How to buy a Classic Car
Buying a classic car will probably be one of the biggest purchases of your life and one that hopefully will bring many years of joy – and driving and owning pleasure.
Your new car will bring you numerous hours of satisfaction, but there may very likely be some lows as well, as you sink more and more of your precious time and money into your dream car.
Classic cars are not cheap to maintain or restore.
This is a basic guide to help you plan and find the classic car of your dreams, so that you are able to fully enjoy your investment for many years to come.
Deciding to purchase a classic car is rarely straightforward. Often, your first consideration will be the feelings of the people you live with. If you are single, life and your discussion are a little bit easier. Another key point to consider is where you will be storing the vehicle, without cluttering up your drive or garage. And these considerations are just the start.
Whether you are thinking of buying the chrome bumper MGB advertised in the newsagent’s window, that must-have Ferrari 250 GTO you have been dreaming of, or the E-Type Jaguar that has been on axle stands in a barn for 12 years, there are so many areas you have to consider.
Sometimes, classic cars appeal to enthusiasts because despite their age, they are still very capable cars in their own right – and there’s something about them that’s just fascinating.
If you buy something rare, however, you need to be prepared to pay more for parts. In many cases, you'll have to get parts custom made, which can be very expensive.
Driving a classic car identifies you as an individual. No one drives a classic car because they have to – they do it simply because they want to.
Sound knowledge is key to a successful purchase of a classic car. Get to know the price ranges and specification. In-depth research is crucial, as is professional support and advice. Join an owners’ club. Ask questions.
This document provides a guide to all the basics of purchasing a classic car. Use the information as much as you can, and it will help you ensure you have the knowledge you need to make a sound investment.
Though it might be tempting to ignore dull old common sense and rush into a purchase, this is not the time to let your heart rule your head – so before doing anything, just stand back and think!
You also need to remember that you shouldn’t expect to make a killing on your purchase if you plan to sell it on later – there are people out there who do this on a daily basis.
Some super-rare or super-cheap cars are worth taking on as projects, but you need to tread carefully.
Hopefully, this publication will help you make the right decision at the right price, and make it enjoyable without any painful experiences, just pleasurable ones.
Be aware that classic cars require effort to stay in the shape they are. Many people buy a classic with the thought, "Wouldn't it be fun to drive that after work every day?" Realistically, there will always be something that needs fixing.
“There is nothing absolutely nothing on the planet as good as driving a classic car… You’ll realise pretty quickly just how rubbish your own car is, but who cares when you’re behind the wheel of a dream machine?”
What is a classic?
Everyone has their own idea of what a classic car is. There are almost as many ways to define “classic car” as there are enthusiasts to disagree over the definition. Like “sports car” it is a term that can mean what you want it to mean.
Some people think that having wire wheels or chrome bumpers defines a classic car; others state that a motor car of 10, 20 or 30 years old qualifies as a classic. Even some of today’s modern manufactured cars have been classed as classics, depending on who produced them, how many were made, the technology behind them or even the designer.
A car that people begin to buy or keep because it offers something a newer car does not can clearly be viewed as a classic. But equally the car you call a classic may be one of the unassuming and sometimes mundane cars of yesteryear, which are interesting purely because they are out of date.
Some outstanding cars become classics before many other vehicles, but in the end every car becomes interesting simply because it becomes old.
Owning your classic
Whatever age you choose or the value of your classic car, the hazards you will face in keeping it on the road and ensuring it is ready when you want to use it are similar. Buying the car is one hurdle, maintaining it is another – and fixing it when it goes wrong can be the most frustrating part of all. But you must be prepared to roll up your sleeves on occasions and get stuck in.
You may fully enjoy the experience or it may make you want never to look at a classic car again – what suits one person would be no good at all for another, and there is as much variety in people as in the cars they long for. But whatever your tastes, you need to try to find as many positives as you can and enjoy all the best parts of owning your pride and joy.
Planning ahead is one of the fundamentals of classic motoring. Unlike modern motor vehicles, where the bonnet never needs opening for 12 months or 18,000 miles, your classic will need a great deal of care and attention. You will need to see that it is fed and watered, and that all the basic checks are carried out. You also need to make sure it is stored correctly and in the right environment – and with the right insurance.
