That’s enough to get me tarred and feathered by their fans, but hear me out. They’re okay as entertainment, if you’re willing to swallow that a custom car shop that’s been in business for decades, and knew the car show date a year ago, still starts a major project five days before deadline. But for those considering a vintage car, thinking this is how it works is a recipe for disaster.

First things first: cars ain’t cheap. Even if you buy a finished one that just needs gas and insurance, it’ll eventually need repair. Start with one in rough shape, and it’s guaranteed to cost more than expected. You don’t have to be a millionaire, but if you’re stretched just keeping your daily driver on the road, this isn’t the time to add a collectible one.

The televised auctions mainly show the big-money highlights, which are often someone caught up in the bidding and paying way too much. Beware of these artificially-inflated values, especially if you’re not planning to keep the car forever.

It’s one thing to put extra cash into sentimental value, such as fixing up the car your grandfather left to you, but you don’t want to buy something and then put twice its value into restoration.


Of course, auctions aren’t all bad, and many people find the cars of their dreams there, but newbies must careful:

  • Leave your credit card at home the first couple of times, until you get a feel for it;
  • Take a friend who’s familiar with vintage vehicles;
  • Set a price limit, and stick to it.

You seldom get a chance to examine the vehicle thoroughly, and you won’t be able to take it for a test-drive. Any problems will be yours to discover only after you’ve put down your cash.


Buying privately gives you more opportunity to see what you’re getting, but you still need to be careful. No car – no matter what its owner tells you – is ever better than you think it is.

Unless it’s just fresh off a top-notch restoration, even a “mint” car will reveal some rust or other issues when you start pulling off the trim. That might not be a major issue for you, especially if you just want something neat to drive that doesn’t need to be perfect, but if they’re safety issues, you can’t let them slide until you have the time or money to fix them.

When I go to swap meets, there’s usually a car – or what’s left of one – that someone’s pulled out of a barn and is trying to sell. And there are people looking at the few-hundred-dollars price tag and thinking it’s a bargain. Have a look for interest’s sake and then walk away, because these have dashed more than one car-newbie’s dream.

It may seem easy – hell, all it needs is an engine and some paint, right? But installing brakes, wiring, glass, instruments, a new floor and a set of seats will easily take you over $10,000, and you haven’t even turned the key yet.


And that’s just the money – now you have to factor in the time. Yes, the TV guys can go from junk to jewel in a week, but that’s the so-called “magic of television.”

To actually build a car that fast, you either (a) have a large and very expensive crew of experts working 24 hours a day on it; or (b) you’ve built a half-assed car that looks good for the cameras, but won’t stand up to the daily grind.

(Keep an eye on the background, too; I’ve seen a couple of these “one-week builds” lurking, unfinished, off in a corner, over several episodes of other builds.)

If you’ve never restored a vintage car, or built a hot rod, take the time you expect to it to take and – depending on your skill level – double or triple it.

Parts you send out to be rebuilt or chromed will take longer than promised, and a few components ordered will be the wrong ones. If you just can’t wait to drive your new ride, buy one that’s ready to go. While some of the half-finished “project cars” you see for sale are from people who ran out of money, many owners finally tired of grinding away and being nowhere near finished.


So should you just find another hobby? No, but you need to know what it takes. Whether your dream car is a Chevelle or a Celica, the advice is the same:

  • Take your time, examine the vehicle thoroughly, and then assess it. Know what needs to be fixed now for you to drive it, and what can wait. Safety is always more important than aesthetics.
  • Buy the best example you can afford. The one with problems may be cheaper to buy, but you’ll spend more than if you’d bought one in better shape.
  • Join a vintage vehicle club. Your fellow club members will be more than happy to share their expertise (and if you’re lucky, some of their tools!).
  • Be realistic about costs. Chrome plating is shockingly expensive, as is rust repair. Trim pieces specific to rare models will be tough to find, and priced accordingly. And no matter how much you pay for a paint job, it’ll still look like crap if it’s sprayed over mediocre bodywork.
  • Turn off the TV auctions and build-it shows – at least until your car is done!