The letter below is like many we've gotten over the years that bemoan the increasing cost of project cars:

"I have been buying your mag for many years, and I understand that you guys write all kinds of stories about cars. Between the Meacum and Barret-Jackson auctions, they killed the car industry. They have overpriced cars beyond what I could ever pay for them. Chances of me ever being able to drive one of these cars is dead. Twenty years ago we could walk up with $10 grand and drive off with a nice ride. Today that's what it costs for a new set of rims and tires. You see, if they can afford $100 grand for a car, then they can afford to buy other overpriced parts, and guys like me have to go to the junkyard for scraps to put them together. What's next? Million-dollar mopeds?" —Johnny Lam, New Hyde Park, NY

Reader Johnny Lam points out that auction prices have gone through the roof, and whether you believe it's due to the high visibility of the auctions on TV or the increasing gap between the haves and the have-nots, one thing is clear: The days of the cherry 1969 Camaro for $8K are over for good. One thing missed by this reader is that the reason some cars are so pricey is that everyone wants one of them. If these cars weren't in such high demand, the auctions wouldn't be selling them at such a high price. The reality is, we're all to blame for these cars being so expensive. So what do you do when you've got less than $10 grand to spend?

There are three invaluable tips we can give in this department, and they just happened to coincide with our recent trip to the Goodguys show in Scottsdale, Arizona, and with the release date of this issue:

1. Open your mind to alternative cars. Not every muscle car needs to be a 1969 Camaro. Sadly, other less iconic cars are going up in price too, so you'll want to look at alternatives like wagons, four-doors, sedans versus coupes, posts versus hardtops, larger platform cars instead of midsized ones, oddballs, and model years that fall outside the most desirable ones. At the end of the day, they are all lovable and steeped in nostalgia, and something is sure to trip your trigger.

2. Look in the right place. The shore, the swamp, the rain belt, the snowbelt, and the rustbelt are places that have been particularly cruel to cars. Even moderate Midwest climates over time dish out huge punishment to quarter-panels, doors, frames, trunks, and floorboards. Far and away the best place to find a lot of good project car candidates is the Southwest, particularly Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada, western Texas, and California. Finding a rust-free car should be at the top of your list, even above scoring good running gear and paint. If not, you'll be doing a lot of rust repair. (Read Christopher Campbell's story "Perfect Patch Panels!" on p. 54 to see if rust repair is your new favorite thing to do.)

3. Pay attention to the calendar. The time to buy a project is late in the winter, not late spring or summer. Christmas bills pile up, tax time is just around the corner, and there aren't any car shows or races going on. Many cars in all conditions of readiness find their way up for sale at this time, and there are relatively few buyers looking—all for the same reasons. Use this season to your advantage because in a few months it will be a seller's market.

In the past, we've hit up the Pomona Swap Meet to bring you similar "project deal" stories, but in recent years the quality of cars there at good prices has deteriorated. Pomona is where all the high-rollers from Asia go to do their shopping, so Pomona is a bone that has pretty much been picked dry, or priced out of contention. Also, the L.A. area is close to the shore, so a good number of SoCal cars are no better off than your typical rust bucket from Rochester or Pittsburgh. The only place you can be reasonably assured of a rust-free car is when it's from the desert.

So here we are in bone-dry Scottsdale, Arizona, in the middle of winter at one of the biggest car shows in the region. And not to rub it in, the weather was great, just like it always is. As luck would have it, the Goodguys swap meet at Scottsdale is at WestWorld—the same place Barrett-Jackson does its auction business—only now there were no TV cameras, no high-paid "hostesses," and no VIP open bars to loosen those wallets. There were just miles of rust-free cars of all stripes, sold by mostly older guys with bills to pay. And while there were plenty of super perfect 1969 Camaros and the like that were all out of our $10K price limit, we zoomed in on the coolest, most affordable stuff. And just for the record, the next Goodguys show at Scottsdale is March 7, 2014. For reader Johnny Lam, round-trip flights from JFK to Phoenix start around $340. Now you have no excuse! Here's what we found ...


The Mustang Shell Game

Both of these cars are 1968 Mustangs—one a coupe, the other a fastback. The green one, a running car that has been meticulously kept, that has no rust, and that has a great newer paintjob should be the more expensive car because it's way nicer, right? Nope. The demand for fastback Mustangs has pushed them into the stratosphere, so the white one is more, and not by a little either. What's the premium for the fastback? Hold on to your hats—the white one is $9,600 extra ($17,500 versus $7,900), and it needs another $5K in paintwork and interior to make it as nice as the green one. So ask yourself next time you shop for a classic Mustang: Is it really worth the extra coin for a fastback?

The difference in desirability between different body styles of the same model plays out all over the hobby. Some notable examples: Olds Cutlass Supreme (formal roofline) versus Olds Cutlass S or 442 (fastback), '67 Chevy II Nova SportsRoof versus two-door post sedan, and fullsized Chevy Impala (two-door post sedan versus hardtop). In fact, in every case we can think of where a SportsRoof hardtop or fastback roof exists alongside a formal roof or a post roof, the swoopy hardtop will always command way more money.