Currently reading: Buy, fix, enjoy: the Autocar guide to project cars
Second-hand special: The death knell has started to sound for new petrol and diesel cars, but the used one you always promised yourself is still in reach. Here's how to make it happen
Felix Page Autocar writer
News
6 mins read
2 April 2021

Car enthusiasts are counting down to 2030 with apprehension. What will become of our beloved engines, our cherished classics and time-honoured mechanical skills? New cars will shun fossil fuels entirely, which means the second-hand market will be radically reshaped in the years to come, too – so now is the time to start putting some ticks on your ‘must-own cars’ list.

Over the next 12 pages, we’ll consider the shape of the market, highlight what’s on offer and take a look at the used car community – because there’s gold in them there hills if you want to find it, and when you’re taking out a subscription for an electric, autonomous runaround, you might regret not having taken the plunge on the car of your dreams.

There are icons, exotica and bedroom poster cars to choose from, but if your ideal second-hander is out of reach, you might have to get your hands dirty. So first, welcome to the wonderful world of the project car, where you can grab the motor you’ve always wanted for a song – but it won’t be ‘factory fresh’. Here’s a few points to consider when you’re picking up a banger, so you know what you’re letting yourself in for.

Bodywork

The paint might look positively gleaming and the body as straight as an arrow in the online advert, but a keen eye could uncover some hard truths in the cold light of day. If you’re handy with the ball-peen and MIG welder, the odd ding or scab won’t bother you, but extensive bodywork repairs can consume a good portion of the time and budget allocated to a project, so identifying the problem areas before purchase is key.

You need to see the whole car from every angle as clearly as possible, so view in the daytime, or under a street or garage light if you have to go at night. Look out for mismatched doors, wings, bumpers and even fuel filler caps because it can be a real pain to match new paint to original paint – particularly on older cars.

Some imperfections are harder to spot. Check the boot floor and front chassis legs for any sign of a previous impact, as a bent frame could render the car unroadworthy or, depending on its value, irreparable. Rust can be fatal, too, so identify the common corrosion areas for a given car – often wheel arches, sills, door bottoms and suspension mounts – and see that your potential project is solid where it counts. Wet and salty British roads make for a particularly inhospitable environment, so we’d be encouraged by any reference to dry storage and summer-only usage in the advert.

And because we’re talking about cars that need a bit of work, it’s worth giving thought to any aftermarket visual modifications previous owners have made – particularly with affordable sports cars and hot hatchbacks. Irrespective of taste, it can cost hundreds – in some cases thousands – of pounds to restore a car’s bodywork to original specification, so make sure the original wheels and bumpers are included in the sale, or factor the cost of replacement into your negotiations.

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Engine

Some powerplants can be completely rebuilt for the price of a fancy dinner, while others could be written off at the mere whiff of valve clatter. A leaky Series Land Rover, for example, would be much less worrying than a misfiring Mazda RX-8.

That said, no matter the badge or the configuration, there are several key checks you can make to get an idea of how much work lies on the horizon.

Checking the oil is the easiest way to see how a car has been treated. A low reading suggests it hasn’t been checked regularly. Conversely, if it’s too high, the owner might have hurriedly splashed in some generic fluids earlier that day, having not spared the levels a passing thought for months.

You’ll want to head round the back, too, for a good look at what’s coming out of the exhaust. White smoke on start-up suggests the head gasket is on its way out, black fumes mean the engine is running rich and blue means oil is burning with the fuel, which suggests a pricey top-end rebuild is on the cards. Listen for a blowing exhaust or off-beat idle, too.

Storage

Working on a car is much more enjoyable and easy if you have a driveway or, better still, a garage but do-it-yourself spannering isn’t out of reach if you lack off-street parking.

However, to park the project on the road, you will need to make sure it’s roadworthy. If it doesn’t have insurance, tax and a valid MOT (vehicles over 40 years old are legally exempt from the last two requirements), it can be towed away by the authorities. For this reason, non-runners are slightly impractical purchases if you don’t have a dedicated tinkering lair.

