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Choosing a Make and Model

By Bob Earls

The kids are gone. You got promoted. You retired. You’re newly single. You’re deep into your second childhood. You owe it to yourself. Whatever the reason, you’re ready to take the plunge and get a classic, a collector car, a muscle car; something unique; something that takes you back to your youth -- or someone else’s. Congratulations!

What I’ll try to do here is guide you through the maze and pitfalls of buying an old heap so you’ll wind up with something you really want and, hopefully, what’s best for you. While most of the cars I’ll use as examples will be American, the rules apply to foreign vehicles as well.

We all have our dream cars. You know, the one where you fantasize yourself behind the wheel, making a statement, feeling good and achieving some high level of automotive nirvana. Some dream cars are practical, some are not. The best part is that dreams don’t have to be practical. In the real world, however, there are sometimes certain limitations that force us to ratchet down our dream somewhat. These restrictions usually manifest themselves in the form of monetary restraints or extreme lack of availability of the item desired. Oh, yeah, and some dreams are illegal, too.

Sometimes the desire to obtain a particular car wrestles common sense to the ground and gets it in a headlock. Fortunately, common sense doesn’t have to prevail, but you do need to know all the caveats if you choose to let emotion rule the day. Intelligently buying an old car is all about asking questions and making choices. All these questions apply equally to, and are interchangeable between restorations and street rods.

What do you really want?

This is the fundamental question. You should not be afraid to answer it honestly, but try to be somewhat realistic. I mean, it’s OK to lust after a 1936 Packard Twelve LeBaron-bodied club coupe. But for most of us, that’s not going to happen. A restored example is in another galaxy, price-wise, and the cost of restoration (if there is an unrestored one still around), even with professional abilities, is way beyond what most of us can afford. The answer to this question may not be the car you ultimately wind up with, and that’s okay. Just take your response and set it aside somewhere in a warm, safe spot.

As you think about the answer to the question of what you really want, think about these supporting questions and they’ll help you find the big answer.

What do you want to do with the car?

The first thing to clarify for yourself is what you want to do with your car. Is it a trailer-queen showpiece or something to drive on a Sunday afternoon? Maybe you dream of racing at the strip or joining a cross-country classic car rally?

What you want to do with a car doesn’t so much dictate what kind of car you buy, but rather what kind of shape it should be in. Needless to say it’s always great to buy as complete and unmolested a car as possible.

For a show car it’s nice to have it as original and complete as possible because the fewer major repairs (usually major bodywork) there are to do, the less chance a judge will find something incorrectly done. For show cars, particularly muscle cars, original equipment (OEM = Original Equipment Manufacture) is what keeps or loses points (read the article on numbers-matching). Any alteration of the body or drivetrain will have to be returned to original.

For a driver, all that’s necessary is that it be safe and reliable. Anything else is a bonus. If you want to go drag racing, or to a lesser extent, rallying, you have a much broader range of options when assembling the car, and a substantially imperfect donor car is both affordable and saves you from the moral dilemma of destroying a rare original.

If you don’t have a very specific make and model in mind, think about what basic type of car would be good for what you want to do. Is it a street rod, a pre-war classic, a foreign sports car, a cruising convertible or muscle car, or something else entirely?

How much work do you want to do?

Next, think clearly about how much work you want to sign up for. Do you want to start with a finished turn-key car, a diamond in the rough, or a major project? There’s no right or wrong answer here - and there’s nothing wrong with buying a finished project.

A turn-key is a car that you just climb in, turn the key and drive away. It’s a finished or almost-finished car. For some it’s the best way to go; no fuss, no muss, no dirty hands. It’s certainly the fastest way to start racking up the miles of smiles. Also, if you buy intelligently you will spend less money than if you restore. If this is what you want, great, but still read on. There’s more advice to follow.

A minor fixer-upper is a car that is basically all there and useable/driveable, but needs attention in one or more areas. It could need paint, or interior, or mechanical; maybe even just a good detailing. If you have abilities that apply to a specific area of repair then you’re ahead of the game.

A major project is just that: major. These are not for the faint-of-heart. You need either multiple abilities and/or a large bank account. The pluses are the great pride you’ll experience when the project is done, and that you’ll have a car that’s exactly the way you want it.

If a restoration may be required, take an honest inventory of your personal abilities, and ask yourself if you are willing to learn new skills? If you do plan to take on a lot of the work yourself, do you have the special equipment to perform certain operations, such as a parts washer, welder, and so on?

