Cars & Auto

What to Do When Your P.O.S. Classic Car Restoration Project Crashes & Burns

Rebuilding a classic car is a dream for many auto enthusiasts, particularly for gearheads who know what the hell they are doing. The other side of the coin is that these rebuild and restoration projects can cost a fortune and eat up endless time and energy. Some of these rebuilds can be costly enough that the repairs, restoration and replacement parts can easily cost two-times or three-times as much as the car could ever be worth.

This is a bit of a personal story, in two parts. One part is my own fortunate avoidance of the urge to commit to restoring old cars with the ambition of driving for a few months and then selling them to the next sucker who knows how to care for project cars. The second part is about my friend Michael’s tragic time-suck and pocketbook eater that just never seems to go away.

I have personally dodged the urge to restore an old Studebaker, a running (barely) VW bus, a 1960s Corvette without an engine and wheels, one of the old 1960s Mercedes-Benz 600 limos. I once missed an opportunity to buy two of the early 1960s Cadillac Fleetwood limos, one of which was the “spare parts” car. I even managed to avoid reliving my childhood by avoiding the chase to buy the equivalent of my mother’s old giant 1970s Cadillac Eldorado red convertible land yacht, which literally belched flames out of the A/C at her when it decided to self-destruct one afternoon.

And for my friend Michael, his railroading passion has led him down the journey of owning what most modern age people would assume is a crazy old coot’s truck where neither the driver nor the truck are willing to just fade away.

Old Beat Up Truck

Sometimes people purchase just an old frame. Sometimes its a frame with part of an engine. And there are other combinations before getting into just how many rodents and insects have gotten their chance over the years to eat up whatever upholstery and cushions are covering those seats. And good luck finding the replacement dashboard that has been sitting in the sun for the last 22 years.

Collectors Dashboard spent some time and effort to look up the basics for any car parts, systems and so on that will have to go into a basic rebuild of a classic car that needs a lot of work. These project cars are the ones that any person who considers themselves as a gearhead can take over “on the cheap.” That’s the ambition anyhow.

And when it’s called a P.O.S. you know it just isn’t going to be a good story. But maybe some laughs will come from it.

Before getting into the basic cost aspects of any classic car restoration, there is a lot more than the actual dollars that get spent on a car restoration. If there is a body work that has to be done or rust that needs removal, it may involve a hefty body shop bill. Then there is the cost of painting or repainting these beasts to turn a jalopy into your weekend fun toy. Many classic cars come without engines or they have countless missing parts under the hood. You know the car battery is dead or gone, and only the powers that run the universe can tell you how many hoses and plastic items under the hood and throughout the car are either rotted out or damaged and need replacement.

Moving further back down the vehicle, tires and/or wheels may not be present or may be trashed. Who wants to bet on the condition of the brakes? Did your favorite felons manage to steal the catalytic converter for the metals inside them yet? And what about the old steel bumpers that were prizes for recycling cash over the last decade or so?

OK, so we haven’t added up averages for your jalopy yet, but here are a few ways to do these just on the cheap:

  • $500 for an acceptable paint job you’ll be very disappointed in
  • $250 for tires and wheels from a junkyard you won’t feel safe driving on
  • $50 for a car battery that you pray works more than a week
  • $300 for cushions and DIY upholstery
  • $200 for a used dashboard that magically comes with the wiring
  • $50 for the cheapest (barely working) lights you can find
  • $350 for a salvaged wreck engine
  • $100 for cheap brake pads and related parts
  • $300 for miscellaneous hoses, lines and wires, windshield wipers and on
  • $100 for full oil and fluids

Of course, let’s just skip on the air conditioning, heating and defrost systems because you don’t have to pass inspection anymore. Let’s also hope that somehow all the windows are intact… On the surface, this is just $2,200. That said, we glossed over a lot here and went about as cheap as any averages go on basic web searches for news and/or used parts. But how much did we miss? And how much will mechanic costs be to get the hard parts of this done if you are not the perfect Mr. or Ms. Fixer-Upper?

Now before you start adding the obvious costs above, there is also the endless time-suck factor that has to be considered. Just for some pontification, what is 200 hours of your free time actually worth? Or, what about 100 hours of your free time?

Michael’s project is dubbed “American Beauty” and I am going to be honest that this is a case of beauty not being in the eye of the beholder. The good news is that he did get one of the trucks up and running and it did actually make and survive the 2,000 drive from Spokane, Washington to the Texas Hill Country. Fortunately, gas was dirt cheap during the pandemic and there is no reason to worry about the miles because no living soul knows the last working date of that odometer was.

Where the “American Beauty” turns into full-blown American Ugly is that there are still two more square-body frame “specimens” that still have to be dealt with. This 1988 Burlington Northern Chevy High-Rail truck was made specifically for the railroads. Michael did get the upper hand here in that the car did not break down on its way here. Still, his running “specimen” has angered more than one set of homeowner associations — and he still has two stranded examples outside of his dead and ugly zombie trucks stranded close to Havre, Montana.

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The best news of the story is that the first jalopy does actually drive and it is still alive. As for the other two zombie truck frames, there happens to be a metals recycling provider in Havre pays $200 if the car has a battery, catalytic converter and manages to run. If not, they pay $75 per ton — and either way those frames are being crushed for recycling.

If you want to know where the 200 hours came from, he’s easily got that much time and effort into it. At least his repairs and costs to make it run have “only” cost about $2,000 to date (that he is willing to fess up about!).

Some projects are fun and can even be profitable for those who are able to do the work themselves and who enjoy it. And for those of us (yes, us!) who aren’t exactly gearheads who just want a finished project — there have to be other ways of killing this much time and throwing away thousands of dollars.

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