8 Top Tips when Buying a Classic Car

If you're reading this blog, you're more than likely keen on owning a classic of some sorts. But what are the do's and don'ts when shopping for that dream machine?

Buying a classic car is far trickier than buying a new car, which is difficult enough. There are rarely any guarantees, partial histories instead of complete service records and - because it's the nature of things - many cars have gone through a period where their values were low, and consequently ended up with owners who could not afford to maintain them properly. So... best you do your homework then...

1. Decide what you really, really want

There are many classic cars to choose from - more than a century's worth, in fact. It is important to choose what you really desire, largely because it is inevitable that the reality will be somewhat short of the fantasy you've created in your mind. If you're going to compromise at this first hurdle, then classic car ownership will not bring you the joy that you ultimately crave..

2. Don't be in a rush

Buying a classic car is very much like buying a house. First you determine the marque and model you desire (the "neighbourhood"), then it's time to start visiting some "show houses"... kick some tyres. If you know a thing or five about cars, then you could venture into this alone, but if you don't, do take someone along that knows older cars, and preferably someone with experience of the make/model you are looking at. Don't look at just one car - in the classic space, cars with the same model year, same mileage, could have had remarkably different "lives", and you won't spot that from looking at a grainy picture. 

3. Do your homework

Some cars have very specific, well-known mechanical or electrical weaknesses. There are many forums and resources available to read up on these matters. For example, when buying a classic Citroen DS, make sure the hydraulic system is in full working condition. Similarly, when buying a modern BMW M3 (E46), make sure the SMG transmission is in tip-top condition.

Make notes on recommended major services that the vehicle you intend purchasing are subject to, and ensure that the car you're looking at buying has a) had those services, or b) isn't hurriedly being sold because the owner is trying to avoid that expense. If the latter is the case, you should bargain harder, because there are extra costs ahead.

4. Buy the best example you can afford

This is particularly true if you are not going to be working on the car yourself. If you are, then buying a slightly "rougher" project is OK because it will be repaired during your own hours. Buying a "lemon" can be a very expensive mistake, because parts and labour, in particular, don't come cheap. If you've paid too much for a basket-case car you may also have to overcapitalize when fixing it up (ie, spending more on it than the car is ultimately worth).

5. Buying as an investment

There's a distinct difference between buying a classic car because you want to enjoy driving it (or looking at it), or buying specifically as an investment. Not all classics are going to give you a real financial return, even if you sell it for more than you bought it for, particularly if you factor in repairs, annual servicing, licensing etc. If you're going to be driving the car, there's also normal running costs (generally higher than a modern car).

Ideally, of course, we all want to own and drive a classic and then, one day, sell it for a lot more than what we've bought it for. This is the ideal scenario, but doesn't happen nearly as often as you may imagine, particularly if you're a novice in the game. 

Ignoring for a moment those who want to buy purely as an investment, we'd like to emphasize the subject of enjoyment. Many people forget to factor this in when buying a car as an object of desire, with the hope of a return later on. What is the value of the years of enjoyment that the car will give you? It's worth considering, and ultimately necessary, because the reality is that most of us can't afford the genuine classics that are guaranteed appreciators.

6. Take care of it

There are always exceptions to every rule, but in the classic car world, generally speaking, low-mileage cars with complete histories and in excellent condition will be more valuable than the same make/model lacking any or all those three things. When buying a classic, make sure with your insurer what the annual mileage restriction on your vehicle is (this is quite common, to keep premiums lower), and in general try to keep the mileage below major "tick-over" moments, such as 100 000km. 

A garage will be a very valuable asset when owning a classic as you don't want the car exposed to the elements.If you don't have a lock-up garage, you may have to reconsider the purchase altogether as the cost of storage may be prohibitive. That said, for collectors with many top-end cars, a professional storage facility may be the best option.

Keep your car's records as up-to-date as possible. A car with an original owner's handbook and complete service history is always worth more. Create a file and try to fill in the gaps by contacting previous owners, mechanics etc. Speaking of the latter - if the car has been going to the same service agent or mechanic for years, that person arguably know more about the car than anyone else, so it may be wise to stick to the same schedule.

7. Where to buy from

The best place to buy a car from is through an owner's club. Owners who belong to clubs generally look well after their cars, and because you'll be dealing directly with an owner, the price should be lower than what you'd pay for the same car at a dealer. It may also be wise to then join this club yourself, as you may find other owners very helpful in terms of advice, spare parts etc.

With dealers you will pay more, but you should have a little more peace-of-mind in most instances in terms of recourse should there be anything wrong with the vehicle immediately post-purchase.

Buying privately based on a free advertisement on the Internet is the most challenging. You may be tempted by a low price, but besides the usual personal security issues that may be applicable, you would have precious little recourse should anything turn out to be significantly wrong with the vehicle. Approach with caution, and with an expert.

8. Stick to your Budget

I previously said that buying a classic car is like buying a house. Owning a classic car is also very much like owning an old house. Beyond the initial purchase price, there may be several rather large expenses you need to prepare yourself for.

Considering the following;

  • Purchase price of the car (don't be shy to negotiate)
  • Storage
  • Insurance
  • Maintenance
  • Restoration
  • Normal running costs (fuel, licensing etc.)

But that being said, I'd like us to go back to the point raised in Nr. 5, that of enjoyment. Hopefully enjoyment is a major motivating factor for you to consider purchasing a classic, and not just the (potential) money down the line. Classic cars can be frustrating, slow, noisy, smelly and prone to unreliability at the most inconvenient of times, but the same thing can also be said about people. That's why it's safe to say that classics have character, and we can tolerate them for their weaknesses, because they make up for those in spades with charisma, beauty, analogue driving thrills and, usually, by firing up those memories or moments of inspiration that gave rise to the idea of owning it in the first place. 

Have fun.

Classic cars for sale

Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published