Do you have a specific time frame, or can your project be open-ended? These projects always take more time than you expect. Do you have a space in which to work, and is it convenient? That question is critical in establishing your timeframe.

What is the absolute upper limit you can spend to obtain a car?

If you’re going to do any restoration, how much can you devote to the project, and in what time increments in the future? If it’s taken you years to pull together $10,000 and your chances of putting much more into it in the future are slim then maybe you should consider a turn-key. If you’ve got $10,000 and can put $500/month into a restoration or upgrade for the foreseeable future into a restoration then you’re in good shape for a decent project. Remember, many restorations have taken 5+ years to complete.

HINT Hint...

Buy the best car you can afford. Money is always an issue, and it pays to get a clear picture of the financial requirements right up front. How much money can you put into this project, and is it realistic to think you can stick to that budget?

Are You Willing to Compromise?

Do you have your heart set on a full classic ‘37 Packard Super 8, but the entry fee of close to $50,000 is a bit stiff for you? You’ll get the same ooohs and ahhhs from an admiring public for $20,000 if you get a ‘37 Packard 120. That’s a savings of $30,000, and fully 99% of those giving you thumbs-up won’t know the difference. The 120 was the entry-level Packard with virtually the same styling, but on a slightly shorter wheelbase and equipped with a slightly smaller 8-cylinder engine. It’s still a great road car. The big difference? The Super 8 is a “Full Classic” as decreed by the Classic Car Club of America, and the 120 is not. Due to the nature of the game Full Classics are worth more; not necessarily for any better reason other than “It is written.”

Some people might want a ‘38 Cadillac, but a ‘38 Buick is essentially an equivalent car (better in some folk’s opinion) for less money. A ‘57 Bel-Air is just a deluxe 150 series, and a ‘69 Z-28 is essentially a hopped-up, gussied-up, basic 6-cylinder Camaro. The 150 series and the base 6-cylinder can both be upgraded for much less money than buying their glitzier brethren.

Remember one of the great old car adages: “If the top goes down, the price goes up.” For some reason people love convertibles. Demand outstrips supply because convertibles tended to be made in smaller numbers and also suffered more severely from the ravages of nature. It is for those reasons that they command top dollar. If you can suffer the indignity of a sedan (4 door) or coupe (2 door), you’ll enjoy a more weather-friendly cabin, and you’ll literally save thousands of dollars.

My point here is that the less glamorous sedans and base models are often the best, most solid cars. They were likely owned by families or elderly folks, were better maintained and not abused. Although you can’t make a plain-Jane, 6-cylinder, 4-door post sedan into a racy 2-door hardtop, you can usually make it into a V-8 Deluxe, if need be. In many cases, the base models are rarer than their deluxe counterparts because collectors shunned them for many years as being somehow less desirable and many were consequently destroyed.

There are many iconic cars of any given era that first come to mind when thinking of an old car.

  • The 30s: 1932 Duesenberg, 1934 Packard, 1936 Auburn Boattail, 1936 Cord, 1932 Ford
  • The 40s: 1940 Ford, 1941 Packard Darrin, 1948 Continental, 1948 Tucker, 1949 Buick
  • The 50s: 1950-53 Hudson, 1950-51 Studebaker, 1953-54 Studebaker, any Corvette, 1955-57 Chevy, 1955-58 Chrysler 300, 1959 Cadillac
  • The 60s: any Corvette, any V-8 Mustang, 1964 GTO, any Chevelle SS, 1969 Trans Am, 1966 427 Cobra, 1968-69 Dodge Charger.

Cars such as these are usually iconic either due to unique or breakthrough design, or their engineering, or performance elements. One thing that most of them have in common is that they tend to command top dollar in their respective niches. With the exception of the Studebakers, if you have to have one of these you’re going to pay a lot of dough. If your goal is to have something fun, different and affordable, however, then have we got some cool cars for you.

Choosing Orphans and Other Less Well-Known Cars

There are many great cars available to you that don’t have the hype and glamour of many high-profile cars. An orphan is a car that wasn’t made by one of the Big Three. Most of these are very good cars, and some are just a little quirkier. One thing most have in common is that they tend to be more affordable. Here’s just a partial list:

  • Late-1940s Frazers
  • 1930 to mid-1950s Willys passenger cars
  • 1950s Kaiser
  • 1930s, 1940s and 1950s Nashes and Hudsons
  • 1950s Edsels
  • 1940s to 1960s Studebakers
HINT Hint...

