Buying Classic Cars

If you love classic cars, know the ins and outs of this specialty market.

If you're in the market for a classic car and you've never purchased one before, it can be a daunting prospect. After all, not every car will be considered a classic to everyone who views it and not every car seller will be honest about what it is they're selling you either. Fakes, frauds, liars, and hucksters abound in the classic car world, but so do honest collectors, sincere sellers, and people who genuinely love their classic cars and hate to see them go. People of that latter type are often as nervous about finding a good home for their beloved car as you are about finding a good car to bring into your home.

In general, there are three types of collector: the nostalgia buyer, the investment buyer, and the hoarder.

The nostalgia buyer is looking for a specific vehicle (or vehicle type) for reasons personal to him or her. This buyer wants a car because their parents had one, because it was their first car, or for some similar and very personal reason.

The investment buyer is looking for a commodity – a classic that can be used to increase value. The investor either wants to strike a great deal or wants the car in order to turn a profit in some other way.

Finally, the hoarder may love classic vehicles and have a real passion for their restoration, maintenance, and care. The specific car may only be secondary to this love of ownership. You likely either fit into one of these three categories or will be buying from someone who does. Most likely both.

What Is a Classic Car?

A "classic car" can be just about any vehicle, depending on the person looking at it. Like the old addage about junk, one man's classic car is another's ugly old auto. The Classic Car Club of America defines a "classic" car as one that is 30-49 years old with cars that are older than that being pre-antiques and antiques. For most Americans, however, any car older than about thirty years old is a "classic." The legal definition varies somewhat from state to state, but is generally noted as any vehicle that is not a reproduction and was manufactured at least 20 years prior to the current year. Some further narrow this to only include vehicles restored to a condition that is substantially similar to its original specifications and appearance, thus ruling out many street rods and similar "classic" modifications.

The majority of car shows in the U.S. use the legal definition of a classic for admittance, but will often have specific categories defined by the CCCA groups of classics and antiques. Vehicle models not recognized by the CCCA may not be eligible for certain awards or prizes at these shows. The Antique Automobile Club of America has a loose definition, calling any vehicle aged 20-49 a "classic" and any vehicle over 25 years old to be an antique eligible for registration in their rolls. The strictest rules for what is considered a classic or antique are found in the Concours D'Elegance car shows, which consider any car newer than 1972 to be non-classics.

Classic Car Eras

There is also a loose way of defining a type of classic by using eras. These are not well-codified, despite being commonly used at car shows and competitions, due to the relatively large amount of overlap one era may have with another.

Commonly used eras include "horseless carriages" (19th century autos that generally look like carriages), "antique cars" (brass-era cars from the turn of the century), "classic cars" (1930s to early 1970s vehicles), and "early modern" (1980s forward). Sometimes, eras are broken by year only, with antiques being anything from pre-World War I (1918 and earlier), pre-war cars being from 1919-1945, post-war cars being from 1945-1955 and so forth. Sometimes terms like "golden age" are used to describe 1950s vehicles, often considered the high point of American car manufacture and design. Many consider the "golden age" to be from about 1935 through to the 1960s when designers like Virgil Exner and Harley J. Earl were radically changing the view Americans had of their automobiles.

How To Buy a Classic Car

Before you embark on your journey to hunt down the perfect classic for your garage, you should be clear with yourself about a few things. You need to know what your intention with the car is. Will you be driving it on weekends, showing it at car shows, or storing it in museum-like conditions? Do you want to do the restoration yourself, find one that's already been restored, or a combination? What is your budget to buy, to restore, and to maintain the vehicle? Do you know exactly what kind of car (make, model, year or years) you want or do you just want a general type (1930s coupe, 1950s convertible, etc)?

If you cannot answer these questions immediately and with surety, you should work out the details until you can. Then start hunting. Otherwise, you're in for a lot of heartache and likely financial pain down the line. Research everything you can about the specific car you're looking for, including it's going prices in today's market, the various trouble spots it has (all cars have them) so you know what to look for, and narrow down your choice of vehicle to specific makes/models and years.</p>

Find local car shows and the clubs that sponsor and participate in them. You are very likely to find someone in that club who can either tell you a lot of practical information about the car model you're considering or point you to an expert who can do so. From there, finding an appraiser to check out any potential purchases you locate is simple.

That appraiser should specifically find out if the car, engine, transmission, etc. are all original to one another, replacements (and whether those replacements are period or after-market), and so forth. The appraiser should know how to compare vehicle identification numbers (VIN) as well. The VIN system we have today was not standardized until the 1980s, so knowing where to locate the manufacturer's identification for the car is a hunt within itself.

Many classics, even very old ones, will have vehicle history reports available. At the very least, the report can likely tell you if the car has been stolen and how many previous, registered owners it's had.

All of the points we've discussed, especially the last two paragraphs, can significantly alter the value and price tag on the car you're looking over. A clear provenance of ownership, for example, can mean hundreds of dollars in value difference whereas incomplete components or non-original components can mean thousands of dollars in value loss.

Be absolutely sure you know what you are buying before you buy that classic car, even if it looks to be in great shape.

What To Avoid In a Classic Car

Most experts will tell you to avoid vehicles with significant rust, especially rust that has eaten away major body panel portions, into the vehicle's frame, etc. Often called "brown death" by collectors, rust is easy to cover up and very, very difficult to remove entirely. Small amounts are one thing, but major amounts are another. Very rusty relics are usually reserved for the scrapper who is only interested in harvesting parts rather than restoration.

Many believe that low-mileage is key to a purchase, but that's not necessarily so. Classics can often last for many hundreds of thousands of miles if properly cared for. Condition and value are more important than mileage on the odometer. In fact, a very low-mileage car may be a danger signal as it may not have had enough exercise to be in proper condition. A car should have a few hundred miles per year put on it or it will rot from the inside. On the other hand, low mileage has real advantages, including longevity and the likelihood that the car will hold value longer. Use judgment.

The Final Word

The last thing to consider is likely the most important. If the car you're considering doesn't make you itch to drive it, it's not the car for you. If you cannot look at the car without physically feeling pain because you aren't in the driver's seat, you probably should pass and find another classic. This, more than anything else, should be what determines whether or not you write that check and take the classic car home with you.