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Whether you’re a seasoned DIY car builder, or a first-timer looking to make the jump into taking a car from neglected and broken to a restored driver, everyone has to start somewhere and with their first car. Experts and veterans in the hobby will tell you that everyone makes mistakes, and there’s always that one story of a car purchased that put someone way over their head, or way over their budget.

While we can’t make a manual of the do’s and don’ts of finding the perfect car at the perfect deal here, we can give you a solid set of guidelines on what to look for in a project car. Because the term “Project Car” can be spread across so many different types of cars and the cultures of folks who build them – from Model A’s to STI’s to Land Rovers to Square Body Chevy trucks, look towards these things to help you choose a solid foundation in which to start.

History

Whether the car you are eyeing has been sitting in a field for 40 years or under someone’s car port for the last year, find out everything you can on the car’s history.

When was it last on the road? What happened that made someone park it? If a vehicle has been sitting for years, there’s generally a reason the car was moved out to its resting place.

Does the car have a title? In some states, acquiring a title for a vehicle that you purchase with bill of sale only is relatively as easy as filling out a certificate of ownership, especially for vehicles over 25 years old. In other states, its extremely difficult, if not downright impossible to get a title on a vehicle without one, even if it’s for an old car that’s been sitting.

Do all your research to find out how difficult it is in your state before proceeding. It could save you a headache in the long run. Keep in mind, some states don’t even require a title for a vehicle over 25-30 years old. This can also present issues.

If the car in question has been put on a salvage title, this means that at one point in time, the vehicle was either in a severe accident, flood, or other event in which the vehicle was “totaled” and sold to a salvage auction. This doesn’t mean the vehicle is worthless, as many of these vehicles are rebuilt and find new life on the road. What it does mean though is that major repairs have happened, and those repairs could have been done properly, or improperly.

Keep in mind that once a vehicle is on a salvage title, it will stay that way. Many potential buyers will shy away from a salvage title simply because it carries that stigma, so if you plan on keeping the vehicle for a long time, you may get a great deal purchasing a salvage title car and the repairs were done correctly. If you plan on selling relatively soon though, you may want to reconsider.

If your vehicle is newer than 1980, running a car history report online can give you clues and insights into what’s happened with your vehicle. See how many owners and if the vehicle has had any major insurance claims or damage issues.

Just because a vehicle encountered a serious accident in it’s life doesn’t mean it was placed on a salvage title. Find out where damage was incurred if there was an accident, and check these areas carefully to make sure the repairs were done properly. If the car shows any ownership from northern “rust belt” states, be sure to be prepared to check the body and frame carefully for potential issues that we’ll talk about.

Tools

When scoping out a potential project car, going at it without the proper things can leave you missing something that could be key, or leaving you without the means necessary to check. Here’s a quick list of things and what they can do to help you.

  • A list of all the main “concern” points – as you’ll learn in this article, every vehicle can have 10-15 concern points that need to be looked over carefully. It’s likely you’ll forget one – or half of them as visions of this project car done and cruising the road cloud your vision. Make a checklist to remember!
  • A mover’s blanket or piece of carpet – Fun fact, 999 out of 1000 project cars are located somewhere where it is absolutely disgusting to crawl under the vehicle. Bring something you can throw under the vehicle once you have access to get under it.
  • A flashlight – Once under the car, it’s a dark creepy world down there. Bring a powerful flashlight to scope over things carefully.
  • A small magnet – You can use a magnet to find the presence of body filler. Using a refrigerator-type magnet that can hold documents up on the fridge is perfect. You don’t want a rare earth magnet. They also now make fancy sensors that can actually detect the thickness of body filler, but magnets are cheap.
  • A jack and jack stands, and wood bases if necessary – it’s a good idea to ask the owner whether they have the tools to properly jack or raise the car up. If not, come prepared with a jack, jack stands, and if jacking on soft ground, a piece of plywood or plywood squares to offer a base for the jack and/or jack stands. You want to be able to get under the car as safe as possible.
  • Breaker bar with correct attachments to turn the motor (if necessary).
  • Nitrile Gloves or Mechanix style gloves
  • Spare battery or boost pack (if necessary)

Now that you’re armed with the history of the vehicle, and the tools, let’s get to scoping out the car! 

