Classic Car Buying Guide

By Chris Brewer

Like a kid awaiting Christmas morning, the joy and excitement surrounding the purchase of a sought after collector vehicle is enough to keep grown adults distracted throughout the day and up all night. Unfortunately, not all of that energy is positive, buying that dream car takes resources and a misstep can be costly. While this classic car buying guide is in no way meant to be exhaustive - there are many books on the subject - my goal is to provide some heart-felt advice (some I discovered the hard way) to help make your new acquisition as pain-free as possible.

There are almost as many reasons that people buy collector cars as there are vehicles to be bought. While there is no right or wrong rationale, it is important to understand what drives your passion for a particular vehicle. Knowing the source of your interest can serve as a great place to begin your search. Being able to clearly define your passion will also come in handy when loved ones begin to question the sanity of dropping thousands of dollars on an "old car."

Maybe you are after the 1967 Pontiac GTO that your uncle owned when you were a kid. Simply seeing one at a car show sends you back in time. You can still feel the coolness of vinyl bucket seats and the smell of the unburnt fuel from the tri-power carbs.

Movies fans may want to live inside a favorite scene from a beloved film. I know more than one DeLorean owner who has installed a flashing flux capacitor in hope that one day the car will hit 88 miles-per-hour and send both of them to 1955.

Whether it was a poster on your wall as a kid or you simply saw a 1963 split-window Corvette Sting Ray for the first time and fell in love, the desire to purchase a collector vehicle is often connected to an emotional response. Keeping this in mind will help you as you shop and negotiate prices. Trust me, once you realize that you have a chance to finally own a car you've wanted your whole life, emotions can cloud your judgment and you may end up overpaying for a car you that you shouldn't have purchased in the first place.

Choosing Your Classic Car

Once you have narrowed down your list of potential vehicles, the real work begins. Collector cars rarely come with warranties or promises besides, "I know you'll have fun with it" so it is vital to do your homework before you exchange any cash.

The Internet is a great place to start your research. A few simple keyword searches can provide a great deal of helpful information. As with anything online, look for reliable sources and realize that anyone can post anything at anytime. The Internet can also help you narrow down the particular year, make and model that you want to investigate more closely.

Online forums and specialized websites that celebrate a particular make or model can be very useful for gathering information. Not only can you search for pertinent insight, you can ask owners about their personal experiences. There are exceptions, but most of the folks I have encountered on these sites are kind, honest and helpful. If they aren't, move on, there are plenty of other forums.

Local car shows and clubs can also be a great place to visit and gather facts. Not only will you meet enthusiasts and owners, but you may make a connection or two that helps lead to a future purchase. Most car clubs do not require membership to visit and typically, information is readily available online about meeting times and guest requirements.

Magazines, buyer's guides and books can also be helpful. Your local library may have some useful materials. Don't worry if you live in a rural area or your local library offers little in the area of collector cars, most participate in an inter-library loan program that can help you procure a rare, and extremely expensive, book on vintage Lancias from halfway across the country. Trust me on this one, I have been taking advantage of the program for years; it is great and usually free with a local library card.

Setting a Collector Car Budget

A good simple rule for research is that the time you invest should be in proportion to the money that you are going to spend. If your neighbor wants to sell you his 1991 Miata for $1,000 you might as well jump on it. As a matter of fact, call me if you pass – that sounds fun. However, if you are contemplating a $60,000 1969 Camaro, you better hit the books first.

Once you have established which collector vehicle you are interested in, you will want to set a budget. Studying current selling prices on web auctions and classifieds, combined with vintage car buying guides, and local "word on the street" prices can help you set realistic parameters. While you may find a particular vehicle that is in rough shape for far less or an absolute cream puff for a bit more, you will know that they are exceptions. Consider your spending with perspective and avoid letting your emotions rule the day.

Shopping for Your Dream Car Should be Fun

So, you have settled on a make and model. Let's say you've decided on a first generation Datsun 240z built from 1970-1972. You've ruled out the 1973 model because you learned that the Hitachi SU carburetors don't offer the performance of the 71 and 72 bell tops, now what?

Much like your research, you can always start your car shopping online. There are reputable dealers all over the world offering quality collector vehicles through the Internet. Online auction sites are also popular, as well as national and local classifieds. Your time at a local car show or club may have provided some leads. You might even have a friend at work that is selling the exact car you are looking for, it happens more than you think. Regardless of where you locate your dream car there are some guidelines that you should follow before you settle on your purchase.

Inspecting a Classic Car

Whether you buy online from a dealer in another country or you decide to take your best buddy's 911 off his or her hands, you will want to inspect the car in person. If you can't travel to the car's location, hire a reputable vintage car authority to take a peek for you. If the seller is hesitant to let a professional inspect the car, move on. I understand the "no joy rides" apprehension that a seller may have, but if they are unwilling to let you take a good look at the car before handing over the cash, you shouldn't walk, please RUN away.

When you do inspect the car, use your research to ask thoughtful, vehicle specific questions. You will also want to ask more general questions such as, does the seller hold the title? Do you know how many owners the vehicle has had? Do you have maintenance records? If so, how far back do they go?

If a picture is worth a thousand words, a good size folder full of maintenance records is worth a million conversations. Not only will they provide a better understanding of the parts of the car you can see, the information will offer solid clues to the mechanical parts that you can't. Zero-tolerance engines found in many older imports need regular timing belt service or risk the chance of catastrophic engine failure. The clutch may have been replaced, but with what brand?

