Ok, so you decided to take the plunge and build your own custom car. Before you go searching the countryside for that barn find or Craigslist for that basket case, here are my best tips to help ensure a successful outcome and help keep you within a budget.
There’s a million different reasons to pick this brand or that model car as a build project. For a low budget custom car with the easiest build possible and fewest restrictions, these are 10 vehicle selection criteria I recommend using:
- Clean title: If I can’t get it registered in my name and drive it, I don’t want it and I will have a hard time reselling it. Some states do not title vehicles over 20 years old and they may be legally sold with a bill of sale only. I know Georgia and Alabama do this and I have navigated the paperwork necessary to get a Georgia bill-of-sale car with no title registered in another state and had no problems, but that was buying a 1965 van in 1989 and the van hadn’t been registered in 17 years. Unless it’s going to be a parts car, stick to clear/clean title cars to make it easy at DMV and when reselling it later.
- Pre-emissions: Old cars can be brought back onto the road and only have to meet the emissions standards in effect at the time of the vehicle’s manufacture, but only in areas that require emissions testing. US emissions laws went into effect in 1974. California has had emissions laws in effect since 1968. If your car was built before there were any emissions laws, there is no smog-reducing equipment on your car and there are much fewer restrictions on your build. In states with stricter emissions laws like California, Virginia, and some others, NO vehicles may emit visible smoke. So make sure your tailpipe emissions are clear and don’t try to restore a 2 stroke Trabant if you live in those states. If you live in an area that has emissions testing, beware of cars that come from areas that do not require testing. Often, emissions equipment was the first thing stripped off an old car to try to make more horsepower back in the day if you were in an area with no testing. If you don’t live where there is emissions testing, your primary exhaust concerns are noise and flow.
- No imports: I love a whole list of imported cars but if you are doing a budget build, Detroit iron is the way to go for a whole lot cheaper. I’d love to build an early 70’s Opel GT like this one seen on craigslist: but finding parts would be very time consuming and much more expensive than parts for a Dart or a Nova. The only exception to this may be the Volkswagen Beetle. I have been told they can also be a pretty cheap build and the internet has made many things easier to get.
- No major accident damage: I don’t worry about parking lot dings or fender benders. But anything that twisted the frame or unibody structure is a deal killer for this level of build. I would straighten out a bumper like this Falcon needed
or swap a fender, but don’t want to mess with creased quarter panels. For me to buy a seriously damaged car, it would have to be a rare, highly sought after car and it wouldn’t qualify as “low budget” anymore.
- Rear-wheel drive, or 4-wheel drive: I would not spend any time or any money on any front-wheel-drive car. I simply cannot think of any make, model, or body style that is front wheel drive, that can be restored, or customized with the same kind of budget and with the same ease as a RWD or 4×4. A budget build isn’t solely about resale value, but don’t ignore it either. Once again, Volkswagen may be the exception to this with the first generation of Golf/Rabbit GTi’s, but this violates rule #3
- No major rust: The Flintstone’s Falcon almost didn’t come home with us because of the driver side floor.I live in Florida where this is the most common deal breaker when making the final decision on an old car purchase. I don’t mean a dime sized hole in the floor, I mean there is no floor! I have walked away from a few cars I really loved and wanted because of frame rails rusted away or whole missing trunks or floor pans. People that live on islands, on the beach, or where they salt the roads for snow, know these problems well. The most expensive and time consuming problem in my Maverick build has been rust repair in the cowl area under the windshield. This is a very common problem in many old Ford Motor Company cars. You don’t want your project to cost 3 times more to put on the road than the car could ever be worth. Some can’t be saved and should be considered as parts cars.
- All glass intact: Glass is expensive to replace and many older vehicles have hard to find and very expensive to replace pieces of glass. Just as an example: in a 2-10-17 internet search, a rear windshield for a first generation Barracuda was over $400.
- Get something common: Generally speaking, the more common the car was originally and the more models shared parts, the cheaper the build will go. I have found that these vehicles are the ones with the biggest production numbers AND the most aftermarket support: Falcon, Maverick, Mustang, Nova, Camaro, G-body, Dart, Duster, F150, C10, D150. The appeal of these vehicles as build projects lies in the wide array of parts available for all levels of build. These cars and trucks literally sold in the millions and can be found in junkyards, barns, and backyards all across America. For a budget build I recommend staying with the Big 3; Ford, GM, and Chrysler and don’t try messing with an AMC or a Studebaker or Hudson unless you have a bigger budget.
- 12 Volts: Automotive electric systems went through a big change in the early to mid-60’s and manufacturers switched over from 6-volt systems that ran off a generator to a 12-volt system that runs off an alternator. Alternators spin with much less drag than generators and voltage output does not vary with engine rpm. Electrical problems can be very difficult to diagnose and track down. I don’t want to mess with converting a system from 6V to 12V so I stay away from the older 6V systems
- body style:
I saved this for last because it is the most subjective and sometimes you have no choice in the vehicle you get, it just seems to find you. It can come from your Aunt Eileen, or a friend of your mom at work, they may give it to you for $100 or maybe even for free if you just come get it out of their yard. It may be a stranger that owns it and hates seeing it rot away in their yard and will give it to you or sell it really cheap just knowing it will be brought back to life instead of being scrapped. If you have your heart set on a particular style or model, it can cost extra, sometimes a great deal extra.
If body style options are open, then it comes down to your personal tastes. Resale value is not my primary concern when I am building but I still do not completely ignore potential resale value when it comes to a project car.
These 10 criteria do not apply to a parts car.
A parts car is a vehicle purchased solely for the purpose of removing valuable pieces and parts from it for your project car and then selling or scrapping the carcass like I did with this 75 Maverick. Parts cars can often be found for less than $500 , which can be cheaper than a single major project component like a motor or transmission. A parts car should be the same model as your project car if suspension, body panels, trim, and interior parts are needed, or it may be completely different car with a list of usable parts like motor, transmission, rear end, etc. Sometimes it only needs to be a similar sized car if you are looking for seats, spoilers, rear ends, wheels, etc.
Following these 10 tips can help keep build costs down and put your completed project on the road sooner. Good luck with your build!
See you on the road!
Opel GT picture from craigslist posting and F250 picture from Google images, both photographers unknown. All other photos by:David Wilhite