17 October 2004

Car Conditions: What The Numbers Mean

The 1–6 Condition Code is used in the collector car hobby to determine the values of vintage vehicles, but what do the different condition numbers mean? Does a lower number mean a lower value? Understanding the grading system is important when it comes to valuing your car.

Actually, the use of a numerical condition code was adopted in the mid-1970s to replace descriptions such as “good,” “fair” and “excellent” that meant different things to different people. Chet Krause, a publisher of magazines for collectors in various fields, felt that the old-car hobby needed a grading system like the coin and stamp collecting hobbies.

Chet’s system was used for “price guides” published in Old Cars magazine before it became a weekly. This proved to be one of the periodical’s most popular features and later became the basis of Old Cars Price Guide magazine. Originally there were five conditions, and the system didn’t cover vehicles in very rough condition. This led appraisers in states with personal property tax laws to overstate the values of derelict cars and trucks. To rectify this, a sixth condition grade for “parts cars” was established.

From the start, the lowest number (1) indicated the best condition. The higher numbers indicated worse conditions. Each number was assigned a carefully thought-out word description, as follows:

Restored to current maximum professional standards of quality in every area or perfect original with components operating or appearing as new; a 95-plus point show car that isn’t driven.

Well-restored or a combination of superior restoration and excellent original; also, an extremely well-maintained original showing very minimal wear.

Completely operable original or “older restoration” showing wear; also, a good amateur restoration, all presentable and serviceable inside and out. Plus combinations of well-done restoration and good operable components or a partially restored car with all parts necessary to complete and/or valuable NOS parts.

A drivable vehicle needing no or only minor work to be functional; also, a deteriorated restoration or a very poor amateur restoration. All components may need restoration to be “excellent,” but the car is mostly useable “as is.”

Needs complete restoration of body, chassis and interior; may or may not be running, but isn’t weathered, wrecked or stripped to the point of being useful only for parts.

May or may not be running, but is weathered, wrecked and/or stripped to the point of being useful primarily for parts.

Another way to think of the condition coding system is to visualize a pyramid in which No. 1 condition is at the top and No. 6 condition is at the bottom. The point of the pyramid has only enough room for the best one or two cars of a particular model. At the next level, the pyramid can fit more cars. At level 3, even more cars can fit and so on.

Think of the car or cars at the top of the pyramid as the absolute best of the best. Usually only a single car fits here, although it’s conceivable that two could be restored identically. These are not only show cars, they are the show cars that win national awards every time.

The second level of the pyramid is filled with all the other show-condition examples of the same model. These are nice cars, but they are just not on par with the top cars. These cars may have a $25,000 restoration, compared to the No. 1 car’s $100,000 restoration.

On level three, you find vintage cars in about the same condition as the late-model used cars you see in the front row of a used-car dealer’s lot. These are very nice looking cars, but they have some minor flaws. They may have been restored 10 years ago and the freshness is starting to rub off.

Level 4 brings you the cars like those on the back row of the used-car dealer’s lot. These cars have noticeable wear and tear, but still have a lot of life and functionality left in them. They are reliable, although the radio may not work and a new set of tires would be well advised.

Cars in level 5 are like those a used-car dealer wouldn’t touch these days. Cars in level 6 are even worse. Like we said, “useful primarily for parts.”

John “Gunner” Gunnell is the automotive books editor at Krause Publications in Iola, Wis., and former editor ofOld Cars Weekly and Old Cars Price Guide.

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