With the popularity of sites like Craigslist and eBay, shopping for project cars over the Internet has opened up a whole new world of opportunities. The downside is that when you’re dealing with older musclecars and classics that are several decades old, it also opens up a whole new world of opportunities for getting hosed. As industry insiders who see many of these online purchases firsthand, the crew at Precision Restorations often meets people who bought a car thinking that it would only need minor repairs only to learn that it actually needs a full-scale restoration. To prevent this from happening to you, performing a proper inspection before you buy a project car will save you bundles of money even if you have to pay a few more bucks in the beginning.
One of the biggest expenses when restoring a vehicle is the paint and bodywork. Not only do these repairs cost the most, but the condition of a car’s paint and body can be dolled up and hidden in pictures or during a quick walk-around inspection. Sometimes this is intentional, and sometimes it’s not, but the burden of assessing a car’s true condition is on the buyer. While it’s hard to sell a car that doesn’t start when the ad claims it runs perfectly, it’s very easy to hide major rust areas with a can of body filler and some spray paint. Remember that all classics require some sort of repair, but following these simple tips might just save you a boatload of money.
Tip #1: Be very weary of “rust free” cars.
In reality, there are very few unrestored vehicles that are actually rust free. Most usually have surfaces rust, or at the very least, rust in hard-to-see areas inside the quarter-panels, cowl area, and inside the rocker panels. This is not to say that there are no rust-free cars out there, but be forewarned not to believe these claims at face value.
Tip #2: Look for signs of previous paint jobs.
Cheap paint jobs can cost a fortune to fix, so here’s what to look for. Look near the trim and in the jambs for paint edges or small chips that may reveal a different color. Signs of flaking, peeling or a different color showing through could be sign of a prior paint job that was not stripped properly. This could also be a sign of a vehicle that’s had a quick paint job to cover up a bad one. In a situation like this, the painter did not properly disassemble the vehicle before they painted it, which means that it probably wasn’t prepped properly. Cars like this will usually have paint issues down the road. Paint jobs that have a lot of orange peel and dirt in the paint should also throw up red flags, as the car may have some secrets hidden underneath.
Tip #3: Know where to look for rust.
Look at the obvious places where rust usually starts to form. Major rust areas are in front of and behind the rear wheels, in the corner of the doors, and at the rear lower section of the fenders. These areas are easy to see and accessible in person. Rust holes that have been repaired with body filler usually start out as just a small bubble, then explode from there, so don’t be afraid to get down on your hands and knees and poke around a little bit. If someone is claiming their vehicle is in topnotch shape, there’s no reason why they should object to this. Furthermore, if a vehicle has fresh paint on it, bring a magnet with you. A pocket-sized screwdriver magnet should be sufficient to tell if some poor patch work performed in the past. The magnet should stick firmly, and if it doesn’t, be aware that there may have been some prior work done. If it does not stick at all, there has definitely been some work done.
Tip #4: Beware of shoddy bodywork.
Finding a good, solid old body in an old car can be hard. Finding poor, old body work is easy. When looking for old bodywork, make sure you have plenty of reflection in the paint. Spots that show major scratches or grooves in the paint usually have had some sort of bodywork performed underneath the paint. On a vehicle that has fresh paint, get it in a highly reflective area.In the areas that have been poorly body-worked or have had poor prep work, use the reflections to get an idea of the texture of the paint. The paint over these areas will look lightly grooved, but the paint will still look normal. This is can be another sign of low quality materials or poor prep work. This doesn’t necessarily guarantee that you will have problems in the future, but it’s a sign that the underlying surfaces may not hold up as long as you would like.
Tip# 5: Inspect floors like a hawk.
Floors can be a huge expense if you have to go back and try to replace or repair hidden rust. Inspecting them may take some work, but they are something that can be easily looked over. The best way to check out a floor is to get underneath the car. If you plan to buy a high-dollar car, try to make a deal with a local service station to get it up on a lift. Common rust areas are in the driver floorboard and in the trunk pan. If the undercoating is old and scaly, this is another place that can hide rust. Poke around with a screwdriver, checking for weak and soft areas if rust is not present around bracing and floor plugs. If it has fresh undercoating, look in the areas near the chassis bracing and along the inner rocker panels. These areas may show signs of fresh seam sealer, or you may see sign of non-factory welds. If this is the case, floor patches may have been welded in. While you are under the car, check it out for engine leaks and what has or has not been replaced mechanically on the undercarriage.
These are just a few tips on things to look out for when you are on the hunt for a new ride. Buying a classic is not an easy job, and making sure that you don’t buy a shined up money pit is the top priority. Always make sure to ask a seller as many questions as possible such as when the car was the car restored, what kinds of materials were used, and how much rust was repaired. These questions may lead to stories about the life of the car, and that’s what you want to know. Also try to get as many old pictures as you can. Good shops take a lot of pictures because they are proud of their work, and those pictures may tell the story of the musclecar or classic you are about to purchase.