Getting into the Old Car Hobby

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On warm summer weekends, in neighborhoods all over the country, the sounds of the past burble to life: hemi-head 1950s-era V-8 Chrysler letter cars, Pontiac GTOs and Chevy Camaros – maybe even the gattling gun idle of a 1930s-era V-16 Cadillac. Chrome, fins, carburetors and BFGoodrich Radial T/As roll out of garages, heading for a show – or just a happy cruise down memory lane.

The old car hobby – owning, fixing-up and driving vintage vehicles – remains a great American diversion, involving an estimated 500,000 people, according to Dave Brownell of Hemmings Motor News, the country’s premier old-car classified ad monthly. Hemmings is known as the “bible of the old car hobby,” and has about with 250,000 subscribers and been published since 1954.

Skinned knuckles aside and cross-threaded bolts aside, it can be tremendously gratifying to commune with a machine from a bygone time, to figure out how it works and, even better, get it to work again – and work right.

It’s also hobby almost anyone can get into – and at any stage in life.

While it’s possible to spend big money if your tastes run to exotic and rare models such as the 1954-56 Mercedes 300SL gullwing, or any of the pre-WWII “coach-built” chariots such as Bugattis, supercharged Cord 810s, or Duesenbergs – it’s easier on  your finances to dig in to an affordable latter-day classic such as a vintage VW Beetle, Chevy Corvair, MG or  even a Camaro, Mustang or similar car from the later ’60s and early-mid 1970s.  So long as you don’t focus on the highest-performance/lowest production versions (like a Z28 Camaro, or Mustang Boss 302 or 289 Hi-Po), anyhow – and stick with the standard-issue versions.

Many mass-produced classics of the 1950s and 1960 and ’70s are still obtainable for well under $15,000 in  solid “driver” condition – the hobbyist’s term for a cosmetically presentable (good paint, nice interior) and mechanically “all there” classic car that you can drive for fun as you fix it up. Stuff built during the so-called “smog” era – about 1975-through the early-mid ’80s – is usually even cheaper (again, excepting rare/desirable models such as the Buick Regal Grand Nationals of the later Reagan Years). And if you think out of the proverbial box and buy something oddball – like a sedan or maybe even just a big land yacht from the latter ’70s – you may not have to spend more than four or five thousand dollars.

If you’re new to the hobby, it’s a good idea to try to match the car you select to your budget, skill level and the time you think you’ll be able to devote to the vehicle. Those without extensive mechanical and electrical knowledge, for example – not to mention all the necessary tools and equipment – should probably not attempt the ground-up restoration of a non-running, decades-old car rescued from a farmer’s barn. They’re apt to become rapidly discouraged, lose interest – and quit.

Newbies are much better-off starting out with the “driver” – a solid, good-running older car that can be driven home rather than towed or carted there in boxes of greasy parts. Such a car will provide immediate pride of ownership – and thus the motivation to make it even better, and to show it off. Unlike a basket case that might need years of work and perhaps many thousands of dollars before it can be enjoyed, the “driver” is ready right now – and much less intimidating for the person new to the old car hobby.

But which model car to get? That’s up to you – and your budget. Old cars vary hugely in price and availability, but scanning through such publications as Hemmings Motor News and reading-up on the models you find appealing – as well as contacting local clubs for the make/model you are considering – will help you get a very good idea what it might cost to buy the car you’re interested in, as well as other variables, including  the availability of parts, quirks the vehicle might have, what it’s like to work on – and so on.

Joining a club – for example, the Pontiac-Oakland Club International, which is devoted to classic Oaklands and Pontiacs, or the Austin-Healey Club of America, for those into old British sports cars, or the Early Ford V-8 Club, for those into “flathead” V-8s and Model A Fords – will put you in immediate touch with a large group of people who share your specific interest, own cars of the type you are looking to acquire, and who are almost always fountainhead of wisdom and knowledge about vehicles that may have been built decades before you were even driving.  There are national and local clubs for just about any make/model of vehicle ever manufactured – including long-dead names such as Hudson, LaSalle and Studebaker. A quick Google search (just type in the make/model of car you’re looking for and “club”) should put you in touch.

Club members will know where to locate parts, sources, suppliers – as well as how to fix whatever breaks – and are usually enthusiastic and welcoming of new members. The cost to join a car club is typically about $25-$50 annually, which goes to support the club’s activities and publish its newsletter. In return you get to join the community, receive its monthly or annual mailings and membership roster, and get to attend the shows and “cruises” (weekend drives and get-togethers) where you’ll be able to spend time with fellow hobbyists and their vehicles. Almost all old car clubs have members who are accomplished restoration experts with phenomenal engineering ability – and usually, a Valhalla of tools and equipment – which they’re usually happy to share with fellow club members. That can really help your budget.