Body

For DIYers, body work can come at a premium. If you are well versed in metal work, body, and paint, you can save a lot of money by working on it yourself. If you are not experienced, you’ll need to find someone who is and can help you, or pay for a shop to do the work. Because of this, spending as much time looking over the potential trouble areas of a project car is vitally important.

Start by doing research online to determine any trouble areas on your potential car to look for. While all vehicles have the typical rust spots like rocker panels, cab corners (on a truck), and rear quarter panels, there are also a host of not-so-obvious spots that you’ll want to check over carefully.

Next, once armed with the knowledge of what to look for, spending time looking and assessing the potential trouble areas should occupy the majority of your time on the vehicle. Make sure that if replacement body parts are going to be needed, that they are regularly available to purchase aftermarket. There’s nothing worse than picking a rare, antique car for your project only to find out that replacement panels aren’t even made, and everything will need to be fabricated. For a beginner, this is a bad path to have to go down.

Then, be sure that the vehicle you’re going to see has access for you to get underneath. Many potential buyers skip some of the most critical areas because the car has been sitting in a field for 40 years with no way to get under it and examine what’s going on. Be sure that the seller is willing to provide not only a good and safe way to get under the vehicle, but a way that doesn’t require you to crawl through a mud bath to do so.

On any older vehicle, use your magnet to check suspect areas for body filler. While some body filler is perfectly acceptable in a vehicle, INCHES of body filler are not. If the car is nicely painted, tip your magnet with a piece of felt or cloth.

Stick the magnet in areas common for body filler and check the magnets sticking force. If you notice it gets weak or downright won’t stick, you have an area loaded with body filler. While every vehicle is different in terms of areas that are rust-prone, here’s a few examples of trouble areas that can be a big headache if not checked carefully. 

On older vehicles:

  • Window seals can fail and bring rainwater into the rear package tray area, or front window. When these areas rot out, the repairs can be extensive. Check carefully!
  • Cars with vinyl roofs (this was a big 1970’s thing) can hold water and moisture, wreaking havoc if you remove the vinyl.
  • Frame and body mounts can rot out underneath and cause a huge headache if they are not readily available aftermarket.
  • Many older vehicles parked on soil will have floors that slowly rot out due to trapping moisture under them. Peel back any carpet or rubber flooring and check carefully for signs of rot or weak points. Throw your flashlight under the car or have a buddy go under-car and shine the light up while you examine the floors. Look for spots where light is shining through that are often hard to see.  

On newer vehicles:

  • Carefully check behind any plastic trim around wheel arches, or body moldings without prying the trim off. Look for rust stains or bubbling coming out of the trim. If you see this, chances are the damage is way worse behind the trim. Remember that rust bubbles in the paint anywhere on the body mean there is very likely a rust hole under it once the rust and paint are peeled away.
  • Check the frame carefully for bad rust. Newer vehicles are often made of thinner materials on the frame, and some trucks and SUVs have serious points of concern.
  • Check the floorboards and rocker panels from underneath. On the floorboards, look at the areas directly under the gas pedal as this carpet can often hold moisture from the driver’s right foot constantly being in the same place.

These of course are not all the areas to look for, but some common ones. Make sure you research your potential car carefully!  

Drivetrain

In most cases and with most hobbyists, building the motor for your project car is the part that’s the most enjoyable, and the part you’re willing to spend the most money on.

The first item you need to check off your list with a non-running vehicle is whether or not the motor will turn by hand. Don’t assume that it will and don’t take the owner’s word for it. Use your breaker bar to attempt to turn the motor over. If it moves, you’re in good shape as the motor should be easy to disassemble assuming it needs to be rebuilt.

If it won’t turn, all is not lost – plenty of engines can be “unstuck” or disassembled anyways, but the risk certainly goes up on being capable of rebuilding. Ask the owner for any history on the motor, or any documents of work that was done. If they can’t produce any, assume that whatever they tell you may not be accurate. If the motor does run, consider it a bonus. Check the usual – smoking out of the oil fill cap (checking for blow-by) and listen carefully for engine knocks.

