By on July 25, 2011

[Editor's note: Part One of Steve Lang's updated guide to used car buying can be found here]

Schedule the test drive for a time when there’s no rush. If it’s bad weather, reschedule. Take a little notebook, write a quick check list based on this article, and make notes. When you approach the car’s owner, be friendly, polite and courteous. Do NOT try to “beat them down” to get a better deal. While you have every right to ask direct questions, you have no more right to insult their car than one of their children.

First, check the tires. Pull the steering wheel all the way to the left (and then right) so you can see the entire tread. Uneven tire wear– marks on the side or deep grooves in the middle– may indicate suspension issues. And nothing screams “lemon” louder than cheap, bald or strangely worn rubber.

Next, open and close all the doors several times, including the trunk and hood. Check for paint on the hinges and moldings. If a door creaks, it’s usually no big deal. If a door has trouble closing, it can signal anything from a broken hinge to frame damage.

On the driver’s side, make sure that the VIN sticker or VIN plate hasn’t been removed behind the driver’s side windshield.

Have a quick look at the panel gaps, especially the hood and trunk. Unless you’re looking at an old Land Rover, they should all be even. Check for water leakage in the trunk. Damp and/or a mildew smell often indicates problems underneath.

When you climb aboard, don’t be put off by worn seats or busted radios. Most interior surfaces and parts can be repaired and/or replaced easily and cheaply.

Lower the window and fire up the car– a few times. Do you hear any tapping or pinging sounds, or does it kick over with a smooth ‘vrooom’ and settle into an easy, quiet idle?

Test all the buttons and switches including the radio stations. Bring someone with you or ask the owner if he can help you out with the remainder buttons and turn stalks. Have them turn on the ‘left’ signal and look at the front and rear to make sure the bulbs work. Repeat with the right.

Then check the head lights along with the brights. Break lights should be checked in the rear as well as reverse. This may be your only time to verify their proper operation before owning the vehicle. So take the time to do it.

Finally have the fellow spray their windshield and make sure the wipers are in good order. Thank them for helping them you and then test the emergency brake to ensure that it’s operating properly. If you’re driving a stickshift you will want to do this later in the test drive on a steep upward incline.

Flip on the A/C. It should kick out cool air within fifteen seconds of ignition. With an older vehicle the performance of the A/C system should be one of the more critical concerns. (HVAC repairs can run as high as $500 to $1500.) When you’re on the road, test the heat and the A/C again to make sure the temperature and fan speed are constant.

Finally before going on the road lower your windows and turn the steering wheel all the way to the left and right. The motion should be seamless and silent. If there’s a lot of resistance, or the force required is uneven, the steering system may need anything from power steering fluid (cheap) to a power steering pump assembly (moderate) to a new rack (first born).

Now put the car in gear. Aside from a few models (older Mercedes in particular), a late or rough shift from park indicates that the car’s transmission may soon give up the ghost. If you experience very rough or late shifting, you’re done.

Brake force should be quick and constant. Unless the brakes have been recently replaced (ask), you shouldn’t hear any squeaking sounds.

Drive the car through a variety of traffic conditions, inclines and speeds, for at least a half hour. When going uphill, take your foot off the accelerator for a moment. Coast downhill as well. If the car’s transmission hunts, clunks or has trouble catching, the vehicle probably has a transmission or linkage issue.

If you hear a lot of ‘clacking’ or other unusual engine noises on initial acceleration, the engine’s components may need attention. If there’s an oil gauge, keep an eye on it. It should show approximately 25 to 80 psi during acceleration, and 10 to 20 when idling. The coolant temperature should hit a fixed point within ten minutes and never move.

After about twenty minutes of driving, take the car to a gas station. Keep the engine on. Open the hood and the gas cover release to make sure they’re in proper working order. If you know where the transmission dipstick is (and it’s a damn good idea to find out), check the level. Does it have bubbles? If the fluid is brown or black, it could be a sign of future transmission issues.

