Congratulations, you’ve finally cleared out all of the boxes of holiday decorations, the unused gym equipment you quit using three weeks after assembling it, and the kids’ bikes out of that second spot in the garage. You’ve unearthed your tools, placed them nicely in the drawers of your new stand up tool box, and maybe even hooked up an air compressor in the back corner. You’re finally ready to build your first project car!
There’s just one small problem: you haven’t bought one yet.
This article is meant to be a simple guide for the would-be project car builder. Whether this is your first street machine or for fortieth, we think these tips and tricks will serve as an aid in spotting key trouble spots, decoding VIN numbers, and sorting out the phonies from the diamonds in the rough. There’s still a lot of cars still left to be cleaned up and taken out without taking you out to the cleaners.
The Real McCoy And The Attack of The Clones
Impostors have been known to completely repop and skillfully age counterfeit VIN tags.
Who wouldn’t want to get their hands of a real 396 Super Sport Chevelle or a 427 Tri-Power Sting Ray? Of course, you would! The problem is so does everybody else. Because of this demand, there are plenty of folks out there who are more than happy to exploit that wide demand, either by asking exorbitantly over-inflated prices, hording up valuable parts and/or the cars themselves, or passing off counterfeit limited edition cars as the real thing.
Now, by “counterfeit,” we don’t mean a “clone.” A clone is a car that has been modified to replicate a more iconic or desirable muscle car, such as converting a basic six-cylinder ’68 Camaro into a 302-powered Z/28. The cloning process can be as simple as using exterior badges and stripes and adding a cowl hood or can be totally rebuilt from the ground up to meet all the factory specs of the specific car. But ultimately, owners of clones build them as a tribute, honoring the originals.
Today's big ticket auction houses, like Mecum shown here, dutifully investigate all of their classic vehicles that are up for bid. Even with all of their homework, the skillful forgery can slip through the cracks. If your heart is set on an original, be prepared to do your due diligence. Image: Mecum Auctions
Things get considerably more “sticky” when VIN swapping or VIN tag “re-popping” is involved. Federal law Title 18 of United States Code, Chapter 25, Section 511 states that “tampering” with a motor vehicle’s identification code is an actual federal offense save for a few exceptions, particularly if the swap is performed by the legal owner of the specific vehicle or if a designated repair shop removes and/or replaces the VIN tag if the replacement “is reasonably necessary for the repair” of the particular car.
Consider this example shared by Joe Padavano over on the HotRodders.com forum, “Say you own a brand new GM pickup and a tree falls on the cab. You can run down to the GM dealer and buy a brand new body-in-white cab. This new cab does not come with a VIN tag – you must swap the one from your old crushed cab.” When legally performed, vehicles with unoriginal VINs are classified as “reconstructed” and should be identified as such.
This '64 Malibu came from the factory with a straight six and no air conditioning or power brakes, making it a great candidate for a big block swap and a set of Super Sport badges. Why not? It's your car anyway.
Cars passed off as counterfeits are those that have been so dutifully restored to resemble desirable or limited-edition cars that only the most expert in authentication can discern, and sold as an original.
Catching counterfeits and pedigree authentication is of such a concern that the nation’s most prestigious auction houses consult automotive historians and even keep them on site for this exact purpose. Cars whose pedigree are in question or are known to have had its VIN modified will be marked as “At Risk” or “Special Construction.”
Moreover, if the car you’re looking to buy is intended for “street use,” a highly valued original or “numbers matching” car is likely never a good choice for two reasons; first, the wear and tear on a regularly driven car can be substantial, and at the very least demanding.
Few collectors drive their cars for this very cause – unless they have a staff of mechanics who perform the upkeep. And secondly, no one can effectively predict an accident, be it a door ding or a complete catastrophic collision.
And consider this fact: most all factory-optioned performance package cars were likely driven hard the moment they rolled off the dealer lot. Forty years of continual abuse can leave an original Super Sport in shambles. For those more budget-minded, swapping out a lazy small block or a six-banger is worth having an unmolested A- or F-Body.
This '69 Camaro is a fine low-rust example of a "California car." Although completely disassembled, all of the Camaro's exterior and interior components were carefully wrapped, labeled and boxed up. Although not the nominal way to pick up a project, it was a far better option than others we've seen.
The State of (Dis)Union
The next step is possibly the hardest, as you’re likely to be fighting your own inner voice of logic. Many would-be project builders have the tendency to bite off far more than they can possibly chew. As a rule of thumb its best to consider that the more complete a project car, the better. Even if the car in question is a readily common muscle car and replacement parts can be easily found, finding a complete car saves money that can be spent elsewhere.
Rat's nests like these are common among project cars that have been handed from one hobbyist to another.
Door panels, hoods, deck lids, front and rear valances are expensive and can be difficult to replace for the novice car builder. The same goes for glass, even for the experienced hobbyist. If your goal is to assemble most of the car yourself, its best to start with a complete car.
Replacing external brightwork, trim, badges, bumpers and drip rail moldings – although available through today’s vast aftermarket – can add up quickly and typically can be polished back to their original luster for a fraction of the cost. The same goes for interior components. In fact, a solid tip in selecting a prospective project is studiously examining the dashboard and gauges.
Aftermarket gauges evidence whether the previous owner had molested the factory wiring, and is a strong indicator of other tampering that might remain unseen. More often than not, we veer away from project cars that have had their dashes and electrical systems modified. While expecting the factory wiring to be virgin is somewhat naive, we’ve encountered far less problems with cars that haven’t had their looms messed with.
On a different note, it’s important to know this history of the car, particularly in the case of accidents. Mismatched-painted panels are a strong indicator that the car has previously been involved in a collision. It’s an old trick to bring along some roofer’s string to run along the chassis to verify that it’s still true.
