How to buy a classic car

Here's all you need to know on choosing the right model, checking for rust, listening out for strange noises and taking the car on the all-important test drive

Buying a classic car is exciting, but sometimes a little daunting too. There's not just the worry of spending your hard-earned money on something that might not be as good as it seems, but there's also the question of which one to choose in the first place.

Strangely, this can be the hardest part of all. What do you actually want?

There’s one crucial rule, above all others: buy what you really want, not what others say you should have, and not what you think will make money. Classic cars need love, attention and cash to keep them on the road – despite the hype, they’re not easy to make money on.

More buying help...

Make sure too, that you're comfortable in it. It's a cliché but generally true that Italian cars require relatively long arms and proportionally shorter legs. If you're tall you might not fit in a pre-war or even 1950s car, and if you're a little broad in the beam, you might find sports car seats a bit of a squeeze...

Are you planning to work on it yourself? If so, how competent are you? If you’re learning, but want to delve into the mechanicals, then go for something pre-1980s. Later than that, and electronics and fuel injection make life harder.

Once-everyday cars of the 1950s, ’60s and early ’70s are generally the easiest to work on, whether they’re family saloons or budget sports cars. British and European four-cylinder cars and American straight-sixes and V8s are usually the most basic – but the more cylinders, the most cost in maintenance.

Pre-war cars are incredibly satisfying to work on, and the relative lack of spares is made up with the simplicity of the engineering, and absence of difficult-to-reproduce plastics. Cars of the 1980s and later tend to need less everyday maintenance but are more complicated and difficult to restore.

But, once again, buy a car that means something to you, that gets you excited. And think about how you’re going to use it – if it’s for regular use, maybe you shouldn’t worry too much if paintwork isn’t perfect, for example. If it’s for very occasional use, a bit of mechanical wear isn’t going to be a problem – it might be years before it actually wears out entirely. Don’t assume that everything has to be perfect. Slightly tired, scruffy classics are often more fun.

Don’t get too hung up on mileage. A car that’s been sat around for years unused will be far more trouble that a well-maintained, regularly-used car that has had worn parts replaced whenever necessary.

Where to buy a classic car

If you buy from a private seller, you have little or no comeback if the car proves to be faulty. The well-worn Latin phrase caveat emptor, buyer beware, means exactly that.

If you buy from a dealer, you have more comeback, assuming the dealer is reputable and financially stable enough to still be around at that point. Most are, of course, and it doesn’t take much to Google for comments on any dealer. You will pay more but generally it’s a safer buy from a dealer.

And then there are auctions. Again, you get comeback if there are faults that weren’t listed, and most auction houses carry out careful checks on the vehicle and its history. Buying is more daunting, and you’ll need to factor in the added premiums. Best to read our How to buy at auction feature.

Plenty of people buy online now too, without viewing the car in person. That’s a risk of course but you can make it safer by researching the seller and paying only a deposit until you do see the car (in case it’s not as described but also to avoid fraud).

Using an inspection service

There are plenty of inspection services available. Most marque specialists will be willing to inspect a car, though many will prefer to look over the car at their own premises. There are also mobile inspection services, such as Classic Assessments in the UK. But if you’re doing it yourself, read on…

How to check bodywork

This is the toughest one really, because mechanical parts can generally be replaced at a cost. Bodywork repairs can feel almost endless, and might even lead to a full restoration in the worst cases. Rust can be temporarily hidden with plastic filler and fresh paint – but it will return!

It sounds obvious, but make sure you view the car in natural light, when it’s dry. Rain hides a multitude of sins. Before anything else, peer along the sides of the body, squatting down to look for ripples, panel misalignment, patches of dull paintwork and bulges of filler or rust.

Be clever here too. Examine good examples of the model you’re interested in so you know where all panel joins should be. There will often be a distinct panel line showing the join between, for example, rear wing and sill – but on a badly repaired car that may have been filled over. Use Google Images and books – the most detailed for many models are the old ‘Original’ guides by Bay View Books, usually found used on Amazon.

Then look for signs of recent repainting, such as overspray under the wheelarches or even on the tyres, on the exhaust and suspension components under the car, on the window rubbers and covering over factory stickers. A freshly resprayed car will often smell of solvents inside too, and there may be filler dust or overspray in the interior. Walk away!

