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How to purchase your next classic like a professional

Ever wondered how the dealers seem to get the best cars? We reveal their trade secrets! Published: 14th Jun 2012 - 0 Comments - Be the first, contribute now!

How to purchase your next classic like a professional
How to purchase your next classic like a professional Decide on what type of classic you’re after. Something durable and easy to fix like the Beetle is an ideal starter car
How to purchase your next classic like a professional Where's the rot?
How to purchase your next classic like a professional A good through test drive is essential – ideally drive a few, but let the vendor get behind the wheel first…
How to purchase your next classic like a professional Don’t be afraid to get down and dirty; check everything
How to purchase your next classic like a professional Check all the warning lights work; mileage less critical
How to purchase your next classic like a professional Generally, mechanicals are easier, cheaper to rectify. Ask if a selection of spares are included as they often are
How to purchase your next classic like a professional Clock the dials… Oil pressure (right) should be good
How to purchase your next classic like a professional It’s the little things; workmanship here is a top sign
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If you want to purchase right then cut out the emotion and buy a classic like professional traders do!

Even seasoned, experienced and hardened classic car specialists occasionally fall foul of the burning impulse of an irrational, but oh-everso- satisfying classic car purchase. Funny enough, the more important and substantial the purchase, the more emotional and passionate the reasons behind it: like buying a house, or choosing one’s life companion, acquiring a car is not just about exchanging money for an asset, or making a simple, rational selection. It is about buying into a specific world and new set of beliefs, happiness through enthusiastic ownership and, dare we say it, a sense of ‘belonging’.

When it comes to classic car buying, the path to personal satisfaction is even more fraught with danger and the hidden shadows of a large, looming… lemon and you stand just as much chance of buying a dud as if you were changing your modern daily driver. However, respecting and following a few golden rules may turn the wheel of events into the right direction, and match car and owner in the most mutually fulfilling way.

If you want to purchase right then cut out the emotion and buy a classic like professional traders do!

The ‘WHAT’

Car: Firstly, (and this may sound plainly obvious to some), do choose your car/specific model. Too many people, new to the classic car world, have only a vague idea about what they would like to see in their garage; to us nobody has to justify what they desire be it an Aston or an Allegro.

But is it an E-type, for example? Great. Which… but one? The range is virtually infinite, and surprisingly varied from the valuable early ‘flat-floor’ cars of the mid-Sixties to the Series III versions of the Seventies with their stonking V12s (see feature elsewhere in this issue-ed). Each version has both potential pitfalls and great benefits. The first form of homework starts with deciding which model and version would suit one’s set of standards, liking and lifestyle. Let’s face it, if you have a family with four children under 10, it unlikely that your wife will look at your classic TVR choice favourably.

Never underestimate the power of your partner’s hatred for the selected classic of your dreams. It may erode your pleasure and love for it over time. And divorce is never cheap…

The ‘HOW’

Homework: Use all forms of media available to research the car in question. There is no excuse, nowadays, for poor groundwork; the Internet has made it very easy to get hold of every single scrap of information you may need to build an accurate portrait of the ideal car. Couple that with specialist magazines from the bookstalls or owners clubs, (every model/marque has one, and they are usually run by people who know their classic of choice inside out, and are happy to share the knowledge). Club members and owners are an endless source of information and an indispensable tool for gathering intelligence about your future purchase.

Make sure that one is acquainted with all the common defects and problems associated with the type of car one is researching, such as places and points which are commonly prone to rust, or the relevant sounds and signs of mechanical weaknesses. Knowing what to look for saves time and effort, and potentially a lot of heartache. Andy Dearden of Birchfield Classics (Woburn Sands) says: “do as much research as you can on internet, as just about every detail about specs or potential problems will be listed there. If possible, join the Owners’ Club first, as membership is usually inexpensive and owners are happy to talk about their passion; ringing up a dealer with an example for sale is always a good idea, as dealers are also enthusiasts and happy to chat.”

