How to Get a Used Classic Car

February 16, 2012

Finding used classic cars for sale is only half the battle. The condition of a used classic car requires more scrutiny than a standard used car.

Used Classic Car

For those looking at buying a used classic car as either an investment or a project, knowing where and how to look will help ensure that you get the car you want at the price you want to pay.

Information Is Power
Just like with anything else, the more you know about the car that you're looking for the stronger position you put yourself in. Study up on the make and model you've chosen and get to know the car well. The more knowledge you have about the vehicle, the easier it is going to be to know what you should be looking out for. There are endless resources online for learning about classic cars. One cool example is a VIN decoder that can help you know how the car should be equipped by learning what the car's original equipment was.

Buying a Classic Car as an Investment
Buying a classic car as an investment can be further broken down into those cars that are fully restored and those that still need a little bit of work without requiring a fully involved project. You can find vehicles that are either fully restored or almost fully restored by checking the various classic and exotic car auctions. Cars that need a little more work can be found by checking car enthusiast magazines and classic car sales magazines.

Classic Car Auctions
There are a number of classic and collectible car auctions, both large and small, as well as local, federal and state law enforcement auctions of seized property. The largest and most respected auctioneer of classic and collectible cars is Barrett-Jackson.

Magazines directed at the car enthusiast market are excellent places to look for a rare classic used car. Many times you will find a fellow enthusiast that is willing to let a beautiful, quality classic used car go at a very reasonable price to someone they know will care for it properly. Examples of these magazines include:

  • Hot Rod Magazine
  • Classic Camaros
  • Muscle Car Digest

The larger auction houses, such as Barrett-Jackson, allow you to participate online. There are also auction sites that cater to the smaller collector who can only deal locally or regionally, instead of nationally.

Junk Yards
If you're willing to undertake a complete, probably frame-off restoration, then you can start looking for your project car at local junkyards. Most junkyards can also look for cars for you on a regional computer network of junkyard dealers. Classic used cars in all conditions can also be found through the resource mentioned later in this article.

How to Get a Used Classic Car History Report

When you are shopping for a used classic car, you don't always know exactly what you're getting. All you can really see is the vehicle in front of you and the quality of the restoration. In a few rare instances, there will be paperwork dating back to the time the vehicle was first purchased, but this isn't a particularly common occurrence. It could be that the classic car was actually once declared a total loss before being "washed" and reappearing on the market elsewhere. To make sure you are not buying a potentially dangerous or illegal classic car, get a history report using the Vehicle Identification Number.

What Is A VIN?

All cars have a Vehicle Identification Number, also known as a VIN. Since 1981, they've consisted of 17 characters, each of which has a specific meaning. Prior to that point, different formats were used by different manufacturers. Some cars made since 1981 already qualify as vintage or antique cars, which make some of them also fall under the used classic car categorization.

In the US and Europe, the first three characters show the manufacturer identity while the next five indicate the vehicle attributes. The 9th, 10th and 11th characters are the check digit, model year and plant code respectively. The last six characters are the vehicle's sequential number, except in the case where fewer than 500 of the vehicles have been made. In this instance, the 12th, 13th and 14th characters are the manufacturer identifier and the remaining three the vehicle's sequential number.

Checking A VIN
You have to pay to obtain a vehicle history report but there are a number of companies that specialize in carrying out this work. For vehicles manufactured after 1981, this is an especially easy job. It's a quick process to find companies that will do this for you and send you the report.

With vehicles made before 1981, especially with used classic cars, the process becomes more problematic. There was no overview of VIN numbers and there are instances where the numbers overlap between different manufacturers meaning it can be difficult, if not impossible, to identify a specific vehicle from the VIN alone. Originally, all a VIN actually did was give information as to the sequence of the car in the vehicle manufacture run.

Interpreting a Vehicle History Check
Vehicle history checks can give a good level of information about the vehicle, especially after new VIN classification was established after 1981. It will indicate odometer fraud, lemon law buybacks and vehicle title branding. This last is perhaps the most important factor when it comes to classic cars.

Vehicle title branding shows that the car will have been declared a total loss for one reason or another. It could be due to a collision, the car being sold for scrap or even because of flood damage. Certainly, if the vehicle title has been branded, a car of the same make and model and with the same VIN should not be reappearing on the market.

The VIN will be in several places on the car, most notably the dashboard, so it can be seen through the windshield. The VIN is also found on the door frame and on the engine. Unless a new engine has been put in the used classic car, all the VIN numbers should match.

3 Things to Exaimine in Classic Used Cars

Before you spend your money, there are a number of things you need to check to ensure the car represents good value. Consider taking along an experienced enthusiast or a professional mechanic. The more you know about the vehicle you are looking at, the better you'll be able to judge the restoration work involved.

