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Homepage. This page: Tips on choosing, checking over and purchasing a classic.

How to go about buying a classic car.

Buying a classic Deciding on and then buying a classic car is rarely a straightforward task. Often the first consideration is those with whom you live. If you're single, then life is that little bit easier. Barring a few irate neighbours who may not share your delight in looking out over one or more classic cars cluttering up your driveway/street/garden (delete as applicable), the decision is largely your own. If however your days of single-dom are a distant memory, then it's only right that you give a small amount of consideration to what others might think about you going out and buying a classic. If you already have a few vintage machines in your fleet, then you will have to adopt a strategy whereby you sufficiently justify adding to your fleet, preparing in advance suitably impressive replies to the inevitable questions such as 'why do you need another one?' and 'but you've not finished the one you've got' which you WILL bear the brunt of, sooner or later. However if this is uncharted territory for you and your significant other, your line of reply will have to be cunningly altered, explaining the inumerable benefits that you will inherit by buying that chrome-bumper MGB that is advertised in the newsagent's window, or that must-have Daimler limousine that has been on axle stands in the local quarry for the last 15 years.

Of course by now you'll have decided upon what condition of car, lorry, or otherwise you wish to buy. If you are a dab hand with the non-too-subtle art of welding, then your options are greatly increased. Flick through any number of classic car magazines and there before you are a tantalising array of potential classic vehicles, in varying conditions - ranging from the molly-coddled concours champion Delahaye that you've always fancied using on the school run, to any number of Austin 1100s, Hillman Avengers, Triumph Heralds or Austin 7s, ranging from those in good useable condition, down to the lowly relics listed as 'unfinished projects' which are probably missing half their component parts, and may well be best left in the hedge that they currently reside in. I'm not trying to put anyone off from investing their hard-earned money in an elderly motor, it's just that forming an idea of exactly what you think you are capable of taking on and succeeding with, up front, is the best way to approach a purchase.

I wouldn't necessarily recommend doing like I do and see any old rusty heap, and think that you should automatically be its saviour. Decide on what you think you can realistically take on, logistically, financially and every other 'lly, and try to stick to that plan. That tempting Mk2 Jaguar restoration project, listed in the paper for 2k, may indeed be worth 30k+ when it's finished, but if you need to farm out all the interior / engine / running gear and body renovation to paid professionals, your 30k motor may have taken 40k-50k to create. This isn't a problem if you're taking on a project for the sake of it, but it never harms to keep half an eye on the costs. Likewise don't bother salivating too long over that Austin 1800 landcrab that's sat in the scrapyard, you know the one with the 3 cars on top .. many once-popular cars, say from the likes of BMC and Ford, are just not worth spending 000s on. Some are of course, but again prior research is essential if you don't want to have your fingers burnt by taking on a lemon. You could rescue a derelict 1800 for a few hundred pounds and spend years hunting down rare original panels for its re-birth, costing a great deal of money by the time you've finished, but common sense (not always a factor when it comes to old cars admittedly) dictates that your time and money would have been better spent buying a presentable one for say GBP 1500-2000, even if it takes longer to track down the ideal example. However if you really get a bee in your bonnet over a particular car, like I keep doing, then so long as you feel that you can cope with the majority of the restoration that will be required, dump common sense in the 'boring' bin and go ahead anyway, just don't expect to make all your money back if you plan to sell it on later. Some super-rare or super-cheap cars are worth taking on as projects, just tread carefully that's all (read more about choosing restored vs unrestored cars here). A case in point is an Austin A40 Mk2 I once owned. I've already got a Mk1 in bits, and several other classics to keep me busy but when I was offered it, for not many notes of the realm, needing some work but including a trailer load of spares which will also be useable on my Mk1, common sense took a back seat and I became its new owner.

And finally for this part of the process, think about your storage facilities. Do you have a 25ft-long garage? If so then by all means rescue that Mk10 Jaguar from the local pond, but if you can't run to a garage at all, think long and hard about where exactly you will store this historic machine, and work on it, as no old car likes to be sat outside or even under a cover. Worst of all is a car sat on grass, with a plastic sheet thrown over it .. damp rises and with a cover in place, means that it has nowhere to go other than settle on your car's corroding underside, so be warned. And let's be honest, working on a car out in a cold garage is bad enough, but working out in the elements fighting against all that mother nature has to throw at us, is usually less-than-appealing and may well lead to you losing interest in the project altogether. If you are still stuck for good reasons on why to buy an oldie, have a look at my 'Why to buy a classic' article.
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Where to find classic cars for sale?

