Automotive Mileposts  
   

TEN RULES
FOR BUYING A CLASSIC CAR

Image: 1974 Cadillac Fleetwood BroughamIt seems everyone has heard the story of the classic car owned by the older woman who only drove it to church on Sunday, and sold it for next to nothing when she could no longer drive it. That probably did happen at some point, but in reality if the car had only been driven to church on Sundays, chances are the engine is full of sludge from not being allowed to warm up long enough to burn off all the bad gunk that builds up in engines.

Automotive Mileposts has come across several such cars over the years. Like the 1968 Chrysler Imperial LeBaron that was 100 percent original and very distinguished in original Forest Green paint with black vinyl roof and black leather interior. Yes, it had the rear air conditioner and yes, it worked. AM/FM stereo? Absolutely. The car was ordered new and driven for several years until the husband died. After that, the widow took care of it as if it were driven daily, but it sat in the garage most of the time. One would spend a great deal of time inspecting very closely to find a flaw, if one existed. The woman's family was selling it as she was too old to live by herself at that point, and no longer had use for the car.

Then there was the 1971 Ford Thunderbird Four Door Landau that was equipped with literally every option offered except for the power sunroof and leather upholstery. It had Sure-Track brakes, Brougham cloth high back split bench front seats, electric defroster, AM/FM stereo, etc. The Tan paint was perfect, as were the Dark Tobacco interior and Alligator-grain vinyl roof. The car was being sold because they were retiring to their lake home, and would only need one car.

Yes, exceptional classic cars are still available and finding the perfect car can be a challenge. It can also be a fun project for you, as you can learn a lot about the particular year, make, and model of interest in the process. And you should learn all you can about them, before you start looking. Being well informed is essential as you begin your search.

Here are our Ten Rules for Buying a Classic Car:

1. Locate a one owner car. The best possible situation is a wealthy elderly female owner who has maintained the car regularly, but rarely drives it. Often it was the last car her deceased husband gave her, and has received special care due to that fact.

2. The car must have been stored properly over the years in a residential garage. A carport is not acceptable, as it doesn't provide adequate protection from the elements. The garage must have been dry and dark. A car parked in a garage for 30 years with the afternoon sun shining through a window for several hours each day onto the upper passenger seat back will likely have some fading or dried out upholstery issues.

3. Check the mileage. You're looking for low, but not too low. Think somewhere around 36,000-48,000, or the equivalent of about 3 to 4 years of normal use total. A classic car that's never been driven will likely have more wrong with it and need more work than one that's been driven and serviced regularly, but not driven very much. The perfect scenario is a car that has been driven regularly but not frequently, and one that was driven long enough each time to get fully warmed up and exercised, without putting a lot of miles on it.

Cars that were purchased new and immediately stored away and never driven may be tempting, but chances are they will require new seals in the transmission, a new set of tires, new belts, hoses, cooling system flush and fill, oil and filter change, etc. Then once you start driving it, you will need to replace the water pump as it will likely go out due to age, the original timing chain with nylon will need replacement as it can go bad due to age, not just miles, plus there will be other things with a limited service life. In short, you will likely find yourself spending a lot of money on things that a well maintained, carefully driven and stored vehicle won't require.

A 30 year old, 36,000 mile car would have been driven an average of 1,200 miles per year/100 miles per month/25 miles per week. Enough to exercise it and keep it in good running condition, but not enough to allow for much wear and tear.

4. The paint must be original, and presentable. By "presentable" we mean shiny, with no major issues. This means minor scratches (surface only, not scrapes from hitting a car/tree/garage wall). Parking lot dents are OK as long as they aren't numerous. (More than one or two would be numerous.)

5. The vinyl roof/convertible top must be original. Factory vinyl tops should still look new, with no signs of dryness and the vinyl should be smooth with the original level of shine. Convertible tops can show a little wear as they are somewhat prone to shrinkage just from time, and raising and lowering the top even occasionally can create wrinkles and creases. Neither should have separating or split seams, holes, or be excessively soiled or stained.

6. Interiors should be original and pristine. This means no rips or tears, no faded areas on fabrics or carpeting. Leather upholstery can be wrinkled, but not cracked. Leather should not be dry and hard, but soft, supple, and it should still have that factory fresh "sheen" to it. Avoid cars with cigarette burns, moldy smells, or anything that has been recovered.

7. Don't rush your purchase. The right car will come along when the time is right.

8. Don't compromise. If you do, and you end up buying a car that's almost perfect for you, you can be certain that the perfect one will make itself known to you shortly thereafter. (It never fails, trust us on this. Do not ask us how we know this.)

9. Set a limit on how much you're willing to pay, and do not increase it. Try not to spend more than $7,500. There are exceptions to this rule, of course you would never expect to find a 1953 Cadillac Eldorado or something of that nature for such a low price unless it failed to meet most of the other rules, but many classic cars can be had for close to that amount. Rare cars might go higher, but you should arm yourself with documentation ahead of time so you know a vehicle's worth before you make contact with the seller. You want to know what similar cars have sold for recently. Asking prices mean nothing, as a car is only worth what someone else is willing to pay for it. If the seller is asking an unrealistic price, tell them so in a nice way, advise them of the price range you're willing to discuss, express a continued interest in the car, and leave them your name and phone number so they can call you if they reconsider. Be sure they understand you will continue to look for a car in the mean time. Your offer will be more attractive to them in several weeks or months if the car doesn't sell.

10. Remind yourself that it ALWAYS costs more to restore a car than it does to find an original, low mileage, well maintained car. ALWAYS. Be prepared to walk away. Buying a classic car is often based on emotions, which should be kept in check in the presence of a potential purchase. And it becomes very difficult to do so when you're looking at that Mandarin Orange 1975 Cadillac Eldorado Convertible that reminds you of the one you saw in the showroom back in the fall of 1974.

Your assignment is to first gather all the information you can about the car of your dreams, then go forth armed with these ten rules and find that dream car you've always wanted. As we say, there's only one way to stop wanting one.