18 October 2016

When the numbers match, but don’t add up – buyer beware

In an overheated auction room, the allure of a “fully restored, matching-numbers” car – and the fear that it might slip away at a bargain price – regularly pushes impulsive bidders to raise their paddles. But if the car’s authenticity has not been verified, that winning bid could become an expensive mistake.

One Midwestern buyer recently learned that lesson after finding that the 1967 big-block Corvette roadster he bought for more than $100,000 might be worth far less. He hired a Corvette expert, Kevin Mackay, to inspect the car, but only after it had been rejected by a judge from the National Corvette Restorers Society for having a reproduction trim tag. This metal plate, positioned next to the vehicle identification number tag on a bar beneath the glove box of 1963-67 models, indicates the car’s original equipment. (Tag locations vary by Corvette generation.)

According to Mackay, whose Corvette Repair in Valley Stream, N.Y., has restored many rare Corvettes, the deceptive practice of altering a Corvette’s original equipment and presenting it as a rarer, more valuable model is increasingly common. In this case, the white ’67 roadster with a blue interior, air-conditioning and a 400-horsepower 427-cid engine had left the Corvette factory a much different car.

How could that be? After all, it was claimed to be a numbers-matching example.

Mackay explained that the term “numbers matching” simply means the tags match the numbers stamped on the engine and transmission. All can be faked. By rubbing lacquer thinner near the 1967’s trim tag, Mackay uncovered overspray of its original color, Marlboro Maroon. Using the same technique on a hidden part of the dash revealed the interior color to be Saddle. Without the Corvette’s original tags, though, Mackay could not know its true powertrain and options, though the NCRS judge identified components that would suggest it had been built as a small-block car.

It’s not the first time Mackay found himself delivering bad news to a Corvette enthusiast who had bought what was hoped to be a dream car.

“I can’t tell you how many cars customers have brought to me that have fraudulent VIN tags and trim tags and restamped engine blocks,” he said.

In the case of the white ’67 roadster, the buyer tried to recoup his loss through litigation, spending thousands more dollars, but lost. The court decreed that he had purchased exactly what the seller offered: a white 1967 Corvette roadster with a 427, four-speed and blue interior. The seller never claimed the car was authentic; the buyer only trusted that it was.

Corvette counterfeiters don’t just alter cars; sometimes they build them. Over the years, Mackay has come across several Corvettes with frames that had been spliced together.

You may not be able to authenticate a Corvette within the confines of an auction, but Mackay suggested tips for spotting a suspicious car. “The first thing to look at are the tags,” he said. “I find many are on improperly, which signals they were switched. I’ve seen VIN tags glued on. I found one held in place with bubble gum.”

He advises using a small mirror to inspect the frame for any kind of splicing, repair or unevenness, and to also check behind body panels.

“Corvettes used press-molded fiberglass panels with bonding strips until a switch to sheet-molded compound in the early 1970s,” Mackay said. “Look or feel under a fender. If there are no bonding strips, it likely has a replacement one-piece hand-laid fiberglass nose. That definitely hurts value. Check the fiberglass color behind the panels. It was a creamlike white before ’64, then light gray and then, starting in 1967, a charcoal color. Black suggests a non-original panel.”

Beyond the vehicle title, Mackay asks for paperwork documenting ownership history, including maintenance and repair records. On a restored car, he likes to see  “before” and “in-progress” photos.

Mackay has been able to help buyers at auction remotely by having them use a smartphone to send clear photos of the tags, engine pad and any documentation.

“Maybe 70 percent of the time, I can identify a fraudulent car without seeing it in person,” he said.

Finally, Mackay suggests, “If you’re not sure, don’t take a gamble.”

10 Reader Comments

  • 1
    Ralph Miller Ontario Canada October 28, 2016 at 15:19
    Interesting. I bought my 1967 in the summer of 1966 got delivery nov29/66 because body strike that year. Still have my car. Lyndale blue/black leather trim with the hard top also.
  • 2
    Perry Yasher Columbus Ohio October 28, 2016 at 09:23
    Or buy a rare 1967 small block Corvette like I did. No one fakes a 327 / 300 car :-)
  • 3
    Harvey NEW JERSEY October 29, 2016 at 08:01
    Kevin found my car to be a phony and helped me get my money back. He is extremely knowledgeable. I can't say enough about him
  • 4
    Donald Hawley Kansas October 29, 2016 at 10:20
    In Missouri VIN tampering must be legal. From what I understand my 1963 FI roadster is now a 64 (title), as I was told by the police "its just an old car". If you look on the frame and it is stamped 30867S101363 I have the correct title. Theft and corruption have taken the fun out of the hobby for me.
  • 5
    Mike Allen Chicago il November 2, 2016 at 16:37
    Yes i had a 58 corvette found out it was a 59 No title was bad no 283 had 327 in it but did have 4 speed rock crusher nice car no matching number
  • 6
    Dave A. Arizona November 2, 2016 at 16:44
    The entire "matching numbers" and "NCRS" game is over-sold to all the rubes buying what they all hope will be a car appreciating in value. And the people that promote this garbage are part of the fraud as well. If you're going to buy an older Corvette, just buy it and enjoy it. Remember, most of these cars are now 45-60 years old and have lots of slowly failing parts. Do you really want to have a master brake cylinder "restored" by someone you know nothing about or simply buy a new cylinder with a warranty that you know will work. All in the name of keeping your car "original"! And if that restored part fails and your car hits something hard - who are you going to blame?
  • 7
    CJ Madson USA November 2, 2016 at 17:59
    This is a valuable summary of how to avoid making expensive assumptions. I'm curious as to what depth of provenance -- mentioned by MacKay -- would help buyers and what that could be worth. I've done full restoration photo histories but it's often a challenge to convince people that capturing various details will be worth the time & cost. My experience tells me to do a full capture while the work is being done, but sometimes that extra effort doesn't get compensated. Any feedback would be helpful !
  • 8
    Howard Canada November 2, 2016 at 22:50
    If you don't know enough, "DON'T" follow your heart if you want the perfect car. Buy what you want and enjoy the find. Less than perfect is "BETTER" than what is supposed to be the best. Leave the money cars to the serious collectors. Enjoy your find for what it is supposed to be: a classic that is yours!
  • 9
    Byron Alberta Canada November 3, 2016 at 21:07
    I resently bought a 65 mustang fastback from a car dealer in canada who listed the car as numbers matching restored to its original warranty tag.Listed with the original numbers matching engine for the car.Because of them being a dealer who say they only sell classic cars that are premium top end American Muscle with an emphasis on attention to detail.All cars are hand selected,low mile originals to complete frame off restored.I bought this car site un seen.Once it arrived here at my home I soon realized that the vin/data plate was removed at some time and put back on this car with none factory rivets.The interior is not factory,but someone tried to make it out to match the data plate.The engine block is painted black but under neath there are spots off a blue block.I felt like I had been ripped off.Phoned the dealer to explain to them what I found and asked for my money back.They said all they could do was re list it.That was 6 months ago and still no sale or refund.Can you tell me if there is anything I can do to get my money back,or who to contact to get things moving in the right direction.Thanks Oh did I mention that the VIN number on the inside fender is missing the star before the number and the star after the number.
  • 10
    Dr. T Ohio November 7, 2016 at 13:34
    I bought my matching numbers '67 L79 Roadster at Barrett & it was exactly as described and 100% matching numbers correct. I paid a premium price, I received a premium car. I checked the car for all of twenty minutes prior to bidding and have since had it checked by an NCRS judge; I couldn't be happier. A small number of shysters have scared away many would-be buyers. They're not all crooks out there.

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