Contact a local club representing a potential make you’re interested in. Finding the right club is the critical step for a number of reasons. You’ll talk to those who know that particular car thoroughly. They’ll be able to tell you its good points, weak points, and quirks, as well as parts and service availability. Some of them may also have a vehicle for sale that may be of interest to you. They should also be able to provide someone who is willing (perhaps for a small fee) to check out a car you’ve located that you’re interested in. To have someone along who’s intimately familiar with a given car is a big plus for you.

To locate a club near you, check out the nwrestorations.com club listings or visit: www.hemmings.com.

Can You Keep Your Project and Your Family Happy?

Perhaps the most important question is this: is your spouse/significant-other willing to deal with your impending insanity? This one sounds funny, but more than a few projects have been sold with the notation “Wife says either the car goes or I go, so the price is cheap.”

Your spouse will end up watching you disappear into the garage on hundreds of occasions. She (or he) will listen to you complain about stuck bolts and broken glass. They will bandage your wounds and read the credit card bill. And in the end, you may hear the words, “I hate riding around in that thing.” Make sure you’ve got a partner, or at least, an understanding, before you begin.

My goal here is not to scare you off, but rather to arm you with vital information to make your old car experience less intimidating and, consequently, more pleasurable. There are many different roads to go down in this hobby (no pun intended) and I hope we’ve given you enough of a roadmap to avoid the bumpy ones. Happy trails!

Dos and Don'ts
Thumb up  DO
  • Research the real costs before you begin
  • Find a local club
  • Buy as complete and unmolested a car as possible
  • Consider alternate less-expensive models
  • Buy the best car you can afford

Thumb down  DON’T
  • Don’t ever buy a car as an “investment”
  • Don’t get sucked in by “Ratings”
  • Don’t buy a rusty heap unless you plan to gut it
The Popular Restorations Feature Car
Author photo

1946 Packard: A good choice?



In an earlier post I said I chose the Packard for the Popular Restorations feature car because I owned one as a teenager and that it brought back fond memories. A while back I was at restoration shop and one of the owners took me for a tour of the facility. I asked him how much his customers had invested in their restorations and was surprised to find that most were into their cars nearly double what they were worth. And also surprised to find out how many cars were chosen because the year, make, and model had some significance with respect to the owner’s childhood. One car was a 1950 Ford convertible owned by an executive who rode in it as a child. It had been passed down to him by his grandfather and he had over $100,000 into its restoration. Another was a late 50s GMC pickup. The owner’s father had passed away when he was a child so his mother had hired a foreman to manage their ranch. The foreman became boy’s mentor and, as you might expect, drove a GMC pickup, same year, make, and model.

For me the choice was a little more complex as I used to buy, fix up, and sell cars when I was a teenager. I had many dozens before I was an adult. To be honest, I didn’t always make money but I certainly tried. With so many cars in my past, settling on the Packard was something that just sort of happened. A couple of years ago I started watching eBay and Hemmings.com, looking at a number of makes including Packards, Cadillacs, and Chryslers. In my teens I liked these upscale cars partly because my family didn’t have much money and partly because my sense was the higher priced cars were more robust and tended to have fewer breakdowns.

In the end, the Packard popped up on eBay with only 50,000 original miles. It was just like the one I owned decades before -- and I found myself drawn to it.

Would I make the same choice again? Yes! The Packard is a Classic Car Club approved “Full Classic,” it has beautiful lines (designed by “Dutch” Darrin) and it is a spectacular car for an evening out, comfortably seating three to four couples.



Tom Black's Garage

By Jeff Zurschmeide

2400 NE Holladay St
Portland, OR 97232
(503) 239-0227

PR: Assuming someone doesn’t already have a fixed idea of what car they want, what’s a smart way to pick a Make and Model to restore?

TB: Look at what’s selling and what’s popular, and what sells the best. For example, right now the Triumph TR6 is popular and easy to restore and easy to sell, while the Triumph GT6 is not as well-liked. Yet mechanically, they’re virtually identical. You can spend the same amount, or more, on the GT6 and yet in the end, the TR6 will be worth substantially more than the GT6.

PR: How about looking at parts availability?

TB: You don’t want to get a car that’s so obscure that you can’t find parts. Sometimes if you have the only car of it’s kind, it’s worth a lot of money and people like it, but it’s just as likely that you’ll have an orphan. The desirability has to be there. Just because they didn’t make very many doesn’t mean it’s worth anything. It just means they didn’t make very many, and there may be a reason they didn’t make very many. You don’t want to get too far out of the mainstream.

