20 Things To Look For When Buying A Classic Car To Restore


Owning a classic car is a fun experience that millions of people enjoy every year, especially in the summer. It’s an exciting time when you decide to join the bandwagon and start looking for a classic car to own yourself. It can, however, be a little stressful and overwhelming while you’re deciding what classic car you want to purchase.

There are several things you need to look for before actually buying a classic car, especially one that you want to restore. It’s one thing buying a classic car in perfect condition and it’s another when you’re looking for one to restore yourself.

Luckily, I have bought and restored several classic cars and have been able to come up with a helpful list of 20 things you need to look for when buying a classic car to restore. I’ve been presented with every situation possible while buying cars, so I assure you that this list will be a helpful guide for you in your classic car restoration endeavor.

Understand Your Skills And Budget

The first thing you need to understand before buying a classic car to restore is your skill set and your budget. Both of these will have a huge affect on how well and how successful your car restoration will be.

You don’t need to be an expert at restoring cars, in fact you can have minimal skills and still be successful at your classic car restoration. You do need to know that there will be a huge learning curve and it will take longer if you don’t have experience and you need to be okay with that before starting on your project. You’ll also need to make sure you have the right tools. Click here to see my list of recommended tools for a classic car restoration.

You’ll also need to know exactly where you’re at financially. Restoring a classic car is expensive and there’s really no way around it. Make sure you have the funds to pursue such a project and make a monthly budget of what you’re allowed to spend so it doesn’t become so overwhelming on your wallet.

Know What Is A Good Price

Unfortunately, a lot of people end up getting duped or scammed into paying too much for a classic car. A lot of this has to do with the fact that most people pay cash for classic cars and don’t have to abide by a bank’s rules with their purchase. Though the rules banks have in order to purchase a car with their money are annoying, they also save us from making some dumb purchases. But most banks don’t do classic car loans unless you use a personal loan.

Once you decide what kind of classic car you want to restore, look at several online platforms and in local classifieds to see the average price that car is selling for. Notice the condition compared to the price. This will give you a good idea of what kind of price you should pay for your classic car.

NADA Guides classic car section can also give you a ballpark of how much your ideal classic car is worth. It’s also useful because it’ll tell you a price in the low, average, and high retail price ranges.

Look At Several Different Classic Cars Before Buying

I can’t tell you how easy it is to instantly fall in love with the very first classic car you look at. Something about the excitement of looking at one for the first time when you’re serious about buying one really makes you want to buy that first one on the spot.

Even if you think the first one you look at is absolutely perfect, it’s always a good rule of thumb to look at several in person before you make the decision to buy one. If you’re in a time crunch for whatever reason, schedule to look at several in one day and give yourself a day to think about which one best suits you.

Looking at several different ones will give you a chance to compare them from one another and be able to tell which one is the best purchase. You may realize that the first one you looked at wasn’t actually all the great after all.

Attitude Of The Seller

A big part of purchasing a classic car to restore is interacting with the seller. The seller can really make or break the experience depending on their personality. I’m not saying you shouldn’t buy a classic car from someone who’s a grouch, but there are some things about the attitude of the seller that you should look for.

Notice how willing the seller is to answer your questions. If they give minimal answers or aren’t clear with their answers, chances are they are hiding something. If you suspect the seller trying to scam you, you can always play dumb and ask an obvious question about the car and see if they tell the truth or not.

You may run into a situation where the seller is reluctant to sell their classic car because their partner is making them do it. This is unfortunate for them, but a perfect situation for you simply because that means they’ll most likely be honest with you and not hold anything back (and maybe they’ll be too honest because they don’t want to sell it).

Title Issues

Titles for classic cars can be a little tricky. There are some states that did not require a title for cars until the 70’s or 80’s, so you may run into a seller that is claiming they don’t have a title because of that law. Be cautious of this because unless they have been the only owner of that car since it was rolled off the lot brand new, the owner is probably being a little lazy.

There will be some classic car sellers that will try to sell you a car with no title. A good rule of thumb to stick to is to never buy a classic car without a title. The title can tell you a lot of vital information about the classic car. By buying a classic car without a title, you run the risk of buying a stolen car or one that still has a lien on it. Granted, you will run into a few cases where the owner sincerely just lost the title. But even then, don’t buy it without the proper documentation.

If the owner says they don’t have a title, request that they obtain one before you buy it. It will be a lot easier for them to get the title than it will be for you to get the title because they probably have registered the car at some point during their ownership. If they do have the title, make sure the VIN matches between the title and the classic car and make sure there’s no lien holder name on it.

How Long The Seller Had The Classic Car And What He Used It For

Don’t be afraid to ask the seller some probing questions. Buying a classic car is a little more mysterious than it is buying a modern car simply because rules were different back then, so documentation wasn’t as good.

Ask the seller how long he/she has owned the car. There’s really no right or wrong answer to this, unless the seller bought it last week which should raise some eyebrows.

