You've got the motivation, you've got the space, and you've got some cash, so the next step is to find that special car to fill the void in your garage. As exciting as a new project can be, don't let your emotions rule your wallet. Take a step back and look at what you're signing up for.
Today is the day you're going to (attempt to) pick your project; that's why you've come to the Pomona Swap Meet here in Southern California. It isn't unusual to see people from around the world walking the aisles. Just as the East Coast has Carlisle and Englishtown, we've got Pomona. The Pomona meet occurs seven times a year, though if you've been, you would think it's an annual event considering the immense number of attendees. One of the main events you'll want to look at is the Show and Sale section. There are hundreds of cars for sale covering everything from the '20s through the mid-'70s.
With all the choices, you need to step back for a second and think about what you want. The best advice we can give you is to have an open mind. If you're stuck on a '69 Camaro, be prepared to pay handsomely, but if you're OK with a '73 Firebird or '67 Cougar, you'll be amazed at the affordable possibilities. If you're stumped, and don't know where to turn for ideas, take a look at some of the designers we're featuring in this month's "Draw It!" story. A quick look at this story may convince you that a car you might not give a second thought to--like a '75 Laguna--can actually be a really cool car. Like we said, keep an open mind!
When shopping, there are three major concerns: the cost, your abilities, and your time frame. Figuring a budget for your build is no easy task, but it can be divided into two parts. One is the initial cost of the car, with the other being the cost to complete it. When searching for a project car, I really wanted to buy a fastback Mustang. Unfortunately, the prices of fastbacks reserve most of them for the wealthy. I spotted several fastbacks and coupes at Pomona; some were in great condition, some not. We've found that you can get a coupe in great shape for less than half the price of a fastback. If Mustangs are your thing, and you're looking for a running car on a budget, you just might be bringing home a coupe instead. Another factor behind the price tag is condition. You'll have the choice of buying a car that needs work for a lower initial cost, or a driver that's ready to go. That brings us to our second variable: personal ability. If you've got fabrication skills and have many of the necessary tools (as seen in our "Build It!" story), you could save money and do the work yourself. Maybe "builder" isn't in your resume, and you're looking to go cruising next weekend. In that case, a ground-up project isn't the best idea.
We walked the show, looking for cars in all different conditions and budgets, and came up with quite a spread. Each of them has pros and cons, and we thought it would be cool to show you the best and the worst. Yeah, we know; these cars may not be applicable for you, but it should give you a good idea of what's out there, how much things cost here in California, and what danger signs to look for in your hunt for a fresh project!
1970 Ford Mustang Coupe
This little number is a perfect example of a car that's ready for a quick scuff-and-shoot paintjob. It only has a small amount of surface rust, which can easily be removed with a DA sander in a matter of minutes. What this surface rust shows us is that the paint it wears today is the paint it came from the factory with. When you can see down to the metal like you can on this car's hood and roof, and no panels are shinier than others, it's safe to assume the car has no hidden damage or has ever been repainted. The for-sale sign claims the car has working original A/C and a good running engine for $3,600, which is a good deal in our book.
1965 Chevy Nova Straight-Six
Being open to buying a six-cylinder car can be helpful in your search, since there are so many of them out there, and the price tags are lower. If you need to have an original V-8 car, or a special trim package, a straight-six isn't the car for you, but if you want to cut it up, what difference does it make? This is an original six-cylinder '65 Nova that runs and drives and is currently registered with black California plates. A current registration is good proof that you won't be slammed with unexpected fees from the DMV. The rusty dust cap protruding from the steel wheel hints that the suspension and brakes have never been touched and the car's waiting to be transformed into a track monster.
1969 Ford Mustang Mach 1
The Mach 1 was introduced by Ford as an in-between model, a step up from the GT model, and a step below the Boss. This particular Mach 1 was the least expensive fastback we saw that came with an engine at $13,000. This Mustang appears to have factory paint that desperately needs to be replaced. Remember to factor this into your budget.
1967 Pontiac Firebird Stocker
So you've hunted the aisles and found you just can't afford a first-gen Camaro, but you love the F-body cars. One option is to trade the Bow Tie for a Poncho. This '67 Firebird has an original 400 backed by the very desirable M-22 rock-crusher four-speed trans, and it only has 73,000 miles on it. It does need a paintjob, but it's straight as can be, and is ready for primer. The asking price of $15,000 was pretty high for a 'Bird, so after we made a trip to eBay.com to find a similar car, we found this exact one up for bid starting at $11,000--a more realistic price.
1966 Ford Mustang Coupe Roller
If you intend on starting and completing your project in your home's garage, this '66 Mustang coupe is a great option. The hard part has already been done: the paint and bodywork. Diving into bodywork can be a can of worms, especially if you lack experience. This car is a blank canvas with no motor, transmission, or interior. It can be a drag race car, a Pro Touring car, or a mild restomod destined for the steamy pages of Hot Rod; the possibilities are endless. The price on this '66 is $1,600. Getting a car painted can easily cost three times that, and this one is a roller. It wouldn't surprise us if this car didn't last more than a couple of hours at the meet.
