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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    People are amazed when I tell them I still have my first car, a ‘64 Corvair convertible that I bought in 1979. I was well into the mechanical refurbishment until I drove it into a side garage with every intention to get back to it. That was over 20 years ago. “Someday”, I say, but I doubt that day will ever come. Though seeing this red ‘64 Corvair in the auction pages is bringing memories, and perhaps motivation.

    I am fortunate enough to have a 2-bay shop in my basement, in addition to the regular 2-car garage upstairs. My personal rule is that I won’t own more cars than I can garage – so that means a daily for me and one for the wife, and two spots for fun / project cars. Even though as a mechanical omnivore I’m always tempted by shiny objects, my rule has served me well. The care and feeding of four vehicles, plus a motorhome, plus a teenager car, is all my time and money can handle. And even at that, my one current project is a very, very slow affair.

    My Dad worked at Plant 51 where they built that Iron Duke. If you want to listen to someone with a ton of detail about quality at GM in the 80’s, he’s your man. He was a union CutterGrinder, but also did a stint in Quality Worklife, solving quality problems at the plant. He was in the Union, so he had more leeway when investigating issues than an engineer would. He also bought an ’84 6000, drove it 100K, we pulled the engine and trans, had LSM Engineering machine the block and head, I assembled the engine, trans rebuilt by Fraley’s, and it all went back together and he put another 40K on it before he retired it after an accident. It would get 35 MPG and had plenty of power. Dad, and most folks that worked at that plant, knew they built a superior quality and cost effective engine, but it’s hard to get excited about a OHV 4 banger, when Olds was developing there DOHC 4. Dad has told me many times about engineers from the Olds plant visiting 51 and telling my Dad that he was exaggerating the truth about cylinder roundness and tool wear. They told him it was impossible, but truth is Plant 51 was a well oiled machine with great workers who knew there stuff and continuous quality improvement was ingrained there. GM shuttled it anyway.

    “Buy high, sell low.”

    I accidentally broke that rule once, sort of. In 1983 my 1971 Subaru was totaled in a wreck that was the other guy’s fault. I bought the car for $200 and got $350 from the insurance company. (The adjuster didn’t bother to come see it and it was rough.)

    This article describes me almost perfectly! However, as I’m 70 in 3 weeks, retired on a fixed income, living in Sun City AZ (where it is frowned upon to make noise while working on cars, and having 2 major surgeries in 3 years, I find that even tho I have tons of time, I have no money, and more importantly, no energy to work on much of anything. Add to that the pain that results of abusing my body when I was younger, I find that I just don’t want to work on anything too complicated. As it is, I have a huge stash of Corvair parts (a few of which are almost valuable) that I pay $150/mo for and I’m too lazy to sort and sell any of it. Old age sux.

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