When in the market for a classic or collectible vehicle there are a number of areas that, if properly studied and understood, will instill great confidence in you as a buyer and ensure a wise investment. While the excitement of purchasing a car you’ve always lusted over is often overwhelming, you must not let that excitement cloud your judgment. It is important to remember that proper due-diligence will be the difference between an expensive headache and the euphoria of making a good buy. It’s all too easy to convince yourself that a particular car is the right car for you. My professional experience as a vintage car buyer has taught me that when in the market, you’re better off pursuing a specific level of quality or condition, rather than trying to make a certain car meet your desires. You must understand that sellers of classic and collectible vehicles tend to believe their car is nicer than it actually is; this is not because they are trying squeeze every last dollar out of you, it is because of the sentimental value many classic vehicles carry. The ability to see through the sentimental value of a car and ensure a good purchase relies heavily on your preparedness as a buyer. In this overview we will thoroughly examine the critical points of evaluating a classic or collectible vehicle prior to purchase, in an effort to ensure your next classic is well-bought.
There are a variety of identification numbers stamped throughout any given vehicle. First and foremost, the VIN (Vehicle Identification Number). The VIN is a sequence of numbers and letters found on small tags or stamped into metal throughout the car; the VIN can be found in door jambs, under-hood on the firewall, or on frame rails. The VIN is important as it is unique to the vehicle it is attached to. At a minimum, the VIN will tell you the year, make, and model of the car. The VIN can also tell you trim packages, body styles, and engine size. We recommend taking a good picture of the VIN and also writing it down so you can be sure you have it correct. There is nothing worse than sitting down to research a vehicle and realizing you misprinted the VIN. Take a look at the title, does the VIN on the car match the VIN on the title? It should, otherwise you’ll want to bring that to the owners attention, as they should address that prior to selling you the car. On rare occasions the car may not actually have a VIN, rather the engine number is the unique identifying number. Regardless, the VIN is the first number you should look for.
In most cases, a VIN decode will provide enough information to ensure that the vehicle you’re buying really is what it’s presented as. However, certain situations call for additional verification. Trim tags are typically found in the form of small placards riveted or glued down on the body of the car somewhere. Most commonly they can be found on the cowl under the hood or inside the door jamb on the drivers side. I like to research the location before I inspect a car so I don’t waste time searching around for it. For instance, on older Corvettes the trim tag is located under the dash on the passenger side, not easy to find unless you know it is there. Short of having a build sheet in hand or the actual window sticker, the trim tag will tell you the most about that particular car. This assortment of numbers and letters will offer more than what meets the eye. On the trim tag we can find the vehicle’s original body color, interior color, and any special options such as bucket seats or air conditioning.
When buying a classic vehicle with long-term value in mind, you should take note of the casting numbers and production date stamps on both the engine and transmission. Much of the long-term value of collector cars lies in the originality of the vehicle. Some online research of the engine and transmission casting numbers will tell you the year and location of manufacture, which should help to determine if the engine and transmission are original to the car. The more original the better. These numbers can be tricky to locate, and even harder to read, but they will offer a great look into the mechanical history of the car. I’m a firm believer that time spent researching originality in the form of engine stamps, transmission stamps, and casting numbers, is time well spent.
Ask the owner for any and every bit of documentation they have on the car. Manuals, old ownership papers, receipts, recall notices, whatever you can get your hands on. This documentation, along with the aforementioned identification numbers, will help you to piece together the vehicle’s history. A factory build sheet on the car is the best thing you can find, as it will tell you everything you will ever need to know about the vehicle’s options and build dates, without having to decipher the option codes yourself. Build sheets or broadcast cards came only from the factory and they essentially dictated exactly what was to be installed on a vehicle as it was being assembled at the factory. Tracing the history of the vehicle serves much more of a purpose than just answering curiosities you may have, it may uncover details about the vehicle’s specifications that can add or detract from it’s value.
