Don’t Buy a Project Car

Our old cars continue to make the transition from daily use appliances to coveted artifacts. This change raises an entirely different set of questions when it comes to deciding the quality and condition of a car you might buy.

Just buying something that runs and drives is not what we’re looking for these days.

As I’ve been looking around for my next sports car, I’ve come to some realizations. I don’t want a project car — or one with major things that are wrong or incorrect.

When I’ve owned cars that are in a non-factory-correct color, or have an engine painted the wrong color, I quickly grow weary with the many people who point out what’s wrong with the car.

It’s like driving a replica Cobra. The first question you are asked is, “Is it real?” Tedious.

Life is too short to undertake major projects that include a lot of metalwork or rust repair. This is especially true of inexpensive, under-$50,000 cars.

First of all, a rust project is always worse once you get the paint off.

Second, as far as the repairs go, you have the choice between crazy-expensive work that will make the car better than new — or a “you get what you pay for” inexpensive job that will leave you dissatisfied when you are done.

Do you yourself a favor — don’t buy a project car.

What can you live with?

Figure out exactly why you want to own a car — and how good it needs to be. Are you driving 1,000 miles to a national meet, or 10 miles to a club event at a pizza parlor? Does it matter if it burns a little oil? Does the oil pressure need to be great or just good enough? Can you live with it running a little hot — or do you need to recore the radiator and replace the water pump?

Can you tolerate old paint that will still hold a shine — and shows some nicks and scratches — or do you need better-than-new surfaces?

I can’t abide upholstery in an incorrect color or pattern, but I may just be goofy about that kind of thing. When I see an Alfa Giulietta Spider in red with tan interior, which was never an option, I throw up in my mouth.

So my personal standards for my next sports car are fairly simple: It can’t have any major needs. It can’t have “big stories” in its history, such as a sectioned frame or two cars put together to make one.

It has to be a color that was available from the factory. The interior color and seat patterns have to be correct. The engine bay has to be tidy and correct — or easily made right. The engine, if painted, has to be the right color.

The engine can smoke — but not excessively. It can leave drips —but not puddles — in my driveway.  It needs to run true down the freeway at 60 mph, with good oil pressure at speed. When you apply the brakes, it needs to slow down evenly, without pulling. All of the instruments need to work — and the lights as well.

In short, it should have been owned by an enthusiast like me who enjoys using his car and feeling it behave properly.

When I show up at an event with the car, I want people to say, “That’s an honest example, and seems like a pretty decent car.”

The car’s strengths need to outweigh the weaknesses — or I need to move on to another car. Life is too short for major projects on inconsequential cars — or for cars with a list of immediate needs that takes up several sheets of paper.

Let someone else do the work and make all the fixes. Then just pay more for the car. You’ll always come out ahead.

 

Keith Martin

Keith Martin has been involved with the collector car hobby for more than 30 years. As a writer, publisher, television commentator and enthusiast, he is constantly on the go, meeting collectors and getting involved in their activities throughout the world. He is the founder and publisher of the monthly Sports Car Market and bi-monthly American Car Collector magazines, has written for the New York Times, Automobile, AutoWeek, Road & Track and other publications, is an emcee for numerous concours, and has his own show, “What’s My Car Worth,” shown on Velocity.

Posted in Keith Martin

8 comments

  1. Keith, I respect your style of collector, but you are not the only type. I enjoy the work on cars more than the ownership and driving. I now own a 65 Austin Healey Sprite. I call it my credit card car, because I could buy it on a credit card and I order parts on the card. It will not ever be worth what I paid for it, plus parts, without giving any value to my labor. But I am having fun learning and solving problems. I can afford this cheap hobby. You are absolutely correct that yours is the best financial decision, but there are more than one way to enjoy our hobby.

  2. I agree with the advice about classics, but with the Elise the danger is not damaged clams, which can be fixed, but an accident which bends the aluminum frame/tub/chassis, which most certainly cannot. Indeed, with the Elise, I find that people err too much on the side of ‘it’s been in an accident stay away.’ Many of these cars have been totaled for what was in reality very minor damage just because the adjuster didn’t know anything about the cars, or Lotus didn’t have clams in stock. For these reasons, I’d even buy a salvage title Elise from a reputable seller like Wire Wheel in Florida. And if you do you won’t have to worry about whether your ‘classic’ will start in the morning or drip oil or keep up with modern traffic!

  3. Keith — you worry too much about what other people think.

    Also, if everyone took your position how would the less-than-perfect cars ever get restored?

    It’s not about what other people think and it’s not all about money.

  4. Keith, OK, so I need some advice. I have a “99 SL500. The R129 Mercedes should just be emerging as collectible and mine is perfect and completely original with all the desirable options, even the window sticker. Why can’t I get more than Kelly Blue Book for it? I need the garage space.

    1. Ted – I think I’ve figured out that the general rule is cars need to be around 25-30 years old before they start climbing in value. This seems to be the point at which they become such a rare sight on the road that people stop thinking it’s an old beater and start thinking “hey that’s pretty cool”. It’s also the point where people who as kids decided they were an R129 man have the money and the inclination to start following their childhood dreams.

      So I reckon you might need to think about putting it away for another 10 years…

  5. Two doors, eight cylinders, and a slick top always works for me. Sometimes I am forced to accept a sunroof by the rest of the car, but on my current DD I was swayed by no sunroof when I removed the blue tarp. Your young son is growing fast.

  6. I Know it’s named, Sports Car Market, but it just became too much about the market and money,which was why I stopped my subscription some time ago. I have cars that I bought 30 + years ago that have appreciated nicely but that wasn’t why I bought them.
    I agree that as I am now in my sixties that degreasing things and crawling under cars isn’t done with the ease of years past, but I find I feel better working on my cars than sitting and reading about pricing. I tend to keep my cars not flip them, so I’m thankfully not too worried about the values.
    If you can do the work yourself and get something out of doing it,almost any project makes sense. If you have to pay someone else to do most or all, then as it is said, buy the best you can afford

  7. I’d say it depends whether you love the car or not. I bought a sound but rather neglected Alfetta GTV about a year ago with the intention to use it as my daily driver. It’s now reliable and passes muster in the looks department, but it’s taken me countless hours of work and probably cost as much as I paid for it to begin with… and I still don’t feel particularly warmly towards the car and am thinking about moving it on.

    On the other hand I think the reason people pay a premium for interesting “barn finds” is because it gives them the opportunity to personalise it a car they really want, and make it into something that they would like to buy new if only it was available. Working on something like that then becomes a pleasure in itself.

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