Interest rates are rising, gas prices are soaring and unemployment figures have been bouncing like a ping-pong ball. As a result, the collector-car market has changed. Higher borrowing costs reduce credit purchases. Higher gas prices hurt the salability of V-8s. Higher unemployment means fewer buyers. Those who are willing and able to purchase a classic want more for their buck.
As a buyer, like-new condition is what you should look for, whether the car is “well-kept” or restored. You must learn to look past the shiny paint and 5-inch-deep wax and focus on 10 areas that reveal the real condition of the car.
The first thing to evaluate is the mechanicals. Most nice cars will start, but don’t take for granted that one will be running the same 10 minutes later. I once bought a nice car from a farmer 15 miles away that overheated halfway home. It had a bad head gasket. If the car smokes when you start it, don’t accept “All 350s have leaky valve guides.” I’ve seen smoky Chevy engines run fine for months but wind up having a cracked piston ring. Does the car have an aftermarket electronic ignition? These do increase performance, but they can also be used to cloak oil burning and over-rich carburetion.
If you notice such things, check further before buying the car. Check all gauges to make sure that temperature, charging rate and oil pressure are within factory guidelines. Check oil pressure when the car is fully warm, not cold.
Road testing is a must. It’ll tell you if the transmission shifts smoothly, the ride and handling characteristics are up to snuff, the rear axle is quiet, the tires track properly, the brakes function properly and so on. When you bring the car back, lift the hood and look for smoke, which indicates leaky fluids burning off. Let the car sit for a while and check underneath for drips or leaks. Make sure that all of the tires are the same size and brand and don’t have any obvious wear patterns.
Panel Fit and Body Rust
Body panel fit is an important area to check. Carefully view all of the “gaps” around door, hood and trunk panels. Spacing should be uniform. Unmolested and well-restored cars will have nice, even openings on the top, bottom and both sides. Metal parts can also be attacked by corrosion. Check the frame cross members carefully, especially the rear one on older models. Frame side rails directly under the doors are prone to “tin worm” damage as well.
Raise the car on a lift and look at the underside of the body panels. Obvious rust usually means that even more rust is hidden from view. Look for oil thrown up on the floorboards above the rear axle “pumpkin.” Are there fluids running down any of the tires? If so, the brake system’s wheel cylinder (of that tire) is leaking.
Let There Be Light
Different light sources can reveal variations in paint quality. I recently had a fellow car club member check a car for me. He performed the check on a sunny day and noticed that the paint on the trunk lid didn’t match the finish on the fenders. “I wouldn’t have seen the difference on a cloudy day,” he told me. If possible, check out the car on different days and in both natural and artificial light. A great thing to take with you is a high-intensity mini flashlight.
Most cars that you’ll consider purchasing will have nice shiny chrome, but will it stay that way? Chrome is applied in a series of coatings and there can be faults below the surface. These usually show up on the edges of a chrome piece or on the backside. Check the entire piece carefully and use an inspection mirror to view as much as you can of the non-plated side. You may see rust starting to form that will eventually spread and reach the surface.
Under the Hood
Although you aren’t likely to find out everything about the car’s history, you will be able to tell if there have been any major oil bursts or antifreeze disasters by looking at the underside of the hood. Also check spark plug wires, the battery for corrosion and acid leaks, and all fluid levels. If these things are OK and it looks clean under the hood, it’s a good bet that the car was maintained pretty well.
Inside, the seats should match photos of original cars in books or sales literature. The sales catalog will often tell you the colors, materials and options available. Make sure a nice upholstery kit wasn’t fitted to a bad seat. Carefully checking the form and shape will indicate if springs and padding are correct. Are the seat springs rusty? An inspection mirror will let you view them. Does the seat slide back and forth? Your carpets should fit like a glove and the openings around seat frames, seat belt anchors and door pillars should have clean cuts, often with piping around the opening. Look carefully for moth or age damage. Carpets with such damage may look passable, but will fall apart when you brush or vacuum the floor of the car. Rubber weather stripping keeps out moisture, helps quiet the interior and seals door seams to prevent looseness and rattling. High-quality reproduction weather stripping is available for most cars, and good restorers won’t skip replacing bad weather stripping — even if it’s costly. Always check the weather stripping on the doors, trunk, removable hardtop or T-tops.
No Shocks, Sherlock
When buying a used collector, you have to play Sherlock Holmes. Get out an oversized magnifying glass and look for anything that doesn’t look like it should. Does the windshield have any cracks or chips? (They can sometimes be hard to see.) Do the outside rearview mirrors adjust like they should? Why is the radiator loose and sitting further back on one side? Does the radio tune accurately? Why doesn’t the glove-box door latch properly? How come the gas gauge doesn’t move? Anything that doesn’t look “just right” probably isn’t. If your car of interest has 15,000 parts, there are 15,000 potential questions to ask a seller.
We know that you’re buying a car, but what else should be part of the deal? The answer to this question is between you and the seller of course, but remember that there are some items you’re probably going to want even if they don’t come with the car. Examples include the boot for the convertible top, the storage bag for the T-tops, the owner’s manual, factory or aftermarket repair manuals, a factory parts book, an extra set of keys and so on. These things are going to cost you extra to buy later at a swap meet or on eBay. The seller may have some of these in his or her garage and forget that they were stored. Ask and ye shall receive. Don’t ask and they’ll go into the waste basket later.
There have always been used-car guides and old-car price guides, but with the advent of the Internet, immediate and reliable pricing is as close as your computer. NADA, Kelley Blue Book, Edmund’s and Manheim Auctions’:The Gold Book all have easy-to-use pricing calculators that give trade-in and retail values (both dealer and private party) for cars in your zip code. Kelley Blue Book and Edmund’s don’t go back farther than the 1980s, however.
Dealers often point to disclaimers that state “other factors must be considered when gauging the value of a car.” One dealer recently lost my business after I got values from two sources linked to his own Web site. I pointed out that his “rock bottom” price was $600 higher than that shown in one of the guides he directed me to. It was $900 higher than the price in the other guide. He used the “other factors” defense, and I asked him what factors he was thinking about. Was it the neat patch on the convertible top, or the fact that the front and rear tires were of different brands and had different tread patterns? He wanted a premium price for a car that I’d have had to spend $1,000 more on.
The next time you buy a collector car, keep one rule in mind: You want to take it for a ride, but you don’t want to be taken for a ride. Be fussy, question every flaw you spot and stick to your guns on price.
John “Gunner” Gunnell is the automotive books editor at Krause Publications in Iola, Wis., and former editor of OLDCARS WEEKLY and OLDCARS PRICE GUIDE.