Thinking about a project car? Dive in head-first without experience or planning


Part one of an ongoing series of indeterminate length. Stay tuned.

My whole driving-aged life, I’ve driven cars that were relatively reliable, and had never owned a ‘project car’. My first car was a Toyota Celica. I spend a lot of time on Craigslist, and I’ve never seen one of my generation being sold for parts or ran-when-parked. Never. It never gave me any problems, period. It forgave me when, at the tender age of 16, I installed two subwoofers that shook the frame, and angel-eye headlights that always flickered, regardless of the setting. Its incredibly skinny tires never burst when I pushed the limits of its handling, or learned to do hand-brake drifts one Spring Break night. But it didn’t have a whole lot of character. I still have a picture of it somewhere that I used to sell it about eight months after I bought it.

You can really smell the rice burning.


I gradually experimented with less and less reliable cars; someone else’s beat SRT4 with nearly 150,000 miles, some high-mileage Mazdaspeeds, and a IS300 with a rolled-back odometer. But I had never had a car fail to start, or die on me in a moment of need. Actually, that’s not strictly true. That IS300 blew its tired 2JZ somewhere in between Houston and Austin and that was where we parted ways. But I didn’t see that coming, so it didn’t really count. Maybe that was part of the reason that I decided to spend a rash $2400 on a 1987 Toyota 4Runner that was more of a 4Walker two days after graduating from college.

project car 4runner first generation
Aforementioned 4Runner. Not pictured: the puppy-dog love in my eyes when I look at it.

Age is but a number

My new project car (which I was determined to treat as a daily driver) had almost 250,000 miles – higher than any Camry ever owned by my family – on its body and drivetrain, leaked a metric ton of oil, and made awful sounds if driven above 55 miles per hour. It had some awful rattle-can paint on the bumper, grill, wheels, and (!) parts of the interior, which was an overwhelming shade of red. It was blessed with a ton of gross adhesive on the rocker panels leftover from god-knows-what. I also quickly learned, after going through a gas station car wash and getting recycled water on my face, that it was not water-tight. These were all problems I’d never even secondarily experienced. I guess I was a glutton for punishment. Or even a just glutton in general, for having two cars at the same time. But I was in love.

project car 4runner interior
Graphic red-ness of the interior. Bonus me.


Naturally, after I’d shelled about $700 to a well-reviewed Craigslist Mechanic to fix miscellaneous leaks, it stopped running. In the middle of my errands. A whopping 12 days after I’d purchased it. Shit. So I had it towed to the most reputable classic Toyota shop in town, and they determined that the timing chain had snapped. So far, having a project car was a lot less fun than expected, and my expectations were low.

More to follow.


2 Responses

  1. Mitchell Cicconetti

    March 23, 2017 1:14 pm

    Love the 4Runner! I got my ’88 in late August or early September with 243k miles, for the purpose of a winter vehicle (ohio). It quickly became my daily driver long before winter started and just recently turned over 253k miles. I can’t wait to fully utilize all it’s capabilities this summer, as I was only able to take the top off once before it got too cold. I’ve never driven a vehicle that has gotten so many waves, smiles, second looks, or started as many conversations at gas stations before. Keep up the good work, and more pictures!

    • albertjason

      March 31, 2017 9:16 pm

      Thanks so much for this response! I actually have really similar mileage on mine right now and it is continuously impressing me. I really appreciate the comment. I’ve got part two coming soon; stay tuned! Fixing up the cosmetics before the top comes off for the hot, Texas summer.


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