This isn’t our project car. In spite of us wanting a ’73 Road Runner really bad, we passed on this rust pile. Lesson: Don’t let strong emotions take control over your hard-earned cash.
I’ve been wanting to pull off a cool weekend resto story like this month’s ’68 Valiant for a long time. For starters, you’ve got to find the right car. We could only afford something inexpensive, which means not a ’69 Camaro or Chevelle. That alone puts fear into the management types, who like to see popular makes and models on the cover of every issue. When I found the ’68 Valiant on this month’s cover, it was a stretch, but it passed muster in the long run because it was cheap, it had the potential to be cool, it ran, it didn’t have a lot of road rash, and the paint looked all there, albeit faded.
The search for the Valiant was a lot of fun, and since I’ve gone into detail about that in a previous column, I’ll just say that hunting for a new project car is one of the greatest adventures you can have in this hobby, especially if you’re doing it in one of your existing project cars. Most of the time I went to look at cars, I drove my ’75 Laguna. Not only was it a lot of fun, but it reinforced the notion that I’d see the light of day with whatever new toy I got. It also made me think about those things I’d change or do differently if I had the chance. One thing the Laguna reminded me of is that it’s a whole lot easier to get running if you buy a car with a solid body and as little rust as possible. The Laguna was such a car, and basically ended up needing only a scuff and shoot. We only had to replace a small area of rust in the right-side door—about the size of a pack of cigarettes. The rest was cake.
As in the hunt for the Laguna, the search for what would turn out to be the Valiant was also fraught with rust. The rust wasn’t so bad actually—no, the thing that made it suck more than anything was the lie that was told with it. In a perfect world, you tell me there’s rust in a car, you point to it and say, “rust.” I point at it and say, “Yep, rust.” We acknowledge it, price it accordingly, and both of us go on and live life. But no. The ad gets placed with the words “rust free.” Eyeballs bulging and tongue hangin’ out like an Ed Roth cartoon, I burn rubber to see it, only to find rust in the shape of a car. After three or four false alarms, I got a little discouraged. I knew the right car was out there, and until I found it, nobody was getting his hands on my stash of cash. That’s when something obvious hit me.
Buying a project car is nothing more than a game of long odds. Most everything is crap, but if you look at enough cars over a long enough time, the odds are in your favor that a cream puff at a killer price is going to come your way, especially in this economy. You just have to be in a position to take advantage of it, which means look at a ton of cars and have your cash ready. If you can’t find a good car at the right price, you haven’t looked long or hard enough. Think about it like this: If you go to Las Vegas and stand at the roulette wheel, sooner or later “00” is going to come up. It’s 37-to-1 odds, and the payout is 35-to-1, so over the long haul you’re going to lose money. But what if you didn’t have to put your money down on a bet until after you saw the number? That’s exactly what you’re doing when you buy a project car. You get to see the number before you place the bet!
Sellers love to browbeat buyers with words like “last chance,” “rare,” and “someone else is coming over to look at it in an hour.” My advice, don’t let that shake you. Hold your ground. Run your own race. There are literally a million classic cars that are for sale at this moment, and that million will turn into a different million a month from now. Dude, if you have the cash, you are Chucky in charge.
Rust is better known in the worlds of physics and chemistry as “entropy.” What started out as fresh, strong hot steel from a Pennsylvania mill has withered away into disarray, sliding down that long hill from beautiful order into ugly chaos. Considering all the oxidized, battered, twisted, mangled cars for sale, you’d think all old cars would befall an identical fate, yet they don’t. You drive through the countryside and sometimes see hulks so rusted, you wonder if they are even cars at all. But other times, you see pristine barn finds, or survivor cars in estate sales. Hmm, maybe all old cars aren’t the same? The fact is, the law of entropy guarantees that some cars will rust heavily, and others will rust lightly—some very lightly. Mathematicians call that a Gaussian distribution—a bell curve. And its shape is all around us, even manifesting itself in buyers who are smart, average, and stupid.
Now let’s go back to our magical roulette table, the one where we get to place our bet after we see the number. We’ll call it Craigslist. We know from entropy that most of the numbers coming up on the Craigslist roulette wheel are going to be crap. But we don’t have to put money down on bets we don’t like! So we wait until a car comes up that’s a couple of standard deviations better than the means (translation: a car that’s really and truly mostly rust free). If that car isn’t a highly sought-after model, we can actually get it for a song. In fact, the laws of physics and statistics virtually ensure that this opportunity will present itself to you at some point—the question is, will you be in a position to take advantage of it?