Service records and vehicle-specific manuals and packets are some of the most important and quickest ways to add value to any vehicle. Service records, in the form of mechanical service receipts, body repair receipts, and even recall notices can all offer tremendous insight into the history of a vehicle. These records can help prove the history of ownership, major services performed, mileage, and also where the car has lived most of its life, amongst other things. The more records the better! I ask every seller to please provide me with any papers that were ever associated with the car. Often times a long-time owner may feel that oil change receipts are not of value to the next owner and once the car is sold they’ll just toss them. You want those! Don’t be afraid to ask and then ask again. Service records can not only add value, they can also make the story you share with your pals about your car that much more interesting.
Often times a car looks great from ten feet away, we call these ten-footers. In these cases you must make an effort to not let your excitement for the car get the best of you. Walk up to the car and put your hands all over it. Inspect the gaps between each individual body panel. Look at where the doors meet the fenders and quarter panels. Look at how the hood is centered between the fenders. I like to use the tips of my fingers as a gauge to determine if the gaps on each side are equal. Inconsistent gaps from side to side can indicate prior damage or looming structural issues. Use the same technique around the bumpers and wheel openings. Next you should open the doors, fuel filler, hood, and trunk. I like to disrupt the natural lines of the vehicle as it allows my eyes to focus on individual panels and thoroughly inspect them. Look under or behind each panel for any noticeable bubbling, crumbling, or concerning signs. Get down to eye level with the panels and look down the sides. Is it wavy or nice and smooth? Waviness can indicate body filler, or bondo as many people refer to it. Look at the lower edges of the body panels, as this is the first place you will detect rust. Look for paint blemishes or signs of other shades of color, as this can help you to understand if this is the original color or original paintjob. Take special notice of the bolts on the hinges of each panel. This simple technique can tell you a lot about originality. Marred or bare metal on bolts means that someone at sometime put a wrench on it. It’s obviously not the worst thing, but often times a clear indicator of damage repair or repainting. Now shut the doors/hood/trunk and see how they feel when they close, again paying attention to alignment as it compares with the rest of the car.
Most cars look better in pictures. More often then not, the outside will show better than the underside. That being said, you will need to be prepared to look where the camera cannot. Keep in mind that rust normally begins on the bare metal; paint blistering or bubbling is often a clear indication of rust formation. Keep in mind, however, that the rust likely started behind that panel and the blistering or bubbling of paint is simply the absence of solid metal behind it. As someone who buys cars from all sorts of locations in a variety of conditions, I often have to make purchasing decisions without putting a car on a lift. This means crawling underneath the car with a flashlight to inspect the vehicle’s structural integrity. Even if the exterior looks flawless you still need to get low and see what’s underneath. In some instances exterior body panels are made of fiberglass, plastic, and non-ferrous metals like aluminum. These don’t rust, so while they may appear nice and “dry” they may be covering up years of rust or rot in the car’s frame. Get under the rocker panels on the sides of the car and tap your finger on the metals. If it sounds dull and feels mushy it will need to be addressed at some point and that should be reflected in the purchase price. A quick Google search for rust-prone areas specific to the make and model of the vehicle you’re inspecting can prove useful. This ties back to the value of uncovering the vehicle’s history; obviously geography plays a role in determining the rate at which a car rusts. If the car was in a wet, cold state for an extended period of time, you should be extra careful in looking for rust. If you can peel the carpet back at the lowest point in the interior floor, that will tell you if the car has had water sitting inside of it. This is the first place floorpans will rust. We also like to look in the trunk and down where the spare tire might be located. Don’t be afraid to get dirty crawling around the car, it’s all a part of the classic car buying experience.