Club members can also help you get your car, too – accompanying you to find and then look over likely prospects, giving you advice about what to watch for – and even more important, when to walk away. They will know the car’s weak points that you may not  – such as areas prone to rust – be able to spot missing or incorrect equipment and help you to secure a good car at a fair price.

Before you buy an old car, remember that, in general, paint and bodywork are the most expensive aspects of bringing it back to “as new” condition. Even competent backyard mechanics often don’t have the skill or equipment to do this job themselves. It is more common than not to turn this part of the restoration over to a professional shop. On the other hand, if you can do this work yourself – or have a friend who can – and find an otherwise solid old car, it can be a great opportunity to obtain your dream machine for an excellent price, because cars that don’t look so great usually sell for less than good-looking cars – even if the not-so-great-looking one is actually in much better shape overall.

Conversely, if you are up to the challenge of pulling and rebuilding an engine, going through the brake system, putting in a new transmission – and so on – the car to get is the one with a great body and sharp interior but hobbled by a locked-up engine and dead transmission.

Either way, always factor in the expected cost of any necessary repairs as you consider a given old car – and also your ability (financial and otherwise) to deal with them.

And remember that it is almost always cheaper to find and buy a car someone else has fixed up than to buy a less expensive example in poor condition and fix it up yourself. You will rarely, if ever, get back what you put into any old car, financially speaking.

But what you will get in return for your sweat and time is the kind of satisfaction that can’t be measured in dollars and cents – the payoff that comes on lazy bright summer afternoons when the key slides into the ignition switch and the old beast roars to life once more, ready to take you on another adventure into the past.

Throw it in the Woods?

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6 COMMENTS

  1. Eric. Congrats on your great writing. I was always a rail fan and blamed the automobile for the demise of both the railways and everything else from American Archetecture to small towns and great urban neighborhoods in exchange for sterile suburbs. What that said and done, I started reading your blogs at LewRockwell.com and came to appreciate cars. I am an affianado of Eisenhower/Kennedy years culture and nostalgia. I have zero mechanical ability but would love to own, cruise, and show a car from that epoch. My favorite is the 1957 Belair with the 1955-56 Belair a close second. Is owning one at my 5-grand budget unrealistic?

    • Hi Greg,

      Thanks!

      You could probably find a “project car” Bel Air for that amount – not a total basket case, but probably needs a lot of work.

      If you have little mechanical ability/experience, you’d be better off with something in better shape to begin with – a car you can actually drive and enjoy right out of the box, that only requires minor things (like oil/filter changes).

      There are plenty of neat old cars you can find in very nice cosmetic/mechanical condition for around $5k or so. Just not 55-56 Chevy Bel Airs!

      • Well Eric,

        It’s about two-years late. Unfortunately, I did not take your advise but the advise of a couple of certified lunatics (The VA rated both 100% psyche disabled). I bought a 1951 Chevy Deluxe Styleline two-door Sports Coupe for two-grand. NADA had it valued at $3,600, so it was an initial bad buy. The engine cranked up fine. The rest was a complete disaster. My first shock was that body and paint restoration would go 3 to 7 grand. I made a deal with the assistant manger that I would pay 3 grand. If it cost more, it was on him. If it cost less, on me. To make a long story short, the owner of the shop was livid at the assistant for making the deal but he honored it. They did a fantastic job . The car is a shiny metallic green. They take several months. I had my local mechanic do the brakes and other odds and ends. He did it for a great price. I also got chrome wheels and new tires. I had the interior restored for about 12 hundred. They took their time but did a fantastic job. It was now a driver but none of the assuages worked. I then took it to an old car and told him I didn’t want the car until everything worked. Eight months and 1,600 bucks later, everything now works. I had suspicions that the generator wasn’t up to snuff. A specialist discovered that it worked on low RPMs but not high. I changed out to an 8-volt alternator and new eight volt battery. The process took two-years and I’m in over ten-grand but it’s a beautiful car and it will make it’s Old Town Saturday night cruise debut next week. I kind’a wish I took your advise. I would be in the cruise much sooner and enjoying my tailgate BBQs sooner as well. Nevertheless, the car looks and runs great and has a high ceiling value.

  2. This is just plain fun that has the tendency to snowball. First, we bought a 1945 1.5 ton Ford truck. Joined the Antique Truck Club of America, went to meetings, picked up a fully restored El Camino SS, followed by a 1986 Chevy Silverado and lastly a cream puff of a 1957 Ford Fairlane for cruise nights. Now we need to build a barn.

    • I know that story!

      It’s even worse with bikes… you can fit more in the garage. I’m up to five right now…. but that’s small potatoes compared with some people I know….

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