The Only Way to Stay Sane With a Budget Project Car: Appreciate the Little Things

Photo: Andrew P Collins

Not everybody understands the desire to modify a car; to make it faster or tougher or just turn a piece of transportation into a work of art. It’s an intimidating hobby that seems to demand serious money and mechanical talent. But those are not fixed prerequisites. The only thing you need to really need to survive having a project car is patience.

Thanks to the internet, mechanical advice and parts for most vehicles manufactured in the last century are a lot easier to find than they would have been 20 years ago.

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Looking at project car stuff online all day can be frustrating too, though. Flip through YouTube and it’s easy to get discouraged by the fact that that so many builds seem to be getting done one of two ways: extremely polished on an infinite budget, or made for pennies with blood, sweat and a surplus of skill.

So what about those of us with a deficit of all the above?

If you’re like me: lots of automotive enthusiasm, substantial theoretical knowledge, modest funds and mediocre mechanical abilities, you’ve just got to take your time.

Whether you want to spend that time learning how to work on your car yourself, or just saving up to have your favorite specialist dial you in, patience really is a virtue. And the best way to stretch your patience when it comes to pulling off a project car, I’ve learned, is to revel in small victories.

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On a hot Sunday a few weeks ago, far enough between surgical procedures that I didn’t have any open wounds to protect, my wife took me to the junkyard. Like all Mitsubishi Montero enthusiasts in southern California, I get emails when fresh meat is hauled in for harvesting, and my partner in patience indulged my need to investigate.

My ’98 Monty, bought specifically so I’d have an automatic to drive one-handed while I recover from a boo-boo, suffers from a condition called Being a 20-Year-Old SUV: it’s missing a litany of non-critical decorative trim pieces. On the rear bumper, one bolt in particular was glaringly gone and its absence relentlessly frustrating.

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Not frustrating enough to pay for shipping, and I certainly wasn’t going to assign a mechanic to source it. But I was willing to drive for an hour, walk through a field of what most people would consider garbage, and rip one out of a carcass that had been someone else’s car just days or hours earlier. And let me tell you, fam–when I unscrewed that $0.28 shard of steel from a dead Montero and bolted it into my own–I almost drowned in a sensation of relief and accomplishment.

It was cheap, it was easy, it was tiny incremental progress, but I made it happen and I let it make me feel good. If you’re getting downtrodden on whatever you’re working on, try starting again with a smaller piece. It beats the hell out of beating yourself up over the fact that your build might not be as slick or efficient as “everything else” you see online and on TV.

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Enjoy your project car at your own pace and I guarantee you’ll enjoy it more. And if you do you get hung up on how other people do it, don’t forget, “one piece at a time” was good enough for Johnny Cash.

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About the author

Andrew P. Collins

Reviews Editor, Jalopnik | 1975 International Scout, 1984 Nissan 300ZX, 1991 Suzuki GSXR, 1998 Mitsubishi Montero, 2005 Acura TL