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So you might consider what is commonly referred to as a ‘rolling resto’ – a tatty but usable hobby car that you can commute with during the week and fettle at the weekend. Expect some stern words from the Neighbourhood Watch association if you start panel-beating on the pavement on a Sunday morning: best to rent some garage space for the more involved jobs. Some lock-up garages are available to rent by the month, making them great for dry storage on a budget.

Be it on private property or otherwise, a proper weatherproof cover to protect your car’s paintwork is an investment you won’t regret making. Model-specific covers are available, but generic items are more cost-effective.

Owner resources

General car enthusiast forums have gained a bit of an unsavoury reputation in recent years for being unwelcoming and unhelpful, particularly in response to questions from inexperienced members, but the internet is nevertheless a valuable resource in your project car journey.

Before devoting hours to trawling blurry photos and badly written adverts in your search for the ideal car, get in touch with an official owners’ club or a more informal Facebook owners’ group to see if someone is looking to offload the very car you seek, or knows of someone else who might. Even after purchase, you’ll find these groups to be full of like-minded enthusiasts who have experienced the same problems and obstacles as you and have already found the elusive spare part or time-saving workaround when it comes to rectifying it.

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You’ll want to buy a Haynes manual, too, for its easy-to-understand instructions for the most common repairs and model-specific maintenance processes. Haynes called time on publishing new manuals last year, but the back catalogue is vast, and you’ll struggle to find a car that can’t be matched to a book.

But even with these resources, there will always be a job that can’t be done at home with your trusty socket set, and that’s when it pays to be friendly with a specialist mechanic. This is research you should carry out before buying the car, just for the peace of mind that if and when it all goes wrong, someone nearby knows exactly how to put it right. They’ll also help with tracking down tricky spare parts.

A project for every budget

1992 Fiat Panda 1.0 £1500: Here’s a relatively risk-free way to get your tinkering fix. It needs some paint and maybe a spot of welding but cheap running costs could soon rub out the price of repair. Barely any electrics to go wrong, too.

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2007 Volkswagen Golf GTI £2995: A runaround ripe for revival. Values for the Mk5 GTI have yet to rebound, but if you lose those tatty alloys, polish the paint and invest in subtle performance upgrades, you’ll be best placed to profit.

2005 BMW M5 £11,250: How brave are you feeling? That venerable V10 is a notoriously troublesome beast to live with, and we’d be wary of conrod bearing, Vanos system or throttle actuator problems, but the sound alone is worth the potential headaches.

1967 Ford Mustang 289 £37,500: This ’Stang has a way to go before it’s leaving ‘elevens’ on the Tarmac, but if you have the budget and garage space, it’s an attractive proposition. The running motor is a big selling point, as is the solid chassis.

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si73 4 April 2021
A reliant scimitar ss1, if you can find one, would make a good project car, find one with a galvanised chassis, and that along with the GRP body means no rust issues, they're mechanically simple so easy to tinker with and they're fun to drive if a little odd looking.
Bill Lyons 2 April 2021

Another word of warning: from October anyone living within the North or South Circular of London will have to pay £12.50 per day to drive one of these old bangers (sorry, I meant 'classics').

Bizuno 2 April 2021

A word of warning/caution for anyone with regards to "one you always promised yourself". As someone who is on "the war path" for mk1 fiat uno turbo parts, I assure you that in some cases, you'd be spending a large amount of time just trying to locate parts. Natually is depends on what type of ownership route you are trying to negoctiate (run as is, partial restroration, restoration jobby), etc.

The main problem with some OE parts, is that they are plastic. UV attacks, chemical attack, etc all mean that some parts are so void of any talc fillers, that they shrink and distort. You can't "re-fill" it with talc, you have to replace. Which with this old fiat stuff can be very trying.

This mk1 fiat uno isn't my first, but owning to the market condition, some part prices are significantly inflated, especially on ebay. Id assume thats the case for anything of this mid-80's onwards period cars.

Sods law says, the part that's just broken, is mega rare and 4 people in the last 15 years have seen one for sale. I'm sure that 3d printing isn't that cheap at the moment, so I wouldn't vouch for that saving the day. Good luck!

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