Classic cars
There is no shortage of classic cars for sale. Take a stroll down to the local newsagent, and gaze in awe at the many many magazines devoted to the resurrection and running of both popular and weird old motors. Some magazines target the well-healed amongst us, predominantly raving about such machines as Jaguar E Types, Hispano Suizas, Grand Prix Talbots and so on, which I have to admit tickle my fancy but are probably not really relevant to me, other than out of curiosity. If your aspirations are less gentrified, popular magazines such as Practical Classics and Classic Car Weekly cover most of cars that Joe Public can usually stretch to, especially bearing in mind that most purchases are as second, or weekend, transport, and are less of a necessity, more of an indulgence. For more details on where to find classics for sale, have a look at my 'Where to buy a Classic from' article.
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Preparation before going to view a car.

American car
OK you've decided on what you want to buy, and have seen a motor advertised which takes your eye. One thing to note at this point is this: buy from a trader and you will usually have limited comeback if the car turns out to be a lemon, although warranties on any secondhand cars are usually a bit suspect so be careful. If you buy from a private seller, it's really a case of 'buyer beware' as unless the vehicle has been totally misrepresented, you'll have little to fall back on if the car turns out to be a ruin, hiding behind a shiny layer of two-pack paint and half a ton of Isopon.

So, firstly jot down some questions that you want answering, before making contact with the owner. Examples could be: 'why are you selling the car?', 'how long have you owned it?', 'is there any rot in the rear arches?', 'how often do you use it?', 'does it come with any spare parts?' and 'does it have any history (eg MOTs, receipts etc) with it?' to name a few good ones. If you have read up on your subject, there will probably be specific questions to that particular model that you should seek an answer to, so if your target is an Austin A35 for example, ask about the condition of the bodywork around the rear spring hangers for instance, or if looking at a Triumph Spitfire, try to establish the condition of the (structural) sills for starters. Another thing to think about in these days of tree-hugging environmental issues, is will it run on unleaded fuel without costly modification? Most cars will get by ok on unleaded, but check anyway. Proper leaded fuel is available here in the UK at a limited number of outlets, but it can be pricey. So ask whether the cylinder head & valves have been converted, or alternatively has a lead substitute additive been used instead?

Assuming all sounds well following your telephone conversation, now's the time to arrange a viewing. Try to choose a time during daylight hours and out of the rain - even the dodgiest old crate can look quite chipper once it's sat out in the half light with the rain beating off it giving an artificial shine to its paintwork. If you can, enlist the services of someone who knows their way around this particular type of car, either a seasoned old-car nut or an owners' club member, or even the AA/RAC. Take a jack, in case you get chance to lift the car up to have a look underneath (always put the car on axle stands before venturing underneath though), a good torch, a magnet, a pair of gloves and if necessary a list of checkpoints that you wish to cover (don't trust to memory). Most old cars have lead a mixed life, usually falling into less-than-deserving hands once they're a few years old. The current owner may have indeed changed the oil every 3,000 miles, but how about the other 8 owners who drove the car during the previous 200,000 miles? Were they so careful?
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Checking it over.

Rusty Austin A40
First thing is, if you find that you can't make your appointment to view, do the honourable thing and let the vendor know. There's nothing worse than hanging around waiting for someone to show who doesn't bother turning up. On arrival, take a look at where the car lives. I'm assuming here that you're going to look at a running car - if you intend buying a project then some of the following may not apply. Does the house look in good order? Chances are, if the house looks like it last had attention from a swarm of Messerschmitt BF110s, then what are the chances of the car getting its 1,000 mile greasing sessions recently? If the garden is full of decaying wrecks, it could mean that this is an enthusiast reducing his fleet to more manageable proportions, or it could be a dealer in scrap.

Before delving into the nitty gritty, it's often worth walking around the car and looking at how it sits - is there any sagging, which may suggest tired suspension or possibly a corroded chassis? do the panel gaps line up nicely? if they don't the car may have had a prang and if so, how well was the repair work done? A good way to judge how well a car has been looked after is to open the doors, boot, and bonnet and see how clean the shut areas are. If the bits that don't get cleaned by a quick wipe over with a damp sponge are still grimy, maybe other things have been skimped also? Do all the tyres match, and are they all of the same type? Does the paintwork look in good order, or do the shades vary around the car. Parking a car under a yellow street light during darkness is an excellent way of assessing this, as it highlights any imperfections that there are in the body as a whole.

