up with a pretty lawn ornament that you have no legal ownership to, and can’t register. There are ways to launder a title thru another state, typically advertised in various automotive magazines, but it’s better to know what you are getting into when you buy the car. Knowing the ins and outs of your state’s title process is also a good way to negotiate a little better deal on your project.

Happy Hunting

So good luck, and happy project hunting! Try not to fall in love with the first one you find. Remember, the guys who get the best deals have a wad of cash in an envelope and a trailer hitched to their truck before they ever see the car for sale ad. For many of us “How to Stop Picking Project Cars” would be a more useful guide at this point.

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