Avoiding Bad Deals on a Classic Car (So You Can Find a Good One!)


So you’ve decided you want to take the plunge and start collecting cars…first, welcome to the club! This is an exciting, fun and very satisfying activity. I think you’ll love it.

With anything like this there is always “the big question” – how do I steer clear (no pun intended) of a bum deal? This is a critical part in automotive collecting and I could literally go on for pages, but we can cover a few points to get you off to a good start.

So how can you protect yourself from acquiring a problem? The first thing you want to do is assume you are going to have to put money in it as soon as you drive off. This expectation will ease your insecurities right off the bat because you are anticipating an imminent repair. 

The second thing you can do, if the car runs, is to hire an appraiser to make sure the asking price is a fair price. These unbiased experts can help you determine what a car should be valued at, given the condition of the car and the current marketplace, both of which they will probably know better than you, the newbie, do.

Seeking the advice of a mechanic is also always a great idea too, but just as you are “kicking the tires” (so to speak – don’t actually do that!), here are some things to check coming from a trained eye:

Paint: the paint on all panels should be of the same quality and luster. If the car has been stored outside exposed to the elements, the hood, top and trunk will naturally show more wear. A mil-guage is a great tool to take as it measures the depth of paint. 

Interior: this is a tell sign of a car’s previous care. The headliner, dashboard, instrument panel functions, seats and carpet should be inspected for damaging cracks and tears. Checking the glass and windshield are also important for clues to quality.

Test drive: There are so many things to consider with this, but here’s my hot list.

  • First, start the car hopefully from a cold start. Allow it to warm up for about five minutes. Check the oil color and gaskets for leaks. Check the exhaust and ensure no burning oil.
  • Next, shift the car into all gear selections. From a stand still, turn the car all the way to the left and then to the right. This will check for looseness and noises. Turn on the heater, air flow and check all fan speeds. Once the temp gauge has reached the operating temperature. Select drive and proceed accordingly. Make sure the transmission shifts as it should with a smooth transition into each gear. Lastly, select reverse and listen for any additional stresses on the u-joint. 
  • Braking should not pulsate, and the car should remain straight and not pull in either direction. The suspension should be firm and quiet.

These are simple guidelines and have proven to be helpful to me when making a decision to buy. Using this as a starting point – and if you can, brining a more experienced classic car friend along to help guide you – should help make your first buying experience a good one!Jason Paynter is a classic car appraiser, collector and unabashed enthusiast. He is also author of the new book, Drop, Throttle, Oversteer: Collecting & Investing in Classic Cars, available at Amazon! He lives in Louisville, KY with his beautiful wife and three sons who are (heaven help him) almost all of driving age.


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