Jalopnik Beginner's Guide: So, You Want To Take On A Project Car...

Many have fallen hard for the fantasy that is the project car. Few succeed in completing it.

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Hello to my inspiration and personal hell, le Baby Benz. All of the leaks, baby.
Hello to my inspiration and personal hell, le Baby Benz. All of the leaks, baby.
Image: Lalita Chemello

Weird car Twitter can be a wonderful place where we, as car people, lament about our cars, the lack of space we have to play with all of our toys, or canonically fail to do anything with them. While some house and play with more cars than there are days in a week, some have trouble just getting one extra set of wheels back on the road. Why the extremes? It comes down to dedication, outright stubbornness, and facing reality — can you really fix this?

Before you set your wallet alight and fall into the same hands of many car project-owners of yore, let’s talk you through your fantasy and really gut the reality of taking on “le project.”

This is part of our “Jalopnik Beginner’s Guide” series, where every Monday, myself, and other Jalopnik writers will take you through our own or other professional’s steps to navigate something you’re curious to tackle in our car culture. From establishing a wowing-exhibition at Sebring to wrenching projects, we’ll help you do it, or fail trying.

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You Dream Of Project Cars

Oh boy. You have the bug. You’ve read about our amusing/nightmare projects, or have witnessed a friend’s successful project car revival. You’re inspired and hungry for something to play with, more fun and effort than needed in your daily. You think to yourself, “They could put that car together. Why can’t I?”

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The answer is realistically, you might not be able to. It’s not that you are incapable of rebuilding an entire car in the likes of Hot Rod Garage, but this effort will be time-consuming. It will take patience. It could take a lot of money. And before you let it get too far and it becomes a new shelf in your garage for the next five years, you need to ask yourself some serious questions.

How much work do I really want to put into this?

Does it run on its own? Will it just need some maintenance and a little extra love? Will it need an entire overhaul? First off, what are you capable of doing work-wise on a vehicle? And what time are you willing to allocate into making this project reach your sought out potential? If you’re not in a hurry, and are willing to learn how to do the work, the classifieds are your oyster to the ocean of fun you can bring back to your garage. On the other side of things, if that alone feels overwhelming... you might want to consider keeping things simple.

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How much money am I willing to throw into this project car?

Getting the car is just part one of the adventure. This car (dream) may have been a steal off of Facebook Marketplace, but you now have to consider what it needs, and what all of those parts and components will cost. New tires are not cheap. Rebuilding an engine will not be either.

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You should really take into consideration what it is you’re willing to do work-wise, the cost/availability of parts, and how much work will be needed overall. If the future “apple of your eye” looks like she’s gonna cost more than a pretty penny, and you can’t afford that, back away from the listing. Again, step away from the listing.

For some project car owners, if they can’t do the work themselves, they send it to someone who can, but labor isn’t cheap, nor are your project parts. This method is useful, but not (and rarely) the answer for all.

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What kind of project car am I looking to buy?

Remember, when we talked about cost? Yeah... that. One thing many experienced readers encouraged was an American-made project car. Part because they’re “easier” to work on, as they say, and parts are abound in this U.S. of A.

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However, part of my pride got in the way in wanting to prove a foreign project is still doable without a big headache landed me the Mercedes. Am I in over my head? Likely. But do I have the time and resources to give it a solid try? Yes. So, that Baby Benz has made a solid home in my garage. She gets completed when she gets completed.

Keep in mind, foreign parts are a bit more difficult to come by right now, not due to supplier issues, but shipping issues. Remember the Ever Given domino effect? If you need anything from across the pond or beyond, you’re going to be waiting for it, or paying for it. Likely, both.

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Do I have the space and tools to do this?

I gave up my cozy parking spot in the garage for my GLI, so that my Baby Benz could sit while I got things working again (our Wrangler somehow still gets to be in the garage... idk). Luckily, we have a decent-sized garage, and invested in lots of tools last year, so most everything we need, is right there. The only things I can’t do in my garage are alignments and tire swaps. But I can leave that to local professionals if needed.

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If you have a year-round warm yard, a barn, shed, garage, etc., you’re doing alright. Just be realistic on how often you’re going to want to do work in the environment you’re storing your new project.

As far as tools, a good wrench and socket set never fails to be useful for your project or daily drivers. The further you dig into things though, you might need to invest in some other obscure items. When all else fails, Harbor Freight isn’t a bad place to start. If your project sparks more projects, investing in other tools could be in your future.

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Buying the Project Car

Image for article titled Jalopnik Beginner's Guide: So, You Want To Take On A Project Car...
Screenshot: Craigslist (Other)
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This is really the fun part of this adventure. Looking through endless listings like the above on Craigslist, Facebook Marketplace, AutoTempest, Cars.com, or collector magazines is quite fun. The ad above was found browsing Detroit’s Craigslist. Looks to have a lot of parts and may have been an undercover police car??? Then there’s this beauty:

Image for article titled Jalopnik Beginner's Guide: So, You Want To Take On A Project Car...
Screenshot: Craigslist (Other)
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Body looks fairly great, but engine blew a head gasket a couple weeks ago. Ok, not bad. But, it reads “Towing Highly Recommended.” This will take some work. You cannot drive this home. But not nearly as much work as this find:

David?
David?
Screenshot: Craigslist (Other)
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When you find a project car you’re willing to put work into, take some time to walk around the car and look at everything. You’ll likely want to make a mental checklist of things you want to see back in working order, and make a note of what that might cost/entail to repair.

If while making this list you feel overwhelmed at any point, then it might be time to back off this particular project potential and look elsewhere. You might also want to rethink this project idea as a whole.

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Expectations vs. Reality

Unless the car you’ve selected just needs some tuning up, this will take time. I mean, it is a project. You will have to make time, or be content with only working on it “here and there.” You may not get it running in a week. Or two. Or a month. Maybe a year. Or it was running (looking at you Mercedes...) and then suddenly died on you and remains bricked in your garage, moveable by dollies only. But, the time you spend in learning how to do these major repairs, will last you a lifetime. If you’re a learn by doing person, you’re gonna love this hands-on activity. You’ll also have a lot more appreciation for this car, because you alone brought it back to life.

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Final Tips

Take a trip through forums of vehicles you’re interested in, which can give you a gauge on how difficult of a project your car will likely be. Also, be sure to invest in a good repair manual. It will certainly make for good reading and reference material for a long, long while.

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And when all-else fails... there’s likely a YouTube video out there that explains how to do what you need to do before you throw a wrench and someone [re: you] gets hurt.

If not, feel free to be stubborn and spend two hours trying to change one headlight without removing the housing. Why not have fun constantly testing your patience?

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What do you want us to see tackle for our Beginner’s Guide? Email your ideas to tips@jalopnik.com or lchemello at Jalopnik dot com.

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