Turn the vehicle off and check the oil. If it’s not between the marks (too low or too high) or milky brown, you’re done.

Finally, get a wet paper towel, wipe the dirt off the relevant reservoirs and check the coolant, power steering and brake fluids to make sure they’re at their proper levels. S-l-o-w-l-y open the reservoir tank and check the coolant’s color. If it’s a multi-colored muck or brownish black, note it down.

After leaving the gas station, see if you can find a nice open parking lot or area where you can do a few ‘figure 8’s’. Lower the windows and turn the steering wheel all the way to the left. Drive very slowly and see whether you have any ‘clicking noises’ near the wheels. If it does, you will likely need to have the CV axle replaced on that side. Now turn it all the way to the right side and repeat. The turns should be ‘click’ and noise free.

By this point, you should have a pretty good idea whether your next step is towards purchase or home sweet home. If you’re blowing it off, thank the owner politely and leave promptly, without engaging in any further discussion whatsoever. (“It’s not what I had in mind.”) If you’re ready to move forward, it’s time to schedule a professional inspection.

[Mr. Lang invites TTAC readers to share theirused car test drive advice below. He can be reached directly at steve.lang@thetruthaboutcars.com]

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47 Comments on “How to Buy a Used Car Part Two: The Test Drive...”


  • avatar
    highrpm

    Steve, here is what I see in cars less than 10 years old- the worst problems will come from accidents that were poorly repaired.

    Take the average Copart insurance totaled vehicle. Let’s say the radiator leaks – can you do a short-term fix with JB Weld? How about using the same stuff to fix some broken headlight mounting tabs?

    When you straighten the metal underneath the fenders and bumper, do you a for close enough? Do you reapply rustproofing once everything is straight?

    What about that damaged wire harness? Do you replace it (expensive) or just run electrical tape over the exposed wires?

    My point is that damaged vehicles can be fixed properly or on the cheap with many corners cut. The cutting of corners will eventually results in problems.

  • avatar
    TEXN3

    Another way to tell if the car may have been damaged and/or cheaply refinished… all the trim pieces around the inlets on a front bumper are typically black, not body colored.

  • avatar
    brandloyalty

    Excellent advice. A few more ideas:

    A car that’s been warmed up prior to your arrival can be a yellow flag to hide startup problems. Open the drivers door slightly and pull up on the hinge end to check for play in the hinges. Loose hinges can indicate poor maintenance or higher mileage than indicated. Watch for blue smoke when throttling up after idling for a minute or so. Check all heater and wiper settings, not just to see if they work. Check all the windows, door locks etc. for operation. A trailer hitch can indicate hard usage. Look for paintmarker writing indicating rebuilt/replaced components. Research online for problems typical of the model in question.

  • avatar
    threeer

    I had been asked so many times to perform vehicle inspections for family members, that I eventually developed my own (rather lengthy) inspection document (down to tire tread depth gage AND a magnet to check for potential Bondo!). When I went to by my sister’s (and now my son’s) 1997 Tercel, the dealer at the used car place got fairly annoyed as I took nearly 45 minutes of PRE-inspection before I ever took it for a test-drive. Perhaps anal, but in the end, I had good documentation on the overall condition of the car and felt extremely comfortable in making recommendations to buy (or not). It was kind of fun to see the faces of some of the sellers when I came with my attache case, forms in hand and tools at the ready. Those that were honest in their sale seemed to be pleased with the thoroughness (which then validated their stated condition)…those that weren’t, well…they quickly began to complain and get worried.
    One note on engine noise…I found it very helpful to find a stretch where there was a wall of some sort running alongside the car. I’d roll the window down and accelerate/decelerate several times to listen for any suspicious noises. The reverb helped to amplify potentially “hidden” noise. But when spending several thousand dollars of hard-earned money, taking the time to really dig into a car’s condition pays dividends down the road.

    • 0 avatar
      TEXN3

      Agreed with the reverb, I do that with my own cars from time to time…the hubs on Outbacks tend to get dirt in them and cause a slight squealing.