PR: Are there particular makes and models that make for a good restoration?

TB: It gets back to mainstream support again. We’re seeing a lot of European sports cars right now, and some conservative hot rods. We don’t work in fiberglass -all our cars are metal -real cars. Those are still commanding good money. The problem with really custom hot rods and kit cars is that there’s not an end user for them. If you build it, you’re the last guy in the line and trying to sell them is not a pretty sight. I think building a kit car is a really bad idea unless it’s something you want to own for the rest of your life.

PR: I’ve seen fiberglass hot rods priced up at $75,000 to $100,000 advertised, where the builder has well over $100,000 into the car, and they seem to stay on the advertising lists for a long time.

TB: It’s such an individual and acquired taste when a person builds a hot rod, because they built the car to be just the way they wanted it. When you restore a car, everyone can relate to it because it’s the way it was. But a hot rod or a custom idea is strictly one person’s interpretation, and it may not be anyone else’s. Everyone has their own idea of what it should be and it just doesn’t translate. The wheels you picked out and the paint color and the steering wheel and that ostrich-skin interior that you thought was such a great idea may not be appreciated by anyone but you.

Click on any item below for more details at Amazon.com

Greg Donahue
How to Restore Your Muscle Car
Motorbooks, Paperback, 2005-11-07

This book covers all aspects of restoration in detail, with a focus on the special issues found in 1960s and 70s muscle cars. From car selection through engine and interior restoration, this book is full of photos, illustrations, and step by step procedures. Examples are given from all domestic automakers. Reviews have been generally positive, for example (from AutoWeek): “With clean vintage muscle cars skyrocketing in price, this second edition has good timing, providing updates on parts sources and restoration techniques. We didn’t use the book to restore a muscle car, but we found it clear and concise, with user-friendly disassembly diagrams and 1,300-plus step-by-step photos, from choosing tools and which muscle car to restore, to completing the restoration.”

L. Porter
The Classic Car Restoration Guide: The Complete Illustrated Step-by-Step Manual
Haynes Publishing, Hardcover, 1994-04-30
This book offers some excellent pre-purchase checklists, and spends much of its space on bodywork and interior restoration, but rather less on mechanical items. The book was written in Britain for a British audience, so some elements may be less applicable to an American restoration, such as the section on getting a car through a Ministry of Transportation inspection. The book’s focus is almost exclusively on classic British cars.

Matt Joseph
Collector Car Restoration Bible: Practical Techniques for Professional Results
Krause Publications, Paperback, 2005-10-14

This book covers it all, from buying a restorable car to the finishing touches. And in between, it touches on every part of the car, from sheet metal repair to engine internals. If you were to have just one book as a guide, this would be that book. The book is photo-rich and provides both procedural details and collected wisdom from experienced restorers.

Tom Benford
The Complete Idiot's Guide to Restoring Collector Cars
Alpha, Paperback, 2004-08-03
The first 150 pages of this book are dedicated to the process of finding and deciding upon a restoration project and determining your restoration strategy. This part is covered in detail, and covered very well. The last 50 pages or so cover what to do with your car after the restoration is done, which leaves just over 100 pages to cover the actual work. For example, the chapter on engines assumes that the basic mill is in good shape, and simply covers tuning, carb adjustment, and freshening the engine bay. This is not a step by step mechanical manual - but it offers some of the best coverage on every other aspect of restoration.

Jim Richardson
Classic Car Restorer's Handbook: Restoration Tips and Techniques for Owners and Restorers of Classic and Collectible Automobiles
HP Trade, Paperback, 1994-11-01

This book covers a lot of ground in comparatively few pages, and while it has step-by-step procedures, the steps are often large. This book is a good choice if you want to understand the restoration process and all the pieces you’ll touch. However, it’s not sufficient to be your main guide to the restoration process.

Tom Brownell
How to Restore Your Collector Car
Motorbooks, Paperback, 1999-12-24

This book has a great deal of information on selecting a potential project car and setting up the workshop, plus a lot of detail on cleaning, stripping, blasting, derusting, bodywork and trim restoration, but comparatively less (just 1 chapter) on engine and mechanical restoration and 1 chapter on brakes. The book includes many nice color photos, however, and would be a good addition to a restoration library.

External Links

ProRestorations.com has some money-saving car restoration tips.

GuildClassicCars.com has a good article on buying your first collector car.

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