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Buying a Non-Runner
Instant gratification when short on cash!

Published 9/1/2002

Originally published 3/27/2001 - There are two reasons for buying a non-running classic with a view to doing a partial or full restoration. One is the satisfaction and piece of mind that comes from doing it yourself, and the other is instant gratification one gets by being able to tell your friends you own a car that they (and you) can't afford! It's almost like buying a car on credit, when you can't get credit, each month you put a little more money into it and you get closer and closer to actually realizing your dream.

Clearly there are definite advantages but there are also some terrible pitfalls and traps for the unwary or inexperienced. To avoid starting off on the wrong foot, let's discuss the advantages first. The big attraction is price, and there's no doubt that if you do all or at least most of the work yourself you can end up with a very desirable classic for far less than you would have paid for the same car in its restored condition. The other attraction comes from the satisfaction of doing the job yourself. The tremendous advantage of knowing for certain that every part and every nut and bolt on the car has been checked and if necessary repaired and replaced.

Yup, there's a lot to be said in favor of buying a cheap non-runner and rebuilding it but there's equally a lot to be said against it. Take the question of cost. It's true that a large part of a cost of having a restoration done professionally, is paying for the specialist labor and by doing things your self you hope to avoid most of that. But the cost of spares can really add up if you're not prepared for it, particularly for components body parts that you can't repair.

Did you stop to wonder what you would need in the way of equipment? Well the short answer is everything! The more stuff you have the easier the job is to accomplish. I know when I did my first frame-off restoration I went through two angle grinders, I bought a gas, and later mig welder, a bigger bench vice, a bench grinder, axle stands and numerous tools. Still I ended up hiring a spot welder, a plasma cutter, compressor, sand blasting equipment, and an engine hoist! Rest assured, you certainly will need far more than your met-wrench set, electric drill and a couple of screwdrivers! Of course, you can buy the tools as you go along, and most people do but if you're starting from scratch be prepared to spend a lot of money on tools and equipment in addition to the parts for the car.

Now what about a place to work? It's possible to do a frame-off restoration in a portable shelter in your backyard but I wouldn't recommend it. Ideally, you need the equivalent space of two adjacent garages - one to dismantle the car and store the parts and the other to build the car up again. This may be beyond many of us - simply because of the lack of space. But if you're taking on this sort of project, try at least to have some place dry like a basement of shed where you can store parts like the engine, gear-box, doors, and bonnet etc. while you are working on the chassis and body. A dismantled car takes up far more space than you think and in a normal single car garage there just isn't room to take everything to pieces and work at the same time.

Attempting to rebuild a car without somewhere dry (and preferably warm in winter) with electricity, water and a decent bench and vice is frankly foolish. You need to be able to work comfortably with at least a reasonable set of tools, otherwise it takes away all the fun.

Anyway, let's assume that you've got the basic necessities. You should also have at least some experience at working on cars (though you'll learn a lot before you're through), and you are the type of person who doesn't mind taking two, three or even five years over a job. If that's the case, you are ready to set about looking for a suitable candidate for treatment. You've got a pretty wide choice and as you're in no hurry you can pick and choose. Now about going to look at the car and assessing its condition and potential. The very fact that you're buying at rock bottom price means that the present owner doesn't think the car is worth very much. Don't worry too much about tatty carpets, dull paint, bald tires, and poor chrome - (providing the base metal is sound) these are easily repairable or replaceable items that every rebuild requires. Likewise, don't be too put off by some body rust in non-structural places - even if it has gone to holes. If you can't weld now, you'll be quite good at it before you're finished. However you do need to pay close attention to serious corrosion in structural underbody members on a monocoque bodied car or one with semi-chassis construction. Although it's possible to weld in new chassis sections, making and welding in outriggers, floor pans, boot floors and even rockers is one thing, trying to make and replace whole sections of box chassis where it holds the suspension, brake linkages or steering connections is a very different story. You might make it strong enough but if you don't get the alignment spot-on the car will never steer or brake properly. Having this sort of welding done by a specialist is going to cost a lot of money, so pay particular attention to box chassis or box sections at the spring anchorage's, the mountings for any radius rods or torsion bars. Also on convertibles, look out for any signs of chassis or body sag when the doors are open. If you find serious rust holes or paper-thin metal in any of these areas, walk away and find a better car.

So much for the body and chassis - what about the mechanics? Well unless the engine's a runner, you're pretty much in the dark. The best you can do on the engine is to try and turn it over either by pushing the car whilst it's in gear, using a starting handle if it's got one, or as a last resort, by taking out the plugs and pulling on the fan belt. At least you'll find out whether or not it's seized up.

Now check the oil, we're not interested in the color, but note the reading on the dipstick and look for white or yellow sludge that could indicate an emulsion of oil and water in the sump. In the cooling system, if it's been drained which it probably has, close the drain taps and refill the radiator very carefully so that you don't spill, then look for leaks. A few drips around the water pump probably aren't very serious, a weak hose, a split heater matrix or even a leaking radiator aren't the kiss of death, but watch for cracks in the block and head. Then dip the oil again - if the reading on the dipstick's gone up somewhat, it's a safe bet the block's cracked internally or the head gasket's gone. With regard to the gearbox and back axle, you can't tell a thing without starting to strip things down, so all you can do is trust to luck. If you find later that you've got to replace them, console yourself that you allowed for it in the buying price. If they turn out to be all right, count it as a bonus. It will take you longer to examine a non-runner than a runner. Allow at least an hour, preferably two, to make a proper assessment. Explain to the owner that you're looking for a car to rebuild - not for spares and you want to be certain you have a sound base to work on. Write everything down and make sure all the faults you find are within your capabilities to put right or if you're going to have to call in professional help, budget for it upfront. It's a real masochist who takes on a basket case or project, this is the car that's been partly dismantled where the owner has started a restoration and given up. Talk about trying to do a jigsaw puzzle without a picture on the box! It's so much easier if you take the thing apart yourself - just ask anyone who's done one. As tempting as they are, they're not for the faint of heart. Well, hopefully this article has given you some idea of what you'll be taking on. If you're not deterred, and still hell bent on doing this, click here and begin your search, and good luck!

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