A beginner’s guide to buying a classic project car

On the Road 5 min read

It’s fun to watch those classic car auctions on TV. One by one those restored beauties cross the auction block reminding you of that car you once had or the car you always wanted. Either way, you decide it’s time to buy your own classic car project.

“I’m going to make it fun for the whole family,” you tell yourself. “I’ll get my dad involved, as well as my kids. Even my friends will have fun with it.”

Now what? How should you get started? Good questions, and you came to the right place for the answers. In this beginners guide to buying a classic project car, Hagerty will tell you how to get started on that dream car and how to keep the project going. It won’t always be easy, but when the project is completed and you’re enjoying your restored classic with your family and friends, it will all be worth it.

Buy the books first

As my friend and classic car expert Steve Magnante likes to say, “Fill your library before you fill your garage.” It’s important to know a lot about the car you’re planning to purchase as a project before you actually buy it. Yes, most of the information is on the internet, but not all of it. You should also buy a few books on the subject from quality publishing companies like Motorbooks, CarTech, and Bentley Publishers. No, the books aren’t inexpensive, but they’re a necessary investment if you’re making an educated decision and end up buying the right car and eventually the right parts.

Buy the car you love

Don’t just run out and buy the first old car you see. What does your heart want? If you always lusted after a black 1977 Pontiac Trans Am with the big Screaming Chicken on the hood, don’t buy that old Ford Mustang from the guy down the street. If you really want an old BMW or a classic Porsche 911 like the one your dad had when you were a kid, don’t run out and buy an American muscle car because you heard it’ll be less expensive to restore and a better investment. If you buy the car you think you should instead of the car you love, chances are you’ll never finish the project. Your heart won’t be in it and you’ll bail the instant it gets difficult. And there are times it will get difficult.

Make a plan

Once you decide on a car, make a plan for the build. Now is the time to decide what you want the car to be. Do you want the finished product to be a factory stock restoration, a restomod with a few updated modern luxuries, an all-out hot rod, or something in between? And the answer probably depends on what you’re planning to do with the car once it’s completed. Are you going to trailer it to car shows hoping to win a trophy? Are you going to drive it on the street where it may be subjected to traffic and weather? Maybe you plan to take it to a racetrack and drive it as hard as you can. The important thing here is to make a realistic decision and create a car that fits its intended use.

Stick to your budget

Making a budget for the project is the easy part. Sticking to it will be difficult. Be realistic with yourself and your finances. You’re not going to win Pebble Beach if you have a total budget of $25,000. If buying and restoring a classic Ferrari just isn’t possible with the amount of money you have to spend, turn your attention to the next dream car on your list. If you can’t afford the Ferrari, maybe check out other less expensive Italian makes like Alfa Romeo, Lancia, and Fiat. There may even be a Maserati within your band account.

Don’t look at the project as an investment

A classic project car is very rarely a good investment. Despite all those shiny cars selling for big money at the auctions on TV, it usually costs more to buy and restore most old cars than the vehicles are worth at the end of the process. This is especially true if you calculate your investment of time. Don’t take on a classic car project as an investment, do it because you want to. Do it for the experience. Do it because you will learn and it will be fun. Do it to create something with your hands. No, you can’t drive your stock portfolio, but it’s even easier to lose money on a classic car project run amok.

Buy the best car you can afford

It’s always better to start with the best car you can, not the cheapest. Paying extra for a cleaner, more complete example with no rust will save you money in the long run. And if the car runs and drives, that’s even better, even if you’re going to rebuild the engine, transmission, steering, brakes, and suspension anyway. A running and driving car with all of its trim and a complete interior is surely worth its price premium over a rusted hulk. And being able to drive the car between major upgrades will keep you motivated.

Buy a car that fits your mechanical skillset

If you hate bodywork and plan to do the work yourself, don’t buy a car that needs a ton of rust repair, panel replacement, and paint. If you prefer to work on the car’s mechanicals, like its engine and suspension, buy a car with those needs. If electricity is your Kryptonite, stay away from vehicles with worn out wiring. Buying a car that fits your mechanical interest and skillset will keep you interested in the project.

Never buy a car sight unseen

Although it’s tempting to go shopping for cars late at night on the internet and hit that “Buy It Now” button, don’t. Resist the urge and never buy a car sight unseen. Even it there’s an extensive description of the vehicle and dozens of photos, you won’t really know what you’re buying until your money is gone and the vehicle is in your garage. Instead, shop cars locally or budget for a few plane tickets to investigate possible vehicles further from home. If you’re unable to make the trip yourself, hire a qualified vehicle inspector to check out the car for you. The service isn’t very expensive and it’s great insurance.

Invest in the right tools

You’ll reach a point in the project that requires a special tool or tools beyond the conventional wrenches, screwdrivers, and sockets you already have. Buy them. Invest in the right tools. Whether it’s a torque wrench, a harmonic balancer puller, or a wire-crimping tool, your project won’t get very far without them. Using the right tools at the right time will not only make any job easier and less time consuming, it will help you complete the job the right way.

Choose the right shop

Eventually you’ll run out of time, skill, and patience and you’ll go looking for help. This is when you hire the right shop with a highly qualified professional mechanic. Choose wisely. Read reviews online. Ask around at car shows and the local car and coffee events. Before you commit to any particular shop, visit the place. Talk to the owner. Talk to the mechanics that will be working on your car. Check out their work on other people’s vehicles. Talk to customers of the business. Trust your gut—if you don’t get a good vibe, walk away and hire someone else.

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