How to find and Select a Camaro Project Car

One of probably the most enjoyable parts of hobby restoration is selection of the project vehicle. For us, its finding that one Camaro that fits the bill perfectly. That pristine piece of vintage rolling stock that will be capable of perfect scores from our buddies and the judges. The mint condition garage kept, never rained on, has the original fan belt, perfect original interior, with all working gauges, daily driver that the little old lady down the street just happens to have and wants to give you. Unfortunately, it never seems to work out that way.

In reality, finding any car that is 20-30 years old that is in mint condition is a miracle in itself. Oh, there out there and most are in car collections and would cost you a year's salary to even get close to owning. So, most of us have to be content with finding the best thing available for what we want to spend.

THE DECISION

Lets start there first, with what you want to spend. It is true that you can find a decent project vehicle for as little as $500, possibly less. It probably won't have any drivetrain in tact. The interior will most probably be shot, and if your lucky there won't be any thing living in what remains of the interior. But lets face it, if this is what your wanting to spend you are probably just trying to find a functional and hopefully straight body.

Now, before we move on, lets talk a moment about buck fever. Any of you who have hunted know what this is. If your not a hunter, let me explain. Buck fever is something that every hunter has to deal with. Its that moment when a big 10 point (number of points on his antlers) walks into view. Your heart races, the blood pounds in your ears, your vision gets very acute and you are normally in no condition to stand, much less fire a weapon. Well, let me tell you that as "Car Guys or Gals" we have comparable "Car fever". I got it about a year ago now when I bought my now current project car (70 Z28). Car fever is when you see something that really catches your eye from a distance and it just sucks you in. I drove past my Z28 everyday for almost two months. Telling myself that I had no business stopping and even looking at it because tax time was near. It sat there with its little "For Sale" sign just beckoning me to Stop!. Take a look. Well needless to say, one day at lunch I did stop. The body was perfect. New bright yellow paint, bright red stripes (not dawning on me at the time that I had never seen a Z28 with anything other than black or white stripes), cool chrome wheels, good looking BF Goodrich tires and man, did it sound good! Oh I tried to haggle, I checked the VIN, all that good stuff, but nothing worked – I was hooked! I paid $5000 and drove it home two days later.

Ok, I'v been married for 16 years to the same beautiful woman. She has seen fit to "overlook" my bad habits and tendency to have too many hobbies. But I can tell you that a good many politicians would have been proud the day I tried to rationalize to her how using the tax money to buy this car was a good idea. That how we would not just pay our taxes and have nothing to show for the money. That in the end we would have the car to show for the money we would have to shell over to the government. I don't think that she ever bought it, but think that she felt so sorry for what an idiot I am that she didn't have the heart to show me the flaws in my reasoning. Anyhow, if she had balked I would have reverted to my "talk about it until she gets fed up and lets me have it" strategy. I think she knew this too.

So, now I have my new project car home. Wanting to drive it around a while before ripping into it full bore I started to notice all of the little things that I hadn't during my "Car fever" phase. The interior, while in good shape, would need at least a $1000 to $1500 to be where I wanted it. The wiring was not in the best shape either, another $1000 or so. The engine compartment needs a complete refurb. The engine runs strong, but smokes a little, $2500. Lots of detail stuff to be done, blah, blah, blah, I figure the end total of restoration to be around $8000. Lets see, add that to the purchase price and I will be into my Z for a cool $13,000! HOLY COW, my wife is gonna put me on a spit and roast me! Wait, wait. If I do it over 2 years that's only $333 a month. Naw, that wont work. Over 3 years $222 a month. 4 years $166. Bingo, I can swing $166 a month. Well, unless the kids get sick, or need clothes, or food.

Anyhow, you get the idea. This is a costly proposition any way you look at it. I will most probably do most of the work myself and save thousands, but its still going to be a multi-year project. For me that's fine. I would not suggest it for those of you who plan to drive the vehicle daily too. That's where a restoration gets tedious in my opinion.

THE SELECTION

OK, take the money out of the equation. For sake of argument, lets say you plan to spend $3000-$5000 for a fairly good working sample. Here are some tips to help you in the selection of your project vehicle.

  1. Uniqueness - While most second generation Z28's and SS 396's are highly desirable, they are difficult to come by. My Z28/RS is one of a very few I have seen in Texas. Do try to find the RS options or other items that make a standard Camaro unique.
  2. Major Repair - Look for what major work will be needed. On mine I have quite a lot of firewall work to do and will need to replace the subframe. The previous owner had retrofitted A/C on my non-A/C car and cut the firewall heavily. The subframe had also been cut to evidently clear headers. Both items will cost quite a lot to fix.
  3. Check the Title - My clear title ended up being a salvage title. This will dramatically reduce the price of the vehicle. I don't plan to sell mine so I did not make an issue after the fact. Had I known prior to the sale, I could have possibly gotten $1-2000 shaved off of the price.
  4. Check the VIN – the cowl tag can tell you a lot about the vehicle. I suggest that you have a couple of good Chevrolet manuals with you to determine what is on the tag. A "Chevrolet by the Numbers" book is a great thing to have handy to check out the engine and diff codes as well. Check them all.
  5. Original Equipment – I knew from the onset that the original LT1 was missing from my Z28. It had a 400 Small Block in it. I planned on replacing the motor, and therefore did not care. If your going for an all original restore this would be a major problem.
  6. Fresh Paint – beware fresh paint, it might be hiding something. Check the car over thoroughly with a magnet. This will allow you to tell which areas are bondo and which are pure metal. My Z28 had very little bondo. You should probably expect some, as the Camaro will be 20-30 years old.
  7. Aftermarket Goodies – While they may look like goodies they could also be telling a tale. Look for structural cracks on cars with traction bars. If they have been raced and not set up properly there could be structural damage. I found one traction bar welded to the axle and one shock almost pressing through the mounts. Neither will be costly to fix, and no other structural damage was found, but its good to look before you leap.
  8. Rust – Look in the trunk and under the car carefully. Under the car a little red dirt can hide a lot of bad rust. Scrape it away with a knife and see what hides beneath. The trunk is normally a good sign as to the condition of the car as a whole. If there is a lot of rust there, it's a fair bet the whole car could be pitted. This will take some time, but may be well worth the effort. Small rust outs can be cut out and fixed. I had three small rust holes that will be easily fixed.
  9. Angle Check – Check the car from all angles. Does is sag on one corner? If it does try to determine if it's a bad suspension component or possibly tweaked from an accident.
  10. Knock Off's – Beware the badge. Just because the badge says it's a Z28 or SS doesn't mean it is. Refer to ite m #4, always check the VIN, it's the only way to be sure you have an original.

Obviously there are quite a lot of mechanical things to look for, but most are fairly common knowledge, or practical knowledge items. I will detail a couple of quickie mechanical checks.

Generally, if you pay attention, check your numbers and avoid "Car Fever" you can come away with something that has tons of potential. Good hunting!

 


Last updated: 10/20/2011
Author: MadMike Maciolek

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