How to Buy a Classic Car
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How to Buy a Classic Car

By Autolist Staff | January 3, 2019

At some point, just about every auto fan wonders how to buy a classic car. The reasons tend to vary by person: some want to get the car they dreamed of in high school but couldn't afford, for others, it's the idea of restoring something to mint condition, and for still others, it's the hope of turning it into an investment.

How Old Is a Classic Car?

When does a car become a classic? Generally, the definition of a classic car revolves around its age, but not always. So if we're talking about age, how old does a car have to be to be called a classic? The exact age can vary greatly. Insurance companies may consider a classic car to between 20 and 50 years old. Beyond 50 years old it's typically considered an "antique". Meanwhile, some car clubs, like the Classic Car Club of America (CCCA), consider a 'classic' car to be a 'fine' or 'distinctive' car built between 1925 and 1948.

Bottom line, be sure to check with your state and insurance company to understand their exact definitions.

General Classic Car Considerations

As previously mentioned, people have any number of reasons for wanting a vintage vehicle, but it's important to narrow down your reasoning so that you can get the most out of the process and experience. Once you know exactly why you want that classic car, you can plot out how to buy it.

For example, if you want a recognizable old muscle car to take the family out on Sundays, then you might want something that has already been restored and is ready to go. If you plan to hit the car show circuit, then older and more unique vehicles might be what you're looking for. If your dream is to restore an old rust bucket to mint condition, then you'll likely be looking for something relatively cheap that may not be driveable right away.

Are Classic Cars Good Investments?

Some people do buy a classic car with the idea of finding an investment. However, the hard truth is that cars are usually not good investments. Flipping vintage vehicles is nothing like flipping houses, and you most likely will not see much profit for the time and money you put into restoring a vintage vehicle.

This is where it's important to realize that the time and money you put into a vehicle is mostly for you and not for a big payoff in the end.

Understanding this early can save you a lot of disappointment in the long run. If you're determined to find a literal investment vehicle, then you need to do careful research to figure out the cars that might experience an increase in demand in the future. For example, 1980s performance cars may gain fans in the future as people who were in high school then get older and start to have more disposable income.

Choosing A Classic Car

Once you've decided why you want a classic car, it's time to decide what car you want. There's not much point in just looking at any old car as there's a wide variety and all have their different appeal. For example, your efforts at research will be a lot easier if you choose something specific like a 1968 Mustang fastback versus trying to look at all Mustang model years before 1970. Even though you might like the looks of a particular vehicle, once you research it, you might decide differently.

Research First

Before you go looking at the car you want, make sure to research it thoroughly. The great thing about classic cars is that there are almost always numerous sites and forums dedicated to them. The more popular the car, the more information you will likely find. Check out buyer's guides and price guides to find out what you should be paying and what issues you should look out for.

Drive one

This is a crucial step many potential buyers overlook: the car you've always wanted to own may not be what you expect when you drive it. Older cars are very different than new models; their brakes, engines, steering, sounds, smells, ride quality, interior comfort and safety features (or lack thereof) are vastly different than today's models.

This is why it's crucial to test drive the general model and era of vehicle that you think you want. While that car you've been eyeing is attractive in theory, it may be much less appealing once you see how it behaves in the real world.

Finding a Classic Car

Your main choices in buying classic cars include auctions, dealers and private owners. All have their various pros and cons. The best thing is start just start looking around to get a sense of what's out there. Start with classic car finder sites to see what's available and go from there.

Auctions tend to bring in high-end, desirable vehicles, and they also often offer access through the internet, which means you can get a car from nearly anywhere. Due to the large number of cars, you might get an excellent deal if no one bids on your car. However, you have very few options to inspect your prospective car, and you won't be able to return it if it has surprises. Some auctions also tack on as much as 25 percent in fees as the third party.

The benefit of dealers is that they often inspect their vehicles and usually will have no problem with you doing it as well. Some dealers also serve as middle-men between you and the seller, so you will also end up paying a higher price by default.

If you buy from a private seller, you have the benefit of knowing more about the vehicle, and you won't have to pay a bunch of third-party fees. The downside to this method there is always the possibility of running into a dishonest seller, and searching for the model you want could take more time.

Inspecting a Classic Car

Unfortunately, there are lots of opportunities for scamming in the classic car world, mostly due to uneducated buyers. One of the recommended methods for checking out a classic car is to bring a magnet with you. Many vehicles now considered classics were entirely constructed with steel; if they've been improperly repaired or have issues with rust, a magnet won't stick to the metal like it will on a standard steel panel or beam.

You might see owners claiming that their vehicle has an entirely original body with no rust or dent repairs, but the magnet test might tell you differently.

Be sure to research your model, so you know if the body is all steel or if there are panels made of something else (Corvettes, for example, have always had bodies made from fiberglass or compositive materials, not metal).

Appraise with a Friend

Better yet, appraise with a friend who knows more than you. When you buy from a private seller, that seller is probably going to spend a lot of time talking to you about the car, which can be very distracting. If you bring a friend, that friend can appraise the car uninterrupted while you talk to the owner. Furthermore, an unbiased second party can keep you from making an emotional decision on the car.

Serial Numbers and Body Codes

One little-known fact is that the serial numbers and body codes on the car can tell you a lot about what it's supposed to be. For example, the owner might tell you that the car's striking two-tone paint is original, but upon checking the paint code, you might find out that the original paint was completely different. Another example is the engine. The owner might be telling you that the V8 is the car's original engine, but the serial number reveals that it was supposed to be a six cylinder. The owner may not even be purposely misleading you, but that they were misled when they bought the car. Before checking out a specific car, arm yourself with the serial number and body code information that applies. A VIN can also identify specific characteristics of a vehicle like when it was built, which options it includes and the factory paint color.

Consult a Professional

In the end, no matter how much research you do or how confident you feel after inspecting your prospective car, it's still important to have a qualified professional double-check the vehicle for your peace of mind. Have it checked out mechanically and have a professional appraiser look at the vehicle to find any issues that you may have missed.