By on February 18, 2012

Buying a new car or truck is one thing – buying a mint condition affordable 1951 Studebaker is an entirely different concept.

The basic idea is the same – money exchanges hands for a vehicle. Beyond that, the game is like comparing mud wrestling to chess so don’t use the same techniques.

The biggest difference between buying a hypothetical 2012 Silverado truck or the hypothetical 51 Studebaker is simple-no car salesman has a life investment in a brand new truck but many 51 Studebaker sellers have a life investment in their 51 Studie.

The Studie could be Great Aunt Jean’s first car-the same one that she willed to her favorite nephew. The same nephew that you’re trying to buy the Studie from in 2011. The same Studie that you’re throwing rocks at in a clumsy attempt to “negotiate”.

This is not a brand new Chevy truck so try and used a civilized approach that relies heavily on basic manners, not hardball negotiations. For example, don’t come out swinging about the incorrect “factory” engine color because there’s an excellent chance that the current owner knows this car inside and out –you might be wrong … cuff in the head wrong. You have to read the situation better than Joe Montana used to read defenses.

So if he tells you that he’s owned the car for 20 years and did a frame-off  resto or inherited it from Great Aunt Jean because he grew up with the car then don’t be a tool and call him on details that you’re not sure are accurate. That tactic makes you look stupid and the owner mad-not good catalysts for moving negotiations forward.

Time is money. Don’t take 5 hours out of the poor guy’s day just to kick tires. You should be able to make a pretty good overall inspection in an hour so don’t think you made a car buddy just because you talked cars for half a day. He’s selling the car, not trolling for new friends.

Do not make promises you can’t keep. Don’t tell the guy that you’re serious about making an offer then disappear faster than Jimmy Hoffa. He will take you at your word. Worse yet, don’t bob and weave if you leave a contact number and you get a call from the seller because he is taking the concept seriously. If you get two call backs from the guy, do the honorable thing and emphatically pass on the car, or man up and make an offer.

In other words, don’t turn into a 16 year old girl being asked out to the prom. Buying old iron requires sheer gut reaction, not teenage female wiles. Tell the guy “no” on the second phone call if you haven’t made up your mind. Buying old iron is a male thing to do, so above all be a man and make up your mind decisively and fast. Be more like General George Patton than Private Gomer Pyle.

Know exactly what you want. If you’re buying that 51 Studie for your Dad even though he used to own a 53 then keep looking because it ain’t the same car. Dad might nod approvingly, but deep down inside you know that buying him a black evening gown might have been more appropriate than trying to rewrite his biography. Worse yet, you’re going to assure the seller that this is a certain sale but it’s far from certain if Dad hates the idea.

Finally, don’t swoop in like a consumer advocate because old iron is just that…old. If you find a bit of a leak on the master cylinder and few gaskets drip, use your head and don’t accuse the seller of tomfoolery if he’s owned the car for several years. Old cars leak. They sit around more than they’re driven so they leak. This isn’t an “aha” moment where you’ve uncovered the Holy Grail of scams so don’t go Mike Wallace and do an amateur 60 Minutes on the seller. Try and be big picture about this whole negotiation because this isn’t a Chevy Silverado sale – it’s a piece of history sale. Use your knowledge about old iron more and your toxic inner personality less.

Before I get those inevitable calls and letters-yes, I’ve heard the horror stories about old vehicles and treacherous sellers but five minutes of conversation will draw out truths or lies because a legitimate seller is going to give you cues about his real history with the car. You’ll recognize them because you’re a car guy – otherwise you wouldn’t be looking at a 51 Studebaker. These are the vital signs of a solid owner-car relationship.

If you can’t spot them-buy that new Silverado.

© 2011 Jerry Sutherland. For solid owner-car relationships go to

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35 Comments on “Car Collector’s Corner: Miss Manners Guide To Buying Old Iron...”

  • avatar

    Reminds me of when my Dad had decided to sell his 1957 Chevy 210 2dr hardtop in the early 80’s. Guy came to look at it and told him there was NO WAY that they made a 210 in the post-less hardtop body style, and that it’d cost him “this much” money to “convert it back” to a Bel-Air. My Dad told him “F-you, if you’re going to convert it into a Bel-Air, it’s not for sale. Now get off my property.”

    Dad still owns the Chevy, has for about 40 years.

  • avatar

    I’ve managed to have a ’57 Chevy…sometimes two or more…in some state of disrepair, since 1979. And I admit that out of the dozen or so I’ve owned, only one was was regularly driven and enjoyed. The others were either parts cars or hopes unfulfilled and eventually sold when a better one came along.

