Hooniverse Asks: What’s the first thing you do when you buy a new project car?

The truck needs some attention in the front end. I haven’t given it an oil change yet. I’ve only just washed it, but it’s slated to rain again here in Southern California so it wasn’t a deep cleaning. The interior needs a bath, and I’ve got to source a fresh center gauge pod to fix the inclinometer. Sure, I also need to source wheels and tires still too. Where do I start?

Where do you start when you get your hands on a fresh project car? I know that I should start by checking and changing the various fluids. But I think a simple wash is an easy way to get a bit closer with your new purchase. You’ll find dents you didn’t see initially, but you also might find that the paint is in pretty good shape all things considered.

Where I actually started on my Montero, is with a swap of fresh lights up front. It’s a bit important to be able to see when the sun goes to bed. Next up, I’ll be removing that brush guard and setting out to figure why the front end is a bit wobbly. Also, it feels like I may not have full turning lock to the left.

Regardless, the truck has been quite enjoyable to date. It’s running and driving well, and I’m excited to make it do both even better.

But back to the question at hand; what’s the first thing you do when you buy a new project car?

39 Comments

  1. Wash for sure. Vertical and horizontal shakes of the front tires to check for suspension integrity/wear. Brakes for feel and fade/pulling. Tires for plugs.

    1. I bought a ’63 Scout from a friend who had owned it for 10 years. After I had it for 5 years I asked him if he had ever washed it. Turns out it hadn’t been washed for at least 15 years. I remember him driving it to the Black Rock Desert in 1997, and when I sold it in 2013 it still hadn’t been washed.

      1. Wow. Got pictures? If I don’t wash my minivan every three weeks or so during winter, I’m afraid it turns into a grey slab of iron oxide. It will recede into the background noise, never to be found again.

  2. I tend to buy projects with no engine or blown engine. So I guess the first thing I buy is an engine. Except for my turbo ls truck, for that I bought an ls then kind of just bought something that it was easy to put it in.

  3. Generally my projects are pretty cheap and often come home on a trailer. First thing I do is give it a really good clean. This does two things.

    1.) Much nicer to work on something clean rather than dirty.
    2.) As you clean you examine the vehicle all over making a better assessment of what it needs.

  4. Given past experience, the first thing I *should* do is a compression test. But no, I just give it an oil change (it’s cheap enough and consequential enough that it’s not worth trusting the seller on this), peruse the glovebox and owner’s manual (if any), and remove any crap from the interior.

    I’ll wash it if it’s especially scuzzy, but that’s never the first thing.

  5. Usually the first thing I do it drive it home. Haven’t done that with the last two though. The Hyundai came from California and driving a heaterless car a 1000 miles in February seemed like a poor idea.

    The Fiat on the other hand, while only a few miles from my house, didn’t run, so it came home on the back of a borrowed trailer.

  6. Brakes. You don’t want to get something up and running and then not be able to drive it ’cause the brakes are still dodgy. Nor is there any point in adding horsepower if the brakes can’t handle it. My RHD Scout never made it past getting the brakes working before I ditched it.

    Spark plugs (points, condenser), carb clean and oil next. Many goblins can be banished by knowing the tune-up parts are fresh.

  7. Paperwork. My last few vehicles have each come with some combination of an out-of-state title, a foreign title, a typo-ridden title, or no title. I prefer to make sure I have at least some hope of clearing up any legal questions before putting any more time, effort, or money into a newly acquired project.

    1. Solid answer. I want to make sure it’s officially and legally mine before I put any money or time into it.

      1. I’ll settle for a reasonable hope of it eventually becoming fully mine, as I’ve had to put a number of vehicles through Washington’s three-year process of waiting for any rival claimants to announce themselves before a fresh title will be issued. I’m a little over two years into one such period right now. I don’t always wait quite that long before starting a project…

        1. I had a similar issue, requiring a “bonded title” for my XJS. I actually had the original title, but it had been signed over to someone else who then gave me the assigned title and a bill of sale. It meant that while I was confident that the car was “officially” mine, that status was “pending” as far as the state was concerned.