1972 Chevy El Camino Project
This one was kind of a head-scratcher. Being a '72, it's not the most ideal year, and it's got some pretty substantial body damage, making us wonder why the price tag is $6,000. A similar condition Chevelle would fetch that price easily, but some Elky sellers think they ought to get the same deal, and it ain't even close. The motor had some nice parts on it, but not quite enough to justify the price and condition. If you're looking for a car like this at a better price, taking the number down and calling just before the show closes might be a good strategy. Note to seller: Unless this is a hidden treasure, a lower price may be worth taking to avoid dragging it back down for the next swap meet.
1965 Ford Mustang Fastback
This ex-racer '65 Fastback Mustang is great if you've got more time than money and are set on owning an authentic fastback Mustang. Taking on a project like this requires a pretty well-established shop at home, and the time and skill for major fabrication work, or a professional shop who can take it on for you. There is no motor in this car, but it does come with a four-speed trans, four-wheel disc brakes, 9-inch rear end, and most of the body for $11,500. When you see major body damage or panel replacement on a car that has been raced, take a look under and see if the frame has any missing paint or cracks that would show a deeper injury. Pointing these out can sometimes sway the seller down.
1968 Chevy Camaro
Just past the disco Firebird with the 20-inch rims was this cute '68 Camaro, my favorite. This is what we've been looking for, an original '68 Camaro that runs and drives for under $13,000. A closer look revealed a couple of major issues that will cost quite a bit to repair down the road. Our first concern was the cut-and-glue sunroof. While at home on a later-model T-top Camaro, it didn't quite sit well on this first-gen. Welding a patch on a large flat panel like the roof is extremely difficult and time consuming. The other item was the paint. The emblems were not removed when the car was repainted. Not only does this tell us there most likely is hidden damage, but the painter didn't even take the time to remove the emblems before spraying the paint. Makes you wonder what other short cuts were taken. If this was anything else besides a first-gen Camaro, it would be a lousy deal, but because it's so sought after, it's actually a fairly good price.
1973 Plymouth 'Cuda Resto
The Mopar boys are sure proud of their cars! This extremely clean '73 Plymouth 'Cuda with fresh silver paint on the body and undercarriage tips the scale at $35,000. It's got a 340-inch motor and four-speed, but seems to be lacking many other parts. There was no interior, front or back glass, or headlight bezels. This to us sounds like someone ran out of steam or money and wants to unload their project. That can be a good thing, as this seller probably has more than the asking price into the car by now. Consider in your budget how much it will cost to make this car a driver before making an offer.
1966 Ford Mustang 289 Coupe
Here is a good example of paying slightly more for an original V-8 car: Is it important to you, or not so much? This one was selling for $6,500 in reasonable condition--that's almost $3,000 more than our own Project Street Fighter that is the same year, but came with a running straight-six. Our plans were to replace this paperweight, letting the $3,000 go to fund fast parts. If you don't want to change the motor in this factory car, the price may be right. Keep one thing in mind: The price is always negotiable. Be careful around vinyl top cars; they are notorious for being rusty under their skin. This one could go either way.
1972 Chevy Vega Lightweight
So you've set out for a Nova or a Chevelle to build up with drag-strip dreams, but the price tag is a little high. This flyweight is already done, so don't overlook a Vega as your next drag car project. Vegas are less expensive and much lighter, making then shamefully easy to get into the 10s with a modest small-block. This one had no price tag and no owner nearby, but it sure tickled the senses. Also, the entire GM H-body line from 1975 to 1980 (Chevy Monza, Olds Starfire, Buick Skyhawk, and Pontiac Sunbird) make excellent lightweight performers, and shouldn't be ignored.
The chip along the door line here shows exactly how many layers of paint there are on this car. They talk about mile-deep clear as a good thing, but in general, mile-deep paint is prone to chipping and is a lot more difficult to level out for a new paintjob. It would require media or chemical blasting to remove the paint in a reasonable amount of time. (Editor's note: Many thick layers of old paint actually worked out in our favor with the '75 Laguna. Since the underlying metal was good, the extra layers of paint acted like multiple guidecoats, and allowed the car to be blocked very smooth with a minimum of labor.)
Who knows what's behind this Nova's coat of primer? All we know for sure is there is a lot of filler. A trick you can use to check the filler thickness is to drag a flexible refrigerator magnet over the surface. The more easily across the paint, the more filler is underneath. If it doesn't stick at all, you're in trouble. This would be helpful in determining if you are going to have to do a quarter-panel replacement or a simple leveling of the existing filler.
One sign of a quick-fix paintjob is when the inside surfaces of the body, such as the inside of the doors, underhood, and under the decklid, are left unsprayed. Spraying these areas is called jambing, and any decent painter will take the time to do it.