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How to restore the written-off classics

Back From The Dead Published: 14th Jun 2011 - 0 Comments - Be the first, contribute now!

How to restore the written-off classics
How to restore the written-off classics Prestige cars like this Merc look tempting but it’s the price of spares that could scupper the project. Check!
How to restore the written-off classics Capri looks straight but rusty bonnet suggests a fire
How to restore the written-off classics Before you rush out and buy something like this, do the sums as it may be as cheap to go for a good car in the first place
How to restore the written-off classics Spitfire with a heavy frontal. But because car has a separate chassis means that repairs may not be extensive
How to restore the written-off classics You can’t vet crasher too thoroughly! This Caterham has taken a hefty hit and wisely the chassis is checked
How to restore the written-off classics Looks pretty straightforward doesn’t it? A fibreglass-bodied Scimitar GTE with light front damage but beware! Repairing GRP is just as specialist as metal and a new section may have to be fitted – not bodged with filler…
How to restore the written-off classics Fire damage is deceptive and worse than it appears
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Buying a crashed classic can make a lot of sense and save you a fortune – so long as you know what you’re doing. here’s our advice!

Crashed cars may not be your cup of tea, but with some five million prangs reported each year there’s a real likelihood that the next car you purchase will have seen the inside of a bodyshop during it’s life… According to trade classifiers HPI (01722 422422), one in eight cars on the UK roads have been involved in an accident and believe it or not but an awful lot of rare classics are written off every year, too! There’s always a real fear of buying a dodgyrepaired car of course, especially with a modern that you need to go about your business, but it’s not quite such a worry on an old car that may need extensive restoration anyway; after all if a vehicle’s bodyshell has to be rebuilt from virtual scratch, does it matter how it got into that state in the first place? Not really – and buying a written-off classic can make a lot of sense and save you a packet into the bargain. But you really need to know what you are doing here.

Know your alphabet

There are various classifications of what constitutes a write-off. The term describes a vehicle that in the eyes in the insurance company does not warrant repairing, either due to age, value or sheer administrative hassle. Traditionally insurers write off if the estimated cost of repair exceeds 65 per cent of a vehicle’s market value. Category A & B vehicles are deemed by the insurers to be dangerous and should never make it onto the road again, although Cat B cars can be successfully used todonate vital spare parts.  Other ‘total loss’ situations fall into categories C & D. Category C are vehicles that are safely repairable, even if the insurers havedecided it is uneconomic to do so. They can legally be repaired and used on the road, although fresh V5 documents have to be obtained directly from the DVLA stating that the car has been repaired. This will also be shown if any computer data check – such as an HPI check – is carried out. As these vehicles carry some ‘previous’, their resale values are affected as a result – around 15 per cent typically, although with a classic car, which has no set market value, this isn’t such a worry. Category D cars tend to be the more valuable vehicles and often suffer from nothing more serious than trivial damage. Their V5 can remain unsullied – however these are still recorded on computer data checks. Category D cars can also be stolen and recovered vehicles which although okay (maybe just a smashed window and broken steering lock) simply aren’t wanted by the owner after the theft.

VIC to the rescue

The majority of damaged cars that fall intoCategory C are sold without their original V5 logbooks as these,by law, are returned by the insurance companies to the DVLA and you must apply for a replacement. However, before this can be issued the vehicle must be checked to confirm its identity by the authorities. Although it is carried out at local Government Goods Vehicle Testing Stations, it is not a roadworthiness check like the MOT, but ratherone that verifies a vehicle’s age and whether or not it’s a potential ‘ringer’ (that’s a vehicle which has been stolen and given a new identity). The test, which you are not allowed to seecarried out, is strict and secret. Every car carries certain ‘date stamps’ on it and examiners check these datum points against the vehicle’s original build date plus confirm that the damage is as described by the insurance company. These tests cost less than £40 and it’s up to you to transport the car to a check station; they won’t come to you (so add costs here).

