14 Tips for Buying a Classic Car

by Ryan Guina

I recently joined the legions of classic car enthusiasts when I bought a classic Corvette. Though I don’t consider myself to be an expert in classic cars, I do have a few tips that I learned while researching my purchase and going through the buying process. Like all big purchases, it definitely helps to do your research in advance. Hopefully these tips will help you save a little time and money and help you enjoy your classic car when you do make the leap.

Know the market. The economy tanked over the last few years, and the prices of many classic cars have dropped considerably since then. There are some exceptions to this rule with premium years and models, but in general, many classic cars can be had at substantially lower prices than they cost only a few years ago. In many cases people simply need the money more than they need their old car, making this a good buyer’s market. Some buyer’s guides are slow to catch up, so having a good idea of what the market is can help you spot a good deal before anyone else.

1973 Corvette Stingray

My Vette is nice, but it's not a great investment!

You classic car probably isn’t an investment. It irks me to see an advertisement for a classic car on Craigslist or eBay where the owner is selling the vehicle for substantially less than they have “invested” in the vehicle.

I hate to break it to you, but unless your classic car is extremely special (rare, limited run, numbers matching engine and trans, all original interior and components, frame-off restoration, or something else that sets it apart), then it probably isn’t an investment. Even it it meets some of those criteria, it may not be an investment. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t buy it. Many classics hold their value fairly well, and they can give you years of enjoyment. Buy it to drive, not to make money, and you will probably come out fine.

Don’t buy it to fix it up – unless you know what you are doing. Even then, you’re almost always better off buying a car which is complete, or nearly complete. A lot of people buy classic cars thinking they have an investment on their hands, and with just a little time and money, the car will be worth a lot more than they have in it. This is rarely the case. Replacement parts aren’t always very expensive, but the costs can add up if you aren’t careful. You also have to keep in mind that since the economic downturn, many classic car prices have dropped, while replacement parts have remained steady or increased in price as the cost of raw materials and shipping has increased. If fixing up a car is your hobby and you know what you are doing – go for it. But don’t expect it to cost less than buying a car that is already running and in good working order.

1973 Vette

Yellow wasn't my first choice, but it grew on me!

Have patience.I know roughly what Corvettes cost for the target years I was interested in. I found a deal I thought was too good to pass up, and I pulled the trigger. It helped that I was buying the car in the off-season, and right before Christmas – a time when classic cars are at less of a premium because they typically aren’t driven in the snow, and at a time when families often feel the need for money. But you can also find good deal “in-season” if you have patience and know what you are looking for. There are a variety of nice classic cars which can be had in the $5,000-$10,000 range – all it takes is a little knowledge and some patience, and you can find one.

Be flexible. The car you find, however, might not be exactly what you are looking for. Keep in mind that buying a classic car isn’t the same as rolling up to a car dealership and ordering the exact car you want, complete with the right engine, color, and options. There are substantially fewer classics on the road, and unless you are willing to pay a premium and have a lot of time on your hands, you may need to be flexible with your requirements. I preferred to have a 1970-1972 Vette, but I settled for a 1973 (difference in body trim and motor). I also got a yellow car, and though it wasn’t my first choice, the color has grown on me.

Cash talks. I bought my Corvette for $5,000 cash. I don’t normally have that much sitting around the house, so I hit the bank up right before closing time. All they could give me was $5,000 (the car was listed on Craigslist for $6,000 and I was planning on bringing $5,500 with me). Only having $5,000 available after bank hours gave me a firm floor for negotiating. Most people won’t take a check, so if the seller wanted the cash that night, he had to accept what I had on me.

Keep the negotiation professional and respectful. The negotiation went very smoothly – my buddy Paul and I looked at the car, took it for a quick drive, and talked to the owner for awhile. My initial plan was to offer $5,500, but since I only had $5,000, that was all I could offer. After I made the decision to buy the car, I told the guy I had exactly $5,000 in my pocket and I could offer that to him, otherwise I would have to wish him luck on the sale. I know he wanted more for his car, but I also know that he had been trying to sell it for awhile, his business was hurting from the downturn in the economy, and he needed the money more than the car (he volunteered this info to me, which also put me in a better negotiating position).

Have a mechanic or knowledgable person available to you. CarFax doesn’t cover old cars, so you need to know what to look for. I took my buddy Paul with me to look at the Vette I bought. He drives a 77 Corvette, and knows a lot of problem areas for those cars. We also drove the car straight to his mechanic (now my mechanic too) and I dropped it off to be looked over by a professional. Even though my friend Paul isn’t a mechanic, I still felt much better about the purchase knowing that someone with experience was able to look at it with me.

Be prepared to put money into it. It turns out the car needed a lot of work to make it road worthy, but not a prohibitive amount. I knew that based on my purchase price, I could put a couple thousand dollars into the car and still come out OK compared to buying something comparable in the spring. Worst case scenario, you change out an engine or transmission, and spend a couple thousand dollars. Thankfully, my car didin’t need such extensive work. I ended up giving it a full tune up, cleaned the carb, changed some bushings, and did a few other things. There are still some areas which can be improved upon, but the car is road worthy.

Be prepared to put time into it. Old cars are just that – they’re old. Little things break or need to be adjusted with more frequency than newer cars. Be prepared to do some troubleshooting and get your hands dirty from time to time. Buy a Chilton guide or other maintenance manual (or find a pdf of the manual online), spend some time online in forums, or use other references to keep your car in tip top shape.

Be prepared to give up some creature comforts. My Corvette has a carburetor, which is very different than the automatic fuel injection I grew up with. To top it off, it’s a little cold-blooded, meaning it takes awhile to warm up, even when it isn’t very cold outside. So I need to give my car a few minutes to warm up before I jump in and go. The radio and air conditioning don’t work. Neither of these are big problems – I don’t need a radio for pleasure driving, and the T-tops and windows down make a great substitute for AC. The seats and seat belts aren’t as nice as what you get in modern cars, there are no airbags, etc.

Shop around for insurance. My insurance company told me I would be better off shopping for insurance elsewhere, as they only insure a 1973 Corvette as a 1973 Chevy (meaning no premium for it). I got my insurance through Hagerty’s at the recommendation of both my insurance company and my friend. Insurance was surprisingly inexpensive for my car, coming in around $200 for a year of full coverage with no deductible and free roadside assistance with towing on an open bed trailer. The catch is that to qualify for insurance through Hagerty, you must have at least one other car per driver in your household, your classic vehicle can’t be your primary car, and you must keep it in covered parking. There is also a mileage limit for those rates. This car met all of those requirements, so that was a great deal, in my opinion.

Buy it for the right reasons. Owning and maintaining a classic car isn’t for everyone. They are fun, but they can also take work. If you buy it as a status symbol, you may be afraid to drive it or you may resent the fact that it sits in your garage taking up space, and never gets used. Classic cars can be an investment, but they usually aren’t. If you buy it as one, you may get burned.

Enjoy the attention. Classic cars are fun, and they’re meant to be driven and enjoyed. Join a classic car club, go to drive-ins or meet-ups, do the occasional car show, or just take it out for ice cream. Enjoy the window down and the wind in your hair. Be prepared to stop and talk to people every time you get gas or go to the store. Enjoy the long looks, thumbs up, and waves as people drive by. It’s fun, and it’s a great hobby you can share with others. If you know the market, wait for a good deal, and buy the car you want, then you can’t go wrong buying a classic car to drive and enjoy.

Published or updated June 7, 2012.
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