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Classic Car Buying Tips

Buying an old car is fraught with danger. Could a car be hiding a sinister secret? Has it been wrapped around a tree? Is that shiny paint glossing over a multitude of metal-based sins? There are so many things that could tarnish the ownership experience. Don’t worry though, we’ve put together a list of things to check when shopping for a classic.

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By Chris Pollitt

The older the car, the richer and more diverse its history is. In some cases, there are reams of paperwork to back that up, taking all the stress out of buying said car. In the case of most cars, however, the paperwork, while positive, won’t be as in-depth as we might like. That means parts of the car’s history could be a complete mystery. As such, you have to go into the purchase of a classic car with your eyes open and your wits about you. We’re not saying that sellers would lie, far from it in fact. Classic car sellers are some of the finest people out there. But what we are saying is that the car could well be hiding secrets even the current owner doesn’t know about.

With all that in mind, we’ve put together this guide on what to look out for. We want you to enjoy your classic-buying experience, so let us help you through the potentially murky waters. Though we should offer the caveat stating that what we cover here will form a good base of knowledge for all cars rather than specific models. That said, we’ll be building up our ‘Five things to look for’ guides as we move forward, which will contain lots of model-specific information.

Body

Car bodywork, Ford Zephyr, Car damage, car repair

The body of a car can tell you all kinds of things from just a glance. If it has been subjected to a particularly harsh life, it won’t be able to completely hide it. Though if it does, that’s no bad thing – it means the car has been restored properly. When you go to view your prospective classic purchase, here’s what you need to be looking for:

  • Ripples – Crouch at the front and back corners of the car and get your eyes in line with the door handles. From the shallowest angle possible, look down the car for any dubious ripples. These could be a sign of liberal amounts of filler. They could indicate panels being out of line.
  • Metal – It’s the oldest trick in the book, yet still people don’t do it. Invest in a magnet and take it with you. Be sure to wrap it in a microfibre cloth or similar though, as you don’t want to be responsible for any scratches. When you’re looking at the car, place the magnet on the body in as many places as possible. The bottoms of the doors, the sills, the arches, the A-pillars, the bonnet and boot edges. Leave no panel untouched, and make sure you get a reaction from the magnet. If you don’t, you’re looking at a car that may be full of something other than metal. Not ideal.
  • Panel gaps – Look at the shut-lines around the car. The doors, the boot and bonnet, do the gaps between adjacent panels remain uniform and neat, or do they pinch or splay at any point? If they do, ask the owner why. It could be something as innocent as poor fitment after some work. Or it could mean the car is somehow twisted.
  • Rust – Oxidised metal is the enemy of every classic car owner. It seems that no matter what we do, rust always seems to rear its ugly head. As such, you need to be sure that any rust you can see is ‘honest’ rust. Rust you can look at and determine if it’s going to be a headache. Look for ‘dishonest’ rust, too. You might find this care of the magnet trick above. You may spot it hiding under a liberal dollop of underseal. If you do, ask the owner why?

Engine Bay

Zephyr engine, Ford Zephyr, engine bay

Open the bonnet and you’ll be faced with all manner of things that are worth checking, not just the engine (we’ll get to that next). Bring a torch so you can see down into every nook and cranny. Here’s what you want to be looking for:

  • Crash damage – You’re going to be able to see the chassis rails in most cases – big lengths of box-section steel. But are they straight and true, or do they have uncomfortable looking ripples and kinks? If they do, the chances are the car has hit something hard at some point in the past.
  • Rubber – Old rubber is not the friend of a classic car. It perishes and cracks and as such, leaks. With that in mind, check the hoses that go to the radiator both top and bottom. Check all the hoses in fact, especially around the areas they’re clamped down. If they are cracking or rough/dusty to the touch, they’re going to need replacing.
  • Cleanliness – Is the engine bay so clean you can see your own reflection? That’s nice, but unless you’re buying a known show car, you have to question if it’s honest. Has it been hastily cleaned to hide drips and leaks? If the engine bay’s cleanliness doesn’t match the car overall, ask why?

Engine

Honda V6, engine, engine repair, engine diagnostic

The heart of the beast, the engine is arguably the best bit. Even a humble-engined classic has a certain charm about it. But don’t get swept away in the romance of an old powerplant, be objective and curious and look out for the following:

  • Temperature – It’s an old trick. Run the engine for a while before a potential buyer comes to view. A warm engine can often be a quieter engine. If the engine is warm, ask why? Ask if you can wait for it to cool down before starting it again. A cold start is an honest start, and if there are any rattles, that’s when they’ll show themselves.
  • Levels – Check the oil, not only for level but also for colour. You want the oil to have a bit of a brown sheen to it, ideally, rather than being thick, heavy and pure black. Smell it, too. Does it have a burnt odour? If so, something isn’t right. Check other levels too like the brake fluid and the coolant.
  • Core plugs – On the engine block you should be able to see 50p-sized ‘blanks’. These are core plugs and are designed to pop out of the water in the engine freezes. Check them for corrosion, as they can fail prematurely if the rust sets in.
  • Numbers – The older the car, the more likely it is the engine has been changed at some point. Look for the engine number, which is normally stamped on the topside of the block somewhere and ask to compare it with the V5. On some cars this won’t be a deal-breaker, but some cars command a higher price if they’re ‘numbers matching’.

