Inspecting a Classic Car for Purchase

The following is an edited excerpt from Drop Throttle Oversteer: Collecting & Investing in Classic Cars, by Jason Paynter, host of the Classic Car Corner podcast!

As the summer rolls on, we wanted to talk a little about classic car inspection, for those who might be considering a purchase. While I think using an appraiser is a great way to go, it’s only one component of the purchase process, and every purchase starts with your own inspection. Here are a few things that I do when I’m considering adding a new classic to my collection.

Inspecting a Car for Purchase

When I go to look at a car, it takes me quite a while. I do a very detailed inspection of any car I’m considering. Being a bit of a detail nut, I like to use a checklist to make sure I don’t overlook anything.

You can download the checklist I use here!

It’s exhaustive! This checklist has been compiled over years of buying cars and has evolved to include a lot of things I didn’t know to look for when I first started collecting.

Every item I look at or for gets a letter grade of A (new), B (good), C (fair),D (repair/replace), F(failed), or M (for “missing”). This system helps tremendously in negotiating because I can easily see a prospective car’s overall “grade.” It also helps when I take the car home because I have an instant list of what work the car needs and I can prioritize what I want to do first.

Avoiding Bad Deals

This is a critical part in automotive collecting and I could literally go on for pages. 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 your new car as soon as you drive off. This expectation will ease your insecurities right off the bat because you will be anticipating a repair immediately, rather than crossing your fingers there won’t be one.

Getting a Fair Price

The next thing you can do, as I mentioned in the previous chapter, is hire an appraiser to make sure the asking price is a fair price. Seeking the advice of a mechanic to give a thorough inspection of the car is always a great idea too. In addition to those steps, here are a few things you can look for and do yourself.


The paint on all panels should be of the same quality and luster. Look for consistency. If the car has been stored outside in the elements, the hood, top and trunk will naturally show more wear. A mil-gauge is a great tool to use in measuring the depth of the paint on the car. This depth should be consistent on congruent panels.


The interior is a tell-tale sign of a car’s previous care. The headliner, dashboard, instrument panel functions, seats and carpet should be inspected for damaging cracks and tears. The windshield and all glass are also important to inspect for quality.

Test Drive

Take a test drive. This will tell you a lot about the car. First, fire the engine from a cold start. Allow it to warm up for about five minutes. Check the oil color and the gaskets for oil leaks. Check the tailpipe to be sure there’s no burning oil. Only exhaust should come out. Burning oil will cause a thicker white smoke that has a distinct smell, where exhaust will look much thinner and dissipate quickly.

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 in the steering column. 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, smoothly into each gear. Also, select reverse and listen for additional stresses which can be evident from sounds made by the u-joint.

Braking should not pulsate, and the car should remain straight and not pull in either direction while braking. The suspension should be firm and quiet.

These simple guidelines have been helpful to me time and time again when I’m making a decision to buy. I hope they are helpful to you as you consider your next acquisition – happy motoring!


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