What to go for
There are now so many questions when looking for a classic car, unless you know full well what you are looking for. Even then, you need to ask yourself if the car is right for you and what you want from your purchase.
To begin with, you may not be quite sure what you should spend, where you should buy from and what concerns there are with specific models. So you flick through some classic car magazines and spend hours on the internet.
There are so many in varying conditions, ranging from the concours winner, through the ones in usable condition but in need of repairs, to the “barn find” that will have to have a good two years’ work before it even rolls out of the garage.
You need to be particularly wary if you take on a “project” – a car in unfinished condition that you need to work on. These generally have numerous missing parts that are no longer available, and you will need either to search for the parts or make them up. That’s when you realise you either love the whole experience or hate it – in which case you will probably end up selling on your “project”, in much the same condition as when you bought it. Even worse, you might find that the “project” is only suitable for the tip, or maybe for spares for another enthusiast in the same boat.
But this is not the time to give up. If you follow the advice in this publication on what to do and what not to do, there’s no reason you shouldn’t end up with a car that’s right for you. Remember that the main point in purchasing a classic car is to enjoy it – not to invest fortunes in some old relic with no hope as if you could be its saviour.
Buying a classic car does need some prior thought, a lot of research and some patience if it isn’t going to end up being more trouble than it’s worth, then costing more then you bargained for.
As there are many so-called experts out there in classic car world, you have to make sure you are clear in your own mind about what you want and at what cost.
First steps to be considered
How to buy a classic motorcar
Listed are some of the essential points to consider before buying a classic car – you need to give each point some thought before you make a final decision.
Consider your budget
The first thing you need to do is figure out your budget. If, like many of us, you have limited resources, you need to calculate early on what you can spend. If price is not a concern, you can do your research and select the make, model, year and specific options that you would like to have. Even if you do not calculate the exact amount you are able to spend, having a rough estimate will help to narrow down the type of classic car you can afford during the next steps.
Remember that you will need to pay the cost of insuring the car, although this can be very reasonable compared with modern-day motor vehicles. You should also bear in mind that there will be other incidental costs that you may not have bargained for.
Take into account which model you want
You probably have a rough idea of what model of classic car you want. If you don’t, you need to start by looking around. Once you have the slightest inkling, you need to attend some classic car meetings, club meetings, auctions and anywhere else that’s relevant to the car you are considering. When you attend the event, talk to the owners – these are the people who have had first-hand experience of the car and suffered the common problems, and spent hours and fortunes getting to know all about the car. They will know other people you should talk to and where you will find cars for sale and parts suppliers. They will also be able to tell you about specific years and mode ranges, and let you know of any problems that apply to them.
Go to these events armed with all the questions – the ones you have read about and the ones people have suggested to you – as current owners are the best to ask. Be careful, though, as you can get befriended by the kind of owner who is so passionate about his beloved car that he has no friends left to discuss it with!
You should also look at some classic car value guides, as these can be very useful tools for buyers. There are quite a few on the market, and all give roughly similar results. From these you will be able to work out what car you can afford, as they list the cars with various conditions, making it easier to establish if the price the car is advertised at is reasonable. They can also sometimes help you with bargaining, although you need to be careful when you do this, as the sellers will use them too.
It’s also useful to have a look at past auctions and see what cars were sold for. When you do this, though, you need to remember to take off the buyer’s premium – this varies with each auction house.
Also remember that some classic cars are worth more if they have good provenance, if it was the first or last model, if the history was outstanding or if the car was involved with a memorable event to do with the manufacture. You will also find that concours winners command a premium.
Reason for purchasing a classic car
You will need to consider what you are buying the car for. Will it be a vehicle in daily use, one that ventures out on high days and holidays, or a very special show car? However you use it, it will end up taking up your time – some more than others – and in some cases it will also require huge amounts of cash.
If you are considering showing the car, a previously restored car would be the best bet. However, when entering classic cars into concours events, you need to remember that the judges are very knowledgeable about specific models, what a car should be like and what is right and wrong for it. To consider a fully restored classic car you must get your facts right.
You might also be thinking of buying your classic as an investment. This can be difficult unless you have studied the markets and know what the correct values are, or you have been offered a car that has been in a barn for a number of years and the owner is not aware of its value. This is becoming more scarce as time goes on.
