As hot rodders, we often can’t resist meddling with things. In fact, some will say that building or modifying your own car is a right of passage with his hobby. There’s some truth to that, but there’s a knack to doing it right, and it begins largely with your own skills and experience. If you want to build your own car but haven’t done anything more than oil changes or replacing spark plugs, chances are you should look at enhancing your skills before you even begin. And in terms of budgeting, there are a number of ways you can do this.
When it comes to hot rodding, skills such as welding, fabricating, body and paint, as well as engine building are an integral part of the culture, and you’ll either need to learn how to do them yourself or find those who can for your project. Either way, it will likely cost time and money. On the financial side, if you’re on a really limited budget, a good way to learn or improve your skills is to offer your help on a project being put together by one or a group of your friends with similar interests – they’ll appreciate the time you volunteer for the project, and by working with others, you’re able to sharpen your skills at very little financial cost to you. If your plans are more ambitious and you’re looking to turn your hobby into a viable career or business, you can always look at going to trade school. Costs for enrollment vary, ranging from technical classes offered at local colleges to privately funded institutions like UTI (Universal Technical Institute), which actually offers a specific hot rod training program. However, because privately funded schools operate without the support of federal and local funding, their programs tend to cost more.
During our research for this article, we were quoted figures from $6,000 to $10,000 per year for technical, automotive related training programs at private institutions. However, schools like this will frequently offer modules on major mechanical overhauls, welding and fabricating, in a controlled, safe environment. If you are looking at embarking on building cars or even hot rods as a career move, such programs can often provide you with good work experience and apprenticeships as well, so you’re able to step into a job upon graduating. Don’t expect to be earning a great deal when you first get out of school, though. At the end of the day, it’s something you need to seriously consider.
Learning to improve your technical and crafting skills when it comes to building cars can seem like an expensive proposition, but along with these skills, you need to make sure you have the right tools for the job. If you have friends who are experienced builders, have a look around their shops. Chances are, you’ll find a whole range of tools, from standard wrenches to welding apparatus and all kinds of specialist tools. However, even if you’re starting out and your budget is limited, don’t skimp on quality pieces. Scour the classifieds and websites, go to swap meets or look for deals at local parts and hardware stores on decent quality American-made tools.
Choose a recognized brand – examples such as Craftsman from Sears and Husky from The Home Depot are good quality, affordable tools, and new ones often come with excellent warranties, including lifetime replacement. Craftsman has had an unlimited warranty plan since 1927. If a tool is considered defective, you can take it to your local store, and they will issue a replacement. Power tools, however, are not covered by the same warranty, and most only have a guarantee for up to one year.
Building an impressive arsenal of tools takes time, and while many of us won’t be able to have a complete range of tools for every job imaginable at first, by being patient and budgeting accordingly, you’ll get everything you need, bit by bit. Craftsman tools, for example, can range from around $8-$10 for individual sockets to $20 for a three-piece wrench set, around $60 for a sandblaster kit, and up to $800 for a complete mechanic’s 432-piece tool kit or 204-piece advanced professional tool set for auto body repairs. Some high-end tool kits can run into thousands of dollars, but they are mainly aimed at those in the trade or seasoned car builders.
This might seem like an obvious one, but if you don’t have your own garage, you need to think about where you can work on your project and whether or not it’s going to cost you money to do so. If you can, you should at least try to have access to an enclosed building where you can store the project and parts and keep it out of the elements and away from prying eyes. If you plan on renting on a monthly basis, you should consider how many months you planning on using the space, where it’s located and also exactly what the rules and policies are for tenants. Some building owners won’t want the yard full of parked cars or parts due to liability or environmental issues, and sometimes you can be restricted in the hours you can actually work on the vehicle, so bear this in mind and make sure you have a thorough understanding before you enter into a rental agreement.
Buying the Project
Now it’s time to consider the project you’ll actually be working on. This is where you really need to tread carefully and weigh your options. You not only have to look at what it takes to buy the car in the first place, you also need to consider how much work needs to be done to complete it. For example, what is it going to cost to get the parts you need? If you’re building an unusual car, such as an orphan brand vehicle like a Studebaker, Rambler, Packard or Kaiser, you’re often going to pay a lot more for parts than you would for a run of the mill Chevrolet or Ford. Even on more mainstream offerings, some parts can be expensive, such as brakes, rear ends, specific trim pieces, reproduction whitewall tires and vintage style 15- or 16-inch wheels or large diameter late model rims and rubber. And if there are parts of the project on which you can’t do the work yourself, how much will farming the work out to professionals run you?
