The Five Biggest Mistakes to Avoid When Building a Hot Rod or Custom
So, you’re a car enthusiast who wants to take that next step and tackle a project car or truck. That’s great! It’s a fun hobby and there’s nothing quite like the reward of cruising down the road in a vehicle you built yourself, or one that you helped construct.
Before diving in blind on a ground-up build, though, maybe you should take a five-minute break and think through the reality of the process. It’s easy to envision the finished product, but have you really thought through all the steps it will take to get there? Do you have the time, skills, space, energy, budget, and most of all, patience, to see it all through?
As a professional hot rod builder with a Ridler Award and countless other accolades to his name, J.F. Launier of JF Kustoms has just about seen it all. In addition to building award-winning rides, he’s had to save a few cars that were brought to him by over-eager enthusiasts who got in over their heads. J.F. has seen inexperienced hobbyists make just about every mistake possible, and it led him to sit down and type out some advice recently on social media. We thought his recommendations were educational, entertaining and, most importantly, worth sharing. So, with his blessing, we added a little formatting and some illustrative photos from our files to present you with J.F.’s Five Biggest Mistakes to Avoid When Building a Hot Rod or Custom. – Editor
Mistake #1: Not Having a Plan in Place
People most commonly buy an old car because, for one reason or other it gives them a great feeling. Those feelings might be related to fun times in the past, memories with friends and family members, or the nostalgia of living in a simpler time with a simpler life.
We are usually emotionally drawn to cars when it comes to playing hot rods. The problem this creates is that there is often no plan or real direction to the project. A simple comparison would be building a custom home without a set of blueprints. Can you imagine the confusion on the jobsite? Contractors, tradesman, property owner, and spouse of the property owner all having different ideas and making changes to the project by the minute?
When you embark on building a hot rod, custom, or other specialty vehicle, you are all of those people and oftentimes without the years of experience needed to build a custom car. I suggest starting by getting a piece of paper out and writing down some realistic goals. Think about the timeline, budget, parts, tools, and other critical factors for the build. Now, go through that list again and update it based on the following estimates from an experienced pro.
- Timeline should be 2-3 times what you just wrote down a minute ago.
- Budget will have to be double what you just put down. (It’s expensive to build cars.)
- In this day and age, it’s easy to do some research. The internet is full of suppliers, ideas, how-tos, and tricks for getting through this journey.
- Remember, it takes a baseline of 1,000 hours to build a car – and often takes much longer depending on how elaborate the repairs and modifications are. You should budget your time accordingly. This will help you keep the other aspects of your life in check as you become a slave to the garage.
- Make written lists of parts you hope to use and spend the time to research if they will interchange with one another. Parts suppliers can be very helpful with this kind of info and save you lots of grief in the future.
- Most of all, be realistic about your abilities and the items you don’t have the skills to finish. Be ready to farm out these items so you don’t get bogged down and have the project go stagnant from lack of experience.
- Pick a theme and use that as your roadmap to research ideas. Do you want a restomod, pro street, rat rod, street machine, etc.? Do your best to stick to that theme so the car doesn’t look like a bad ’90s Madonna dress.
- Take on the things you can handle and have fun with family and friends building the car of your dreams.
Mistake #2: Disorganized Disassembly
Organized disassembly is one of the biggest potential pitfalls of a build. It can make or ruin you in the last few months of building a car. There is not one part that gets removed from a car that should be thrown away or sold until the car nears completion.
I know some will say, “Oh, I’m just going to buy a new rearend, so I’ll sell this one,” or, “I’m going to throw away this clip because I don’t even know where it goes.” That’s all well and good, but the truth is, we professional car builders have all been caught with our pants down at one time or another on a project looking for a special E-brake clip that is still attached to a rearend that was sold. Or, worse yet, we go to install new glass to find out the last non-reproduced clip you need to finish the job got swept up and went out with the trash a few years back during disassembly.
With that in mind, I have some advice to heed during the disassembly stage.
- It’s usually things like the specialty fasteners or clips that fight you the hardest. Where do they go on the car? Or where have they gone, period? Make sure they are labeled and stored in an organized fashion.
