How do you buy your project cars–ready to run or a total train wreck?

By Colin Wood
Jul 18, 2021 | Project Cars

You love the thrill of buying a new project car.

For us, this usually means dragging home something in rough shape that hasn’t run in years.

Does that sound like your kind of project? Or do you prefer a clean, fully running car that you can drive home?

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EvanB GRM+ Memberand MegaDork
7/15/21 3:04 p.m.

I would prefer a clean, fully running car I can drive home. 


I end up buying trainwrecks. 

Trent PowerDork
7/15/21 3:15 p.m.

I buy running cars and turn them into trainwrecks

MadScientistMatt UltimaDork
7/15/21 3:37 p.m.

The last one I bought turned out to be both at once. I drove it home unaware that there was a tiny crack in the block which grew big enough to mean pulling the engine. And doing an LS swap. And after that was running around for a while, the transmission died.

preach (fs)
preach (fs) HalfDork
7/15/21 3:45 p.m.

My 914 fell into my lap, it still has yet to run. Train wreck.

My Opel drove home 80 miles with no issues. I don't want a lick of the drivetrain in it. Train wreck.

jgrewe HalfDork
7/15/21 4:59 p.m.

"Are you sure its a car?"

"Why are you taking it apart?"

Both phrases have been spoken in my general vicinity. They may have been directed at me specifically.

I will drag or drive anything back to my atelier.

untchabl Reader
7/15/21 5:15 p.m.

If I buy it, someone else decided that they were done with it. Sometimes it ends up being minor, sometimes it's a train wreck. Typically it seems my #1 criteria is that it doesn't run and requires being winched onto the trailer. I have learned my lesson and I avoid stuff that needs bodywork, I stick with mechanical issues.

Tom1200 SuperDork
7/15/21 5:31 p.m.

I bring home runners; my wife encouraged this because she saw how on happy I was with the one and only train wreck I dragged home.

I like driving cars not fixing them and while I enjoy small projects I do not enjoy large ones because that means the car will be down for months on end. I've got a 90 day window of attention span on non running vehicles. 

AClockworkGarage HalfDork
7/15/21 6:39 p.m.

I prefer running project cars. It may not be perfect but it moves under its own power. I'm far more likely to make a ton of small improvements while driving and enjoying the car than I am building a perfect car from the frame up.

volvoclearinghouse PowerDork
7/15/21 6:58 p.m.

I buy cars like I buy puzzles for my kids.  In 100 different pieces in a box.

Except with project cars, there's probably more than one box.

And some of the pieces are missing.

And there's no instructions.

And something will need to be welded. 

frenchyd UltimaDork
7/15/21 7:01 p.m.

In reply to Colin Wood :

I buy cars owned previously by Poseurs. Cosmetically they are shot. Mechanically they still have greatness in them.  Since racers remove everything not needed to go fast  I'm way ahead of the game. 

Woody (Forum Supportum)
Woody (Forum Supportum) GRM+ Memberand MegaDork
7/15/21 7:02 p.m.

I prefer my project cars to be complete, but I don't really care if they're running or not. That's the fun part for me. 

I have been known to drag home fractions of cars though. 

P3PPY Dork
7/15/21 7:55 p.m.

I had this habit for a while there - I went shopping for cars like I thought I was smarter than any old poor schmuck on Craigslist who'd given up on his car and was selling it for scrap price. Seriously, I'm such an optimist about cars, here's how it went:

1. look on Craigslist for sale by owner, "not running" or "won't start" (that's where the real GOOD deals are!) $750 or less

2. Look on google for pics of the car on hotrod condition, preferably with $2,000 wheels and a $40k paint job, go to bed that night daydreaming of how cool it would be 

3. Buy it, too cheapskate to throw money at it, limp it around for a while

4. offload

Honestly though, it turned out okay a few times, enough to embed the belief until my last two. Never was much for non-bolt-on body work though. I am not a "finesse" kind of person. 