Chevrolets tend to corrode in many of the same places, particularly around the rear window sill and in the lower quarters, where moisture can pool unchecked for extended periods of time.
While complete “drivers” are typically priced at a premium, complete cars that have sat around for years are great candidates – that is, depending on where it’s been sitting. Years ago, we heard of an original ’69 Pontiac “Judge” with the Ram Air IV option and hood-mounted tach sitting up to its rocker panels in a pig pen in rural Georgia. Sadly, the wet, humid environment completely corroded the car down to near nothing. Sure, several valuable parts could’ve been salvaged and transplanted to a clean GTO or LeMans, but the original Judge was a total loss.
If left unhindered, corrosion will continue to eat away at your classic's precious skin and chassis until little is left but a brittle, flaky husk; earning the nickname "cancer."
When people throw the phrase “California car” around, they mean that it was either a rust-free or low-rust car, thanks to California’s warm, mild year-round temperatures. Unfortunately, many classics found closer to the shoreline do rust out thanks to the salinity in the air. Salt corrosion can be just as damaging as moisture.
This would make one think a desert car would ensure zero rust, and they’d usually be right. But the extreme temperatures and arid air can strip any moisture from weatherstripping, interior components and plastics, reducing them to brittle husks.
If observing the car from the outside, there are key areas to keep a keen eye on, particularly if the car came with a vinyl top. Few cars equipped with a vinyl top remain rust-free for very long. Although stylish and indicative of the period, vinyl tops are notorious for trapping in moisture. Likewise, window sills – particularly around the rear window – are “hot spots” for corrosion.
When we first purchased our '71 Nova project "Swinger," we had no idea how bad the cancer truly was until we started digging. Running a simple magnet over the skin of a car will tell you where the metal ends, and where the body filler or rust begins.
Chevrolet muscle cars – A, F, and X-Bodies alike – are known for rusting in a couple of places; namely around the rear wheel wells, the lower quarters and the rear window sill.
These areas pooled moisture whether driving or standing still and are typically the first places to look. Next, run you hands along the rocker panels, as rusted rocker panels typically evidence if the floors are corroded. Otherwise, pull up the carpets where you can and look at the floors.
The final “hot spot” is the trunk floor. While moisture can collect on the trunk floor, most factory trunks have drain holes to let any moisture out. It’s the place between the bottom of the trunk floor and the top of the gas tank that needs to be investigated.
The pad pressed between the two surfaces had a tendency to soak up moisture over the decades and slowly eat away at the base of the trunk – or worse yet – the top of the factory tank.
Bumpers and trim can rust out from the back, even if they’re newly re-chromed. Pinholes, spotting or discoloration are telltale signs, if you can’t peek behind the backside of the bumpers. When first examining a prospective new project, we strongly suggest bringing along a decent-sized magnet to run along the body for good measure.
Make sure to do your homework. Your potential project car should have a inner fender tag that will break down the car's original paint scheme, powertrain, body style and seating.
Paint By Numbers
Frankly, too many would-be car builders looking for their first project car put too much value in a paint job. In respect to our last topic, we’ve find that repainted project cars tend to be hiding quite a few ugly secrets beneath their glossy coat. Mounds of body filler, untreated rust, or spotty metal work can all be cleverly – though temporarily – hidden by a cheap and easy paint job. Moreover, painted cars typically are exceptionally overpriced over cars in primer or even its faded original paint.
"Orange Peel" is caused by improper spray application techniques.
When looking over a new project car – be it in its faded, sun-bleached and spider-webbed factory paint, primer or a new shiny coat – it’s imperative to be detail oriented. The inside of doors, hoods, and trunks will often show what the car’s original color was, particularly as hurried or haphazard paint jobs are never thorough.
Unfortunately, rush jobs like these rarely end well. Cheap “same-day” paint shops are notorious for lacking in their paint prep, which is, of course, the most important part. If a surface isn’t sanded thoroughly, paint can loose its adhesion and flake or peel off. “Orange peel” or surface bubbling will pockmark the surface severely. Dust and grit can embed themselves into wet surfaces and require hours of wet sanding to rub out.
Paint is considered by most professional car builders as the last step before final assembly – the frosting on the cake, so to speak. Too often new enthusiasts jump in head first into a “basket case” because of the “cool paint scheme.” If the plan is taking the car down, swapping out the powertrain and maybe even stepping up the suspension geometry, chances are that a new paint job will soon follow.
Today, many enthusiasts are leaning towards returning their classics back to their factory colors as so many existing project cars are so commonly painted either red, black or silver.Metallic shades of Azure Blue, Sea Mist Green and Spanish Bronze are starting to show up more and more as people get tired of seeing yet another yellow Camaro. This can be a fun alternative but requires a little bit of homework.
The car’s inner fender tag will dictate what the factory original color(s) was. If the tag is missing, deciphering the original paint color is a little bit more difficult but definitely not impossible. Look closely at all the door jambs, contact points, and beneath weatherstripping and chrome trim. Unless the car was completely stripped down, will a body shop have bothered to paint underneath these surfaces, and usually most body shops prefer that a car keeps its original primer base and paint to use as a base for a new coat than stripped down to bare metal.
With all the hard work already completed, now the fun can begin!
Take Her Home
Purchasing your first project car should be a reason to celebrate. Hopefully, you’re giving new life to a car that has seen some hard years and will now get a new lease on life with a whole lot more power than it ever came with stock. Whether you’re picking up somebody’s old project, a grandma’s old grocery getter, or an off-the-auction-block award winner, take a second to look over the car closely. Run the numbers and don’t feel intimidated to ask about the car’s history. You want picking up this project to be a positive one and not something you’ll wind up regretting.