    The one I currently own was bought 13 years ago. The .jpgs sent by the seller showed a pretty mangled driver’s side rear quarter and some serious rust in the rear of the car…the rear floor where parts aren’t so readily available, since the vehicle in question was a 2-door Handyman wagon…not a hardtop or 2-door sedan where virtually every part is reproduced.

    But the stainless was all there and the front seat intact, two things I didn’t have on my then-current ’57 project. Even 13 years ago that stuff was expensive, the Handyman was a “have to get it out of here” kind of deal so the price was reasonable; it even ran and drove if I wanted to stick with the ol’ Blue Flame 235.

    So I set out for Richmond, VA to tow-bar the thing back to Pittsburgh and what do I find?

    The car was actually in better condition than the pictures depicted. Perhaps the only time that’s ever happened to me.

    There wasn’t a lot of negotiation, except for the part where the local U-Haul reneged on my reservation and kept the $$. The owner agreed to use his tow-bar and his ’74 Chevy truck to deliver it as part of the deal.

    I went thru all may parts, took the stuff I wasn’t going to use, put it on my other ’57 project and sold it to someone who hopefully got it running.

    The Handyman still resides in a corner of the garage beside my ’68 C-10 project. You know the story….kids, house, life just gets in the way. But it’s there, all paid for, and the cost of some parts has actually come down in 13 years. Plus there’s a plethora of GM Gen III/IV drivetrains out there now. And yes the truck will come first as it will be driven daily.

    But that last experience was a good one. Glad I jumped on it when I did. I saw a couple Handymans recently in what looked to be far worse condition for far more $$.

    Best advice I can give beside Jerry’s…


    Buying a collector car has EMOTION attached to it for both buyer and seller. And it’s easy for common sense to be clouded.

    Learn what you can about the underpinnings of the car in which you’re interested, especially if budget is any consideration at all.
    Ball joints for a ’63 Golden Hawk will likely be much more expensive than a ’63 Impala. Gotta figure all that stuff in.

    Plus some cars were just plain crap back-in-the-day.

    ’81 Citation with 10,000 original miles for $1000? ’77 Volare? ’81 Imperial? RUN AWAY!

    Read some reviews from when the vehicle was new. Maybe check out Ate Up With Motor, Aaron Severson has some detailed histories that might help you uncover if the car you’re looking at was a gem or a lemon to begin with. Of course if your next stop is Rad Rides by Troy or you just plan on gutting the car (and its original problems) and starting over from scratch, this doesn’t apply. There’s nothing wrong with a ’53 Studebaker coupe that an all-new custom frame won’t fix.

    Also, a “low-mileage original” much over 20 years old means “plan on replacing all the rubber parts”…just as a starting point. Gummy fuel system, clogged cooling and Jerry’s above-mentioned leaks…plan on it all.

    Yes collector vehicles are an investment, sometimes. IMHO if that’s your primary motivator, go play the stock market instead. A car is worth what someone is willing to pay for it…which is often less than what you have invested in it.

    But if you enjoy driving something different, something with character and charisma…an attention getter and conversation-starter…if you like commanding a vehicle instead of riding in a soulless toaster on wheels…then go for it.

    Following Jerry Sutherland’s advice, of course.

    • 0 avatar

      Your vehicles and story sound so familiar that I suspect you have a different name elsewhere. Good advice though. Good story Bertel.

      I also have a 57, 210. Waiting for the weather to dry. Either drought or monsoon but suspect I still have time to wait that out.

    • 0 avatar

      Your vehicles and story sound so familiar that I suspect you have a different name(Chas) elsewhere. Good advice though. Good story Bertel.

      I also have a 57, 210. Waiting for the weather to dry. Either drought or monsoon but suspect I still have time to wait that out.

    • 0 avatar

      well said…

  • avatar
    Educator(of teachers)Dan

    Solid advice and one of several reasons I prefer to see a very old car with a price posted on it instead of OBO or “make me an offer”.

  • avatar

    Love this article and the comments too. Very well done.

  • avatar

    Dude, no offense, but “collector’s corner?” I don’t think you’ll see any hemi cuda or yenko camaro shoppers stopping by here.

  • avatar

    The picture shows a 1949 Studebaker. The 1950-51 model had a bullet nose that presaged the recent Camry. My father had a ’51 convertible that had no power but good mileage for the day; the mileage was accompanied by a cloud of blue oil smoke that probably ate up any economies, not to mention the damage to the atmosphere.

  • avatar

    Keep in mind that the “market” for an old car like a 49 Stude, (as opposed to a ’57 Chevy) consists of about 16 people scattered between Maine and California. Understand that of that 16, 8 have the actual ability to buy the car ($, room in the garage, understanding wife). IOWs, you don’t need to pay top $ because the car is “rare”. Buyers for said car are also rare.