Time and space
Your time will be seriously affected and you will also need to consider what spare space you have. In fact, your budget and the time and space you have available tend to be related. Be warned that owning a classic car will almost certainly affect your personal life – but in some cases this can be for the better, as the time you spend with your car can be quite therapeutic.
Classic cars need a lot of time and maintenance, especially one in need of total restoration, or one that you are intending to show.
Paying top price for the totally restored car is sometimes the answer, but even the ones that have been properly restored, using original parts and manufacturing methods, will still need maintenance.
Restoration work and maintenance is very expensive on all classic cars, so if your budget is tight and you have the time and mechanical ability, you can do much of the work yourself. However, if your knowledge of older motor cars is limited or you are not good with your hands, it is wiser not to try to tinker with it yourself.
If you do have the time and skills, buying the car you want at a discounted price knowing major work is required is a very good bet. That way, you will come to know every inch of the car and be able to feel confident that the repairs have been carried out correctly. However, you do need to avoid the temptation of rushing into repairs or just making do. Cutting corners will affect the end result and value of the vehicle.
Never wedge a classic car into a tight space. You will find they do need extra space all around. If you are thinking of restoring the car you will need at least two car spaces and plenty of extra room for storage. There is nothing worse than not having enough space and risking damage to parts that have been removed from the car. You also need to ensure that sensitive components are stored in the right conditions – ideally you need dry and cool areas for storing parts such as interior trim and body panels.
Mechanical abilities and knowledge
The whole purchase of your classic car will revolve around your mechanical abilities and technical knowledge of motor vehicles – and you need to calculate this very carefully as mistakes can be costly.
If you have little or no knowledge, you will be limited as to the condition of the car you take on, and this will of course affect the price. The best workshop manual in the world will be no help if you have little mechanical ability. To overhaul an engine, gearbox or axle in some cases requires a number of special tools. And while electrical wiring and equipment on older cars is often very basic, the slightest error could lead to a total short and destroy the car.
However, if you are mechanically minded and good with your hands, you fully understand where this is going. Restoration work can be very pricey on classic cars, so if you have some mechanical ability and a limited budget you may want to aim for a car that needs some major work but is still driveable or in a decent condition. You can then drive the car and plan the restoration projects around when you wish to use the car, having all the pleasure from it while also restoring it to its former beauty – or making it even better.
Local car clubs
A local classic car club can be an invaluable source of help in finding the right car or making a purchase, as club members have gone through the same experiences. If possible, find a club that concentrates on the specific type of cars you are looking for– you may have to travel some distance to make contact with them or wait for their next meeting. However, most clubs do have a resident expert on hand, who is always willing to assist and advise.
They are also aware of counterfeits and cars to stay away from – and of course they are experts on problems and concerns with specific models. They will have an answer to nearly any question you ask them, and it will almost always be a valid and relevant one.
Find a classic car mechanic
If you are not going to carry out any repairs or specialist work on your car, you will need to find a reliable and competent mechanic, electrician, panel beater, painter and trimmer. Even if you have the abilities to carry out a wide range of repairs, there are always one or two areas where you will require assistance. That could well include the tool you will only use once, the specialised press or the spray shop and G wheel you will not want to own.
Finding the people with the right skills whom you can trust is not easy, as they are very few and far between. Unfortunately, the motor trade has been tarred with a very sticky brush and the trade is open to abuse, as anyone can call themselves an expert or specialist.
Usually, the car clubs know of the right type of people to use. Again ask questions, find out if the people you are going to use have customer testimonials – word of mouth is the best and most reliable form of advertising.
A good mechanic will always recommend the best option to undertake first – and the best option will also be the safest. Safety should always be your first consideration –and cutting corners to save money is never worth it in the long run.
Search for the car
You may have spent quite a bit of time on the previous steps, narrowing down the spend, pinpointing the ideal car for your needs, reading and talking to all those people, but be assured it has been well worth it. The next steps should not be rushed, as the car you are looking for is out there somewhere – just have patience. After all, rushing things now could lead to regret later – when you see the car you really wanted turn up weeks after you bought the wrong one.
