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Wrenching Tips: How Not to Buy a Project Car, Episode 2. Or: I Never Learn

Tim Odell September 13, 2012 Featured, Wrenching Tips 57 Comments

Wagoneer with christmas treeLast week I outlined how I managed to fool myself into buying an overpriced basket case of a project car, one I didn’t have the tools, time, space or skills to work on. I’ve got no problem with basket case project cars; it’s the paying too much and the getting something worse than you thought you were part that’s frustrating. 

This week we’re talking about my latest frustration: how I once again overpaid for a basket case of a vehicle, but how this time it’s going to be different.

At some point I’ll write a cautionary tale/diatribe about how much space babies and their requisite rear-facing car seats take up, but the take-home is two kids = no more WRX or Wrangler. With two kids and a dog, they failed as prime family mover and family dirtwagon, respectively. With “just” The Missus’ Mazda5 and my ’67 Falcon, we “needed” a third vehicle to fill in as backup commuter, crap hauler, tow vehicle and family dirtwagon.

“Not enough room in the Wrangler? Get a 4Runner” was my facepalmingly unwise suggestion. She vetoed 1st generation 4Runners because duh for not having four doors and later ones for being too small and too new. “New” in her book being anything that’s not an obvious pre-malaise classic. The list of four door classic 4x4s is surprisingly short: Suburban, Wagoneer, Travelall, Wagonmaster or various crew-cab trucks. Of the batch, the Wagoneer’s the only one that’s not gigantic.

The cool thing about Wagoneers is that nearly 30 years of single model run works to your advantage. The lesser known uncool fact about Wagoneers is that the entire chassis is different between the 1963-1971 “early” models and later ones (with ’72-74 being bastardized orphan transition years just for fun). For the most part, it’s the later AMC/Chrysler years that benefit from a wealth of parts. The early Kaiser years, not so much. Unfortunately those later years also sport a horribly “modernized” malaise-o-lux interior and generally lame exterior styling details. The early years feature cleaner lines inside and out, but come with things like closed-knuckle drum-braked Dana 27 front axles and nailhead pattern TH400s adapted to Buick motors.

The shopping goal was to find a cheap(ish) example in the $2-4k range that had the cleanest body possible. If I had to do a little (or a lot) of mechanical work, that was fine, just please no body work. We’d be able to piece together a great sleeper trail rig with the proceeds from the Wrangler’s sale and a BJ’s Offroad catalog. (starting to sound familiar?)

Then this example popped up in my eBay saved search.

69 Wagoneer

Pretty paint, newly remanufactured engine, only 66k miles, great looking interior, being sold by a classic car broker with lots of positive feedback on eBay. For $8,000. In St. Louis, Missouri. I just re-read the year-old email dialog between The Missus and I, wherein I pose it as “basically the perfect Wagoneer, the one we should buy”, she expresses concern that it’s twice the price we were thinking, far away, and generally feels like “buying the 4Runner again”.

“There’s no way we could start with a cheaper one and duplicate this for the price” I pointed out. “It looks great, but we’ll pay to have a pro inspect it”. See? Problems solved.

(Sound familiar now?)

The inspector noted a slight exhaust leak, various paint imperfections and an unspecified oil leak, but generally proclaimed it to be in good mechanical shape with no major body issues.

In a year of ownership I discovered the following, starting with the most obvious and infuriating to miss in an inspection

  • Rusty floor sections that will need replacing
  • Obvious big-ass crack in an exhaust manifold
  • Gas gauges don’t work (one’s dead, one reads a max of 3/8 tank)
  • Bad power brake booster
  • Tires rub on the fenders over any bump
  • Oil leaking from rear main, intake manifold and timing cover
  • Transmission leaking from pan and vacuum modulator
  • Loose spark plug
  • Leaking cowl vents (that caused the floor issues)
  • Cracked steering box mount on the frame
  • Runs hot on the freeway
  • Tailgate window trim shot
  • Passenger window crank very sticky
  • Transmission-to-motor adapter ring cracked
  • Low oil pressure on idle (a Buick 350 trademark)
  • a rearview mirror that keeps fncking loosening up and flopping around
  • …and no documentation to the history of the vehicle.

