For most of us there will always be ‘that one car’. That one car that may have spent time with us in our childhood, taken up space on our bedroom wall, or even found a place in our dreams for that matter. While the commonfolk rave at the next big thing from Maranello, Stuttgart, or Woking, real car enthusiasts will look towards cars that can no longer be bought brand new; cars that, more often than not, have to be returned to their former glory – to the way we remember them. Cars like that, the ‘one car’, will be more than a cut-and-dried purchase, it will become a long-term (heck, even lifelong) project.
Before you partake in this endeavor however, perhaps it’s better to ask yourself a few things first. It’s already difficult to jump into a purchase of a car, let alone a car that still needs building. What are your plans for the car? Are you financially ready to shoulder the costs? Or better yet, do you have the patience and dedication to push forward with the build? How much does ‘that one car’ mean to you? A proper mindset is key to persevering during a project car build, and if anything that will usually be the only thing that will keep you going. If you have a clear-cut answer for all these questions, then read on.
In the interest of having an example for better clarity, I’d like to use my own project car as our reference point for the rest of this feature. Despite having only acquired this 1999 Mazda RX-7 almost two years ago, it has already seen plenty of work since I got it; There’s still lots more to be done to get it where I want however. Considering that this car was never sold locally – and left hand drive versions of the car are inherently difficult to find – finding this particular car, in the condition it was in, was something I couldn’t have done without proper research. Which brings us to the first step:
Do your homework
Any decent project will start out with a proper plan. This principle stretches out to any endeavor worth partaking in during the course of our lives, and a project car is no different. Planning and tons and tons of research are the backbone of every build. Early on before you set out to buy a car, there are already a number of things that need to be answered so that you can find the right candidate. Questions such as:
What’s the direction of your build? Is it going to be a street car? A racecar? Or an all-out concours restoration?
What’s your build’s timeline? Have you set a particular budget?
Does your project car have any known quirks? Any weak points that need addressing?
All these queries have answers, and you can’t come up with them out of thin air. Various mediums of information are available for you to use when it comes to finding answers to these questions. Books, forums on the internet, people, or even videos can be a wealth of info and inspiration for you to apply onto your project car.
At least, that’s what I did long before the opportunity came for me to purchase my RX-7. I’ve long since been obsessed with the japanese sports car to know its quirks, how its odd rotary engine works, and all the random faults associated with it. By the time I was out looking for one, all the reading paid off since I’ve become familiar with the car.
Do enough research on the car until you have enough knowledge to identify all the quirks and faults specific to your chosen vehicle. Once you’re armed with proper information, it’s time to see if anyone else out there can help you out.
Make the right kind of friends
“No man is an island”, surely you’ve heard this quote at some point or another in your life. We’ve experienced being helped out by others – and helping others out, for that matter – in plenty of tasks throughout our daily lives. In the context of project cars, suffice to say you’re gonna need all the help you can get. Part of your research into your chosen vehicle must include going out and expanding your network to the people who can actually lend a proper hand towards building your dream car. Visit car shops and talk to the shop owners about your plan, speak with mechanics who may know a thing or two about your vehicle, or go out and meet fellow enthusiasts who may own a similar car. Knowing the right people and belonging to a group that may help you out with your build will help point you towards the proper direction for your car.
I wouldn’t have been dead set on owning an RX-7 in Manila had it not been for a good friend whom I’ve met years ago with the same car. This friend of mine showed me that running a rotary can be done here, and I’ve subsequently met the people who helped him keep his car running as well. Today we have a small group of RX-7 owners dedicated to perfecting the pistonless motor.
The candidate car
Now that you’ve done your research and met individuals who can provide good input, it’s time to find your actual candidate car for the project. When we say ‘project car’, likely you’ll bring up an image of an old rotting rustbucket that you’ll have to save and build. In actual practice, that old rustbucket is the last car you’ll want to build.
Despite having a likely lower cost, chances are the ‘old rustbucket car’ will leave you with plenty of headaches down the line. All the body work alone will cost a hefty sum for sure, not to mention the fact that the car may have missing paperwork (if there is any to begin with). Pair that to sourcing any missing panels and glass as well as a likely rotted interior, and you’ll definitely have your work cut out for you – and your bank account won’t be thanking you for it either.
The best candidate for a project car is always a road-worthy one. If you’re starting out with a car that has a decent interior, a running motor, and fully legal paperwork, chances are the higher price for that particular vehicle will be worth it as opposed to starting out with a bare shell.
