Tips From a Restoration Pro on How To Buy the Right Project Car

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Editor’s Note: Mick Jenkins is owner of Mick’s Paint in Pomona, California. His shop has restored and/or painted many high-end cars, from AMBR-winning show cars to many prominent SEMA builds and HOT ROD magazine cover cars. What follows is his advice on how to avoid buying a project car that will end up being a giant money-pit.

Buying the first example you find of your dream car, especially if it’s cheap, is almost always a mistake. Buying the wrong car will almost certainly cost you dearly in the long run. Over the years I’ve seen grown men reduced to tears when their dream machine is stripped only to find a rusted-out, poorly repaired heap of tin.

Rule 1: Never Buy a Project in Primer

Here at Mick’s, I would never take on a paint job over somebody else’s primer, because primer spells trouble. Primer could mean that the previous owner planned a restoration, but having stripped the vehicle, found either too much rust, too many repairs, or excessive damage that was beyond his capabilities. Consequently, a quickie repair covered by a coat of primer is often performed to hide those areas before declaring the car is “ready for paint.”

Rule 2: Beware Love at First Sight

Be prepared to walk away. Yes, you may have traveled a long way, or you may even have paid somebody to inspect it, but don’t focus on that. Instead, think of all the time and money you’ll save when you buy the right car, rather than the first car you see.

Rule 3: Thorough Inspection Is Critical

Be prepared to get dirty examining the car with a flashlight, poking at the inner rockers, framerails, and floorpans. If you see rivets, screws, or signs of non-factory welding, beware. Lift the carpets on both sides, back and front, and in the trunk.

Run your hands around the insides of the wheel wells and check for signs of corrosion or repair. Pull away interior trim panels and look and feel inside the quarter-panels where they join the rocker panels and floor. Also, look behind the wheel arches where they meet the inner panels, and poke around inside the front fenders for corrosion and repairs. The top front eyebrows of many muscle cars suffer from rust. Another trouble area to focus on is behind the front wheels at the lower section of the fenders. Years of trapped moisture in that area makes it highly prone to rust damage.

Rule 4: Rust Is More Than Skin Deep

Always assume that the rust you see on the surface is only the beginning. Just as most of an iceberg sits below the waterline, what you can’t see below the surface can be twice as big. What that means is a lot of repair work or a complete panel replacement for total peace of mind. Until the ’80s, most cars were not rust-proofed or sealed on the inside of the panels. Water inevitably snuck by the original weatherstripping and found its way to the bottom of the door, for example. Once there, it caused corrosion to form from the inside out. Yes, you only found blisters in the corner, but the real rust hasn’t emerged yet.

Eventually, it will break through, and worse, you are unknowingly helping that happen. You grind or sand around the blisters that you can see, but all you are doing is making the sheetmetal thinner, which in turn helps the corrosion on the inside break through more quickly. These hidden problems usually only become evident once you’ve completed your repair, and blistering appears next to it.

Rule 5: Make Sure You Can Find Parts

Question the availability of replacement panels and parts. I have had many situations where a customer’s car has been stripped only to find rusted-out panels that are not readily available. You wouldn’t think that is possible, but if a car was a low-production model, chances are good that the few cars produced were scrapped a long time ago. Fast forward 60 years, and original panels can be exceedingly hard to find, expensive, or in poor condition. I had one customer with a ’71 Pontiac GTO convertible with a rotten hood. I searched all over for a replacement and only found one, and it was equally rusty. The price was $3,500, plus shipping from the East Coast.

Another one, a ’69 Camaro convertible project, had already been to two shops but still wasn’t right. The first shop claimed they had “lost” the doors, the front fenders, and the convertible top. It’s hard to accidentally lose such bulky items. It’s possible they were sold because they were valuable. The second shop had purchased cheap reproduction panels. Later, when the fenders were stripped, it became obvious that the quarters were not correct. To align them, the second shop had made them fit with 3/4 of an inch Bondo. The Bondo had to be chiseled out, and new quarters installed. This resulted in a major schedule delay, plus unexpected cost, and the customer had already wasted money at the two previous shops.

Rule 6: Bring a Friend

There is plenty of information regarding different models and their issues online. Do your homework before you go look, and take a skeptical, car-savvy friend with you. Two sets of eyes are always good, and your companion will undoubtedly have a more grounded view of the vehicle because, unlike you, they won’t have convinced themselves that this is the right car before they even see it.

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