Authenticity: On rare or high brow classics this is as important as the actual condition – perhaps more so. Fakes aren’t unknown – and we’re not talking six figure Ferraris here but humbler cars like Mini Coopers, Lotus Cortinas and so on. Again a specialist or owner club can help out here and save you thousands in not being ripped off. There’s no harm in a look-alike Lotus Cortina or Mini Cooper so long as you know it is exactly that.

The ‘WHEN’

Time: NEVER rush into a purchase, or give in to pressure or the constraints of time – classics may be rare but in most cases if you’re not sure about a car they’ll always be another one come along. We are not destined to owning a particular car: if an opportunity manifests itself on the other side of the country, showing all the signs of a potentially alluring ownership, and of being the car of your dreams, do not drive overnight to view it. If the time is not right, and research is limited, console yourself with the thought that another one will come along, if one persists with their research. Only when one feels confident that all possible groundwork has been carried out, then is it time to go, look at and for goodness sake try a few examples of a particular model to gain a datum. To put it simply: never buy the first car you see (and yes we’ve all done it…).

The ‘WHO’
Advice: If one’s knowledge of classic cars is limited to spotting the occasional original Mini or Escort, it is always best to rely on others. Use a friend who is not ‘emotionally’ involved (with the car purchase if not you) and preferably one who knows more about cars than you do. They will have a stabilising influence. Listen to the voice of reason if the third party points out that the car is too expensive, rusty, has worn tyres, etc. You have brought with you the sensible angelcomfort ably sitting on your shoulder, the voice of reason which is meant to prevent you making that impulse buy simply because it’s shiny and red. And affordable…

Expert advice: better, and more sensible still, is to take a professional with you, for proper advice. An appraisal may cost money upfront but it could save a lot more in the future. Experts produce a report which focuses on condition, worth, anything of significance, provenience, and existing documentation. As Keith Riddington of Classicmobilia (Buckinghamshire) says: “without an expert, you must make sure that your heart does not rule your head. So many times I have had people coming to view a car, fall in love with it at first sight, and have to be reminded to examine it properly. An expert will take no time to spot a rusty area which has been repaired cheaply: without six months the problem would surface again. An expert will ask probing questions on your behalf.”

If you don’t know what to look for (and some classics have their foibles) then enlist the help of someone who does. Most clubs and specialists provide this service and it’s money well spent as it could save you thousands in return. Typically the charge is an hour’s labour but there may also be travelling or trailering expenses as well. If the vendor refuses (even though he’s not paying) then it may be a classic not to consider. The flip side of this is that if you are selling a classic, having a similar inspection report carried out may well enhance its value and make it easier to see simply because all the hard work has been done for the buyer.

Own knowledge: basic automotive knowledge would suggest that one carries out all the common checks when looking to buy new or old cars: tyre condition, broken windows, worn seals, noisy or smoky engine, extremely knobbly gear change (see ‘test drive’ panel, for tips). One does not need a degree in mechanics and technology to work nout whether a car is driveable or not.

Common sense
counts a heck of a lot: a rust bubble or scab may be just the tip of the iceberg. What one can see is very often just a third of what lies below. Bodywork repairs cost, in general, far more than mechanical repairs and a projected restoration estimate should reflect this. If you’re buying a project then see that all what’s promised in the advert is indeed all there…


Bondo/filler: Beware what lies beneath… A shiny-looking car that displays obvious signs of filler repairs should be avoided, as that could be a clear, classic case of using appearances to divert attention from more important matters beneath. Malcolm Machu of Mach V, a classic car restorer (Hampshire House, Berkshire), says: “I have seen cars with a current MOT that have been “ar tistically” re-engineered in bodyfiller; they have all the strength of a roll of wet newspaper. If in doubt, check suspicious areas with a magnet (unless the bodywork is made of aluminium, of course).”