    • 0 avatar
      serothis

      @threeer I’m looking at used cars and I was wonder if you could post this legendary inspection checklist of yours. thx.

      • 0 avatar
        threeer

        serothis: Let me look around to see if I can find it again. Was written several years back, and there has been a move in the interim…if nothing else, if I can find a paper copy, I’ll scan and will gladly email to you.

      • 0 avatar
        serothis

        @threeer, thank you

        you can email it to philip.j.frie AT gmail (don’t worry it’s junk email but i’ll be able to find it when you send it.)

  • avatar
    Flybrian

    Here’s one, especially if you visit an independent dealer that is actually nice and courteous to you:

    If you have little or no genuine interest in the car, don’t be afraid to simply say, “Sorry, but I’m not interested. Thank you.”

    As a salesman, I appreciate an honest “I have no interest in your car” over any line of BS imaginable.

    Also, don’t be afraid to ask for an AutoCheck vs CarFax. AutoCheck picks up frame damage declared at the auction where CarFax doesn’t.

  • avatar
    tankinbeans

    I have a quick question. Is it okay to request a short drive, sans owner, and find a parking lot so you can do the checks? Yes you would want to make sure they know that you’re not going to anything stupid, but perhaps it would be easier to do the checks without a vibrating owner to try and get you off track.

    For instance if they know something is wrong they may try to talk you away from your checks, or is this a warning in and of itself (I would guess it is).

    EDIT: One thing that I’ve looked for the few times I’ve bought private party are excessively worn floor mats, or pedals (could be an indication of fast acceleration or braking) in the pedal bay. If there is an obvious hole in one spot, but not others that may show that the owner floors it going both directions and really doesn’t care about it to begin with. Giving the benefit of the doubt though, it could just mean crappy build materials. However, the only cars where I see these issues are driven by people that I know to be extremely abusive to their cars (some former friends).

    • 0 avatar
      cirats

      I have bought and sold cars in private party transactions about 6 or 8 times. When I’ve bought, I’ve always asked if I can do a short test drive myself and think it’s always been OK with the seller, but it’s possible I was denied once or twice. When I’ve been selling and been asked if the potential purchaser could go out by him/herself, I’ve said “yes” sometimes and “no” sometimes, depending on my impression of the person. Certainly nothing wrong with asking, and IMO, certainly nothing wrong with politely telling someone (or being told) “no.”

      I find your comment about floormats rather strange. I doubt that the act of flooring it from a stop has a materially different effect on the floormat and think the type of shoes someone wears probably has a far larger effect. For instance, I know my work/dress shoes with hard heels are harder on my carpets than athletic shoes. Type of driving also, as in highway versus city (i.e,. frequency of pedal usage).

      • 0 avatar
        sastexan

        I’ve gone through two sets of drivers floor mats – and the replacement floor mat I bought was built to a pretty high level of quality.

        I wear dress shoes with hard heels often – including boots – it doesn’t take long for these to eat the carpet under the pedal. Also, since I have big feet, I tend to pivot on my heel to the pedals. It is obvious where I rest my feet when I drive – and that my right foot sits in the same spot (the clutch foot / dead pedal less so).

      • 0 avatar
        golden2husky

        I have already worn a hole in the mat of my 2009 Altima…wearing sneakers in 30K miles…crappy mats if you ask me…

    • 0 avatar
      ciddyguy

      I’ve learned that worn pedals may indicate high mileage along with other worn areas such as the door seals, seats (how they sit etc) as when I bought my 1992 Ford Ranger truck 5.5 years ago, my best friend wasn’t sure if the truck had 88K miles on it or 188K, I looked at the wear of the clutch and gas pedals, the seat, the door hinges (worn stops) etc and deduced it to have 188K on the clock as the car didn’t have the 7th digit on the odo (typical of Ford back in the day).