Damage Limitation

Checking any second-hand car over is a fraughtbusiness, and a write off is something else again. We can’t stress the need to take extreme care when vetting and enlisting the help of experts – this is particularly important on the more exotic classics. It’s all down to personal experience and skill; what one person may regard as ‘light damage’ another will classify as heavy! The rule of thumb has to be that the damage is far worse than it looks.

  • Here’s our five point guide to getting a good ‘un


  • Check how the vehiclesits. Does it list or look twisted. Check the panel gasps and how the doors open and close. Sometimes the impact damage can ‘travel’ right through the shell and cause hidden damage

  • Always check the inner panels for damage. Rippling, ceasing and cracked paint are dead giveaways. Again, don’t confine the examination to the obvious areas.

  • Take a small tape measure to check for any distortion or poor previous repairs. Measure from the wheel centres to check for chassis damage, which may not be apparent and is very difficult and expensive to completely fix – remember steering geometry and chassis alignment have to be to specs if the car is to drive right ever again. Is the suspension or steering gear damaged while under the bonnet, has the engine shifted?

  • A roll-over may look minor but there’s umpteen troubles in store. Apart from obvious panel damage, the shell could well have distorted, the suspension will almost certainly have been damaged and if the engine was left running, then oil starvation is almost a given.

  • Ask yourself why a repair hasn’t already been affected. Could the damage be far worse and thus costlier than first envisaged? Do the sums carefully before giving such a project the go-ahead

  • A car doesn’t have to be smashed up to be ‘written-off’. There are many other ways that a vehicle can be uneconomic to repair

Stolen & Recovered

These are vehicles that have been re stolen and recovered by the insurance companies with little or no damage at all. Naturally, these can make excellent buys. Usually the biggest worry is whether the car was abused and thrashed mercilessly (especially the sporty stuff) and what’s now missing, such as seats, stereo, interior fittings and so on, all of which can cost as much as panels to replace. Watch it! If the car has been thrashed then untold damage may have been done, which you may not realise until you’ve bought the car. Missing parts may be expensive and very difficult to source as a result.

Flood damage

Water ruined vehicles can spell fantastic value, but should always be viewed with caution – they may look fine outwardly yet hide a host of latent problems. Much depends on the type of water and the severity of the flood. Generally it is only fresh water flood damage that can be repaired – sewage contaminated or salt (sea) water will now render the car suitable only for destruction (category A or B). Watch it! Water will be ruinous to the interior and electrical system (and the electronics on modern classics). It may also have seeped into the engine, transmission and braking systems; salt water will quickly corrode their internals, which only a full strip down and overhaul will cure.

Fire damage

Like flood damage, fire can have far reaching effects, and certainly ruining anything that the flames come near. The vast majority of firedamaged (modern) cars are categorised as Category A by the insurers and thus totally destroyed but you may well find underbonnet fired damage classics for sale. Watch it! A really bad fire will distort the bodyshell and weaken it – certainly the heat will affect any welding and leading. Underbonnet fires usually spread further than you realise and damage under the dashboard, electrics, wiring soundproofing etc. Blacked/sooted glass usually needs replacing as it’s notorious stuff to clean off properly.

Where to buy

Essentially there are three buying routes; private, salvage dealer and specialist auction and all have their plus and minus points. Buying privately could be the cheapest method. Usually it’s the previous owner who bought his (or her) car back from the insurers but has lost interest in repairing it – which could mean that the damage is a lot more severe that was first anticipated. Auctions needn’t automatically be the cheapest routes as often enthusiasts don’t grasp how bad the car is damaged and can overbid, pushing the prices up considerably (this is what we’ve found at a few auctions-ed). However you choose to buy a write-off classic we cannot over stress how much care you need to take when checking out the vehicle (have a professional engineer help out if you are unsure) and pricing repairs against the model’s real world value – and what you can buy a roadworthy alternative for! Remember also that a heavy shunt could well have damaged the running gear, such as the gearbox, and this is something you won’t know until the car is repaired and back on the road…

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