    2. I came here to see you write about remorse, but the question really just focuses on the first step, indeed.

    3. I would have thought that the top of your list is to determine which relative has suitable storage space to accommodate a project that won’t be touched for quite some time.

  8. Give it a wash, take a pic to post to FB and tell everyone else they suck for not owning as cool a car as I do.

    1. Exactly:
      Number of project cars purchased in my life: 1
      Weight of according literature read: 43lbs (including 37lbs of internet content).

  9. As many here today, I give a new project car a thorough washing, usually starting inside. Target #1: what a friend once referred to as “finger spuzz”, that black/gray coating of filth often found on steering wheels and switch gear. Title and paperwork aside, I don’t really feel like a car is mine until I go after it. More than once, I’ve found that what looks like a worn away surface is really just a layer of crud. Same goes for vinyl upholstery. A good cleaner, a small brush and a terry cloth rag will work wonders. Then, vacuuming, especially under seats. Word of advice: wear thick gloves when sticking your hands under a seat for the first time… you never know what could be lurking under there.

    A good cleaning will reveal your project to you in exquisite detail, which can produce a variety of emotional responses… amazement, bewilderment, despair, and, quite possibly, joy.

    1. My “worst” offender was a Citroën Xsara I bought off a particularly messy lady. Under the front seat, I found a glass – proper glass – some cutlery, a few disgusting pieces of shrunken and fungi-invested food. The passenger seat was hiding quite a lot of single gloves, socks, earbuds and more coins. Every tiny opening, like those between seats, looked like they were stuffed with assorted waste. I feel like washing my hands just thinking of that car. But, after a through cleanup, I sold it at a 25% markup.

    2. My “worst” offender was a Citroën Xsara I bought off a particularly messy lady. Under the front seat, I found a glass – proper glass – some cutlery, a few disgusting pieces of shrunken and fungi-invested food. The passenger seat was hiding quite a lot of single gloves, socks, earbuds and more coins. Every tiny opening, like those between seats, looked like they were stuffed with assorted waste. I feel like washing my hands just thinking of that car. But, after a through cleanup, I sold it at a 25% markup.

      1. Someone I work with has a grubby Corolla piled -full- of clothes and food containers. The only room left is a little pod for the driver to sit. I imagine what this person’s home must look like, and renew my desire to not know who they are. So far, so good.

    1. Yeah, a list even just a mental one, based on the state of the vehicle when acquired. Sometimes that may mean a through cleaning, at the other extreme it may mean fixing what is needed to make it driveable. If it is already driveable then I’ll usually start with the easy and cheap fixes first. Feels good to knock a bunch of things off the list, even if they are all small ones.

    1. Pro Tip – never take any of the pills you find in the upholstery- no matter how tempting they look. They might just be for blood pressure or something.

    2. In one car, I found several empty oxycontin tabs under a seat, along with a signed agreement for the previous owner to repay several thousand dollars to who I deduced must be his ex-girlfriend. Seems he got into her credit card. That vehicle needed thorough purification, to be sure.

  10. I like to have a service manual from day one. Then fresh fluids. If I can I take the seats out, front and back as well as the carpet and really give then a good washing. I try to clean all the inside surfaces with Germ/Virus/DNA killing solutions before I put the clean carpet and seats back inside. At that point I feel I can start adding my own DNA.

  11. My routine is to wash it throughly so I can get a real look at what I’m actually dealing with. If the car actually runs and drives, I change all belts, hoses, and fluids. That way I have a baseline of when all that was actually done, and it helps avoid roadside surprises.

    Then I sit down in front of my computer and make a list of everything I want to do to the car, and the cost to do it ALL. Once I have a number to tell my wife, after showing her everything, I secretly multiply by 10 to get a more accurate number. I do this based on my past experiences and times 10 is about right.

    Everybody married knows the project car mantra right?

    “ Yes dear, almost done, just a few more things, mostly for safety”

  12. Drive it.

    Some times a project has immediately apparent needs to be addressed, but other times it takes a few drives to reveal what’s needed.

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