I have friends who chase after anything that moves. It doesn’t matter what’s going on under the surface—If the outside looks good, they’ll drag it home with them and deal with the consequences in the morning. I’m much more selective in the trash I invite home with me. When it comes to either making the cut or remaining a wallflower, I employ eight simple rules for something becoming my project.
1. It’s gotta be under $1,000. I’ve paid more for vehicles, but I’d estimate at least 90 percent of the projects I’ve built in the past 20 years (and there have been a LOT of them) were purchased for under $1,000.
2. It’s gotta have papers. There’s no executive amnesty for a ’51 Cadillac ambulance or a ’73 C104 Commando. Whenever I’m buying a pile of junk—no matter what the asking price—the first question I ask is, “Does it have a title?” If not, I’ll rake the seller over the coals on the price. Ask me about the time I bought a super-clean Wrangler with lost paperwork for $500.
3. It’s gotta have character. I hate belly button vehicles. And truth be told, many models I’ve owned are belly button vehicles. But even belly button vehicles can drip character like honey given enough time, wear, weather, and previous owner shenanigans.
4. It’s gotta be pre-smogged, one way or the other. I’m in Commiefornia, where the smog police require every ’76-newer vehicle to not only run clean through the tailpipe sniffer test but pass a visual inspection ensuring each piece of factory-issued smog equipment is in place and working—even if it blows cleaner out the tailpipe with pieces missing. So, I either go for pre-smog ’75-older models or I require the seller has smogged the vehicle themselves before I buy. That is actually the law in this state, but nobody seems to follow it but me.
5. It’s gotta have glasses. It’s not a fetish thing. Glass is expensive. A cracked windshield is OK, but I don’t want to mess with trying to put a roll-up window in its track or chase down some rare, curved rear wing window. If it’s an older vehicle with smashed in windows, I’ll most likely walk away.
6. It’s gotta have a clean body. As an East Coast kid, I got indifferent to rust and body rot. They were just par for the course. But living the past 20-something years in the Southwest has ruined me for rot. I don’t mind a bit of surface rust. In fact, given the glorious patina most of my rigs have, I seem to prefer it. However, if I’m looking at something with rotted-out panels and portions of the frame that I can snap off with my fingers, I’m gonna hang my nose in the air.
7. It’s gotta have unique trinkets and old-time hardware. I’ve bought an entire vehicle before to get a set of cool Sears-branded hubs and a Belleview winch. Really, I’m that twisted. Don’t believe me? Read number eight.
8. It’s gotta match a part I already have. Yes, I am actually just warped enough to buy a whole vehicle so I can use a part I have laying on the shelf. The earliest example of this is my orange ’53 Willys flatfender I bought for $400 so I could use the genuine Warn Overdrive I plucked from a junkyard Scout for $50.
Those are my rules and with each of my vehicular purchases I’ve followed at least one of them. For some of my purchases, I’ve followed all of them. They may not make sense to everybody, but I’ve been pretty happy with my fleet of terrible vehicles over the years, so I guess they work for me. Overall, any successful project build has to have a hook; something that draws you in and invests you in it emotionally. For me, it’s usually a really capable vehicle with great hardware, clean engineering, and a ratty-looking exterior. I can’t calculate how many times I’ve parked any one of my rigs and been swamped with people drawn to it like a tractor beam, only to be asked, “When are you gonna finish it with a paint job?” Perfect.