Purple Frog (Forum Supporter)
Purple Frog (Forum Supporter) GRM+ Memberand HalfDork
7/15/21 8:06 p.m.

Most of the race cars I have bought, looked like the complete running cars the PO said they were.  So.. I took them home and did frame up builds before I raced them.   Turned out great.

The latest "big" project was started by a true craftsman who ran out of time and money (maybe 1/3 done, no engine etc.) .  I took over with both eyes wide open.  It was rewarding to both him and me when I had it finished and driving.

now, in more advanced age, will the next one be just a pile of parts, or something that  just needs buffing and wax?  wink

gearheadmb SuperDork
7/15/21 8:23 p.m.

Neon; broken timing belt, every valve bent

90 wrangler; burnt piston, it got a full engine overhaul 

65 mustang; complete basket case. Engine shot, no trans, no floors, the list goes on

Rallyx beretta; engine knocking and a suspension that was only there for decoration. 

My silverado was supposed to be a ready runner that turned into a surprise basket case. It got me home, but when I started inspecting it I realized every part of it was wore out or Jimmy rigged just enough to keep it moving. Ironically i probably had more money in getting it right than any of trainwreck cars.

APEowner GRM+ Memberand SuperDork
7/15/21 10:58 p.m.

I've done both extremes.  I have no desire to do another build that requires rust repair but otherwise I'm open to pretty much anything.  I'm actually thinking that my next build might start with steel tubing and rolls of carbon fiber fabric.

RichardSIA HalfDork
7/15/21 11:57 p.m.


Almost anything running and old enough to be of interest is just too expensive.

Latest purchase was supposed to be virtually turn-key to be a DD , it is not. 
Not a basket case as most are, but still a work in progress.

Everything else is either a major project based on production car shells/chassis or a simpler project starting from a pile of parts and my tube bender.


bgkast GRM+ Memberand PowerDork
7/16/21 1:56 a.m.

Mine came as bulk materials.

pirate HalfDork
7/16/21 8:20 a.m.

I've done both. The cars that are train wrecks offer more satisfaction when complete for me. I'm somewhat anal about cars and what and how the work has been done so like to do it myself and my way. I like the planning and work as much as the driving.

alfadriver GRM+ Memberand MegaDork
7/16/21 8:45 a.m.

Add another who have done both.

Of the 4 project cars we've bought, one was completed to competition (the Challenge car, and done with a LOT of help), one was finished to a single debug autocross and later sold (a GTV vintage racer), one got about 80% completed (Giuletta Sprint) then sold, one was disassembled and sold (Giuletta Spider Veloce).  

Of the 3 running Alfas we have bought- one was enjoyed for a vacation (where we bought it) and sold on ('88 Milano), one was used for DD use for almsot a decade ('94 164), and one was used for competition for 15 years and is now used for pleasure ('73 GTV).

No more project cars for me.  

gearheadE30 Dork
7/16/21 9:15 a.m.

I've had projects my whole life, with only a few exceptions. I'm trying to break the cycle because time has become my limiting factor by a huge margin, but damn it's hard to spend the money to buy a nice example of something.

Keith Tanner
Keith Tanner GRM+ Memberand MegaDork
7/16/21 9:25 a.m.

Are we talking about buying cars that are train wrecks on purpose or by accident?

Ian F (Forum Supporter)
Ian F (Forum Supporter) MegaDork
7/16/21 9:38 a.m.

I seem to buy running projects that stop running.  It's me that's the problem. Not the car. frown

WillG80 GRM+ Memberand Reader
7/16/21 10:01 a.m.

I bought a $200 Jag yesterday. Need I say more?


frenchyd UltimaDork
7/16/21 1:05 p.m.

In reply to WillG80 :

Great, which model ?  Will you race it?   

Ranger50 MegaDork
7/16/21 1:08 p.m.

I've had both. Most are trainwrecks though.

My Mustang GT was a running driving car when purchased. Current project, "just needed the motor replaced...". Simple 2.3 4cyl swap out easily done in a weekend, but "yeah I can easily swap in a v8 easily too!". That was 5 yrs ago and still no even close to finished.

