First of all, you're insane. Not in a cute, eccentric way, but in the full blown, drooling and raving in a windowless padded cell way. Limited budget? Are you fucking kidding me?
In January of 2010, I bought a 1982 Alfa Romeo GTV6. The previous spring I sold my '91 Pathfinder for $2,500 and socked the money away for a project car. I will admit here and now my mechanical skills were limited to regular maintenance and some occasional upgrades to my old Integra. I understood auto mechanics in theory, but my actual experience was limited, at best. My skills in paint and body were totally nonexistent, unless you counted the series of Tamiya 1/24 scale models I'd built several years before. Considering this, I wanted something along the lines of a Miata, a 240SX, or another Integra. Something that would be more or less reliable, fun to drive, and potentially a weekend autocross machine. Unfortunately, there were no candidates for the amount I had saved. And I looked. For months. Craigslist, Autotrader, message boards. Nothing.
I widened my scope to include funkier, older cars. Maybe a 510 or a 1st or 2nd gen Celica was lurking in someone's garage, the owner oblivious to the collectibility? Who knows. Let's see. It was then I stumbled on the Alfetta option. Prior to the GTV6's introduction in '81, the same car, more or less, was offered with a 4-cylinder as the Alfetta GTV. The relative lack of power was slightly off putting, though. I wanted more snarl. It was at that point I stumbled upon a kid just down the road selling a GTV6. My GTV6.
Now, you know that feeling you get when you go to Taco Bell or (I assume) hire a prostitute? That's how I felt when I handed a cashier's check for $2,000 to the kid for his car. I was going to pay for this with more than dollars.
My wife had signed off on the project car plan, but the look on her face when I trundled up the driveway in my mottled Italian coupe belied a barely masked frustration. Somehow she knew. I knew. We all knew.
I drove the car without incident for several months. It was surprisingly solid. No leaks. Everything but the AC worked. I started with projects that required the smallest investment of time, money, and knowledge. I replaced the rotting fuel filler hose, fuel lines, and fuel filter. I set the timing. I pulled the injectors and replaced all of the fuel lines, and replaced the air inlet hoses between the plenum and the head. I replaced the brake lines and installed speed bleeders. I flushed fluids and lubricants. I replaced worn suspension bushings, inner tie rods and ball joints. I rebuilt the shift linkage with brass bushings. I cleaned grounds and repaired cracked wiring. Through all of this work, I made countless trips to Harbor Freight, Advance Auto (the store by my house is staffed with true car guys who provided immense amounts of free advice), Alfisti cars & coffee meetups, speed shops, and import auto shops. The end result was an Alfa Romeo GTV6 that ran well. It held a steady idle. It revved to the redline with no stumbles or misses. The steering was tight. It rode well. It pulled hard. It sounded glorious.
But it was ugly.
Its body had the color and texture of a dead shark. There were several rust holes in all of the usual places, and most of the rubber trim was mummified. The seats were simply dead. I was OK with this as I was fixing up the mechanicals, but as time wore on, I decided the obvious next step was an aesthetic refresh.
When I was a kid, we'd visit my grandmother in Dallas. We'd always go to Pancho's Mexican Buffet in Preston Royal Plaza. For $3.99 they would let you eat more enchiladas, refried beans, tacos and sopapillas than was reasonable. Straining to keep the tray from crashing to the floor, I'd arrive at the table sweating and groaning. "Your eyes are bigger than your stomach, hijo," my grandmother would say.
After spending the next 18 months stripping old paint, using a combination of chemical stripper and a case of wire wheels, removing trim, cutting out rusty metal and (attempting to) learn to weld, I threw in the towel. My eyes were bigger than my stomach.
I started calling around, trying to get an idea of what it would cost to have a local body shop finish the job. Under the advice of some local alfisti, I was calling the shops that specialized in proper restorations. Their web sites were stacked with photos of exotic metal, custom domestics - truly rare and valuable cars. On a good day my GTV6 would fetch $10,000, or based on the info I was getting, about half of what a proper restoration would cost me.
