When you’re a hot rodder, it’s easy to get caught up and carried away when you go look at a project and act on passion and impulse. After all, you’re going to look at it because it’s a car you want to build. It represents a dream, a goal, or an idea that you want to fulfill. But the reality check is important. We’re here to tell you that you gotta be able to look at the car clinically to accurately assess its pros and cons. If you let your emotions get the better of you, you’ll override your common sense and end up getting burned.
Trust us, we’ve been there. It’s very rare for us to throw up our hands in defeat on a project, but we recently discovered that one of our in-house project cars had way more inherent damage than we were prepared to fix. Some stuff just goes too far. That’s why elsewhere in this issue you’ll see the EcoNova sporting a different color—because it’s a different car. Thankfully fourth-gen Novas are relatively cheap, and quick math told us that the amount of money it would take to fix the body and chassis of the previous project far eclipsed what it would cost us to just start over with a better car. So in our case, it’s the same project, same theme and goals, just a different roller now.
Don’t make the same mistake we did, though. We barely scraped ourselves out of a big mess by not assessing the project properly beforehand. The secret is to remain as coolheaded and impartial as possible and watch for the telltale signs. To show you what we mean, we headed out to the renowned Pomona Swap Meet in Pomona, California, to browse through a few hundred project cars for sale. We spent a couple hours in the ’50s and ’60s corral and spotted plenty of examples of what appeared to be great cars, but were harboring some major obstacles to be tackled during the course of a build. So take a moment and check out these oh-so-common types of damage, and hopefully you’ll look at your next potential project with more critical eyes.
While it is sporting a 289 underhood, and the windshield sign even exclaims V-8, a closer inspection reveals it’s actually a swapped six-banger car. The four-lug wheels are a dead giveaway, but there are plenty of other clues as well. Engine swaps aren’t a deal breaker on their own, but they need to be done completely and correctly otherwise you could find yourself backtracking rather than moving forward. For example, this car still had the six-banger spec rearend, suspension, and brakes. If you’re planning on swapping all of that for aftermarket stuff anyway, then the point may be moot—but either way there will be parts swapping to be done. Also worth noting: in general, ex-six-banger cars are not worth as much as true V-8 cars, so the price should reflect that.
Supposedly GM denoted vinyl roof cars based on the quality of the roof-to-body seams; the bad ones were just covered up. In any event, vinyl roof cars are always suspect since the material tends to trap moisture next to the sheetmetal and cause severe rusting. Typically roof rust issues won’t be quite as obvious as they were on this Impala, but the crunchy bubbles are what you’re looking for—and they’re always worse than they look. Rust that has gotten to a point where it can be seen under the vinyl is nearly guaranteed to require patching, which is extremely difficult on the complex curvature of a roof. At minimum, you’re looking at peeling the vinyl off and making repairs, possibly to the point of re-skinning the whole roof. Don’t forget to include removing the trim and filling in the holes if you don’t plan to replace the vinyl top.
Speaking of rust that is always worse than it looks, a rust hole in an area where water doesn’t collect means major hidden issues. This ’63 Dart has a rust hole on the cowl, but that hole had to have started from the inside out since water can’t collect on this surface. We’re likely looking at cowl and A-pillar rust, and possibly around the windshield as well. After this hole formed it also made a handy entrance point for water, which means everything directly below it needs to be inspected as well. We followed the trail down to a rusted-out fender and wheelwell.
VIN numbers, that is. This ’67 Mustang fastback seemed like a fairly solid project, but our concern was that the driver-side inner apron of the engine bay is missing. On ’64½-67 Mustangs that’s one of the spots where the VIN number is located, along with the driver-side door. Ford didn’t start adding them to a plate on the dash structure visible through the windshield until 1968. That doesn’t mean this car is unregisterable, but it would be wise to double-check and make sure that it not only has a VIN somewhere that matches a title (doors get swapped all the time without VIN plates being properly changed), but also that the VIN is not already in use by another car. We’ve seen it happen before, and it gets ugly.
Identity is important when buying a muscle car since the trim level can make all the difference in price. Good ’69 Z/28 Camaros command a premium over base-model cars, and they’re unfortunately quite easy to fake. When it comes to identifying first-gen Z/28 Camaros, the first thing to check is the engine and its codes and dates since there are no clues in the VIN that denote a Z/28 package. All had 302ci engines (two-bolt main in ’67 and ’68, four-bolt in ’69) with a suffix code MO or MP in ’67, MI or MO in ’68, and DZ in ’69. They also all had four-speed Muncies, power front disc brakes, 12-bolt rearends, and none had A/C. If the original engine is missing, verification may not be possible though.
Rust isn’t the only thing to take into consideration body-wise; wavy panels can be almost as time consuming and expensive to correct. In most cases lots of slide hammer work, hammer and dolly, block sanding, and filler will be required since severely deformed sheetmetal is nearly impossible to get back to level. This Dart didn’t seem to have a spot of rust in it, but it also didn’t have a single straight panel. We’d rather deal with wavy steel versus rust any day, so for the right price it could still be a good project option. Just make sure to account for a significantly larger investment in paint and body when negotiating the price.
