It should not surprise you to learn that when you’re planning any kind of car project, deciding on what vehicle you want to work on is THE MOST IMPORTANT STEP.
Choosing the right car will not only save you precious, precious time but also stop you going majorly over budget- and likewise the wrong car will end up being a drain on both your time and bank account.
Buying a car to restore is something that you should never rush into. But unfortunately, we see a lot of people who DO buy the first car they see because, mainly, they hate shopping around for cars.
It’s true that everyone hates how long it takes to buy a new car. Especially where we live in North Yorkshire- all the good used cars seem to be in York or Leeds, at least an hour’s drive from us.
You just want to go out, get a car and be done with it. We really get that. But don’t do that. That’s how you can end up with a bad car.
When it comes to buying a car, Mat is fussy as hell. He would rather drive an hour, look at and then walk away from a million bad cars than buy one “just to be done with it”. It used to really irritate me, and I know it annoys everyone who has ever asked Mat to help them buy a car but, as he pointed out to me the other day (when I was complaining about it) he’s never bought a really bad car.
Another reason people buy the wrong car is because they fall in love with it. Seriously.
Especially when it’s a classic car, or a “fun” car for the weekend. When you want something so badly, you end up ignoring all the red flags that suggest this is not a good idea.
It’s confirmation bias at its finest. You see the car, you want the car and you only pay attention to the positive stuff that tells you to buy it (like the interior. For whatever reason, nice interiors seem to sell cars, bodywork and running issues be damned!) People who fall into this category are often reluctant to get a second opinion too, because they don't want the magic spell this car has them under to be broken by the harsh reality of an expert opinion.
But enough. You don’t want to be this person. You want to build the car of your dreams? Do yourself a favour and start by choosing something fairly decent.
Let’s have a look at the things you should be doing when you find a car you want to buy to restore.
1) Inspect the Bodywork
For starters, go over the bodywork with a fine-tooth comb because this is where the biggest cost of the restoration will be.
I’ve talked before about why welding on cars is so expensive and some of the ways you can reduce the cost of that, but the main way is to avoid buying a vehicle that needs lots of welding in the first place.
There's a good reason there’s so many rotten vehicles advertised on eBay for £500.
A lot of the time when a car fails its MOT for welding it’s no longer cost effective to get it repaired- the owner is advised to scrap it and start again with a new vehicle. At which point the owner lists their vehicle on eBay as a “project car with great potential £500 no offers” and hopes that someone buys it without knowing enough about restoring cars to know it will cost more than a decent example of the vehicle in welding repairs to get it back on the road.
For example, we recently had a call from a woman who'd just bought a van for £1600. On taking it to a local garage the mechanic advised her it was rotten and needed the full lower half replacing. Matt didn't even need to see the vehicle to tell her it would cost more in repairs than the van was worth.
You need a solid base to start with or you might as well be buying a log book. Anything else that’s wrong with the vehicle- even a dead engine- can be fairly easily swapped out for a good one, but rotten bodywork is always going to be time consuming and/or expensive.
Ok, so what exactly should I be looking for on the bodywork when buying a project car?
Get underneath that car and have a good poke around. I don’t care if it’s not on a ramp, you’re not allowed to buy that car without looking at the underside of it. Do not go to a viewing in your tidy gear as you will very likely have to roll around in mud and dirt to have a proper look at the underside.
Yes, you might feel silly, but not as silly as you will feel when you realise you’ve bought an atrocious excuse for a car because you didn’t want to dirty and/or embarrass yourself looking at the underside. Luckily when it comes to cars Mat has no shame and is never shy about crawling around under vehicles we’re looking at buying.
Besides the underside, which is a universal rot trap for all cars, different vehicles have different places they’re common for going. The scuttle panel and hinge points are common places to rot out on VW MK2 Golfs, for example, so if you were looking at buying one of them I'd check those places carefully.
Do a bit of investigation prior to viewing a car to get an idea of what areas you should be focusing on.
Look carefully for bubbling under the paintwork which is very easy to miss if you don’t know what you’re looking for, especially if the car has been washed and polished. Most of the time when it’s got to the point that the paint is starting to lift it’s too far gone to be ground back and rescued with Kur-Rust.
