To all the project cars I’ve failed

Steven Cole Smith

My friend Tim Suddard is the publisher of Classic Motorsports magazine. He wrote a column a couple of years ago that thoroughly teed me off.

I confronted Tim, told him his column really made me mad.

“Which column?” he asked.

“The one with the title, ‘You are never going to get to all of your projects.’”

“What was wrong with it?” he said.

“It was right.”

The piece hit close to home. I have projects I’ll never get to if I live to be 90, and I don’t like to be reminded of that. Of course, the number of us who are still restoring cars at that age is rare, especially with my knees, so even that wouldn’t be a solution.

My history with projects is pretty grim, I must admit. The worst thing a car enthusiast can do is acquire acreage. We acquired over five acres, heavily wooded. Suddenly, when I’d spot a project car that was cheap enough—they were all cheap, believe me, there are no Shelby Cobras in my motley collection—I had a place to put it.

florida old car project rear three quarter vertical
Steven Cole Smith

I had places to hide stuff, too. My wife would say, “Why do we have two Scouts?” Rather than try to explain that I just happen to like International Harvester products, I could say, “You’re right! Too many Scouts!” and I’d just move one behind a different tree. Problem solved. Out of sight, out of [her] mind.

Blame it on chronic and lifelong anthropomorphism: the tendency to ascribe human attributes to an inanimate object. It’s been the subject of much research, across a variety of disciplines, but one point from a scholar at the University of Michigan nailed it for me. “Everyone knows someone with a beat-up old car that they just can’t bear to get rid of, even as the car becomes unreliable and begins to act with a mind of its own,” said Norbert Schwarz, a professor of marketing and psychology at Michigan’s Ross School of Business.

Not only do I know guys like that, I’m one of them, and I feel as though I’ve let my cars down.

vintage patina truck florida swamp land front
Steven Cole Smith

I acquired my first project when I was still in journalism school and working afternoons and evenings full time six or seven days a week. It was a 1957 Mercury, colored white and salmon. I drove by it every day where it sat at a small dealership. I’d driven it, and I loved the smell of the car, the clear plastic seat covers.

The price kept dropping to the point where it reached my modest budget, so I bought it. Mind you, I lived in a small townhouse and had two parking spaces already filled with Pontiac Trans Am and a Jeep J10 pickup, so even parking was a problem.

I quickly figured out that in my minimal spare time, I preferred riding my dirt bike (a suicidal Suzuki TM400, maybe the most unrideable motocross bike ever built) to working on the Mercury, but still I harbored grand plans for it.

Living, then and now, seems to get in the way of working on projects.

So I started out washing and waxing the Mercury. I ended up washing and waxing the Mercury.

I practically gave it away to a guy I worked with at 3M when I suddenly got a (low-paying) job in journalism in Louisiana. I also sold the J10, which I regret to this day. It was red with white spoked wheels a Buick-built V-8 with nickel-plated valves (I never tired of telling people that detail) and big Land Ruler raised-white-letter tires. I don’t know if they still make Land Rulers, but they never let me down in the mud. A few years ago I bought another J10. It awaits my attention.

Once in Louisiana, working for $225 a week, I ended up having to sell the 1977 Smokey and the Bandit TA/6.6 Trans Am, way too cheap. Loved that car. But I had already established my personal auto marketing strategy: Buy high and sell low, and I seldom deviate from that approach.

nissan z car badge patina
Steven Cole Smith

Project two was a Datsun 240Z, lacking a rear window and left front headlight and nacelle. It had an ignition switch that required you to hold the key in the “on” position with your right hand, steer with your left hand, and shift with … I don’t remember how I shifted. I got it home, which was a third-floor apartment. I tried to work on the Z in the parking lot, and even installed a custom-cut piece of thin Plexiglas in the rear window that looked pretty good. Now I had a newly lightweight custom Datsun! More to come.

But more never came. I was still working six or seven days a week, but the biggest problem was trying to work in that parking lot. I vowed that until I had a decent garage, no more projects. In violation of my non-recuperation policy, I actually sold the Z for a profit. Meanwhile, someone stole the Suzuki TM400, very likely saving my life.

