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Managing the slippery slope of automotive repair

#1

I am nearing the sixth anniversary of the purchase of my 1974 Lotus Europa Twin-Cam Special. It still isn’t running. I wouldn’t recommend this project pace to anyone, but as I’m nearing the home stretch of finally getting the now-rebuilt engine back in the car, there are some lessons I can impart.


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://www.hagerty.com/articles-videos/articles/2019/04/15/managing-slippery-slope-of-automotive-repair
#2

A slippery slope indeed. I have learned this the hard way over 25 years in the car hobby. My challenge was a little different. I wanted to do more of a restoration when my budget was more of the rejuvenation variety. I kept trying to make everything near perfect on what in the end was to be a driver level car. Instead of putting the drivetrain I had in and getting it running, I spent years cleaning, detailing and rebuilding the underside. Much could have been left alone and would have been fine to drive. I kept digging deeper and deeper. Every bushing. Every hose and line. A little at a time, a few hours here and there, over 15 years. I would become inspired for a few weeks at a time, then life would interfere. Many times the car went untouched for months.

Along the way three kids and two houses happened. I even collected a couple additional projects along the way. Deals too good to pass up. My garage became a home for orphaned projects each waiting to be like new, but that did not move under their own power.

I’m not sure if it was a milestone birthday or all that gray hair starting to show up. But a couple of years ago my youngest asked me, repeatedly (he was four years old at the time), why we never drive all these cool cars. No answer I had satisfied him. Finally I said, you’re right. Why don’t we? It took those two years to wrap my head around the idea of keeping the blinders on as you have said. Fix what needs fixing, clean up the rest and drive. As much as I
love the build, life is too short. It’s time to turn some tires instead of just wrenches.

#3

This couldn’t have been posted at a better time for me. I’ve been getting sucked into the same slope on my 91 1LE, especially since all the winter downtime allows me to really be nit picky and find ways to spend money. While it’s only been on jack stands since October, I’ve been adding “just one more part” to the list. As mrc454 experienced with his kids, my six and three year old have been asking why we can’t drive the cool car since it’s spring. I bought this car to race and cruise with my family. It’ll always been a driver/racer - and I’ll always keep getting older. So will my kids, and I can’t get them hooked on enjoying cars if their only memories are of a torn apart car in the garage. Thanks for the motivation!

#4

I’ve learned the hard way that there is only one way to maintain economic sanity in the old car hobby. Buy the care DONE. Let someone else take the gigantic financial loss on the restoration project. I bought two cars last year. One at the Barrett-Jackson auction, and one at the Saratoga Collector Car Auction. Neither car cost over $25K. Both cars were beautiful, and I paid significantly less than the cost to put them in that beautiful condition. I can drive both cars anytime I like, and I take both for weekend trips and to local car shows. I used to be one of those guys who claimed the fun is in doing the work yourself. I was wrong. The fun is in driving the car!

#5

I went down the BMW branded slippery slope which has less of an angle than a Lotus or Porsche (thank heaven).

#6

I too am falling down the mission creep rabbit hole. If you think restoring a Lotus is tough, try finding parts for a 1963 Econoline pick up. Started out as get her running and I’ll be the only one with an Epup at the local cruise night. Can’t show up at cruise night without a top notch paint job so we better strip her down the the carcass and do it right. Well if you’re gonna spend a ton of money on paint and bodywork you can’t leave that dog of an inline six – gotta go v8. Now you’ve committed to spend more than you’ll ever get back so you better do thing right. The stance needs to be right, gotta tub it if I want decent tires. And that straight axle in front – will that do? IFS? Yeah that’s the ticket.

#7

I feel you! I am in the 3rd year of acquiring parts for a 1967 Ford Ranchero. I don’t want this to be a restoration, just want to get it running and fun and safe to drive. The guy I got it from had acquired enough parts to build a second car, but most of the critical parts (wheel spindles, brake calipers, suspension parts, brake lines, etc.) are too suspect for me to use. So I’ve been slowly getting the new parts to allow the car to stop before I make it go! It also needs a complete set of wiring harnesses throughout, so while it’s apart, that’s yet another major piece to do before tackling the drivetrain.

I have no real idea how good the 390 engine is and I don’t really want to spend the time it would take for me to overhaul it so I will farm that out to a shop I know well to assess its condition. If it would make sense to swap in a crate motor instead of rebuild, that will be the path.