Make a list of any panels that have visible rot on them and price up the cost of repairing or replacing them. If you’re going to ask a welding shop then take lots of pictures, or better yet ask them to go out and look at it for you and get a quote as it's pretty much impossible to quote without seeing the job at hand.
The other thing you need to watch out for (but is unfortunately much harder to spot, if it's been done well) is the bodging up of rotten bodywork with filler and/or fibreglass. If something looks freshly painted this is a big red flag and you need to look carefully at panels that appear to be the wrong shape or just look a bit "off".
You should expect every used car to have some amount of bodywork that needs doing but you need to weigh up the cost of the car and the cost of repairs to figure out if it’s worth buying it.
2) Get Under the Bonnet
You've assessed the bodywork (and there is a lot to assess) the other major part to look at is the mechanical side of things.
You'll need to go back underneath the car (sorry) to look for signs of mechanical issues. Check for worn bushes, rotten pipes as well as any leaks or dampness around the shockers, which means they're knackered. Also check for any sign of poor repairs, lack of maintenance, or signs its been in an accident such as creased, distorted bodywork or bent suspension components.
Next, look in the engine bay. Check the fluids. Does the coolant look clean, rusty or oily?
How is the oil? Milky and creamy appearance is a sign there's water in the oil and possible head gasket issues (but on an old car it could just be moisture in the oil from lack of use.)
What's the wiring situation like? Check for any signs it's been messed with i.e lots of insulation tape in one area suggesting a loom chop or wiring repairs. As I explained in an earlier blog post on engine conversions, dodgy wiring can cause a host of problems that will be near impossible to fix.
Once that's done you want to start it up. From cold preferably (if the car is already running or the engine is warm when you get there that's a bad sign- it likely has starting issues that the seller is trying to cover up or it may have a knock from cold which is a sign there's excessive wear in the engine). Make a note on what colour fumes come out of the exhaust when it starts up. Blue fumes means it's burning oil or if it's really black and sooty it may be overfuelling.
Have a good listen to the engine and rev it up. How does it sound? It should rev smoothly with no hesitating or misfiring.
If the car doesn’t run when you view it you shouldn’t assume that it ever will and allow for an engine in your budget. If it doesn’t end up needing an engine that’s fantastic, but if you can’t physically see the car running you never know.
3) Take the Car for a Test Drive
No, not to imagine how great you’re going to feel owning this car but to figure out what else is wrong with it mechanically, if anything
A Checklist of Things to Consider When You're Test Driving a Car
4) Get an Expert In
We may like to think we know it all, but it's hard to deny that someone who looks at stuff like this every day for a living could spot something dodgy in seconds that you might miss.
I’ve got a lot better at seeing problems now just by spending so much time around (rotten, knackered) cars but it would always impress me how Mat could see things on vehicles that other people couldn’t (this is why people always want him to help them buy cars).
We once had a vehicle in the workshop that Mat told me and the owner had been seriously bodged up and would be rusting through by next year. The guy had just bought it and it looked fantastic, freshly painted (and, naturally, the owner wasn’t very pleased to hear this!) But sure enough, when we saw it again in a few months’ time there was filler pushing out all over on it and rust in the seams.
So do consider taking someone else with you who knows what they’re looking at, the £50 spent now could save you a hell of a lot down the line.
5) Make Your Final Assessment (and Maybe a Cheeky Offer)
After you’ve done a thorough assessment of the entire vehicle and got a second opinion it’s time to weigh things up, being realistic about both what you can expect to get for your money and whether you can handle how much work needs to be done.
While I want you to know exactly what areas of your potential project car are going to require attention, you shouldn’t tear a car apart because it doesn’t look like it just rolled out of the factory.
It is a project, after all.
That being said you need to compare this car to other ones out there in a similar condition. If it's cheap why is that? Or if it's more expensive could you make a deal?
Even if it is expensive and the seller won't budge on the price it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t buy the car. After all, there are plenty of other hobbies people spend money on that they never see again, why should restoring a car be any different?
Restoring a car just because you think it will be worth a fortune one day probably isn’t the best motive to have, and if you go into a car project focused only on the money aspect you’re not likely to enjoy it that much, especially when things get tough.
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