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Suggested reading on this subject
Classic Car Buyers Guide
Complete Car Care Manual
Car Builders Manual
Auto Collision Repair
Car Interior Restoration
available at Amazon books
Buy a classic car with your eyes wide open!

Buy a good example.

Tips on buying a good old car and not a wreck

Unless setting out to buy a restoration project, many people looking to buy a classic car will be wanting the best they can get for their budget. A look through any classifieds section in a vintage car magazine can be a little daunting to say the least.

Signs that a car may be worth looking at include mention of service histories, a photographic record of any restoration work that has been done, suggestion that the car is a 1 owner from new example, and that it has been used at weekends only.

A close look at the photographs, especially if looking at a car for sale online, can give some clues as to what condition the car may be in - photos on the web invariably make a car look better than it is, so have a look at where the car is parked - is it garaged or left on the street, does the house behind look smart & well maintained? none of these clues can be conclusive one way or the other, but can serve as a clue to how cherished the car may actually be.


On arrival the first thing to scrutinise is the bodywork. The biggest single expense when restoring most old cars is getting the bodywork straight, so bear this in mind when viewing your dream machine. Of course before arriving you will have done all your model-specific research, so armed with your checklist of the known weak spots of the car in question, you can begin to make an assessment.

Cars can rot in two ways, from the outside-in, and the inside-out. Outside-in is usually caused by stonechips or badly repaired paintwork, and the worst of the rot is usually visible to the eye. Inside-out rot, which is what often happens with box sections, door assemblies, wheel arches and so on, is more of a minefield. By the time that rot has spread to the external bodywork, you can be sure that it is several time worse out of sight deep within a vehicles structure. Caught early most areas of corrosion can be repaired without major financial meltdown, but all areas of rust must be inspected closely. Look closely along all the lower edges of panelwork and anywhere where there are pieces of trim screwed to a panel, such as along the doors and wings. Water collects in the bottom of doors and if the drainholes are blocked, will happily eat its way out if left to its own devices.

Average cars often have poorly executed repair work in these areas, so as well as eyeing these parts, run your fingers around potential rot spots as they can often detect poorly applied filler better than the eye. Sills are very prone to rotting, especially if they are exposed to a blast of road muck from the front wheels so check the closely and don't be put off by a shiny coat of paint, they could well have been blown over the day before with an aerosol. Wheel arches are often double skinned and prone to rot on most cars, and don't forget to open all the doors and make sure all the door pillars and hinge points are in good order, as repairs will probably be involved. Bootlids can go along their bottom edges, although being bolt on is easier to replace than sills and arches that are usually integral to the car.

Front wings often show signs of tinworm around the headlamps, as muck and crud accumulates around the headlamp bowls and never fully dries out. Pop the bonnet and have a good look at all the suspension pickup mounts and the inner wings, holes in any of these areas are bad news and could render a car virtually worthless, depending on its rarity. Same goes for the inner arches and boot floor around the back.

Once the easy bits have been assessed, the next thing to do is have a good look underneath at chassis outriggers, floorpans and bootfloors, as repairs may have been patched in from inside the car but left exposed underneath to further deteriorate. Not all classic car owners are forthcoming with a car's faults, so be choosy when inspecting cars for sale!

All trim both inside and out must be well checked over as even the smallest things such as correct badges, or replacement chrome overriders, can be deceptively expensive to replace.

Engine & mechanics

Try to hear the engine when started from cold, a knocking on startup can be a signal that all is not well and profuse amounts of blue smoke suggest the valve seals/guides at the very least need replacement, and if smoke continues to pour from the exhaust you'll be looking at an engine swap or overhaul at the very least.

Does the oil look nice and clean, and is it up to the level? - check this only after the engine has been turned off for at least 5 minutes, and on level ground. A white goo on the inside of the oil filler cap, or in the radiator/header tank, can be a sign of repeated short journeys or worse, looming head gasket problems, so quiz the owner about any known faults. If the engine looks to be clean and free from significant dirt and grime, it is a sign that the owner cares about the car - however a suspiciously gleaming engine in an otherwise average car may have just been subjected to a jetwash to remove evidence of any leaks, so don't take anything for granted at first glance.

Test Drive

A decent test drive is essential to fully gauge the condition of any classic car, old or not-so-old. Take the car for a run over slow, roughtly surfaced roads, and quicker smooth A roads, to assess how well its goes and stops in a number of different environments. Listen for suspension clonks as you negotiate sleeping policemen (dont they all), and back off suddenly when it is safe to do so, to test whether the car is prone to jumping out of gear, or puts out plumes of oil smoke on the overrun.

A good run should establish whether the clutch and gears work as intended, and a few hearty applications of the brake pedal will soon highlight any deficiencies in the braking department that need looking at. If the car wanders to one side while cruising a level straight piece of road, it could be that the tracking is out on the front suspension, or something even simpler such as mismatched tyre pressures. In the worst case scenario there may have been damage to a wheel or suspension component.

A vibration through the steering wheel could be something a simple as a wheel out of balance, or again a damaged wheel rim, or even a tyre that has a flat spot or is underinflated.

All cars, but especially classic and vintage motors, take some acclimatising too, but real faults should still be obvious even on a first time drive.

Second opinions

It can pay to get a second opinion on any secondhand car, and someone with a specialist knowledge of the classic you hope to buy can be a vital aid in helping you pick a good one and not a lemon. If you're not happy about something, do not feel like you have to give a decision there & then - if the seller isn't happy about you going away to think about the car, then maybe they have something to hide and don't want an expert pair of eyes checking over their car.

Unless a car has been fully restored to as-new condition, you have to expect some areas that could do with improvement, and in the end it all comes down to a mixture of things:
  • rarity of the old car
  • how much you want *this* particular car
  • how soon you want a car
  • how much work you are willing to do yourself
  • your budget
  • the use you want to put your classic to
The golden rule really is to gen up in advance as much as you can about the type of car you want, perhaps join an owners club and speak to some of its members, get some books on the car you want, and study the magazines to gauge what the going rate for that type of car is (remember prices can vary significantly for differing versions of the same car, even different trim specs or build dates).


Please note that everything on this site is Copyright to R Jones, the site author (unless stated otherwise). All advice is given in good faith only, based on my experiences of the subject. Anything relating to legal issues should be clarified with the relevant bodies, I do not take responsibility for any losses, damages, hair loss or otherwise arising from advice found on this site, given as it is in good faith only. Articles submitted by others and published here are reproduced in good faith and don't necessarily reflect the views etc of anyone at Classic Wheels. If you'd like to see your classic car featured here, by all means send me details and a photo of it - articles about other historic or antique vehicles are also very welcome. Privacy policy, cookies & disclaimers.