What we've learned after a lifetime of project cars

By Staff Writer
Feb 10, 2024 | Chevrolet, Ford, Mazda, Toyota, Miata, Mustang, MR2, Corvette, Project Cars, c6, NA, s197, Garage Rescue Miata, MR2 Turbo | Posted in Shop Work , Features | From the June 2023 issue | Never miss an article

Photography Credit: David S. Wallens

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Our LS-powered Nissan Z is a fast, sorted track car. How’d we get it that way? By following a lot of our own personal project car lessons–ones learned via decades spent in the shop, on the road and at the track. When normal people are sleeping, we’re breathing this stuff.  

Want to crib from our notes? Keep reading for some wisdom we keep coming back to.  

In most cases, it’s not necessarily about spending piles of money. It’s more about following proven methods, keeping notes and just being safe out there. Oh, and remembering that this should be fun, too.   

Comfort Equals Speed

Photography Credit: Dave Green

I think we accomplished a lot with our most recent Corvette Z06 project: national-level trophies in autocross and time trial as well as a popular series of stories that lasted longer than HBO’s critically acclaimed “The Newsroom.” But I also think very little of that part of the project was a surprise. The C5 is an incredibly effective and value-riddled platform offering lots of ways to go fast for one of the best speed-per-dollar ratios of any production-based car out there.

So in that regard, I didn’t “learn” a lot, but several points were reinforced. What the Corvette really, really drove home–something that was never on the planning sheets–was the importance of the human interface in going fast in a track car. 

The C5 was pretty much the fastest project car we’d ever built and certainly the fastest thing I’d ever driven for more than the occasional one-off event. And as we really got to the pointy end with it, I found over and over that some of my best gains on track came not from working on the chassis or tuning the powertrain but spending time on the seat, pedals, wheel and shifter.

Yep, the faster I went, the more it became imperative for me to be properly situated in the car. For me, this meant spending more than a few evenings building and rebuilding pedal extensions, adding steering wheel spacers, and cutting foam and making expanding inserts for the seat. 

I can’t understate the importance–particularly as speeds increase and reaction windows narrow–of being in the right physical position to implement those important decisions behind the wheel.–J.G.

Safety Shall Come First

Some venues require all the safety gear and some don’t mandate anything beyond the OE equipment. At the end of the day, we’re soft, squishy creatures that burn and cut easily, so we err or the side of caution: full fire systems in cars that go on track, head-and-neck restraints even when testing at the FIRM, and the latest in seat mounts, driver harnesses and nets. If we have a question, we involve a trusted source. 

We also practice proper shop etiquette: plenty of fire extinguishers, jack stands when going beneath a car, not working when tired, and proper protection for eyes, lungs, fingers, toes and ears. We stop welding at least half an hour before closing up the shop, too, just to make sure nothing is left smoldering.–DSW

Take Notes and Actually Read Them

Photography Credit: Perry Bennett

While the S197-chassis Mustang has now been supplanted by the independently suspended S550, I’m never surprised to see live-axle S197s still competing in national-level autocross and track competitions against their newer siblings. That was a hugely competent chassis and one of the best slaloming cars I’ve ever driven. Yes, the wide, 3200-pound Mustang had great steering and transitioned better than it had any right to.

My biggest takeaway from that project was that it helped me up my chassis tuning game. It was just so reactive to any change, and those reactions were very intuitive and sensible. 

Having trouble getting the power down on uneven pavement? Reduce the compression in those MCS rear shocks a couple clicks, let that rear suspension move a little bit, and feel the chassis and tires start to bite. 

The chassis was also extremely reactive to tuning tricks like playing with roll axis inclination, which is the virtual line drawn from the front to the rear roll axis. The more that line was angled down toward the front of the car, the more front bite I got on corner entry–right up to the point where I was only getting front bite relative to the rear, which got nervous past a certain RAI. But it was a great tuning tool because it affected the car just the way the manuals say it’s supposed to, and the chassis was communicative enough to demonstrate those changes quite vividly.

As for relating this to you, dear reader, I’d say that if you plan to get an S197 Mustang, you won’t be a bit disappointed (after a few key mods, anyway). But the real lesson here, especially when you’re developing a car, is properly understanding how changes affect performance. This means logging those changes and only making one change at a time until you thoroughly understand what they actually do. Making multiple adjustments before you understand their ramifications is a recipe for confusion and disaster.–J.G.

Tires Really Matter

After all that horsepower, all that development and all that track time, are you still not as fast as you should be? Is it possible you’re chasing tired tires? Everything that we ask a car to do–go, turn, stop–has to be accomplished through four relatively small contact patches. 

After 23 separate autocross events over two years–plus about 5300 miles total–perhaps the Falken Azenis RT660 tires on our Garage Rescue Miata had aged out, even though they still sported 5/32 inch of tread across all four tires. 

[Are new tires really faster than old tires?]

