The MGA With An Attitude
Buying a PROJECT CAR - BUY-112

There are a few basic ways to buy an MGA. The first is to buy one that has already been restored, maybe as expensive as a new car, very nice, instant gratification, and good for many years of service with not much fuss.

Second, if you think the first is too expensive you can buy one that is a current running driver car, maybe tatty or maybe recently repainted on the outside and re-trimmed, but not fully restored. If that's what you want, fine, buy it, drive it, enjoy it. If you keep it long enough it will ultimately deteriorate (again or some more), most commonly losing metal in the body sills to the tin worm. Eventually you might sell the car and write off the total expenses against your personal enjoyment of having owned it. This is similar to buying a new or nearly new car and disposing of it when it's old (older). It will depreciate in value as it deteriorates. It may appreciate in value with general inflation and/or the going value as a collector car (or maybe not). One thing is for sure. If you buy an MGA that has never had a full body-off restoration, you eventually get to do it, at which time it gets to be more expensive than the first option.

The third option is to buy a generally depleted car (relatively cheap) and restore it yourself, in which case you skip the first option and half or the second option and go directly to the long delays, gross work and money pit phase. There are many varied personal reasons for doing this, such as enjoyment of the hobby, the learning experience, personal pride in the finished product, restoring a family heirloom, etc. For most people it may only be that they want a spotless fresh car all new with zero miles, and they are willing to pay for their dream. Doing a full ground-up body-off restoration will be quite expensive in both labor time and materials. However, if you know up front that this is what you want to do in the end, it can be less expensive than the second option, because when you buy the depleted car cheap (relatively speaking) you do not have to pay for the prior owner's expenses of cosmetic decoration that would have to be done all over again.

This article is about buying that "project car", assuming you don't already own it. The first question should be, "Does it have a valid title"? This is covered in detail in another article, but in essence a car without a valid title is a parts car, while a car with a valid title is prospective restoration project. Owning two cars, one with a title and one without a title, you can restore and register exactly one car.

The first objective should be to find a car that is mostly complete with as few missing parts as possible, since it would be expensive in time and money to be hunting down and procuring the separate replacement parts. You may find some incomplete cars that have been cannibalized for interior or body parts or drive train parts. You might be able to procure two or more parts cars that may collectively contain most of the parts required to assemble one complete car. The end requirement of course is to ultimately procure a complete set of Tinker Toys to make one complete car. To that end it would be much more expedient (translation: less expensive) to buy one complete car to begin with. There is a significant shortcut to procuring a complete set of parts by way of buying a complete car (not disassembled), so you can readily see that it is all there, or mostly there, and may easily identify any missing parts.

It also helps if the car will actually run and drive well enough to have a short test drive to evaluate condition of the mechanical parts before starting the restoration (or agreeing on the purchase price). If you do get to drive the car, it is great for evaluation purpose, but do not get too carried away by the idea that it may be much more valuable because it is in good mechanical condition. A car that has lots of years and miles and is about to undergo full restoration is likely to get a full drive train and chassis rebuild anyway. As such, an engine that runs well and only smokes a little may not be much more valuable than one the rattles and smokes a lot. A bad synchronizer in the gearbox, sloppy u-joints in the propshaft, loose U-bolts on the rear axle, or sloppy shock absorbers are no great crimes. On the flip side, all those parts in excellent condition may only be a small advantage at beginning of a full restoration. The idea is to verify that the major mechanical components are not substantially broken.

Buying a car that is disassembled is fraught with pitfalls. Even when the seller is trying to assure you that it was a complete car before disassembly, and it is all there (somewhere in boxes and piles), it is highly probably that some parts will ultimately be missing. If you are going to do this, then you should be intimately familiar with the car model so you have some chance of knowing virtually every part of the car when you see it (or don't see it). Even if you think it is all there, a disassembled car is worth far less than one that is still all in one piece, because you as the buyer will be assuming the risk for any missing parts. When you are buying a project car for a few thousand dollars, there is a significant difference in value if it might be missing some of the dash instruments (expensive to replace) or the seats (regardless of how tatty). You will also have to figure out how to reassemble it without the benefit of the experience of disassembling it. In other words, think of it as a giant jigsaw puzzle, and you will likely need to buy a large bucket of bolts to reattach everything.