Light: Never buy any car (new or old) which is wet with rain or a recent wash, or one which you have viewed in the dark. The paintwork must be seen in the best light possible, to spot all potential problems. A torch is the most valuable item you can take: you don’t necessarily need to know the function of every component underneath to spot a clean rust-free underside, and know that the car has been cared for or well restored.

ACCESS: If possible, get the car up on to a car-lift or ramp or at the very least take some overalls to crawl underneath. Very often a car can look great from above (as light generally shines down) but the same car, on a ramp, may have in store all sorts of nasty surprises. A thorough examination from underneath and along the body will reveal uneven surfaces, dents, rust, misalignment, slapdash welding, crafty re-spray, etc. Never – ever – accept a fresh MoT certificate signifies that the vehicle is as sound as a pound.

Whilst on that ramp, check for oil leaks, suspension bush problems and brake problems: gravity makes escaping fluids migrate downwards and the car spends most of its life only some six inches above wet, muddy and salty earth!

STORAGE: Has the car been properly and lovingly stored, in a warm and dry garage? Or has it been sitting, unused, for months on end? Tell-tale signs are flat tyres, and grass growing all the way around the actual carcass. Does the current owner even have a garage, and is it empty, spacious, and with enough tools to give the potential buyer an idea of how likely the car is to have been looked after and maintained properly?

Classics need to be used on a regular basis to prevent accelerated deterioration, wiring corroding, disc brake seizing, ruined batteries, and more…

THE SELLER: The old adage of nice people sell nice cars is never more true when it comes to classics and don’t think that Arthur Daleys only sell Vectras and Mondeos. If buying from a private vendor (who may be a trader in disguise – when you call ask about the car for sale. If the seller asks ‘which one’ then you are dealing with a tradered) check out the premises. Although it’s wrong to generalise, penny to a pound that a shabby dwelling mimics the vehicle(s) on sale and lack of funds may have also meant poor workmanship and care on the so called ‘prized’ classic.

Are they the rightful owner? Check that the V5 document tallies with the owner’s address. On prestige and moderns (like a Cosworth Sierra) an HPI data check is worth shelling out to for to verify the vehicle’s history.

TEST DRIVE: This goes hand in hand with the storage issue, as a car which has been properly stored and cared for will be likely to drive well. Always bear in mind that if you are stepping out of a modern car, some creature comforts are bound to be absent. Do not expect the window winders to prove to be easy or light to use, or the power steering and brake feel as sharp as that of your two-year-old Ford Focus. The gear change may be clunky; the cabin will be noisy; the ride would be lively; you need to look further and access the vehicle’s condition rather than its characteristics.

Remember, you’ve got to like the car too; if you dislike Mk2 Jags after a test drive have the honesty to admit it to yourself. Why not hire a model out from one of the many hire companies first of all. It will save you time, money and more.

Classic Check List

Does it perform as it should with no undue noise or wear; is the oil pressure correct or if a gauge isn’t fitted does the warning light extinguish quickly on start up and not illuminate at low speeds when hot; under load can you hear a rumble suggesting worn crankshaft and bearings? Lighter tapping in the depths of the unit suggests big end wear – top end tappets/camshaft. If the buyer agrees, have a compression test carried out.

Some gearboxes whine (Vauxhalls are extremely prone) but it shouldn’t be excessive. Is the change quality as it should be, do any gears jump out on the over run (no throttle)? If auto, does the ‘box change gear smoothly without jerks and is the fluid clean and not ‘burnt’? Axles usually wail when off the throttle but again it shouldn’t be excessive.

When parked up, does the car sit all square without signs of listing or sagging (usually at the rear): When you press down firmly on each corner does the body move up and down no more than twice? Some cars, such as MGs and Triumphs, have trunnions which are prone to wear. Is the suspension relatively smooth and silent (no clonks, creaks etc)?

Is the steering responsive and doesn’t display slack before the road wheels turn. Does the car pull to one side signifying anything from poor steering alignment (an easy job to correct) or a bent chassis – does the car wander at speed?