It’s all about time and money! Both of which are in short supply…

#8

Every old car has some Slippery Slope built into it. Hey, they’re not TVs, they’re complex and they wear out, and failing to address that can lead to dire consequences. I’ve bought “done” cars that were not done correctly or thoroughly. I think it’s also important to know every inch of one’s old car, and know that it’s not going to need a tow - or worse - because I was impatient or naive about some area, mechanical status, or repair. Over 50-some years, maybe at best I’ve made the world a little better one car at a time, but as I tell folks, there’s value in really knowing your car and in making sure it’s Right.

#9

I looked at a Henney Kilowatt about 6 years ago.
Pretty well preserved, somewhat of a barn find.
Just the fact even though everything was pretty much there except for batteries was enough to knock me off the slope.
If you check out henneykilowatt .com you can see it found the right person in the end.
His description of the process tells me just figuring out how to hook up the batteries could have been a cliff.
I would have to say it was the most unique car I ever looked at. Crude in some ways - forward and reverse by a lever on the dash, a glass jar in the passenger compartment for the gas heater. But the way it used the batteries was well ahead of it’s time.

#10

It helps to have a Harbor Freight store nearby too, when doing these projects… You can get tools like hydraulic presses and air tools, that don’t break the bank. They are not always of the best quality, but typically good for a few jobs.

#11

Rob, thank you so much for giving me the opportunity to experience rebuilding cars vicariously. I have saved my marriage and lots of anguish and money by doing it this way.

#12

I come from the world of motorcycles and I’ve learned a few things over the last few decades:

1 - BEFORE I buy the project bike I assess the availability of parts. You can (almost) build an entirely new 1975 BMW R90S/6 from the parts catalog at the local BMW shop. You’ll be lucky if you find a single N.O.S. part for many French and English bikes even 10 years older.

2 - once you have the bike, I give it a full cleaning and inspection. This means everything and you have to be meticulous. Granted this may be easier on a bike than a car, but the goal is to eliminate big surprises once you start.

3 - if the goal is to have a safe running bike/car, and you are not performing a full restoration, then I make a list based on the inspection.

  • replace/repair anything that is unsafe (brakes, tires, cables, etc.).
  • replace/repair anything that will continue to deteriorate and become an issue later (don’t ignore an engine noise, loose wheel bearings, non-cometic rust, etc.)
  • replace/repair cosmetic issues that are not part of the bike’s patina and that clearly cannot be lived with (a small dent in the tank can be ignored, but if the previous owner rattle-canned flames on the tank and fenders, that’s gotta go).

4 - next I look at the list and put an estimate of time I think it will realistically take - then I double it… this allows me to understand how much time I need to set aside to get it done by my goal date. Btw, if the time I have available doesn’t line up with the date I want it done, something has to change, so, for me, I mentally adjust when it will he done, because it always seems easier to change that than increase the time I have available.

5 - And if I actually get this far, I decide on an order for the work and then try to stay focused on one repair at a time, unless of course (as mentioned above in the article) some things make sense to combine.

#13

Always said if I ever found a 63 Corvette for under 10K I’d buy it. Saw an ad for 63 red Corvette convertible for $10500. Had to check it out to see if it was real. It was. A running basket case needing everything. Bought it for $9250 and drove it home in 1991. Began a body off disassembly. Repaired, replaced, blasted, chromed, painted or rebuilt everything. Engine, transmission, suspension, electrical, interior and top…will never attempt that again. Halfway through and about 18k into the restoration the bottom dropped out and I could have bought one completed for not much more. Also got divorced…glad it was still in parts! Finished it in 1997 after numerous trips to Carlise, swap meets, cruise nights and numerous and often challenging repairs. Early 1963’s have early 63 only parts. Only misplaced one part in 6 years. Thank god for sharpies and ziplock bags. Have put 60k on it since completing the restoration and it’s a good looking daily driver driven daily down a dirt road. I live in the woods. The good thing about doing all your own work on a body-off is when something fails it’s usually your fault. If you are under 50 go for it. If you are over 50 buy one completed and enjoy.
Teddy Two Barrel
Still going to Carlisle but not as much fun as when you need everything.

