Should You Buy a Project or Hobby Car? (4 Questions to Ask Yourself)

You catch yourself drooling over the old VW Super Beetle pulled up beside you at the fuel pump. Your neck is sore from repeatedly craning it at every Jeep Grand Wagoneer you pass. You spend hours online reading articles like this one about getting a hobby car.

The $2,500 you’ve been saving for the project is threatening to turn into a new grill or get absorbed into Jr.’s college fund. It’s time to take the plunge. Here are some clarifying questions and tips to make sure you don’t end up loathing the experience.

Tips For Deciding On a Project Car

1. Are You Ready For This?

True story: A friend owned a new Subaru Outback wagon that cost nearly $30,000. The Subaru was parked outside under a tree, yielding his single garage space to a 1967 Volvo 122s that he’d acquired for $2,000.

Even he knew that this arrangement didn’t make sense, but if you’re considering purchasing a hobby car, you already know that they aren’t about making sense. They’re about your love for the car.

Volvo 170
Do you garage your classic and keep your new car outside?

If you love the car, you’ll spend time tinkering with it. You’ll seek out online forums populated by friendly people who also love the car. You’ll drive great, dubious distances in your car to meet up with these forum people, and beam when they compliment the shiny, correct color-code paint you’ve applied to the engine block.

You’ll break down on the way home and, using the box of replacement parts and duct tape you keep in the trunk, fix the problem on the fly. If the same thing had happened in your 2008 Honda Accord, you’d have cursed the vehicle up and down, but something about your 1961 Saab 95 makes it all OK.

Can-do, that’s you. If it’s not, you want a restored classic car, not a hobby car. You’ll pay more, but you can expect greater reliability and less hands-on maintenance.

2. Which Car?

Which car you buy depends largely on your skills. If you’re mechanically inclined and look forward to rebuilding the old engine, you can probably get a vehicle that isn’t running at a fraction of the cost of a roadworthy example.

If you like to sew, you might enjoy reupholstering the interior of the old AMC Concord that recently was home to a family of raccoons – but you’re going to want to be sure that the engine runs.

You need to be honest about your abilities and interests and try to acquire a vehicle with needs in your area of expertise. Otherwise, you’ll end up spending exorbitant sums paying others to do the repairs you’re unable to do yourself. And you’ll start misappropriating junior’s college fund to do so.

1981 AMC Concord.
A like-new 1981 AMC Concord.

The No.1 killer of old cars is RUST.

If you live or have vacationed in the South, Southwest or Northwest, you’ll likely have seen rust-free old cars in much greater quantities than in the Northeast, mid-Atlantic or Midwest. Rust permeates all unprotected metal parts, eating not just frames, unibodies and body panels, but also springs, axles, radiators and much more.

Unless you have a body shop and easy access to rust-free replacement parts, you should seek out and purchase the least rusty example you can find.

This might mean travelling out of your region to find the right car. The good news is that the laws of supply and demand frequently result in a greater quantity of comparatively less expensive vehicles in comparatively better condition in dry regions, leaving you some spare change for travel.

Or, if you’re already active and have made friends in the online forums related to your dream car, there might be someone near enough to the car you’d like to see who would check it out for you. Find a winner? Great! Bring it home.

3. Give Yourself a Honeymoon

If your car is advertised as running and driveable, and it’s fairly close to home, go ahead and drive it home. However, unless you’ve personally driven it at highway speeds and perhaps had it inspected at a trusted shop, your best bet is to have it transported home.

Maybe you’ve got a buddy with a flatbed? No? If you have AAA, you might be able to have it towed up to 100 miles at no additional cost.

If it’s more than a hundred miles away, spend a few bucks and have it shipped by an auto transport company. They’ll often move even non-running vehicles, so that opens the doors for your search.

flat-bed towing
Long distance towing of a classic car can be accomplished via flat bed.

Basically, you want to bask in the glow of your hobby car before it leaves you stranded for the first time. Remember your duct tape fix on the way home from your car-geek meet-up? Your “new” car’s prior owners already have those stories with your car and you have no idea which bits are still held together by duct tape.

It’s best to avoid any long or fast trips before spending some time going over the vehicle yourself, in your own garage. You do have a garage, right?

4. You Need a Garage

Apartment complexes and city streets are the wrong environment for a hobby car. It’s almost impossible to properly and safely maintain a vehicle in a parking lot. Plus, you’ll start to resent your current abode for its lack of a garage.

You’ll start to hate the weather for raining on your first Saturday off that you planned to use it to swap out wheel bearings. And you’ll start to hate the car, covered in snow, ice or pollen, unable to be shown off and driven for your inability to keep up with the maintenance in the unpredictable outdoors.

Moving Forward

Still in? Enjoy the rewarding pastime of tinkering with your old car. You’re going to love it.

Photo Credits

Matthew Keegan

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