How To Build A Hot Rod

Build Your Own Hot Rod
The Roadkill Customs Shop Truck was built in 30 days for under $1,000 ~ Here's how we did it...
 

Hot rods, customs, and restored classic cars are more popular than ever, and that popularity has driven up the cost of projects, original parts, and finished cars, making hot-rodding more expensive than ever.

But there’s hope for the hot rodder on a limited budget: Build Your Own Hot Rod!

Also popular with visitors to this page:

The resources presented here are intended to help facilitate your hot rod project from inspiration and planning to building and customization — all without breaking the bank.

There’s no getting around the fact that a vehicle build or restoration is a big, expensive, time-consuming job. There are many parts of the job that rely on one another, which can really make it hard to know where to start, let alone what steps to do, and in what order.

Estimated reading time: 21 minutes

It all starts with a project vehicle…

Choosing a Project

Project vehicle choice can be determined by many different factors. If you already have your project, jump to the next section.

In some cases, the project choice has been made for you — perhaps a vehicle that’s been in the family for a time is prime for restoration. Or maybe the type of vehicle has been determined, but the actual project has yet to be purchased and brought home.

Project Vehicle Considerations

When hunting for a project vehicle, several items should be considered.

Purchase Price of the Project Vehicle

Arguably, the type of project vehicle is limited by your budget — certain popular models or body styles can demand a high price — even for a very rough project vehicle.

If you’re not set on a particular body style or model, you may want to consider a body style or model that is not as in such high demand, a four-door model, for example. Often, a more complete less-in-demand vehicle can be had for a better deal than an incomplete or rough high-demand vehicle.

There are several resources available that can provide guidelines to current market prices for classic and collector vehicles in various states of condition.

Condition of the Project Vehicle

Whether you are working on a restoration, custom car, or a hot rod project, it is desirable and cost-efficient to purchase as complete a vehicle as possible. The value of completeness can hardly be understated, although not always acquirable.

For restoration projects, missing parts, even minor brackets, and trim can be costly and time-consuming to track down.

For hot rod projects, parts not needed can be sold to recover the initial investment. Although, if you are planning a hot rod project, an incomplete vehicle at a lower price may be worth considering.

If considering an incomplete vehicle, an evaluation should be made to determine the impact of the missing items. For example, missing, worn, or damaged drive train components will not have as much an effect on a hot rod project as it would for a restoration project. Consider the cost and availability of the missing items deciding on the purchase price.

It should also be noted that a running project vehicle can be exercised while planning the next phase(s) of the project. If it runs and is safe to drive, why not enjoy it for a while?

Availability of Replacement Parts

Certain models/years have more aftermarket/reproduction parts available than others. The availability of parts could affect the cost and time required to complete a project. Be mindful of this as you are planning your project. Start research and looking for parts early. There’s more info below to help you determine the availability of parts for a particular project.

Project Vehicles For Sale

Search unfinished project vehicles, salvage cars and trucks, motorcycles, and potential part donors. Select a Make below to browse project vehicles for sale from our own stash, eBay Motors, and other sources assembled on one page…

Rather shop locally? We’ve found a number of fantastic project vehicles on our local Craigslist, as well as the vehicles section on Facebook Marketplace.

Do It Yourself or Pay a Professional

The question of doing the work yourself or paying a professional shop is always a big one.

For many, the fun of a project vehicle is in performing work themselves, but for others, the time involved and skills required answers the DIY or Pro question. In a lot of cases, however, even the most seasoned builder sends out particular parts of a project that require specialized skills and/or equipment.

If you choose to have a professional shop do even part of the work, do some research before committing to the job — have a written understanding as to what is work to be done and the costs involved. Know what you’re getting into.

When it comes to an automobile build project of any size or type, it’s not beyond the realms of possibilities of things that are simply unforeseen by both parties. It’s the nature of these kinds of projects, just like remodeling a house, once the walls are opened up, anything is possible. The key if and when this situation arises is that both parties agree on how it should be handle.

If your choosing to do it yourself, or even some of it yourself, we commend you. Here are some resources to get you off to a solid start:

DIY Guides and How-To Articles

Keeping costs under control

Universal and DIY Customization Kits

Here’s a secret: your local hot rod shop does a lot of what they do with kits. They are affordable, universal, and often less expensive solutions than custom fabrication, especially if budget and skillset are in question, and/or paying pros is being considered.

There are certainly more kits available, some certainly more practical, so do your research, but these kits available from Amazon should give you a clear idea of the boost several well placed kits can give your build — They save time and money.

