So you bought a POS. Now what?

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stacked cars in a junk yard The U.S. National Archives

“Act in haste, repent at leisure,” is a largely applicable aphorism, but rather fitting for buying collector cars. And tattoos, I suppose, based on what I’ve seen lately. But I’ll focus on the former.

A customer recently brought a car into my shop that he purchased sight-unseen via an online auction. That is, without seeing it or having it inspected first. I bet you see where this is going. Yes, unfortunately, it was the all-too-common story of a somebody that didn’t get what they thought they paid for.

The bad deal

The customer told me that the 1950s British sports car he purchased didn’t move under its own power. Not because it didn’t run, which apparently it did, kind of, when it first arrived from the seller. Of course, by the time it got to my garage, it didn’t. I suggested we get it running, see if we could get it driving, and give it a good once-over to see what else it might need before going any further. I didn’t want to pile on to what appeared to already be a bad deal.

rusting under the door
Colin Comer

Here’s what the car was supposed to be: A frame-off restoration completed by a previous owner, purchased from his estate by the seller, serviced and driven 100 miles since without issue. (I looked up the auction online.) The car certainly looked decent in the photos that were provided, although many small details did jump out to me as suspect. The comments section for the auction confirmed that many saw the same issues and questioned certain aspects of the restoration. But, the car looked decent, wasn’t a ton of money, and appealed to my friend who just wanted a fun car for his wife to drive. It didn’t have to be a perfect car by any means, and it seemed to be a good choice for that intended purpose based on the description and photos. A fun driver, restored, sorted, and driven enough miles since to give him some level of confidence that it was OK.  After all, why pay for a Pebble Beach level car if you just want something to drive? I totally get the logic.

It gets worse in person

Unfortunately, what arrived was a fancy brick.

I was told the clutch didn’t work and assumed the usual things, bad hydraulics, disc rusted to the flywheel, that kind of stuff. It was none of that. Turns out the clutch pushrod installed during the restoration was far too long, keeping the clutch disc from ever touching the flywheel even with the pedal fully released. So how was the car ever driven? Your guess is as good as mine. Once we fixed that little issue the car then had a functioning clutch, and the transmission was functional as well, so we turned attention to the engine. Hopelessly fouled plugs and fuel system issues were resolved, but the bigger story was water in the oil. A lot of it. After flushing the system, fresh oil, fresh filter, and adjusting the valves (apparently for the first time) the car didn’t run too bad either. Hopefully it was just condensation in the oil as a result of only running long enough to see that the clutch didn’t work. Many times. So fingers crossed on all that. These were all pretty simple fixes.

1958 Corvette
Don O'Brien
poorly welded together frame
Colin Comer

So now the car ran, moved, and did all that car stuff we like. Cool. Time for a deeper look. Quickly it became obvious this wasn’t a professional restoration, and possibly not even a “frame-off” job. In fact, the frame itself was one of the larger issues on the car—it had been severely rusted and crudely welded up with thin sheet metal patches. That’s including areas near suspension pickup points, which is scary no matter where you are from. The “restored” suspension consisted of a lot of rattle-can paint over worn parts and old rock-hard grease. Brake and fuel lines were either not mounted or rubbing against stuff they shouldn’t. None of the gauges worked, and upon inspection, it had a little Johnny Cash thing going on with a mismatched assortment of different year gauges, sending units, and wiring that just had little hope of functionality as installed. There were no horns, no screws holding the headlights in, no door weatherstrip, the list goes on. To this day I have serious doubts as to the seller’s claim of a fresh service and 100 miles of use right before the sale. Perhaps he meant 100 miles “traveled,” as in on a trailer?

Courses of action

So the question with this car, the same as it is with any car that you’ve been stuck with, is just what the hell to do with it. In my customer’s case it was to try to make it functional and safe as inexpensively as possible, letting his family enjoy it for as long as they like. It won’t be worth any less then than now, and at least any loss he endures will be offset by some enjoyment driving the car. Then, when it comes time to sell, he’ll represent it honestly and sell it to somebody who will either enjoy it as-is or endeavors to embark on a proper restoration.

The moral of the story is the same as always: trust, yet verify, before you buy anything. Hire an inspector, or find the time to go see the car yourself before doing the deal. That’s your best line of defense.

dirty oily engine parts
Colin Comer

Do your homework

The easiest way to avoid this problem is not get into it in the first place. Unless you are intimately familiar with the make and model on offer, make every effort to get a good feel for common issues. Then determine if they exist on the car you’re considering. The internet is a powerful tool, especially model-specific club forums and Facebook pages for both general info and perhaps comments on the very car you’re looking at. Make contact with a local club chapter for the make and ask if any members may know the particular car. If somebody does, and they aren’t friends with the seller, you’ll likely get a great unbiased review of it. Google the VIN to see if any previous sales or history pop up. If the car has been through an auction in recent years it will likely show up.. Lastly, if it is for sale in an online venue that allows public comments, read each and every one. While many commenters may be uninformed or offer little constructive advice there will always be a few very helpful comments from a marque expert. In the case of the car discussed here, as I mentioned earlier, many comments correctly identified things that were indeed legitimate issues with it.

Know when to walk away, and when to fix the issues.

Barring that, should you find yourself stuck with a car that isn’t what you thought, don’t throw good money after bad.  The first thing to do is to determine if they are terminal or not. For example, if you bought a $4500 car that needs a $10,000 engine and transmission rebuild, or $5000 in rust repair, you’re better off selling it for whatever you can get rather than spending another dime. Every dollar you spend above and beyond what the car is worth when completed is a dollar you’ll lose. If you face this situation the best thing to do is take your haircut as soon as possible. Offer the car for sale with full disclosure of the now-known issues. Sometimes an auction is the best venue for this so the market can set the price.

speaker wire holding up the muffler
Colin Comer

More often than not any “surprises” are not terminal and repairing them properly won’t exceed market value of the vehicle. If this is the case just make sure to consult known specialists and understand what your repair costs will be going in. If the repairs are all minor, or superficial, but the car is fundamentally sound and you still like it, just fix it and let the enjoyment slowly erase the memory of the costs. If the car has significant issues, I always find it best to take the hit and move on. Further pain won’t make for a great experience. And, of course, a second opinion from a specialist without an emotional horse in the race is always a good idea. Just remember it’s a jungle out there. Always be prepared, and it if turns out you weren’t then make sure to extract yourself with the least amount of bodily harm possible.

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