Classic car buying primer: Expect flaws

There was a time not so long ago There was a time not so long ago when a 1957 Chevrolet Bel Air convertible was a blue chip investment. Photo Credit: General Motors

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New cars are better than old cars. They are safer, perform better, get better fuel mileage, don’t leak, and require less maintenance. There, I’ve said it. Now that I’ve probably lost half of my readership, let me say this. I still love old cars, and if I could only own one car, it would be a classic car…probably.

But all of these negative attributes that classic cars posses are exactly what makes them classic cars. That and the “character” that each car possesses. This “character” is a combination of the cars aesthetics, as well as its provenance. In other words, how it looks, and the stories it could tell.

Which brings me to my point. I’m always amazed at how a newcomer to the classic car hobby will overlook all of the above mentioned deficiencies, particularly those related to safety, but will complain that a 50 year old car leaks one drop of oil per month.

Case in point. A customer recently hired me to inspect a 1957 Chevrolet Bel Air convertible. Somewhat unusual was the fact that the seller drove up from a mid-Atlantic state to join me for the inspection. The car was truly wonderful. The restoration was over twenty years old and the overall quality of the car far exceeded both of our expectations. It was hard to find fault with this car. Except for the fact that after sitting in the sellers garage unused for the past five months, there was a drop of oil on the floor under the oil pan. This one drop of oil became the focus of this customers attention.

There was no concern about the fact that the car rode on ancient technology bias ply tires. Or that it still had the single-reservoir brake master cylinder which meant that a simple failure of one wheel cylinder would mean a total loss of brakes. Or the lack of any kind of body reinforcement or crumple-zone. The sheer mass of this old car lulls one into a false sense of security about its crashworthiness, but in a head-on collision with a 2009 Chevrolet Malibu, guess which driver is going to walk away and which one isn’t. If you don’t believe me, watch the video prepared by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety at (http://bit.ly/Ziizvo). Nope, the one drop of oil became the focus of his concerns.

The operative word in the term “classic car” is the word “classic,” which is somewhat of a polite way of saying “old.” They are old in design, they are old in technology, and they are old in years. Therefore it’s not fair to expect a classic car to be like a new car. Most of us who have been in the hobby for a time understand this and accept this. In fact, it might even be said that we embrace this. But often newcomers do not understand that an old car is old. They want to buy a classic car, but they are not willing to accept its shortcomings. And this is where the problems begin. These self-inflicted problems form the basis for a bad ownership experience.

When buying a classic car, particularly your first classic car, have realistic expectations. A drop of oil here and there is normal. So is a clock that doesn’t function and an 8-track player that doesn’t work. These should not be held against the car. I can pretty much assure you that when this car was six months old it leaked a few drops of oil, and by the time it reached its third birthday, the clock and 8-track player had been broken for a year.

Forget about the type of work that the buyer of this 57 Bel Air was going to have done immediately upon taking possession. The am-fm-cd changer with the iPod inputs can wait. So can the dual antennas mounted on the back of the car, and the Continental Kit is definitely not a priority.

Focus on making sure that the car is safe. Think twice about the bias ply tires that are on the car. Can the seller tell you the last time that they were changed? Consider a change to modern radials that look like the original tires. What about the single-reservoir brake master cylinder? If most people knew of the potentially catastrophic possibilities that could be caused by the failure of a single $20.00 wheel cylinder, they might convert to a more modern, but correct appearing dual-reservoir master cylinder. And while you’re at it, how about a front disc-brake conversion.

The most important advice that I give to newcomers to the hobby is this: Once you’re sure that the car is safe, forget about everything else for one season. Just enjoy the car for that first season. By the time next season rolls around you will be enjoying the car so much that all of those other things just won’t seem important.

And most of all, forget about the drop of oil under the car. If it will bother you that much, go out and buy a new car.  

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