While we didn’t do any formal A-B testing, using the best times from two of our regular competitors provided some simple data: The other two drivers maintained a similar gap between two events, while I dramatically closed in on the faster car after fitting the new tires. Oh, and the street ride quality got way better, too.–DSW 

Plan Your Battles

Photography Credit: Chris Tropea

One fairly recent piece of advice comes to mind, and it’s something Jesse Spiker of Spiker Motorsports–basically our go-to mechanic for more complex project car tasks that require additional skilled hands–told me when we were putting a timing belt on my MR2’s engine: “Sometimes the hard way is the easy way.” 

It’s like wanting to pick an apple from a tree that’s only 30 feet away but across a pond. Sure, the pond is full of alligators and poison (which the alligators have apparently developed an immunity to, but you won’t be so lucky), and the bottom is covered with broken glass and more, tinier but no less angry alligators, but it’s only 30 feet away. Walking around the pond is like twice as far.

The bottom line: taking extra steps can save hassle and even time in the long run. In MR2 terms, this meant first removing the rear subframe to provide more space. It didn’t make the front of the engine any more accessible, but it did allow us to get arms, hands and tools to critical points more easily, ultimately saving us a lot of heartache and frustration.

We followed this advice when we built the engine harness for the car’s V6 swap. We connected the body harness through the firewall via a mil-spec connector that neatly separated the harness via a single plug. This means, should the engine ever need to come out again, that we won’t have to undo multiple little connections, just one big one.

The other thing Jesse and I do whenever we get together for a work night is set very modest but specific goals. If you have 3 hours blocked out, set a goal you think you could accomplish in 90 minutes. When the job inevitably turns out to be twice as complicated as you expected, you’ll still end the session with that goal accomplished. 

And should it be exactly as easy as you anticipated, then anything else you get done is a rewarding bonus. Keeping your goals loose and filing everything under “Well, it all needs to get done, so let’s just work on it” is a sure way to spend the entire session in frustration. Be specific, communicate the plan in advance, and celebrate when you accomplish your goals.–J.G.

Don’t Throw Away Anything

Photography Credit: J.G. Pasterjak

What’s bound to happen if you let something go? That’s right, you’ll eventually need it. That happened, in fact, with my Miata.

[This is your sign to never throw away anything. Ever.]

A long, long time ago–specifically, in 1994 and 1995–we ran a then-new Mazda Miata R as a magazine project car. We took it to the SCCA Solo Nats, where J.G. trophied in it. 

At the back of that Miata, we fit a trailer hitch receiver so he could haul tires to the event. This was long before today’s 200tw tires, so if you wanted to run anywhere near the pointy end of the field, you swapped to R-comps once on site. With a car as small as the Miata, that meant using a tire trailer. 

Before that Miata went back to Mazda, we decommissioned it–which largely involved removing the trailer hitch. It then sat behind J.G.’s garage.

A few years later–we’re talking very late ’90s–I wanted to carry some bikes with my Miata. So we rescued that hitch and paired it with the appropriate bike rack.

That hitch sat attached to the back of my Miata for years–decades, even–until about two years ago. Shedding a few pounds from the tail end of the Miata would make me faster through the cones, right? So we unbolted the hitch during the summer of 2021.

This past winter, though, I had an idea: Why not return the Miata to its 1990s trim for a Radwood showing? We still have both the rack and the BMX bike that it once transported. Plus, we now have our original white Kosei K1 wheels.

But where was that trailer hitch?

Well, we separated the two in J.G.’s shop. There was talk about it going to a GRM forum member and then something, something, something.

Did J.G. still have the hitch?

Maybe, he reported. Let’s see if the holes line up.

Found hiding in plain sight in his shop: that same old Miata hitch. Soon it will celebrate 30 years of service with the GRM crew, along with the honor of being abandoned with J.G. twice.–DSW

Buy Good Cars

Life is short. Don’t buy junk.

Would you rather spend three years welding up a rusty car or three years driving a cool car? When I want a car, I always buy the good example. And if I can’t afford it, I wait. Or I zero in on something else.

I prefer not to spend cubic hours resurrecting a lost cause. (Of course, your mileage may vary, and rebuilding cars broken in two does make for great content.)–DSW

Know When to Say When

What’s the proper number of cars? It’s the current number plus one, right?

Maybe not so fast. During the pandemic, we decided to pare down the fleet a bit, selling two survivors: a 1975 Pontiac Catalina Safari purchased via an estate sale and my parents’ Nissan 240SX. Both cars were way cool, but we just weren’t using them a lot–and that was true before 2020.

[It's hard to say goodbye (to a car)]

So both crossed the online auction block and were quickly turned into cash. Was I sad to see them go? Yeah, I was. But I was more relieved than anything: no more watching the two classics deteriorate due to stagnation. Selling those cars freed up space, both at the house and in my head, to concentrate on other projects.–DSW

Make Friends and Listen to Them

The email came from Phil Wurz, the sales/operations manager at BimmerWorld, and the gist was simple: I saw a photo of your M3’s brakes online, and something unrelated doesn’t look kosher. 

In this case, Phil had noticed an alarming wear mark on a wheel spacer. In the end, he was right: The wheel wasn’t properly meshing with the spacer. If left unchecked, it could have led to a snapped stud–and all sorts of calamity. 

