How To Get Into Cars – Choosing Your First Project Car



The automobile is a wonderous invention, perhaps one of the most transformative of the 20th century. They’re machines that often inspire an all-consuming passion, capturing the heart with sights, sounds, and smells. However, for those who grew up isolated from car culture, it can be difficult to know how to approach cars as a hobby. If this sounds like you, fear not – this article is a crash course into getting your feet wet in the world of horsepower.

So You Like Cars, Eh?

Project cars let you do things that you’d never dare attempt in a daily.

The first step to becoming a true gearhead is identifying your specific passion. Car culture is a broad church, and what excites one enthusiast can be boring or even repulsive to another. Oftentimes, the interest can be spawned by a fond memory of a family member’s special ride, or a trip to a motor race during childhood.

Knowing what kind of cars you like is key to your journey. You might fall in love with classic American muscle and drag racing, or always fancied yourself in the seat of a tweaked-out tuner car a la The Fast And The Furious. Movies, posters, magazines, and your local car shows are a great way to figure out what excites you about cars. Once you’ve got an idea of what you like, it’s time to start thinking about picking out your first project car.

To Craigslist And Back Again

Choosing the right project car is a process that requires careful research, realistic ambition, and emotion. Your own circumstances, taking into account your living situation, finances, and the country you live in, all feed into this decision. Weighing these factors is key to sourcing a sweet ride that you’ll actually be able to enjoy.

Once you’ve got a good idea of the type of cars you’re into, this will help you narrow down what you’re looking for. If you want to go cruising out on the sand dunes, a drop-top 4WD or even a beach buggy might be for you. If you want to soak up the sun on a twisty mountain road, you might be looking at roadsters. Or, if you want to lay down the ultimate lap times, a high-powered coupe with serious track credentials could be just the ticket. Identifying what you want to do with your car will help you choose the right model. Don’t be afraid to reach out to other enthusiasts to ask for tips! Jalopnik have long run a great series helping people choose the right vehicle, and communities like OppositeLock are always open to questions. Alternatively, head out to your local Cars and Coffee, and start chatting with the owners of the rides you like best. The nicer members of the car scene will always be glad to chat and point you in the right direction.

Now that you’ve got an idea of what you’re looking for, it’s time to consider your budget. This should take into account not just the purchase price of the car, but other fees like insurance and registration. Being that you’re an enthusiast, you’ll want some cash set aside for modifications and upgrades, too, along with basic maintenance. Getting this right can be the difference between cruising the boulevards on a sunny summer’s afternoon, versus staring out the window at your former darling as it slowly rusts away under a tarp.

This author bought an MX-5 for a bargain price, thanks to the wrecked paint. “I’ll just respray it!” he said… back in 2016. Long story short, the paint has not yet been improved.

Consider the condition of the vehicle you’re looking at sourcing. You can generally knock money off the purchase price for body or mechanical damage. If you’re looking to do an engine swap anyway, buying a car with a blown head gasket is a great way to save coin. On the flipside, if you want a car that looks and feels nice, purchasing a car with heavily sun-damaged paint is going to cost thousands to fix. Money can be saved by doing the work yourself, but think carefully about your abilities and circumstances. There’s no point planning to respray your own car if you live in an apartment and have to work in the street!

There are several ways to keep things affordable. Certain cars become ultra-desirable, driving their prices up. If you’re just out of college with a part time job, you’re probably not going to be able to score a Mark IV Supra to build your own tribute to Paul Walker. Similarly, marques like Ferrari and Lamborghini will be out of reach. However, other factors also come into play. Certain vehicles, such as Mustangs and Miatas, are desirable to a wide range of enthusiasts. Despite this, as they were built in such large numbers, they remain affordable on the second-hand market. This has knock-on benefits, too. The popularity of these vehicles has led to a vibrant aftermarket, making replacement parts and performance hardware both cheap and readily available. For those on limited budgets, this can make all the difference. A set of shocks for a popular muscle car like an old Camaro can be had for a couple hundred dollars. If instead, you’re riding around in a 1980s Mercedes with air suspension, you could be looking at five times as much – if you can find the parts at all.