In fact, locating the perfect car could be the step that takes the longest of all – or at least it could feel like it. Just how long it takes, though, depends on the car and criteria you have set.
By now you should have a rough idea of the pricing of the particular car you want, both through the research you have undertaken and the classic car club owners who have suggested ideal prices.
Classic car clubs usually have the best prepared and restored cars, as they like to show off what they have. However, the best cars are usually owned by car club members and are usually also the highest priced. If you do buy from a car club you have been mixing with, it is highly unlikely that you will be sold a troublesome car.
This is the time to ask all those probing questions, and particularly to do all you can to build up a picture of the car’s past, as this will tell you a great deal about what has happened to the car and the areas you will need to focus on.
Local papers sometimes turn up a classic car that may be worth purchasing, but this is rare. Classic car magazines are packed with a variety of cars, and eBay also has some classic cars, but you need to be very careful with this type of purchase. Internet sites have masses of classic cars for sale, and again you need to be very careful with purchasing a car through this method.
Classic car dealers do in general have better cars for sale, as they have a reputation to keep up and in most cases have to offer some type of warranty, but this is likely to be limited to the end of the road, owing to the nature of the car.
The major problem with any type of purchase is that the car is usually miles away from your home, but you should still not be tempted to rush. Further on in this guide, there is a check sheet to use when buying a classic car, and the recommended time to carry out a full, in-depth, pre-purchase audit should be around four hours. Obviously, this depends on the type of vehicle and its value. If you were purchasing an Aston Martin, Bentley or Ferrari it is not recommended to do anything less. However, for a lesser four-cylinder model your inspection should still take at least two hours.
You must be very careful when purchasing a classic car far from home. Here are some tips and fraud preventions used when selling classic cars to follow:
Very low price: If the deal seems too good to be true, it probably is. Beware of the seller who says they are “moving abroad and needs to sell the car quickly”.
Wrong phone numbers: Scammers do not like to talk to people – they prefer to use email. Or they call you on an unidentifiable number.
Meet away from home address: If it is suggested that you meet at a supermarket or pub car park, this is not right. Classic car owners do not sell their cars this way.
Request for personal information: Do not give out your personal information until you are quite sure the person you are buying from is legitimate. There is no reason they should know your details until the deal is done. You should also follow this rule when selling a car.
Spurious companies: You need to be aware of spurious companies. Starting a web site is so easy now, and it could look very professional. Make sure there are customer testimonials and links to professional sites. Ask questions on owners’ club sites, and find out if anyone is aware of the said company.
Money transfers: Many spurious companies ask for money to be transferred to accounts as a viewing deposit. Unless they are a known company and the deposit is refundable, be very careful. Viewing deposits are quite common these days – it is a way of getting future customers in the car and ensuring they cannot say no. With no cooling off period, the car could turn out not to be what you wanted.
Inspect the vehicle: inspecting the vehicle before buying is very important, but this is the difficult part. As previously mentioned, it is something you must take seriously and it will not be a five-minute look around, kick the tyres and smell the leather.
You must follow some basic rules when inspecting all classic cars. If the car is local, all well and good – you will have the time. Always take someone who knows what to look for, as two pairs of eyes are better then one. Follow a checklist– a vehicle inspection and appraisal sheet is included later in this document.
Always ask for the details of the car before turning up so you can do some homework on the specific vehicle.
Take some basic tools with you – torch, rags and a selection of screwdrivers.
Check that the VINs (Vehicle Identification Numbers) match.
Go armed with the following list of questions:
Always test drive the car and remember it is not your car yet – and treat it with respect. Make sure you are covered on insurance and make sure you check the car over fully to make sure it is completely roadworthy. And always check oils, water, belts and tyres before and after the road test. Leave the car for a good five minutes and restart it to make sure it fires back up correctly, too.
The best time to check for oil and water leaks is 10 to 15 minutes after an engine has had a good, long run. Make sure the engine and gearbox get to normal running temperature. Leave the car running for a while to make sure it does not overheat and the cooling fans cut in correctly.
The list continues, and this is documented in the vehicle inspection and appraisal sheet below.
Check some of the repairs that have been recently carried out to find out whether they have been carried out with pride or just made to do – this tells you a lot about the owner and how the car has been looked after.
