Buying a classic car is, for many, the fulfillment of a lifelong dream. Whether buying a prize example of their first car 30 years on or reliving childhood holidays in a fine example of dad’s old saloon, classic car ownership is about enjoyment and relaxation. But the sheer enthusiasm with which many people enter into the purchase can sometimes blind them to the harsh realities of owning and running a classic car.
I have bought and sold many cars in my years running the UK’s largest classic car hire company. In that time I have learnt the hard way how to buy classic cars well. I bought my first classic car in 1993, a rare Alfa Romeo Alfasud Ti in black. It was my dream car, having cycled past an identical example every day while at school. I did my research, buying copies of all available Buyers’ Guides and I knew exactly what to look for and what to avoid. Unfortunately, what none of these guides told me was the cardinal rule – buy with your head not your heart. I particularly wanted a black Alfasud and when I clapped eyes on the car this was the over-riding thought in my head. It blinded me to the reality of the car’s obvious flaws, including suspect electrics and typically Alfa-esque rust holes. Floating on a wave of dream fulfillment I convinced myself that these were idle matters and coughed up the asking price to a probably flabbergasted owner.
When you go to buy a classic car bear in mind two simple rules. Firstly, it is not the only example of its kind in the world. Regardless of how closely its specification matches your desires, there will be another one out there. Secondly, picture the asking price as money in your hand – this will help you to appreciate the value of the purchase. Very often cars are bought and then paid for later, which gives plenty of time for circumspection! I strongly recommend that anyone buying a classic car takes along a friend who can be relied upon to be objective – they can reign you back when your enthusiasm takes ov er.
When I bought the Alfasud I managed to bring it back to a respectable standard, but it cost me to do so. That taught me another rule of car buying – objectively assess the cost of repairing the car before you buy it. Know the market value of any car you plan to buy – what is it worth in average condition and what is it worth in excellent condition? Objectively assess the value of repairing the car’s faults by researching the cost of trim, bodywork, mechanical work and so on. Do not under-estimate the cost of apparently minor work – scuffs and scrapes on the paintwork can cost hundreds of pounds to put right. If a seller says something is an ‘easy fix’ you have to wonder why they haven’t done it themselves.
When you go to view a classic car do your research first. Check the buying guides. Visit web forums and ask questions that are not immediately answered by your research – generally forum contributors are very happy to help. Talk to the experts – marque experts who repair cars on a daily basis are often very happy to offer advice because you may become a customer. Talk to people who own similar cars – a good place to start is with classic car hire companies who run classic cars over several thousand miles every year. I often get asked by would-be owners about the cars I run and I am always very happy to offer advice based on living with classic cars day in and day out. Before you view the car ring the owner first and run through a checklist of questions – this will save you a wasted journey.
Besides the actual car itself, there are two other areas to pay particular attention to when you view a car. Firstly, the owner – the old adage about buying a used car from a man like this obviously applies. If the owner is genuine, the chances are that the car is too. And of course, the reverse is true too. Secondly, have a look at the paperwork thoroughly – check that the contents back up the description of the car in the advertisement and from the owner. The paperwork should be well presented rather than a jumble of paperwork that is difficult to decipher – if the owner can’t be bothered to organise this detail, what else has he skimped on?
Your test should include full inspection inside and out and underneath, ideally using a ramp (local garages are often happy to arrange this – the seller should be able to sort this out).
On the test drive you should start the car from cold – insist before arrival that the seller allows you to do this – and you should drive at least 5-10 miles at the wheel. Check for unusual noises on start up – particularly knocking – and monitor the dials throughout the test. Check that the oil pressure and water temperature perform as expected. Check the brakes – do an emergency stop. Rev the engine through the gears and test rapid gear changing. Drive the car quickly around a corner to test the suspension and steering. Test all of the switches, particularly the heating – failed heaters can be a costly and very inconvenient expense.
if you like the car you’re looking at, buy yourself some thinking time. Don’t be railroaded into a quick decision by the vendor. Often the seller will genuinely have a lot of interest in the car – if so, depending on how you feel you should ask for either overnight or at least a few hours to think about it. if you are serious you could offer a small deposit as a demonstration of good faith. It is better to lose £100 than several thousand through a rushed decision. I would recommend viewing the car at least twice in daylight.
This is inevitably not an exhaustive assessment of what to consider when buying a classic car but if you follow these simple rules you will stand a much better chance of buying the right car for you. Buy with your head not your heart and buy with a closed wallet.
Then classic car ownership will be a hugely rewarding experience rather than a financial millstone.
Graham Eason owns and operates Great Escape Classic Car Hire, the UK’s largest classic car hire company. He is responsible for a fleet of 50 classic cars for rental and has bought and sold countless classic cars over the last 17 years. He has learnt the hard way what makes a good classic car purchase – and what makes a bad one.