Next, make sure the motor is complete and document anything missing. Some parts are easy to come by, and some aren’t, so take inventory. Ask about any information on the transmission. If it’s an automatic, you can pull the dipstick and smell the fluid. If it smells badly burned, this could be a problem. If it’s a manual transmission, make sure that the transmission will easily move into all gears with the clutch in.

Lastly, make sure that if the motor was partially disassembled, that steps were taken to keep rodents or other things out of passages. For instance, if the air intake and throttle body were removed, did someone put a rag or covering over the throttle body intake? If not, anything could have crawled down into the intake and found a home, so be fully aware of this.

Electrical

While for some folks, electrical wiring isn’t a big deal – for others, it’s a nightmare. Certain vehicles can be prone to horrible issues with electrical components, and nearly every vehicle built in the 1980’s and 1990’s has some sort of electrical failures now.

When looking over a vehicle, ask what works and what doesn’t. Even if the vehicle doesn’t run, you can always hook a spare battery via jumper cables or a boost pack to the positive and negative terminals. Now, work your way through the electrical items on the car – lighting, radio, climate control, etc, and see what works and what doesn’t. There are plenty of “project vehicles” that have been parked because of damning electrical problems and unless you test these for yourself, you could be shouldering taking on the same issue that led someone else to give up on the car. Check everything!

For a vehicle suspected of flood damage or water intrusion, look for signs of mud or dried muddy dirt in places where you wouldn’t normally find it. For instance, most wiring under the dash stays pretty clean, even after decades. If you see dried mud on wiring and items under here, chances are likely the car has seen a flood.

Interior

With interior, again, research is key. In older project cars, interior repair will almost always be needed. Be sure that replacement items are available new or salvage. Generally speaking, items like headliners and carpet are relatively easy to repair even by an upholsterer, but items like cracked dashboards, center consoles, or door panels can be hit or miss depending on availability. For some vehicles, like Chevy “Square body” trucks, these items are easily sourced and available. For other vehicles, they may be next to impossible to find, so research first.

Be sure when looking through interior, under dash, and pulling back carpet, that you wear either nitrile or Mechanix-style gloves. Many cars can be full of rodents or a past home for rodents, so it’s good to protect your hands at all times.

Putting it All Together

Once you put your list, research, and observations together, it’s important to determine whether or not the juice is worth the squeeze when it comes to your investment. Whatever price you think it is going to cost for everything you need for your project – double it. That will probably be closer to the amount you actually will spend.

Determine whether or not the car you’re looking at has a good market resale value as most folks who build a project often enjoy a few seasons of driving, then move on to the next project. You want to be sure the money you’re putting in, you’re going to be able to get back out.

Lastly, and most importantly, remember it’s ok to walk away. Often times when looking at a project, visions of the car finished, and you cruising down the road overwhelm the sheer reality of the work that’s needed to be done. If you take your time doing research ahead of time, and arm yourself with all the facts on what potentially you could need and what to look for, you can safely determine the “buy or walk” line on any car. Then, once you’ve found your perfect project, AutoZone can help you along the way with the parts you need to enjoy the journey of taking a car from project to driver!  

Advice, how-to guides, and car care information featured on AutoZone.com and AutoZone Advice & How-To’s are presented as helpful resources for general maintenance and automotive repairs from a general perspective only and should be used at your own risk. Information is accurate and true to the best of AutoZone’s knowledge, however, there may be omissions, errors or mistakes.

Be sure to consult your owner’s manual, a repair guide, an AutoZoner at a store near you, or a licensed, professional mechanic for vehicle-specific repair information. Refer to the service manual for specific diagnostic, repair and tool information for your particular vehicle. Always chock your wheels prior to lifting a vehicle. Always disconnect the negative battery cable before servicing an electrical application on the vehicle to protect its electrical circuits in the event that a wire is accidentally pierced or grounded. Use caution when working with automotive batteries. Sulfuric acid is caustic and can burn clothing and skin or cause blindness. Always wear gloves and safety glasses and other personal protection equipment, and work in a well-ventilated area. Should electrolyte get on your body or clothing, neutralize it immediately with a solution of baking soda and water. Do not wear ties or loose clothing when working on your vehicle.

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