How to start your shitty project car

Your largest expense will not be the car that’s for sale, it will be all of your time and money that will go into it.

How I started: A pandemic and having money to blow

It all pointed to one thing baby: a project car at $800.

During the pandemic in June 2020, I bought the car and instantly bought a small set of tools for me to start wrenching. We strapped the idle Volkswagen back to my sister’s house about a mile away with a loose tow strap and a lot of hope. My best friend from kindergarten drove my other car while I steered my new project car.

I called my sister after the fact to park my new car in front of her house, thankfully she was fine with it. I spent the next 3 weeks looking through the manual, learning, doing, and making a bunch of mistakes, and trips to Home Depot and O’Reilly’s for new parts and supplies.

The story of my project car could be translated across every first project:

  1. Boy likes car.
  2. Car breaks down.
  3. Boy hates car.
  4. Boy somehow gets the car working.

Repeat step 1 until you run out of money.

And the cycle repeats.

The costs of mods

Again, the car cost me $800. Let’s see where this goes.

  • Add $2100 in back taxes for the car
  • Add $300 for a basic set of hand tools like sockets, wrenches, screwdrivers, jack stands, etc.
  • Add $130 for new fluids, filters, and some seals
  • Add $250 for full brake refresh
  • Add $500 for a variety of fuel injection parts
  • Add $2000 for a carburetor conversion
  • Add $650 for a new exhaust system
  • Add $1500 for new tools like impact wrenches, tool boxes, organizers…
  • Add … add… add…

Total: $7960

These were all the major costs that I can remember off the top of my head. But you can easily slip more of the costs in when they are only $20-40 a trip to O’Reilly’s or AutoZone.

Is the monetary cost worth it to spend on this shitty 80s car that doesn’t even go fast? Absolutely.

The benefit of experience and a cheap car

The amount of money I spent was a big upfront cost, but in the long run, the amount of time and work I put into fixing, maintaining, and outright modifying this car is well worth it. Wrenching on my own car taught me nearly everything I needed to know through trial and error. It took me 4 weeks to learn how to do the timing of my engine. It took me another 4 weeks to properly install (and repair) the front and rear brakes. It took about 2 months to diagnose my fuel system properly.

You get the point.

I made it a point to myself that I wanted to use this car as a primer for the future. I enjoy this car a lot, but I know this will not be my last. I want to feel free to experiment with this car and learn the principles of the engineering behind a good, reliable car. I did my own wiring and learned to read the diagrams for the future. I made parts and designed and went head-first into a lot of the mini-projects of the car. And after 2 years of working hard at it, still, there is so much to learn!

Make your first project car the way you want

Don’t try to impress others. Impress yourself.

Slap a turbo on it! Put an oil cooler! Muffler delete! NEW EXHAUST.

On its own, they are not outright bad or incorrect statements, but don’t just add or remove things just because it sounds right! In the beginning, it’s easy to indulge in modifying your car. It is fun! But mod towards how you want it to be, don’t stay fixed on the mod itself.

If it’s your daily driver, do you want the car to be fast, reliable, or cheap? Given a bunch of money, what’s the dream car? Paint job? Repairs? Dents? Work backward from your build and it’ll be a lot easier to choose your mods.

In my case, I wanted to stay naturally aspirated. I wanted the cabby to be a cool beach cruiser that I can take near the beach. I wanted it to be reliable enough that I didn’t have to worry about being stranded. It didn’t have to be the perfect paint job, but good enough to stand out. The rust is shitty and it’s ok!

I put a lot of work around maintainability and reliability. I could have left the fuel injection system if it was reliable and cheap to maintain, but parts were few and far, not to mention the cost and time to ship all of the parts. I carbureted this car because it was far more accessible to find parts and maintain the car.

Final words: Drive your car.

The end goal is to be able to drive your car in the way you wanted. Whether it’s your daily, drift missile, beater, ricer, slammed, track, or cruiser, drive the car that you want in the end.

Stick with the friends that will lend you a hand. Be excited to drive it and give a joyride to someone you enjoy hanging out with. When someone asks you about your car, there better be a fucking twinkle in your eye and an automatic grin to talk about your car. Be proud of your work because you know how much time and effort you put into it. Don’t compare it to others, compare it to how far you’ve come.

There’s always going to be a better car, a better version of what you have. Acknowledge it, be honest about your car, and move towards your dream and I promise you will not regret what you will do.