What has been written here is not meant to be some sort of “bible” to follow when you’re going to buy a classic car. I just tried to put down in words and share my experience (read it as: my mistakes) in this strange world which is beautiful but, at the same time, it’s full of traps. Of course you should read it carefully if you’ve never had a classic car but even who is already experienced on this matter (beginning with myself) should use it as a checklist.
However, this is not a work checklist, indeed it’s more a “mental” checklist as all we aim for perfection, but unfortunately we all are fallacious.
What you see is not what you get
“Not all that glitters is gold; but equally it should add that not all that is gold glitters.” (Friedrich Hebbel)
What are the reasons which push you to look for a classic car to buy? Curiosity, speculation, nostalgia, will to look different or love for troubles?
If you never tried a classic car, and the only rapport you had so far with them is just about looking at them at a classic car show or just watching them on magazines or internet, always remember that a classic car is not a modern car with a classic shape, but it’s actually a car built, in the best case scenario, few years later than the first walk of a man on the moon.
Unfortunately even then, such space technology was not yet dumped on production cars so the result is that cars until early seventies are, more or less, as technological as pre war cars.
What I remember about the Italia 2000 I used to own is the big gap between what I saw and the sensations I had whilst driving it: from the outside, it was simply a masterpiece of Italian design.
The bad news began when I drove it: heavy steering wheel, weak brakes, concrete gearbox, rattles everywhere, a sauna during summer trips. And think that I’m talking about a nut-and-bolt, concours restored car: the point is that you can do your best to restore a car, but the original design can’t be changed just by a beautiful paintjob or a smelly new leather interior. And I haven’t yet talked about the attention to pay to the ordinary service like the frequent oil checks, and to the lubrication of the SU carburetors.
Of course this is the worst driving experience I had with a classic car, there are for sure better cars built in the same era but the point is that if you never experienced the classic motoring, you have to set you mind on a different perspective and realize that while new cars are quite “independent” from you, owning a classic car is quite like having a dog: it needs you.
Know your wallet
“In the end, nothing is more expensive than money..” (Juliette Greco)
Many times I have read classic car ads stating that the car needed just an “easy restoration”, or that it is “driveable”, or that it was “without rust”.
My simple suggestion is: always think the worst, you will never be disappointed. Every classic car, if not properly restored, has a lot of issues.
Remember that a car, even the oldest one, is still a complex object and it has many parts put together so they could work together like an orchestra,
the problem is that time is not gentle with all those parts, especially if the previous owners of your candidate car were not car nuts.
A 40 years old car (or older) has rust! Maybe not much, maybe hidden but there it is, don’t make yourself illusions.
Other than that, often you can never realize how many defect has you new (old) car until you drive it for a while. What’s the point? Don’t believe that you can work it out with the purchase amount only. Even if a car seems good, a wise thing is to calculate at least the 10% of the purchase cost as a financial room to do the minimum work needed on the car to make it a proper driver.
Of course that is related to a driveable car. If your plans are to do a full restoration, then do some math before doing the big step: the metal work is worth alone one third of a restoration job as it needs a lot of man-hours, but basically if you want to do things as good as they are supposed to be done, never settle your mind on the lower edge of your estimate. Ask some professionals for a rough estimate, do a pessimistic estimate on every given voice of your to do list, and then add a 20% for the hitches. It’s the only way to avoid bad surprises and to realize if you can afford what you have in mind to do before you get involved into the project.
“Know Yourself” (Anonymous from ancient Greece)
What kind of person are you? Are you a patient, methodic guy who doesn’t mind about the time that passes or are you a person for whom whatever the time needed is, it’s always too much?
But, more than that, the main question to make yourself is: am I a person prone to floating desires or am I a real classic cars guy?
That’s a very important question because standing all the issues and problems generated by managing a classic car, and even more by a long restoration process, needs a great passion (apart from money).
And I can assure you that, even then, there are some restorations that could draw all the energy and patience even from the king of the car nuts.
Go around restoration shops, ask who had already had such experience, hear from them their suggestion and then ask yourself “can I do it?”