Good records will reveal if the issues that you learned about through your research have already been corrected. Did the slow flowing stock water pump receive the appropriate upgrade? The seller may claim performance is sluggish because the engine needs a tune up, but the records show new plugs were installed six months ago. All of this becomes a part of the buying decision and the overall value of the vehicle.

If the vehicle is a 1981 or later model you should use the 17-digit VIN to run a CARFAX Vehicle History Report. The report will give you a basic guideline of owners, accidents, insurance reports, repairs and more.

If the car doesn't run or has been sitting for a long time, look for registration information in the glove box or window inspection stickers. If the owner claims it was "daily driven until six weeks ago" and the car hasn't been registered in six years, you need to ask a lot more questions or politely move on.

I would add to be careful not to automatically assume an owner is lying if they do not point out all of the bad points on a vehicle they are selling. One thing I have discovered over the years is that a car owner often sees his or her precious baby through rose-colored glasses. Collector car owners are a little like a good parent, they love their car enough to overlook the little, or not so tiny, faults and issues. They may have convinced themselves that the car's blemishes and shortcomings do not even exist, which is all the more reason that a hands-on inspection is so important.

Test Driving a Classic Car

If the car is running and you can visually verify that there are no major issues making the car unsafe to drive, take it out for an extended test drive.

Ask that the car hasn't been running for a while when you arrive, that initial cold start can offer a lot of information about the condition of a car's engine, fuel and electrical systems. Once running, listen to the engine for irregularities. If you are unfamiliar with a vehicle make or model, bring along a friend who is. Often they can confirm that a vehicle is running properly in just a few minutes based on their experiences.

Once you're on the road, drive 100 feet and test the brakes. Always test the brakes first! I've learned this one the hard way. The car may run like a scalded cat, but you don't want to use your feet Barney Rubble style to stop.

Now that you've confirmed that you won't drive through your neighbor's living room, how does the car accelerate through all of the gears? Does the transmission shift smoothly? Any odd suspension noises? Does the steering feel as it should? If the car has power steering, are there any strange noises when turning the wheel?

The longer you drive the car the more likely you will discover any hidden issues. A quick low-speed run around the block may be all you need before taking home that $1,000 Miata we talked about earlier, but that $60,000 ragtop pony car will warrant a far longer ride.

If you are a competent home mechanic, spend a good amount of time under the hood and underneath the car trying to spot any obvious issues. Worn belts and hoses are basic maintenance, but if one breaks on the way home, the car will leave you stranded. Check tire tread depth and the date codes on the sidewalls. The tires may look fantastic and be a selling point of the car, but if they show an expired date code they can be unsafe on the road; you will need to consider the cost of replacement into the selling price.

Much of the allure of a collector vehicle is the paint and bodywork. While original paint in great condition is the gold standard, a good professional respray is nothing to keep you from spending your money. Just do your research to learn how a repaint affects the value before making an offer.

If a car has been repainted you will need to inspect the body and frame for signs of rust that may not have been repaired properly or significantly. Bondo gets a bad rap, but many of the best bodywork specialists use fillers in the process. The trick is to make sure that the filler wasn't simply applied to mask problems. I have found that a refrigerator magnet, the soft vinyl kind, is a great tool for discovering if a steel car has had liberal amounts of filler applied. The soft magnet won't scratch paint and will not adhere to panels that have even a thin amount of filler applied before the final paint. Again, your research will come in handy as you inspect areas prone to rust in the particular make or model you are investigating. For example, under the battery tray and behind the wheels are notorious rust areas for almost all collector cars and trucks.

If you've gotten this far and you're thinking, "What did I get myself into?" take a deep breath and rest easy. Hiring a professional to perform the vehicle inspection can remove a great deal of the stress and guess work. Ask around for a local expert that can spend a little time and produce some documentation on the car's condition. The cost will seem insignificant if you are buying a $50,000 car that is only worth $45,000 or less. Imagine if the numbers are more polarizing, which happens all the time.

Enjoy the Ride

Not too long ago my father asked if I would help him track down an older BMW — nothing too expensive, something fun that he could use as a daily driver.

He already owns a rare and all original 1988 M5 — for many, the holy grail of BMW sport sedans, but he wanted something that he would feel comfortable leaving in the shopping center parking lot unattended. His goal was to find a car that might need a little work, but was clean enough that he could park it in his driveway and not incite an emergency homeowners' meeting.

We searched all the regular channels, scouring online and local classifieds, other friends and collectors, and local car lots to find just the right vehicle. Online descriptions and pictures often proved useless — sometimes the photos would be more than 10 years old or shot at strange angles in low light. We quickly learned that "excellent condition" is a subjective term and "needs a little work" often means that the body is rusty, the head gasket is blown and the transmission slips.

Our quest took us all over northeast Florida; chasing leads often meant 45-minute rides across town at random times during the day. Each trip turned into an adventure. We were explorers, the GPS was the treasure map, and the elusive BMW our bounty.

The truth is — and please do not tell Dad — after our first trip out, I really didn't care if we ever found the right car. Comparing notes, discussing values, researching the individual vehicles, and those three-hour round trips were the real treasure. The anticipation that filled the car on the way to see a potential purchase; the new people that we would meet and the stories they would tell; and the smiles, laughs, even the frustrations of striking out, are something I will always cherish.

In a technology-driven world where speed, efficiency and convenience are often the benchmarks for value and performance, we can easily lose sight of the fact that the journey really is the destination. I think automobile enthusiasts understand this better than most; our passion literally takes us places.

I truly hope you find your perfect collectible car, but even if you don't, enjoy the ride.