For those who love cars, building a project from the ground up is akin to a spiritual experience. As you plan, create, experiment, tune and develop your ride, it becomes far more than the sum of its parts. Unfortunately, starting from scratch tends to be a massive expense over time. One viable solution is to purchase an in-progress build and continue the work yourself. Since that has the potential to be a mine field of problems, we’ve put together a few guidelines for such a buy….
1. Eyes Wide Open – Know What You’re Getting Into
Even the world’s best sorted project car is just that: a project. You could buy from the most reputable owner using only top shelf components and still run into issues. It’s the nature of the beast but if you plan accordingly, not necessarily a deal breaker. Case in point: if you’re picking up someone else’s build, having a reliable second car on hand isn’t a bad idea.
Some beginners see a project, are blown away by how reasonable the price is and don’t think twice before buying. That’s typically how most of the horror stories you’ve heard start. There are some insane values to be had, but keep in mind that there’s a reason the deals can be so tempting. Remember the 700 HP-capable Mk4 Jetta mentioned in last week’s post? That complete build, likely somewhere in the neighborhood of $13-15,000 all-in, was bought for around $5,000. That’s a steal in any language. Yet, to be safe, the owner has a reliable daily and the know-how to correct issue as they appear.
Picking up a second-hand project can save you a huge amount of money. Just make sure you have a plan-B should things start to go south.
2. Know the Owner, Know the Car
The better you know the owner of the car you want to buy, odds are the better you’ll have a feel for the car. Know a well-respected mechanic who has a pristine build but is ready to move on to something else? That’s not a bad place to start, possibly an ideal scenario. Staying plugged in to your local car community might also alert you to some deals that never get posted online. Someone might have a solid car, tell friends he/she wants to sell it, and within days or even hours a deal is underway. Plus, if it’s someone you know fairly well, the entire process can be far more transparent.
3. Location, Location, Location
As a rule of thumb, the more work that has been done to the car, the more local you’ll want to buy. That gives you a chance to test-drive, spend some significant time with the car and check it out throughly. We also highly recommend bringing along a friend who has experience with the car you’re considering. Not only can they provide essential feedback, but they can spot some red flags you might miss through rose-tinted spectacles. That’s far easier and less-stressful for you and the seller to arrange if the location is reasonably nearby.
4. Ask Away, Especially About The Build
This ties in fairly closely to the second point. If the car has had substantial work done by the owner, you should be able to get in-depth answers regarding any phase of the build. Ask away. Can he/she accurately give you detailed specifics on the work that was done, possible problem areas and how the car has been maintained during the process? There’s a good chance that you’re purchasing a solid project. Should those answers not be quite as clear or fail to exist altogether, it’s probably time to walk away. In a best-case scenario, the seller will not only give you the right info, but will also describe any bumps or issues experienced during the build. That kind of honesty is hard to find but the best kind to buy from.
5. Don’t Dive Too Deep
When picking up a project car, buy along the lines of your experience. If you have only basic mechanical knowledge but want to learn, a project car can be a great place to start. Just keep in mind that some fairly straightforward builds may require more than meets the eye. Have a friend who is well-versed in automotive restorations or complex modification? You likely can get something fairly ambitious and figure it out as you go (with said guidance). Otherwise, go for a project that needs the skills you already have or can master without much assistance. Either way, it’ll be an experience leaving you ready for bigger, even more impressive builds down the road.