Don't shop online for your classic car

Collectible cars, such as the 1970 Ford Mustang

Collectible cars, such as the 1970 Ford Mustang Boss 302, are in different conditions and therefore shouldn't be purchased online. (Credit: Ford Motor Company)

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THE CAR AND ITS OWNER 1954 Chevrolet 210 In the Garage

I receive a constant influx of questions about the pros and cons, and risks and dangers of buying classic cars on-line.

I’ve been buying, selling, restoring, and in general, playing with classic cars for a long time. Sadly, most of them were not considered classics when I began in the hobby more than 40 years ago. Over the past four decades I’ve seen a lot of things change. I’ve seen prices go up, and down, and back up again. I’ve seen cars gain favor with collectors and then lose favor.

I’ve seen American cars exported overseas en masse, and I’ve seen European cars imported to the U.S. en masse. But there were logical reasons for all of these changes, even if they didn’t seem to make sense at the time.

One change that does not seem logical, but probably will one day, is the willingness of people all over the world to buy cars sight unseen. It usually involves seeing some pictures of the car on their computer, sending fairly large sums of money to a complete stranger, and anticipating that the car will arrive in the condition that you expect…or that it will even arrive at all.

But is this really as crazy as it seems?

When put in perspective, I think that this is just an example of the way we do business in today’s world. We order computer paper on-line, iPods, smart phones, office furniture, appliances, and even new cars. But every single ream of Hammermill 24# Bright White copy paper will be identical, as will every iPhone 5, and every Maytag Super Duper dishwasher.

Not so with collectible cars. Every 1970 Boss 302 Mustang in Grabber Green with a Black interior will be different, even if they were identical when new. This is true even if we compare ten different 1970 Boss 302 Mustangs in Grabber Green with a Black interior that have been restored to the highest standards possible as judged by the Mustang Club of America.

Each one will be slightly different. I guarantee it.

So if we accept the premise that buying online is the new way of doing things, why shouldn’t we buy classic cars online?

Based on my experience, there are three reasons people do this.
1. They do not fully understand the risks involved should they encounter an unscrupulous seller.
2. They do not understand that each classic car is different. To them it is just an expensive commodity.
3. For them, as with many of us, time has become a commodity more valuable than a car. It simply doesn’t pay for them to invest a lot of time and travel to see the car for themselves.

The interesting part is that if you go strictly by the odds, they may be right. I’m involved in the transfer of ownership of many classic cars, either as a buyer, seller, broker, or exporter. I never conduct a transaction without seeing the car myself or having someone else see it on my behalf.
My purely unscientific study leads me to believe that about 95% of transactions go smoothly, with the car being fundamentally as represented by the seller. Very rarely is the car exactly as represented by the seller.

There are always a few little things that are wrong, but if you’re realistic, that’s to be expected.

So if you do your homework, and you have the car inspected, and you have about a 95% chance of getting what you paid for, why not buy a car online and send large sums of money to a stranger? Good question.

How about these reasons? You miss out on “the hunt.” You never get to meet the seller who may have owned the car for fifty years, and you miss out on all the stories about the car. You don’t get to spend countless weekends traveling to different sellers until you find the “perfect car.” You miss the feeling of finding the “perfect car” and settle for the feeling of “efficient shopping” when you come home from work and find your new acquisition has been delivered to your driveway just as if it were a refrigerator.

The internet, the very tool that has made this possible, has also made available many methods of reducing the risks involved including access to inspectors, escrow accounts, instant transmission of detailed photographs, authentication services and more.

A 95% chance of conducting a satisfactory transaction is pretty darn good by any standard, and that’s a good argument for buying a collector car on-line, sight-unseen. I suppose that many would argue that this is better living through electronics, but I think we’ve lost a little something.

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