Everything You Need To Know When Buying a Vintage Car

Vintage cars are time machines into the past and are, as we aficionados know, works of art in and of themselves. The throwback power is real for any car enthusiast. Nothing quite matches the look, feel, and even smell of a restored, well-maintained classic set of wheels. An added bonus is the respect you’ll get from fellow car lovers for maintaining such a thing of beauty.

For every classic car lover who owns one, there are at least two who don’t yet. If you’re one of those who don’t yet own that vintage car you’ve dreamed of, here’s what you need to know and consider before buying your first vehicle.

Core Consideration: Why Are You Buying a Vintage Car?

There are many different reasons one may want a vintage car, each as valid as the next. If you’re just starting to dabble in vintage cars or you’re a vintage veteran looking to expand your collection, the why behind your purchase determines what you’ll be looking for in a vintage. Consider the following questions:

Do you like fixing things? And do you have the time?

This consideration will separate those who buy fully restored, ready-to-drive cars from those who love cars that are fixer-uppers. Depending on how much work needs to be done, you could be talking about years of your spare time spent in the garage fixing your dream machine and getting it to spec. If you lack the skills or the interest, a fixer-upper is not a good buy for you.

If you do choose one that’s good to go as is, keep in mind the upfront cost of buying the car will be considerably more. You can buy something that needs work and pay a trusted local mechanic to do the work to spread the cost over time, but the ending price tag could be far more substantial.

If you do choose to entrust the fixer-upper to a local mechanic, be picky! Classic cars are not just an everyday fix up, and they need specialized attention from experienced hands. Make sure the mechanic you choose has a track record with older cars and decent local reviews.

Are you buying the car to stand at home, sit in a showroom, or be driven around?

What you intend to use your vintage car for will have an impact on what you choose, too. If you’re buying a car you actually want to drive around frequently, you are going to face more maintenance work per year, higher insurance premiums, and generally a more expensive initial purchase. This is due to the need to keep the car roadworthy. While it may be true that they built cars well back in the day, vintage cars are, after all, old. They will need consistent fixing and maintenance, and the parts are much harder to find. Be sure to factor that into your decision.

Some of us want classic cars we can drive around and enjoy the feel of regular driving. Others want a classic car to drive once in a while, and still, others want a car that decorates the garage, a showroom, or a car festival stand. Decide which kind of owner you are before looking at what’s available.

Is it purely for the love of it, or are you hoping to make a profit later?

Flipping vintage wheels for profit is actually much trickier than you think. The money you paid purchasing, restoring, and maintaining it may not be a consideration by your potential buyer. There are some cars that, in the right conditions, appreciate beautifully and can double your money down the road, but these are rare, difficult to find, and require a lot of attention. There are places to look and ways to do so, though. Classic car appreciation is important to understand when considering your new vintage investment.

What’s your budget?

Good vintage cars don’t come cheap, especially if they’re already in excellent condition. Those that need to be restored can be bought with less cash, but you will still spend a considerable amount over time for the restoration job. Consider the car you want, its initial price and condition, the amount of paid work needed, the parts required down the line, and the general maintenance costs once it’s fixed up and working. Consider the insurance on it, too. Don’t forget about storing your new toy, as well, whether it’s a covered garage space or purchasing an awning for your driveway. It’s never a good idea to leave your vintage vehicle outside, cover, or no cover.

The higher your upfront costs are, the less you’re likely to fork out over time. If you have a big initial budget, use it! The more work needed for your project car, the more costs rise exponentially, and the more likely you are to take a serious loss if you try to sell it down the line.

If your initial budget is low, and you’re ok with a project car, try to cut long-term costs as much as possible by using the right mechanic (if you’re not restoring her yourself), and sourcing the right parts from reasonable dealers. It’s generally the labor and parts that cause your dollars to burn holes in your pocket over time.

Now that you have an idea of what, how, and why you want your vintage wonder, it’s time to pick the best method of finding her.

How to Find the Car You Want

There are a multitude of acceptable ways to source a good vintage car. But like with anything, there’s some good and bad in all of ’em. The trick is to use more than one method of research and shop in more than one way. Here are the most accessible and common ways of finding good vintage car deals:

Classic Car Auctions
Auctions are a great place to start when looking for your first vintage car. They’re frequent, various, and all over the place. If done right, you can get a good set of wheels at a total steal, but be cautious and aware. The most important thing to remember is there are no take-backs at auction. If you win the bid, the car is yours, for better or worse.

