5 Classic Car Shopping Red Flags

By Eric Peters, Automotive Columnist

Most people know not to buy food with an expired “Best Before” date stamped on the side of the carton. But when it comes to buying a classic car some of us don’t recognize potential signs of automotive e. Coli.

Here are five red flags to watch out for.

1) Unusually Low Miles

Most of us consider low mileage to be a good thing — and most of the time, it is. Lower mileage means you may not need to rebuild the engine or other driveline parts; that can save you both hassle and expense. Plus, originality is always a good thing when it comes to a classic car.

However, be wary of any vehicle with advertised mileage that’s abnormally low for its age. It could be fraud; or just as bad, it could be a mess from years of just “sitting there” — which can be as hard on a car as going to the dragstrip every weekend.

For example, if you happen on a 25 year old Camaro with less than 10,000 miles on it, there could be all kinds of mechanical problems resulting from lack of use — including brittle/dried out seals in the engine and transmission (ready to leak all over the place when you fire it up), a rust-laden radiator and gunked-up cooling system, contaminated gas tank/fuel system, water in the brake lines/wheel cylinders — et cetera.


2) “I’m Selling It For A Friend”


This red flag should be as hard to miss as Michael Jackson asking if it’s ok for your 12-year-old son to sleep over at his place. What you’re probably dealing with here is a “curbstoner” — a person who buys and sell cars (usually, crappy ones) after a quick detailing and (sometimes) lots of Bondo and Motor Honey thrown in to mask a rotting shell and tired engine.

Curbstoners typically acquire the cars they sell on the cheap at wholesale auctions, or by purchasing them from others. They then clean them up a little — and sometimes fix obvious problems and place an ad in the classifieds or on Ebay representing the car as their own … until you notice the name on the title and paperwork is different. Then they explain it’s “a friend’s car” — or perhaps “Uncle Bob’s.”

I’d advise you to never deal with a curbstoner, period. They are inherently suspect.

It is likely the car either has more bondo than metal under that el cheapo spray can paint job — or an engine filled with enough “Motor Honey” to keep the smoke down just long enough for him to run away with your money.

Unless you like to gamble, stick with a car sold by a reputable seller whose name actually appears on the title to the car. The best classic car is one that has a clear and verifiable ownership history — and one which the actual owner isn’t embarrassed to try to sell himself.

3) It’s Already “Warmed Up” For Your Test Drive

Never, ever buy a classic car you haven’t had a chance to try starting up after it’s been sitting overnight. If you don’t you could be in for an unpleasant — and potentially expensive — surprise the morning after you’ve bought it.

Many mechanical/maintenance-related problems either show up or are much worse at cold start. For example, a worn-out engine will tend to clatter (valve/lifter problems), make unpleasant noises (rod knock/worn bearings), or smoke excessively when it’s first started up in the morning. These are possible signs of major underlying problems which are sometimes masked or muted once the engine warms up. A problem with hard starting or erratic engine pefomance could also be hidden from you by a seller who has let the car “get ready” for half an hour before you arrive.

If a seller (especially a dealership) is reluctant to let you test drive the car after it’s been sitting overnight, your guard should be up. And: ask for a test drive. If the seller won’t let you take the car out for 15-30 minutes or so, you should be concerned he may be trying to hide a problem (such as overheating or an electrical “cut out”) that might only show up after you’ve been driving awhile.

4) Will It Pass Emissions?

This may or may not be relevant to you, depending on where you live and the age of the car you’re considering. However, in areas where a successful “smog check” is necessary in order to register and gets plates for a car, be sure the thing will pass before you buy it. Or at least, know what you are going to have to do (and spend) in the way of repairs to get it through. You can use this as a haggling point, and if the seller’s willing to knock the price down to allow for what it’s gonna cost you to get the car through smog, you’ll be much happier with the deal.

Keep in mind that while most ’60s and even ’70s-era cars are pretty easy to get through smog check because their factory emissions control system were relatively primitive and simple to fix, if you’re dealing with something like an ’80s-era computer controlled car with three-way catalytic converters, EFI and ECU, the bucks can add up quickly if the previous owner gutted all that stuff.

It’s a good idea to make it a condition of sale that the vehicle pass both state safety and emissions tests (in areas where these are required) before any money changes hands.

5) The “As Is” Disclaimer

It should read “Not My Problem” — which would be more direct and truthful. When you see “As Is” on a bill of sale, be aware that most any problem that crops up after you take possession is going to be your problem. Cars more than 10 years old (let alone 20 or 30) rarely have warranties, of course. But you should be aware of this going in.

Exceptions do exists — legally, anyhow — for misrepresentation, which can involve fraud. For example, dressing up a standard Tempest to look like a GTO — and selling it as such. If that happens to you, the first step is to confront the seller and make it real clear you want your money back. Every penny of it.

If he doesn’t cooperate, your next step is a lawyer — or the local DA’s office.

www.ericpetersautos.com (click on “Forum”)

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