If your plan are to buy a restored or a “good driver” car, you will need patience as well: always remember that these are old cars, often older than you.
Choose your car
“My car is very old. My marker lights have cataracts!” (Milton Berle)
This is, of course, the most subjective topic. You can choose a classic car for various reasons: because that car was your childhood hero, because your father had one, because your rich friend had one when both of you were at the college, because you’ve seen it in a movie or bare and simply because you like it.
There is not “the right” or “the wrong” car, there is only the car you want. Of course there are classic cars which spare parts are easy to be sourced, and other cars which parts are basically impossible to find, so it’s easier to build them from scratch (if you have a mould, of course): this brings us straight to the next chapter.
Do your homework
“Who teaches a certain thing does not know it in depth, because those who really studies it in depth has not the time to teach.” (Arthur Schopenhauer)
For many this is the most boring part of a purchase process, for others this is the most involving and challenging part. Doing your homework about the car you have decided to buy requires many hours of study (specialized books, asking specialists or reading magazines or specialized sites/blogs/forums where there are featured articles on the car you’re going to buy) and sometimes it can be wearisome and frustrating but, always remember that the more you study, the less are the chances you could do a bad purchase. Classic cars are usually easy to fake, and if you buy (by mistake) one of those fake and you realize it after having purchased it, then you have three options: the first give the car back to the seller; this is the easiest way to solve the problem but only in theory, the reality is often much more complicated than that; the second option is to “ignore the problem”, so becoming accomplice of a scam, the last is to dismantle the car to sell it in parts. If the first option goes bad, the remaining two imply a huge loss. All the three options are anyway a big waste of time and source of stress. So, even if you were not a top student during high school, now it’s the time to study a lot.
Think with your own head
“In every field and for each object are always the minority, the few, the very few, the Individual those who know: the crowd is ignorant.” (Søren Kierkegaard)
Every classic car has lovers and haters. This is not just because of the “look”, but also because you often hear or read something like “It’s unreliable”, “It’s prone to rust”, “It has a bad handling”, “You need a fuel tanker to follow you everywhere”, “It’s too expensive”, “Spare parts are too expensive”, “This chassis number doesn’t sound good to me”, “It’s rubbish” and so on.
At the same time, many cars have a huge amount of lovers with no clear reasons other than they’re worth a lot of money. My suggestion is: don’t let others decide for you. Once you have unchecked the points previously listed, you and you only know if the car that you’re going to buy is correct in itself, and if it’s right for you.
Of course read (or listen to) other’s opinions is always a good thing and sometimes saves you from doing a risky purchase, but this is a possibility, not a golden rule. And, last but not least, never let the market value decide for you if that car is cute or not: there are still a lot of beautiful classic cars out there, not yet (or barely) touched by speculation.
Who pays less gets less (Santa’s dead)
“Dear, look! There are ten dollars on the sidewalk!”
“Don’t say stupid things, honey. If there were ten dollars on the sidewalk, someone would have already taken them away.” (att.to Paul Samuelson vs. his wife)
The statement could seem obvious but I used to know people who still believe that the big deal is around the corner. And I’m not talking about stupid or ignorant people, they’re just persons who feel the need to prove themselves to be smarter than the others, so they simply “won’t see”.
Of course the title does neither implies that “who pays more gets more”, but the sure thing is that, unfortunately, Santa’s dead many years ago.
So, if you find a presentable car with a price tag lower than the 50% of the average price asked for the same model (in the same conditions), that car has for sure (in the best case scenario) some problems not disclosed by the seller. Even if everything seems good to your eyes, there are for sure bad news about that car. Most times those bad things are visible and then you think “Ok, it has a lot of problems but I’ll buy it for few bucks”: Is it a good approach? If you can do most work by yourself yes, it can be a good approach but if, and only if, you finish the work you’ve started. On the contrary you will have just wasted time and you’re going to spend a lot of money giving your car to a professional who will have to do a lot of work or your unfinished and rusty car. The same thing happens when you pay less for an incomplete car: maybe you will be able to find all the parts you need but you’ll need a big time interval to do that, so what’s the point? Time is money, isn’t it?