The truth about what defines a project car

David S.
By David S. Wallens
Aug 19, 2023 | GMC, e30, BMW M3, Porsche 911, Column, Project car, Ferrari 308, OEM+ | Posted in Columns | From the June 2023 issue | Never miss an article

Photography Credit: David S. Wallens

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"So, what exactly makes a project car?”

It was a good question. It came from the floor during some talk I was hosting as a last-minute fill-in. The subject, in fact, might have been project cars.

There was a crowd watching. I needed an answer stat.

A build that has a vision from beginning to end,” I confidently replied, channeling my inner Carl Heideman as I conjured up the reply right there on the spot. 

The masses seemed content with the answer. Some nodded in agreement. A few chins might have been stroked. 

All these years later, I think it still holds water. A project can be as easy as bolting on some cool wheels or it can be a full rebuild from a smoldering husk that involves a seemingly never-ending list of suppliers, sources and solutions. There is no wrong answer. 

What’s better than the successes (and failures) of building a project alone in the garage? How about sharing those successes (and failures) with the rest of the class? It’s how our own Builds and Project Cars forum took off.

Need a little kick in the behind to keep on keeping on? Wanna see some projects that merge creativity, chutzpah and old-fashioned hard work? Share, contribute, be inspired. 

Forum member mke, for example, has shown us how to do what Ferrari didn’t: He’s putting a V12 into the iconic 308. Over the course of a hundred pages, he’s detailed every facet of the conversion, from custom-ground cams to his latest FAD (short for foam-aided design). From an early post in the thread: “Thank goodness I have a welder and not much sense :)”

What’s it really like to campaign an E30 BMW in the performance rally world? Member irish44j has been sharing that journey with us since 2011 in some 3500 posts. 

When the rally action gets slow, the talk reminds us, there’s always something to clean or pretty up: “For those who follow this thread,” an update states, “you know well that when I don’t have something mechanical to do, I always have rattle cans and vinyl.”

Tuna55, another chronic poster, has been documenting the restoration of a 1972 GMC pickup for more than a decade. In between the actual work–including all the sanding–you can find useful nuggets of wisdom: “I’ve come a long way, after a long time, from an era when sweeping the bed was major progress.”

I admit, I tend to gravitate to what the kids now call OEM+. A little lower, a little more power, but keeping the original intent of the car there. 

I like my builds clean–really clean–and I do enjoy my buffer. For me, it’s all about the details. For the Porsche 911, that means it’s all 1984: the right Yokohamas, the right New York plates, the right radar detector perched on the dash. If a sticker goes on the car, there’s a reason. The stance is low but not too low. The tires are fat but not too fat. 

On the M3, I went just a bit further than BMW did–again, a little lower, a little wider. Maybe somewhere in there is a hint of decommissioned race car. But that aesthetic doesn’t mean things can be sloppy: I recently received an order of fresh interior bits from Bimmer World. James Clay says I got some of the last ones available. Will anyone notice if the rear seat ashtray has a broken lid? I will. 

Another important bit of wisdom for projects, and this also comes from Carl: Cars should run as intended. The engine should always start on the first pull, the brakes should never leave you guessing, and the chassis should be your friend (and not the kind of friend who leaves you waiting for the bus). 

[Sorting a project car: The final step between good enough and perfect]

How do you like your builds? Easy or hard? Mild or radical? Again, no wrong answers, but I can’t wait to see them. 

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View comments on the GRM forums
Patrick GRM+ Memberand MegaDork
5/5/23 10:37 a.m.

In the end, they're all project cars

MadScientistMatt UltimaDork
5/5/23 12:46 p.m.

I've had several vehicles turn into projects that never started with a vision for a build. Sometimes they simply needed enough major repairs to be considered a project. Other times I couldn't just replace a broken part with a stock replacement when modern improvements were too easy to find.

madmrak351 Reader
5/5/23 1:21 p.m.

More power and better handling. The first real project vehicle I did was a 1972 LUV truck engine swapped to a 283 sbc. Changed the steering to use a power rack and pinion. Added disc front brakes. Everything I did before that truck was just bolt on stuff. Cosmetic appearance is nice on some projects, on others the beater look adds to the sleeper factor. I have done it both ways. In the end if the experience from drivers seat does not improve I don't think I was successful.

5/5/23 1:49 p.m.

A project car is a journey with a car that does not require driving. But like all journeys, it does require a destination, a roadmap and some sort of a budget. There will be challenges along the way that can not be foreseen from the start. Slight chance it could kill you.



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