I didn’t have deep regrets about those outcomes—that came a little later in life when I bought a place that should have been a project car mecca. Land! Three garages! A workshop with a hoist wired for 220v! Perfect! Or it should have been.

old vintage tractor rear three quarter
Steven Cole Smith

Life happened, as fast-forwarding to today demonstrates. It now breaks down to a two-car garage, mostly filled with tools and a couple of John Deere mowers and various crap. I have a one-car garage where the motorcycles live. And I have a 24×24 shop that is a perfect place to store and work on cars, but I always seem to have something to do on weekends. I like going to races and my job sometimes takes me to interesting places, such as the Mecum auction I recently attended. Others seem to balance a real life with working on their cars and trucks. I apparently cannot.

So, the International Harvester Scouts will probably go. The two 240Zs will probably go. The Pontiac Fiero race car is a goner, as is the Volkswagen Scirocco race car. The Pontiac Grand Am that belonged to my parents will probably end up in the crusher, because no one wants a Grand Am with the 2.5-liter Iron Duke engine. A shame: It just has 32,000 miles. There’s more, lots more, but you get the idea.

It’s all a shame, and I’ll miss my stuff, though driving by the multiple cars and trucks, waiting and rusting patiently (except the plastic Fiero), that line my long dirt driveway is depressing.

Still, I feel compelled to explain that I’m not one of those hoarders you see on cable TV. I don’t name the cars or ask how they are doing each day. But I was a person of last resort for some of these cars and trucks, and the idea that they deserved more sympathy is tough to shake.

Sympathetic. Maybe that’s the right word?

vintage car corner under cover closeup
Steven Cole Smith

Best I can do now is place the vehicles into the hands of people who will do something good with them.

Meanwhile, Suddard just posted a photo on Facebook showing how well his Bugeye Sprite restoration is going. Talk about rubbing salt into the wound.

I owe him an apology. Column still pisses me off, though.




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    What a great article and soooo timely! I just spent the whole day yesterday helping a friend move and rearrange his 10 non running vehicles (which are really not collectible)….as he is now in trouble with the city for violating the local “junked vehicle” ordinance. My friend who is in his late 60’s won’t consider the prospect of getting rid of any of them as he is “gonna restore them.” I have told him that he likely isn’t gonna live long enough to get it done but he won’t listen to anyone…it truly is really hard for some people to let go of old derelict vehicles….

    I bought one of my dream “project” cars while in my 40s. Now, well into my 70s, I’m trying to face the reality that I’m likely not gonna get it done – ever. Sure, I’ve completed other projects in the interim, but this one was a lifetime goal vehicle. And yet…
    It seemed sometimes like I was going to live forever, and finish that car and enjoy it like I would’ve when I was 20. But I’m not stupid – or at least not stupid enough to think I’m ever gonna enjoy ANYTHING like when I was 20. So why don’t I sell it? ‘Cause it’s a dream, and giving up on dreams is truly hard…

    I’m interested in what all is in the “more, lots more.” Cause if you’re still in Louisiana, I happen to be in Mississippi. And unfortunately for myself, I’m still in acquisition mode.

    I really liked the “buy high”. “sell low” comment…Being an impatient person made me very much the same when I was younger. Now I generally “buy reasonable”, “(barely) break even” instead…

    I had a of acquisition to the point of running afoul of the local ‘junkyard law’, but since then I have limited my collection to what I can keep operational with one ‘in progress’ spot. I have had a few that I had to send along to better homes… one was a 68 Coupe deVille which I bought with every intent of being a driver. The rough running condition that it had when I bought it turned out to be two burned valves due to the previous owner running a leaded motor on unleaded. I bought stainless valves and attempted to perform an overhaul in the work garage (I did not have one at home)… but I had to pack everything up and ‘hide’ it between work attempts and eventually gave up and sold the car ‘as-is’ to a very enthusiastic buyer. The second was a 66 Caprice wiich was a 100% impulse buy. The carburetor had a serious bog (and I wasn’t carburetor proficient at the time), I discovered there was no driver side window after attempting to roll it up, one of the rear suspension arms had been forcefully ripped out of the crossmember leaving a hole and three links to my 4 link rear suspension, and the body was basically carved out of a block of bondo. I was in the same no garage situation and sent that one along too. For the most part, everything since wound up as drivers (excepting the one currently under construction) and I still have most of them