Understanding the mechanical side of any classic or collector car can be a daunting task. Again, much of the work on the buyer’s end happens before actually inspecting the car in person. Get on Google and search the year make and model of the car. This way you will be able to set a baseline for key points and areas of concern specific to the car you are looking at. This research is critical, as certain vehicles have known defects or mechanical issues that can be tell-tale signs of much bigger issues. On the flip side, what you may consider a “deal breaker” may in fact be a common condition that, while not to be completely overlooked, shouldn’t deter you from the purchase. For example, take a look at a carbureted, naturally-aspirated American V8, a relatively simple mechanical design. A rough idle on this V8 may only require a carb cleaning to correct it. This is a simple and inexpensive fix, as compared to a rough idling condition on a fuel-injected Porsche. The Porsche has modules, sensors, complex vacuum systems, and computer tuning that all create a potentially costly repair. Both conditions are repairable, but you need to understand the car you are considering so you can accurately assess the potential costs you may incur down the road.
I encourage you to ask the seller for everything the can tell you about the mechanical condition of the car. Be blunt, just flat out ask them what is wrong with it. More often than not the seller will give you an honest answer. Before starting the car and getting it moving, crawl underneath and look for loose or ill-fitting parts. Look at the condition of the rubber bushings between suspension parts, are they dried and cracked? Missing completely? Look at the lines coming off the brakes, are they corroded badly? Look under the motor and transmission, is there oil coating the underside? Wipe your finger across the road dirt and see if it’s saturated in oil, indicating a potentially long-standing leak. Grab some of the steering components and give them a good tug, look for excess play, especially in the tie-rods ends.
Next, stand up and dust yourself off. Poke around under the hood. Look for damage, dry cracking, or fraying of any hoses, wiring, or belts. Have the seller start the car while you are still looking under the hood (be careful with loose clothing and keep your hands behind you). Listen for any unusual sounds, specifically metal on metal, as this may indicate a serious engine issue. Listen to how the car idles, is it smooth and quiet or sputtering and inconsistent? Do the belts appear to be moving smoothly or are they slapping around? Have the seller rev the engine; listen to how it revs and how it comes back down to idle. A car typically runs best at WOT (wide open throttle) so pay careful attention to the idle as that is the first indicator of tuning or mechanical issues. Let the car run long enough to start reading temperature on the gauge on the dash. Most cars should sit running at between 160-200 degrees. No reading after a few minutes of idle may indicate a lack of coolant in the system or, in the case of an air-cooled vehicle, an air movement issue.
With the owner in the car, have them use the lights, horn, wipers, windows and antenna (if powered). Inside the car you can test the climate control system. Pay special attention to the function of any switches on or around the dash. If the owner won’t let you take a test ride, go ahead and carefully shift the car into forward and reverse and see how it engages. If the car has a manual gearbox, go ahead and depress the clutch while in first gear and then in reverse and see if it grabs properly. Push your foot down on the brake pedal and take note of it’s firmness and distance of travel. Now grab the steering wheel and gently wiggle it left to right. Feel and listen for excess play or clunking from side to side.
If the owner will allow you to take a test drive that’s great; if not, ask that they take you for a ride in the car. Shut the radio off and open the windows so you can hear everything. The car should shift smoothly through the gears without any slippage or excess revving, in the case of an automatic. Similarly, a manual transmission should feel smooth between gears, without engine rev up when releasing the clutch. In fact, a slight jerky bump into the next gear means the clutch is doing its job and grabbing properly. The car should accelerate smooth and consistently. Take note of any hesitation or stumbling on acceleration. Loosely grip the wheel in a straightaway and see how the car tracks. Does it wander? Dart side to side? Does it respond to steering input properly? Feel for any vibrations or pulsing under braking. Again, you can use the loose grip technique on the steering wheel to check for hooking under heavy braking. If you think you’ve heard something but aren’t quite sure from where, drive over a speed bump or road blemishes to amplify the noise. When you buy a car you also own all the problems, noises, and nuances that come with it, so be sure to take your time in understanding every aspect of your prospective purchase.
No car is perfect; do not go into any prospective deal expecting the car to be without fault. My goal in putting together this pre-purchase overview is to help buyers more thoroughly understand the car they are considering purchasing. Buyers, take your time, be thorough, and don’t worry about insulting the seller with your questions. Knowledge is power, and you may just find that the more you understand your classic car, for better or for worse, the more you will enjoy it!
Written by: Mike Widdes & Jake DePierro