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My Project Car(s)

Updated on July 26, 2013

In Search of the Perfect Project Car

I love working on old cars. Building a project car is a great way to spend time (lots of time - and lots of money too!!!) with family and friends. The problem for me is picking out the right car. In fact I already have 3 cars you could call projects, but I still want more - at least one more... So what makes a perfect project car and why do I need another one? Well, a good candidate should: 1. Be within my ability to work on; 2. Have good parts availability; 3. Be within my budget; 4. Be able to meet my performance goals; 5. Be able to pass smog after modifications; 6. Be unique (I don't think the world needs another first gen Camaro); and 7. Be something my wife likes. None of my current projects meet all or even most, so the search continues for a new one...

(Photo: dave_7 on Flickr under Creative Commons)

What's a Project Car?

It's not a project if YOU aren't working on it...

A project car is a car that you fix up or improve. The key word here is "you." How much work do "you" do yourself? Sometimes I read articles about a fancy old car that the owner "built" - but then it turns out that the car was bought online, shipped to a professional Hot Rod Shop, and the owner didn't even see the d**N thing in person until it was completed by the professional builder. A project car? For the builder, maybe. For the owner? NOT!!!

So, how much work do you have to do to your own car before you can claim it as your own project car? To paraphrase Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart's concurring opinion in Jacobellis v. Ohio 378 U.S. 184 (1964),

"I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of work I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description ["project car"]; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it, and the project car involved in this case is not that."

So what does that mean? Some things a person could do IF THEY WANTED, other things, maybe not. As applied to cars, most people would have a very difficult (and expensive) time complying with the environmental laws, equipment requirements, and cleanup needed to do body work and paint. Most individuals also don't have access to a machine shop to rebuild their own engine. Rebuilding a transmission is beyond the skills of most (well, just about anyone) who, uhm, doesn't rebuild them for a living.

Chilton's Auto Repair Manual 1964-71 - A must-have book for working on older project cars...

Finding The Right Project Car

You want a project, not "grounds for divorce"...

The bast way to make sure your project car is a success is to pick the right car. I'm not talking make and model (though it helps a lot to pick a car you actually like) - I'm talking about picking a car that actually has a chance of getting finished. What does that mean? Simple - you need to find a car that is within your ability to finish. That means you either need the time and skill to do it yourself, or the money to pay someone else to do the work for you. For example if you buy a rust bucket, you'll need to be good at welding and auto body work (or have the ability to learn) or have a pile of cash. It's also a good idea to not buy a car if you can't get parts for it. Ever try to find something as simple as tail light lenses for a 64 Valiant station wagon? For your first few projects, choose cars that don't need to much work and save the basket cases for when you have more experience.

What's Your Sign?

Three types of project cars...

It's really easy to get carried away trying to classify hot rods. Is it even really a hot rod? Maybe it's actually a street machine or a mod. Pro Street, Pro Touring, or Pro Wannabe? If it is a Hot Rod, is it Classic, Retro, or Rat Rod? The truth is there are only 3 kinds of project cars: Pre-smog, smog era, and post-smog. All others are just variations on a theme. Paint is paint, stitching is stitching, and gears are gears, but what determines how easy it is to build your project car is largely determined by what emissions standards the engine in your car must comply with.

Pre-Smog Project Cars

The easiest cars to work on...

Cars built through about 1973 are pre-smog cars. They might have some emissions controls from the factory, but chances are it is minimal, like maybe a PCV valve and not too much else. Because of the lack of emission controls, these are the easiest cars to work on and modify. You can pretty much do whatever you want to the engine and still be legal. These are also the easiest cars to get registered. Emissions standards were fairly lax to begin with, and many states don't even require a smog test for vehicles built before a certain date. California for example doesn't require a smog test on any vehicle built before 1976. Each state is different (sometimes by county as well) so be sure to check with your state's DMV.

The down side to pre-smog project cars are price, parts availability, and safety. Cars in this group are almost 40 years old (at least) and get harder to find with each passing year. This scarcity and the popularity of some models makes some of these cars very expensive, even for a basket case. Getting parts for some of the less popular models can range from difficult to impossible as no one is making after market restoration parts and OEM parts have dried up long ago. The final issue is safety. Many of these early cars lack basic safety features like dual a master cylinder, disc brakes, or even seat belts. You can add these yourself but it adds to the cost of your project.

Smog-Era Project Cars

The hardest cars to work on...

Starting about 1973, emission standards for new cars started to get very strict. Computer control and mass market EFI weren't available yet, so auto engineers had to resort to "tricks" like exhaust gas recirculation (EGR), smog pumps, "lean burn" ignitions, etc. in order to get the cars to meet emission standards. All of these doohickeys caused engines from this era (about 1973 through 1988) to perform extremely poorly. To add insult to injury, new "safety" standards caused the end of styling with the mandate of big, heavy, ugly bumpers (to see what I mean, compare a 1973 Corvette with a 1968 - 1972 Vette). Finally, as if all that wasn't enough, many states incorporated a visual inspection into the smog test. This meant that the removal or alteration of any device related to vehicle emissions (which is pretty much everything in/on the engine) would render the vehicle illegal even if it was emitting pure oxygen. The only exception was for after market parts that carried a California Air Resources Board (CARB) certification. Since the testing requires for CARB certification was so expensive, not many after market companies made performance parts for these cars.

Post-Smog Project Cars

High performance makes a come back...

Starting around 1988, computer control and electronic port fuel injection (EFI) started to become common (they're now standard on all cars). This allowed engineers to build cars that run very clean without compromising performance. Thanks to OBDC, a visual inspection is no longer required and as long as the OBDC computer is happy your car will be legal from an emission standpoint. Along with computer control and EFI, other advances in technology (multiple cams, roller lifters, variable valve timing, better ring design, etc) have resulted in engines that are more powerful than anything Detroit put out during the Muscle car era and at the same time get decent fuel mileage.

Chilton's Auto Repair manual 1964-71


I hope you enjoyed reading this lens. I'd appreciate any comments or suggestions for improvement.

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    • profile image


      8 years ago

      Project cars are always a great way to get a car at a very low price and you get the chance to build the car of your dreams without too much of the cost... I personally have a kit car and that has been an ongoing project for the last 10 years :-)

    • profile image


      9 years ago

      thanks for sharing, it is a good way to save the cost on cars

    • Deano1979 profile image


      10 years ago

      Thinking of buing a car and tarting it up, your lens has been helpful


      Car Body Repair

    • profile image


      10 years ago

      cool lens, got myself a project car that i drive as a daily now, 1984 holden commodore with a 1994 engine so its converted to EFI.


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