If the car is in serious need of repair a lot of the above will not be needed. If you are purchasing a project car and know you will be sinking years of your time and money into it, most of the above can be skipped over. However, the better condition of the car, the more detail you will need to go into and the closer the inspection.
If the car is any distance away, you will have to make arrangements to locate a decent recommended mechanic or a willing club member in the area.
Some owners do not like more then two people looking around the car, and of course the more people you have the more you find, but not necessarily in the areas you need to concentrate on – with too many people, it can become a case of who can find the most faults.
If the car you are looking at is expensive, have a specialist look at the vehicle in his workshop. It may cost far more, but it can be worth it and will mean you have a good record to keep. The inspection will probably take a whole day, with the report to follow a couple of days later, and it will be well worth the wait.
Inspecting the vehicle
This is going to be the hardest part and the one you have to spend the right amount of time on, making 100% sure your heart does not rule your head. We all see a car and think, “that’s the one”, only to find out it is the biggest pile of rubbish.
Please take your time on this section.
The first point to make is that, if you cannot make the appointment to view, you should do the honourable thing and let the seller know. There is nothing worse than hanging around waiting for someone to show, only for them not to turn up. So make sure the time suits both parties and let them know if you are interested that the inspection will be taking at least a couple of hours. If the seller is a serious owner, be assured it will take longer, as the life history of the whole family will be on the kitchen table before you know it.
Always inspect the car in good daylight and avoid the rain. Arrange a different time if these conditions cannot be met.
On arrival, take a look at where the car lives and what is around it. Take a look at the surrounding area to see if there are any old car bits and pieces lying around. You might not find out much about the car from the condition of the house, but the garage can tell you a great deal about how the car has been kept.
By now all the questions have been asked and you have seen the seller’s property. You have built up a good picture of the owner and the car, and you should by now feel comfortable.
Always be wary if a car has been sat under a plastic sheet or tarpaulin – cars do not react well to being covered for long periods through differing temperatures. It’s not a good sign, either, if the car has been sat on grass or on a damp patch of land.
Make sure you have the car positioned on a flat surface and stand well back to make sure it sits straight. Do not have the car under a shaded area – get the light to it and stand back again and look down the sides. Pick up the vital lines of the car and make sure they are straight.
Once you have some clearance around the car, make sure the shut lines and gaps are even on the doors, bonnet and boot lid. The bumpers should sit straight and the rubbers should not be lifting.
Please use the inspection and appraisal sheet we always use – a copy is attached to this document. When using this form, walk through it beforehand so you do not keep walking around the car. Tick each point off and score the area. If the subject is good or poor, give it a score out of five, one being good, and five poor. For any area that scores three, four or five, add a comment on the back of the form so you are able to refer to it later. This will be your bargaining tool when it comes to agreeing a price.
With every point you make in the comments section, you can then add a figure to put that area right. Once you have completed the form, it will give you a good idea of how the car fairs up. This will also help if you do not purchase this car – as you look at other cars, you build up a good picture of the problems with that particular model.
Do not make comments about the car or its condition, as this will just upset the owner, but keep asking questions as you proceed with the inspection.
Make sure you lift all the carpets, inspect the floors in each corner, and find out if the floor was painted originally. Take out the spare wheel and the boot carpets; see if any welding has taken place. Is the boot well wet or damp, and if so, why?
As stated in the previous section, running the car is very important, and you should check whether it has been run before you arrived – as only a cold start will give you accurate oil pressure readings. Oil pressure should be at its best when cold. If the car is cold, do not go revving the engine to high RPM – respect the engine.
Listen very carefully when the car is started from cold and during the warm-up phase, listening for any knocks, rattles or unusual noises. Ask questions – “What’s that noise?” “Is that usual?” and “How long do you run the car before you drive off?”
Check to see if the correct handbook is with the car – it can be invaluable; ask if the owner has a workshop manual.
Please see the previous section regarding the road test.
Always observe the fundamental basics of checking a car over: never touch the engine when it is running, especially the belts; never open the radiator cap when the engine is hot and never touch the HT leads when the motor is running.
When you do drive the car, make sure you like it!
Agreeing on a price
This is the section where you can get it just right and walk away with a good deal, or get it wrong – you will always know when you are driving it home.
