By on June 25, 2013


You have decided to jump headfirst into the old car game, and you are anxious to pull the trigger on the process by buying a four-wheeled blast from the past. Ahead lays a very cruel path of pain and disappointment if you make a bad decision.

The initial purchase price may be well within the price range of most car guys, thus many of them may begin to get buck fever about the vehicle. This is the exact point where emotion might blind side common sense, and where a car guy finds himself to be the proud owner of a four-wheeled nightmarish money pit.

The first step is to truly understand the consequences of an old car purchase.

DUSTER 35-001

You are buying a vehicle that has done its time on the road, it may now simply deserve a dignified send-off before it faces the crusher.

However, its current owner may see the old relic in a completely different light. This is the time of year when guys start to believe that their rusty pile of junk is worth its weight in platinum, because the “very same car” went for huge bucks at the Barrett-Jackson auction in Scottsdale.

That “very same car” was a very rare and mint low production car from the same make and year. It was formerly owned by Elvis. The seller with the rusted-out factory cousin will connect the two vehicles like four-wheeled Siamese twins, and price it accordingly,


Here is an actual interpretation of the sales pitch language for old cars:

“One small rust spot” means a car that is 95% rust, and the owner is pitching a minor touch up on the paint scheme.

“Needs some work” means that the old war pony is going to need a crack team of bodymen, fabricators, mechanics, a priest and a flat out miracle to save the vehicle.

“Runs” means the guy is running gas through a rubber line from an elevated glass bottle to bypass a rusted-out gas tank and non-pumping fuel pump.

“Original interior” means that the car has become a self-governing rodent metropolis united in an ungodly stench and divided only by the front and back seat.

“Numbers matching” usually indicates a stuck engine or blown transmission.

“Good rubber” means that three of the four flats on the car will probably take air.

“Second Owner” is part of the new math program in which second means every number after five.

“Handyman’s special” is rust with a stuck engine. It has five chrome trim pieces that may be salvageable before it gets squashed in a final act of mercy.

“Slight miss in motor” means at least two cylinders are completely and expensively dead.

“Slight noise in rear end” means a complete differential re-build.

“Everything works” is code that indicates almost half of everything works on the vehicle.

“Slight overheating problem” is a cracked block.

“Brakes work” means a complete brake overhaul.

“Drive anywhere” means bring a trailer.

“Good glass” means that the windshield crack runs slightly below the driver’s line of vision.

“Always stored inside” means mostly stored outside.

“Never smoked in” means never smoked in since it was parked in a pasture 30 years ago.


For more of J Sutherland’s work go to


Get the latest TTAC e-Newsletter!

31 Comments on ““It has Just One Small Rust Spot:” The old car decoder...”

  • avatar

    Agreed. with all of the above. Beware of the pretty paint job,and nice interior. Its all cosmetics. Get it on a hoist with a powerfull flashlight. See whats been welded. Once again beware of tne nicely painted uncarriage. The GM B.O.F from the sixties were known for hidden frame rot. The front frame rails on Chryslers were just as bad. And with an old Mustang the unibody structure is crucial. If it hasn’t been done right,the car is junk.

  • avatar

    I love the comment about how everyone compares their rust bucket value to the rare Barret Jackson sale. I know a lot of these folks. Several people I know have a malaise-era C3 Corvette. The 150hp version. They think that these cars are worth a mint because they compare their cars to the rare big block Vette sales at Barret Jackson.

    • 0 avatar

      A C3 with a working 150hp engine is likely only worth it as a show car. Of course, there is always the chance that somebody replaced the original engine with another malaise-era one, and that one held up (I had a 305 from that era that lasted well into 1995). Otherwise, I’m pretty sure that the 428 was the go to replacement well into the LS-era. And hey, no body rust.

      Still not worth anywhere resembling “shipped with a big block” money.

  • avatar

    ““Second Owner” is part of the new math program in which second means every number after five.”…

    This can also mean second owner on the title and doesn’t count the five reassignments the title has gone through without the title actually changing names.

  • avatar

    I learned this the hard way almost 40 years ago when, 6 months out of the air force, in school, working a good part-time job, some cash in the bank – and bored to death – I decided to pursue one of my dreams: Owning and restoring a 1957 Chevy.

    IF you go down this road, DO NOT BUY A CAR THAT DOESN’T RUN OR HAVE AN ENGINE!

    I cannot emphasize this enough! I was young and full of energy, but the resources a project like this demands, even with lots of free help from knowledgeable friends, generally at a young age you do not have the resources to do the job properly.

    My experience was thus. Bought the car in February 1974. Sold it in boxes in November, 1979.

    The years in between? Well, life got in the way – school, my first real job, a girlfriend who would become my dear wifey in marriage, home, kids – money to be used for more important things.

    Unless you are very well-off – I’m not even close – don’t go down this road!