Also ask the seller what they used the classic car for. For example, if you’re looking into early trucks, the seller may say they used the truck for hauling and towing purposes. This should make you closely inspect the suspension and the condition of the transmission a little closer before buying.

Any Previous Restoration Done

While you’re inspecting and looking over a classic car you’re interested in buying, notice any previous restoration work that has already been done. Ask the seller about this, too. The seller may have wanted to restore the whole thing himself but got tired in the middle of the project and decided to sell it.

Any previous restoration work done on it is a plus for you because that means less work you’ll have to do in the future. If you do know of any restoration work done on it, examine the fixes made and see the quality of the work that was done. Is it something you’re going to have to fix because it was done poorly? Is it something that’s not really your style? Does it look sturdy?

If the seller is trying to increase the selling price because of some work they’ve completed, point out any work that was poorly done and negotiate the price accordingly.

Rust

Most people will tell you that if you see any rust, you should run immediately. While it is understandable that people don’t take too kindly to rust, if you’re looking for a classic car to restore it is inevitable that you’re going to buy one that has rust. It’s not going to be perfect, which is why you’re restoring it. Classic cars are old machines and are bound to at least have a little rust.

So don’t run away just yet. Rust is treatable and fixable, you just need to know how to fix it. Examine the entire classic car for rust. Look in less obvious places such as door hinges, under the car, and under the carpet. You should also pay close attention to any rust on the frame as well as any cracks the frame may have due to rust.

Once you’ve assessed how much rust there is, calculate what you can fix and what is going to need replacing. Again, assess your capability of doing such fixes. Replacing parts isn’t necessarily bad, just know that you’re taking away some it’s originality when you do that.

Suspension

Ask the seller about the suspension and collect as much information as you can about it. Do a little homework before you start looking at classic cars, understand the suspension system, and know what you need to look for with the specific classic car you want.

Notice the condition of the suspension. Are the shocks leaking at all? Are any parts rusted together such as the leaf springs? You’ll also be able to get a good idea about how well the suspension is working by taking the classic car for a test drive if possible. Notice how it handles corners and bumps on the road and if there’s any major squeaking. If it’s completely stiff and you notice a slight wobble during turns, something is faulty with the suspension.

These are not things that should keep you away from purchasing, this is to assess what you’ll need to fix and if you’re capable of fixing it. You can also use this to talk down the price a little if the suspension isn’t in as good of condition as the owner stated.

Dents

Body work on a classic car restoration will be one of your most expensive components, so paying attention to the condition of the body is essential. Look at the overall stance of the classic car; does it look warped at all? You’ll need to pay special attention to dents, too.

There are some dents that are fixable and there are some dents that are too deep and require the panel to be completely replaced. You’ll get a few people who will still try to fix deep dents without doing the right thing and replacing the panel. They’ll use Bondo (which is okay to use on small dents) and try to cover it up. Bondo should not be used to fill anything that’s deeper than 1/4 of an inch; I’ve seen people use it on dents 1-2 inches deep and it doesn’t work well.

While this does temporarily fix the dent, it won’t last long and will manifest itself and require another fix in the near future. If you’re worried about the the possibility of a previous owner doing this to a classic car you’re looking into buying, try using the magnet method. You can use a small magnet and hoover it over the body panels. Any time you don’t feel the magnet being attracted to the metal, there’s probably too deep of a Bondo fix in that spot.

Brakes

You’ll want to know the status of the braking system with any classic car you’re interested in buying. Older cars usually came with the drum braking system. While drum brakes are able to stop a car just fine, it’s a more outdated system compared to disc brakes which is what is more commonly used nowadays.

There are a few options you have if you buy a classic car with drum brakes. The first option is just to simply leave it that way. Just know stopping your car will require extra effort and time to get it to a complete stop. The second option would be to add a brake booster which can add efficiency to stopping. The third option would be to convert from drum brakes to disc brakes to either two wheels or all four.

A lot of people like converting to disc brakes. If this what you want to do, understand that this conversion is quite expensive. If the previous owner has not updated to the braking system, that just means more work for you if you’re willing.

Engine And Transmission Condition

The engine and transmission of a classic car is kind of like the heart and soul. Know what you are willing to fix and what isn’t worth fixing when it comes to the engine and transmission. If you’re not interested in fixing or replacing an engine, it’s best for you buy a classic car that is already running.

If possible, take the classic car for a test ride if the seller allows you to. Pay special attention to any ticks the engine is making. Stay away from an engine that ticks because that’s a telltale sign that it’s in bad shape. Also notice how smooth the gear transitions are whether it’s automatic or manual. Rough switches or grinding noises could mean deep issues with the transmission.

If you know how to rebuild engines and transmissions or you were already planning on replacing them, then go ahead and buy a classic car that isn’t running. You’ll get a way better deal that way.

How It Sounds And Feels While Driving

While you’re out on your test drive, try to get an overall feel of how the classic car handles. Obviously it’s not going to be perfect because it’s an old car and needs restoring.