WillG80 GRM+ Memberand Reader
7/16/21 1:50 p.m.
frenchyd said:

In reply to WillG80 :

Great, which model ?  Will you race it?   

That's the plan. It'll be a Gambler/Rallycross car. It's a 74 XJ6 without an engine. Condition of the transmission is unknown so I'll probably get tossed too. Currently shopping for (dirt cheap) drivetrains. 

RJStanford GRM+ Memberand New Reader
7/16/21 1:57 p.m.

The advantage to something that's running, albeit badly, is that you're far less likely to spend time and money chasing tiny little parts that have been lost in the boxes along the way.

NickD MegaDork
7/16/21 2:16 p.m.

Ready, running and driving. The less time spent doing bullE36 M3 like rust repair, getting it running and doing a bunch of maintenance, the sooner you can get into the fun stuff

AAZCD (Forum Supporter)
AAZCD (Forum Supporter) Dork
7/16/21 2:19 p.m.

I don't buy project cars. I buy parts cars then decide to fix them.

wspohn SuperDork
7/16/21 2:22 p.m.

I prefer them to be running as it is easier to properly assess them before I dismantle them and  rebuild them.

7/16/21 2:33 p.m.

I like to take the contents of the paper shredder and make my own pics and prose.

frenchyd UltimaDork
7/16/21 2:46 p.m.
WillG80 said:
frenchyd said:

In reply to WillG80 :

Great, which model ?  Will you race it?   

That's the plan. It'll be a Gambler/Rallycross car. It's a 74 XJ6 without an engine. Condition of the transmission is unknown so I'll probably get tossed too. Currently shopping for (dirt cheap) drivetrains. 

Well the XJ6 didn't come out until 1978. Oops, I'm wrong 1968. 
  In Any case unless the transmission is a manual just toss it. The old Borg Warner model 8 is practically worthless.  If it is a manual text me. And I can help you appraise  it. 
      As I understand rally cross  light weight and good power is desired. Durable and cheap  are also important. 
      Newer is better than older. 
 If you follow the herd you'll be just part of the pack.   There are some fantastic deals out there because nobody knows about them.  
   What you want is the mechanics out of a poseurs car. A guy who likes to drive around looking cool but doesn't abuse the car.  Once the car is scruffy or uncool looking  they are cheap.  Really cheap. 
   Because everybody following the herd "knows" about Chevy's Ford's etc.  the prices on those tend be high.  Plus very often really high mileage.  
     Jaguar's make a lot of power and can be cheaply modified to make even more. 
   Since the aluminum 4 valve Six cylinder of the 1990's and on is so reliable.   It's often  left in damaged cars and sold cheap.  Much cheaper.  It's very similar to the GM Atlas engine. Without the issues of the oil Pan and transmission weakness.  

350z247 Reader
7/17/21 9:46 a.m.

I refuse to buy someone else's mess. It's almost always cheaper and definitely easier to start with a well-maintained car.

slowbird UltraDork
7/17/21 3:26 p.m.

A little of column A and a little of column B. Sometimes in the same car. laugh

Apis Mellifera
Apis Mellifera Dork
7/17/21 3:59 p.m.

Judging by the latest Triumph TR3 pictured below, I seem to be drawn to projects of a particular type.  I wouldn't call it "ready to run".

Westbound None
7/17/21 7:23 p.m.

Bought one that was ready to run, went to change the front spindles and yeah needed to start tearing into all the rusted components (thanks New England!) now need to drop the front subframe and replace even more...  so like a lot of folks ended up being a rust repair project car

Jesse Ransom
Jesse Ransom GRM+ Memberand UltimaDork
7/17/21 8:08 p.m.

It soiled the trailer on the drive home.

Pete. (l33t FS)
Pete. (l33t FS) MegaDork
7/17/21 8:15 p.m.

Ready to run project car?