Auctions are not a place you can perform a proper inspection, so chances are, once bought, the car will have a few undisclosed secrets you may wish you were aware of beforehand. Stick to auctions that are well-organized and well-known to have a higher chance of avoiding this. You should also keep in mind that auctions may push the price of a car way above its value in some cases. Do your research on the going price tags for any potential cars of interest, so you don’t fall into that trap.

Local And Online Classifieds / Private Parties
This method takes a fair bit more searching, scrounging, and research. Deals from private parties who advertise are like any other kind of private sale, some are amazing, some are ok, and some are a total rip-off. The best way to make sure the price demanded is fair is to cross-reference it with other sources. You may even want to ask another enthusiast or professional for advice before buying. In addition to that, if you are not a pro mechanic yourself, bring one with you to check the car out thoroughly before money changes hands or deals are struck. This will obviously hedge you against any unwanted surprises the seller failed to mention.

It may seem fairly obvious, but it’s worth mentioning – be on the lookout for scams. They’re out there, even in the vintage car trade. If at all possible, check out reviews on the person you’re buying from as well as the car you’re buying. If the seller is a repeat seller, there should be some reference from previous buyers you can research.

Dedicated Websites
Dedicated websites such as classiccardeals.com are a great way to simplify the online hunt. Sellers at such sites should be vetted so that the chance of being ripped off is somewhat less. Don’t limit yourself or change what you want to pick up something off one of these sites, but keep them in mind, you may just find your dream classic sitting right on the digital showroom for a fair price. Make sure you check for reviews about the website’s service before committing to purchase. Spend the necessary time to ensure it’s legitimate, that it’s reliable, and that it’s the best option for what you need. Time spent on research pays off!

Vintage Showrooms
You can always travel to your nearest dedicated classic car dealer or showroom and see what they have in stock. Regional and international car shows are fun, educational, and can help you feel like part of a broader community, too.

Keep in mind that many vehicles at these shows were bought at fair prices, and these dealers are flipping them for profit, so there will be a bit of a price hike here. The more reputable dealers won’t rip you off too hard, but you will undoubtedly pay more than if the sale was private. The most significant advantage here is the fact that professionals have thoroughly inspected these cars, and the chances of picking up a problem car are much less. This would help you avoid future expenses, not in your budget, or avoid other problems that can come with less-vetted vehicles.

It’s really up to you how you find what you’re looking for but consider asking a fellow classic car lover for their input before doing anything permanent. They may save you a bad buy or show you a better one. If you don’t know any personally, there are tons of forums online which are tended by genuine and brutally honest classic enthusiasts.

Making Sure You Get What You Pay For

Regardless of the way you find your new love with four wheels, it is a sage move to take a professional inspector to check the car out wherever possible. As said earlier, this generally isn’t an option at auction, but almost everywhere else, it is, and it makes sense. If you know your way around an old car, then this is redundant in your case, but for those who don’t, buying a car with serious problems that weren’t disclosed is a soul-crushing, dollar-eating, and downright disappointing experience.

It’s also worth noting that if your private seller or dealer is hesitant or refuses to let a third party inspect the vehicle, it’s a major red flag right off the cuff. This is where you need to be careful of silver tongues providing convincing reasons why an inspection isn’t necessary. It really is. Full stop.

Deciding On the Car

The specific vintage beauty (or future beauty) you go with is really up to your own preferences and needs. If you’re not sure where to begin, stay where others have been. Certain vintage cars are popular among almost all collectors, so you can rely on their “expert” insights on where to start.

The reason sticking with these classics is smart for the first buy is the guaranteed buyers if you want out later. If it’s a popular model, you won’t have too much trouble selling it if you want to change or have lost interest. Plus, any work you or a mechanic has done on your vintage ride can be factored into reselling it down the road. It’s also going to be easier to source parts and find people who can fix your baby if needed.

Final Thoughts

The world of vintage cars is an exciting place to explore, and the sense of community you from being part of it by taking part in shows and events is even more fun. But temper it with a budget, be realistic, listen to sound advice, practice common sense, and do some prior research. Owning a classic can be an extremely rewarding experience. If you do it right, you may even soon feel the itch to start collecting. But that’s a whole other topic!

Katie Tejada is a writer, editor, and former HR professional. She enjoys writing about events, travel, decorating trends, and innovations for the home, but also covers developments in HR, business communication, recruiting, real estate, finance, law, and investing.

Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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