Amateur or Professional
On many hot rod projects, engine building, transmission work and body and paint, which require a high degree of knowledge or skill to render quality results, are handed out to professional shops. When selecting a shop for such work, you not only need to consider your budget but also the shop’s reputation. Ask around and get some references before you agree to a job, and most shops worth their weight will be happy to assist. There are countless stories of enthusiasts getting burned financially because they handed over a sizeable amount of money and ended with an engine that self-destructed or even a motor, transmission or car that went missing while it was in the shop’s custody.
And when it comes to the motor, even though it might cost next to nothing to actually buy it, a basic engine build will likely cost you around $1500-$3000 by the time it’s completed. Think about it, the engine first has to be inspected – i.e., a leakdown test performed to gauge its overall health. Then it needs to be torn down, cleaned and rebuilt. Even if you buy one used via a swap meet or wrecker’s yard, it will still need to go through the same process before you can drop it in your car. Beyond the basic rebuild, such as re-grinding the crank and installing new rod or piston pins, rings, valves, springs and rocker arms, start adding a few performance parts such as a camshaft, heads, intake, carburetor, fuel injection system and or exhaust, and it’s easy to have at least $5000-$10,000 invested in the engine before it’s even installed in the car.
If you’d rather go the plug and play route with a crate motor, prepare to spend just as much, if not more. Brand new crate motors, like those offered from Ford, GM Performance Parts and Mopar, will set you back from anywhere from $5000 for traditional small-block V-8s up to $20,000 or more for high-tech modern engines such as Ford’s “Modular” motors, GM’s line of LS series aluminum small-blocks and Mopar’s “new” Hemi V-8s. Transmissions, especially automatics, can also be one of the most expensive aspects of a project. If you’re buying one used, it will more than likely need a rebuild, though some companies, such as TCI Automotive and Art Carr, will sell you complete, performance built automatics. Depending on the application, you can be looking at anywhere from $1500 to $5000 or more for a quality built high performance automatic. Many hot rodders use GM Turbo Hydramatic 350s or 400s, or their later overdrive equivalents, quite simply because they’re durable and parts are readily available for them.
Body and Paint
Body and paint are another challenging aspect of a hot rod build. Depending on your skill level and objectives with the project, it can either be done relatively cheaply (if you’ll be performing most of the work yourself) or will be one of the biggest expenses of your hot rod project (if you’re farming it out to professionals). Again, if you’re going the latter route, choose a shop that’s reputable, ask for testimonials and look at examples of work they’ve done. As with engine or transmission shops, it’s easy to get burned on bodywork, and for some hapless enthusiasts, it’s taken three or four attempts (and a lot of money) to get their cars finally painted the way they wanted.
On a fairly small car, like a 1930s Ford, complete body prep and paint handled by a professional will at least run you several thousand dollars - we were quoted $5500 for an older, rust-free, running and driving car that still sported its original paint, with the shop taking it down to bare metal, priming the body, sanding it and painting it with high quality urethane (and that was without any metalwork and providing we had already removed all the exterior trim, including the door handles, emblems, headlights, grille and bumpers ourselves).
Now, if you’re dealing with a project vehicle that has some rust, metalwork such as cutting out rotted steel and installing new patches or complete panels, welding and filling in seams will also add to the cost.
Furthermore, if you’re planning to make alterations to the bodywork, including shaving, nosing, decking, channeling, sectioning or chopping the roof, costs can quickly add up. Although a high quality show car is beyond what most reading this article likely can or want to achieve, those hot rods and customs that win awards at big shows like Autorama and World of Wheels can easily have more than $100,000 in body and paint work alone.
Of course, one tip for those with a limited budget who still want a decent quality paint job is to perform most of the prep work themselves, including removing all the small parts and prepping the surface of the body for paint. As they say, 90 percent of a quality paint job is in the prep work, and for professional paint jobs, that’s where most of the labor costs are tied up. Remember, it’s your project, and the more time you’re able to devote to smoothing, filling and block sanding the body in preparation for paint, the more money you’ll save. In some cases, discount body shop chains like 1-Day Paint & Body (in the Southwest) and Maaco (nationwide in the U.S. and Canada) can deliver a decent quality paint job for around $500-$600, provided the car is already prepped before you take it in for paint.
If saving money on paint and bodywork is of primary concern, you should try to purchase a car with the straightest body you can find. On popular models with reproduction bodies, like 1932-34 Fords, this usually isn’t a problem, though a reproduction steel body from somebody like American Speed or Brookville can be a relatively expensive outlay. For example, Brookville’s 1932 Deuce coupe 3-window complete steel body retailed for $24,000 at the time this article went to press, and that’s just a bare steel body. You’ll still need to source everything else for your project and factor in the work needed to assemble the rest of the car and paint it. However, the quality of these bodies is superb, and you’re unlikely to find anything better on the market.
