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Blown Gaskets and Bent Chassis: How to Avoid a Nightmare Project Car 

Blown Gaskets and Bent Chassis: How to Avoid a Nightmare Project Car

Fixing up a project car can be one of the most rewarding, profitable and satisfying tasks for a car enthusiast – or it can become frustrating and fruitless. Buying a project car is a commitment, and you need to keep your wits about you before, during and after the buying process. 

From engine parts to bodykits, the dream of cruising around in an old ford mustang could be yours. First, however, you need to see which type of project car would be the best match for your skills, space and wallet. 

Understand Your Skillset

First, have an honest look at your own skills. Where do you have more experience? Understand whether you’re more confident with electronics or mechanics. If you don’t know an engine from a wheel well, prioritise a small, simple diesel. If you’re left totally bemused by electric trickery, steer clear of modern fixer-uppers.

Alongside your mechanical prowess, choose between petrol or diesel: there’s no point shelling out for a V8 Triumph if you’ve only ever tinkered with a 2-litre petrol!

Do you have any experience with welding or fabrication? Body panels can be tricky – making patches of rust very expensive. 

All of these factors play a role in the spec and type of project car you go for. If you’re a total newbie, then start small. I know it’s tempting to get a cheap, banged up ford raptor and ‘just fix her up’, but you will have to splash more cash to make up for that lack of experience. 

Finally – check your budget! All project cars require some degree of cash flow. High-end classic Rileys will be a far bigger money pit than a nippy, old school Nissan Micra.

Check availability

Once you’ve got an idea of a rough size and scope of your project car, start narrowing down your search. 

Look at the physical space you’ve got. Just a cramped driveway? No 4x4s for you. If you’ve got a garage, assess your own toolset. Tools can really rack up the price tag of a project, so bear that in mind. Thankfully, the tools you collect tend to reflect your own experience.

Sorry, newbies: expect to spend some wonga on breaker bars, jigsaws and car jacks! 

If you’ve a particular make in mind – check whether the manufacturer is still in business. AMC and Hummer are two examples of manufacturers that produced cars for a few decades then fell off the map. See whether components are replaceable with other brands. 

Have a look at how available these are – actually ring up and ask the supplier! Sometimes, suppliers list parts for sale before they’re in stock. This can leave you waiting for weeks, and ruin the momentum you’ve built up on a project.

Buying the Car

Maybe you found it on ebay; perhaps at a farm sale. Either way, it’s sat in front of you in all its dilapidated glory. 

Start by checking the frame. See whether rust spots are cosmetic or structural.

Assess the trunk floor; have a look under the carpet on both the driver and passenger side. 

If it’s not possible to look, press firmly against the footwell floor. If it feels squishy (or if you put your hand right through it) – that’s structural!

Assess whether the chassis is square. When not on jacks, the best you can do is eyeball this. Both wheels should equally line up, when checked from the side and behind.

Next, the most important part: the engine. This is where experience is king. Being able to recognise an engine’s ‘normal’ running noise is superior to any form of external checks. 

Regardless, listen for any knocking, or ‘hunting’. This is where the engine changes revolutions whilst under no load. It can be as simple as a gunked-up fuel filter, or complex as a governor system problem.

Finally, check the gears. Even if the car is a non-runner, you can still mess with the gearstick and see whether anything sticks. If the clutch is muddy, expect trouble!

As you work through the car, keep a checklist of any problems. If you’ve done your research, you should now have a vague estimate at how much each should cost. 

When it comes to haggling, go low. Keep in mind that if it’s a non-runner, you’ll likely only be paying a few hundred at most, though. Sweeten the deal with same-day collection and you’ll probably see a drop of $50 or so.

Ultimately, never be afraid to walk away from a purchase. And – a final word of wisdom – always get the Haynes manual. 

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