Edducation: What’s the best project car for this father/daughter team?

by Edd China
23 May 2022 7 min read
Edducation: What’s the best project car for this father/daughter team?
Photo: Charlie Magee

Dear Edd,

I have agreed with my 23-year old daughter that I will go halves with her on a light restoration project car. I’ll share the financial burden, share my mechanical knowledge and help get her set with a car she’ll enjoy improving and driving for years to come.

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Our budget is a total of £5000, and we’d like there to be fair availability of cars, a good supply of spare parts and the potential for someone to want the car once she’s enjoyed it in years to come. What would you recommend, please?

Edd says:

Casting my mind back to when I was the same age as your daughter, most of the cars I was playing around with were the same age as me – they were the cars that endured from the late sixties or seventies because they had been put together by hand. Things like VW Beetles, Minis and Land Rovers were readily available and so were the parts, which meant there was quite a nice industry of shops and clubs that catered for everything you’d need. The quirkier and older you go, the harder it’s going to be to get bits and pieces for it.

The tricky part is to make sure your daughter gets to influence the decision more than you. Principally, the passion for the car needs to be hers because your experience will work on almost any vehicle but ultimately, on those difficult days, when something isn’t working, she’ll need to be really passionate about that car too so that you both have the impetus to carry on and fix it.

There are some important questions you need to consider, such as how do you see yourselves best enjoying the car? Will it be used for rallies or going to the pub? How many miles is it going to have to do? Will it be your daughter’s only car, a daily driver, or a project on the side? Will she be whizzing up and down the country seeing friends in it on her own? The answers will dictate how important it is for the car to be super reliable, practical or fun. Working on a project car every weekend that you need to get to work on the Monday may create unnecessary trials and tribulations when jobs you attempted to tackle haven’t quite been finished by Sunday evening.

Back in my day the air-cooled VW scene was huge and the flexibility and ease of customisation appealed to me. Summer is a great time to get yourselves along to some car shows to find out what’s out there that appeals to you and talk to the owners, as you’ll get a feel for what part of the scene will best suit you; some cars and some people just click. You’re going to end up needing help at some point and doing it with people you get on with, and can have some fun with, is what it’s all about. It’s like when you’re buying a new coat or pair of shoes; try them on for size and just see how you feel.

2003 Volkswagen Beetle Última Edición
Photo: Volkswagen

The hardest part of this quandary is what is going to endure when it comes to selling the car in some years time, but if you go for an older classic, you may have a little more certainty that someone is going to go for it. My first car was a Texas Yellow 1303 Beetle, it cost me about a thousand pounds, and with £6000 you’ll get a lot more car for your money. You could get a Mk2 Golf GTI for around £3000, and you might just get into an early 2000’s Porsche Boxster or Mercedes SL for the full £6000. You could easily find a full size Range Rover or Range Rover Sport for £3000 to £4000. Just insuring any of them will be the issue! 

One of the problems with more modern classics is that a lot of them are put together by a robot which means the bits are only designed to go on once. My mate Neil Burgess and I had issues upgrading the back suspension on his 2007 BMW Mini Cooper S rally car because the big screws that hold everything together were designed to stay there so when we tried to remove them we had to replace them because we damaged the threads.

Cars from the noughties and the nineties that are still on the road, with a good parts availability and popular following, include Land Rovers, Minis, VW Beetles and Golfs. The advantage of the more modern classics is that they have more safety features, such as airbags and ABS, which from a parent’s point of view is probably key. The downside is that they create the potential for more to go wrong and those systems are typically hard to work on. A Range Rover would offer a little more protection between your daughter and the outside world as it has a more commanding position on the road, plus, you could take it off-road which opens up a whole other world of fun.

These are difficult times though, so something that might sip petrol rather than guzzle it, perhaps a Smart Roadster‘s 3-cylinder turbocharged 700cc engine rather than a Range Rover’s 4.4 litre supercharged petrol V8, will help keep running costs down, and bear in mind, if you go for a slightly more expensive marque, you might find the parts are more expensive too.

Mazda MX-5 green
Photo: Nathan Morgan

If I were 23 right now, I’d probably go for a Mazda MX-5 because they’re really, really good fun. A brilliant two seater roadster (that’s not that quick but feels like it is) is the sort of car you should have in your twenties before you have lots of other things to worry about; it’s a great time of life to get the wind in your hair and go for a bit of a blast.

They made them all the way through the nineties and noughties so you’ve got a number of different models to choose from and because there are so many of them, there are lots of fans and therefore clubs you can get involved with. 

Parts are easy to get hold of and the factory made loads of upgrade options – the same can be said for Minis and Fiat 500s – so there’s plenty you could play with in the workshop. You can have a lot of fun tuning and refining the car without changing anything that would dramatically affect how well it works or will sell for in the future.

I’d go to a local club for advice about marques, but if you’re thinking about selling it on, go for the most luxurious one you can afford as the resale value is going to be higher than a car with a basic spec. Back in my day, tuning was something you actually had to do yourself, but many of the cars that came out of the factory in the nineties and noughties had lovely stereos, turbos already fitted and sporty stuff ready to go, but hopefully you’ll still have a few quid left over to add your own personal touches.

5 pieces of bad advice I’ve had about project cars_Hagerty
Photo: Craig Cameron via Unsplash

Frankly, it’s more fun to have the car on the road than it is in the workshop so look for cars that have really mint bodywork (getting into welding and bodywork is a real faff and having a car repainted will cost lots of money) but has a few mechanical issues that require tinkering. It’s all very exciting on the first day when you buy a car that needs tons doing to it, but when you’re 12 months down the line and still haven’t actually got to drive it yet, that can get very frustrating. 

It sounds like you’ve got a good relationship because you’re willing to work together, but project cars can be frustrating. Both of you need to be happy to admit that you might be wrong sometimes and be good at making up afterwards – if anything, it’ll be great therapy!

If you are working with someone for the first time it’s important to ease yourself in, start with small jobs that don’t have massive consequences if something goes wrong. Don’t try to do stuff to deadlines or put yourself in any pressurised situations, that’s when things can get very difficult. We’ve all worked far too many hours or through the night to do stuff – the TV universe loves it – and although it might be something you talk about afterwards when you’ve forgotten some of the pain, it’s never a fun experience and there will be plenty of other challenges involved working on the car itself. 

When we took the Casual Lofa (driving sofa) to California we had an ongoing problem with the cylinder head. We got away with it in the UK because it never really got that hot but in the US we spent a lot of time driving through the desert so whether it was overheating or a pipe bursting, it became a constant issue. Yes, it turned it into more of an epic adventure, and overcoming difficulties is part of the fun, but at the same time we could have done without it when we were trying to limp to the next motel before they closed for the night. 

Organising your garage
Photo: Kyle Smith

I learnt most of what I know by asking questions, and even though putting up with lots of questions from someone can be testing (I even got thrown out of physics lessons at school for asking too many) it’s how you learn, so accommodate each other’s shortcomings and exuberance. Not knowing stuff can make things very daunting, but as soon as you know the little trick or that little tip, it makes the challenge a lot easier so get a good manual and be careful in forums because there’s an awful lot of misinformation out there.

Of course, with growth there’s always a little bit of pain but a project car is going to be a great experience for both of you and it’s going to be great for your relationship.

Got a question for Edd China? Drop it into the Comments, below, or send your query to enquiries@hagertyinsurance.co.uk. Remember to give plenty of detail so Edd can give the best advice possible.

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