Car Collector's Corner: Miss Manners Guide To Buying Old Iron

J Sutherland
by J Sutherland
car collector s corner miss manners guide to buying old iron

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

Join the conversation
2 of 35 comments
  • Geekcarlover Geekcarlover on Feb 18, 2012

    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.

  • GS650G GS650G on Feb 19, 2012

    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.

  • Jeffrey An all electric entry level vehicle is needed and as a second car I'm interested. Though I will wait for it to be manufactured in the states with US components eligible for the EV credit.
  • Bob65688581 Small by American standards, this car is just right for Europe, and probably China, although I don't really know, there. Upscale small cars don't exist in the US because Americans associate size and luxury, so it will have a tough time in the States... but again Europe is used to such cars. Audi has been making "small, upscale" since forever. As usual, Americans will miss an opportunity. I'll buy one, though!Contrary to your text, the EX30 has nothing whatsoever to do with the XC40 or C40, being built on a dedicated chassis.
  • Tassos Chinese owned Vollvo-Geely must have the best PR department of all automakers. A TINY maker with only 0.5-0.8% market share in the US, it is in the news every day.I have lost count how many different models Volvo has, and it is shocking how FEW of each miserable one it sells in the US market.Approximately, it sells as many units (TOTAL) as is the total number of loser models it offers.
  • ToolGuy Seems pretty reasonable to me. (Sorry)
  • Luke42 When I moved from Virginia to Illinois, the lack of vehicle safety inspections was a big deal to me. I thought it would be a big change.However, nobody drives around in an unsafe car when they have the money to get their car fixed and driving safely.Also, Virginia's inspection regimine only meant that a car was safe to drive one day a year.Having lived with and without automotive safety inspections, my confusion is that they don't really matter that much.What does matter is preventing poverty in your state, and Illinois' generally pro-union political climate does more for automotive safety (by ensuring fair wages for tradespeople) than ticketing poor people for not having enough money to maintain their cars.