- Buy several boxes of different sizes of locking plastic bags (sandwich and freezer bags), some plastic totes, and some felt markers to catalog your parts. Even if you’re just going to put stuff on some shelves, it will be easier to find the stuff if it’s in a tote on the shelf.
- Have the totes sectioned off and labeled based on the part of the car they came from: driver’s door, or trunk wiring and clips, or dash parts, etc.
- Take photos!! Do not rely on your memory to put this old bird back together – it might be years before that happens.
- Cameras in our phones make this easier than ever to do. Just make sure you download those photos off your phone and save them someplace safe. Even better, print them out and put them in the bag or tote with the corresponding parts, fasteners, and clips.
- Make a few notes on some of the trickier items as they come apart. If some items break at this point, write it down so you can start the hunt for parts. Door guts are usually a great example of this; lots of parts in a small space all in some sort of sequence.
- Good disassembly makes for great reassembly.
Mistake #3: Bad (Or Mismatched) Chassis and Drivetrain
The chassis and drivetrain are the parts of the build that many gearheads love. They’re about motion, sound and adrenalin! They’re also the parts of the build that can have you stuck on the side of the Interstate cursing your own name for making some poor choices in these crucial areas. Don’t hate your car later because of unrealistic choices at this stage!
Like the rest of the suggestions covered so far, building a good chassis and drivetrain is a result of proper planning. Once you have a good plan, you can execute to the plan. Here are some considerations as you start to put your chassis and engine plan together.
- Be realistic about your intended use of the car. Do not buy the biggest engine you can afford and think you are building a car in your home garage to rival the Street Outlaws. Over-powered cars are a headache. Don’t get me wrong, a car with enough power to spin the tires for a laugh is what most of us want, but 350hp gets you there and 800hp starts to mean you’ll be a full-time engine tuner and parts changer.
- Do not overpower your chassis! Years ago, I put a huge blower motor in my ’64 Nova that still had a stock front end and drum brakes. It wasted the car. It became unpleasant to drive, launched sideways at the track, and was still trying to pull itself off the track at the 660ft. mark. A good chassis and horsepower go hand in hand, keep that in mind.
- Choose good brakes and a good pedal combo for feel and location. Do not put the brake pedal on the right side of the steering column because it’s easier! Those kinds of simple things are the ones that may save some lives.
- Try to avoid using rare brake parts or engine management, as this could lead to a breakdown that is impossible to repair when you are far from home on a road trip.
- If you don’t have a wealth of experience tuning engines, choose a simple induction system. A single carburetor is still the simplest way to get all the giggles you want out of a car without breaking the bank. You will get better overall performance with a single carb or a very simple electronic fuel injection system than a multi-stack, multi-carb, foreign fuel crazy setup.
- They may look killer, but they aren’t for the average guy.
- Fuel injection is becoming more the norm, but unless you can handle some of the complex wiring it’s best to have an expert wire the system for you. Some of those systems can leave you feeling like you fell into a bowl of spaghetti and can’t swim out.
- If you back an engine up with a transmission that is commonly found behind that engine, you’ll usually save yourself a lot of grief.
- Back in the ’80s, all the project planning articles suggested that you buy wheels and tires at the start of the project and build a chassis around them. The pro street days are almost gone and I feel that for most projects you should buy your wheels last. Here are a few reasons why:
- If you change your ideas part way through on something as simple as brakes, you may need to buy new wheels to accommodate the larger diameter needed to clear them.
- Styles change and if your build takes a few years you may need to upgrade wheels before the old girl even leaves the garage.
- In many cases you will need to adjust offset and tire sizing at the end of a project to clear fenders. Again, you would have to buy tires again to make sure they fit right. Get the car glued together and measure your fitment, and then buy some bling!
- Don’t try to reinvent the wheel! The latest and greatest may not be the simplest and most proven, so research your choices and changes. Save some of your off-the-wall ideas till you’ve finished a few cars and have a good understanding of complex systems. Keep it simple and you’ll have the most fun.
