8 Project Cars Beginners Should Steer Clear of
As cars age and wear, they lose value. Sure, it’s a nightmare for a seller, but for car buyers, the depreciation curve is their best friend — especially if you’re in the market for a luxury car. But it can be transposed to collector cars too; there are plenty of stories of people on limited budgets scoring the Mercedes or Rolls-Royce of their dreams, and paying pennies on the dollar for them. But there’s usually a catch: “TLC.”
How many times have you looked at used cars and came across those three little letters? To sellers, TLC can mean anything from a blown out headlight bulb to a leaky muffler to a seized engine. And to a certain type of gearhead, the more tender love and care a car needs the better; it usually means they’re getting a deal. If you can do the wrenching on it yourself, you probably can.
In the past, we’ve looked at classics that are easy to restore, thanks to dead-simple mechanicals, an abundance of parts, a wealth of knowledge, and even a number of examples. But there’s the other side of restoration: The rare, the endangered, the complex, and the temperamental. It’s the reason why old Miatas are starting to rise in value, but you could probably find a handful of needy Lancias offered for cheap. Or why a running 30-year-old Rolls-Royce could be had for less than a Nissan Versa. Some cars are marvels of automotive engineering and form, but they cost a fortune to set right and maintain. So we looked at some cars that could be, should be, and once were great, and found eight that no amateur gearhead should take on as a project. That is, unless they’re incredibly wealthy, have years of free time on their hands, or are completely and utterly insane.
1. 1964-1981 Mercedes-Benz 600 Grosser
From 1964 to 1981, the Mercedes 600 made a strong case for itself as the most luxurious car in the world. Virtually anything could be had in the car, but everything, from the suspension to the power windows, was operated by a complex hydraulic system that needed to be meticulously maintained. Neglect (or worse, using the wrong fluids) could harden and crack the lines. A pinhole leak to the high-pressure system was so powerful it could break skin. And once the system lost pressure, virtually everything in the car (save for the engine, transmission, and electrical system) was rendered useless.
There are usually a few bargain Grossers out there, but only so many repair specialists left in the world. Be warned: This is a car where basic maintenance can run into the tens of thousands of dollars.
2. 1975-1988 Ferrari 308/328
Thanks to collector car values skyrocketing over the past few years (though luckily, it’s finally beginning to cool again), the days of a budget Ferrari are all but over. The 308 and updated 328 enjoyed a long and popular 13-year run, thanks to starring roles in Magnum P.I. and The Cannonball Run. But they fell out of fashion in the ’90s, and second and third owners weren’t exactly known to pamper them.
Ten years ago, you could still find strong-running 308s and 328s for around $30K, but today pristine examples regularly trade hands for over $75K. There are still more than a few projects left around for the price of a new Corolla, but beware: The engine-out specialty service most of those cars desperately need can cost around $20K. It may have always been true, but in 2016, there’s definitely no such thing as a cheap Ferrari.
3. 1990-2001 Mercedes-Benz SL-Class
Like the Ferrari, Mercedes’s fourth-generation SL-Class was celebrated in its day, but eventually fell out of favor due to its boxy, ’80s styling. Early SLs (models built before the 1995 update) benefit from old-school Mercedes attention to detail and semi-hand-built construction. Highlights include the fantastically powerful SL600, and SL73 AMG — V12-powered cars that share their engines with the Pagani Zonda. But the 12-cylinder cars require plenty of maintenance to stay healthy, and post-’95 models have a number of powertrain parts that are prone to fail.
These SLs are just starting to break into the collector market, and it’s still possible to find running examples for $5,000 or less. Don’t let the low entry price fool you: These aren’t easy to wrench on, and you could quickly find yourself with a repair bill that’s more expensive than the car itself.
4. 1961-1967 Lincoln Continental Convertible
The ’60s-era Continental convertible is one of the most iconic automotive designs of all time, and the last true four-door production convertible since the 1940s. You can usually even find some for cheap on eBay or Craigslist, since people held on to them. But don’t let the low buy-in fool you; these were some of the most advanced cars of their day. There’s one specialist who travels the country just working on the complex folding top mechanisms. Plus, with a nearly 6,000-pound curb weight, getting underneath one all but requires a lift, rust repair requires new sheetmetal by the yard, and we don’t even want to think about how much paint a respray would use.
5. 1968-1975 BMW 3.0 CS
The 3.0 CS is considered by many to be one of the most — if not the most — beautiful BMW coupes of all-time. Plus with a high-revving 200 horsepower straight-six and fantastic handling, it was one of the best driver’s cars of its era. But its elegant interior has lots of intricate, hand-crafted wood parts, and its sheetmetal is prone to rust more than most classic German luxury cars. Be especially wary of cheap examples, and if you find a basket case, be prepared to do a lot of bodywork: Even examples with clean-looking bodies could be hiding serious rot underneath.
6. 1976-1990 Aston Martin Lagonda
When it was introduced in 1976, Aston Martin’s Rolls-Royce fighter was arguably the most complex car on the planet. With outrageous features like an all-digital layout, computer engine management, and touch-sensitive controls, the execution rarely lived up to the idea, and Aston spent most of the car’s 14-year production run slowly dialing it back. Just 645 cars were built, and their polarizing styling and ridiculously complex controls have made them something of a bargain (think under $30K). But with a bespoke interior, unique trim, and computer programs that have largely been lost to history, you would likely need unlimited funds to restore a needy one.
7. 1970-1975 Citroën SM
The SM was a great car. It was Motor Trend’s Car of the Year in 1972 — a world-class grand tourer with an avant-garde French design and a fantastic Maserati V6. But it was mind-bogglingly complex, difficult to maintain, and once Citroën left the U.S. market in 1974, a nightmare to find parts for. Many brave souls have bought SMs over the years with the intention of rescuing them, so there are plenty left. But many have tried and failed, leaving plenty of needy projects to be had for cheap. If you’re in the market for an SM — or any vintage Citroën, really — tread very, very lightly.
8. 1951-1954 Nash-Healey
We could have included any number of low-production early sports cars on here, but the pitfalls of restoring a Nash-Healey is a good enough cautionary tale. Launched in 1951, the Pininfarina-designed, British-built sports car predated the Corvette by nearly two years. Using Nash mechanicals, it was sold in the states as an American/Italian/British exotic. But it was prohibitively expensive, and just 507 were built. Today, Nash parts are hard to find, the British steel is prone to rust, and the Italian coachwork is hard to replicate. Nash-Healeys are bona-fide collector cars, and if you’re something of an expert, you can find a needy project for cheap, restore it, and make a profit on it (pristine examples can command six-figure prices, this car was sold by RM Sotheby’s for $80K in 2015). But they also represent the type of classic that takes years of hunting for parts, and likely hundreds of hours of work to set right. Like with any low-volume exotic, no matter how cheap the buy-in, it can still land you in the poor house eventually.