Buy, fix, enjoy: the Autocar guide to project cars

Car enthusiasts are counting down to 2030 with apprehension. What will become of our beloved engines, our cherished classics and time-honoured mechanical skills? New cars will shun fossil fuels entirely, which means the second-hand market will be radically reshaped in the years to come, too – so now is the time to start putting some ticks on your ‘must-own cars’ list.

Over the next 12 pages, we’ll consider the shape of the market, highlight what’s on offer and take a look at the used car community – because there’s gold in them there hills if you want to find it, and when you’re taking out a subscription for an electric, autonomous runaround, you might regret not having taken the plunge on the car of your dreams.

There are icons, exotica and bedroom poster cars to choose from, but if your ideal second-hander is out of reach, you might have to get your hands dirty. So first, welcome to the wonderful world of the project car, where you can grab the motor you’ve always wanted for a song – but it won’t be ‘factory fresh’. Here’s a few points to consider when you’re picking up a banger, so you know what you’re letting yourself in for.

Bodywork

The paint might look positively gleaming and the body as straight as an arrow in the online advert, but a keen eye could uncover some hard truths in the cold light of day. If you’re handy with the ball-peen and MIG welder, the odd ding or scab won’t bother you, but extensive bodywork repairs can consume a good portion of the time and budget allocated to a project, so identifying the problem areas before purchase is key.

You need to see the whole car from every angle as clearly as possible, so view in the daytime, or under a street or garage light if you have to go at night. Look out for mismatched doors, wings, bumpers and even fuel filler caps because it can be a real pain to match new paint to original paint – particularly on older cars.

Some imperfections are harder to spot. Check the boot floor and front chassis legs for any sign of a previous impact, as a bent frame could render the car unroadworthy or, depending on its value, irreparable. Rust can be fatal, too, so identify the common corrosion areas for a given car – often wheel arches, sills, door bottoms and suspension mounts – and see that your potential project is solid where it counts. Wet and salty British roads make for a particularly inhospitable environment, so we’d be encouraged by any reference to dry storage and summer-only usage in the advert.

And because we’re talking about cars that need a bit of work, it’s worth giving thought to any aftermarket visual modifications previous owners have made – particularly with affordable sports cars and hot hatchbacks. Irrespective of taste, it can cost hundreds – in some cases thousands – of pounds to restore a car’s bodywork to original specification, so make sure the original wheels and bumpers are included in the sale, or factor the cost of replacement into your negotiations.

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2007 Volkswagen Golf GTI £2995: A runaround ripe for revival. Values for the Mk5 GTI have yet to rebound, but if you lose those tatty alloys, polish the paint and invest in subtle performance upgrades, you’ll be best placed to profit.

2005 BMW M5 £11,250: How brave are you feeling? That venerable V10 is a notoriously troublesome beast to live with, and we’d be wary of conrod bearing, Vanos system or throttle actuator problems, but the sound alone is worth the potential headaches.

1967 Ford Mustang 289 £37,500: This ’Stang has a way to go before it’s leaving ‘elevens’ on the Tarmac, but if you have the budget and garage space, it’s an attractive proposition. The running motor is a big selling point, as is the solid chassis.