Pete. (l33t FS)
Pete. (l33t FS) MegaDork
7/17/21 8:16 p.m.
NickD said:

Ready, running and driving. The less time spent doing bullE36 M3 like rust repair, getting it running and doing a bunch of maintenance, the sooner you can get into the fun stuff

Buying a rust free non runner is waaaay cheaper than buying one that runs.

I'm too old and lazy to bother with rust repair unless I already own the car.  And even then.  *stares sourly at the RX-3 that frankly I am afraid to touch because of the A pillar rust*


My rust free RX-7 has some rust, in weird places like the hood and the scuttle panel near the left wiper pivot.  I might try to fix it, but in all likelihood I'll make it look worse.  The sunroof is also rusted out, but I have a Plexiglas one that I drive on the street with.  Perversely, I have to use the rusted out steel one when rallycrossing...

350z247 Reader
7/17/21 8:23 p.m.

In reply to Pete. (l33t FS) :

That's not entirely true. Buying other people's maintenance is usually a far better investment in time and money fixing avoidable problems. This is especially true at certain expensive or difficult milestones specific to each car (ex: timing chains).

Pete. (l33t FS)
Pete. (l33t FS) MegaDork
7/17/21 8:56 p.m.

In reply to 350z247 :

I bought a car with a stack of maintenance records an inch thick.  (GOOD ones.  Whoever maintained it used genuine Volvo parts)

In the past three years and, um, *counts on fingers* 70,000 miles, all it has needed was front struts a little bit ago.  And a few wheel bearings.  And front pads.  And control arms.  And a transmission unbork.  And, technically, four engine replacements, although two were garbage as-delivered and one of the others was really just me trying to repair the original failure, and failing.  That all was almost a year ago and I have done over 25k on the FOURTH ENGINE THAT STAYED UP.  AND THAT'S WHAT YOU'LL INHERIT, LAD, THE STRONGEST B524T5 ON THESE ISLES


But that's not a project car.  It's a "car".

Project cars, the last ones I bought were a nonrunner GTI, a nonrunner Quantum, a nonrunner RX-7, an RX-7 that technically ran but I went halfsies on the car and the other participant got major drivetrain bits....

damarble Reader
7/18/21 11:55 a.m.

The types of cars I take on are always very expensive and not configured to my liking if bought ready to drive. Instead I typically try to find a non-runner with a clean body, because that engine is more than likely being yanked anyway even it it ran.

RichardSIA HalfDork
7/19/21 7:07 p.m.

My last "Ready to run, drive it anywhere" is FINALLY back on the road again.
91 Buick Century that has been a cascade of issues at < 108,000 miles when I got it.
Now at 109,000 after a long list of "Minor" repairs. Most recent was new harmonic balancer assembly. No I did not buy the $300 special tool.

Reality is that pretty much any used car at a budget price IS a project, no matter what assurances the seller makes.

Sad thing is how many New cars are also projects, back to the dealer several times for poor assembly, faulty components, and recalls. 

llysgennad Reader
7/19/21 7:42 p.m.

My last 3 have been so far beyond bad they were literally given to me. For free. 

None of them run yet

Appleseed MegaDork
7/19/21 9:22 p.m.

Price ratio. How much a pile of crap it truly is is divided by the cost. Non-running 31 year old sportbike? Mmm...I

It has a title, keys, and it's only $300. Mmm-HELLS-YES!

yupididit GRM+ Memberand PowerDork
7/21/21 8:26 a.m.

I like to buy E36 M3 that doesn't run but once I get them running, I no longer have interest in them. Help. 

Pete. (l33t FS)
Pete. (l33t FS) MegaDork
7/21/21 8:48 a.m.
yupididit said:

I like to buy E36 M3 that doesn't run but once I get them running, I no longer have interest in them. Help. 

There's a club for that.  We meet at the GRM forums.

docwyte PowerDork
7/21/21 3:55 p.m.

I want a running, driving car.  I then know I have a good baseline to proceed with the modifications I'm going to make.

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