Jason and his dad want to take on a car restoration project. They’re both pretty handy, but this will be their first automotive rebuild. They want something with timeless style, but with easy access to parts and resources. What car should they buy?
Here’s the scenario:
My dad is retiring soon, and we’re considering buying a project car to work on and restore. The problem is—we have zero experience working on or restoring cars. So here’s what we need to know: what’s a great ride for us to get our hands dirty with? We won’t have the ability to do an engine rebuild, but everything else is on the table.
We love cars with beautiful styling, way more than we care about speed or performance. We also like cars that are somewhat timeless in their design. Some random examples: MG-GT (I love the lines of the shooting brake design), Aston Martin Vantage (the previous model...it’s just stunning, perfect proportions), ‘66-’70 Oldsmobile Toronado (long, wide and low).
We are open to almost any body style and have a project completion budget of about $50,000 so obviously, the car needs to be a bit cheaper than that.
Budget: Well under $50,000
Location: Westchester, NY
Daily Driver: No
Wants: Classic style, easy-to-get parts and support
Doesn’t want: Something too rare or complicated
This sounds like an awesome project for you and your dad to take on. Of course, the big question is, where do you start? With an all-in budget of $50,000, there are a number of nicely restored cars that you can enjoy right now without any of the work. But there’s no fun in that.
If this is your first time diving in, I would suggest a model that has a relatively low cost of entry, a ton of easy-to-source parts, and a huge community. That’s the Volkswagen Beetle. It may not have the same sporty proportions as the cars you are drawn to, but it does have its own timeless style. Two former Jalops, Jason Torchinsky and Raphael Orlove, have a decent amount of Beetle-building experience, and they have even been known to fix things on the side of the road. That’s how easy these classics are to work on. Just don’t roll it.
It seems the biggest challenge with the Beetle is to find an example at the right price point that is just enough work, but not too much. Here is a rolling chassis in Michigan for about $9,000 that the seller claims to be “a complete vehicle that just needs to be put together.”
Fellas, welcome to the wonderful world of project cars. Just like your town’s grittiest biker bar, project car land is an incredible place that is also fraught with peril. My advice to you: Start simple. Start with a Jeep.
I know a CJ is about the furthest thing from the stylish, sleek cars you mentioned above. But it’s also just about as basic as a vehicle can be, and if this is truly your first wrenching project, basic is a virtue. Think of how many gearheads you know who have a perpetually stalled project (or pile of project parts) haunting their garage. You don’t want that to happen to you. You want a light at the end of the tunnel.
I picked this 1987 Jeep CJ7 Laredo essentially at random, based on its location: Albuquerque, New Mexico. From a mechanical and electrical standpoint, a CJ is roughly on the same plane as today’s mid-price ride-on mowers, but rust can make even the simplest Jeep project into a doomed venture. Search for your donor vehicle in desert climates, far from the ocean and road salt. A project vehicle like this one offers you a choose-your-adventure path: You can stick with the basics, getting everything back to factory working order and fixing up the interior and exterior trim pieces to create a great-looking lightly-restored fun runner, or you can tear the whole thing down and rebuild it from the ground up. I’d advise you to treat this like a practice run — keep the goals simple, dress up the aesthetics to your liking, and by next summer you could have a ton of fun bopping around in this thing.
Then you can buy a basket-case MG out of the bottom of a lake and really have a project on your hands.
Jason, I envy you. Every time I see a Craigslist beater, I start to get the ASPCA music going through my head and I want nothing more than to bring it back to its former glory. But I don’t have a garage, and I certainly don’t have a $50,000 budget for a build. All I have are dreams, dreams that I’m now going to foist on you like the parent of a high school quarterback.
You want beautiful styling, and you care about that more than power. You want something with a broad aftermarket, but not something so old that factory parts are unobtainable. You mentioned multiple British cars as inspiration, but I’m willing to bet you’d like your freshly-restored car to run for more than a mile before the electrics go up in smoke. Jason, you need a Miata.
I know, I know, it’s the most basic choice. But it’s basic for a reason — Miatas are perfect cars for learning to wrench. The support is there, with decades of forum users having documented every imaginable problem and solution, but the first-generation cars only started hitting dealerships in ‘89. You can still go to a dealership and buy oil filters, timing belts, all the little finicky bits and pieces you’ll need.
Now, you did say restoration, so I found the absolute worst Miata in your area. This one’s $2,500 in New Jersey, and it is trash. But through that trash, you’ll have the opportunity to learn so much — diagnosing a non-start, rust repair, even swapping out an automatic transmission for a manual. It’s all been done, you’re not treading new ground, but it’ll teach you everything you could possibly want to know about wrenching. Get the Miata, and have fun.
Jason, please congratulate your father on his upcoming retirement. I can’t think of a better way to spend lots of time with a loved one than rummaging in old toolboxes, then arguing over wrong socket sizes, etc., and all of it culminating in the revival of an old car.
If classic design is what you want, it’s got to be a late ’70s Datsun 280Z or early ’80s Datsun 280ZX. These were also known as the Fairlady Z in Japan. The second-generation Z-Car would eventually inspire one of the greatest cars of the ’90s, the Nissan 300ZX, and the current-generation Nissan Z.
But the Fairlady Z has looks that none of its descendants could match. Really, the Nissan S130 is one of few cars that wouldn’t be intimidated in the presence of the Toyota 2000GT, which is close to perfect. The Nissan/Datsun was made in the same spirit of the Toyota with the distinct styling of that era: long sloping hood and truncated rear end.
The Datsun I linked is already restored, and the price reflects the work put into it. You’ll have to find another junker to restore, but with your budget it won’t be hard, and you might have enough funds left over to overnight parts from Japan.
So, unlike the rest of these jokers, I’ve actually put my money where my mouth is when it comes to my recommendation. This is my own 1970 Mercedes-Benz 280se (W108 chassis) and I’ve been working for the last seven years on a mechanical restoration. Obviously it’s a lovely car with a classic shape, but there are other reasons why a big, old Benz is the choice for you and your pop.
The first is parts availability. Mercedes is legendary for keeping parts in production for its classic vehicles. It even operates a pair of Classic Centers (one in Germany and the other near me in Southern California, Long Beach to be specific). These not only stock tons of parts, consumable and otherwise, but the people who work there deal with classic Benzes all day, every day. It’s hard to beat that kind of knowledge.
Next, the car itself was exquisitely built by taciturn West Germans without real consideration of cost. This was the S-Class before the S-Class technically existed and it shows. It also benefits from surprisingly modern tech, making it easy to drive, even in 2022 LA traffic. It’s got excellent four-wheel disc brakes, power steering, standard air conditioning and more. It also doesn’t drive like a boat.
Of course, there are some downsides. Parts aren’t super cheap, but most of the consumables are super reasonable. This chassis and its more elaborate sibling, the long-wheelbase, air-suspension-having W109 are prone to rust. Find a clean one and save yourself a nightmare. It’s slow — mine has the 2.8-liter M130 inline-six with Bosch mechanical fuel injection, and while it’ll keep up with modern traffic, it’s not going to win any stoplight drags — and it gets truly awful gas mileage. If I get 12 mpg average, I’m thrilled.
Despite its shortcomings, it’s a wonderful car to drive that gives you all the best parts of classic car ownership without some of the awful or scary parts, and you can find the sedans (aside from the 6.3) for sale for under $25k in good shape all day long. In fact, you should just buy my car. (Quick, before my wife finds out.)