Do they pull up squarely and progressively and without grabbing, is there juddering (out of true drums or discs) and is the handbrake effective or as good as useless (a well known Jaguar trait)?

Does the car feel ‘good’ for its model and age or flabby and loose suggesting it’s just an MoT failure away from a full restoration? Obviously it depends on how much you pay for the vehicle and how it’s described but if you don’t plan on lengthy rebuilds and repairs then buy the best you can afford – even if it means raiding the kids’ piggy banks…

Where’s the rot?

Let’s make this absolutely clear – you’re dealing with old cars and yes of course there’s going to be rust! The trick is to sift out the criminal and costly from the cosmetic. As a rule items like sills, doors, valances, sills and so on are easy, if not cheap to repair or replace – the important panels are the vehicle’s structure; chassis, inner sills and wings, suspension and steering attachment points, floorpans and so on. Have a word with an owners club or check out our comprehensive buying guides (they are on the web) to find out the most prone areas on the classic you are thinking of buying.

Always inspect the underneath, checking for repairs and be suspicious of thick underseal which may be masking rot. A small magnet is very handy to check for filler work. Is the paint too shiny – has a quick respray been conducted (a recent two-tone job on a Rolls usually points to something wafty)…? Check everything in your own good time!

Ten Tips For That Top Test Drive!

  1. Treat a classic car as you would any second-hand vehicle you’re considering
  2. Drive a few examples to set a mean average and rely on your gut feelings
  3. Always hear the engine start from cold so you can spot undue noises which invariably reduce when warmed up
  4. Always check that the dash warning lights illuminate/extinguish on time
  5. Let the owner/dealer drive first of all so you can gauge the car’s condition and not be distracted by traffic or trying to get acclimatised behind the wheel
  6. Take the car for a good brisk drive under varying loads – a gallop round the block simply isn’t good enough
  7. Of course an old car rattles and groans and doesn’t go like a modern… so make suitable allowances but it shouldn’t feel clapped out either (unless you’re buying a project)
  8. Let the engine tick over for 5-10 minutes after the run to check that the engine doesn’t overheat or smoke
  9. Try every switch, lever and gizmo fitted (especially overdrive or powered hoods, for example)
  10. Even if the car was okay did you actually like it? If not don’t buy because you’ll soon sell it after the euphoria has died down…

Where To Buy?

Private sales are still the most popular route although it differs with modern car buying insofar that you don’t necessarily get cheaper prices. But you (hopefully) will meet the owner and have a better history of the vehicle. Of course, there’s no warranty your only legal protection is whether the vehicle was described dishonestly.

Auctions are becoming increasingly popular and you can certainly get a good deal if you can outbid the dealers – often by only a matter of a few hundred pounds. You have more consumer protection than buying privately although no warranty will be given. And unlike conventional auctions, the vehicles remain static and are not run so you need to have a good grasp of cars.

Dealers Nothing is more enticing than going into a classic car showroom and drooling over all those lovelies. A good dealer will have top notch stock or can obtain your dream vehicle if he hasn’t got it. Often as not the cars will come fully prepped and refurbished with a fresh MoT and ready to enjoy although not all traders provide warranties – or if they do it’s more a ‘gentlemens’ agreement’. Don’t instantly think that a dealer is any dearer than other routes either – it doesn’t work that way with classics.

And Our Last Top Tip Is….

Okay, so we know of at buying a classic is a very emotional thing and yes we do know what to do with gift horses… However for the vast majority of purchases, it’s best to take a rain check for a day or two before committing to buy when the euphoria of finding that ‘perfect’ classic has simmered ever so slightly and you look at things more objectively! And if there’s anything you don’t like about the car, the seller or the deal, then walk away and start again because there’s lots of classics around. But if that dream classic still sends out all the right messages then do yourself a favour and BUY IT!


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