I’ll let the list speak for itself, but the last bullet point was the most problematic. It’s equiped with a warrantied Jasper reman motor, but any warranty work would require the original documentation. I kicked into internet super-sleuth mode. Some thorough internet stalking clever googling led me to not just the previous owner. After an awkard “hey, did you used to own a Wagoneer…” conversation, he sent me “the file” for the Wagoneer. I found the warranty info, along with everthing else I could possibly want to learn. Based on the most recent documentation, the Wagoneer had been sold back in 2010 at a classic car auction in Scottsdale, and had pretty much been sitting for the last year.

Based on the name on most of the receipts, again e-stalked my way to got in touch with the previous previous owner, the guy who actually built it. My initial “did you own a Wagoneer 10 years ago…?” email resulted in a 1500 word email and a 6:45am voicemail about all the build work he put into it. It started as a hopeless project and he spent countless nights and weekends getting parts, doing body work and building it out to almost exactly what he wanted before a combination of time and cash forced him to unload it. Ever have one of those conversations where you feel like you’re talking to some past/future/alternate universe version of yourself?

Between the original 4Runner and this one, I’m forced to conlcude

  1. I’ll never, ever under any circumstances buy a car without being able to see and drive it in person.
  2. My track record on “buying the one with all the stuff already done” is 0/2

More than anything, I’m frustrated by my repeated self-delusion and overpaying for a basket case. That said, I’ve kept an eye out for “the one I should’ve bought”, and there’s only been a few examples nationwide in the last year that beat it. So maybe I didn’t overpay by that much. Besides, I’m a hell of a lot better equipped to deal with said basket case this time around. Having a garage, tools, cash and more knowledge has allowed me to fix a bunch of things on that list (e.g., spent half a Saturday and welded up the frame with my bitchin’ Miller 180). Even with all its issues, the Wagoneer’s earned its keep as the family hauler for countless hardware store runs and even did some offroading to fetch last year’s Christmas Tree.

It may or may not end up built out to be the perfect classic camping rig, but in the meantime I’m just going to fix what’s wrong and keep driving it.

…at least until that Megasquirt EFI kit shows up in the mail.

  • Alt title: Wrenching Tips: Maybe, sometimes, perhaps listen to the Missus. Or why my buddies think I have no balls.

    Nice story Tim. I really, really enjoyed this one. Thanks for sharing your misadventures.

  • All I gotta say is at least you're smart enough to not have a project car as your daily driver. Waitaminute…..

  • schigleymischke

    "She vetoed 1st generation 4Runners … for not having four doors and later ones for being too small and too new. “New” in her book being anything that’s not an obvious pre-malaise classic."

    You're a lucky man. I exhort you to be fruitful and multiply so as to repopulate the earth with the hoon and hoonette children of this wise woman.

    • If we stick with only 2 kids, she wants an Espada for a backup mom car.

      • Devin

        She have a sister? With a similar attitude?

      • schigleymischke

        For backup? What's her backup backup plan?

        • Scandinavian Flick

          At first I thought this was a response to the "She have a sister?" comment…

          • schigleymischke

            HER backup-backup plan, not HIS. He should probably keep his to himself.

            • Scandinavian Flick

              I know. Having a doppelganger around can come in handy sometimes.

      • Scandinavian Flick

        My experience with having a backup car is having 4 broken cars in the driveway.

        • FuzzyPlushroom

          "Meh, I can fix that next weekend. I'm tired, and I can drive the other car until then."

