Why do people abandon projects? The answer may not be simple

Phillip Thomas

You’ve seen the tarped silhouette before—the barn-cocooned, garaged-entombed remnants of a machine lost to time. Trees growing through the engine bay, saplings sprouted from the food stores of rodents. You’ve probably driven past one for years at one point or another in your life, some slowly eroding hulk that slides further into neglect each time you see it. It’s hard to watch the rust grow underneath bubbles of paint that are slowly detaching from the sheetmetal, the headliner forming wispy fabric stalactites. For a lot of gearheads, the degeneration of an abandoned project car can be almost infuriating to watch. 

The recovery of an abandoned project and its rescue from the clutches of doom is a universally appealing story, and the documentation of “barn find” vehicles has become an automotive niche in its own right. The process is a small win for everyone—classic cars are a finite resource, and any one that’s brought back to life to be enjoyed again is considered an act of preservation. There’s a popular view that people who hoard a car aren’t taking care of it. Letting it sit is considered by many to be an act of spite, a conscious attack on the machine’s well-being. These stalled projects have provoked some extreme reactions, too, with some risking prison time to rescue a vehicle from another’s neglectful clutches. 

The flipside became my own situation years ago while looking over the yellow 1970 Gremlin that was sitting in my garage. I had rescued it from behind a rental house in Venice Beach, but it was becoming increasingly clear that I couldn’t give it the restoration it required. Too many things ahead on the to-do list, changing priorities. The Gremmie, though, deserved more—preservation and stewardship. The owner of NHRA’s BB/GS record, and one of the earliest turbocharged combos in drag racing, the Sassy Gremlin had lived a brief but brutal period of dominance. Little remained of the original car other than the sheetmetal and glass. Supported by a four-linked Chevy truck axle up front with an Olds-Pontiac 9.3-inch axle on ladder bars in back, it had been carved up to house a 354 Hemi with a blower (and, later, a pair of Garrett turbos). The Gremlin never even turned street miles with its original engine; Paul Pittman, the owner, had Ricker Motors pull the driveline at the dealership when it was sold new. 

In 1972 the Sassy Gremlin would break the BB/GS record with the turbocharged Hemi during a match at Irwindale. Pittman had shattered the old 9.27-second record with a blistering 9.02 at 158 mph. It was such a slap in the face that the blower crowd mutinied the record out of BB/GS, a class that can be translated as an altered chassis with forced-induction, gasoline-fueled engines. As a compromise to the roots superchargers that defined the class to that point, the NHRA pushed the Sassy Gremlin into the newly created BB/GS-T class (T delineating the turbocharged engine within the “GS” gasoline/supercharged designation). While the car would eventually run 8.87 at 162 mph, rumor holds that Paul Pittman was unhappy with the decision to reclassify the car. He lost interest in developing it further and sold it to Carl Smith, minus the turbos. Smith raced the Gremlin for another decade, eventually swapping out the Hemi for a big-block Chevy before retiring it by 1987. 

But describing the next phase in the Gremmie’s life as “retirement” is a bit dishonest. It was shoved in the backyard, tucked behind a garage in Riverside, California, where it languished for nearly two decades before Smith passed away from the very same health issues that ended his NHRA racing. His death would be the only way the Sassy Gremlin would re-emerge into the public eye; Smith had resisted selling the car, according to family members, but it’s impossible to say exactly why he held onto it for so long. The Gremlin made it to Venice Beach as Smith’s estate was sold off, stuffed behind another garage by its next owner for nearly ten years until the car was practically worthless, which led to it ending up on Craigslist Free for me to find. Initially, I saw it as nothing more than a pile of parts to strip and sell—a set of Super Tricks could be seen peeping out in the photos and the piecemeal vintage parts could bring side money. Only through the means of its now-current owner, George Helmer, did I discover the car’s true legacy.

When I decided to finally sell the Gremlin, I had to be honest with myself on the reasons why I had stuffed it away for another couple years on top of all this. There were, naturally, some factors outside my control as to why the project didn’t kick off, but at this given moment, I was in charge of its future fate. 

Rarely, I feel, does anyone shove a car away with the wholesale knowledge that it’ll be the last thing they really do with it. While the very act of storing something is closer to purgatory than progress, few people knowingly set a project aside as their final act. It’s not like cars are in any way convenient or cheap to store. Even if you have the land or rented space, it’s still a luxury to have even more than enough room for a daily driver, much less something that serves no practical purpose. Even inaction is a committed action, and there’s a certain level of responsibility needed even when a car doesn’t actively demand your full attention. Smith had stowed the Gremlin, but he could’ve easily sold the car at any given moment after leaving the sport of drag racing. Did the car stay behind that garage in Riverside until his death because it was a manifestation of better health, something to return to when it all got better? An idol of a better time, a wishful alternative timeline in which the Gremlin was still turning out timeslips and paychecks? Hell, even if the car sat all this time, is that so wrong if it gave the man motivation to live another couple years?

I could keep putting effort into preserving it—my dry-kept garage had served the Gremlin better than the previous 30-odd years in the California sun—but what did the car truly deserve, and at what point was I being hopelessly selfish about time and resources? 

Ultimately, I felt a duty to pass the car along to someone who I knew was in the position to restore it, and had the care and knowledge to do so. The tipping point came from some sense of care, I told myself. It probably could’ve gone to a lesser-known buyer for more money, but I wasn’t interested in seeing the car become another manifestation of a static future. Most of the other suitors only hoped to resurrect the Sassy Gremlin; George Helmer had been actively searching for the car while making progress on other restorations. He wasn’t leveraging cars as a portal to the right moment, someday down the road—he was already and actively invested in his projects. Thankfully, he was also sensitive to my vision for the Gremlin. 

When I see another abandoned project car, I see another Mr. Smith and his backyard Gremlin—but imagining his story now gives me reason to pause. I see a car put away reluctantly, perhaps, falling into disrepair through originally good intentions. Whether that someone was trying to preserve that machine or its roots in a memory is entirely impossible to gauge from the curb, a judgement I hold back more these days. 

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