    “buy high, sell low, and seldom vary from that course”. Man, that hits me in the gut. But I think you have put into words what many of us feel: we aren’t crazy, we are just sentimental, and we are optimistic enough to see what a car could be, but not well funded or self controlled enough to bring that vision to light. I have a list of cars I would like to build one day, and I realize most of them are never going to get made (and even if they are, no one is going to want them: who would want a 1995 Ford Bronco built as if Ford had allowed SVT to grace it with their Lightning goodness?). Anyway, good article, but I don’t like to be confronted by reason and good sense when I’m being sentimental. Your article hits the nail on the head, just like the other guy a few years ago.

    Dear Steven — Hey, not so fast on the Grand Am! Factory A/C? That’s a car that can be serviced, unlike anything new. Call the home office and look me up in Independence, Missouri. -RDM

    The old Grand Am with the Iron Duke,,, an engine that isn’t a VVT, non cam phasers, can use 10W 30 oil. NonAdaptive cruise. Non $1,500 hid headlights and 2.5hrs to install and reprogram….. I’ll bid on it!

    I would love to have the Tech4 powered Grand Am. I already have 2 6000’s with the same powerhouse! I am in my 40’s now and loved working on those cars as a teenager at the local Pontiac dealer. Seriously, how do I find this guy?

    If anyone is near Tampa/Orlando who wants the Grand Am, it’s theirs. It needs door molding on one side and the headliner stuck back up, but aside from just sitting, it’s in great shape. I’d love to see it saved by someone who wants it.

    I can totally relate. My wife says I never finish any projects. She’s wrong. I have almost everything from 1980 done. But projects shouldn’t interfere with my running for president of the Procrastinator’s Society next year, or the year after.

    Hey Bobo KC, my Mom had a 85 Grand Am with that motor. Over 200k miles and 15 years. No big issues. I seem to remember it only took like 2 or 3 quarts with a filter on an oil change…. BTW, I’m 15 miles East of you
    in Oak Grove

    I still have a 1986 Olds Calais with that 2.5 Iron duke, runs like a charm, had two others that rusted away but the motor still ran great with over 200k on them. I swear they would run without water or oil, but were not the quietest when running.

    This article hits home and unfortunately is too true. Which one will hit retirement and pushed out the door first, me or the car? Sadly I have to give up another part of each dream everytime I get my sore body up off the concrete floor. I spent more time taking care of my kids cars and other people’s rides to keep the motorpool going, than any spare time I left have at the end of the weekends.
    So I build a bigger shop to be efficient and keep the dream rolling. Start filling the shop with all the tools I need and have no room for the cars. The local motorpool grows even bigger when the word got out that I bought a lift.

    Just say “No” is my new motto.

    But on a happier note I do have one project car running after burning midnight oil and extra coffee at work.; enough to inspire all the other rolling projects at car shows. The remainder are still in the baskets they came in, waiting for their queue in the shop.

    Remember, when the dream does run to give your wife the first ride in the new roller. This should keep the shareholders interested enough limited funding available.
    Good Luck

    I manage this problem the best I can. When we moved from life with a 5 bay barn and some land I had to cut back a lot. The answer was motorcycles. You can stash a lot of motorcycles in a smaller space, but you have to keep them assembled. When you take a motorcycle apart it needs 5 times more room just to store it. I’m forced to either finish a project or at least put it back together just to get the Miata back in the garage. And, how many pairs of shoes does my wife have? We all have our collections.

    A varied collection of vehicles. Some of them would have been interesting to see moving again.

    While I do get projects done, that doesn’t mean that the list of projects is shrinking. My running joke is “I have so many projects that I live in the projects.”

    After 10 years of sitting, our ‘79 VW Super Beetle got registered last week. Miracles do happen, but not often enough.

    In the last six months or so I’ve sold two beloved cars – a ’61 Volvo P-1800 (owned 50 years) and a ’67 123 GT (owned 45 years). Both were driven extensively before being set aside for restoration – some day. I finally admitted that two remaining cars were all I had any chance of completing – and even that is questionable as I rapidly approach 80 y/o. Reality sucks.

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