#14

Reading this made me smile because I am there. I purchased a 57 t-bird from the original owner’s daughter in 2017. Aside from a fuel leak near the carb it ran well and went down the road. I saw it as something I could really bring back to excellent condition quickly. I bought a few thousand dollars worth of parts, re-chromed the bumpers, got new tires (30+ year-old tires on it), worked on restoring the shine, new interior, etc. and worked on it for 6 months, Unfortunately for me I developed some health problems and have spent the last 18 months trying to regain some stamina so I can get the car back to a point where I can drive and enjoy it. Going to Charlotte recently and looking at those “turnkey” cars where someone spent 50K+ only to sell the car for less than 30K had me thinking that may have been the best road to take. As others have mentioned all you have to do is drive it. But getting back in the garage this past week has brought me back to my senses. I can get this done in the next couple of months if I tackle it a bit at a time and stay focused. Looking forward to taking the top off and enjoying the drive with my wife. Time to climb out of the rabbit hole.

#15

I guess I’m just a wimp. Because I have no dedicated place to hold a project car I have been spending some fun garage time reviving elderly motorcycles and scooters. Many of them were simply parked when either a near accident scared the owner or it didn’t start after a long period of neglect and no one wanted to spend money to have it picked up and checked out at a shop. Many have low miles and no real serious mechanical issues. Finding parts can be tricky, especially the plastic outer pieces that always get broken or lost. When they get running at all I start to think about spending cash on pretty pieces and even chassis pieces. I don’t get involved with real collectible antiques, too much money and a very small market. But riding around town on a freshly running 70’s or 80’s bike or scooter is a grin. Pretty much every time I stop for gas someone says - “Hey, I had one of those. Wrecked it and busted my arm. Be careful.”

#16

“I had no idea that well-priced used running Lotus Twin-Cam motors basically don’t exist.” Surely you jest? I would have to question the amount of research that went into this purchase. Seriously, it’s a LOTUS, which should ring a lot of alarms on reliability on the name alone, plus the Europa was built to a price (think R16 engine and gearbox in base model.

" I could present the reassembled car as “rolls, has freshly-rebuilt not yet started engine,” that would be both a major milestone and a practical bail-out position." Unless I can hear and see a motor run I assume it doesn’t, If you have a box full of receipts for new parts, I MIGHT allow 50% of the value as good will. Without seeing results, I have no idea if the engine was rebuilt with the parts claimed or if the seller has a clue how to put them together. Harsh? Yes. I’ve learned from experience.

“Better to have something you can drive to remind yourself of why you’re doing it.” Isn’t this we all have at least three cars so that on any given day we might reasonably assume that one of them can get us across town?
Having said all this, I’m glad to hear that your project sounds as if it’s going to be road worthy soon. Welcome to “the band of fools”

#17

Oh how the bitter reality overwhelms the dilutions of grandeur…after what started as a simple rust repair on my 66 Mustang vert that swelled into a 6 year (and counting) total restoration, I’ve now set a self imposed deadline at the 7 year mark.

No longer can I scurry off to the garage under the guise of enjoyment in the hobby, it has become a test of wills…mono versus metal…my tools, skills and credit card against this Lee Iacocca satanic spawn of an automobile.

The November air will be filled with sounds of screaming Ford smallblock or the total anguished cries of a broken gear head.

#18

Delusions…$&886))()$$) spell check

#19

Spent 10 years off and on restoring a $800 Jaguar xk120 roadster. In 1976, I could have purchased one running for $2500. Learned a lot. When I bought my 1970 xke roadster in 1990 it had 16,000 miles and showroom condition. Drove 60 miles daily round trip to work for 2 years. I second the idea of buying it restored if over 50.image

#20

Great responses! Notice that everyone writes from their own perspective. Those perspectives seem to be based on the answers to three questions A)Do I want perfection or a driver? B) Do I really enjoy the research and wrench turning or do I see those as means to an end? C) am I more comfortable in investing time or dollars?
In my personal case: A) I want a driver, perfection can’t be left alone in the supermarket parking lot. B) I enjoy the research for parts/answers and really enjoy the wrench turning. I’ve discovered I’m more about the “process” than the end result. C) I am not time driven and I am cheap. I am ok with saving a few bucks by investing more time.
It’s how my answers add up that suggests what kind of projects I should launch into. And how far I will allow myself to slide the “slippery slope”.
Until I figured these three things about me I acquired more than one project that turned out to be unsatisfying and frustrating.
What’s your combination of answers?