    One satisfying point: The guy who bought the car did finish it, and when I got to see it, I left with a bittersweet satisfaction that I could have done it better, but not the satisfaction that I couldn’t finish the project – the only project in my life I was unable to finish.

    For those who pursue this sort of dream – I wish you success, just be very aware of what you’re getting into, for the “water” can be VERY deep!

    • 0 avatar

      I’ll ad a caveat to that, unless you are well off OR have the motiviation, time and skill to finish the work yourself, do not go down that road. I bought several such projects during those same years including a Charger with a completely rusted out cowl and floor that had no business being saved, and I managed to get them to a saleable point of running and “finished”. Is any project car really ever finished?

    • 0 avatar

      This happens with cars that are complete and driving too. I bought my Porsche 924S last fall, drove it 350 miles home with no problems. Started the fettling work, got discouraged, work got insanely busy and it has been a garage ornament ever since. I’ll get going on it again this winter, most likely. Eventually. Or I will say f’ it and sell it like it is for a truly catastrophic loss. Sunk cost at this point.

      I learned long ago that there is only so much of a project I can tackle.

  • avatar


    What happens to all those overpriced cars? DO they actually find buyers?

  • avatar

    Couldn’t agree more, there is always embellishments made in the hopes of making the sale. See that on CL all the time, “only needs a battery!”

    Ya right..

    I too, got the fever years ago and took a chance with a 65 Chrysler Newport that was crusher bound had I not taken it. It was rust free and was running on only four cylinders when I bought it. I took a big chance but it worked out. Some head work and gas tank refurb brought her back (always be leery of old cars
    that have inoperative fuel gauges- almost always means rust in tank).

    Four years later and near 50 years old it still provides reliable, safe transport should we choose to take her out. It was truly a crap shoot but I felt was cheap enough to take.

    My advice would be do it because you love it and nothing more.
    Make some good memories and pass it on when you need something new.

  • avatar
    Land Ark

    My little license plate icon there/screen name is from my relic. It’s a 1967 Impala that my step dad bought from his brother as the second owner after buying it from his boss who bought it new. Simple 2-owner, right?
    Anyway, it rotted away in our driveway for nearly a decade. When I was nearing driving age, we decided to restore it and it would be my first car. This was 1993.
    I won’t go into great detail here, except to say the restoration began by my uncle coming to my house and cursing when all he had to do to get it running was put in new spark plugs. They put new tires on, got the brakes “working”, filled in some of the bigger holes in the quarter with Bondo, and drove it 14 hours from Winchester, VA to Manchester, NH.
    I spent my summer tearing it down and had to go back home to school during the bulk of the rebuild. But I was there for part of it. I will tell you that there is no way in hell I would have been able to get that back together without all the help I got. It is a never ending maze of to-dos and it will break you. You may not completely give up, but you will feel utterly hopeless more than once.
    The payoff for me was getting to drive it to high school every nice day. But then college came and it eventually wound up sitting in the back of my parents’ driveway again and started returning to its former sad state.
    Now that I own a house with a garage, I can actually keep it inside and I’m re-restoring it. But, my god, there is so much to do, I doubt I’ll ever get to a point where I’ll think it’s done. And it’s still in fairly decent shape. I don’t even want to think about having to start all over again.
    But, more power to you if you want to give it a go.

    • 0 avatar

      This is similar to the ’68 Camaro of my Grandma’s that I’m restoring. I’m the actual second owner, and it gave me some seriously nasty surprises. I knew it had rusted wheel wells, but the extent of the rust was astounding when I got town to actually wire-wheeling the spots out. To make a long story short, I’m having to do a complete rotisserie job, including new quarters and a new roof, part of the floor pan and some patching on the cowl, and some pretty nasty patching on the rockers.

      This is my first full restoration, but the only time I felt truly hopeless was when I fitted and welded in that first outer wheelhouse and quarter panel. I’m still not convinced I did it right, although it seems OK. But yeah, those moments when you just don’t see the light at the end of the tunnel can set you back pretty hard.

      Fortunately, those old Chevys are really pretty simple and straightforward. You just have to take one thing at a time. The worst part is waiting to have the money for the next part of the project. . .

  • avatar

    What Half Truth said ! .

    I buy most of my oldies from the junkyard or off the tow truck hook because I want or admire , that particular vehicle ~ being a Journeyman Mechanic I know I’ll never make any $ off these old lumps and I now live in ” RUST FREE ! ” Southern California (hint: don’t ark your junk over grass as that rust it out faster than anything sort of washing it with salt water) .

    I don’t care because I love owning , working on and especially, _driving_ the wheels off of , old vehicles ~ I don’t own a modern car/truck .

    I always sell at a dead loss and often have the new owners calling me up later telling me how they can’t imagine getting a car with so much $ in mechanical repairs , so cheaply .

    For many years I re built old VW’s from junkers for profit, when I was buying I only looked at the paint & rust , if it was all one color and rust free , I could polish & wax that old chalky paint to a mirror finish and the rest is dead easy , it just takes labor and part$ .


