Find Your Passion: 5 Tips to Muscle, Horsepower, & Mayhem
by Michael J. Orr
Those of us in the Silver Sage generations remember the days when cars were made of steel, fuel efficiency had not crossed anyone’s mind, and speed ruled the road. We also remember when you didn’t need a Ph.D. in engineering to change a water pump, and polished chrome shone like the sun. As far as automobiles go, those were the days.
In my earliest memories, my father drove a red 1967 Chevrolet Corvette Stingray. Although the memory is slightly tainted because soon after that, my sister was born. All of a sudden we had a giant wood-paneled station wagon, which didn’t exactly have the same “cool-factor.” Thirty years later, my father and I restored a ’67 Corvette convertible for him. That first project brought him a joy that I had never seen him express before. Together we stripped it down to the bare frame and methodically repaired, polished, or replaced every single part as we restored it to factory condition.
After that Corvette, we built a ’32 Ford roadster, then a ’55 Chevy. Pretty soon friends of his asked us to do restorations for them. Before we knew it, we had a twelve-bay shop and eight technicians and mechanics working for us. It became a booming business, but even after restoring or rebuilding over 150 classic cars, we never recaptured the joy of doing those first few side by side.
I learned a great deal through that experience. So if you have ever thought about building a hot rod or restoring a muscle car but don’t know where to get started, I have five tips that can help you lasso a dream project.
1. Know your motivation
Does a car from your childhood stand out? Are you trying to build an investment or a daily driver? If this is your first project, I highly recommend doing it because you are passionate about a car or the restoration process. For 17 years classic car enthusiasts have been watching the televised Barrett-Jackson and the Russo and Steele collector car auctions, among others, practically drooling on their plasma screens. Some enjoy the exquisite workmanship, but more see the potential dollar signs. My advice is to build or restore a car out of love. Very few models will bring a large profit, despite the sentimental value we may attach to them. If you have a numbers-matching (i.e., all original components), mostly complete 1969 Pontiac Judge sitting in your barn in great condition, then you may well have a showpiece on your hands. Most others will simply be very cool cars.
2. Engage Your Local Car Culture Before You Buy
Most every American town or city will have car clubs and car shows. Get out and go to them. Check out the cars, talk to the owners, and make friends with them. Look at the types of cars, notice which are restorations back to original “stock” condition and which are customized. Being there and getting to know the guys and gals who have come before you will let you know who the great restoration guys in town are. You may also find out that some of those guys have suitable “project” cars available that they have, for whatever reason, decided not to restore themselves.
3. Fine-Tune Your Vision
So, now you’ve looked at a whole bunch of cars and, hopefully, are beginning to envision what you want to build. Which range of vehicle really gets your juices flowing? Do T-buckets and roadsters invade your dreams? Late ’60s muscle cars? Do hot-rodded ’34 coupes jump out at you or have you always had your heart set on ’55 Chevy? Do you want to bring it back to original condition or build a tricked-out custom job? The better defined your vision is, the better your decision making will be when you go drag a rust bucket out of a forgotten barn someplace.
4. Use Common Sense in Your Search for a Project Car
I realize that what is common sense for me may not be common sense for you. But there is one thing we all should be mindful of from the start: at the basic level, cars of the vintages I have discussed here are mostly made of steel. And steel rusts, that is just a fact. However, if the frame is still solid (not rusted through), I would not worry too much about how it looks. Surface rust or even some rusted out areas on lower panels is not a big deal. I would almost always choose a complete car—meaning all the trim pieces and parts—in rough condition over a relatively decent but incomplete car.
One final bit of common sense is to expand your search area. Classics are becoming more and more rare. If you live in upstate New York where you know weather and salt take a toll on bare steel, don’t be afraid to search for cars in Arizona, New Mexico, or Nevada, where the drier climate is less damaging to these vehicles. Craigslist and Facebook Marketplace are great tools to track these cars down. It may be cheaper for you to buy one across the country and have it transported to you than to repair major and extensive rust and frame damage from one that you find locally.
5. Have Patience and Enjoy the Journey
Be patient and find the right car for you. Understand that it will very likely take twice as long and cost twice as much as you first projected. And whether you plan to do much of the work yourself or pay someone to do it for you, focus on where you are at the moment. This is supposed to be therapeutic for you, so take pride when you have sandblasted and painted the old brake and clutch pedal assembly and it looks better than new. Take pride and find joy in tinkering about and polishing headlight bezels. Celebrate the first time you crank over the engine. Enjoy every step. You have been waiting a lifetime for it.
Photo credits: wikimedia.org, sicnag,