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Classic Cars: Tips for Buying and Owning


Maybe it’s nostalgia for something simpler, or perhaps a classic car reminds you of a bygone era. No matter the case, owning a classic car can be an attractive and exciting opportunity.

However, vintage cars aren’t for everyone. An old car will almost certainly require additional maintenance compared to a new vehicle, some of which may mean seeking out a costly specialist. And while some classic cars make suitable investments, those models that may appreciate in value are usually the exceptions to the rule.

Let’s take a look at tips and what it takes to buy and own a classic car.

What is a Classic Car?

One person’s classic is another’s tired old machine. What constitutes a classic can be hard to define, though some states try to do this for us. A car may qualify for classic or collector’s license plates when it turns 20 or 25 years old in many states. Generally, those plates require fewer renewals, and some may come with emissions test exemptions.

But not every 25-year-old car is a classic to everyone. Given that the average vehicle on the road is about 12 years old, your daily driver may well be on the way to classic status according to your state’s motor vehicle division.

On the upside, classic cars that you drive occasionally may qualify for discounted insurance rates through major insurers and specialists such as Hagerty or Grundy.

Instead, you may have to define a classic for yourself. For some drivers, it may be a pristine 1984 Chevrolet Camaro. For others, it could be a low-mile 1995 BMW M3. And some may like the rugged appeal of a 1983 Ford Bronco.

How to Buy a Classic Car

You’ve got your work cut out for you when it comes to shopping for an old car,  but it can also be fun to fill that extra garage space with something unique and exciting.

1. Do Your Research

Don’t jump at the first old car you see. You’ll want to narrow down to a list of models that appeal to you, and from there, you may want to dig farther to see what versions — engines, transmissions, trim levels, and model years — offer what you want.

Are you after something rare? Perhaps a special edition model like this 1983 Pontiac Firebird Daytona 500 pace car replica might appeal.

Maybe you want something utilitarian, such as this Jeep Scrambler that can double as a pickup truck for weekend projects.

How about something unusual and eye-catching? A V12-powered Jaguar XJ-S might look perfect in your garage.

2. Set a Budget

You may have heard the adage, “Buy the best one you can afford.”

That’s solid advice when shopping for a collectible car, but you should also budget for any work the vehicle will need down the road. Even the best-kept classic is an old car with parts that could fail at any opportunity, so you need to be ready to spend money to keep the car going.

Look at what’s available and then see what it’s worth. Classic car values can vary wildly. That ultra-cheap project car you see advertised might cost you way more than it’s worth. A meticulously restored will likely cost you less than its previous owner spent on all that work.

3. Determine Your Wants

What’s your priority?

  • Driving your classic car occasionally
  • Driving your classic car regularly
  • Occasionally tinkering with your classic car
  • Restoring your classic car
  • Treating your classic car as an investment

A classic car is not a great daily driver for most users since older models have considerable upkeep and lack the safety and convenience features found in new models. Still, if your commute is a once-a-week spin to the office a few miles away on quiet roads, you might enjoy taking a classic out when the weather is nice.

Many classic car shoppers want to take their car to shows, whether casually as a social outing or in a competitive sense, to win awards. For these drivers, a flashy car may be their best option.

TIP: The condition of a classic vehicle is more important than paint or interior colors.

4. Check the Mileage, But Don’t Worry if it’s High

Condition is more important than what’s on the odometer when buying a classic car. A well-kept model with 150,000 miles may be a better buy than a neglected one with a third that many.

Mileage comes into play in a few situations, mainly if you are after an ultra-low-mile vehicle.

Older cars use analog odometers that can easily swap out, reset, or otherwise be tampered with. This isn’t always nefarious. In some cases, the original odometer stopped working and had to be repaired or replaced. Some owners prefer to reset the odometer to zero miles following an extensive restoration.

Even digital odometers can go bad on cars from the 1990s.

But if you see a car advertised with unusually low miles, you’re probably going to want documentation to back up that claim. A big stack of service receipts showing the progression of mileage is worth its weight in gold, while a vehicle history report from AutoCheck or Carfax can also shed some light on the vehicle’s history.

5. Take It to a Mechanic

The best money you can spend on a classic car is for a pre-purchase inspection.

Find a qualified mechanic — someone who knows older models — and ask them if they do a pre-purchase inspection, including a test drive. The mechanic will put the car up on a lift to look under it for any signs of damage, poor repairs, or problems with its suspension, steering, or drivetrain components.

Most mechanics will charge an hour or three of labor for this work, which can help provide peace of mind or can ensure you avoid buying a lemon.

What to Avoid Before Buying a Classic Car

1. Not Checking the VIN

The Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) tells you a lot about the car. Models built for the 1981 model year or newer for the U.S. market use a 17-digit VIN that you can plug into AutoCheck or Carfax for a vehicle history report. You can also check these numbers in the National Insurance Crime Bureau database to confirm the car is not a stolen vehicle.

Moreover, you’ll want to confirm that the VIN on the title matches the VIN stamped (sometimes in several places on tags or stickers) on the vehicle.

