Car Collecting: Giving Private Sellers Benjamins

car collecting giving private sellers benjamins

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.

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  • Terry Parkhurst Terry Parkhurst on Jan 23, 2007

    There was, as I recall, one of the staff for Sports Car Market that had one car, as part of the "our cars" section; and it was a mid-1980s Volvo 245 (station wagon) with close to 200,000 miles on it. But other than that, I know what you mean Max. I like Keith Martin and he has always been fair to me. So admittedly, that colors my thinking. I personally find myself reading my Old Cars Weekly more often. Two weeks ago, it had a nice feature on the old MG Midget by Pat Foster, with nary a trace of the sarcasm one might find directed towards that particular car in SCM. But hey, you must at least like the "Affordable Classics" column by B. Mitchell Carlson (with a piece on the 1975-'76 Chevrolet Cosworth Vega in the February issue)? My personal favorite is the vintage motorcycle column by Paul Duchene, which has as many 1980s Japanese motorcycles as leaky old British machines.

  • on Mar 11, 2007

    The best thing to do is to read both Old Cars Weekly and Sports Car Market and figure out for yourself what works best, in terms of what appeals to you most.

  • THX1136 According to the cost for catalytic converter 'repair' is between $945 and $2475. They claim the converter cost itself can be up to $2250. Figuring $880 a unit doesn't seem too far out of line if the carbrain info is accurate. Wonder if gas theft is still going strong on the west coast also?
  • KOKing I'm not sure what to make of the small commercial van market in the US. There are a fair number of Transit Connects and ProMasterCitys, but Nissan/Chevy dumped the NV200 even though they seemed to sell well (though I guess Nissan decided to get out of the commercial space entirely), and I don't think Stellrysler ever bothered C/V-ing the Pacifica.
  • SCE to AUX "a future in which V8-powered muscle cars duke it out with EVs for track superiority"That's been happening for years on drag strips, and now EVs are listed in the top Nurburgring lap times.I find EV racing very boring to watch, and the lack of sound kills the experience. I can't imagine ever watching a 500-mile EV race such as Daytona or Indy, even if the tech or the rules allow such a race to happen.As for owning an electric muscle car, they already exist... but I've never owned a muscle car, don't want one, and can't afford one anyway. For me, it's a moot question.
  • MaintenanceCosts I don't and realistically won't drive on track, but I think the performance characteristics of EV powertrains are just plain superior on the street. You get quicker response, finer control over the throttle, no possibility of being out of the powerband and needing a time-consuming shift, more capability in the speed range where you actually drive, and less brake heat. The only "problem" (and there are many situations where it's a plus, not a problem) is the lack of noise.
  • JMII After tracking two cars (a 350Z and a C7) I can't imagine tracking an EV because so much of your "feeling" of driving comes from sound. That said you might be able to detect grip levels better as tire sounds could be heard easier without the roar of the engine and exhaust. However I change gears based mostly on sound so even an automatic (like a C8) that would be a disappointment on track. Hearing an engine roar is too important to the overall experience: so tracking an EV? No thanks!I've driven an electric go-kart around a track as my only point of reference and its weird. It sort of works because a kart is so small and doesn't require shifting plus you still hear the "engine" whirring behind you. The sensation is like driving cordless drill, so there is some sense of torque being applied. You adapt pretty quickly but it just seems so wrong. With a standard ICE car, even a fast one, RPMs raise and fall with each shift so there is time to process the wonderful sounds and they give you a great sense of the mechanical engine bits working to propel you.I feel track toys will always be ICE powered, similar to how people still enjoy sailing or horseback riding as "sports" despite both forms of transportation being replaced by superior technology. I assume niche companies will continue to build and maintain ICE vehicles. In the future you'll have to take your grand-kids to the local track to explain that cars were once glorious, smoke spewing, noisy things. The smells and the sounds are unique to racing so they need to stay that way. Often a car goes by while your in the pits and you can identify it by sound alone... I would hate to lose that.