Project Car Buying Guide

Finding a suitable project car is probably the most fun you'll have with your restoration until it's completed. It's also the most important decision you'll make. Having a good idea of what you want will help target your research efforts better. This project car buying guide will provide you with some tips to help you make the best decision.

project car buyers guide

There's lots of great project car choices. There's pony cars and muscle cars from the sixties. Or perhaps a cool cruiser from the seventies? A classic British sports car? If you are absolutely in love with a particular year and model car, your choice is already made, but choosing from several types of old cars gives you the advantage of picking the better bargain.

Research Your Choices

Almost every car made has websites devoted to them, with the more popular ones having dozens, perhaps hundreds of sites. While time consuming and confusing, doing some homework on the web helps you gain important information about the particular year and model car that you're interested in.

Parts Availability

Are aftermarket parts readily available? Be careful here - companies will advertise replacement parts, but they don't really have them; they'll wait for a big enough demand before actually making them. This has tripped me up several times, and held me up for months because I could not get the part necessary to continue onto the next step. After doing some research, you may decide not to buy a particular car for this reason.

Where To Find a Project Car

Start with local posts, like craigslist, but don't be afraid to travel for the right car. Check online for the year, make, and model you're interested in. Car shows and automotive swap meets are always an excellent place to find project cars for sale. Ebay is another good source.

Read: Restore A Car On A Budget

I've never had much luck stopping at people's houses and asking about their old car in the yard or garage, but there's no harm in trying. Although having a wonderful mystique, old barns are usually just full of old lawn tractors and yard equipment. But you never know.

project car buying guide

Read: Restore An Old Corvette

What To Look For When Buying A Project Car

Don't be too concerned with how an old car looks externally. Start with the frame - Make sure it's solid, not rusted or rotted. Check for rust in places where it's common for that particular year and model to rust out. Also check the trunk floor. Keep in mind that replacement panels are available for most classic cars, but will consume a lot more time and money.

The interior of the car should not be a major concern, as carpets and seats are fairly easy to replace. Some project cars for sale may be in the process of being restored, but the work already done must be suspect - look very carefully before making an offer. Rebuilding an engine is a lot easier than doing automotive bodywork.

Numbers Matching

As a general rule, there is a group of letters/numbers stamped on the engine that should match, or partially match, the VIN or cowl plate tag. Different manufacturers use different letter/number combinations. Old cars that have matching numbers are always worth more money. Engine numbers and cowl tags can be (and often are) changed. This constitutes forgery, which of course, is illegal.

Bring A Friend

It's easy to get sidetracked while looking at project cars for sale. There is a lot to check and take note of. Bringing a friend helps. While you're dealing directly with the owner, your buddy can be looking at the car uninterrupted. If you found out something in your research that needs to be checked, give him that task. Chances are he'll find something worth asking about that you would have missed by yourself.

1956 Ford pickup truck in barn

Record the VIN Number and Body Tag Codes

Body tag codes tell you a lot of details about the car. Is the color original? Is the engine original? The seller may not really know, or may be misinformed. If the seller can prove it, matching-numbers cars will always cost more and always be worth more. But remember, these cars don't drive any better or faster than a non-numbers-matching car. So ask yourself if it really matters. Will it be more of a show car or a driver?

Optional Equipment

Options such as air conditioning, power steering, power brakes, power windows, etc., are nice to have if you're planning on doing a lot of cruising. They also add resale value to an old car. However, if you want an old sports car to go vintage or amateur racing, these options are not as desirable - a no-frills, manual shift, non-numbers matching car would then be a better choice.

Real vs Fake

Muscle cars that you see and admire at classic car shows or on TV may very well have been parts cars a few years back. Beware of unscrupulous people who will dress up a "plain Jane" car to look like a more desirable model. Because of their potential value, there are more SS396 Chevelle's out there now then Chevy ever made!

Spare Parts Equals Money

Sometimes the seller will include spare parts with the price of the car. Potentially, those parts may be worth hundreds of dollars you won't have to spend in the future. Or you can sell that extra set of wheels and tires that were included for cash. Getting any spare parts with a project car is a big plus.

Basket Case Projects

These are usually non-running cars with no engine and transmission, stripped interior, and missing many original parts. Unless you are bent on a hard-to-find model and were blessed with endless patience and resources, leave basket case project cars to more experienced restorers.

1956 Chevy pickup truck in field

Know When To Walk Away

Some cars are not worth restoring. Really. It's hard to do sometimes, but keep your emotions in check. If you start to rationalize why a car would be a good project, stop yourself right there.

Be honest with yourself - consider your time, your money, and the effort it will take to finish. Turning down any project car is hard, but that's what will separate projects from ones that fail.

Follow the tips from this project car buyer's guide, stay focused, and don't feel a need to jump on the first one you look at. Remember, it's not what you come home with, it's what you don't come home with that separates this project from the others.