This is where you, prospective old car owner, have to make a decision, if you haven't already. Do you want a show car? A concours ready, pristine example of how great that model can be? Or are you simply after a solid restoration? Or do you just want it presentable? I'm going to surmise the majority of us on this site just want a solid car that looks decent. The pride of ownership comes from its inherent coolness (with a GTV6, subjectively, that's its primary asset), and that it runs and drives well. There was no actual option for me, only a single possible course of action.
I found a shop north of Austin that seemed to specialize in budget restorations. They cut costs by allowing the owner to work on the car in their shop. After not notifying my health & life insurance company, I towed the stripped Alfa north. The shop assessed the car, the work I'd done so far, and we talked money. We decided how much I could afford, and thus how much work I'd have to do myself. I spent weekends removing the remainder of the hardware and trim, sanding, and doing whatever I could with my limited skill set to get the car ready for the booth. The shop finished the welding work, body work, and paint. Ooh, pretty!
I then spent another month of weekends reaffixing as much trim and hardware as possible, getting it ready for the highly illegal dash back to my house. With only my brake lights functional, and no glass, gauges, and only a driver's seat installed, I drove without incident, under a setting sun, the 38 miles to my house. It was the first time I'd actually driven the car in almost two years.
I have to make note that amidst all of this, my wife and I had our first daughter.
For the next 12 months, with a frustrating months-long stretch of non-activity during 90+ days of 100+ degree heat, little more occurred than ordering (the wrong, but good enough) window seals from Highwood Alfa in the UK. The honest to Dog eye-talian seals, and the GTV6 utilizes no fewer than 8 distinct profiles, would cost approximately $2,500. I scavenged as much as possible from other cars and generous donors and reused what I could of the original rubber. I had a shop restitch the split seams of the cardboarded seats. I don't know if leather will actually biodegrade, but then again, I'm not sure if this is actually leather in the biological sense. I tracked down a vintage 1983 Sony cassette deck. I repaired the disintegrating wiring in the gauges. I replaced the various gauge needles, which from a mere touch dusted like they'd been staked by Buffy, with painted wooden toothpicks. Anything that could be accomplished at the kitchen table after the daughter and wife had turned in, I tackled in air conditioned comfort watching Star Trek.
Hallelujah, as fall broke, I returned to the garage. Install, remove, reinstall, swear, install, cry, remove, reinstall. When you have no manual or guidebook, you drill out hundreds of freshly riveted rivets. You break stressed mounting brackets and have to repair or replace that impossible to find window channel. Your existing wiring will not do its job as it did prior to being ripped out like Indiana Jones' still beating heart (I watched a lot of movies my wife had no interest in seeing while I worked on this stuff). And no matter the OCD inspired tagging, bagging, and marking procedures that went down, you will be missing parts. Without a solid community behind you to send you spare bits, photos of how it's supposed to look or some scan of a photo of a photocopy of an original shop manual, you will want to stab your eyes with a 3/16 reverse drill bit over and over and over and over…
And even then, just as I find myself now, you still aren't finished. The car will never be done. Sisyphus, welcome to Anonima Lombarda Fabbrica Automobili. The scratch you gashed into the dashboard as you single-handedly reinstalled it will keep you awake at night. The fact that you used a wire wheel on your door handle to remove paint, thinking it was metal, only to scream and blaspheme as you realized it's actually plastic, is something that you bury deep, deep inside, sworn to eternal repression. That your car will never be as perfect as you imagined will slowly but inexorably transform you into Elizabeth Wertzel.
It's fine. It's life. It's like having a kid. You have the greatest intentions. You have untarnished motivations. You will succeed and hold aloft your achievement for the world to admire. The reality isn't so neat. If you are going to do this on your own, with a limited hobbyists budget, and with a modicum of mechanical knowledge and skill, you're going to have to remind yourself over and over (and your significant other, their family, possibly your boss, likely your therapist), it's the journey, not the destination.
Somehow I've made this car into a metaphor. For parenthood. For marriage. For life. You alone have no fucking clue, do you? You have some existing knowledge and experience. You have sources for reference. You have support. And you just have to do it, goddamit. If you fuck it all up, figure out where and start over. Pray. Analyze. Take a break. But don't give up. When people say it's just a stupid car, tell them to get bent.
You can do it. You're still an idiot. God bless you.