A great bad idea

Date:14 January 2013 Tags:, , ,

Q I’ve recently come into the market for a small, cool, sporty car and found a red 1976 Fiat 124 Sport Spider with a four-cylinder engine, five-speed manual, and a fairly nice body. But the interior looks pretty bad. The floors are rusty, carpet is missing, the seats are in tatters, and the windscreen needs to be replaced. The dealer is asking R30 000, but I believe I can talk him down. Would buying this car and fixing it up be worth it in the end?

A As a connoisseur and collector of rusty-but-lovable old cars (two of mine also have see-through floors), I can enthusiastically tell you that yes, it’s totally worth it to fix up a ’70s-era Italian money pit… but I say that with enormous caveats.

First, you have to accept that buying and fixing old cars will probably never make you money. Quite the reverse, actually. (You’ll be amazed by how low this car scores in PM’s free Used Car Checklist iPhone app.) The weirder and rarer the car, the more elusive and expensive its parts. Parts for this Fiat can be difficult to source.
What you saw in your initial inspection is just a hint of what will actually need to be repaired. The floor and seats are probably the least of your worries. New floor panels are available for this car and can be welded in at home if you have the skill or by any body shop. Same goes for the seats – take ’em to an upholstery shop. They’ll come back good as new. The carpet is cheap and simple to install while the seats are out.

What’s really going to kill you are the unknowns: the rear main seal that’s just waiting for a nice summery day to let go; crank bearings waiting to spin; transmission synchros chewed to bits; bushings in the suspension crumbling; a fuel pump right on the edge of failing.

Owning an old car is an exercise in patience and resolve. Before you take the plunge, ask yourself a few questions: Do I have garage space I’m willing to sacrifice indefinitely? Is my significant other willing to tolerate my many evenings in the garage? Is my bank account due for some exercise? All that said, there is no greater motoring experience than an evening drive in a car you’ve brought back from near death.