How to score a derelict project car from a skeptical stranger
I’m always on the lookout for a project. My eternal hunt for overlooked and underappreciated classics causes me to follow a different route to the grocery store whenever I need a carton of milk, or take random exits off the interstate under the pretense of avoiding construction. After all, you never know where you’ll find something cool and worthy of rescue.
In the 20 years since I bought my first car—a ratty 1974 AMC Javelin I bought in eighth grade—some 60 cars have passed through my garage. I bought most of them after telling the owner, essentially, “I like that. Want to sell it?” The strategy doesn’t always work; I’m still awaiting a call from the guy in Florida with a Ford XB Falcon disintegrating in his yard, but I’ve found it far more successful than you think.
Fortune favors the bold, it’s been said, and it sure beats waiting around for someone to bring a car straight to your driveway. Allow me to share a few suggestions for a successful hunt.
My fiance and I were exploring a back road outside of Charleston, South Carolina not long ago when I spotted a lichen-encrusted 1980 AMX resting on its rockers, its beautiful turbine wheels long since lost to time or thieves. The car sat in a yard overgrown with a jungle of palms and bamboo, and my spidey sense suggested it might not be wise to just go wandering onto the man’s property to inquire about a car he may have no interest in selling.
Discretion being the better part of valor, I went up the road to Morrison’s Burger Hut, where I wrote a thoughtful note on the back of my breakfast receipt. I explained my deep love of the fine machines from AMC, and how I’d love to get that rolling hair metal concert of a car back on the road where it belongs. I tucked the note into the mailbox and went on my way.
Two days later a fellow named Nick called and said I could come take a look if I wanted. A short time later, Nick, who admitted he had a penchant for starting projects but not necessarily finishing them, pointed out the car’s disintegrated floorboards. He showed me where the battery had fallen through the inner fender. Then he nodded toward the wildlife sanctuary that had been established inside the car since he parked it in 1994. I found myself wondering why I’d even bothered tucking $300 in my pocket before leaving the house. Nick sensed my apprehension. “What if it were free,” he asked.
I can do free.
We shook hands on the deal and I promised to get the car back on the road. I made good on that promise just last week, when the car—outfitted with a new engine and held together with a few miles of welding wire—barked to life and blanked the neighborhood in tire smoke.
Never let your apprehension of approaching a stranger keep you from a car. Sometimes a note and some patience can open the door to a deal.
Respect privacy and beware the hermit
I drove a rambunctious, ratty Studebaker Hawk through high school. I loved that car, but that didn’t keep me from developing one hell of a crush on a faded yellow Toyota Corona with a vinyl—vinyl!—top the color of a ripe banana.
I drove past that glorious example of all that is right and good with Japanese cars every morning on the way to school. It sat beneath a carport about 100 feet off the road, alongside a brick bungalow on a large plot owned by a recluse. The place was overgrown with pine saplings and goldenrod, and it was clear to everyone, including the developer who’d been trying to buy the property, that the owners weren’t interested in talking with anyone.
Still, I wanted that car. During a particularly boring lecture on the Spanish-American War I ripped a page from my notebook and wrote a long, impassioned note explaining how rare that car was and how much I liked it, and asking if there were any way I could buy it. I left the note inside a mailbox crammed with business cards from real estate agents.
My mother confronted me as soon as I got home from work. “Some lady left you a very angry rambling message,” Mom said. “She sounded very upset. What did you do this time?” I could understand her concern; it was just a week before that I’d had my school parking pass revoked after doing donuts. Oops. She hit play on the answering machine. An angry voice with an intimidating accent skipped any pleasantries and went straight to accusations of trespassing, an allegation that I’d actually sat in the car, complaints that I’d made her feel uncomfortable, and explicit instructions to never, ever contact her again.
I honored her request. FIfteen years later, the Toyota remains just where I saw it. Unless it turns up in an estate sale one day, I’ve accepted the fact I’ll probably never get it.
Curb your enthusiasm
I went through a phase a few years ago where I was so crazy for Simcas that I commuted in a 1971 model 1204 that looked like a charred and blistered crème brûlée. I eventually recovered from this madness, but not before convincing myself to buy another 1204 and a turbocharged Dodge K-car and combine the best bits of both to create a… well, I’m not sure exactly. It seemed like a great idea at the time.