Your country of residence feeds into this, too. Corvettes and Challengers are a viable choice in the US, with parts on the shelf in every small town in the country. Junk yards are similarly full of old wrecks to pick over. If you find yourself down in Australia however, these cars would be a far more expensive choice. If you can get such a car in the first place, you’ll find everything from brake pads to universal joints have to be special ordered in from overseas, because it’s simply not viable for local stores to keep large stocks of parts for such obscure vehicles. Instead, those in the antipodes might consider picking up a Ford Falcon or Holden Commodore to get started with. This is a story that plays out around the world. Swedes will find it far easier to source parts for Volvos, while a Japanese resident will easily lay their hands on a Skyline that would be near-unobtainable in the States.

If you’re a beginner in the automotive scene, it definitely pays to go easy on yourself by choosing a vehicle with a strong local scene. On top of cheap parts, it also allows one to draw on the rich local knowledgebase when diagnosing problems. Finding a good local car forum or Facebook group can be a huge help when you’re starting out. Plus, if you’re lucky, you’ll meet a local greybeard or two with a few parts cars tucked away in a garage somewhere.

Narrowing It Down

One of these Jeeps is a cheap front-wheel-drive SUV with decent fuel economy, the other is a great base for a serious off-road rig. Spotting the difference can be tough for the uninitiated!

With the basics laid out, let’s consider an example. You’ve decided, after much pondering, that you’ve always wanted an offroad rig to tackle the trails in your local area. Lacking the knowledge to begin with, you join some local Facebook groups, and start eyeing off rides and asking questions. You’ve always been partial to Jeeps, but you want a car you can also use for the grocery run, so have a hard top in mind. Scraping the local classifieds, you’ve seen plenty of Jeep Patriots at used car lots, for fairly reasonable prices. This looks like a great way into the hobby, so you decide to post online to get some feedback before heading out.

Your post is met with a torrent of abuse and derision. Hardcore four-wheelers are laughing at you for considering a “mall-crawler”, and teenagers too young to drive are calling you a soccer mom in the comments. Thankfully, a handful of members reach out, asking a few questions about what you’re actually looking for in a car. You mention that you want to go offroad, do a little mudding, but as you’re looking for a second vehicle, your rig doesn’t have to be too nice and you’re not concerned about fuel economy.

The more helpful group members tell you that the Patriot, being a model based around front wheel drive and lacking good stock parts and aftermarket support, isn’t really the car for you. Instead, being based in the United States, they point you towards the XJ model Jeep Cherokee. With a stout 4.0 l engine, a rich community, and great aftermarket support, help and parts will always be close at hand. Plus, there’s plenty of beaters available for under a couple grand, so you won’t feel too guilty if you do end up wrecking out on the trail.

You end up doing a little more research, and with the help of your new pals, source a weather-beaten 1993 model with well-worn upholstery and plenty of charm. Being a simple car to work on with a huge fanbase, you begin to teach yourself to change the oil and coolant and do basic maintenance, and even manage to tackle the job of replacing your belts when the charging system suddenly conks out. With the help of your fellow wheelers, you slap a lift kit on and some big mud tyres, and have a great weekend wrenching while sinking a few beers. Your new rig can handle plenty of the local rough stuff, and you start eyeing off a classic CJ for your next build, just maybe!

It’s All About Community

Fundamentally, the best way to learn about cars is with the community by your side. It’s virtually a necessity too, particularly when trying to source rare parts or figure out how to diagnose strange sounds you haven’t heard before. By doing your research and learning about what’s out there before you buy, you can score yourself a great ride and begin an exciting project. Skip these steps, and you risk spending a huge wad of cash on a poorly performing lawn ornament. Good luck out there, and next time, we’ll look at what tools you’ll need when you’re starting to tinker with your new rig. Happy wrenching!




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