Buying any car can have its perils, but buying a classic is particularly fraught with hidden gems such as painted over filler, holes covered in waxoil, warm engines to hide start up issues and a host of the other usual problems these old majestic collectors' items can suffer.
This article is not intended to be a fool-proof way of guaranteeing a perfect find, nor does it offer everything you need to know about all cars, but we hope it helps in trying to spot the usual issues that could be hiding.
While this guide is useful, we highly recommend researching the car you want, each one has its particular foibles, like the Bentley leaking oil pumps, or the Jaguar v12 overheating ignition amplifier, some leak or rust in specific places, such as the Stag, under the front lip of the bonnet, so specific model information is really important when buying. Searching for a buyers guide to the car you want will usually turn up several really good articles from companies or individuals who know that model well.
In a similar vein, researching parts availability is crucial when buying a classic; you may find a car that doesn't have too much wrong with it, but if new or replica parts aren't available, that task becomes difficult, expensive or both.
Starting on the outside, the bodywork is usually the most expensive element to resolve, especially when rust is the issue, as signs of rust can be the tip of the oxidised iceberg.
Rust either forms on the surface, due to a dent or scratch, or poorly treated metal and rots inwards, or it starts in the metal underneath, and rots outwards, meaning that the surface rust could be the sign of a much deeper problem.
In some cases this can be investigated by eye, or, if possible, a hard stick, such as a screwdriver or similar. If the metal gives reasonably easily, then the rot goes deeper than can be seen. Check as deep as is possible, which may be difficult on a driveway, but looking underneath, under carpets, in the wheel arches, in the boot, under the spare wheel and anywhere that water can get trapped.
When initially looking for the car, ask the sellers for pictures of these areas; those who aren't willing to do so could be trying not to draw attention to such areas, which would be a red flag.
Brightwork such as bumpers and grilles etc. can be re-chromed if they are pitted, but this can get expensive; as a guide, a bumper is usually about £600 to replate, so this can add up quickly if a lot of the chrome is poor.
The use of a magnet can identify any areas where filler has been used. Go around the car and check the usual places (wheel arches, bottoms of doors etc.) and see where the magnet doesn't stick. While filler in of itself isn't an issue per se, where it is significant you will have a weaker part and it will devalue the car.
The interior is another area that can quickly get expensive, tears in leather or vinyl can be repaired, but depending on the condition of the seats they may require new covers, which, when including the foam, can be £2K or more (a pair).
Damaged wooden dashboard can be replaced, but again, can get expensive if new panels are needed, or if whole sections need new veneer.
Other elements such as carpets and switches aren't usually expensive, but can add up.
Checking each control within the car is important, slow windows could be a worn motor, several non-functional switches could be a simple fuse, but could also be a sign of wiring issues.
Checking an engine without taking it all apart isn't an easy proposition, there are numerous things you can look at to give you some indications. Even then, doing so on someone’s driveway, with them watching you paw over their pride and joy, can make it hard to get a good sense of the condition, especially when they don't want you to see.
However, these checks are quick to do and can tell you a lot about the life the engine has had and what condition it is likely to be in:
If possible, remove at least 2 plugs, preferably not ones next to each other and have a look at the tip.
The colour and condition of the plug is very telling of how the engine runs and while the subtle differences can be difficult to differentiate, the main ones to look for are:
Clean electrode, some greying around the outer ring: This indicates a reasonably healthy engine, with little or no oil burning and a reasonably good mixture.
Blackened, sooty or dry tip: This indicates a rich mixture, which could indicate longer term issues, but generally speaking may simply mean the engine needs tuning.
Blackened, oily, wet tip: This shows the engine is burning oil; while there are several potential causes, there are other things you could look at to narrow it down.
With the engine cold, or left for a while, start the engine and look for a cloud of smoke, it there is one that lingers, then it is possible that it could be valve stem seals that are worn and leaking. This effect can also be caused by poor crankcase ventilation pressure too, but there are other indicators of that.
