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Car Restoration and Antique Car Collecting Part 2:

Purchasing an antique car.
by Vic Donnell

There is no "right" one but there are a number of "acceptable" ones. They can be found everywhere, but before you start looking, make yourself familiar with a Vehicle Condition Guide. The Old Cars Price Guide is a very good publication. There are others. Pick one. You need to do this so you can "read between the lines" of the many ads you'll be screening and to filter the wheat from the chaff when dealing with salesmen.

You might want to write this down. “Treat car salesmen like a snake in the grass.” Their job is to sell cars. They can’t and most don’t even try to know everything about the cars they sell. They WILL exaggerate or misrepresent a car if they think you will buy it. Buyer beware.

I’ve learned from my own experience to avoid salesmen and auctions. Cars bought through them always cost more and they have always been less than was represented. Your own experience with them may vary. I bought this 30 Hupmobile at an auction at Lake George in upstate New York. It was a nice car. I paid a whopping $1275 for it at auction. I think there was a shill involved in the bidding.

Also, arming yourself with vehicle condition knowledge will enable you to ask the right questions of an owner and to examine the vehicles with an objective eye. Remember, sellers of old vehicles will invariably represent the vehicle condition in the best possible light. Some will outright misrepresent things and most will overlook problems because they just don't know enough about the vehicles. You need to become the expert, so print out the guide and keep it handy.

The most well-known publication listing old vehicles, parts, and services is Hemmings Motor News. Commonly known as the "Bible of the Old Car Hobby," Hemmings has been around since the 1960s and every month lists over 20,000 vehicles for sale. Also worth buying is Old Cars Weekly, another long-established publication devoted to the hobby. Both are available at larger newsstands and on the internet. Speaking of the internet, there are literally thousands of sites that offer old vehicles, usually devoted to specific marques.

Once upon a time, I bought a 63 Lincoln Continental and, as a condition of that deal, I also had to take the man’s wife’s car, a 62 Continental. I got a lot of spare parts from the 62 to serve my needs for more than 39 years of ownership of the 63, but I didn’t have a spare transmission or engine in case of a problem with those items. Most newspapers have "antiques and classics" listings in weekend classified sections. Newspaper editors have no idea how to edit an ad before publishing. I found an ad in the Austin American Statesman nothing that read as follows. For Sale. 1963 Lincoln engine good. $300. I responded to that ad expecting to buy a spare engine. When the lady of the house opened the garage door, there sat a very nice 63 Continental sedan with some body damage. I bought the whole car for $200 and I could have driven it home. I towed it so as not to tip my hand that I knew how to make it drive. The Statesman editors had left out a comma. The ad should have read “1963 Lincoln, engine good. $300. Sometimes, luck is funny. That car donated several organs and some sheet metal to restoration of Jan’s 62 Continental. Twenty years later, I sold what was left of that car for $200. Here it is in front of the shop in all its glory.

Car clubs are often good sources for purchases, since their members buy and sell those types of vehicles routinely. Hemmings Motor News has a publication that lists nearly 5000 car clubs nationwide, and many local clubs have internet sites. I bought our 30 Packard from fellow club member B.R. Speir. We had extensive experience following that car on tours. Almost twenty years later, we sold that Packard to another club member who we met at Texas Tour.

My experience has taught me that it is always better, safer, and more fun to buy a car from the current owner of the car. But whoever is making the sale, talk with a vehicle seller extensively before going out to look at the vehicle. Ask pointed questions, not general ones. The first question is always, "is the car complete?" If not, what specific parts are missing? The next question is always, "where is any rust?" How large is each area? Next, ask these questions:

Does it run and can it be driven safely over a considerable distance?

Do the brakes work correctly? I didn’t ask this question when I wanted to buy our 32 Lincoln. It arrived here in a closed truck. I was so excited to drive this car that I loaded Roger Spillers and my wife Jan into the car as soon as the delivery truck left and took them for a ride around the block. When I got to the stop sign at the corner of Woods Loop and FM 150, I stepped on the brake and rolled right out into FM 150. Upon inspection, I determined that the mechanical brakes were stuck and only one shoe on one wheel had as much as a casual acquaintance with the brake drum. Needless to say, I fixed the brakes before taking any more rides.

Ask the seller if all instruments operate properly? In 20s and 30s vintage cars, a common style fuel gauge is the King Seeley. You may never see one of those that works. I have two cars with that type of gauge along with a calibrated stick that I “stick” in the tank to see how much gets wet with gas.

Are the tires in good condition? How old are they? The Packard I bought had “good” tires on it. However, the brand of the tires was one that hadn’t been manufactured in more than 30 years at the time.

Are there fluid leaks and where are they? Not sure the answer to this question helps except maybe as a test of the seller’s veracity.

Are there tears or other severely worn parts of the interior?

How long have you owned it? Beware here if the answer is "a few months" or "I don't remember." That usually means the seller is either getting rid of a problem or “rolling over” a recent purchase for a quick profit.

Why are you selling it?

Write down the answers and make sure the seller is giving complete information. This is especially true for vehicles located long distances from you. If you aren't satisfied with an answer, ask the question again. If still not satisfied, move on to another seller. Line up several sellers so you can look at a number of vehicles and compare.

Take your written answers (and a Vehicle Condition Guide) with you when you go to examine the vehicle. Take along a copy of the appropriate page from one or more pricing guides showing values for that vehicle. Be careful and courteous when you do this. I’ve had potential sellers feel insulted when showing them the value guide view of their car and then get all huffy and accuse me of trying to steal their valuable car. Take your time and look over the vehicle carefully and meticulously. If there are discrepancies, note them and get the seller's agreement on them. Get the seller to agree with your assessment of the overall condition using the guide as a reference.

If the vehicle is drivable, go for a ride with the seller. Note any and all problems, verbally discussing them with the seller. Make sure the engine is running within normal temperature ranges. Tell the seller you'll get back in touch when you've seen some other vehicles. Be careful with this too. They may think you’re giving them the brush-off. You may not be welcome when you try to return.

Once completed, ask yourself which vehicle you want. Make an offer based on condition and buying guide information (remember, you've already gotten his agreement on the vehicle's condition, so your offer should reflect the pricing guides' levels, not his asking price.) If you have some give and take in the negotiation, you should recognize that the car really is for sale and the seller is willing to bargain with you. If this is really the car you want, don’t let a few hundred dollars difference between your offer and the sellers offer keep you from taking the car home.

Once a seller accepts an offer, get the title and a written bill of sale, plus any documentation, manuals, etc. that pertain to the vehicle. Now it's time to get it home! We’ll see about that in Part 3.