What to Look for When Buying a Classic Car

These days, all manner of objects have achieved “collector status”—Golden Age comics or old and rare trading cards to name a few—but none of these have yet to stack up to the classics like art, coins, or classic cars. These items give a veneer of pomp and polish to those who own and display them, and of these, classic cars can be the most readily displayed. We’ve all seen them drive down the highway, after all, and they never fail to elicit surprised gasps.

What to Look for When Buying a Classic Car

There’s something about classic cars that hits just the right spot: a juxtaposition of inherent value and cool factor, while still being functional and usable for when you need to go to the wine shop.



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Here’s a couple of the key factors for what to look for if you’re interested in joining the classic car club:


The scarcity of a vehicle is an important baseline consideration with lesser made vehicles obviously commanding more of a price-point in general. However, scarcity can describe more than just the number of models made. It can also describe things like the color of paint or the specific options an individual vehicle has. In years past, options were both rarer and more customizable than they are today, with car manufacturers offering prospective buyers an array of choices that didn’t always come standard—things that we take for granted today like air conditioning, power windows, or various engine modifications.

Specific interior and exterior color combinations can also be scarce, and can drive price by a surprising amount—but only if it is original. In fact, the originality of any of these components is a crucial factor when determining the scarcity of a vehicle. Many serious car collectors will view it as a loss if a vehicle was given aftermarket options or painted something other than its original color to try to make it more unique.


Age can influence vehicle value largely because it is heavily linked to scarcity: the older the vehicle, the harder it can be find examples in good condition. Aside from that, age is, as they say, just a number. Each different make and type of classic car has its own collector community, and older doesn’t always necessarily mean better.

Intrigue and Demand

These two are grouped together because one naturally plays into the other. Demand simply refers to how desirable the car is. If no one is interested in buying a particular car, it doesn’t have inherent value.

A vehicle’s intrigue can be anything that drives demand. “Cool factor” is a good one or any kind of mystery or notoriety associated with the vehicle’s manufacture. Being notably featured in popular television shows is a good example of intrigue and will definitely fuel demand for the vehicle. Perhaps a better word to use to access this concept would be “iconic.”


As with all collector items, the condition of the vehicle is crucial. Consider that restoration work may have to be completed if the condition is less than optimal and that there are costs associated with that: original parts are not cheap, and the list of competent mechanics that can complete the work at a professional, collector-approved level is fairly small by comparison. Of course, purchasing a classic car which is already in great condition will carry with it a significant premium.

One of the most important factors to be aware of here is rust. Rust can be an absolute deal-killer to many collectors depending on the size and scope of the damage. A large enough splotch of rust could necessitate a portion of the frame being replaced, at which point some collectors will consider the entire vehicle irreparably altered and no longer original.


Buying a Classic Car Checklist

Before you begin, decide what use level you want out of the vehicle. Will you drive it daily in the summer? Only on weekends for errands? Only to car shows? Not at all? This decision will inform much of the rest of your hunt.

Once you find a likely candidate, do your research before you go look at it in person. Know how many were made, in what colors, and what specific condition points to look at for that specific make of car.

Check over the body thoroughly, looking for any signs of rust damage. Also check the various body panels with a magnet to make sure that they are good steel, and not body filler that repaired rust or collision damage. All seams should be smooth and all body panels should be the same color.

Check the vehicle’s tires, making sure that they are the same size, brand, consistent in tread, and so forth. Also check for a spare tire and associated tools.

Make sure the car’s suspension is in good shape by bouncing each corner of the vehicle and listening for any creaking sounds.

Verify that the frame doesn’t look like it has been straightened or crumpled. Some target areas to check specifically would be inside the trunk, inside the wheel wells, and under the hood.

Look for a gas cap as well as a fuel-nozzle restrictor inside the filler neck.

From there, if there aren’t any serious problems, consider the interior of the vehicle. Look at the upholstery, especially looking for cigarette burns or stains. Check everything: seats, dashboard, any kind of door controls like window cranks or door locks, light bulbs, and interior carpeting.

Test all functionality of any options in the vehicle.

Look under the vehicle. Are there any signs of leaks or loose parts? Is there any rust hiding?

Have the car turned on, and listen to the engine. It should start easily, not stall, and have a steady idle speed.

At this point, take a road test. Make sure the brakes are good, that the car shifts smoothly, and that the steering is even.

Finally, check the Vehicle Identification Number (VIN). Ideally, as many parts as possible should be number matching, especially the engine, transmission, and rear axle.

classic mercedes benz

What If You're Buying Online?

There's always an element of risk when buying online, so it's natural to be cautious. The best thing you can do is  go through a company dedicated to providing a safe and online forum for buying and selling classic cars. Here at Vicci Online Car Auctions, we understood the risk buyers have and built an exclusive marketplace in which every vehicle is verified. And you can count on our integrity due to our many years in the business and our affiliation with Kelly-Moss Road and Race. We only allow transactions between vetted registered users and always affirm that everyone is who they claim to be.

Related: How to Avoid Online Car Auction Scams

What to Ask When Buying a Classic Car

Of course, some extra information can definitely be gleaned by communicating with the car’s owner. While looking over the vehicle, here are a few questions to ask:

How long have you owned the car?

Is this the owner’s car purchased from working a part-time job in the 1970s at the theater? Was it a failed investment purchased fairly recently? Try to get some context on the car’s history. Oftentimes, even if the car’s current owner isn’t the original purchaser, the owner will know some of the history of the vehicle from whoever they purchased it from previously. This can help you get not only more information on the car but also a finger on the pulse of the owner.

Why are you selling the car?

Likewise, this is another telling answer. A collector who is looking to shift capital is very different from someone who has medical bills, for example—both in terms of the effective price of the vehicle and also in terms of how well the car was likely maintained.

In a perfect world, what repairs would you do to this vehicle?

This is a question which will likely not get an entirely honest answer no matter what, but you can infer a lot of information from the answer. This ‘soft information’ can give you ideas of what to focus on in throughout your inspection while a dodgy reply might cause you to avoid the purchase entirely.


How often do you drive the car?

A question along these lines can help you further assess the condition of the car since one which has been run daily would likely show more signs of stress and wear than one which was only taken to shows, for example. Once you have an answer for how often, you can also ask “why”—another way at getting the core consideration of whether the owner is confident in their vehicle. Just be prepared for a possible noncommittal response.

Buying a Classic Car Guide

The first step, though, before any of these other decision points can be reached, is to do your research. Make a starting list of cars that look interesting to you or have a special emotional or nostalgic significance—remember the “intrigue” option above because your starting point will probably be very heavily influenced by it—and then narrow it down from there based on other considerations like price point, difficulty of maintenance, lack of nearby community, and other factors that will influence your ownership of the vehicle.

Download our guide for more information.