You've convinced the spouse. You've spent the money. Now you're the proud owner of some hopeless shitheap somebody once called a car. You're excited, but you have a lot of questions, like; "How could anything actually be this dirty?"
Ride That High
They say "the two happiest days of [YOUR TOY HERE] ownership are the day you buy it and the day you sell it." Ride that first high as long as you can, friend… because no matter how thorough of a pre-purchase inspection you made, you're going to stumble into new pitfalls before you even finish your first cleaning.
Getting my 1964 International Scout 80 home was a feat in of itself. After it was parked, I couldn't wait to dive into that rusty husk of a truck tools flailing. Sure, I went into my experiment knowing full well I'd probably fail to resurrect the vehicle. But seeing it sitting on my lawn kick-started my ambitions and enthusiasm all over again. "Such mad hope, but there it is."
Kill 'Em All
Did you find your vehicle in a climate-controlled garage? Well then, lucky you. That's probably not a "project car." The rest of us will have to contend with mice, rats, bugs, snakes, spiders, hobos, and anyone else who might have sought refuge in your new toy.
Before cleaning my Scout could commence, there were the hornets to evict. The few who'd stuck it out through the 80 mile tow home were particularly stalwart settlers only to be defeated by the most noxious of insecticide. I donned my spray-painting respirator and let 'em have it. The truck was uninhabitable for the rest of the day. Pro tip: make sure your house is upwind.
The Great Unjunkening
Maybe your vehicle was used as a storage shed by the batty old bastard who sold it to you. For years. If that's the case, enjoy because this is going to be one of the most rewarding parts of the project for a long time.
Among the picket fence, acorns, and pile of car parts in my Scout I found a broken ignition oscilloscope I learned was used to set engine timing in the days of yesteryear.
Your car or truck will start looking better with every piece of garbage that comes out of it.
Avoid "The Dragon's Temptation:" Don't Horde Garbage Car Parts
Your car's devoid of junk, but before you swing a wrench you've got yourself a new problem: the lawn is full of rusty car parts. If you're like me, even the rattiest components to something you'll never own deserve a second chance, third, and fourth chance to be useful… these are car parts! How can you just "get rid" of them?
But if you want to keep your insanity under control, you must be extremely realistic about what "you're going to use" and judiciously start deleting. By all means, do some research and figure out what's what. Just don't assume anything "stored" in your car actually goes to your car if you've pulled it out of a junkyard. I've already thrown out about ten hubcaps, a badly-beaten air-cleaner cover, and still have two 50-gallon Home Depot tote boxes to sort through and/or bring to the next Old Car Swap Meet.
That's right, I absolutely refuse to take my own advice. There's about 100 pounds of critical components I can identify (starters, alternators, water pumps) sitting in my shed after my Scout's Unjunkening. I'll get rid of 'em when I'm good and ready.
You're going to be tempted to break out the pressure washer and air compressor to "blast that first layer of grime" away so you can finally, properly, assess where you're starting from. Do not do this.
Is there a part under all that grime?
I'm sure you did a great pre-purchase inspection, and maybe you even bought from somebody reputable. But any car or truck you could call a lawn ornament is going to be on a whole new level of dirty, and that dirt is going to hide some shit you'll wish you never saw.
Think of yourself as an archaeologist, gently unearthing an artifact from a 1,000 year slumber with a toothbrush. As you move gently through your vehicle, you'll figure out what's solid and what isn't before you blow a hole in your floor with a hose.
In my first round of vacuuming my Scout I picked up about ten pounds of rust flakes (hooray!), at least three of which did not look loose when I began.
At some point you ARE going to need the hardcore shit; break out the "gel"-type degreaser and with the knowledge of where fragile points are, go nuts. Carefully. Okay, more like, "firm by fair." You need to show your vehicle who's boss (and get access to the bolt heads and screws which are probably stripped) but don't scare it into permanent hibernation.
That silver spot was hit and agitated with industrial-grade degreaser. At least the grime did a great job preserving the metal underneath!
Take A Break, Your Project Laughs At Your Pathetic Efforts. Laugh back.
Great job! You're at the point where you can think about starting your resurrection in earnest. What's really wrong with it? Where's it leaking from? Now that you've got the thing under your own lights and tools, you can do everything your way and at your own pace.
For that I recommend "slowly," but don't worry… you're going to have a great time. Just remember to think about the vehicle as a set of small problems you can fix, not one insurmountable challenge mocking you. And, of course, that you signed up for this nonsense! Have a sense of humor about it.
Images: Andrew P. Collins