      The CarFax report lists the truck as being manufactured in 4/28/1992, registered to the first owner, 6/18/1992 here in Washington State along with new title, 1998, it failed its first emissions test, retook and passed the following day @ 76000 miles. Emissions tested at 100,000 miles, last report with mileage was in 2002 @ 126K miles for emissions, was sold 2005 to good friends and they were told the mileage was exempted, new title was issues/updated as when the previous owners bought it in 2001, no mileage was listed per CarFax and apparently was NOT on the tile when they sold it to good friends. I bought the truck with “exempt” listed in the mileage area.

      I would buy the truck in early 2006 and have put about 45K miles on it and had both the master clutch and slave cylinders replaced at two different times, a new exhaust system, tires and other than that, it’s been routine maintenance stuff and nothing else and it’s been super reliable and still runs strong at 234K+ miles on the clock.

      But usually worn mats, carpets and pedals on older vehicles usually means high miles more than anything else.

    • 0 avatar
      tankinbeans

      Thank you all for being polite in disagreeing with this idea. I’m sure floor mats and pedals are a bad metric for measuring a car’s worth, but it’s one of those things that I’ve always heard is a good idea.

  • avatar
    sco

    here’s a real easy one that could save you thousands – the oil light should go on when the key is turned to accessory and off once the car is running. It extremely easy to hide major engine trouble (blown head gasket, low oil pressure, etc) by disconnecting the oil light

  • avatar
    dwford

    Here’s a couple of things to look for: check the headlights. On older cars, the headlights typically get a foggy look to them. If one is foggy and the other is clear, you can be sure that the car has been in an accident hard enough to destroy a headlight – they don’t break easily. Also, look at the bolts on the hood and trunk. Is there paint scraped off them? Can you see that the hood or trunk has been removed and reinstalled (hint: you will see a bit of the unpainted metal where the bolt used to be). What does the carpet look like? Carpet that is dirty, stained or worn can indicate that other maintenance hasn’t been done either. Is the car clean in general? Has the owner removed all of their personal effects, or does it look like a garbage dump. Another clue as to how the maintenance has been kept up.

  • avatar
    HerrKaLeun

    how does insurance actually work when i sell a car and the potential buyer crashes the car. should the seller demand some signing of a form to recover any insurance cost?

    I know this article is for buyers, but I think at a minimum the seller should demand and copy the drivers license.

    • 0 avatar
      jpcavanaugh

      In most states, your insurance policy covers liability if someone using your car with your permission causes an accident. Also, if they damage your car, and if you have collision coverage, your insurance will pay for the repair. You would probably have a right to take them to small claims court if you are out of pocket.

      You should absolutely ask to see a drivers license. Copy it if possible, or at least write down the number and expiration date. Also, directly ask if the license is currently valid. A lot of people are driving on suspended licenses but still have the plastic card. If one of them us using your car, there are some states where insurance will not cover the accident and you may be personally responsible. Where you directly inquire, you are in better shape here than if you don’t ask and just assume.

  • avatar

    There’s a last generation Cadillac Fleetwood for sale by me that I’m toying with the idea of picking up. This is great advice. Thanks!

  • avatar
    littlehulkster

    I disagree about the weather thing. Living where I do, up in the snowy mountains, I want to know how the car will handle the bad weather I have to drive in before I buy it.

  • avatar
    ajla

    I actually purchased all three of my current vehicles without test driving them first.

    I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this strategy though.

  • avatar
    cirats

    Wow – I like to think of myself as fairly thorough on these kinds of things – and I am far from an impulse buyer – but this seems almost excessive. I know if I was selling a car in a private party transaction and someone wanted to take it out for 30 minutes or more (and then expected to take it for a longer time to get a pre-purchase inspection), I’m not sure I’d even want that person as a potential buyer. IMO, part of buying a used car is taking a risk that it might have some issues, and part of being a reasonable prospective purchaser is being considerate enough not to waste too much of a seller’s time (at least if it’s a private seller).