          • Scandinavian Flick

            "Crap, that one broke too. Hmm, that wagon on CL is only $500…"

      • buzzboy7

        Funny story that…
        Last year(and next month again!) I went to Eurofest down in Greenville SC. We we walking around the section of the show that contained a bunch singles, only one of each specific model. Nestled over by a few VWs and another Lambo was this nice grey Espada sitting all alone. There was a lady sitting in a chair in front of it so we struck up conversation. Sometime in the 70s(don't know the year of the car) the family had two kids and decided that they would need a car that sat four. The most logical choice for a family of four living in Chicago is…
        <img src="http://desmond.imageshack.us/Himg96/scaled.php?server=96&filename=dsc00261io.jpg&res=landing&quot; width="600">

    • She's a decent go-kart driver too!

  • danleym

    Nice looking Wagoneer! I love these ones, before the wood grain showed up on the sides.

    And yeah, x2 on having a wife with a Hoontastic head on her shoulders. My wife is amazing, and she understands my love of older cars as much as I can expect her to, but she has no desire to join me in driving older vehicles daily. On the other hand, she currently drives a Wrangler, and our "when kids come along" plan is for her to drive a WRX, so I think both of those choices are perfectly acceptable.

    • The WRXagon works fine with one kid and minimal extras (dog, big stroller). The problem is there's no way to put more than 1 rear facing car seat in it; one of the front seats needs to be all the way forward with the backrest vertical.

      • danleym

        That is good information… thanks!

        I might end up going with a Wagoneer myself when that time comes. I've got a K5 Blazer now, which I think would work just fine (with a little hassle), but if 4 doors ever became a necessity, a Wagoneer is at the top of the list.

  • mr. mzs zsm msz esq

    <img src="http://hooniverse.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/09/Cracked-Adaptor-Ring-1.jpg&quot; width="600"> Eek there's a severed finger under there too! If it makes you feel better, by midwest standards it really is not all the rusty at all.

    • Devin

      Now, for the sequel to "House", Jeep!

      (I genuinely wonder how many people are going to get that reference).

      • Number_Six

        As in "Ding Dong You're Dead"?

        • Devin

          Nope, as in a certain insane movie which features floating fingers. Note: I doubt this is safe for work.

          [youtube WQ_Yo06kIIA http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WQ_Yo06kIIA youtube]

          • BlackIce_GTS

            That was wonderful, thank you.

          • danleym

            "TV ad wizard makes his directorial debut"

            How can that movie be anything but amazing with a director with such distinguished qualifications?

          • RahRahRecords

            I've seen this movie and it is ridiculously awesome

    • njhoon

      By anyone but Arizona and California standards that is almost mint / factory fresh.

  • smalleyxb122

    Did you put those rims on just for I ♥ the '80s week?

  • Craig Fitzgerald


    I bought a 1983 J-10 with minimal rust and original paint for $3400 and I thought I got screwed. Actually, I KNOW I got screwed because it was an unholy, ill-handling pile of shit.

    That MotoExotica place has got stuff all over ebay. I was wondering what kind of quality they were turning out. Now I know.

    Did that run through the Silver Auction in Scottsdale?

  • PowerTryp

    I think your first indication to get the hell away from this car is the fact that the torque converter has been painted hot pink. Seriously. That and the fact that the torque converter paint was poorly done.

  • "I’ll never, ever under any circumstances buy a car without being able to see and drive it in person."

    We have much in common.

    Ebay motors, much like cocaine, is fun at first.
    Then it isn't fun anymore, but by that point…well…you've lost everything you held dear, and there is a large, oily piece of metal in your driveway.

    • Too true. This is why I avoid that problem by buying only microcars sight-unseen. The large, oily pieces of metal I instead carefully inspect before letting them clutter my driveway.

    • M44Power

      Story of my life, only instead of oil leaks it is gasoline leaks. From an injection pump that I would quite literally need to mortgage my house to rebuild. This is probably why my wife no longer allows me to simultaneously enjoy bourbon while looking on eBay motors.

      • Dean Bigglesworth

        Well, there's always scotch.

  • Damn. Tim, every time your rig is pictured here, I miss my '83 more & more. If only I hadn't been such a broke-ass college kid 20 years ago.

