Build Your Own Classic Car There has never been a better time to build a muscle car project. The availability of aftermarket parts, crate motors, disc brake kits and other upgrades make almost anything possible. The other plus is the relative low cost of these parts. One can literally start with a bare shell and build a complete top notch car using aftermarket/new parts exclusively. The sky's the limit!!
Another plus with these older era rigs is the simplicity of the cars themselves. They are much easier to work on or build than the newer stuff. No emissions, electronic fuel injection, abs brakes, air bags or any other advanced systems that require extensive specialized training. All the non-sense is outta the way!!
With sites like eBay and Craigslist, there are tons of sources to find solid project cars. You can find just about any make/model imaginable without a lot of effort.
Choosing A Make and Model:
One of the coolest aspects of this whole car building business is choosing your project. You may want to build a numbers matching 100% correct car and re-create a piece of automotive history, or you may want to get an old "mongrel" for cheap and play the creative angle to build something unique. Cost is a big factor here, a highly sought after numbers matching rig is gonna be much more expensive to acquire and build than an old "grocery getter", but both have advantages.
Comparatively, a 1969 RS/SS numbers matching Camaro is gonna fetch top dollar if done well, if being at the top of the food chain is important to you. The same 1969 Camaro with a puny 327/powergide that was never anything more than a basic model is obviously going to cost less initially and be easier to find than the "top dog".
I think the lower model is more fun to build because the sky's the limit. It was never anything special to begin with, so it's really a blank canvas that can be cloned or modified with any crazy mods/upgrades. The engine, tranny, color, pretty much any variable is possible. You really can't do that with an advanced model without de-valuing it.
Wheelin' and Dealin':
There are running, driving cars that need a little tlc, or there are absolute basket cases out there that can be had for cheap. It depends on the amount of ambition you have. I prefer the basket cases for lots of reasons.
The main reason is there are lots of 'em laying around. Lots of guys start these projects with a lot of enthusiasm, but eventually get in over their heads. They don't have the money or the expertise to see the project through to the end, and it becomes a nightmare. It's not unusual to find projects that come with tons of new parts and killer stuff that cost a small fortune, and now the owner just wants it all gone. If a car on jackstands in someones garage disassembled in a billion little pieces doesn't scare you, there are very good deals out there for you.
Assessing The Condition:
The number one thing i look at when assessing any project is structural condition. Look at the frame rails, suspension mounts, crossmembers etc. for damage or rot. Measure the frame diagonally to be sure the frame isn't crooked. Measure from the cowl area to the outer corner of the radiator support to ensure it's dimensionally correct. It doesn't have to measure "dead-nuts" on, but if there's obvious heavy damage you should find it early.
The good news is that any possible damage is fixable! Just because there is a 2 inch square hole rusted through the rear frame rail doesn't mean the car should go to the crusher!! If fact, the more problems you find are just ammunition you can use to get a lower purchase price. DON'T BE AFRAID OF DAMAGE/RUST! It's all fixable.
Look at door hinges and latches. Window regulators. Dashboard wiring. Is the fuel tank dented? Is all the door glass tinted the same? Has someone hacked up the car in any way to do some freaky custom stuff? Are all the nuts/bolts/fasteners there? Brackets? These are often overlooked details that can be a royal pain to deal with later.
It should go without saying to be sure the title is clear. Previously wrecked cars can be re-titled as "salvage" vehicles. This doesn't mean the car is really damaged beyond repair, it means that the insurance company determined that the cost to repair the car at the time of the damage/accident exceeded the value, so it was "totalled". For example if you owned a 1967 Dodge Dart in that was damaged in 1981, it wouldn't take much damage to exceed "book value" on what was at that time a run-of-the-mill grocery getter.
This affects re-sale value more than anything else, it is a mild deterrent from buying the car, but again, it's leverage to negotiate. If you never plan to sell the car, re-sale value wouldn't be an issue.
It's very possible to spend years looking for a "perfect project". The problem with that type of conservative thinking is that you'll never find anything "perfect". At some point, you have to stop picking every prospective car to death and jump into the game. For example, is a carved up dashboard really going to be the difference in a successful build and a life altering nightmare? It doesn't take long on any project to find surprises, dealing with them without catastrophising them is the difference in cars that get finished and old rustbuckets on jackstands. A finished car with flaws is worth more than a car that'll be perfect someday. There's an old saying in business: At some point it is necessary to shoot the engineers and begin production.
Calculating The Cost To Finish The Build:
This is where most would-be projects go wrong. You should have a clear idea of what it's all gonna cost before you even look at a car. The bad news is these projects can get out of control really quick if you're not careful. The good news is there are lots of good sources for parts, and catalogs to job-cost the project.
A good first time project would be to just re-condition an old rig without a lot of upgrades. You can expand your skills with really super trick stuff after a few builds. It doesn't take long before you'll be able to build about anything you want.
Here's an example of a basic budget for a simple recondition project:
Initial purchase: $4000
Sheetmetal/body parts: $350
Paint/body materials: $800
Rebuild brakes: $175
Rebuilt engine/longblock: $1000
Engine add-ons: $1350
(headers, holley carb, HEI ignition,
trick valve covers, etc.)
Drivetrain upgrades: $300
(u-joints, tranny cooler, steering
Bumpers/trim mouldings: $1000
Interior Kit: $800
Misc surprises: $1000
Est cost to build: $12,110
Building these cars is a real kick, there is nothing like rescuing an old car with your own hands. The only way to learn to do this is to just get a project and go for it. The good news is it's not that difficult. A willingness to get your hands dirty goes a lot further than high mechanical ability. Someone with basic mechanical aptitude can certainly build a musclecar.
18 wheeler driving musclecar guru. Residing in the pacific northwest.