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How to Buy a Classic Car

There’s just something special about a classic car that can’t be denied. If you’ve ever been to a car show, you’ve probably seen some beautiful vintage vehicles and wondered what it would be like to have one in your driveway. Other days, perhaps passing by a junkyard, you’ve seen classic cars that have been neglected and left to rot, and lamented their loss.

Having seen the good and the bad, though, isn’t the whole story. Classic car ownership can be a fun and rewarding hobby. But should you buy one?

Porsche 356

What Is a Classic Car?

Ask five different people what a “classic car” is, and you’ll get five different answers.

The Classic Car Club of America’s definition is somewhat restrictive: “a fine or distinctive automobile, American or foreign built, produced between 1925 and 1948.”

Other classic car clubs and car shows have looser rules, including unique, rare, special, and pedigreed cars of any vintage or type.

Classic cars come in all shapes and sizes, ranging from the very first automobiles to 1950s and ’60s sports cars. Well-known classic cars include original Ford Model T, the late-’30s Mercedes-Benz 540K, the mid-‘60s Shelby Cobra, and the late-‘60s Chevrolet Camaro Z28.

Age, of course, is not the only determining factor. Others also can be considered classic cars, such as the Lamborghini Reventon (limited to 20 cars), the beautiful Volkswagen Karmann Ghia, the rare ’05-‘06 Ford GT, and Nicolas Cage’s Lamborghini Muira SVJ, confiscated from the Shah of Iran.

Really, what makes a classic car is how it makes you feel. If you have fond memories of the mid-‘90s Ford Crown Victoria or a vintage Subaru BRAT, then, by all means, consider it a classic. On the road, it’ll stand out as particularly unique, and you might be able to enter it in some classic car shows.

Why Buy a Classic Car?

Really, there are two reasons to buy a classic car – passion or investment – but that doesn’t mean you can’t have both in your garage.

  • Passion: Passionate buyers should buy what they like – something that excites them and that they look forward to driving, maintaining, and repairing. Any classic car is going to require a lot of your attention. If you don’t love it, it will be harder to motivate yourself to put in the work required to maintain it.
  • Investment: Investment buyers will want to pay close attention to prices and auction trends, but don’t look for a quick return on investment. It can take years, even decades, to reap the financial rewards of correctly selecting, restoring, and maintaining a classic car, if there’s a return at all.

If possible, do both. Jay Leno and Jerry Seinfeld, a couple of well-known car collectors, have hundreds of cars to their names, but they only buy what they love. That way, they’re more likely to take care of them and possibly see some return on their passion.

Jay Leno, for example, bought a 1994 McLaren F1 race car in 1999. About a decade later, a similar vehicle sold at auction for more than $4 million, more than five times what Leno paid.

Chevrolet Corvette Interior

How to Buy a Classic Car

Before jumping right in and buying something on eBay or Craigslist or from guy down the street, take the time to determine whether you have the time and money and dedication to buy, insure, maintain, restore, store, and drive a classic vehicle. When you’re ready to take the plunge, make sure you follow these steps.

1. Set a Budget

A good simple rule for research is that the time you invest should be in proportion to the money 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 us 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. Depending on the vintage, you might check Hagerty Insurance, National Automobile Dealers Association, Hemmings Motor News, or auction houses for typical values.

You may find a particular vehicle that is in rough shape for far less, or an absolute cream puff for a bit more. Consider your spending with perspective and avoid letting your emotions rule the day.

2. Research Classic Cars

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.

Online Classic Car Buying

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 any time. 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, but you can also ask owners about their personal experiences. There are exceptions, but most of the folks we have encountered on these sites are kind, honest and helpful. If they aren’t, move on, as there are plenty of other forums.

Looking for a used car? Carfax Used Car Listings come with a free Carfax Report(Carfax Used Car Listings and Vehicle History Reports are only available for cars from 1981 or later.)

Car Shows and Car Clubs

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 available online about meeting times and guest requirements.

Volkswagen Bus

3. Inspect the Classic Car You’re Considering

Whether you buy online from a dealer in another country or you decide to take your best buddy’s 911 off their 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. We 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.

Ask Questions Specific to the Vehicle You’re Buying

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?

Ask for Maintenance Records

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, but the information will also 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. (Get the value of any vehicle from 1981 onward with Carfax’s History-Based Value tool.)

Run a Carfax Vehicle History Report

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.

Verify What You Are Told About the Car

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.

Don’t 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.

Learn more about how to inspect a car.

3. Take the Car for a Test Drive

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.

Try a Cold Start

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 experience.

Test the Brakes

Once you’re on the road, drive 100 feet and test the brakes. Always test the brakes first! We’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.

Test the Engine and Transmission

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?

Take Your Time

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.

Check Under the Hood

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.

Lincoln Continental

Check the Paint and Bodywork

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. 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.

Have a Mechanic Do an Inspection

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 guesswork. 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.

Learn more about how to test drive a car.

4. Insure Your Classic Car Properly

Classic car insurance companies know how to properly insure classic cars. Because classic cars are often meticulously cared for and driven carefully, they’re usually less expensive to insure, but it depends on what value is assigned to the vehicle. An appraiser will help you evaluate your classic car, after which you’ll pay premiums on the “guaranteed” or “agreed” value. In the event of catastrophic loss, you’ll receive that amount.

5. Be Ready to Devote Extra Time to Maintenance

Classic cars can’t be left out like a modern car, at least not if you want it to look great every day. Do you have the space to store your car when it’s not in use? Sun, rain, heat, cold, salt, dirt and bugs are all destructive, even more so on classic cars. Also, parts and services may be rare and pricey. Do you have the time and money to keep your classic car looking and running great?

Classic cars can be a true joy to see and drive, but one shouldn’t jump into classic car ownership without properly preparing for the experience.

6. Enjoy The Ride

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. Automobile enthusiasts understand this better than most; our passion literally takes us places.

We hope you find your perfect collectible car, but even if you don’t, enjoy the ride.

Next Steps

If you have questions about this story, please contact us at Editors@carfax.com