Remove the air filter, if there is oil on the carburettor facing side, or in the intake chamber, this is a common indicator of the Positive Crankcase Ventilation (PCV) system not working. This system generates a slight vacuum within the block to help keep liquids inside the engine and control the oil vapour. When the vacuum is lost or drops, oil can work its way up and into the intakes, causing the oily deposits and burning as part of the incoming mixture.
Other causes of oil burning include worn piston rings, but this requires a compression test to identify, not something that is easily done on a viewing, or cracked head gasket, but again, not something that can be checked easily.
Another channel for oil to get in is through the valve guides. These wear over time and can cause gaps to occur between the valve stem and the guide. If possible, drive the car to a hill and coast down it with the car in gear, but with your foot off of the accelerator pedal, at the bottom of the hill, press reasonably hard on the pedal and watch for smoke out of the exhaust.
If the guides are worn, the vacuum created by the test will draw oil down them and accelerating will burn it off.
Remove the dipstick and look at the oil, this can tell a lot about the internal condition of the engine.
It should be anything from a clear yellow colour when new, to a dark black when due to be changed, both of which are fine, but if there are signs of a light froth, this indicates coolant maybe getting into the oil, which suggests a head gasket issue.
The other main element to look for are metal particals. These will show as a sparkle in the oil, or sometimes larger, but if either are present, this suggests that the engine is wearing internally and would require a rebuild.
Similarly to oil contamination, oil showing in the water is a sign of the head or head gasket damage, a serious condition that could require the head to be removed and potentially engineering work to rectify issues there.
A quick test can be performed on a manual car to see if there is any wear on the crankshaft thrust washers, which maintain the correct lateral movement. Have someone in the car press the clutch and watch the crankshaft pulley for movement. Ideally you shoulnd't see any, or at least barely perceptable. The pressure being put on it by the clutch is significant, so any movement will be shown. Unfortunately this cannot be done on an automatic.
If there is movement, this shows significnat wear and will require an engine rebuild.
Suspension issues are fairly easily resolved and usually aren't too expensive, however they are critical to vehicle safety and need to be assessed before driving it.
The simple visual things to check are brake leaks, weeping suspension struts and the tyres, which will show immediate areas that need attention.
Tyres tell a lot about how a car drives and what sort of care has been taken. Tyres with good tread, but cracks between them show a car that has been stored for a long period, which could indicate other perishable elements could be degraded such as pipes and diaphragms.
If possible, if you have access to a jack, the wheel bearings should be checked.
With the wheel off the floor, holding the top and bottom of the tyre, rock it back and fourth, there should be no movement. The most likely reason for movement would be worn wheel bearings, although worn suspension elements could also be the cause and closer inspection would be required.
While checking the gearbox and differential is not easy without taking them off of the car, there are a couple of quick checks that can show obvious wear.
Leaks are the first thing to check. While some leaking is usual for a classic, excessive loss, where puddles are left on the floor, especially if they've been left unchecked, could indicate that the unit has run dry, causing excessive wear.
In order to check for such wear, a simple test is to put the car in first gear and either release the brake on an automatic, or raise the clutch on a manual and listen/feel for a 'clunk', then do the same with reverse. If a 'clunk' is felt, it is likely the differential will need work to rectify the issue.
It is possible that this sound is caused by worn universal joints, but this requires getting underneath the car and putting pressure on the joint with a pry-bar or similar.
Gearbox issues are difficult to diagnose without driving the car, so a test drive is important. When driving the car, check for issues selecting gears (which could also be clutch related), this could indicate synchromesh issue. While driving, listen for whining noise, which could indicate worn bearings. Either of these problems will require a gearbox rebuild.
The history of the car is important, it can show how it has been looked after, as well as its journey until this point, both are important in knowing what the car is before you buy it.
A good service history, especially a dealer one is ideal, it shows regular servicing and repair. Even a wealth of receipts for parts will show the car has been maintained.
While any car over 40 years no longer requires an MoT, they are useful as a way to corroborate mileage, so any car that comes with a maintained MoT history is a positive.
Another use for MoTs is showing how much usage the car had between tests, one with little or no mileage could indicate a car that isn't used much. Such a car could be suffering from the type of perishing seen when a car is stored long term.
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