Planning

Before you start tearing things apart, it is a good idea to put some sort of plan together. Initially, we’ll go over more general things, and get into the actual build process and sequence below.

Proper planning can ease the frustration factor encountered in any project, as well as reduce the time required to complete a project. Take your time and think things through. Lets get into your workspace, and then tools.

Workspace and Storage Areas

Your workspace can range from a carport to a multi-stall, heated garage with a lift. The bigger and better equipped the workspace, the easier and more comfortable the work will be. But even if you’re in Garage Mahal, some of the exceptional rides that have come out of limited workspaces built with basic tools should not be discounted.

Auto Repair Lift and Bay Rentals and Other Garage Spaces
We explain all of your options for space to work on your car — from DIY auto shops and garages to more unconventional alternatives.

Availability of storage space also should not be discounted when working on a project vehicle. Storage space is necessary to keep the workspace clear, as well as keeping parts from becoming damaged or lost.

Tools

Like the workspace, much progress can be made even with limited resources, however, the greater variety of tools at your disposal makes the work much easier, faster, and safer.

Many of the tools you’ll need you already have on hand. There will certainly be some that you don’t have, and ones that really can make a job doable are often specialized and expensive. Thankfully, most of these tools dont need to be purchased, as most specialized tools (spring compressors, engine hoist, power tools, etc.) can be borrowed or rented as needed.

The Right Tools for the Job May Be Loaner Tools from your local Auto Parts Store We get it. Tools can be pricey, and sometimes you only need to use them once. If you’re short on tools, borrow them from your local auto parts store. We’ve done the leg-work for you and put together a summary of the tools and services available from your local auto parts store.

Always practice safe working habits. Always use the correct tools for the job and know how to use them safely. Do not cut corners (cost) when it comes to your safety and the safety of those around you.

Camera / Computer / Laptop / Smart Phone

For a restoration or rod project, a camera should be considered a necessity. It need not be an expensive unit, and a Smart Phone will do just fine. Use of a camera in the restoration or build process is explained below in the Take Reference Photos section.

While a computer is not absolutely necessary to during a restoration or hot rod project, it can be very useful to do your research, record research information, progress logs, part numbers, etc. For young whipper-snappers, the Smart Phone may serve the purpose here too.

This equipment can also be used for scanning photos and product labels (explained in Keep a Project Log below), as well as other uses that you may discover yourself as you go.

Take Reference Photos

Before disassembly or any work begins, it is prudent to take minimally several “Before” photos of your project. This should be done even (maybe especially) if the work is to be done by a professional shop.

Photos should include general overview photos taken at all angles of the vehicle, decal/identification plates, as well as photos of important details and/or unique features that could aid during reassembly.

During disassembly and throughout the project, photos can be very useful to ensure correct assembly or placement. Photos of wiring behind switches and gauges can also be indispensable when your trying to get everything back together.

Additionally, you may find it helpful to take photos of other vehicles similar to yours at car shows or museums to be used as a reference or inspiration.

Research

If you are reading this, you are already doing research. Good job.

You’ll find that research will be necessary throughout your project. Here are some resources to help with ongoing research.

Use the Internet

The Internet is your number one research tool, as well as a conduit for meeting and sharing ideas with other automotive enthusiasts. There are scores of websites devoted to automotive interests and almost any type of vehicle.

The ones worth spending time on have interactive features allowing enthusiasts and hobbyists to ask and answer questions, buy and sell parts and vehicles, and share their projects with people who share their interests.

Visit Car Shows and Museums

Car shows (and the people met at car shows) and auto museums can be a great source of information and contacts.

Some museums have research libraries that can also be a great source of information.

Books and Publications

There are many publications available that cover almost every type of classic or collectible vehicle. They contain useful information, as well as ads for commercial parts vendors — often an idea gold mine when building a vehicle. Many of the rags have transitioned to the Internet, others are no more, but back issues can be found on sites such as Amazon, eBay, and Facebook Marketplace.

Join a Club

Clubs can be a great way not only to enjoy the hobby, but also a great way to share information and “network”.

There are many national and international clubs that focus on specific makes and models, or types of vehicles. Clubs are an indispensable source of information, parts, and in some cases, assistance! A local club can also be a great source of information about local services that may be needed such as welding, machining, and paint, not to mention like-minded comradery and general advice from others that have built and restored automobiles.

