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If you’ve cracked open a muscle car magazine in the last few years, you’re probably already familiar with Rodger Lee, the owner and founder of Ironworks Speed and Kustom. Ironworks is an elite fabrication shop in Bakersfield, CA which, for over 20 years, has been dreaming, chopping, and masterfully welding up some of the most celebrated custom cars in the world.
Throughout his time leading the shop, Rodger has sought, vetted, and purchased hundreds of cars for himself and his clients. His instincts go much further than simply kicking the tires.
We sat down to ask Rodger how to buy a car like a pro.
For Rodger and his clients, every build starts with a core concept and a plan to bring it to life. This doesn’t have to be anything super fancy. It’s often as simple as one foundational element that the build must have. Sometimes that element is a chassis. Sometimes it’s a tire. Currently, he’s working with someone who’s starting with a transmission. This client wants to take a fully sequential transmission – typically the stuff of race cars — and de-tune it so that it’s a little easier to drive and safe for the street. That is their core concept, and they’re building up and out from there.
By narrowing their focus on one core, inalienable element — the build’s conceptual foundation — Rodger knows exactly what he does and does not need to pay for when it comes time to start shopping around for cars. This approach also opens up the field of potential cars he could purchase to bring the concept to life. They could put that transmission in a Chevy Nova, Chevelle, or Blazer. But not a van or a dually. Those won’t handle well enough.
“You really can’t plan enough. Any time you put an offer on a vehicle that’s for sale, you should have a path to your final destination as mapped out as possible. If you feel a little stuck making a plan, try flipping your thinking. You can get pretty far deciding what the car's not going to be before you nail down what it's going to be.” – Rodger Lee
Let’s say a chassis is a core element in a build’s concept. There’s no need to buy a car with good floors to bring that concept to life, right? By focusing on that element, Rodger can widen his initial car search to include cars with rusted-out floors — plus it gives Rodger and his team a point of leverage when bargaining with sellers. (Pro tip: you do not need to share your build plans with the seller. Information is power.)
How does Rodger work with his clients to nail down the concept for each project car? He begins with a conversation full of questions like: do you plan on showing this car? How often will it be driven on the street vs. the track? Do you want to drive it over long distances, or stick to short trips? When do you want this project to be done? How many people — adults or children — does this car need to be able to comfortably seat? What’s of higher priority: obtaining a certain look or maintaining a comfortable ride? Where would you like to drive this car? What type of terrain do you expect to encounter? How expensive a build are you comfortable daily driving? Also, how tall are you?
“As a guy who’s 46 with two kids and a wife, I don't look at two-seat cars anymore. I’m also six-foot-six, which narrows the pool further. To put me comfortably in a first-generation Camaro, for example, the driver’s seat needs to be touching the back seat. I love Camaros, but that’s not the build for me right now.”
Taking into consideration both his clients’ boldest dreams and their everyday realities, Rodger and his clients draft an actionable answer to our core driving question.
“What are you building for?”
We all admire a rare car. But if you’re a less experienced builder or if keeping your build at a reasonable budget is important to you, it's prudent to choose a car with a strong aftermarket following. The more people who are buying, fixing up, and selling a vehicle and its parts — original parts or newly manufactured mods — the larger that vehicle’s “aftermarket following.” This tip is by no means a must-follow, but when it comes time to locate parts or troubleshoot potential issues, you can avoid a lot of headaches and dead ends by choosing a car that’s already popular with tuners, fabricators, and builders.
A few models known for being mod-friendly:
Find tires for these models and more.
Rodger brings the same meticulous energy to all aspects of his build projects. That goes for shopping, too. He doesn’t discriminate between used car marketplaces much at all, and recommends taking a ‘leave no stone unturned” approach. Here are some “stones” to get you started:
Pro tip from Rodger: If you’re feeling stuck looking for “the one,” end your search by buying something (anything!) else. Chances are, you’ll find what you were looking for the moment you stop looking.
“I had a customer who wanted a black 70 Chevelle patina car with white stripes. We looked and looked and couldn't find anything. But I did find one that was just a shell that we could paint. But he really wanted the vibe that the patina cars have. I then joked, ‘let’s just buy this car, and then unicorn will show up. Because that's just how it works sometimes.’ And sure enough, one month after we bought that shell car, his unicorn appeared on Bring a Trailer.”
Before you write that check, press that bid button, or visit the ATM, Rodger recommends asking yourself a few final questions.
Summing up his car shopping philosophy, Rodger explains that when it comes to shopping for cars, meticulousness is a must. The way he sees it, the seller’s only job is to sell the car. It’s not their job, to be honest, friendly, or fair. It’s not their job to be thorough. Actually, that’s your job. Vetting the car is 100% the buyer’s responsibility.
“If I get ripped off, that’s on me. It’s my fault for not doing my homework. When vetting a potential project car, give yourself permission to go overboard. Ask for more pictures, more information, more details. If you don’t feel uncomfortable with how much you’re asking of the seller, you’re probably not asking enough.”
Rodger’s final advice is to listen to your gut. If you have lingering unanswered questions about a car, an inexplicable negative reaction to something, or if you just got a bad vibe from the seller when you called or visited them, that’s cause to consider other options.
That is if you have the luxury to do so.
When enough scarcity is at play, many of the considerations Rodger mentions fly right out the window. Some cars are rare, and if you find one for sale at all, you kind of have to accept it as is. Be picky when you can; and when you can’t, be ready to get creative.
And remember: your next project does not need to be rare to be cool.
It just needs to be yours.
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