If you’re more inclined towards building a late-1920s or early-1930s hot rod pickup, bodies can be had much cheaper, even in steel. Last Refuge Hotrods, for example, sells its 1928-29 roadster pickup reproduction steel body for $5495 (at press time), which also includes the A-frame, pickup bed and tailgate. Another thing to bear in mind if you’re using a new reproduction body is that many are designed to go with specific chassis designs, and if you don’t take that into consideration you can spend countless hours trying to fit the body on your chosen frame. A new reproduction frame can cost $500-$600, but also remember that your choice in driveline or suspension configuration may be limited because it’s pre-made and usually designed to be mated with specific hardware.
If your tastes run to less mainstream iron, or more toward post-war customs, finding a good solid candidate as the basis for your project is even more important. Given that most of these machine date from the late 1940s through the early 1960s, many have been around the block a few times, so the best advice we can give is finding a car with the straightest, most complete and rust-free bodywork you can. Even if it’s a rolling chassis or isn’t running, it may be worthwhile because you can likely get it for less money. If you look hard enough, you can still find solid 1950s cars for under $5000 (we’ve found them for as little as $1500, in some cases), though at those prices today they generally need a driveline, interior and paint. Just remember to tread carefully and, when buying a project, look for one in need of paint. Those going for cheap with shiny paint will often be hiding a myriad of problems underneath.
At one end of the scale, rat rods or customs can often make do with the most rudimentary of interiors, since function over form and minimal cost is usually the objective. Seat covers or Mexican blankets can hide beat-up upholstery, or replacement junkyard seats can be sourced if the car doesn’t have any. Gauges, shifters, radios or other in-car entertainment can basically be sourced from anywhere, from your friends’ parts stash to swap meets, garage sales, junkyards or aftermarket retailers.
However, many of us will want more comfort and aesthetic appeal when it comes to our hot rod or custom’s cabin, and that means investing in upholstery and interior trim. Depending on the car and the style you’re looking for, it can range from a few hundred dollars to more than several thousand to achieve quality results. For example, if you’re looking for traditional style tuck ’n’ roll leather seats and door panels, you’ll probably need to trust it to a professional upholsterer. True tuck ’n’ roll stitching is quite difficult and time consuming, so factor in how much labor and materials are likely to cost for a quality result (good quality leather doesn’t come cheap). And like all work entrusted to professionals, shop around, not just for quotes but to gauge the facility’s reputation.
Other aspects of the interior will include sourcing parts such as the steering wheel, gauges, shifter, parking brake, door handles, stereo system, perhaps even a console or uniquely designed dash. Bear in mind that anything custom is going to require both time and money – some of the one-off interiors found on high end show rods, with their top-level sound systems, consoles and dash designs can cost more than $40,000 by the time everything’s finished, painted, trimmed and installed. Again, find a budget for interior work that you’re comfortable with and that is realistic before you begin.
AMERICAN COLLECTOR’S INSURANCE 800-360-2277 www.americancollectors.com
AMERICAN SPEED COMPANY 734-451-1141 www.americanspeedcompany.com
LAST REFUGE HOT RODS 970-739-1965 www.lastrefugehotrod.com
OHIO TECHNICAL COLLEGE 800-322-7000 www.ohiotechnicalcollege.com
SEMA 909-610-2030 www.sema.org
1-DAY PAINT AND BODY 800-525-8111 www.onedaypaint.com
UNIVERSAL TECHNICAL INSTITUTE 800-834-7308 www.uti.edu
If you’re planning on building the project yourself, you need to consider many different aspects, including the right tools. They can make the project go much easier and should be an important financial consideration, especially if you’re learning the ropes when it comes to car building.
A good hot rod project starts out with a solid base. The rougher the car to begin with, the more money and time it’s going to need to achieve a quality result. Cars like this solid 1950 Dodge business coupe can be a great basis for a custom. Although it sports signs of minor rust, it’s running and complete.
On early style cars, it’s far better to build your own frame or use a premade aftermarket one than trying to salvage an original chassis. Bear in mind that it might be more cost-effective to fabricate your own, especially if you’ve got a hankering for a certain suspension design or driveline. Many aftermarket frames are designed for specific engine/transmission and suspension pieces, requiring extra work if you want to install something different.
Suspension design is one area where costs can significantly add up. Simple leaf-sprung setups can run as little as a few hundred dollars, while triangulated four links with coilover shocks like this can run at least a few thousand, with independent setups even more.
The cost of acquiring parts is also something you need to consider. If you’re using a late model drivetrain, parts such as cooling fans and radiator shrouds like this can be purchased used and in good condition relatively cheaply. Late model cooling system components are pretty much essential if you plan on driving your hot rod or custom on a regular basis.