It’s perfectly acceptable for a classic car to have been resprayed but it will take a year or more for rust to return, if it is still lurking. Look for tell-tale bubbles of rust under the paint, particularly around wheelarches, door bottoms and windscreen scuttles. Feel underneath door bottoms, round the insides of wheelarches (do they go suspiciously crinkly or unusually thick in places?), around all the folds and seams of the bonnet/hood and boot/trunk.

On a fibreglass car, you won’t have rust problems but you may spot cracks, crazing and chips in the outer surface, known as the gelcoat. They’re generally no problem structurally but might indicate accident damage or stresses to the bodywork. To repair them the gelcoat needs to be ground down and filled – much more work than you might expect.

Make sure doors and other opening panels fit correctly, shut easily and the panel gaps around them are even. Many older cars, generally pre-1980, had appalling panel gaps from new (Triumph Heralds, Sptifires and the like were some of the worst) and VW Beetle doors do tend to bounce off their rubbers unless shut firmly – but generally doors should still close well. Make sure they’re not dropping as they’re opened, indicating poor fit or worn hinges (often a difficult repair).

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How to check underneath the car

You'll probably need to jack up the car to look underneath. It might feel odd asking for this to be done but it’s crucial. But, whatever you do, do not even reach under a jacked-up car unless it’s supported with axle stands, and ideally take your own equipment rather than relying on the vendor's. Every year classic car enthusiasts are badly injured or killed when their car falls off an unstable jack, or the jack collapses unexpectedly.

Even better, find a friendly garage that will let you use a ramp. It makes a huge difference.

So, that covered, you’re looking for rust and accident damage. Not easy because there will usually be mud, oil and underseal covering it. Be deeply suspicious of fresh, thick black underseal. Unless the car is immaculate underneath, don’t be afraid to use a hefty screwdriver to poke at the metalwork.

Box sections, floors and particularly any suspension mounting points all need checking carefully. So too, the sills, especially at their ends, under the wheelarches. Think of a sill as a box section, not just a cover, running along the outside lower edge of each side of the car – usually rust on the outside edge is obvious but may be hidden by a cover sill, sometimes metal (think Triumph Herald, Citroën SM and many others), some will be plastic or covered over with sideskirts..

The inner section of sill, joined with the floor, is the most likely to rust, often from the inside, which we can’t see. If you’re really keen, an illuminated endoscope (now remarkably cheap) can often be inserted into the sill, if there’s an access hole. Otherwise, you need to feel along the inside edges if they’re covered by carpet (or look under the carpet, and also look at any exposed areas of inner sill under the car.

Cars with MacPherson struts, particularly Fords from the 1950s-on, suffer from corroded strut mounts – the areas on the tops of inner wings, visible with bonnet/hood up (and usually inside the boot/trunk for rear struts. But any rust will be worst on the underside – a build up of damp mud is a big warning sign that there may be trouble. Replacement is an involved process.

Don’t underestimate the possible cost and difficult in sourcing exterior trim and glass, if any is damaged or missing. Rechroming costs are high but if parts are missing, then they’ll often be very difficult to find. Windscreens for any car can be re-made, at a cost, and most are still available anyway – but don’t assume that they are…

How to check the engine

First trick is to make sure the engine is cold before it’s started up for the first time. You can even ask the vendor not to start it until you arrive. A pre-warmed engine might be hiding a cold-starting problem.

Again, before the engine is even started, take a look around it for fluid leaks. Once it’s hot, it will be more difficult to work out where any leaks are coming from. The older the car, the more likely the engine is to leak oil, and don’t be worried about a sheen of oil over the bottom of the engine.

If the top of the engine is covered in oil, can you tell where it’s coming from? It may be blowing out of a breather, often the filler cap itself, indicating a worn engine.

Dripping oil is not acceptable, and may mean a crankshaft oil seal problem, which could require an engine rebuild. Look at where the car is parked normally. Are there any patches of oil or other fluid? Transmission oil has a very distinctive smell, while engine coolant is usually green or pink-tinged, and feels greasy.

Dried engine coolant often shows up around any leaking hoses. And are the hoses themselves hard and brittle or cracked and perished? They should be pliable. The same goes for fuel hoses, especially fabric covered hoses, which often only show damage at their exposed ends. There’s a risk of fire from damaged fuel lines, and an old coolant pipe could burst at any time, causing rapid overheating.

