March 8, 2021

Linkage Mag

Geared for the Automotive Life

Before You Buy: Tips for Your Next Project

Last weekend, I drove way out of town to look at a ’67 GMC truck listed for sale on Craigslist. Actually, it was the equivalent of two trucks: a ’67 GMC, a spare bed, a spare ’68 Chevrolet cab and nose, and a ’72 Blazer chassis. Total asking price: $1,400. “Must take all.”

The seller, a young kid named Bo, told me the story of how he got the trucks as I crunched through fresh gravel and slicked through mud to inspect the original sheetmetal. According to Bo, his uncle had handed them down to him, and he’d gotten in over his head trying to build something out of them. “The ’67 is rusty,” he said. “But the ’68 is good. Just one pinhole in the rocker. I was going to swap cabs.”

While he was talking, the trucks told me another story. The GMC had a Swiss cheese floor at each door opening, and the windshield was missing, so I could see just how rotted the windshield frame was. But as I looked deeper, the floor supports, outer rockers, cab corners and kick panels were all good and still wearing original finishes. All fixable. Still, how did that happen? Did the original owner just leave the windows down all the time?

That “good” ’68 cab? Primed. Visible bodywork. Spongy sections around the windshield, suggesting some kind of caulk tube-sourced rust repair. Hmm. Red flags. I doubt the kid knew it, or maybe he did, which stopped him mid-job.

And that Blazer chassis? No title.

I stood back and looked them all over again. The next move was mine.

There comes a point in any transaction when you have to bite the bullet and make a call. So how do you make the right one when it comes to a project car? Well, the secret here is that only part of the answer lies in what you’re buying. The other — and more important — part is you.

Whatever you’re buying to build or restore, you need to be realistic about your skill, your time, the price point, and your true interest level.

Why do so many projects sit unfinished? A lot of times it’s because somebody got stuck on one of those factors, and what was supposed to be fun turned into a chore.

Don’t let that happen to you. Before you dive in on the next forever unfinished project in your life, here are some tips to consider.

Be realistic

Car people tend to visualize a finished product. You need to shake off the shine in your imagination and see a project for what it really is: work. Expensive work, both in terms of time and money.

Does this look like a challenge or a nightmare? It’s probably both.

OK, so maybe that ’Cuda was a Hemi car before it burned to the ground and was stripped bare. Maybe that wafer-thin rusty ’68 Camaro is a Z/28. Maybe that ’69 Chevrolet truck under a pile of fenders and hoods is a desirable factory shortbed. Yeah, everything is fixable, but put the glory aside for a moment and get real. Is all that work really worth it when you can spend more for a better car you can drive today?

How can you be sure you get a clear view? Always take a friend with you who understands the work involved, and trust them to get your head down out of the clouds when you start to get excited.

You may be banging gears in your imagination when you look at that rusty gem, but they’ll point out that there’s no shifter, no transmission, and oh, no floor.

Understand your capabilities — and limitations

Who is going to do this work? Are you ready to spend twice as much time and money as you forecast to get it done?

The “bad” GMC cab was fixable, but at what cost? Do you care about original paint and original VIN tag rivets enough to spend weeks — or longer — cutting out rust and welding in new metal? Do you have the tools and know-how to do that, and if not, are you willing to gain them?

My answer is always yes to that last question, but it isn’t for everyone.

What about your time, or in the case of a shop, your money? What is the fix really going to take, and is it going to be worth it in the end?

Restorations almost always cost more than the end product will be worth, and you have to account for that extra money somewhere. Most DIYers think of it as entertainment cost, because they enjoy the process. There is something fulfilling to them about working with their hands and making something out of nothing. It’s a badge of honor — but it isn’t free.

Don’t forget the space required, too — as above, it was a “must take all” situation, and ONE vehicle blown apart is big enough to take up three parking spots. Where will you put all that stuff, and what will the neighbors say?

Collateral damage

Bringing a car back to life can take a long time, depending on what it needs. Want it done faster? That will take more time and money. What else in your life will suffer for that time or money spent?

Is your spouse going to need to remarry because you’ve been lost to the garage? Will your kids forget what you look like?

On the flip side, are you going to use this to spend time with your kid or kids? Does your spouse want to participate?

Depending on how you answer that, you might be better off spending more for a complete car or truck that needs less before it can be used. Then you can devote your project time to smaller, less all-consuming issues. Remember, just like all houses are projects, every car has needs — even completed ones.

Or maybe you’ll see the value in the time and effort you’re about to invest. If you do, dive in and don’t look back.

As for me, I didn’t pull the trigger on that pile of needy GM steel. But next weekend I’m driving even further out of town to see a different ’67 GMC. I’m sure it’ll have its own stories to tell.