    • Dude, they're cheap.

      You should totally get one…

      • You offer Scotch to recovering alcoholics, don't you?

  • Stu_Rock

    I've had some problems with buying cars at a distance, but I would say I'm two for two. It can work out.

    One was a turbo K-car convertible on eBay, and the car did have much more rust than I expected, but I still got my money's worth out of it over three years of ownership.

    The other was the Park Avenue that many people here have seen, and it had a bunch of fairly easy things to fix (tires, struts, shocks, a missing interior panel, dozens of burned-out light bulbs, and transposed front seat wire harness connectors). The price was sufficiently good that I still had a winner even after $1000 in shipping, $500 in parts, and $800 in tires.

  • Van_Sarockin

    It sounds like you've done alright. You picked a good basic car, that you know you like. A lot of needed work was done and pricey parts installed. Somethings weren't done, and others not done to your satisfaction. And maybe the price was high. But you're light years away from picking up a cheap thrashed truck that needs everything done, and what you can't see is all broken.

  • njhoon

    What is with the two gas caps, does have duel tanks?

  • Feds_II

    Jesus, you just wrote a whole article to guilt me into getting the damned thing in the mail… I'll hit the fedex at lunch tomorrow…

    • Hahahahah…no worries.

      I've had megasquirt on the brain ever since our last chat.

      Did you know they're now making a Megashift that'll control a GM 4L80e transmission, too?

      • jeepjeff

        I actually don't like the Megasquirt system. It's good for guys who just want to plug-and-play, but the license isn't open source and the hardware is a closed design with public schematics. I'm not actually allowed to modify it, and I've avoided looking too deeply into their stuff so that if (ok, ok, when) I get around to messing with EFI controllers, I don't want them to have any hold on "YOU COPIED US" charges.

        Ok. Rant over. Not everyone is an embedded software engineer with a significant background in electronics (digital, analog and interfacing the two). If you aren't that and just need a plug-and-play that you can get at the guts of, it's the only choice on the market right now.

        • I can't think of anything I'd ever want to do with a DIY EFI system that I couldn't do within the extended megasquirt options.

          I also can't think it'd be a particularly profitable business model to do anything remotely along the lines of what MS offers, unless you're capable of producing complete mechanical + electrical assemblies on a large scale like the Holley, MSD, FAST and other EFI retrofit kits.

          • jeepjeff

            So: for me, given my skillset, I can clearly see things that I would want to do with a DIY EFI setup that I'm not allowed to do with MegaSquirt. For most people, if you want more control over your vehicle, it's the most open game in town. But, as in my reply to Scoutdude, it fails to be actual Open Source or actual Open Hardware.

            The other thing to realize about my gripe is: I'm an open source guy. "Business Model" is 100% besides the point. If I'm going to learn someone's code and work with it, I need to be able to modify it. I do this all the time on my personal computers, and I get paid good money to adapt off-the-shelf Open Source software for my company's infrastructure. The sharing and right-to-adapt is a real value for me, and MegaSquirt disallows it explicitly, which makes it little better to me than a completely closed EFI OEM controller.

            I'm not entirely surprised there is nothing out there that's actually open source, because the crossover between hardcore linux dork programmers and car guys isn't huge. Also, when hardcore linux dork programmers go do car modifications, we end up doing things the way most car guys do things: buy aftermarket parts and bolt them on. It's not surprising that there isn't a real Open Source EFI project yet (I'm still disappointed).

        • Scoutdude

          Where did you get the idea that MS isn't open source and you can't modify it? You can build it yourself so you could and some do or did modify the hardware, though with the most current versions have all the early "hacks" incorporated. As far as the software side goes there are lots of different versions that have been developed by lots of different sources and you certainly can create your own code from scratch for it should you desire and many of those different developers do let you modify their code, given of course that you don't decide to sell what they freely gave you for your own profit.

