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Inspect classic cars for proof of original parts

Mid-1960s Pontiac GTOs are quintessential muscle cars.

Mid-1960s Pontiac GTOs are quintessential muscle cars. Credit: General Motors

I get involved in a fair number of court cases in which a buyer relies on a seller’s representation as to the originality of a collector car. They buy the car, and often it is not until they try to sell it that they discover that the car is not what they thought it was.

I was recently hired to do a pre-purchase inspection on a matching numbers, factory equipped “tri-power,” 4-speed 1965 GTO for an out-of-state buyer. The owner had purchased the car about ten years ago, and had the PHS (Pontiac Historic Services) documents to authenticate the originality of the car. Pre-purchase inspections can sometimes get tedious, but I was looking forward to this one. Although I enjoy all classic cars, I have to admit a certain predilection for speed, and muscle cars in general. The GTO is the quintessential muscle car, and any time that I drive a “tri-power” car, it makes me wonder what was going through the heads of the GM executives (thank you John DeLorean and Jim Wangers) that decided to release this seriously fast car to the public.

Upon my arrival, the owner introduced himself and led me to his garage where I helped him uncover the car. Once exposed, the car was stunning in Nightwatch Blue with a Blue interior. He was very proud of the car and explained the great lengths to which he had gone in order to keep it in pristine condition.

Some owners don’t want to be bothered hanging around while I do the inspection, but he opted to stay and chat as I did my job. He was pleasant, and honest, and forthright in answering any questions I might ask. He had paid a premium for his matching-numbers car, and he was sure to make a tidy profit after his ten year stewardship.

Further conversation revealed that he was not a “car guy,” but had always loved these GTOs. Now it was time to sell.

I have a routine order when I do an inspection. But when it comes to muscle cars I usually get sidetracked early on out of curiosity to see the numbers that are supposed to match. In this case I was looking for the engine code on the passenger side of the block just below the cylinder head. A WS stamped in that location would tell me that this engine was an original “tri-power” that came from the factory mated to a manual transmission. From there I would confirm that this was the engine that was originally installed in this car. This is where the intrinsic value of this car lies.

I’ve done this so many times, and been disappointed so many times to find a WT code instead, indicating that the engine was not originally a “tri-power” but rather an ordinary 4-barrel to which a “tri-power” had been added. This simple difference of one letter can have a negative impact on the value of the car of more than $10,000.00.

In this case I was not disappointed to find a WT code; I was disappointed to find no code at all. I felt bad for him, but I had to tell him. He knew that things were going south when I lifted my head from under the hood and asked to see the documentation. I had only been there for five minutes but I knew this inspection was over.

He went into the house and brought out a folder full of papers. I was looking for the PHS (Pontiac Historic Services) documents when I came across the advertisement to which he had responded ten years earlier when he purchased the car.

In big bold letter across the top of the page it read 1965 MATCHING NUMBERS TRI-POWER GTO. This was repeated several times through the advertisement. This was a blatant example of false advertising, and I could see why he had been fooled. He had relied on the information from the previous owner and had believed it to be true for ten years. I started to read the small type, and buried in the middle of the description were the words “WT block. Tri-power added at original dealership.” Not only was this a poor attempt to mitigate any liability by admitting that the “tri-power” was not original to the car, it was still a lie because the WT code did not appear on the block.

Since I knew that the buyer that had hired me was not interested in a car that was not 100% matching numbers, I ended the inspection there. The seller took the news fairly well, but the broker who was selling the car for him did not. He was furious. I’m not sure if he was furious at me for uncovering this, or the owner for not knowing, or the person who sold the car ten years ago for lying.

When I called the prospective buyer who had hired me, he suggested that the owner should reimburse him for the expenses he had incurred in hiring me. When I asked him “Why?,” he said “Because the owner lied to me.” I told him “No he didn’t. He just didn’t tell you the truth.” There’s a difference.  

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