With the engine still cool, check the insides of the oil filler cap and the coolant system cap. If there’s a gunky white substance, often compared to mayonnaise, then it’s likely that oil and water are mixing somewhere, usually due to a blown cylinder head gasket. That’s bad news.

Check the oil on the dipstick. Even fresh oil will look dirty very quickly so don’t worry unduly if it’s black – but do worry if it’s low, particularly if it’s below the ‘low’ mark on the dipstick.

Only now should you get the owner to start the engine, while you listen for odd noises. What are ‘odd’ noises? Well, worst case scenario on start-up is that you’ll hear a knocking from deep down in the engine. That will be worn crankshaft big end bearings – necessitating an expensive engine rebuild.

Or there might be a low rumble, which is harder to detect but could also mean worn crankshaft bearings. Rattles and tapping from the top of the engine will also mean wear but are quite common and acceptable for some engines, especially quite basic units such as the BMC A-series (as fitted to Mini, Midget, Sprite), B-series (MGB) and Ford Crossflow (Anglia 105E, Escort, etc). It shouldn’t drown out all other noise, though.

Chuffing noises are usually leaking exhaust manifolds. Carefully move your hand over the joints between the manifold and the cylinder head (they’ll be very hot!) to see if you can feel exhaust gas escaping. Make sure you’re not wearing any loose clothing that might get caught round whirring pulleys or fans.

Whining noises may be worn alternator or dynamo bearings, which isn’t disastrous.

Once the engine is warmed up, rev the engine, not too fiercely at first, making sure it responds without hesitation. Then get the owner to do the same while you watch for smoke from the exhaust. Blue means oil (worn engine), white is generally just condensation, though if extreme could be a head gasket problem. Very occasionally it’s caused by brake fluid being drawn into the engine from a faulty brake servo. Black is a fuelling problem, which will need to be fixed but shouldn’t require an engine rebuild.

On the road, listen for odd noises again, and make sure there’s no hesitation or misfire. A good classic will run cleanly, regardless of age. Watch the temperature gauge – it shouldn’t go above two-thirds, even in traffic. If there’s an oil pressure gauge, expect it to be high when the engine is cold, dropping low when warm at idle, and midway at normal running.

Once back, leave the engine running for ten minutes at least and watch the temperature gauge. If it starts to creep towards the red, there’s a problem, and you’re probably best off walking away – it might only be a blocked radiator, but has the engine previously overheated and damaged the cylinder head? There’s no way of knowing.

How to check the transmission

You can look for oil leaks and damage to any rubber gaiters when you’re under the car, operate the clutch a few times to make sure the pedal operation is smooth, and check that the gearshift feels precise (making allowances for cars with long linkages, such as early front-wheel-drive cars and any rear-engined car) – but most faults will show up only during a test drive.

Listen out for clonks and knocks when you pull away and change gear. Usually that will be worn driveshaft joints, or maybe worn engine or gearbox mounts, neither of which is too onerous.

Back on and off the accelerator at low speeds in each gear, to make sure the car doesn’t jump out of gear, and try fast changes up and down the gears to see if it crunches. Many cars before the mid-1960s won’t have synchromesh on first gear – so it will crunch if you try to get it into first while on the move. The most usual wear to synchromesh is on second gear.

Pre-war cars (and some post-war budget cars such as the Fiat 500) didn’t have synchromesh on any gears, so gearchanging needs careful timing and a double-declutching technique.

On front-wheel-drive cars, find an empty car park and drive slowly round with the steering on full lock, first in one direction, then the other, while listen for knocking noises – worn CV joints in the front driveshafts.

Listen for whining noises in each gear, which means worn bearings – a gearbox rebuild will be needed! But if it’s only faint, it probably won’t need attending to for thousands of miles. If the whine is when you back off the accelerator, and comes from the rear, it’s probably wear in the rear axle.

How to check suspension and brakes

We might be getting close to the end of our inspection list, but that doesn’t make the suspension and brakes checks any less important. In fact, they’re crucial.

When you’re looking under the car, look for any signs of fluid leaks. Pull back the gaiters on telescopic dampers to see if they’re leaking – sometimes they can be rebuilt but usually a leak means replacement is needed. And you need to replace them in pairs.

Lever arm dampers, as fitted to many cars of the 1950s and ’60s such as MGBs, Midgets etc, often do leave a light sheen of oil on the damper bodies but there shouldn’t be any drips of oil from the seals around the damper arms.

