The kids are gone. You got promoted. You retired. Youíre newly single. Youíre deep into your second childhood. You owe it to yourself. Whatever the reason, youíre ready to take the plunge and get a classic, a collector car, a muscle car; something unique; something that takes you back to your youth -- or someone elseís. Congratulations!
What Iíll try to do here is guide you through the maze and pitfalls of buying an old heap so youíll wind up with something you really want and, hopefully, whatís best for you. While most of the cars Iíll use as examples will be American, the rules apply to foreign vehicles as well.
We all have our dream cars. You know, the one where you fantasize yourself behind the wheel, making a statement, feeling good and achieving some high level of automotive nirvana. Some dream cars are practical, some are not. The best part is that dreams donít have to be practical. In the real world, however, there are sometimes certain limitations that force us to ratchet down our dream somewhat. These restrictions usually manifest themselves in the form of monetary restraints or extreme lack of availability of the item desired. Oh, yeah, and some dreams are illegal, too.
Sometimes the desire to obtain a particular car wrestles common sense to the ground and gets it in a headlock. Fortunately, common sense doesnít have to prevail, but you do need to know all the caveats if you choose to let emotion rule the day. Intelligently buying an old car is all about asking questions and making choices. All these questions apply equally to, and are interchangeable between restorations and street rods.
What do you really want?
This is the fundamental question. You should not be afraid to answer it honestly, but try to be somewhat realistic. I mean, itís OK to lust after a 1936 Packard Twelve LeBaron-bodied club coupe. But for most of us, thatís not going to happen. A restored example is in another galaxy, price-wise, and the cost of restoration (if there is an unrestored one still around), even with professional abilities, is way beyond what most of us can afford. The answer to this question may not be the car you ultimately wind up with, and thatís okay. Just take your response and set it aside somewhere in a warm, safe spot.
As you think about the answer to the question of what you really want, think about these supporting questions and theyíll help you find the big answer.
What do you want to do with the car?
The first thing to clarify for yourself is what you want to do with your car. Is it a trailer-queen showpiece or something to drive on a Sunday afternoon? Maybe you dream of racing at the strip or joining a cross-country classic car rally?
What you want to do with a car doesnít so much dictate what kind of car you buy, but rather what kind of shape it should be in. Needless to say itís always great to buy as complete and unmolested a car as possible.
For a show car itís nice to have it as original and complete as possible because the fewer major repairs (usually major bodywork) there are to do, the less chance a judge will find something incorrectly done. For show cars, particularly muscle cars, original equipment (OEM = Original Equipment Manufacture) is what keeps or loses points (read the article on numbers-matching). Any alteration of the body or drivetrain will have to be returned to original.
For a driver, all thatís necessary is that it be safe and reliable. Anything else is a bonus. If you want to go drag racing, or to a lesser extent, rallying, you have a much broader range of options when assembling the car, and a substantially imperfect donor car is both affordable and saves you from the moral dilemma of destroying a rare original.
If you donít have a very specific make and model in mind, think about what basic type of car would be good for what you want to do. Is it a street rod, a pre-war classic, a foreign sports car, a cruising convertible or muscle car, or something else entirely?
How much work do you want to do?
Next, think clearly about how much work you want to sign up for. Do you want to start with a finished turn-key car, a diamond in the rough, or a major project? Thereís no right or wrong answer here - and thereís nothing wrong with buying a finished project.
A turn-key is a car that you just climb in, turn the key and drive away. Itís a finished or almost-finished car. For some itís the best way to go; no fuss, no muss, no dirty hands. Itís certainly the fastest way to start racking up the miles of smiles. Also, if you buy intelligently you will spend less money than if you restore. If this is what you want, great, but still read on. Thereís more advice to follow.
A minor fixer-upper is a car that is basically all there and useable/driveable, but needs attention in one or more areas. It could need paint, or interior, or mechanical; maybe even just a good detailing. If you have abilities that apply to a specific area of repair then youíre ahead of the game.
A major project is just that: major. These are not for the faint-of-heart. You need either multiple abilities and/or a large bank account. The pluses are the great pride youíll experience when the project is done, and that youíll have a car thatís exactly the way you want it.
If a restoration may be required, take an honest inventory of your personal abilities, and ask yourself if you are willing to learn new skills? If you do plan to take on a lot of the work yourself, do you have the special equipment to perform certain operations, such as a parts washer, welder, and so on?
Do you have a specific time frame, or can your project be open-ended? These projects always take more time than you expect. Do you have a space in which to work, and is it convenient? That question is critical in establishing your timeframe.
What is the absolute upper limit you can spend to obtain a car?
If youíre going to do any restoration, how much can you devote to the project, and in what time increments in the future? If itís taken you years to pull together $10,000 and your chances of putting much more into it in the future are slim then maybe you should consider a turn-key. If youíve got $10,000 and can put $500/month into a restoration or upgrade for the foreseeable future into a restoration then youíre in good shape for a decent project. Remember, many restorations have taken 5+ years to complete.
Buy the best car you can afford. Money is always an issue, and it pays to get a clear picture of the financial requirements right up front. How much money can you put into this project, and is it realistic to think you can stick to that budget?