  • avatar

    I still marvel at the horrifically rusted out 40 series jeep-style Land Cruisers that owners want to peddle for 10-15 grand because they’re so rare…

    The same goes for crapped our 80s era Defenders, with all the wonders of Lucas electrics, brought over from England where they were taken from rotting in a shed for 500 quid and now sold for 55k on eBay next to their V8 (under)powered Trust Fund kid 90 Series that have been run hard and put away wet.

  • avatar

    For me its all about photos. A well done photo with all of todays technology,can make the biggest POC look like it belongs on the Barret Jackson.

  • avatar

    @FJ60LandCruiser…Oh yeah, I’ve witnesses so called ” registered dealers”…pulling that little trick.

  • avatar

    And you didn’t even mention the big DNF – someone else’s old project that they never got running, but you’re looking at because you’ve convinced yourself that you like the damned thing and can handle the work yourself, no problem.

    Why do those guys always think that every dollar they put into the car is a dollar they can get back when they sell it?

    • 0 avatar

      ::Why do those guys always think that every dollar they put into the car is a dollar they can get back when they sell it?::

      The mod guys, especially ricers, often think the same thing. That POS 4-foot spoiler you put on it *reduces* the value, fool.

      Same thing with a house — if you customize it to your own desires, you will almost never get the full amount back, short of a housing bubble situation where people spend stupid money bidding on crap.

  • avatar

    Wonderful article, bringing to mind why my total interest in repairable antique vehicles is now limited to motorcycles and bicycles. They’re simpler.

    Note: Antique bicycles are not as easy a restoration as you’d assume. To keep the bike’s market value, the basic rule is “Thou shalt not repaint under almost any condition.” You have to save the original paint, decals and patina.

  • avatar

    Yeah…a local junkyard somehow got a 1950 Oldsmobile 88 that they’re selling for 900 dollars, but the car would probably need like 25k in restoration.

    Rust repair, body work, new electricals, new glass, interior refreshing, trim replaced and what’s left re-chromed…but someone should do it, because a 1950 Rocket 88 deserves to be on the road.

  • avatar

    My neighbor when I was growing up had a hobby of buying old rust buckets sitting in someone’s barn and restoring them. He had his own business, tons of money, and each project took 5+ years. If you don’t have plenty of time and money to invest, don’t even think about it. Personally, I wrench on old bikes. Fewer and cheaper parts, and the projects don’t occupy hundreds of square feet of shop space.

  • avatar

    Mine is a 57 chevy wagon. It ran till about 97 or 98 when it was parked because of the price of gas.

    Now I’m retired and it’s getting much higher on my to do list. Would not have ever considered buying it as a non runner.

  • avatar

    Part of the problem is the plethora of shows on Velocity and Spike that make car rebuilding look easy. Of course, If I had a TV broadcast studio shop and access to an unlimited budget for sponsor products as well as an army of unseen interns, I could make it look easy too.

    • 0 avatar

      Very true, most auto body shops are not happy with the public perception of a restoration or resto-mod project as it is portrayed in TV world. The work is long and complicated when done by any shop with scruples that wants to do it properly.

      • 0 avatar

        @ Jim Sutherland… I watch this one show set in the desert somewhere. They pick cars right out of the junk yard,maybe a mid sixties T bird, or something. Fast forward a couple of weeks,and the old Bird on the auction for 6k.

        Knowing just how complicated one of those old Fords can be, I just laugh.

  • avatar

    I have seen their show. I will concede that their finished products look like rush jobs and they cast few illusions about the quality of the finished product as a low end auction-ready commodity.

  • avatar

    I met a guy driving a 1966 Impala SS. He said the body was straight but the chassis and drive train were gone when he bought it, and he had the body mounted on a 2010 Silverado chassis – the wheelbase, track and hard points were that close. He ventured the opinion that GM has been making the ’65-’71 119″ wheelbase chassis all along, using it for Chevy and GMC trucks. That must be the best of both worlds, a classic body on modern underpinnings.

Read all comments

Back to TopLeave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Recent Comments

  • Lou_BC: “Sponsor has the irrevocable right to use in perpetuity entrants’ names, user names, likenesses,...
  • macmcmacmac: Well, as much as I like my Pentastar, I will readily admit the oil cooler design is a piece of crap. The...
  • Corey Lewis: Oh most definitely. Just a weird little engine experiment as VW prepared to take it large scale on the...
  • BobinPgh: Wasn’t there a Star Wars Rogue One version of the Rogue a few years back?
  • Land Ark: Yes, and 22,000 Maitas sold in that time. Sales are not reflective of how exciting something is. I get it,...

New Car Research

Get a Free Dealer Quote

Who We Are

  • Adam Tonge
  • Bozi Tatarevic
  • Corey Lewis
  • Jo Borras
  • Mark Baruth
  • Ronnie Schreiber