The take-home message here: Work with good, trusted folks who have your back. The wheels they help keep attached to a car might well be your own.–DSW

Is Today’s Tuning Easier Than Ever?

What helped make our Volkswagen GTI faster? The usual: tires, brakes and suspension. Oh, and some digital wizardry from 034 Motorsport: a Stage 1 reflash for more power plus a DSG tune for quicker shifts, increased clamping force and improved response.–DSW

[Unlock your GTI’s software to shave a second off your time]

And Remember, This Is Supposed to Be Fun

All too often, we see people lose sight of what brought us to cars in the first place: the fun. Those good times don’t have to come via a big, national event, as you’ll regularly find us at local gatherings. If it’s the last Monday of the month, for example, look for us at an Orlando Roadsters meet. And if you’re not having fun with cars, maybe it’s time to reevaluate some choices.–DSW

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Colin Wood
Colin Wood Associate Editor
5/10/23 12:52 p.m.

What are some things you've learned working on project cars that everyone should know?

DocRob Reader
5/10/23 1:53 p.m.

1) Research, Research, Research. Has what you want to do been done before? If not - why? A lot of people want to try something new, but have more experienced people than you tried and failed? Why? What were the issues, what were the limitations? 

2) Learn about the sunk cost fallacy and learn the signs of when you're stuck in it. Similar to the 'when to say when'. There is a time and a place to toss in the towel on something and cut your losses. This is an emotional hobby and pastime, but with finite resources, logic, not emotion, has to win some of the time. 

3) Don't modify your daily driver. Your daily driver is NOT your project car. 

4) Know your budgetary limits. Can you afford to repair or even replace your planned race car in your planned class after meeting a tire wall? No? You can't afford to race that car. Doesn't mean you can't race, it means you can't race that car in that class. Pick your project to reflect your budget. 

5) Know your limits. Are you an okay welder? Competent in both versions of CAD (the cardboard and computer versions)? Can you wire a car? You can learn all of these things, but picking a project car that requires you to learn them all at once can turn a difficult project into an impossible one.

preach (dudeist priest)
preach (dudeist priest) GRM+ Memberand SuperDork
5/10/23 1:55 p.m.

In reply to Colin Wood :

That it's never done and there will be another...

z31maniac MegaDork
5/10/23 2:28 p.m.
Colin Wood said:

What are some things you've learned working on project cars that everyone should know?

It's always going to take longer, and cost more than you initially thought.

earlybroncoguy1 Reader
5/10/23 8:48 p.m.

In reply to DocRob :

6) Buying someone else's unfinished project car can POSSIBLY save you money - it depends. On what? Well, why is it unfinished? Too difficult, too expensive, too time consuming, guy had bills to pay, died? If you KNOW you can finish it, it just might be worth it. Impulse buys almost always turn out...badly.

7) Don't pick a unicorn as a project car. Unless you're a masochist.

8) Don't weld in sandals.

9) Do NOT let her find out how much money you're spending on it. She's already jealous enough, you want her pissed off, too? 

ddavidv UltimaDork
5/11/23 7:20 a.m.

Don't buy rusty cars. Just don't. Far better to spend more on a gutted but solid shell than a complete car needing floors, frame rails, etc.

gunner (Forum Supporter)
gunner (Forum Supporter) GRM+ Memberand Dork
6/21/23 7:13 a.m.

Knowing when to say when. Amen. 10 years with the M5 was enough. Heck, 8 was enough but I had a tough time deciding to sell it at the end until your article and the guys at the Everyday Driver podcast came together in my mind(It really was a timely combo of circumstances). Take tons of photos and videos so you can have the memories then sell the car so someone else can love it like you did. I'm having the same issue with my grandpas truck right now. its a 78 with 45k original miles on it but its the least desirable combo of features with long bed 2wd auto camper shell in don't buy me nubuck beige. It does have the 350 v8 at least. All because my parent couldn't bear  to get rid of it for the past 30 years due to it being my dad's dads' truck. Now it's up to me to sell and despite being cheaper than anything else in the country in similar condition I get no bites. Sorry this is not an attempt to sell anything. The impetus to the whole thing about moving cars in and out of my life was awakened by my other grandfather promising my cousin this badass 60's Mercury in his (gravel) driveway after my gramps passed away. By the time my cousin got to it (shortly after my gramps passing) the car was literally part of the driveway and had to be hauled off for scrap. So sad.

Ranger50 MegaDork
6/21/23 8:22 a.m.

Buy as complete as you can afford.

You will ALWAYS forget something important.

If you do modify your daily, small projects only. You will not get that turbo kit installed and finish tuned in 48hrs. Same with whatever suspension you want to run.

DirtyBird222 PowerDork
8/9/23 9:21 a.m.
Colin Wood said:

What are some things you've learned working on project cars that everyone should know?

Invest some of that money into an asset that doesn't depreciate like a brick. 

bobzilla MegaDork
8/9/23 9:24 a.m.

Convince your kids to try drugs/alcohol. It'll be cheaper and easier to quit. Start them young if you live above the frost belt. 

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