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Eight Expert Tips on What to Check When Purchasing a Classic Car


Published May 16, 2018

Purchasing a classic car is not really that much different than purchasing a used car. The process of financing, titling, licensing, etc. is all the same. The one area thatís different is there tends to be a great deal more emotion involved in the purchase of a classic car; so much that you might overlook or underestimate damage or required repairs. We donít want to dampen your enthusiasm Ė after all how often do grown-ups have this much fun? We just want to make sure your eyes are wide open despite the fact that your heart is thumping in your chest.
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In no particular order, here are eight tips you should keep in mind when examining a classic car with the intent to purchase.

  1. Check the condition of the body and paint, including the presence of scratches, cracks, dents, or rust. Closely check all the glass for chips or cracks. A chip made years ago could turn into a crack once you start using the vehicle regularly. Likewise look for repairs to the body panels. A small magnet is a good tool to locate repairs made with Bondo or fiberglass.

  2. Examine the underbody, check for any signs of rust or damage. While under the car check around the engine, rear axle and exhaust for leaks. Make sure the u-joints are tight. Inspect all four shocks and springs. Grab each tire and shake to check for loose wheel bearings. Likewise, check the bushings in all suspension arms and steering links for dry rot or excessive play.

  3. Carefully examine the condition of the tires and wheels. Spin the wheels while under the car to check for any out-of-round condition. Check the tire not just for wear but also dry rot. The production date of the tires is stamped in the sidewall. There are several websites that can help you decode the serial numbers of the tires. This is especially important if youíre looking at an all original that you want to maintain in that condition as reproductions of vintage tires can get expensive.

  4. Ask the seller about previous accident repairs or flood damage. They may know but are waiting for you to ask about it. Unfortunately, CarFax wasnít around when many of these cars first hit the road so records donít necessarily exist or may be difficult to track down. If the seller has purposely misled you about prior damage it helps bolster your case if you need to turn to litigation.

  5. Run through every high beam, low beam, blinkers, brake lights, parking lights, interior lights, trunk lights as well as the air conditioning system, heater, defroster, gauges, and anything else operated by electricity. Itís good to bring a reliable friend along who can verify the operation of exterior lights. What may appear to be just a burnt out bulb could be difficult to trace electrical fault. If thereís a burnt out bulb, swap it with a working one from the car to determine whether itís the bulb or the electrical system.

  6. Conduct a thorough check of the interior, including upholstery, mats, headliner, and seatbelts. Remove the mats and check the carpets. Get close to check for a rotting smell, which could indicate the car was in deep water, has an exterior leak or even coming in through the floor. If possible pull back the carpet as much as possible without doing damage to look for the presence of rust or previous repairs.

  7. Start the engine and let it warm-up fully. Is it running smoothly? How are the belts and hoses? Is there any oil leaking from the valve cover gaskets? Is there any water leaking after the engine warms? (Check the bottom of the radiator for water as it could indicate a small leak). Do the plug wires and distributor cap look fairly recent? Smell around the back of the car Ė while there will be more of a gasoline smell than a modern car, it shouldnít be overwhelming. If the seller allows you to, pull each spark plug one at a time for its condition, as well as run a compression test on each cylinder. Compression testers can be purchased for $30 or less.

  8. Take the vehicle on a road test, assuming the vehicle is street legal and safe weather conditions exist, where you can evaluate the performance of the vehicle in acceleration, braking, and cornering. Attempt to fix a mix of smooth surface road, rough surface roads, and divided highway or freeway. Note any squeaks or rattles.

  9. Please remember, thereís no such thing as a bad classic car. Itís all a matter of selling price versus condition. You need to do some research before you arrive and determine the value of the car in the condition you seek Ė daily driver, weekend cruiser, car shows only, etc. You then need to determine how much it would cost to take that classic car in which youíre interested and add the selling price to the work required to meet your needs and see if it comes in at, under or above the established price for that model in the condition you desire. Keep all this in mind and youíll get the car you want, at a fair price, and not feel as though youíve overpaid for a trunk load of problems.
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