This one is a bit more obvious since the fist-sized rust holes are staring you right in the face, but always remember that however much rust you can see, there’s always more that’s hidden. This ’70 Road Runner was a 383ci/727 trans car with A/C and had a long list of nice new parts, but it was completely negated by the fact that it needed major quarter-panel patching, new rockers, doorskins, floorpans, and front fender patches on both sides. Unless you’re in love with a particular car or don’t mind doing tons of metalwork, these are almost always cars to pass on.
The discoloration on this package tray is a sure indication of a leaky rear window. If you’re lucky, the cardboard soaked up most of the moisture, but it definitely warrants a look inside the trunk and under the rear seat.
Unless it’s from the Atacama Desert, any convertible project with a top that looks like this has been accumulating water over the years. Floorpans and seat frames are, of course, the most obvious thing to check for rust, but don’t forget to also check the condition of the dash since the instruments, controls, and wiring have been exposed to the elements as well. Also, the condition of the top frame itself should be inspected since restoring them can be pricey and the joints rust solid easily.
On the extreme end of the scenario are cars like this ’64 Impala. While the body was decent, especially for a roofless ragtop, it was a case of “what you see is what you get.” And what you got wasn’t much— especially for $14K. If you’re going full custom, this may not be an issue, but any type of restoration requiring stock-style parts would be a major undertaking and would knock this Imp off the list of candidates in our book. If you do decide to go this route, success will depend on you already being an expert in restoring the model of car in question.
The number-one overlooked aspect of any restoration is the interior. That’s a shame too because it’s also one of the most time consuming—especially if you happen to fall in love with an off-the-radar car with little reproduction support like this ’67 Barracuda S. There’s nothing left in this interior that’s usable and until recently, almost nothing for these A-Bodies was reproduced. Always make a list of what a potential project is going to need and check it against new or used parts availability.
Here’s the thing about old race cars: They were only meant to be race cars. While your mind sees an incredible $1,500 price tag for a ’57 Chevy and gets really excited, this is one to approach with extreme caution. Race cars are not meant to be nice cars and the work that was put into them will lean heavily toward function over form. That’s a nice way of saying most of them are going to be hacked up and tacked together.
Vintage cars were never perfectly gapped from the factory like modern cars, but panel fitment like this with widely varying gaps is a sure sign that the front clip has not only been off the car, but there may be hidden damage preventing proper alignment. At a minimum, the panels have probably been swapped out. That doesn’t sound so bad, but even original sheetmetal doesn’t always work well from one car to another and getting the gaps in check may be difficult or impossible. Best-case scenario, a few hours of gapping could cure everything.
It’s hard to find a classic car that hasn’t had some sort of damage over the decades, but it’s the area affected that can make the difference. This early Mustang had fresh sheetmetal hung over a badly damaged core support and inner apron, but the shock towers, framerails, and suspension appeared untouched. While it will require some parts sourcing, this type of damage can be completely repaired with little effort and no lasting effects. In general, low-speed type of damage such as this and damage to areas that can be unbolted and replaced are often safe—damage to the chassis or unibody is much more severe and will require a qualified frame shop to repair.
Old repairs are the worst repairs; we’d almost rather just have the rust or damage. The thing to remember here is that for a very long time muscle cars were just cheap used cars considered just as disposable as a modern commuter. You can be sure that any repairs performed during that period of time were slapdash. This decades-old filler on a quarter-panel, for example, was applied right over the rust and damage. If you spot stuff like this popping up, you can count on many more hidden surprises.
This was actually a very nice looking little Chevy II with good parts and nice paint, but it did exhibit one of our red flags: obvious reapplication of several paintjobs. A paint thickness magnet could give you a good guess as to how many paintjobs are piled on top of one another, but if you’re without that useful tool, another way to spot this is to pay attention to body lines and reliefs. These two cutouts should be quite sharp, but the many layers of paint have softened the edges. This isn’t necessarily a deal breaker, but definitely something worth considering and bringing up.
We’ve all seen the quickie respray cars that are dolled up with cheap paint splashed over who knows what to try and lure the unsuspecting to a quick sale. This one was exactly that, a car that appeared to have not run in years, but had a fresh (but poorly applied) coat of Dukes of Hazzard orange, and Vector wheels that had a steady stream of daydreamers gliding over picturing a big “01” on the door. Beware of any seller who’s relying on emotional reaction for a sale and go over cars like this with a fine-tooth comb.
This one is in the same line of thought as the quickie respray; hose down the dirty old engine with a multitude of cheap chrome parts and fake braided line to create the illusion of a hot rod engine. Look closely and you’ll notice it’s a stock smog-era engine probably sporting a couple hundred horsepower at very best. But at least it has headers. The lesson here is always assume the engine is worthless unless proven otherwise with receipts and a testdrive that impresses you. We heard this one run; it was making more than one suspicious noise.