Many clubs have regional or local chapters and regional and/or national meets that can be a honey-hole for the swap meets parts, and an avenue for showing off your pride and joy when it’s finished. Local clubs can also be a great way to maximize the enjoyment of the classic and collector vehicle hobby year-round.

Find Sales Literature, Service and Parts Manuals

These publications can provide a wealth of detailed information:

  • Sales literature can provide information on original colors and interiors, optional equipment that was available, etc.
  • Service manuals can provide disassembly/assembly, repair and maintenance information.
  • Parts manuals often provide exploded views and can assist greatly during disassembly and help to ensure proper parts and fitment during assembly.

Keep a Project Log

A project log or journal is useful for several reasons:

Record Progress

Not only can this build morale, but will help to plan future needs and goals.

Record Part Numbers and Information

When purchasing parts, whether from a commercial source, swap meet, local merchant, wherever, it can quite be useful to keep a record of the following things for future use, e.g. replacement, etc:

  • Part Number
  • Vendor Name
  • Vendor Address/Phone/eMail
  • Date Purchased
  • Any other part information (photograph, record or keep information label or panel from the packaging)

Record Costs

Record the cost of parts and services. It can also be helpful also to record the funds raised from the sale of spare/unused parts to offset the cost of parts/services purchased.

Record Ideas, Comments, Research

Often during research, or disassembly, information will be obtained that will be useful at a later date. Make a note of it.

Record Contacts

Many times useful contacts can be made by talking to other hobbyists. Whenever possible, exchange contact information.

Maintain a Shopping List

Some items are not available through aftermarket or reproduction vendors, and may only be available at swap meets. Maintain a list of parts and tools needed to complete your project.

Finding Parts

Swap Meets and Car Shows

As mentioned in Research, swap meets and car shows can be an excellent source of parts. Larger swap meets will be attended by commercial vendors, many which also do mail order business. Gather catalogs and business cards for future reference.

Internet

Many hobby-related web sites offer a parts/ vehicles for sale/wanted bulletin board, also many commercial vendors have web sites.

https://www.facebook.com/marketplace/category/autoparts/

Salvage Yards

Once very common, salvage yards and junkyards containing collectible/vintage vehicles are fewer and further between.

There are still a few around the country that specialize in collectible and vintage vehicles, some we’ve featured on this site.

Parts Donor Vehicles

For some builds, the parts list gets to the point where it is more cost-effective to buy an entire parts vehicle. This is especially true if a lot of miscellaneous parts (brackets, trim, handles, glass, and other small items) are needed to complete a project — these smalls can nickel and dime a project to out of control.

Excess parts that go unused can be sold or traded to recover the cost of parts and/or services purchased.

Before you jump into a towing a parts car home, consider:

  • A parts vehicle will need to be stored. This could require extra cost if stored in a commercial storage facility, or use valuable space in your workspace.
  • Buying an entire parts vehicle can tie-up needed funds. Does this make sense for your build?

The value (or need) of a parts vehicle must be considered before purchasing. As a suggested rule of thumb, at least 50-60% of the purchase price of a parts vehicle should be parts that can definitely be used on your project, with the remaining parts having some value for resale.

Vintage Car & Truck Parts For sale by Category

What’s the best way to set things up for a successful build?

In the loosest of terms, we break it down to:

  1. Disassembly
  2. Chassis/Suspension
    • Wheels/Tires
  3. Engine/Transmission
    • Exhaust
  4. Bodywork
  5. Mock-Up
  6. Wiring
  7. Paint
  8. Interior
  9. Final Assembly
  10. Make It Legal

Disassembly

Now that initial planning and preparation are out of the way, it’s time to fire up the cutting torch and start tearing things apart, right? Here’s a couple points to ponder:

  • Disassembly should always be done in a thoughtful, organized manner.
  • Don’t disassemble/remove any more parts than your ready to work on.

The importance of marking, bagging and tagging parts

During disassembly, take photos, make sketches, and record fasteners (bolts, nuts, screw) location, size, the number used, and any other pertinent information as things come apart.

Label everything — especially brackets, mounting hardware, and other small parts. Be prepared with plenty of zip-lock freezer bags (freezer bags are stronger and have a label section for marking clearly), masking tape, and sharpies on hand. If you’re pulling the harness, zip-ties and electrical tape can also be handy to keep the harness managed in sections as it comes out of the vehicle.

Save samples and info for replacements

If the old hardware, panel clips, weather-stripping, or other items or materials require replacement, save selected samples with as much information as possible (number/length/amount needed, etc.). This information will be very useful when purchasing replacement parts.