Mistake #4: Bad Body, Bad Paint, Bad News
Here’s a quick equation to remember when it comes to body and paint: cheap product or cheap effort equals cheap results. Bodywork is a science and a profession, especially when you’re talking about specialty bodywork on older vehicles, work that may require rust repair, panel alignment, and other skilled tasks. It is the one aspect of building a car that you may seriously consider farming out.
One reason paint and bodywork on older cars costs so much is that there are fewer shops and people qualified to do it. Many collision shops are ill-equipped or uninterested in handing specialty restoration and custom work that can’t be billed to an insurance company. That leaves restoration and custom shops as the best resource for most hobbyists.
The high cost of show-quality paint work is one reason many enthusiasts have embraced the weathered patina look. But even if you’re doing a patina car you will have to be careful and methodical when making repairs so they look authentic and not like a bad wart on a supermodel.
Let’s say you’re adventurous and you want to put yourself through the punishment that is sanding body filler for months and dirtying every nook in your whole shop. Here are a few tips to keep in mind during the body and paint processes.
- Make sure the body is stripped down to bare metal to start; sandblast, chemical strip, or mechanical strip with a body shop grinder.
- Prep metal before applying filler. Use metal prep products and etching primers.
- Buy quality body filler! Using a bucket of mud that’s been sitting for 10 years under your buddy’s bench is no way to save a buck at this point in the game!
- Use hand sanding blocks and not air tools for final bodywork. Speed kills with bodywork! It’s not a race, it’s a labor of love and the mistakes multiply once a glossy clear coat paint job is applied!
- Now you’ve lost five months of your evenings and weekends and sniffed more bondo dust than Charlie Sheen and you’re ready for primer. This is not a good time to cheap out once again. Go to a local body shop and get some advice on a great primer system to use based on your local laws, temperatures, and humidity.
- This is the last stage I can recommend doing at home. Paint should be done by professionals in a professional environment. If you’ve done paint work in the past and had results you could live with, you know what I’m trying to say here and we will add you to the list of (professionals)!
Mistake #5: Rushing Reassembly
Wow! You’ve done a ton of work over the last few years and look at you now! You’re ready to reassemble that dream car and get out on the road!
The name of the game in reassembly is to take as few steps backwards as possible. For example, don’t accidentally fire the engine without oil or water in it, don’t scratch the paint putting things back together, and don’t tear the upholstery. Now is not the time to lose focus and lose time by having to redo things. With that in mind, we have some good advice to follow during this final stretch.
- Make a list on the shop wall of all the items that need to be addressed and try to figure out a good order to accomplish them. A lot of times you’ll find yourself removing items to get at others if the sequence is wrong. Refer back to the notes and pictures you took at the start.
- Protect the paint! Use low-tack masking tape or run your fingers through regular masking tape to make it less sticky and tape up hood, door, trunk, and other panel edges.
- It sounds simple, but put a fender apron on the car and use one around the trunk when working in there. Now is not the time for that first scratch from a zipper or button on your clothes.
- Take your time and don’t rush at this stage! A simple mistake can set you back a long way.
- Clean and prep the parts before they go onto the car. For example, clean and grease the window winders and door latches before you install them and make sure they operate freely on the bench to save a lot of hassle once they’re on the car.
- Buy the specialty tools needed. You’re saving a ton on labor so treat yourself to some simple tools to make the job easier. A simple window clip removal tool goes a long way compared to cutting your new door panel open with a screwdriver.
- Get help with the heavy stuff! Do not try and install a bumper alone. One scratch in the paint or on the fresh chrome will cost a lot more than the beer bribe you give your buddy to show up and help.
This may seem like a long list of rules and suggestions, so I’ll leave you with the most important advice I can offer: Have fun!
Above all, it’s important to have fun with your build experience and keep it light. Remember, it’s a hobby and it’s not worth killing yourself over. Include your family and your friends in your dream and enthusiasm. They are the ones who will carry you through during the tricky times and unpleasant bits of this journey, I guarantee it!
Remember, it’s not the car you drive…it’s the car that drives you!
Photos by Jason Lubkin, Todd Ryden, & Goodguys Archives