    Am I an outlier here or are people really investigating typical used car purchases this thoroughly? It’s hard to find fault with any of the specific suggestions (though maybe the wiper test is a bit overboard – talk about something that’s cheap to handle later), so maybe it’s just the 30+ minute test drive part that has me spinning a bit. Most of the specific checks identified in the article certainly can be done very quickly and are well worthwhile.

    Serious question: Would you at least put a few gallons of gas back in the car if you took it out for half an hour?

    I would actually disagree fairly strongly with the point about worn interiors, busted radios, etc. Unless I actually wanted to upgrade the stereo or something, the last thing I would want is to have to repair or replace seating, etc., and in my experience, costs for that sort of thing can add up quickly. And most newer cars don’t even accommodate an after-market stereo swap, do they? The inside is where I spend all my time, and most of that time will be spent with the stereo playing, so interior condition and stereo quality are actually of paramount importance to me. But, of course, the car has to be mechanically sound as well – at least as best as I can tell!

    • 0 avatar
      threeer

      Sorry…disagree here. If I’m spending this much money on a vehicle, then a 10 minute loop around the block simply won’t cut it. What folks consider “test drives” is woefully inadequate, to say the least. And if a seller was put off by my wanting to take so long to carefully inspect and review something I was going to toss several thousand dollars at, then I’m not really sure I’d want to buy it…you’re okay with somebody rolling the dice and hoping all is well because it’s part of the deal? It’s called “risk mitigation,” or at least minimizing them as much as possible.

    • 0 avatar

      The first time I bought a used car, in ’86, I gave every car I looked at a compression test. They were all at least 14 years old (I was trying to find a Valiant 1972 or earlier) and they all flunked. Finally, I found an 8 year old Corolla that passed. I had it professionally inspected, and the mechanic missed the fact that the brakes were sticking (the car had done only about 2000 miles in the previous two years. $450 for the car, $600 for the brake job. Still, it worked out to be incredibly cheap and reasonably reliable transportation.

      The second used car I got in ’04 from an auction guy who’d been recommended by my traffic lawyer. I couldn’t do much to check it; I looked at fluids and drove it a little in the parking lot of the auction place. But the engine felt so good (’99 Accord, 67k) I immediately decided to take it, although it helped that my intuition said the auction guy was trustworthy. It was in great shape, and I’ve put an additional 126k on it.

  • avatar
    Neb

    ^^ I’m kinda sympathetic, but I think Steve has the right of it. Cosmetic issues (like the interior or surface flaws) that have no impact on mechanicals are pretty minor in the grand scheme.

    OK, question: how do you assess rust? Is there a way to tell the difference between superficial and serious? Or is that something that has to be judged on a model to model basis?

    • 0 avatar

      in general you need to take a pen or another object and gently push on spots you see that look especially rusted. Surface rust will normally just scratch off to some extent and reveal metal underneath. Penetrating rust is the bad stuff and will allow you to push into the metal itself and you can often see small holes where the metal has flaked off already. avoid that like the plague.

  • avatar
    56BelAire

    All good tips here but I tend to agree with Cirats that some it seems a little overboard.

    I might add that the amount of checking depends on the age of the car. I certainly will go over a 3-4 owner, 8-10 year old car alot closer than a one owner, 1-2 year old car.

    Back in the day, late 60s – 70s when I was in the business half the time the manager appraising prospective trades never even drove them. The’d go out walk around the car, start it up, listen to the engine, put it in gear with foot on the brake and increase RPMs to check for trans slippage, open the hood and look underneath for oil leaks. Most of the times that was it. The whole process took about 3 or 4 minutes. They’d then give us their number. And we never “banged”/reevaluated trades on delivery either.

    Personally I would never give my car to someone for a 30 minute test drive and then give it to them again for a mechanics inspection. 5 -10 minutes should be enough, longer, I go with you. Bring your mechanic with you to my house if you want a second inspection.

    Good tip “sco” on the oil light.