Take note of original colors

Any given vehicle may have been repainted many times, or the original paint may have faded. During disassembly, check-in enclosed/protected areas (inside fender wells, under mounting brackets, etc.) for the original color.

These areas are less likely to have been repainted and/or exposed to the elements.


Chassis/Suspension [Rolling Chassis]

It’s often best to start on the chassis, as wheel and tire choices will determine whether or not wheel tubs need to be widened or flared.

As with any other aspect of the build, choices here have cascading effects, as wheel choices determine what brakes will fit or vice versa. Engine and transmission choices might necessitate firewall or floorpan modification as well.

While on chassis, if you’re thinking about a Chassis Swap, we’ve put together an overview of swapping a classic vehicle to a modern drivetrain.

Finding a chassis

(or looking up specs for your project vehicle)

Building a chassis

Getting your chassis dialed-in

Wheels/Tires


Engine/Transmission [Drivetrain]

Your engine block/transmission can be used for mock-up purposes before the vehicle is fully assembled and painted, which is why it makes sense to sort out the chassis first.

With the chassis planned, your vehicle needs a heart. We’ll assume that you won’t be machining your block yourself. If your block needs boring, honing, and decking, send the engine out to be machined.

If your transmission is in need of a rebuild, or your choices make a custom bellhousing or adapter a requirement, now is a good time to get crackin’ on those things.

Finding and engine/transmission

Going junkyard or salvage engine/transmission?

Getting your engine/transmission dialed-in

Additional engine resources

Additional transmission resources

Exhaust

Like many other parts of the build, this overlaps to point with mock-up. You’ll need to ensure exhaust clears inner fenders, for example, and may need to fit timgs to fashin body mounts or perches on the chassis.


Bodywork

If you’re planning anything close to a full restoration, you’ll need access to at least the door jambs and sill plates, and likely the entire floorpan and dash as well.

Strip the car down as far as possible, especially because everything will get covered in sanding dust. Once the panels are nice and straight and rust is repaired, the bare metal and filler can be sealed.

Get your sheetmetal and body dialed in

Looking to go old school? Here’s how to use lead instead of plastic filler.

Bodywork will largely, and to a point, coincide with mock-up and making sure everything is going to work and fit.


Mock-Up

High-end shops will assemble and disassemble any given build dozens of times. A mock-up, or dry fit, allows panels to be fitted and gaps double checked ensuring any fitment issues are cured, or anything else that could cause a the paint to rub.

Seats and any other bolt-on parts and accessories should be fitted and checked to ensure repaired or new components match the factory mount and attachment locations

This is the time to get your engine back in between the frame rails to plan out where to run wiring and plumbing to confirm that your headers fit with the inner fenders in place. Aftermarket radiators should be fitted, and any addition firewall penetrations should be made, and those unused patched.

This step is your last to chance to get things dialed in and solved before final assembly, and you biggest opportunity make sure things go smoothly when you’re putting things together.


Wiring

Running the original OEM harness? Here’s tips for cleaning and freshening up a wiring harness.

Going bare bones? Here’s a basic hot rod wiring diagram and links to diagrams for lighting and turn signals.

More wiring, lighting and electrical How-To and DIY Guides


Paint

With the panel gaps and mounting and fitment issues sorted, it’s time to do the final priming and block sanding before the basecoat and clearcoat are sprayed on.

Don’t have paint in you? Consider vinyl wrap to give your old ride a new look.

Sticking with the original patina? right on. Here’s how to protect and preserve patina.


Interior

Additional resources:


Final Assembly

At this point you should be very familiar with your car’s every nut, bolt, and wire. Most importantly, there shouldn’t be any surprises when everything goes in its proper place and your project car is once again a driver.

It’s especially important during these final steps to stick to the same methodical process you’ve been doing all along, lest you undo months of careful planning.

Restoration projects can be a straight-forward process. If your research and notes are correct, once the parts are painted and/or repaired, the vehicle can be reassembled, using caution as not to scratch or damage parts.

Hot rods pose a special problem since many systems such as the drive train and suspension have been modified. The vehicle should be pre-assembled (in primered state) to test the operation before committing to final paint, upholstery, and the addition of expensive add-ons or customizations. This will prevent damage (and expense) to painted surfaces if modifications are required.

It might not be a bad idea to run one car shown season in this condition as a “shake-down”.

In either case (restoration or street rod) the vehicle will require some finishing touches (door alignment, paint touch-up, etc.) to complete the project.