Some colours are more difficult to match than others when repairs have been made, even by a professional car restorer. Black is notoriously difficult to match, as are metallics. The colour red is a nightmare for fading, as can be white also. While talking about colours remember also that different colours can affect the value of a car dramatically. Years back I pondered over a very trim Series 1 Daimler XJ 4.2. The bodywork was in very nice order, but the car was pink. Now this was a rare colour, but I still don't know if I could bring myself to drive around in a pink car. Jaguars are notoriously fickle when it comes to colour choice, the 1970's XJ probably best demonstrating this. Some colours just haven't aged well at all - the colours pink and brown being trickier to sell than "safe" colours such as red, blue and green. White Series 3 XJs remind everyone of tired old wedding hacks, and are usually priced accordingly. Best bet for Bill Lyons' finest is probably dark green or dark blue. One day you may have to sell on your classic car, so it's worth remembering that a Union Flag paint job may amuse you, but most people would run a mile. Likewise a metallic bronze Austin Healey may be your dream motor, but just convincing potential buyers who have their heart set on a more traditional colour scheme.

Anyway, back to the pre-purchase vetting. Check the body all over for rot (or in the case of a fibreglass bodied car, such as a Lotus or Reliant, stress cracks) and I mean all over. Popular areas for corrosion are around the headlamps, wheel arches often rot from inside, the sills that run below the doors, the doors themselves (remember to open them and check their frames from underneath), around the front and rear screens (are they leaking?) and the boot floor/spare wheel area. Go inside the car and lift up the carpets wherever possible, checking the floorpan and its joint to the inner sill as much as possible. Hopefully if the car has a recent MOT you should find no nasty surprises, but don't rely on that MOT certificate too much. Plus, with pre-1960 cars no longer requiring an MOT, who knows when the car was last assessed by someone other than the owner, who let's be honest isn't exactly impartial?

Bodywork is often the key issue with old cars. Mechanical parts for popular models, such as Cortinas and Corsairs, are for the most part available .. whereas body parts, which are often binned by the main agents once a car becomes obsolete, are often very tricky to find. A car with tired mechanicals is generally a better bet than one with a rotten body. Of course in the case of popular classics neither should be a problem, so long as the price is right, due to remanufacture programmes by specialists around the world. New bodyshells are available for Triumphs TR6 for instance, as well as for the MG Midget and MGB (at a price however). But buy a rotten Triumph Stag say, and wave goodbye to lots of money and time as you try to hunt down original new-old-stock wings, doors etc for your rebuild. Many pattern (ie non-original) repair panels are available for all sorts of cars, but their quality varies wildly so try to do you homework on the car that interests you before you go to see it, so that you can factor in replacement parts costs when negotiating a purchase price with the seller.

Try to see the engine start from cold - if it's already warm the vendor may be trying to hide cold-starting problems by getting it started before your arrival. If the car needs five people to push it down the road before
Test run
it'll start, the less scrupulous may omit to mention the fact. Listen for any knocks when the engine starts up, or clouds of smoke from the exhaust. Blue smoke means it's burning oil. If the blue haze quickly clears and doesn't return, it may be that the valve stems are tired, and allowing oil to seep into the combustion chambers overnight. Persistent blue smoke indicates a tired engine, and will need to be figured into any financial arrangement you may enter with the seller, as pound to a penny it'll need a stripdown. Clouds of steam on startup isn't necessarily a problem, but could indicate a blown headgasket or in the worse case, a cracked cylinder head. Have a look at the oil and coolant, and see if there's been any cross-contamination (the usual giveaway is a mayonnaise-like goo around the filler neck). Finally, black smoke. This is usually caused by an over-rich mixture. It may simply be a carburettor adjustment thats required, but likewise it could also signal wear in the carburettor(s) and inevitable expense. Knocking can be from a number of sources .. a light tapping from the top of the engine could be a worn camshaft (if an overhead cam engine) or even a small end on its way out. A persistent knock from down below could be a big end bearing turning up its toes and would be pricey to fix in most cases. A rumbling noise would probably indicate a main crankshaft bearing that's dying, another expensive and time-consuming problem to correct in most cases. Whilst under the bonnet, check the level of the various hydraulic (where fitted) and coolant fluids, and look around for brown stains which could well indicate an engine that is prone to boiling over. Talking of coolant, take a look at the contents of the radiator or header tank (engine must be cold first as burns are a definite risk!) and check to see if the coolant looks to be nice and clean, and hopefully smelling of antifreeze. Try to get the car fully up to temperature during your test to see if there are any problems which manifest themselves after a while. Tired old plugs, ignition coil, distributor cap or leads can sometimes last for a while without apparently being in trouble, but may give problems once everything has warmed up after a few miles of use. My old Austin Somerset was a nightmare for this.