Sheetmetal condition can often be a budget breaker. If the car needs replacement fenders, doors or other parts, you need to take the cost of these into account. On some less popular brands of vehicles, parts prices (especially body pieces and trim) will be higher simply because supply is more limited.
If you’re building a popular style of hot rod, such as 1932 or 1933-34 Ford, you have a lot more options when it comes to parts availability. You can even build a complete car from scratch using a reproduction steel body and chassis, like this one. However, they don’t come cheap. A complete bare body and frame like this one will likely set you back at least $20,000, though on the bright side, it’s virtually ready for paint.
Because hot rodders love old cars, chances are that most will need a little fettling and/or rust repair, and this costs time and money. Replacing rusty panels is cheaper than repairing old ones, but on some cars the latter option might be your only choice, especially if reproduction sheetmetal or good used stuff isn’t available. It’s easy to spend more than $10,000 in rust and sheetmetal repair.
Bodywork and paint can work out to be one of the most expensive parts of a project, especially if you’re taking it to a professional shop. Countless hours, sanding, filling and smoothing are essential foundations for a high quality paint finish. If you can do the prep work yourself, this is one way to save thousands of dollars.
Although most of the expense in quality paint jobs is usually tied up in the prep work, the actual painting process can be very expensive, especially if you’re looking for a custom paint finish. Although some of us can paint a car at home, most will be farming out this part of the project to the pros. When doing so, make sure you find a shop with a good reputation and weigh the cost of painting the car against the quality of the work.
Having the right workspace is an important part of any hot rod build. If you don’t have your own garage and need to rent a workspace, make sure you find one that’s suitable for your needs and also within your budget.
If you don’t want to rebuild a used engine, you can build a new engine using aftermarket parts, including brand new blocks, pistons, rods and crankshafts. Although it will cost more than using an existing block, brand new components, if assembled and installed correctly, will give you better reliability, performance and durability.
If rebuilding or assembling an engine seems too much like Pandora’s box, you can always buy an aftermarket crate engine. These often come as fully assembled long blocks or complete engines, with the internals installed and balanced to specs. One of the most affordable on the market is Ford Racing’s X302 V-8, which retails for under $6000.
Another major expense is the transmission. Manuals tend to be cheaper than automatics, but for something sturdy and strong, like Tremec’s new T-56 Magnum, you’ll be looking at several thousand dollars. Even if you buy a cheap used transmission from the wreckers, chances are it will need rebuilding, which can set you back anywhere from a few hundred to several thousand dollars (the complexity of gearboxes means rebuilds are often best left to specialists).
Independent front suspensions are more costly and complex than dropped beam axles, but the tradeoff is much improved ride and front end handling. When building your project, it’s something that needs to be taken into financial consideration – not only the upfront cost, but the longer-term benefits.
Interiors can require a sizeable financial investment. To achieve quality results on door panels such as this, many hot rodders use Original Equipment material such as ABS (Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene) and decent quality leather or cloth.
If the car is a convertible and it’s a project, chances are it will need a new top. If you’re able to install it yourself, you likely have to spend a few hundred dollars for new material. However, if you’re chopping the roof, you’ll need a new or custom frame design, which, combined with cost of the top, can easily top several thousand dollars, and more if a professional shop will be performing the work.
New material for the interior, if it’s being created from scratch, can add up, so factor in the cost. Quality leathers designed specifically for automotive applications and custom cars, like those from SpinneyBeck, can cost around $12-$15 per square foot. By the time you’ve got enough to cover an entire car (something fairly small like a 1933 Ford), you’ll probably be looking at close to $5000.
Since 1955, OE manufacturers have been required to use tempered safety glass front and rear, which shatters into small cubes after a heavy impact. It’s durable, and if you’re driving your hot rod, it is the best choice since it is more resistant to stone chips than regular or even laminated glass, which is designed to hold the fragments together when the surface is hit. If you’re planning on chopping the roof of the car, you’ll need custom glass made to fit it, which can easily run $500 or more.
Trim pieces, depending on the type of car you’re building, can also be a major expense, especially if they’re hard to find or discontinued parts. Even when it comes to reproductions on more popular items such as the 1933 Ford grille, don’t always go for the cheapest parts, which can be ill-fitting and poor quality (ultimately costing you more money because you’ll have to replace them again). This exact reproduction, base on tooling from an original 1933 grille, will cost more, but fits just as well, if not better than the original. This particular grille is made and sold by American Speed Company.
Wheel and tire selection can range from a few hundred dollars to thousands for custom made rims and ultra high performance or period correct tires. Rolling stock selection is a very personal thing, and today the choice can be overwhelming. As a result, it’s one aspect of every build that needs careful consideration. Having a set budget is a good way to whittle down your choices when it comes to selecting the right wheels and tires for your ride.