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How to Pick Your Project

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Tags: Tech

If you’ve felt the bite of the car bug and no longer want to sit on the sidelines as a casual observer I commend you! Hot Rodding and Custom Car building is one of the most rewarding hobbies I have experienced. Not everyone can create something they can get inside of, turn a key to hear it fire to life, and then take it on a journey between hither and yon and back again. Throughout the years I have been fortunate enough to have spent innumerable hours on the phone with customers talking about such projects. The stories I’ve heard are as varied and exciting as the vehicles themselves. Customers have described building award-winning restorations, restoring historically significant race cars, movie cars, hot rods of all types, customs as varied as you can imagine, gassers, 3-wheeled choppers, vintage trucks, haulers, muscle cars, T-buckets, the list goes on and on. Choosing a car project is not easy but what needs to be steady is your passion and vision. Too many ambitious projects start off strong but are eventually derailed when the going gets tough. You must choose a project that means something to you personally. You must be passionate enough for the finished car so the drive can carry you through ups and downs.

I have had many friends come to me and explain how they want to get to work on something but don’t know where to start. I am certainly not an expert but I get very excited about vintage cars and that is perhaps why people ask. Usually they begin describing their dream car which seems out of reach financially. Some get started with the purchase of a car that isn’t quite what they wanted but seemed close enough at the time. Unfortunately they feel stuck and quickly loose interest. The other scenario I hear commonly is they want a project that has most of the major work done so they can focus on areas where they feel most comfortable technically. It is easy to see a car at a show and fall in love. Like any love affair it isn’t always easy and you should be prepared to persevere through the tough times to get what you want. Four critical considerations in building a car are Budget, Facility, Technical Ability, and Time. Once these considerations are made you should write your plan down on a slip of paper to help you stick to it.

Budget and Time are relative and somewhat flexible but you must know that as the amount of money and time you invest working on the car decreases, the amount of time it will take to complete your project increases and vice versa. If your budget is small do not be in despair. There are ways around a small budget. I know this because I am building my car under a tremendously small annual budget! With two small children and one income at home building a hot rod is a luxury to say the least! The way I make it possible is to do a considerable amount of horse trading while also completing most of the labor on the car myself. I also chose a type of car that can be done right under a low budget. Using old parts fits the build, but it will help the car hold its value when completed. Remember that cars are rarely a good investment, especially if you pay others do complete most of the labor.

Some of my traditional hot rod friends ask me where I found my Model A Roadster body. Well, I couldn’t afford to go out any purchase a ‘29 Ford Steel Roadster body straight out, but I did find a ’31 sedan that was given to me by a farmer near my grandparent’s farm. I sold that car and used the money for a ‘29 coupe at a local swap meet a year later. I in turn sold the coupe and used the money toward the purchase of the '29 roadster body that I really wanted. With some smart buying and selling you can obtain what you really want. Again, it just takes some time! If you love old cars and seek them out by networking with people, before you know it you will have a pile of parts. Good stuff is still out there waiting for someone to load it up and save it from returning to the Earth!

During your hunt for an old car don’t be afraid to ask around. Visit swap meets, check Craigslist and other online markets and you will be surprised what shows up for sale. Spend some time looking at old auctions on sites such as E-Bay to get an idea of what cars and parts are selling for. Old car values fluctuate over time, but some studying of recent sales will help you be ready when a good deal surfaces. This is where I will also mention that some cars are designed with regular budgets in mind such as T-bucket kits. You don’t have to break the bank to purchase one and it can be done in steps as you have the money to invest. I have spoken to countless customers who live their passion in a t-bucket for less than it costs to buy a used minivan! Remember; just because your budget is constrained doesn’t mean you can’t make things happen if you follow your passion and use some resourcefulness!

Facility and Technical Ability are related and you should know where you stand in both areas prior to jumping in. Cars can be built in a wide variety of facilities and what is needed depends upon many factors. The important thing is to be realistic. I am building my current hot rod in a two car garage. I kicked my wife’s car out and it is just enough room for my little roadster. I can take it completely apart and have space to walk around. The best thing about it being at home is that I don’t have to drive to an outlying location to work on my car. Better yet my kids can hang out with me and the refrigerator is not far away! I don’t plan to paint the car at home but I can do all of the fabrication work needed. I have all of the tools a fifties builder would have possessed: a full set of wrenches, good hammers, a drill press, hand drill, files, etc. It really doesn’t take much, but a good welder and torch were a must for my project. With so many bolt together chassis on the market today such as Speedway’s 35-40 Ford car/truck chassis and their ’47-’54 Chevy truck frame you can actually build a world-class vehicle these days without a welder!

I mention T-buckets often because while my current project seems to be a great fit for my facility, I could just as easily build a t-bucket kit in my garage. With Speedway kits being pre-welded it would be a snap completing it in my small space. We recently had a customer who built a catalog cover T-bucket in his car-port, so four walls aren’t even a prerequisite for a nice finished hot rod!

