Things to consider when buying a storm-damaged classic car

Following the recent storms on the East Coast, it’s clear that there are going to be a number of damaged classic cars on the market. The question is, does a storm-damaged car offer value, or is it just another disaster waiting to happen?

Much of the decision-making process requires a good inspection. Storm damage can manifest itself in many ways. There can be scratches and dents on the exterior from objects falling or being blown onto the car. Water damage can affect the upholstery, the electrical components, and the driveline. Dirt carried by water can soil or scratch cosmetic areas or accelerate wear in mechanical areas. In extreme cases, serious engine damage can result from hydraulic lock — if water, which cannot be compressed, fills the cylinders and the engine is cranked over, pistons, heads or valves can be damaged and/or connecting rods can actually bend. If the water damage is from salt water, rust can be greatly accelerated in the body as well as mechanical components. An inspection will look for all of this, and can often take four to eight hours to complete.

The inspection starts with a careful visual check of the exterior of the car for dents and scratches. Next, body areas like rocker panels, enclosed chassis members, and wheel tub joints should be inspected as deeply as possible. Fortunately, there are usually access holes for peering into these areas. Indicators of serious damage include evidence of fresh, flash rust or large deposits of dirt or silt. There even may be standing water in some of these areas if drainage is poor. Even if the car is fiberglass or aluminum, these inspections are important as trapped water will cause damage somewhere.

Inside the car, several interior panels and carpet sections should be removed to look at the backsides for warping, water staining, or mildew. This also allows further inspection of hidden body areas and floors. The dash and electrical components follow. It’s very likely that these components will work just fine if dried, even after complete submersion.  However, lubricants on gauges like the speedometer may wash away or be contaminated by dirt. Corrosion of the electrical contacts may not be an issue initially, but it may become problematic over time. The bottom line here is that these components are likely to fail at an accelerating pace and all should be considered suspect even if they work.

Mechanical inspection starts with draining driveline fluids to look for water. If water is present, a deeper inspection of the component may be wise — has anything started to rust? The engine shouldn’t be cranked until the spark plugs are removed to ensure water can escape if the cylinders have filled. Wiring connections, bulb bases, and other electrical components should be inspected for standing water or corrosion. Since many brake fluids absorb water readily, the hydraulic systems must be flushed.

Assuming the car passes most or all of these inspections, what’s next?  Even if there is no evidence of water in the driveline components, flushing the lubricants followed by enough driving to ensure condensation evaporates will avoid creeping damage later. Compulsive people may want several cycles of fluid changes and exercise to ensure all condensation is burned away. Thorough cleaning of the upholstery and exterior should mitigate creeping damage in these areas. Clean water doesn’t damage a car if it’s dried properly. However, dirty or salt water can do serious harm and needs to be flushed away. All drains in doors, floors, trunks, and other areas should be unplugged, followed by flushing with generous amounts of fresh water. The next step is to allow plenty of drying time in low humidity or enough heat to ensure evaporation will also ensure damage won’t creep.

Back to our initial question: Is a storm-damaged car a value? If it’s a candidate for a full restoration, it probably doesn’t much matter, assuming that the work will commence before creeping damage starts (i.e., the car isn’t put away wet while awaiting work).  If it’s an otherwise nice car, it’s about the math: Does the price plus the cost of repair (and a buffer for risk) end up lower than a comparable car without damage? This assumes that you know the car has been damaged. Even if the seller says it hasn’t, a thorough inspection is more essential than ever.

Do we fear storm-damaged cars? For cars from the pre-semiconductor days, not at all if the above is addressed. For cars with semiconductors (modern electronics), we’re more cautious and work under the assumption that all components will fail. At that point, the question comes down to a larger price differential and personal risk tolerance.

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