The next issue is evaluating condition of the prospective purchase car. You need to decide before purchase if the required repairs will be within your practical skill set, or if you may be able to learn how to do it as you go, or if you may have to pay someone else to do some of the work. Ultimately you have to decide if that particular car is a workable starting point for your proposed project, or if you should maybe be looking for something in better condition that may need less work, or even something in lesser condition that may be cheaper to buy (if you think you can handle it).

I regularly get an inquiry similar to, "I am considering purchase of this car (giving a stack of pictures or an internet address). Can you give me your opinion of this car"? Sometimes I take the time to nit-pick all the pictures and write a substantial dissertation on what I can see and what I cannot see (missing information). I am simply describing as best I can the condition of the car in question. In many cases the inquirer then has a severe knee-jerk reaction with the impression that this car may be a piece of junk, because I have just pointed out every conceivable flaw and maybe lots of rust that was not previously noticed. That impression commonly results because the inquirer had no idea that all of these flaws might have existed, so the car is maybe not as nice as the prior impression. This is what I meant earlier about being intimately familiar with the car model so you know what you're looking at.

But this does NOT inherently mean that the car is junk, only that this is what it is in the real world. In reality most MGA project cars will have severely rusted body sills, torn up carpeting, rotted floorboards, tatty seats, a few dents, peeling paint, deteriorated fabrics of all sorts, and possibly some missing parts. You were looking for a restoration project, right? About two-thirds of the labor time of a restoration goes into repairing and painting the body shell. If you can do this yourself you can save a lot of money (in exchange for your time). The worst of the reaction usually comes from badly rusted body sills and thoughts of having to cut and weld to replace lots of sheet metal. The next response could be, "Maybe I should look around some more to try to find a car in better condition". In fact this car may not be nearly as bad as you might think, and another car in "better condition" may not be all that much better or so much easier or less expensive to repair.

Badly rusted sills need to be replaced. Mildly rusted sills also need to be replaced for a full restoration. Once you come to grips with the fact that you will be cutting away and replacing all of the body metal below the doors, the only difference from one car to the next is how far up the inner body the rust has progressed. Replacing sheet metal a few inches higher may not make much difference in labor time, and very little difference in cost of materials. So looking for a different car with a "better" body shell might be almost irrelevant unless you think the sills are in such good condition as to avoid replacement (which is very rare 50 years after original manufacture).

The next concern will be structural condition of the frame. This is one area where you can find significant differences between cars. Many MGA will have mostly solid frame even at 50 years of age. The most common rust points are also fairly easily repaired, in the battery carrier trays and the angle rails supporting the floorboards. There may be some perforation on the inboard side of the outer frame rails next to the floorboards (due to wetness in the carpet), but as long as it goes no further even that is not difficult to patch. However, if you find the bottom of the frame along the sides broken or rusted so badly that it cannot tolerate lifting with a floor jack, that's bad, and it gets substantially more difficult and more expensive to repair. At that point you might consider looking for a replacement frame in much better condition, or buying a frame already repaired by someone else, or maybe looking for that "better car" before you buy one.

In the end the seller wants to convince the buyer that he has a jewel in the rough, while the buyer wants to convince the seller that he has a piece of junk. If the seller is not familiar with model, it might sell cheap or may never sell at all. If the buyer is not familiar with the model he may get ripped on the price or may end up with a pig in a poke. I tend to prefer chatting with the buyer, because that's where the questions will be next month and next year, while the seller is only interested in dumping the car. The best situation is when you as the buyer know the most possible about the model and the market and restoration and maintenance, so you can make an informed decision.

Thank you for your comments -- Send e-mail to <Barney Gaylord>
© 2009 Barney Gaylord -- Copyright and reprint information