Most car enthusiasts have a sixth sense about what feels right and simply what doesn’t. Taking it out for a test drive can really give you a good sense of a connection with a car (sounds weird, but it’s really a thing). This is a perfect opportunity to see what your compatibility is with it.

Listen to any other rattles or creaks that you’re not comfortable with. A test drive can truly manifest the real condition of a classic car, no matter what the seller tells you.

Mileage

Mileage can be a bit tricky with classic cars. The odometer could read 200,000 miles on it, but the engine may have been replaced since then so it’s not a true reading.

Still, the mileage can give you a good sense of what the car has been through in it’s life. If it has low mileage, it could mean the car wasn’t abused but also mean the car was sitting for way too long. If it has a lot of miles on it, it could mean someone drove it to the ground but also mean it was used for it’s purpose and was tell taken care of if it lasted that long.

There’s no solid way to tell you what is or isn’t a good set of mileage, you’ll need to calibrate that yourself between what the mileage says, the condition of the classic car, and what the seller tells you about it.

Interior

Interior is another component to a classic car that is high on the expensive list. It’s very easy to spend a lot of money on it and it’s just as important as the exterior of the car.

Assess the condition of the interior. Note that a lot of things on the interior are salvageable to a certain extent, more so than exterior components. Notice if you like the style at all or if you completely plan on redoing the whole inside. Pay attention to any cracks in the dashboard or stains in the ceiling.

Heat And/Or Air Conditioning

Depending on what you plan on using your classic car restoration for, it’s a good idea to see if a certain classic car you’re looking into has heating and air conditioning. Most people assume these are luxuries in classic cars, but depending on how you plan to use it, it could be a must-have feature.

If you plan to take your classic car to car shows during the summer, that can be pretty miserable without air conditioning. If you live in a cold climate most of the year, having a heater is essential.

Check to see if the classic car you’re looking into has a heater and an air conditioner. It’s a major plus for you if it has one or the other, because installing either of them requires some work. Heaters are a little more simple to install whereas air conditioners are quite expensive to put in. If it does have air conditioning, the seller might ask for a little more in price.

Wiring

Wiring is something every classic car restorer is going to have to encounter in one way or another. It’s something most people don’t enjoy dealing with, so having a clean wiring system can make the restoration process a whole lot easier.

While examining a classic car you’re considering purchasing, look under the hood at the wiring and examine their condition. Notice if any wires are frayed or if there was any poor splicing done to them. Also notice if any old electrical tape is falling off and how much of the wire underneath it is exposed.

Assess your capability of tackling wiring with your classic car restoration. If wiring is not your forte, stay clear of classic cars that have wiring issues.

Previous Service Records

Receipts can be an annoyance as they seem to float around in the wrong places. However, they’re pretty precious in the car world. They can prove to future potential buyers of what service has been done to the classic car.

It’s not a bad idea to ask the seller for any service records done do the classic car. This is especially important if the seller claims to have bigger fixes and upgrades done to the classic car. It may not always be possible to get all the receipts, but if the seller was thorough, they’ll have those receipts ready.

If the seller claims to have paid for all these upgrades but doesn’t have the receipts and declines even trying to recover records of those fixes, chances are the seller is lying. Notice the reaction of the seller when you do ask for receipts and records and if they’d be willing to obtain them.

Where It Was Stored

Understanding where a classic car you’re interested in buying has been stored the last little while can tell you a lot about the condition of the car. Make it a point to ask the seller where he/she has been storing it.

A classic car that has properly been stored in a garage with a cover can indicate that the classic car was well taken care of. If it was sitting out in a field for years in a place that’s humid, you can guarantee that there’s rust in places you can’t see.

Cost Of Replacement Parts

Once you’ve looked at potential classic cars to buy, take some time to add up how much the replacement parts will be for that specific car. You won’t get an exact number, but after an inspection of the car you can at least get a good ballpark idea of what you’ll need to spend to restore it.

Some classic cars are more expensive to fix compared to others. Dodge, Chrysler, and Plymouth parts are generally more expensive compared to other American car parts. Likewise, if you’re buying a European car to restore and don’t live in Europe, you’ll need to count on spending thousands of dollars in shipping costs because some parts are only made in England or Germany.

Once you add all this up, you can decide whether or not that classic car is right for you and start your classic car restoration.

Related Questions

How can you tell if a classic car has the original engine? Most cars manufactured in the mid 1960’s started stamping a serial number on the engine block and on the transmission. Usually a VIN decoder, owner’s manual, or even the original title to the car will be able to tell you what the original engine and transmission serial numbers are. Click here for more info.

Do I need a garage to restore a car? A garage is not absolutely necessary to restore a car, though it is incredibly helpful to have one. If possible, try using a friend or family member’s garage if you don’t have one. There are also portable carports you can purchase that will help if a garage is not possible.

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