How to Avoid “Project Overload” When Working on Your Car

Mac Boyne
Oct 19, 2018

“That should only take a few hours.” It’s a phrase that we have all used when working on a car.

Before you know it, you realize you are missing parts, or you don’t have the exact tool you need. By the time you run to the auto parts store or the hardware store, it’s time to return to your other adult responsibilities, like eating, spending time with the family, paying bills, or any number of things that exist in the real world that don’t let you work on your car all the time.

Next thing you know, it might be days or even weeks later when you come back to your project. Sometimes you can’t remember exactly what you did or didn’t do, or where those bolts went, or what you need to do next. You spend too much time just trying to figure out what is going on and how to get back where you were, which puts you behind. And the cycle continues.

If you’re working on a bigger scale, maybe you bought a project car with grand dreams of slapping a super cool car together in a matter of days, like one of those cable or internet shows. It’s not impossible. But you quickly realize that when you aren’t working on something 24/7, only contributing a few hours here or there, a full-build project can take a long time. And that’s not even including the financial cost of such an investment, which is always a concern for most of us.

This common scenario is what I like to call “project overload.” The basics of project overload are simple: You get overwhelmed with the time, expense, or skill level required for a project in your garage. I’ve seen people take on a project car to learn new skills, which is great, but sometimes life gets in the way and they end up with a car that is half torn apart, or half put together. Once discouragement sets in, they have another abandoned project on their hands that winds up getting sold off or completely forgotten. In other words, it becomes their project overload.

I’ve learned some lessons and become a bit wiser as the years have gone by. And with lessons like this, it’s important to pass on this knowledge to other people so that they won’t be doomed to repeat the same mistakes. So I’ll tell you a bit about how you can avoid falling into the project overload trap.

01. Have a plan

It’s easy to get caught up in a daydream, wondering about all the possibilities for your new project. You’ll be better served if you know exactly what you want to do with your car, whether it’s for racing, for car shows, or just for fun. Knowing your plan from the jump allows you to know what you can and can’t do, like what parts are most important and what your budget limitations are. Try keeping a binder full of pictures, receipts, and other important documents to stay organized.

02. Buy a running car

Sure, finding a car that needs a motor or a more advanced assembly can be much cheaper, but having a car that runs will allow you to move it—and more importantly, enjoy it. If you wait until your car is in pristine shape before you drive it, you may encounter some languish. Driving your car as you work on it keeps you motivated, allows you to enjoy each update, and lets you learn the car as you go. This way you’ll know what’s good, what’s bad, and what needs to be changed. Think of it as rolling restoration, making it better as it goes.

03. Do small projects

Keeping things simple doesn’t mean only replacing a bolt here and there; it means breaking your goals up into manageable tasks. Work on the front suspension over a weekend or two. Plan a motor swap for the next couple weekends after that. If you plan ahead and break down your project, you can get the bigger systems changed out and get your car back on the road as soon as possible so you can continue to enjoy it. Also, if you’re planning around car shows or racing season, make sure you have enough time to complete the bigger tasks between events.

04. Work bottom to top/inside out

It works best to build a car from the bottom up, starting with your brakes, tires, and suspension. Then work from the inside out, starting with the motor, transmission, electrical, and then interior. If you save the paint and body for last, you won’t risk scratching a perfect new paint job or getting your greasy fingerprints all over it. Plus, you don’t want your car winding up in “paint jail,” where it’s stuck in the paint and body shop for much longer than you expected.

05. Don’t be afraid to fail

Not everything goes as planned! Sometimes stuff breaks, tasks take too long, or entire components have to be redone. But don’t give up. Each moment is a learning experience, and you’ll know how to do the task better or easier the next time. Look for the win in every situation and keep your stress levels low so that you’re not focusing just on what went wrong.

I speak from experience, as I have done this a few times with small stuff on cars. But more importantly, I had a project car that became my project overload.

The car was a 1980 Chevy Camaro that I bought while I was still in high school. The car was a base model with a V6 that didn’t run, and it had a ragged interior, but it was cheap (500 bucks), and it looked cool with some nice wheels and tires. And I loved Camaros. I bought it from a guy that had it as a project car to work on with his son, but it just wasn’t happening. (Sound familiar?) So I thought I could have a cool car up and running in no time.

I got the car back to my dad’s shop and put it in the back lot. Then I started gathering parts—newer seats from the junkyard, a spare 350 block, and other odds and ends. I did this before I even attempted to fix the Camaro or get it running. I soon realized the 350 block I had was junk—and this was back before the LS craze, so small block Chevys weren’t super cheap like they are now.

I worked to get the V6 running so I could at least move the car around, but I ran into electrical gremlins and some parts confusion between the 4.3 or 3.8 V6 that came in these Camaros. Then the kick in the stones happened: Someone stole the tires off the car. The best part of the car! I became dejected, found other priorities, and pretty soon, I sold it off. To this day, I still haven’t found another second-gen Camaro, but I still want one to fulfill my dreams for that other Camaro all those years ago.

Take it from me: I have learned from my mistakes over the years, and I’m applying this wisdom to my current project: a 1970 Oldsmobile Cutlass, the relief to my stress (and sometimes the cause of it). It’s far from a show car with plenty of blemishes and body problems, but it runs, and I really enjoy driving it. I spent some time swapping out the motor so that it’s fast (or faster than it was, at least). After driving it like that, I rebuilt the suspension so it doesn’t kill me, and that’s as far as I’ve gotten. It doesn’t win trophies or dominate races, but it’s on the road and enjoyed—exactly how a project car should be.

That’s what you need to do: Get your project on the road and enjoy it. And don’t fall into the project overload trap!

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About the Contributor
Mac Boyne
Oct 19, 2018

Valvoline contributor

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Tags: DIY