          If you really want a plug and play solution then you want to adapt a GM 7747 ECU to your application they will pretty much plug and play, although not exactly optimum out of the box, on a very wide range of engines with the factory chip for the closest size engine.

          • jeepjeff

            If you cannot port it to another piece of hardware, it is not open source. I got that idea from the licensing terms that they outline in multiple places on their own website and have seen no reason to correct in their Wikipedia article:
            http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/MegaSquirt#Licensinghttp://www.msextra.com/doc/clones/index.html http://www.megamanual.com/MSFAQ.htm#pcb

            Again, the "only allowed to run on our hardware" requirement means I cannot hack on it the way I'd want to. If I want to modify their software and hardware to add another a controller for a different transmission (say, hypothetically, I have a chip on my shoulder against GM and won't use their drivetrains); I cannot use their work in any way shape or form, because I'm not running it on their hardware that they sold me.

            Just because you can read the source does not make something open source.

            I probably should have been clearer about "plug-and-play": most of the work has already been done. The problem with MegaSquirt is if I sink the time into their stuff, it's locked by an ugly license and to use their stuff as an educational source means I've given up rights with how I can use the information I've learned. I already understand how EFI works. I already have the skillset to help develop their stuff, but that's wasted effort on my part (I can neither share, fork my own project or share the profits).

  • njhoon

    I meant to add, it looks like you have done alright. It looks good and like any 30 year old car it is going to need some things. Things do wear out, more so on a 4×4 truck and yours doesn't look too bad to me. Remember – the fixes and improvements you make will either be appreciated or cursed by the next owner, be a good steward while it is yours. /guilt trip

  • telkinsjr

    Uhm, sold a Wrangler, bought a basket case? Are you watching me? I just did that. Sold my very built, very capable, very dependable LJ and bought a very clean (been garaged for 8 years … No everything works perfectly) 89 BMW 635 csi. Already a grand into it and have lots lots more to go. Thought I was getting a 8/10 car, got a 5/10. Oh well, like you said, I'll keep it, wrench it and hopefully one day drive it like its new.

  • lilpoindexter

    I still can't believe people buy anything used without seeing with their own two eyes.

    • Go ahead and give it a try…what could possibly go wrong?

  • Xedicon

    Wagoneers are so awesome! I almost bought one myself not that long ago, the look just can't be beat!

  • MrHowser

    It's sounding to me that if you're going to buy an old car, the purchase price should be considered a down payment, and there should be a not-insignificant amount of money going into a savings account every month for car needs.

    The real question is, do you pay a large portion of the cost in one fell swoop (buying the "nice" one) and run the risk of having to sink $10k into it, or do you buy the rough runner/basket case, knowing full well you'll sink $10k into it?

    • [youtube A732Cuuo2tI http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A732Cuuo2tI youtube]

    • I've had pretty good luck in the ~$5000 range for a "pretty good" one. Had a super-clean '87 4Runner (that replaced the '85) and my Falcon as good examples there.

      My $2500 station wagon (which I could've had for more like 2k) was a little rougher, and I mostly kick myself for not spending more time and money on it. I kept trying to find ways not to spend $300 for something. A new exhaust, wheels/tires, air shocks would've worked wonders on that thing.

  • younger_mad_science

    Nicely written, Tim. Goes to show that it's better to spend 4K or 12K, nothing in-between….. you know, you really missed out on a 99 jeep grand-cherokee about a year ago…. or is that too hip a mom-camper in the missus' opinion? (ironically, that car has kicked ass in oregon winters I've heard….).

    What you're totally missing here, though, is that it LOOKS bitchin. Even if you break down on the way, you look so much cooler PUSHING the wagoneer up to tahoe than the prick driving his Northwestern forester with 2 kayaks on top (http://www.subaruforester.org/vbulletin/f108/foresters-make-best-kayaking-companions-13616/)

    …although, I am re-evaluating my go-to car advice source….

  • Mr.Goodwrench

    I understand the frustration…but an old car is an old car. Solving these problems is part the the fun ( and unholy suffering)!