Buying an automobile from a private seller is risky business. There’s only one guarantee: you have less chance of successful legal compensation than you would trying to recover your $5 tip from a New York City cabbie. On the positive side, you can make out like a bandit. This is especially true for a privately owned collector car. Whether it’s a classic or a street rod, if someone else gets stuck with the time and expense of restoration, you win.
For some reason, collectors’ imaginations are fired by the proverbial “barn find”: a rare car that time and Aunt Minnie forgot. These sightings are almost as extraordinary as they are undesirable. In the vast majority of cases, the car you’ll find stuffed into someone’s fallen down garage is about as beat as the building. So the best way to find a privately owned collector car is to visit brand-specific car sites and car shows and search through local classified ads.
Generally, the better the car’s condition at the time of sale, the better the buy. That said, there are times when liberating an original owner from an unrestored can pay off. If a collectible car is all original, relatively clean and still runs, it could be a winner. Like antique furniture, an untouched gem can be worth more than a fully restored vehicle. Buy it, love it, leave it be.
Let’s say you’ve found a private seller with a collector car that may or may not need some serious restoration–depending on the vehicle’s condition, your OCD and the time and money you’re prepared to spend on the machine. Time to hit the paper trail.
Most vintage auto owners keep careful records of their car’s restoration expenses and/or upkeep. Begin by asking to see any and all the paperwork, and any pictures documenting restoration. Suggest a cup of coffee, find a comfy spot and take all the time you need to examine the entire portfolio. Ask for explanations– or silence– when required.
Next, have a look at the car’s drive train and engine. Don’t worry if they need work. Provided you’re dealing with a mass-market machine of some kind, plenty of companies will sell vintage vehicle restorers a replacement engine and related parts. Alternatively, you might be able to find mission critical pieces in a vintage auto salvage yard.
Then check the bodywork. Begin with the spaces between body panels. The quality of the sheetmetal alignment will vary according to make, model and manufacturer. The gaps of a 1958 Porsche were uniform and should remain so. On a 1948 Chevrolet, you wouldn’t much care. To ensure consistent panel, insert a nickel into the open spaces at all the critical points. Pay close attention to the doors, the engine (compartment) and hood.
Then scan the entire lower portion of the car’s body for rust. Look inside all the car’s body cavities, around the wheel wells and trunk and, particularly, under the spare tire. Bring a flashlight and don’t be afraid to poke, prod and push. Tap the metal to [try to] discover any filler.
Rust appears as scales, bubbles or rough edges. It tends to start at places where dirt accumulates; moisture clings to sod and starts the rusting process. Check around the trim, lower areas and seams. If the rust infects structural areas of the car, unless you’re buying the car for parts, pass. Bodywork is the exclusive province of expensive experts.
If the collector car’s a runner, run it; and not just around the block. Don’t talk to the owner; listen for any groaning, scraping or whistling sounds. Notice any mechanical hesitation. When you’re done, open the hood and inhale deeply.
When you’re done, leave. Find an expert– preferably a professional car restorer– go back and do it all again. Get an estimate on how much it will cost to put things right— even if you plan on doing it yourself. Then double the amount. And then forget the whole thing and buy a concourse-winning car.
A vintage car needing a comprehensive rebuild can require between a thousand to two thousand hours of labor to put right. A competent auto restoration shop will charge you roughly $50 per hour for the privilege. That’s $50k to $100k, plus parts (which can double the bill). Very few collector cars are worth that much money; the ones that are will cost you the same again to buy in the first place.
Bottom line: restoring decrepit cars is a horrendous investment— at least for the person footing the bill. In contrast, a pristine, fully restored automobile offers a priceless opportunity to buy a bargain. Seriously. While novice collectors are often shocked by the prices of immaculate classics and vintage automobiles, buying the best possible example of a restored model is almost always cheaper than trying to create one.