With all the research you have put together and the market prices collected, plus the vehicle inspection and appraisal sheet you have completed, you have enough data around you to have a very good idea what the car is worth.
Use this data, show the owner what other cars on the market are going for, obviously, and choose the cheaper ones. Go through the points you picked up in your inspection and what you feel the cost will be.
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.
If you deal with this correctly you should be in a prime position to bargain with the owner to lower the price. Never accept the asking price – take your time and discuss it in a friendly manner.
Purchasing the car
Once you have decided to purchase the car, you will need to get your finance prepared and work with the seller on the best option for both of you. If the car is any distance away, this could be problematic, as you want the car and will not let the funds go until you have it in your possession, and the seller wants the money before the car leaves his possession.
Before you leave the seller, have a full checklist of all the documents you will need, including the service and repair history and contact details of people who have repaired the car in the past.
If you have to travel some distance to collect the car, it may well be worth having it transported, but you will need to be present to make sure the car was in the same condition as when you last saw it.
You must make sure you are happy with the transaction and that you do not become a victim of fraud. It does happen – you just have to make sure that all the T’s are crossed and the I’s dotted. Do not use a middleman.
Moving the car
Make sure the car has a current MOT and that it matches the car’s details.
Make sure the car has a valid road fund licence.
If the previous owner has removed their personal number plate, ensure that you have copies of all the relevant paperwork.
Make sure you have the log book and that all the details are correct.
You must make sure the car is fully insured and it would be wise if you are travelling any distance to arrange breakdown cover. Not that all classic cars break down, but you must be sure that if a breakdown does occur, someone is at hand to recover you and the car as quickly as possible. The last thing you want is to leave a classic car on the side of the road.
Shop around for insurance quotes.
A large number of insurance companies include national and European breakdown cover, but they do have a number of clauses. Make sure all incidental costs are included, so that you get the car home securely and in one piece, you get home without waiting for the next bus and all the costs are covered.
When you take out insurance cover, check all the small print, as there are a number of hidden incidentals you must be aware of:
You have paid a lot of money for your new car, so make sure it is well protected. However, do not go fitting the latest all-singing-all-dancing alarm system, as this will stick out like a sore thumb. Remember it is a classic and when fitting a new-fangled security device, ensure it is not an eyesore – make sure it is hidden, so it cannot be seen and the thieves have no idea where to start looking.
A good tracking unit is always wise, so that if the car is lifted you will be able to track it wherever it is. The thieves know this, and they know that they have very little time to act, so it is advisable to get the best tracking unit you can.
As classic cars do not have central locking, make sure that all the locks are in good order and that the door cannot be opened – or the car started – with any old key. Old locks do wear easily and have been known to be picked with a good nail file.
Classic car electrics are very basic, so immobilisers tend also to be basic. Make sure the immobiliser you go for has more than one cut point (ignition and fuel lines).
Many classic cars have their chassis number marked on numerous locations around the car. If yours hasn’t, get it done, ensuring it is marked on the back of the door panels, behind seat backs, under roof linings etc.
Insurance companies always ask if the car will be stored in a secure garage at all times, and this is when you need to check the small print. If at any time you stay away from home, ensure that you have correct secure storage – hotel car parks, for example, are not classed as secure. If you are taking the car abroad, be particularly careful to ensure the car will be fully covered, in all respects.
Storing your classic car is important and this will be covered in future reports.
The price of classic car insurance is always based on how many miles you will cover in a year. Make sure the figures you provide are correct, as, if anything does happen, the mileage of the car will certainly be checked by the insurer.
Always enter the mileage you think you will cover in a year, and if you realise that you are likely to exceed the figure you gave, let the insurance company know. There will probably not be a charge, but it is worth telling them.
Who will drive the car?
As with all car insurance, make sure that everyone who might be driving the car is covered. There may be occasions when you need someone else to drive the car, so always make sure in advance that they are covered.
If for any reason your car cannot be driven away after purchase, you will need to use a good transport company to move the car. Always insist that the car is loaded on to a flat bed trailer – never lift and tow, or tow the car on a rope.
Always make sure you find a respectable transport company who care about your car as much as you do and have good insurance cover.
Moving the car in the wrong way is likely to cause damage and your insurance will not cover incorrect transportation.