Don't forget to take the car for a drive either. Look out for a lazy clutch, leading to graunched gearchanges, which in the worst cases may well slip and not fully engage drive to the driven wheels. Does the car drive straight, or have a tendency to dive for the kerb? use the brakes as intended - do they pull the car up good and straight, or does the merest hint of braking pitch the car into the nearest kerb? Wiggle the steering wheel and feel for any clonks - wear in suspension may or may not be pricey/difficult to fix, so keep your eyes and ears open. A bit of play in the steering of a car fitted with a steering box, such as a 103E Ford Pop, may well be eradicated with a spot of adjustment to the steering box, but on a car fitted with rack and pinion steering such as on a Triumph Vitesse, there may be play in the rack (or its mounts - often susceptible to engine oil) which will need investigation.

Hopefully this list of potential woes will have given you an insight into some of the things to check over when viewing a prospective buy. To cover everything would take more bandwidth than my website provider could manage, but follow the above advice and, where possible, seek the opinion of someone who knows the model inside out, and you'll be a good way down the road to not being saddled with a wreck. There is no better way of protecting yourself than read up everything you can about your favourite model, and engage in conversation with proud owners at a local classic car show, most of whom are only too willing to discuss the good and not-so-good points of their own model of car.

Another point to consider is originality. The car you are looking at may have been around for 30+ years, and the chances of it still being in 100% original state are slim. Service items such as brake shoes, batteries, tyres, clutches and the like are fair game for replacement over the years, and classic car fans don't worry about this unduly.
Very original Jowett Bradford
'Tasteful' fake tiger skin seat covers and furry dice can swiftly be removed and placed in the nearest bin, the former may actually have done you a favour by protecting the original seat material. However it is always a good idea to buy a car that is as original as possible, bearing in mind that one day you may have to try and sell the car on - plus insurance can go through the roof for modified cars so tread carefully. That Morris Marina fitted with an MGB engine, bored out to 2.0, with a supercharger strapped to it, may be a hoot to think about driving (well....), but wait until you try and get a quote for insurance, especially if you're of reasonably tender years. Plus most buyers go for originality anyway, so when it comes to selling it on, you might find yourself lumbered with an old crock that no-one wants to buy off you. At one time there was a craze for re-engining Stags with the Rover 3.5 V8 engine, which in many ways is probably a better bet than the original 3.0 Triumph unit. However once again originality rules, and many converted cars are worth just half the sale price of an original car. Some owners have converted their cars back to the original engine just to make the car more desirable, so be warned. There are instances of modified cars being 'acceptable' within purist circles, but by and large the best advice is stick with original, unless you fancy an all out Custom car, which is a different kettle of fish altogether.

By now you will be no doubt smitten with the magnificent motor-car parked in front of you, your glazed-over eyes reflecting in its unmarked and gleaming chromework. However we're not quite done yet. Don't forget the paperwork, as you really need to try and establish that the classic you are looking at actually belongs to the person alledging to own it. The logbook is a good place to start, but is no guarantee of ownership, and while you're at it, establish that the chassis and engine numbers match with those found on the car, and are correct for the model of car you're looking at. I once bought a Saab turbo thinking it was a genuine car, which for the most part it was, until such time as the friendly MOT inspector tried to find the chassis plate, which had unbeknown to me been carefully removed from the boot floor. You have been warned. History is good, and the more MOTs and old garage receipts that the car comes with the better. Even if your Austin Allegro 3 ('supervroom') will never grace the glitzy catwalks of a Louis Vuitton concours event, it's nice to have the provenance to go with your vehicle.
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Paying for your dream car.

Cash is usually preferred for private sales, and a wad of notes does make haggling a lot more straightforward. No-one will thank you if you pay for a �25 Hillman Hunter with a cheque. However if the target of your dreams occupies the more stratospheric end of the marketplace, I'm sure the vendor will be a little more flexible in allowing a cheque payment to be made, just don't expect to take the car until it has cleared. Many dealers prefer electronic payments, so again factor this in when planning to collect your car.
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How do I move a classic?

Mercedes high speed racing car transporter (replica)
If your new investment is MOT'd (if applicable) and sports a current tax disc (if it is a pre-1973 car then it is �zero-rated), then you can arrange suitable insurance over the phone and drive it away. If the owner still has insurance on the car, and you have your own normal car policy which covers driving other cars third party, then you may also be covered though please do check with your insurance company first, as his insurance on the classic car may now be invalid as it's no longer in his possession, so check just to be sure. Towing is another grey area, especially if the car isn't MOTd so the best bet is to get it moved on a trailer. Your local friendly boys in blue are best placed to tell you what you can and cannot legally drag along our highways.
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