The VIN can also tell you some facts about the car, though such information is model-specific. In some cases, it may tell you the trim level, engine, and other mechanical details with which the vehicle initially got assembled. If you’re looking at a Jeep Cherokee with 4-wheel drive, but the VIN says the manufacturer built the car as a 2-wheel-drive model, you now know that someone performed a conversion at some point. Or if the VIN says that a Ford built the Mustang with a V6 engine, but there’s now a V8 under the hood, you know that an engine swap has occurred.

2. Not Taking it to a Mechanic

This one is so important that we’ve mentioned it twice! Even if you consider yourself handy in the garage, a professional mechanic’s second opinion will be worthwhile.

3. Not Examining the Car Thoroughly

Take a good, long look at the car in different types of light. Look for consistent paint finish and hue, which may indicate a respray at some point.

Drive the car on different types of roads, listening closely for any unusual or unexpected sounds from under the hood or from the suspension.

In the end, you should trust your gut. If something about the car seems amiss, you may want to keep shopping.

4. Not Checking the Title

Double-check the title to ensure the VIN matches the vehicle and that the person listed on the vehicle title is the one actually selling you the car unless it’s at a dealership.

RELATED STORIES: What is a Rebuilt Title?

What You Can Expect for Typical Ownership Costs

Older cars open up a different cost structure than newer models.

Insurance

Depending on how you plan to use a classic car, insuring it may be surprisingly inexpensive. Major insurers such as Nationwide, State Farm, and Allstate offer discounts for using cars sparingly. Additionally, specialists such as Hagerty and Grundy can provide great deals aimed at drivers who only plan to take their vintage rides out on a handful of lovely days a year.

Maintenance 

While they tend not to be as complicated as newer vehicles, everything under the hood is old or was designed in a different era. You can’t expect the same kind of painless reliability from a 1980s model as you can from a new vehicle.

You may also need to find a mechanic who specializes in older models. Even cars built into the mid-1990s use different diagnostic tools than you’ll find in repair shops that cater to the latest cars.

A dealership may be able to handle essential maintenance, though most do not work on classics.

Additionally, old cars need to be stored correctly — preferably indoors and hooked up to a battery tender. Fortunately, battery tenders are inexpensive and easy to use.

Is a Classic Car Right for You?

Whether you’re buying a classic car as an investment or simply to fulfill a passion, there is a lot to consider.

Fear not! There may be a lot to learn about classic cars, but there’s a reason this hobby remains hugely popular. Old cars are fun and full of personality, plus ownership is like an entrance to an exclusive club.

Budget accordingly — both in terms of cost and patience — and you can find a classic car that suits your needs and desires.

Read Related Stories:

FAQ

How old is a classic car?

Some states define a car as a classic after 20 years, though an accurate definition also depends on the driver.

What makes a car a classic?

Any car that stirs some nostalgia may be a classic to someone. But not every classic is an appreciating collector’s item. Some vehicles are simply fun ways for a driver to relive another era, while for others they can be investments.

Where to find classic cars for sale?

A great place to start is at classics.autotrader.com, of course!

What special considerations do classic cars get for emissions?

Many states waive emissions testing after a car reaches a certain age. Research your state’s motor vehicle agency and find out the rules and guidelines before taking the plunge into classic car ownership.

Doug Demuro
Doug DeMuro writes articles and makes videos, mainly about cars. Doug was born in Denver, Colorado, and received an economics degree from Emory University in Atlanta. After graduation, Doug spent three years working for Porsche Cars North America. Eventually, he quit his job to become a writer, largely because it meant that he no longer had to wear pants. Doug’s work has been featured in a... Read More about Doug Demuro

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10 COMMENTS

  1. You Gotta Drive Them Or They Go To Hell Quickly , The Mice Have A Field Day With Them if left In Storage and that Can Be One Heck Of A Mess !

  2. Take heart in the article above.  I’ve owned classics for over 30 years usually 2 at a time and the upkeep is more than you ever estimate.  You need to drive them at least monthly and keep a log.  It will surprise you how long you will go without driving them after the initial “boat like thrill” goes away and not operating is usually the death of these cars.  I’ve never looked at a restored classic for sale that was “over-used”.  Generally, they live a sort-of mothballed life and everything starts to breakdown and break apart simply from lack of exercise.  I let me kids drive them around the area at least one time a month to get their exercise.  On the other end, selling them is another headache.  The tirekickers fall out of the trees and no one wants to pay what you think you should receive.  I’ve been in the business too and it’s not what it is cracked up to be.  Most “classic dealers” are best left alone and you’re much better off from an individual.  The appreciating values are a bit more of a propaganda story so juts ask others how they did when they sold their cars.  Don’t forget, the audience for classic cars is getting smaller and smaller and is expected to accelerate so I’d advice against these cars (regardless of make/model) as investments.  My 2 cents form over 30 years experience.

    You’ll have more fun and less risk with a 10 year old low mileage manual transmission sports car in the end.   

    • Great answer, SIr. Still, My ‘vette, caddy, and SL190 are unlikely to be sold any time soon and I still love driving these cars.

  3. That’s why we call it a classic, and not plastic like the cars today, It’s American Steel at it’s best and the memories they bring back. Is your plastic KIA going to fetch a 100k like a 68 Camaro?

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