I should mention to always think about safety when considering where to build a car. I certainly couldn’t restore a ’59 Caddy in my garage, so it is important to use good judgment here. You probably don’t want to weld, paint, and run your engine when your kids sleep in rooms above your garage! If you are lucky enough to have a large covered space good for you! If it is heated, air conditioned, and big, consider yourself well ahead of the game!

The hardest thing for most to judge is their personal level of technical expertise. I am even guilty of believing I can do anything I set my mind to and have it done in half the time it really takes. We live in a world of reality television and you can switch on a reality program any night of the week where someone seems to complete a major car project in an hour or less. While it is easy to underestimate the amount of skill needed the good news is most people don’t know everything. Even the person with the gorgeous car at the show may have done nothing more that write the check to buy it! If you are reading this I hope you are the person who will roll up the sleeves and do it yourself. That is what makes you a hot rodder. You will goof up a time or two but that is how you learn. The personal growth that takes place in the process of building your vision is more important than the finished vehicle! Just remember that it will get stressful and hard, but that is when the best learning will happen. When you get frustrated take a break and regroup! You will be glad you did!

Another important thing to know is that you have everything you need for learning at your fingertips. If you found this article you can use a computer and what a resource it is! Hop on any time and you can to learn about endless fabrication and restoration processes. There are a wide variety of books available too. The best resource is getting out to your local shows and cruises to ask the people who have cars finished. Chances are they were just like you not long ago and will be happy to share their knowledge. That is how it worked in the early days, and in my experience the relationships made are by far the most rewarding part of the hobby. Chances are these relationships will be important later when you feel like trading your car hobby for golf or basket weaving. Your friends urging you to finish your project will be just what is needed to keep your flame lit! Most times they love old cars enough they will want to come over and lend a hand!

The fourth and final step is to write your plan down and stick to it. This is very important because you will feel the urge over time to deviate from what caused you to start the endeavor initially. It is ok to change your mind on details, but having a roadmap is important. Think through your goal and why it is important to you. Here is a copy of my outline stating what I am building, why I am building it, and what my vision of the final project is:

"Build a ’29 Ford Roadster. I love traditionally built hot rods and while to the casual viewer they may seem crude, they are quite the opposite. I have heard many even refer to a carefully crafted car as a “Rat Rod” when they accidentally think aloud without understanding hot rod history. Having been around cars most of my life, if a car is not breaking new ground or setting a new trend in the hobby of car building, then paying homage to the forefathers and the automotive styles which have transcended time is the next best purpose for a build.

I have always looked to the years from 1943 to 1955 as the golden age of hot rodding. During this time and immediately after the war America’s economy was booming. New cars were affordable and pre-war cars were cheap and plentiful. They were the perfect “blank canvas” for people wanting to work with their hands while aiming to go fast and look cool doing it. It is with this understanding of the history that I set out to build my car.

  • ‘29 Ford Roadster – Steel body
  • ’32 frame set up as a highboy -_ Dropped axle_
  • Vintage engine – early small Hemi, Nailhead, Caddy, or equivalent. Something that would have been “high-tech” in the early ‘50’s.
  • Reliable and safe, it will be driven everywhere. (T5 OD trans, new gauges, new hubs/bearings)
  • ’32 grille shell, Guide-style lights
  • Old, big, OD steering wheel – ’49 Ford or similar
  • F1 steering (no Vega)
  • No paint at first – patina if available
  • Old-school round louvers

Goals – Time/Budget

  • Finish in time to enjoy with my Dad, and before my son is too old to care about the car (3 year build time)
  • Do all major work myself aside from engine machining
  • Build in my garage
  • Build with spare money from horse-trading parts or extra work on the side
  • Find as many old parts for build with good stories or family connections"

This particular mission statement for my project is more detailed than yours might be, but it has really helped keep me focused on the goal. I am 2 years into my 3 year build and there have been times when I wanted to deviate from my plan to speed things up. I have been tempted to throw in a small block Chevy engine or get rid of my ’40 Ford drum brakes to run a set of disks because they are less expensive. Your plan may be shorter and less detailed than mine but at least it is something tangible to put thoughts down on paper. Tack it on your garage wall and use it as a reminder of what you wanted when you began your endeavor.

In conclusion I will say again that it is easy to believe that a car should be done quickly as you would see on television but the truth is most car projects are long labors of love. The majority of cars in garages I am aware of are being done by regular people who spend years tinkering on them a little bit at a time between their full time job and family commitments. That is ok. What I have found in my experience is that those types of builders appreciate their car more in the end. If you are new to the world of car building it is my hope this will help you as you get the ball rolling. As with anything in life do not let fear of the unknown scare you away from what is truly one of the most rewarding hobbies you will experience. The important thing is to take the first step and go out and find your first old car! Your project is out there waiting for you!

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