Chassis

Volkswagen Beetle, chassis, car chassis repair,

This is the most important part. The chassis is the backbone of the car, and without it everything else is destined to fail. It’s also usually the most complicated part, and that means it may have been historically bodged in a bid to save money. That’s why you need to be looking for the following things:

  • Repairs – The lines of any car’s chassis should be straight and clean. So if you look underneath and are faced with clumsy steps, ripples or bends, it’s safe to say repairs have been done. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing as long as the work – specifically welding – has been done to a decent standard. If you can see rust around repairs though, it might be best to walk away.
  • Underseal – Does the underseal look fresh and clean? That’s not normal. It should show signs of life, a bit of dirt, that kind of thing. If it’s fresh, you have to wonder if it’s been slapped on to cover something up?
  • Abuse – Look at the frontal area of the chassis for scrapes and dings. If they’re present and in big numbers, it could be a sign that the car has been driven exceptionally hard. Fine on a rally car, but if you’re looking at a Zephyr, you have to question how it’s been treated in the past?

Interior

Ford Zephyr interior, bench seat, classic car, red leather

You want your car’s innards to be pleasant. It’s where you’ll be spending most of your time after all. So be thorough and check what we list here, that way you can be sure you’re buying a dud.

  • Carpets – If you can lift the carpets, especially in the front foot-wells. Doing so will expose the floor and the inner front sills – areas that are prone to rot in almost every classic car.
  • Damp – Does the interior smell damp? Press your hand down on the carpet and see if there’s any moisture. Carpets won’t let a car get away with a leak – they’ll keep hold of the evidence. If the carpet is damp, check it everywhere else, too, to see if you can isolate the source of the leak.
  • Seats and seat-belts – Check under the seats and look at the floor mountings. You’re looking for corrosion or signs of damage that may prevent the seats from functioning. Also, be sure to check the seat-belt mounts both on the floor and on the B and C pillars. Not only is corrosion a MOT failure if found in those areas, it’s also a big safety risk.
  • Windows – Chances are you’ll be going to see your potential new classic on a pleasant day. That’s why you need to be extra vigilant when it comes to checking the windows, especially the lower corners. Old rubber seals aren’t nearly as effective as today’s bonded units and are prone to leaks. Leaks mean rust and rust means an expensive bill. So, look for water marks/stains around the glass on the inside.

Wheels and Tyres

Ford Capri, Dunlop wheel, classic car, tyre, Capri 3.0S

As your connection to the road, you really can’t take your wheels and tyres for granted. When going to look at a car, be sure to make time to inspect these vital parts, too. A poor set of tyres, for example, can ruin the way an otherwise perfect car drives.

  • Sidewalls – Are the sidewalls cracking? If so, that’s a sign of age and also a potential MOT failure. It’s definitely an MOT advisory. Rubber gets prattle as it gets older, so tyres crack. If there is a lot of cracking evident, this could spell punctures or even worse, a blow-out.
  • Tread – Whether the car is old or new, tyre tread is important. Is it even across the axles? Is it even over each individual tyre? If not, it could mean that the tracking, suspension geometry or even the brakes are faulty. It could mean the tyres have been over or under-inflated. Whatever the reason, it’s something to question the seller over.
  • Tread pattern – A quick visual check will reveal if a car has matching tyres. It’s not the end of the world if tyres on the front axle don’t match those on the rear, so long as they match across the axle. However, if the tyres are mismatched across the car, this is bad news and can ruin the handling.
  • Wheels – You just need to check the wheels for overall condition. Alloy wheels are prone to corrosion, and this really can’t be hidden. If you see it, it’s going to mean a refurbishment. Steel wheels are hardy, but as you’d imagine, they can rust if damage leaves areas untreated and exposed to the elements. Wire wheels can also rust and sorting them out is costly and timely repair given the intricacy of the design. If they’re rough, it’s a definite haggling point.

And there you have it, plenty of stuff for you to be checking when you go and look at your dream car. As we said earlier, individual cars have individual issues, but with the information we’ve put together here, you should be able to buy confidently while avoiding any major horrors.

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