    • 0 avatar
      grandprix

      I agree with you regarding a 30 minute test drive. Back in 1997, my wife & I were selling my son’s 1986 Olds Cutlass 442 while he was in the Air Force. Someone came to test drive it and NEVER CAME BACK. We called the police but they didn’t hold out much hope. We actually got the car back 6 months later because the thief was arrested on another charge. He had bragged to others how easily he had stolen the 442. Turns out he had an older Cutlass and was going to put his windshield with its registration & inspection sticker in my son’s car. You’re probably better off going with the driver because how do you know how long they’ll be gone?

  • avatar
    DenverMike

    Orange peel should match from panel to panel all the way around the car. It’s tough even for the best painters to mimic the factory orange peel and don’t just compare the panels at the gaps as painters will ‘fog’ past them to blend the old & new.

    Good to check for ‘dog tracking’. Look in the right sideview mirror at white line as you’re driving. It should go straight back to infinity and not at an angle behind or away from the car.

  • avatar
    golden2husky

    Regarding check engine lights, bring a OBDII tester and check for codes that may exist but have not yet set the light. One big problem with older cars is evaporative emission control leaks. There are two types: minor and major, and each has its own code. It is critical to know that the test will not run if the tank is full or mostly empty. What slimes may do is clear the code and keep the tank full. The system will not run the self test until you own the car and these leaks can be tough to find. If you find the tank full and your tester indicates that the system has not initilaized yet (your scan tool will tell you), it is likely the seller has reset the system just before you showed up…

  • avatar
    Scoutdude

    You should not be removing the cap from the cooling system after you’ve been driving it is a bad idea. Many cars today do not have an overflow tank, they have a pressurized degas tank. So unless you know what you are doing don’t remove cooling system caps on anything other than a cold engine.

  • avatar
    APaGttH

    Overall a great write up. Only two nits; I would have is an idle oil pressure of 10 PSI. Personally, I would run for my life with oil pressure that low and if the coolant looks like chocolate milk, I’m done.

    For the novice, this is a great write up – intermediates and experts will know other things to dig for and the exceptions to some of the rules above (e.g. the difference between harmless piston slap in an older Subbie versus lifters getting ready to collapse on your multiple start test.)

  • avatar
    Flybrian

    Another note from the ‘other side’ of the fence (and with such timing, too!)

    I just had some folks earlier this evening come back from a 45-minute test drive and, after rudely informing me of their intentions to not purchase the vehicle, went on to insist upon me a laundry list of things that – and I quote – “You people should intend on rectifying as a dealership if you want to sell this car for your asking price.” Terminal flaws included:

    *An aftermarket CD headunit that was misaligned.
    *A missing ‘spacer blank’ on the control quadrant where some additional option would’ve been.
    *Alloy wheels that were pitted.
    *A 2-inch tear above the driver’s power lumbar control.
    *A missing overhead console storage bin.
    *A “loud” exhaust.
    *Passenger power window was ‘slower’ than the driver’s window.
    *Power mirrors worked in only two directions.
    *Non-factory duplicate key (?????)

    They also didn’t like the freely-provided AutoCheck that reported the vehicle was in a ‘moderate’ accident…in 1998.

    What did work? Oh, I dunno…the A/C, the 4WD, all windows, all door, locks, all lighting, the radio, all instrumentation…

    The car in question? A 1995 4-door Blazer LT 4×4 with 107k miles.

    My asking price? $2100.

    Tonight’s lesson? Perspective and relativity should play a role in car shopping.

    I also wonder what these people will end up with for their $1500? Possibly something that begins in ‘bu’ and ends with ‘spass’…

    • 0 avatar
      threeer

      Ouch! It’s all relative. I did a very, very thorough inspection when I bought the 1997 Tercel for my sister because of the fact that it WAS for my sister, and I knew she was going to be in the car quite a bit. Now, having said that, I also went in knowing it was a (then) 10 year old car with 120k on the odometer. Pitted rims and a few rubs in the interior weren’t my primary concern (although in retrospect, the interior of that Tercel is STILL holding up better than many newer cars…have I mentioned I hated giving that car to my son??). It’s all relative…cost vs. age vs. intended use…YMMV…

    • 0 avatar
      tankinbeans

      I think my conscience would kill me if I tried to pull that with a 16 year old vehicle. It’s an older car and it will have character flaws (my term for minor problems that are more annoying than anything). They give the car charm.