    I agree with not acting as if you’re on a used car lot negotiating with the guy with the gold chains, but decide in advance the most you’ll pay. If you don’t get it, then you don’t get it.

    Private partys selling old cars are often quite concerned with how a potential buyer will treat the car -keep it original, hot rod it, garage it, etc. That doesn’t mean they’ll give it away to the right person, but they might go lower for someone with genuine appreciation for the car than they would for someone else. It’s a bit like giving up a dog – you care what kind of home it’s going to.

    • 0 avatar

      Limited markets tend to make good copies harder to find when you want one. In this case those 8 people who do want to buy a 51 Studebaker are fighting over maybe a 1/5th of the copies available of a ’57 Chevy so the prices remain steady but higher than a project car that is more popular. Some are just astronomical and as nostalgia moves forward with age truly old cars (pre-war mostly) have come down to very reasonable levels to own again. So if you love a Cord it may be more affordable than a factory-correct Boss Mustang from 69.

  • avatar

    Brain flatulance on my part. Good story though whether I can read the contributors name or not.

  • avatar
    J Sutherland

    My mistake-that is actually a 47 Champion Starlight Coupe. In the original version I picked a hypothetical 51 Stude but Jim had taken notes on this 47 for an upcoming piece.I had a ton of pictures so I changed it for the final version but I sent Bertel the original-shouldn’t do this stuff late at night.
    That 57 210 Chevy 2 door hardtop story is great-they’re rare so I’m glad one was saved 40 years ago.
    Yup-I (Jerry) did this one…Jim was dead weight.

  • avatar

    In 1955 my father bought a used ’51 Studebaker LandCruiser V8 with the FlightOmatic tranny. What a junker that turned out to be! The engine made it to about 115K, then started blowing oil out the filler tube.

    • 0 avatar
      Firestorm 500

      That’s actually pretty good for back then.

    • 0 avatar

      This past summer, I had the pleasure of making a road trip in a 52 Land Cruiser. It was a well done restoration, and is driven frequently, which is the norm among members of the Studebaker Drivers Club. The car is really an impressive ride.

      I agree with Xeranar’s comments about the prices on less popular models. I have been forced to walk away from numerous Studes over the years, because the owner wanted close to the restored value of his prize. The restored value of many of the more pedestrian Studes is often rather low, and you can easily get upside-down on a project if you paid too much initially.

  • avatar

    I bought my 67 Camaro convert about 12 yrs ago. The newspaper ad (anybody remember those?) was in its first day and I was the second one to arrive. The first guy was there just a bit ahead of me and and spent an hour telling the owner all the things that were wrong with the car.

    The prospective buyer was far more knowledgeable than me, and I really appreciated the free education. As soon as he left, I wrote the owner a check for his full asking price and was happy with what I got.

  • avatar

    Wow, this article came timely for me! This knowledge doesn’t just apply to collector cars, it also holds true for any other collectible items.

    I am selling some unused-unopened items on eBay and Craigslist right now, and every now and again, I get some blowhard who insults the authenticity of my stuff! I simply don’t respond to those, and move on to the next one.

    I like the story of the Chevy 210! Next time I have a blowhard, I’ll just tell ’em to screw off and buy the “other one” that’s out there!

  • avatar
    Chipper Carb

    I was just smiling as I read the story and comments. About a month ago I was afforded the opportunity to own the car of my childhood. Not highly desirable, but worth driving four hours to look at, a perfect 1976 Chrysler Cordoba. It was an individual who owned the car since new and even worked at the Chrysler stamping plant. He was getting up in years and to the suggestion of his wife, decided to put the car up for sale. You can imagine his surprise when a couple of “kids” in their mid thirties were interested. Showing respect for his family and the car led to many interesting stories from his years at the plant and a price break. With that history of the car, and my memories of younger years is something that you can’t get when buying from the new car lot. My wife and I spent two days going over the car and when it finally came to a price, both parties came to a fair deal. A month later I haven’t regretted it, unlike some past purchases. It’s all about passion, and what you want in life. Mine just happens to have Corinthian leather!

  • avatar

    I generally agree with not griping about every minor leak, scuff, or other sign of wear and age you chould expect in a decades old car. However, the one place I draw the line is when the seller has lured me there with promises of a “rust free car” and it very clearly isn’t. Waste my time and you’re going to hear from me about it. Because it’s so much fun to crawl under a Corvair and have flakes of the floorpan falling in your face.

  • avatar

    On the opposite end, try remembering these rules when you sell. I was amazed to find all the problems on my 66 Checker when I got rid of her.

  • avatar

    Sellers of old cars in remarkable shape want their car to go to a good home. Not to be chopped up, stuffed with big motors, used for parts, or turned into pimp mobiles.
    If these are your intentions keep quiet and take the car far away. Or better yet find something else to desecrate instead.

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