Are You Willing to Compromise?
Do you have your heart set on a full classic Ď37 Packard Super 8, but the entry fee of close to $50,000 is a bit stiff for you? Youíll get the same ooohs and ahhhs from an admiring public for $20,000 if you get a Ď37 Packard 120. Thatís a savings of $30,000, and fully 99% of those giving you thumbs-up wonít know the difference. The 120 was the entry-level Packard with virtually the same styling, but on a slightly shorter wheelbase and equipped with a slightly smaller 8-cylinder engine. Itís still a great road car. The big difference? The Super 8 is a ďFull ClassicĒ as decreed by the Classic Car Club of America, and the 120 is not. Due to the nature of the game Full Classics are worth more; not necessarily for any better reason other than ďIt is written.Ē
Some people might want a Ď38 Cadillac, but a Ď38 Buick is essentially an equivalent car (better in some folkís opinion) for less money. A Ď57 Bel-Air is just a deluxe 150 series, and a Ď69 Z-28 is essentially a hopped-up, gussied-up, basic 6-cylinder Camaro. The 150 series and the base 6-cylinder can both be upgraded for much less money than buying their glitzier brethren.
Remember one of the great old car adages: ďIf the top goes down, the price goes up.Ē For some reason people love convertibles. Demand outstrips supply because convertibles tended to be made in smaller numbers and also suffered more severely from the ravages of nature. It is for those reasons that they command top dollar. If you can suffer the indignity of a sedan (4 door) or coupe (2 door), youíll enjoy a more weather-friendly cabin, and youíll literally save thousands of dollars.
My point here is that the less glamorous sedans and base models are often the best, most solid cars. They were likely owned by families or elderly folks, were better maintained and not abused. Although you canít make a plain-Jane, 6-cylinder, 4-door post sedan into a racy 2-door hardtop, you can usually make it into a V-8 Deluxe, if need be. In many cases, the base models are rarer than their deluxe counterparts because collectors shunned them for many years as being somehow less desirable and many were consequently destroyed.
There are many iconic cars of any given era that first come to mind when thinking of an old car.
- The 30s: 1932 Duesenberg, 1934 Packard, 1936 Auburn Boattail, 1936 Cord, 1932 Ford
- The 40s: 1940 Ford, 1941 Packard Darrin, 1948 Continental, 1948 Tucker, 1949 Buick
- The 50s: 1950-53 Hudson, 1950-51 Studebaker, 1953-54 Studebaker, any Corvette, 1955-57 Chevy, 1955-58 Chrysler 300, 1959 Cadillac
- The 60s: any Corvette, any V-8 Mustang, 1964 GTO, any Chevelle SS, 1969 Trans Am, 1966 427 Cobra, 1968-69 Dodge Charger.
Cars such as these are usually iconic either due to unique or breakthrough design, or their engineering, or performance elements. One thing that most of them have in common is that they tend to command top dollar in their respective niches. With the exception of the Studebakers, if you have to have one of these youíre going to pay a lot of dough. If your goal is to have something fun, different and affordable, however, then have we got some cool cars for you.
Choosing Orphans and Other Less Well-Known Cars
There are many great cars available to you that donít have the hype and glamour of many high-profile cars. An orphan is a car that wasnít made by one of the Big Three. Most of these are very good cars, and some are just a little quirkier. One thing most have in common is that they tend to be more affordable. Hereís just a partial list:
- Late-1940s Frazers
- 1930 to mid-1950s Willys passenger cars
- 1950s Kaiser
- 1930s, 1940s and 1950s Nashes and Hudsons
- 1950s Edsels
- 1940s to 1960s Studebakers
Contact a local club representing a potential make youíre interested in. Finding the right club is the critical step for a number of reasons. Youíll talk to those who know that particular car thoroughly. Theyíll be able to tell you its good points, weak points, and quirks, as well as parts and service availability. Some of them may also have a vehicle for sale that may be of interest to you. They should also be able to provide someone who is willing (perhaps for a small fee) to check out a car youíve located that youíre interested in. To have someone along whoís intimately familiar with a given car is a big plus for you.
To locate a club near you, check out the nwrestorations.com club listings or visit: www.hemmings.com.
Can You Keep Your Project and Your Family Happy?
Perhaps the most important question is this: is your spouse/significant-other willing to deal with your impending insanity? This one sounds funny, but more than a few projects have been sold with the notation ďWife says either the car goes or I go, so the price is cheap.Ē
Your spouse will end up watching you disappear into the garage on hundreds of occasions. She (or he) will listen to you complain about stuck bolts and broken glass. They will bandage your wounds and read the credit card bill. And in the end, you may hear the words, ďI hate riding around in that thing.Ē Make sure youíve got a partner, or at least, an understanding, before you begin.
My goal here is not to scare you off, but rather to arm you with vital information to make your old car experience less intimidating and, consequently, more pleasurable. There are many different roads to go down in this hobby (no pun intended) and I hope weíve given you enough of a roadmap to avoid the bumpy ones. Happy trails!