Brakes should absolutely not leave any traces of fluid anywhere. Under the car, look at the insides of the wheel rims for traces of fluid, all around the brake components and at every brake pipe and hose joint. Make sure that the flexible brake pipes aren’t cracked, perished or damaged in any way. Also check around the steering components – again, there shouldn’t be any leaks.

Look also for scored or rusty brake discs (unless your classic is drum brakes all round, which many were until the 1970s). The discs should be smooth, without a lip on the outer edge. Try and look down the edges of the brake calipers, to check the thickness of the brake pads – if you can get to them, you’ll see each one has a metal backing and a layer of friction material. The friction material should be at least as thick as the metal backing.

Still under the car, look out for broken coil springs and leaf springs, and also for perished rubber bushes on the suspension arms. A tired rubber bush will be cracked around the edges, and might look as though it’s squeezing out of its holder.

Look out for split or perished rubber gaiters on the steering rack, balljoints and driveshafts. If they’ve been letting in water and dirt then there’s a chance of the component wearing out quickly.

Finally, take a look at the insides of the tyres while you’re still under the car, checking for cracks, splits and cuts. Then crawl out and check the outside edges, also checking the age of the car. If the wheels are off the ground then look all the way around the treads for damage.

If the wheels are off the ground, grab each one in turn at top and bottom, and see if you can detect any movement. Generally there shouldn’t be any perceptible movement, though certain models are set-up to have a tiny amount of movement in the wheel bearing. Do the same with hands in the 3 o’clock and 9 o’clock positions too.

Under the bonnet, check the level of the brake fluid in its reservoir. Careful, it’s unpleasant stuff that can damage paint. It should look clean, a clear light brown usually, not dirty. If the level is low, then there might be a leak in the system somewhere.

Try bouncing the car up and down at each corner, listening for knocks, which might be worn suspension components. The car should settle after one and half bounces. If it doesn’t, then the damper is worn out.

Move the steering wheel back and forwards, to feel for play. There shouldn’t be any knocks or clonks, and there shouldn’t be any free play on any car with a steering rack. Many models, up until the late 1960s, used a steering box, which is prone to play – up to a couple of inches at the steering wheel can be acceptable. It’s worth researching about your model to find out what’s acceptable.

Steering boxes are often over-adjusted to remove play from the straightahead position, but making the steering to stiff towards full lock. That’s worth checking.

When you drive the car, seek out a few bumps and listen for knocks and rattles. Pull up hard on the brakes from about 20mph, with hands only lightly gripping the steering wheel. It should pull up straight, not veer to one side. And you should be able to lock the wheels on almost any car, except certain pre-war models.

Again, at around 20mph, carefully let go of the steering wheel and see if the car pulls to one side. As long as the road is flat, the car should continue straight. If it doesn’t, it might just be a flat tyre but it might be misaligned suspension.

How to check the interior

What’s the most important thing for an interior? Making sure everything’s there. Interior parts are notoriously hard to find for all but the most popular classics – and the more recent the car, the more difficult it will be to reproduce any unobtainable parts.

Seats on the other hand can always be recovered, though you can easily get into four figures for a full retrim, especially in leather. Re-veneering tired wood trim is similarly expensive. But a bit of patina is no bad thing, especially to leather seats – leather feed will extend their lives significantly.

Watch out for wet carpets, not just because they’re unpleasant and cause rust but because they indicate problems somewhere. It might just be leaking door or window seals, or blocked sunroof drains – or it could be caused by a rotten windscreen surround, hidden by the trim. Sometimes, wet footwells are caused by engine coolant leaking from the heater matrix, which is invariably buried under the dashboard.

Check all electrics, and don’t dismiss a non-working component as merely a simple task, because electrical problems can take a long time to solve.

Classic car paperwork

If you’re in the UK, does the car need an MOT? Or tax? Not all do, but you can refer to our guide to check that. Make sure it has the appropriate registration or ownership papers, and check through all receipts, servicing records, MOTs etc to verify mileage records.

Recurring faults often show up through receipts. Regular battery replacements? Maybe there’s an electrical fault that drains the battery. Tyres? If they’re being replaced unusually regularly then maybe the suspension alignment is wrong, wearing out the tyres unevenly.

If you do buy the car, be sure to ask the seller for a written note of confirmation of sale, with date, seller’s name and address, car details, and price paid. Then go ahead and enjoy your new classic car!

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