The Bodywork
The bodywork and the paint job needs to be absolutely perfect with no dents, dings or scratches. Although the paint won't be original, the color should be the same as that offered in the original year the car was on sale.

Chrome should be highly buffed with no scratches. In other words, the outside of the car should look as good as it did the day the car first rolled off the dealer's lot. Inspect things like wheel arches and frames to be sure they're in good condition. Potentially corrosive hidden areas are every bit as vital as those you can see. Also, the interior of the trunk should be completely restored and any lighting should also be working. The more original parts or restored original parts, the better. Open and close all the doors, the trunk and the hood to ensure they operate smoothly and fit correctly. Similarly, lower and raise all the windows.

The Interior
The original seat covers and headers will have probably been ripped or rotted away some time ago. The interior of the classic used car will probably have undergone the most extensive restoration work as the upholstery will most likely have been replaced at some stage.

A serious restorer will have paid for a professional to restore all the upholstery and this should be reflected in the quality of the work. Inspect seams on seat covers, make sure all the material matches and check that all the leather and wood is in prime condition. The leather should be supple and the wood should be highly polished.

Ideally, parts like the steering wheel will be original but if it is not, the reproduction should be a perfect match. Talk to the owner and discover what is original, what has been replaced and what is supplied as a reproduction part. If the original car had an AM radio, the restored vehicle shouldn't include a modern CD player. Be aware of the options on the original vehicle before purchasing.

The Engine
The rest of the car is cosmetic restoration but the engine is where the skill of the restorer really shines through. Hoses and belts should have the original manufacturer's make (it can be difficult to tell the difference with good quality reproductions). There will be limits on what you can check but always take a look at oil and water levels and never forget to look at transmission fluid in the case of automatic vehicles. Signs of leakage are usually a sign of further work being required.

It's vital that you test drive the car. Not only does this give you a feel for how it steers and stops but also serve as an indication as to how the engine sounds and sparks. Use the windshield wipers, turn on the radio and run the lights to ensure they all work properly.

5 Places to Look for Used Classic Cars for Sale

There are several avenues you can take to source the vehicle of your dreams. Much depends on the type of classic car you're looking for. You will need to determine whether you want a project car that you'll restore from scratch or one that's already finished and ready to show. The amount you pay will depend on the degree and quality of the restoration, as well as the rarity of the classic car. Fully restored classic cars will often be expensive.

  • Car shows: People display their fully restored classic cars at vintage car shows, and some of them use the events as a shop window for selling their own fully restored vehicles. If you're looking for a used classic car in top condition, you'll usually find some here. The great advantage is that you can fully inspect the vehicle, maybe drive it a little and also have the time to hold a lengthy conversation with the owner. A number of deals are done on the spot and when you can talk to the owner in person, you have the perfect opportunity to haggle over the price
  • Collector magazines: There are many classic car collector magazines and most of them include classified ads. These cover auto parts and services as well as used classic cars for sale. The disadvantage is that the vehicle you want could be on the other side of the country, because most collector magazines are nationally released. This means transportation costs will often be high. Another bet is local and regional collector car newsletters which also include ads. Given that they're more geographically targeted, the choice will be smaller but transportation costs can be a lot lower
  • The Internet: The Internet is probably the best place to look if you want to find a used classic car for sale. There are car collector clubs online where members can offer vehicles for sale, as well as forums which give great advice and allow participants to advertise their cars. Join as many of these websites and forums as possible to increase your odds of securing a great deal
  • Newspapers: If you're looking for a project car, try your local newspaper. Used classic cars are something of a rarity in local newspapers so you need to be a regular reader. However, the prices on these cars can be very reasonable, as many of them are failed restoration projects or simply the sale of a recently discovered car in old garages or barns
  • Dealers: There are dealers who specialize in used classic cars for sale. They only sell fully restored vehicles, either online or from their own car lot. However, prices do tend to be on the high side to allow the dealer to make a profit. The advantage is that the vehicles will usually be mechanically sound and may even come with a small warranty on any newly-fitted parts

Related Questions and Answers

Is Every Anti Roll Bar Design Safe?

Anti roll bar design has the ends of the roll bar usually attached to the lower control arm of your car, with two frame bushings and mounts attached near the middle of the bar, to the front cross member of your car. These car suspension components are usually called sway bars because they limit the body roll, or sway when performing high speed maneuvers or hard turning. The thicker these bars are, the more they are able to resist body roll. Almost every car on the road has some form of sway bar under it. These parts extend the high speed maneuvering capability of your car and aren't in and of themselves unsafe, per se. Where they become unsafe is when they give an inexperienced or under-qualified driver too much confidence in his or her abilities.