I’d heard about a guy in Chicago with a teal 1204, so I tracked him down and gave him enough money to scuttle his plan of making it a Lemons racer. I hauled it home through a snowstorm, parked it in the driveway, and went about finding a Dodge. A few weeks later, I met a fellow who was atoning for past sins by joining the seminary. Having no need of worldly possessions, he was selling his Dodge Shelby CSX-T. Sold.
With the two cars parked side by side, I realized the old Simca was, well, an old Simca, and a rusty one at that. The Shelby, on the other hand, was far too nice to part out. I scuttled my original plan and set about giving the Shelby the love it deserved. I kept the Simca and had a lot of fun with it, but wasted a lot of time and money launching a project that went nowhere.
We’ve all done that, of course, but the lesson remains: Keeping cart and horse in proper sequence is essential. Before making an offer on a car, make sure you have a firm idea of what you want to do with it, what that’s going to cost, how long it’s going to take, and what it will take in blood and treasure to get there. Balance that against what the car is worth now and what it might be worth when you’re done. Sometimes the best project is the one you don’t start, but only daydream about.
My love of funky old cars has introduced me to some truly wonderful people over the years. That, in turn, has led me to some truly wonderful cars.
I once had a 1984 Ford Falcon Ute, which is Australia’s answer to the Ranchero. I finally got tired of the sky-high back end and yanked the leaf springs to get them de-arched. That led me to truck repair shop in an industrial part of Charleston dotted by porn stores and collision centers. I told a very burly fellow named Ken what I wanted to do with the Ute. He showed Socratic patience as he happily answered my constant questions about the process. When I attempted to “help” him by holding the spring as he secured it in a press, Ken, who I am sure could have de-arched the springs by hand, told me, firmly but politely, “Boy, I’ll take care of it. You can go snoop around in back.”
I took the hint and stepped outside, where I found a 1990 Mazda Miata. The sun had long since turned its red paint pink, but the car was otherwise straight and clean and had just 90k on the clock. Ken didn’t seem like the Miata type, so I jokingly offered him $800 for it. Hold on, he said. Be right back.
He returned five minutes later with a signed title in hand. Turns out the owner was only too happy to be rid of it. I ran to the bank before anyone thought better of this plan and returned to find the car idling in the parking lot. The fuel pump shot craps not two miles down the road, but even that couldn’t wipe the grin off my face.
Always remember that people are as big a part of this hobby as the cars. Showing a genuine interest in them and in what they do leads to new friends. And, occasionally, new cars.
Respectfully assess the car
A few months ago, my colleague Mark and I were visiting a customer named Tim, a fellow well-versed in moonshine, muzzleloaders, and local idiomatic expressions I still don’t quite understand. A funky old car at the corner of his property in rural North Carolina caught my eye, so I asked if I could take a look. Go ahead, he said.
I soon recognized it as a Peugeot 504. It had taken a beating in a wreck at some point, and had been rebuilt with red, blue, and gold pieces pulled from donor cars. The car wore a plate from Dade County, Florida, and a California Club Miami Beach parking sticker. I could only imagine what sort of mayhem an eccentric Floridian could get into with a French sedan. I peeked through the window. The tan interior was flawless, the odometer showed just 14,000 miles.
I told Tim it was a fine car, a classic that would look great once properly repaired and painted, or perhaps given a Safari Rally conversion. I asked what he planned to do with it. “Well,” he said in a slow drawl. I reckoned I was gonna replace that Detroit 4-53 in my sawmill with this little Peugeot diesel. But you can come back and see if you can get it running. If you can, it’s yours cheap.”
We shook on the deal, and checked out a few other cars until one of Dave’s dogs took a bite out of Mark’s arm. We spent a good chunk of the day in the local emergency room, laughing about the absurdity of it all.
I returned a few days later and, after making sure that dog wasn’t around, got the Peugeot clackity-clacking well enough to slide around Dave’s field a few times before loading it onto a trailer. The obvious lesson here is to thoroughly check out a car so you know exactly what you’re getting. No less important, though, is being polite and respectful. No one wants to be told that old heap in their yard is an old heap.
Expect nothing, and take no for an answer
I spent a year of college studying in Melbourne. I hadn’t even shaken off the jetlag before I’d bought a metallic blue Ford EA Falcon S, an Aussie riff on the LTD with a rorty straight-six and five-speed manual.
