Sometimes our desire for instant gratification overtakes our sensibilities. It's an easy trap to fall into and as members of this lunatic fringe that is hot rodding, we are likely all guilty of this at one time or another. I know I have been more times than I care to admit and some of us learn our lessons a little more slowly than others.
I've been lucky enough to get my hands on a fair amount of old cars over the years, almost all of which have been early Fords. I started like most of us do, saving my pennies to buy my first Model A. From there on out, I was hooked. And along the way, I learned how not to do a few things, the hard way of course...
My first crack at this hot rodding stuff was a flop. I was a victim of the trap I just mentioned. It played out like this: I was in my early twenties, had squirreled away about $3k in my “hot rod fund” and was on the hunt. Every day I would scour the internet: Craigslist, The HAMB, Ebay, etc. looking for a suitable starting point. Like a lot of us, my goal at the time was a Model A Coupe.
I spent a LOT of my time on the HAMB, drooling over high-boy Coupes with hard chops on them. I was just getting to know about guys like Chris Swenson and his brother, Corey and taking note of some of the cars they were messing around with at that time. Corey had built a 30/31 Model A Coupe with about a 5” chop, sitting high on a basically stock A frame with a hot banger motor in it. I thought it was perfect and right up my alley.
Like I said, I was spending a lot of time searching and had a few grand set aside. I found that for the money I had, I wouldn't be buying a running car. Or even a complete car for that matter. I was looking for a body. In fact, I remember at the time that I wasn't even looking at complete cars, ONLY at bodies. That was mistake number one.. The trap was set and I was destined to spin my wheels. But, this is how we learn, right? In hindsight, had I been looking at complete cars, I would have found that just a couple of thousand dollars more than what I had really buys a LOT more. What do I mean? Look at it this way:
A bare bones, Model A coupe body in salvageable shape, needing the average amount of patch panels, and sporting it's fair share of dents, road rash and overall bumps and bruises will cost you somewhere around $3500. More if the body is exceptionally nice. This was basically true back then too and this is the sort of price range I was looking in. So, what do you get for your $3500 when it comes to a Model A Coupe body? Or more importantly, what do you NOT get?... Here is what I've found after spending my first few years of “hot rodding”, running in place like a dipshit...
That Model A Coupe body you just bought for $3500 looks like a great bargain, right? Well.. Maybe not. You start to really examine it hard: “Hmm... guess I'll need to look for some garnish moldings..” Ok, no big deal. A couple hundred bucks, whatever. Maybe it's missing the dash panel. $50, fine, they're cheap. The vinyl insert is long gone, you knew that. But you didn't notice how bad the wood in the top was.. better look up that kit. Wait, what? $500+ ?! OUCH...
A little further digging and you find yourself nickel and dime'd to death. Garnish moldings, a wood kit, dash panel, window regulators, the latch assemblies for the doors and a few other things are all pretty common to be missing from these bodies in this price range. And they all cost money. Of course, we haven't even gotten into the body repairs it needs.. and please don't tell me you fell for the “patch panels are cheap” trap too...Yes, they are cheap! But, wait.. what do you mean you don't know how to weld?
So, somehow you've justified buying this rusty hulk because the guy selling it told you what you already knew – that you could buy all the patch panels it needs for a couple hundred bucks? How will they make their way onto the car? Now you have to hire a skilled tradesmen to install them for you.. Oh, have him fix that sub rail and the floor in the trunk while he's in there..So, you're $3500 body is turning into more like a $5k body, just to get it to the point of resembling a car again. And we haven't talked about the things you really WANT to do yet, like chop it.
We also have not even started hinting around how that frame sitting on jack stands in your garage is going to turn into something that actually runs and drives yet. “Congratulations, you just played yourself” I believe is what the kids say...
Now, there is an alternative. It requires a little more patience and maturity.. Certainly more than I had at the time. And if you're a young guy in the same position, you probably won't listen to me the way I wouldn't have listened then either, but here we go: When it comes to a Model A, a little bit more money buys you a LOT more car.
These cars are weird, there is a certain high point they don't cross over money-wise and a certain point they don't dip below. In the middle there is a nice average and on the low end of that average is the sweet spot for hot rodders like us looking for cheap thrills. In my experience, an average price for a“driver” quality Model A coupe is about $10k. But, when we start talking about this category, there is also the lower end of the scale too. It is not uncommon to find a complete Model A Coupe that technically runs advertised for $7k. What you'll be getting is an older, amateur “restoration.”
These are the cars that grandpa put back together in the 80's in his garage. He wanted a car that looked good enough to get ice cream in one Sunday a month, not to win a Concours event with. These cars are the ones that were painted in the garage because gramps wasn't about to pay somebody when he could do it himself and have it come out looking “just as good.” All-thread was used wherever possible and you better believe he put the wiring together with orange wire nuts meant for home wiring... BUT, it will be a complete car that moves under it's own power and resembles an automobile more than it does yard art.
Now, you're probably thinking “I don't have $7000, I have $3500!” Great, you're half way there-closer than that if you have the ability to haggle even a little bit. Also, you saved that $3500, you can save $7k, trust me. The reward for your patience is that you will be money-ahead long term and with a lot less heartache along the way. Here's why: The reality is that at the end of the day, you should be able to buy that $7k car for $6500-bare minimum. Less than that if you're good at negotiating. Let's say it's $6500 and here's where you are now:
You have a CAR (not a pile of parts) that runs and not only that, it has things bolted to it all over the place that you, the hot rodder, do not want. The best part is, other people do want it and will pay you money for that stuff! Fenders, running boards, splash aprons, bumpers, stock wheels and tires, spare tire bracket, headlight bar and headlights – all this stock stuff is worth money to an older guy just like the one you bought this car from who is restoring his own Model A. Now instead of shoveling money into a pile of junk, you're going the other direction and making money back off of parts you're selling.
You should be able to recover $2k of your $6500 investment by selling all of this stock equipment that you don't want anyway. And at the end of the day, you can be in a running car that can be enjoyed as you tinker on it for $4500 to $5k, a far better alternative, and all for nothing more than exercising a little patience and playing your cards right.
If that all sounds like a lot of work, believe me, it is actually far less work in the long run than going about it from the opposite direction. I've attempted both multiple times in my youth and what I've found is that it's a lot smarter to spend a little bit more money up front and buy the nicest start you can afford. Unless you like spending unlimited amounts of frustrating hours spinning your wheels in the garage and not getting far. I on the other hand would prefer to just go for a drive.