As for looking at any actual used vehicles, our second-hand buyer’s guide might come in handy for any spot checks for your candidate project car. Aside from the items mentioned there however, your previous research will also help you decide if a car is worthy. Considering you’re already familiar with any quirks and weaknesses, you’ll have a better idea of what you’ll be up against when identifying specific points of the candidate vehicle.
The RX-7 I eventually ended up with was owned by an acquaintance of mine from way back. From the onset I immediately knew that I’d never come across a car like this when I saw it. The RX-7 was a JDM-spec 1999 model, making it one of the last RX-7s made – and therefore the newest. The true clincher to the car was the fact that the previous owner made the effort to source a full Mazda USA Left Hand Drive conversion from subframe, to steering rack, and even down to the interior. Had I not done my research and known how difficult – and expensive – a conversion like that would be to source I would have thought the RX-7 was too expensive for what it was at the time. That aside, the car had clean papers and was begging to be scooped up – with only the price tag setting most buyers back. After all that’s said and done, I don’t regret paying extra at all.
Take the car around the block
Doing research about your project car is one thing, but driving the actual car will definitely confirm what needs to be done. A quick test drive will easily let you know if the actual car manifests any of the quirks or faults you’ve read about. That aside, any used car can – and will – reveal many other odd faults aside from the ones you’ve read about. Consider also if these faults have any bearing towards how you want your car to be built. There may be times that a car’s shortcomings become negligible since you’ll remove that part anyway. It could work the other way however, wherein one fault can become the dealbreaker for that candidate car.
Truth be told my first couple test drives with the RX-7 ended on sour notes; The first one ended up with the RX-7 having overheating issues. Once the previous owner supposedly sorted that out, the second test drive ended up with the rear brakes getting stuck. At least from those two instances I knew I’d need to do work on the cooling as well as the brakes.
Drive the car in a way where you can uncover any weaknesses – without driving it like you stole it of course. Your first test drive will allow you to benchmark what needs to be done off the bat to (at least) get your car in proper running condition.
Compare all your notes about the car with all the parts you think it will need to run properly and then discuss price. Negotiate with all the facts in mind, as these concerns – provided there’s sufficient proof – may yield to a lower price. Provided you’ve made your computations, approach the seller with what you think needs to be sorted and agree on a fixed sum as well as a mode of payment. When buying a car you will need at least three (3) copies of a Deed of Sale as well as several photocopies of your valid I.D.s. Make sure to have these documents handy as having to print them on the spot may become an inconvenience. That, alongside ensuring that all the paperwork is sorted, should be paramount in sealing the deal for the car.
Closing the deal for my RX-7 was pretty straightforward. Thanks to the issues that appeared during the test drive the owner kindly sliced off a fair sum from his asking price. Since all the paperwork was matching and payment was in due order I just picked the car up and was given a shortlist on maintaining the car (Spark Plug part numbers & proper oil viscosity, etc.).
Now that you’ve purchased the car, it’s time to make sure it gets proper attention. Considering you aren’t sure what kind of fluids the car has been running on since you got it, it would be a good idea to have your trusted shop conduct a full fluid flush upon your purchase. Change your motor and gear/differential oil as well as drain and replace all the coolants, power steering fluid, brake fluid, and other pertinent fluids your car may be running on. Alongside that, check all the car’s underpinnings for any leaks or loose suspension bits as these may compromise your safety on the road.
Following your first test drive, you’ve likely identified any primary issues you’ll have to deal with. Once the proper parts have been sourced, it’s best to address these off the bat once the car is in your hands.
In the case of my RX-7, I promptly ordered fresh brake pads and a caliper rebuild kit for all four corners to eliminate the brake jamming issue. I also got a 2-row aluminum radiator as well as aftermarket hoses to greatly improve cooling over the car’s stock unit. Till today I’m driving around with both systems working just fine.
The project that never sleeps
That dream car you’ve long sought is finally in your garage. It probably isn’t what you’ve imagined it to be, but little by little you should be getting there. Don’t be shy to take it out and drive your pride and joy. It actually helps prolong the car’s life if it gets used every so often. As with all the steps you’ve taken to get the car itself, every single project you’ll embark on with the car will require just as much research and planning to complete. Don’t forget to share your knowledge with other people for their projects as well; Surely someone will be able to use a thing or two you’ve learned about your own project.
Continue to strive and plan your build accordingly and soon you’ll find yourself with the very car that captivated your imagination.