That car was awesome. I competed in time trials at Sandown, Winton, and Phillip Island. I made a 5000-mile road trip through the outback. Nothing could kill that car, including three collisions with kangaroos, which are to Australia as armadillos are to Texas. I loved that car, and was genuinely heartbroken when I discovered I couldn’t import it when I returned home. Something about it not being old enough to skirt DOT and EPA rules. Ugh.
Not to be deterred, I set about Googling things like “how to get around stupid regulations that keep you from importing awesome cars.” During my research, I caught wind of a rumor that there was an ‘89 Ford EA Falcon GL in Texas that someone was using to deliver mail of all things. Legend had it the car had come stateside for air conditioner durability testing, and somehow escaped the crusher.
Intrigued, I pulled every thread I could, combing through posts on forums, which led me to the owner’s parts guy, which led me to his neighbor, and the, finally after no small number of emails and phone calls, the man himself.
Nope, he told me. Not for sale. I persisted. So did he. No way, no how, he told me. I accepted defeat. That same car came up for sale 14 years later, not even an hour from my house. It’s sitting in my driveway right now. The point remains: You should always approach every old car with the idea that you aren’t going to get it, because the odds are, you won’t.
Logos, pathos, ethos
The odds are that even the most derelict vehicles holds some value to the owner, be it monetary or sentimental. Convincing them to let you take ownership often requires making a compelling case for them to sell. I’ve found it best to be honest, and to convey your plans for the car with enthusiasm. You want the owner to know you will cherish, even love, that old heap, and you will follow through on your plans, even if they are a bit, shall we say, reckless.
I learned the value of this in high school. I spent a good chunk of my teenage years racing hoopties on a track some friends and I carved through a buddy’s yard. My friend Steve and I were always looking for ratty old cars to add to our fleet, a search that led us to a silver 1982 Datsun Stanza liftback relegated to the woodpile outside a rough-and-tumble house not far from where Steve lived.
One day, we mustered the moxie to knock on the door. A big bear of a man in stained sweatpants and a Mickey Mouse hoodie answered the door, blinking like he hadn’t seen the sun in weeks. He took one look at us and started to shut the door. “Hi,” I told him. “We’re here about the Datsun,” We quickly explained that we wanted to turn that old car into a race car and send it out in a blaze of glory. He smiled, disappeared for a moment, and returned with a key. He gave it to us, no questions asked and no remuneration required.
I’m pretty sure every one of the yellowjackets in the hive hidden inside that car stung me, but we finally got that old Datsun running and drove it to Steve’s house. A few weeks later, the Carter single-barrel carb we’d jury-rigged to the manifold started spitting gas all over the exhaust manifold. With visions of a bone-dry field going up in flames, Steve and I doused the fire by upending a two-liter bottle of off-brand Mountain Dew over the carb.
We’d kept our promise to send the car out in a blaze of glory.
One way of convincing a reluctant seller to finally let go of that dilapidated old classic is to play to his fantasy of seeing it get the love it deserves. This, by the way, also works if you’re selling a car that you don’t want to see cannibalized for parts or left for dead.
That old Javelin I bought as a kid is a great example of this. I kept that thing around for nearly 20 years, an absolutely epochal period of time given that cars usually come and go through my garage within a year or two. I cherish the times I had with that car, learning how to make a bootlegger turn or manipulate the ignition switch and accelerator pump to make the car backfire. (I eventually blew the muffler off the car with that trick.) More than that, though, that car taught me how to be a mechanic.
It doesn’t take much imagination to think of all the ways a platoon of high-school kids armed with a Craftsman tool set can screw up a car. The Javelin endured no end of ham-fisted repairs, and I kept it around for years. Eventually, though, I needed the space. It had to go.
I couldn’t bear the idea of sending it out into the world to face an uncertain future. I wanted it to go to someone who would love it. Or at least enjoy it. So I listed it on the American Motors Owners forum for the low, low, low price of zero dollars. The only condition for ownership was that I be given right of first refusal when the new owner finally decided to sell. I got a few calls, and grilled every prospective owners on just what they intended to do with the car. I didn’t want someone grabbing it for the seats, which were pristine, or cutting patch panels from it body and junking the rest. I finally agreed to hand it over to a very nice gentleman who made the trip from Washington, D.C. I think he was surprised by just how many pieces had had to load onto his trailer, but he took it away happily.
That was three years ago. I wonder what he’s done with the car. Maybe I’ll give him a ring to see if he’s kept his promise.