How to Build a Car Project

by Don Kress
itstillruns article image
classic car image by Rainer Schmittchen from

Building a car is a labor of love. It's expensive, at times annoying, and quite possibly the most arduous undertaking you will ever experience. Many people compare the experience of rebuilding a classic car to that of raising children. If you take the time to do it correctly, the project will be well worth the effort and time involved. If you rush, however, and perform cheap, slipshod work, the end result will be a cantankerous vehicle that will give you no pleasure, and likely will never attain the value of the time and money you invested in the project.

Determine the Vehicle, Budget and Time Frame

Step 1

Determine what vehicle you would like to build. Will the project be a classic truck or car? Will it be a muscle car, customized late-model car, or a race car? While these parameters will help to determine the budget and time frame, they aren't necessarily always tied together. With proper preparation, any of these projects can be made to fit into practically any budget.

Step 2

Decide on a budget. Since many builders don't have access to unlimited funds for their build, and many car projects take several years to complete, set up your budget in monthly or yearly increments. For instance, if you say you will only spend $400 per month on the project, stick to it. Only do as much work as is possible to do in one month for $400. If something costs more than that, save up and do it the following month. Budgeting within your available income will not only keep nerves from getting frayed, but will prevent you from resorting to credit cards and going overboard on the project.

Determine an appropriate time frame for the completion of the project. You will have to take into account the condition of the vehicle you will be working on, as well as your available budget. If you are planning a restoration project, for instance, include in your time frame what you would like the final result to be. Do you want a daily driver? It may take between two and three years to get a non-running vehicle to that stage at $400 per month. On the other hand, if you are purchasing a good condition vehicle which needs only some touch-up work, you will find that your time frame may decrease to just a few months or weeks.

Purchase the Vehicle Project, Plan the Build, Acquire Tools

Step 1

Purchase a vehicle in fairly good condition if possible. If your project is a pre-1930s vehicle, look for a running example if you can find one. Parts for these cars are difficult to find at the best of times. Ideally, a car project should encompass just three areas: engine restoration, body and paint, and interior restoration. Muscle cars have a considerable aftermarket following in reproduction parts, particularly Mustangs and Camaros. Take popularity and parts availability into account when purchasing the vehicle project.

Step 2

Plan the build by looking at your budget, time frame, and having realistic expectations of what the final product should look like. These factors should be well balanced to produce an enjoyable final product that you will enjoy driving. Make a list of the needed replacement parts, as well as the parts you can repair or clean up yourself. Finally, make a list of steps or parts you will need to farm out to shops. In many cases, engine work, upholstery and paint fall into these categories.

Acquire any tools and literature you will need but don't already possess to complete the project. Rebuilding a car will require numerous automotive tools, including basic hand tools. Purchasing literature such as engine rebuilding guides, paint guides and automotive reconditioning guides will specifically list specialty tools you will need at each step of the build process.

Build the Car

Step 1

Build the project car according to your plan, while following the recommendations of the literature you purchased specific to your project. Most projects follow this progression: tear down, restore, rebuild. In the tear-down phase, you will remove major components of the project car to access areas you will need to restore before rebuilding. It is helpful at this stage to have a large, clean garage space to work in so that you can lay out parts in their logical places without having to opt for off-site storage.

Step 2

Restore or build the vehicle. This stage involves fixing damaged or unsightly parts of the project car, adding planned parts to the custom car project, and preparing those parts for the rebuilding process. This stage often mixes bodywork, paint, engine repair, and upholstery into a symphony of flying auto parts, and is also the most expensive and stressful part of the build process.

Rebuild the vehicle with the restored or customized parts. In this final stage of the build process, you will be installing the restored parts back onto the vehicle one part at a time, meticulously avoiding damage to the carefully rebuilt or restored parts. Some final assembly steps are generally farmed out to experienced specialists: Upholstery detailing, where necessary, is generally best left to specialists. Likewise, if you have no experience with painting a car, you had best leave this part to a body or paint shop to avoid costly mistakes.

More Articles

article divider