  • avatar
    GS650G

    All this checking of fluids and such but no mentions of a code scanner. I always scan codes on a vehicle I plan to buy.

    I looked a truck years ago and scanned the codes before going anywhere. All clear. Then I drove it around for 20 minutes and scanned again. Code 628 on the scanner, low pump pressure in the transmission. The seller cleared the codes and tried to pull a fast one. A 3000 dollar truck became 500 to me. We didn’t make a deal.

    Before anyone suggests code scanning is too technical or can cause a problem just read the manual that comes with the scanner or use a smart phone to Google the code. That computer will tell you far more than a trip around the block.

  • avatar
    Junebug

    I think buying from a private party is a crap shoot, you get a better price (most of the time) but no warranty or chance at getting something fixed like you could at a dealer. I think Hoke had the best idea, just buy Miss Daisy’s car when she got a new one.

  • avatar
    HiFlite999

    An important factor I use has nothing to do with the car, but rather where the car is parked. A savvy seller will spend time detailing the car, but will not do the same to his residence. While a 2 year old 7 series parked in front of a mansion doesn’t tell you much (dealer records are key here), most people do not maintain their houses much differently than their cars. If their place, whether double-wide or standard suburban, is a mess, it tends to be a deal breaker for me.

  • avatar
    fincar1

    In places where the license plates stay on the car for a long time, and where they go with the car on sale, it’s worth looking at them, especially the front one, for ideas as to whether the car’s been in a collision, or just whether the plate condition doesn’t match the looks of the bumper or deck lid it’s on, or if there’s overspray on it.

    Washington has recently gone to a seven-year “rolling replate” where the plates get replaced every 7 years. I really hated that, because our last general replate was in 1963 – like California’s – and especially for looking at old cars a nice set of plates that had been on the car since it was new was a good indication that the car had always been well cared for.

    I won’t take the radiator cap off a car that’s at operating temperature. If I think I should look at the coolant, I’ll do it before the test drive.

    • 0 avatar
      tankinbeans

      We do the same thing here. Alternatively having numbers first and letters second or vice versa. This is a good way of judging the age of the car if you have a general idea of where the sequence is in a given year. Then you can work back, if you have a general idea of the age of the car in question. I do this all the time, for no apparent reason. :)

    • 0 avatar
      Scoutdude

      No in WA we have done a couple of re-plates since 63, They introduced the blue and white in the early 90′s and the remaining green and white legacy plates were recalled in the late 90′s. They instituted a 12 year rule at that time that has only recently been changed to the new 7 year rule with the intro of the 7 digit plate. So there are cars out there that could be on their 3rd blue plate.

  • avatar
    Moparman426W

    You always want to look at the transmission fluid, if it is brown and smells burnt the transmission is shot. Sometimes you can even see clutch material clinging to the dipstick.

  • avatar
    brettc

    If you’re looking at a used VW/Audi, it might be worth it to buy a copy of VCDS or find someone that has it before going to look at a car. That way you can examine different engine parameters while it’s running and check for any stored codes. I recently bought a used 2002 Golf TDI from a small dealership who bought the Golf from a local VW/Audi dealer. It had 200K miles on it, so the VW/Audi dealer didn’t want it. The guy that ran the car dealership was pretty surprised when I asked if I could scan for codes and pulled my laptop out of the trunk and connected it up. There are codes that can exist without tripping the check engine light. So if the tools are available, it’s in your best interest to use them and not get screwed on a used car deal.


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  • W. Christian 'Mental' Ward, Abu Dhabi
  • Mark Stevenson, Canada
  • Faisal Ali Khan, India