Tips For Buying A Collector Car

Spring has sprung and a young man's fancy turns to what he's been thinking about all winter...getting a new collector car for the upcoming Summer Cruise-Ins! There are a lot of places and methods to buy that special car. Your local newspaper is always good, but then who wants to drive around in a car that everyone at the A&W has already seen every Friday night for the past 10 years?

A great place to start looking is on the Internet. Cars from around the world can be found on sites such as: and Most of the Internet sites allow you to browse through the pages of cars, check out dealers' offerings, or even search by the exact make, year and model you're looking for.

Sites like eBay Motors offer an equally impressive list of cars all up for auction. The obstacle to overcome with this car-buying method is the pressure you're under to make a decision on a car sight unseen. You'll be committing yourself to an expensive and possibly dangerous purchase with a simple mouse click. Many do it everyday, and this author has already bought three cars in this manner: two with good results and one that was a bit of a disappointment. Another potential obstacle to buying a vehicle via an online auction is the hassle of having to ship the car a great distance before you see it, adding more stress and expense to the process.

If you have been following along with Kevin Tetz Project Zed Sled on our YouTube channel, you probably already have learned what not to do when looking at a potential purchase. This Camaro had plenty of red flags, but Kevin bought it anyway.

So, what's the answer to finding a great collector car that has yet to be seen in your community and by your friends? It may be at a major swap meet/car corral or auction.

Swap Meet Car Corrals May be the Best of All Worlds

Usually there is a very large selection of cars at swap meets or car corrals. In the case of Spring Carlisle held in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, there are over 1,800 cars from which to choose. The complaint you will hear most often is that many of the cars at this show are as new as the 1980s, too new to be considered true collector cars. However, between all the "used cars" you'll find there are many really great vehicles, and some at bargain prices.

Other top-level spring events of this type are held in: Canfield and Springfield, Ohio; Charlotte, North Carolina; Indianapolis, Indiana; and Pleasanton, Pomona, and Turlock, California, to name but a few. These events usually run for as many as 3-5 days, but if you're looking for the best selection and price, arrive early. Canvas the automobiles, ask for prices on unmarked cars, and don't be immediately frightened off by a price that seems low. It may not mean the car is a loser, only that the owner is not up on current prices. (We are in a very strong market at present and prices are rising.) The sellers who arrive early are often anxious to sell. Many dealers know this, and walk the rows, buying cars on Wednesday, only to move them a few feet, maybe do a little better clean up, and resell the car at a nice profit on Friday.

The opposite approach works well too, and you can find bargains by staying around until the end of a show. Even the toughest-negotiating seller weakens around 3 o'clock on Sunday, faced with the prospect of hauling that car back home and possibly paying return shipping costs.

Due Diligence is a Must!

Whenever you're buying a collector car, look it over carefully. Start by walking around the car and get a feel for its overall condition. Does it sit square? Are pieces of the trim missing? Does it reek of fresh paint? Look down each side for wavy bodylines, mismatched trim and wheels, and uneven panel gaps. Look for sanding marks both in the paint and on the side trim and glass. A windshield that was simply kissed by a grinder can be $450 to replace later.

Get down on your hands and knees. Look under the car for rust damage and cheap rust repair. Look for pop-riveted panels, paint-over spray, and globs of Bondo in areas that didn't get a good coat of paint, such as on the edges of fenders and rockers. Make sure things like rocker panels line up right, and that they are not welded to the front fenders, unless they were designed to be that way! Check for body mounts that are rusted off. Spare tire wells and trunk floors are other obvious places to look for damage. While you're looking underneath, look for worn suspension hardware, leaking shocks, and leaks from the motor and transmission.

Open the trunk and look for rust damage, Bondo and paint-over spray. Check for moisture and leaks from both the rubber seal and the rear window. Make sure the spare and jack are there.

Open all the doors. Look for rust and wreck damage in the jams. Brittle rubber moldings and window rubber can be expensive to replace. Look in the hinge attachment points for rust and sagging.

Under the hood, once again, look for rust, wrinkled metal from wreck damage, and misaligned body panels. Brittle hoses, belts, rubber strips, acid damage from a leaking battery, and even wiring can all be expensive to replace. Check the clarity of the coolant and oil. Take the air filter off and check for a worn or gummy carburetor.

On the inside, things like upholstery and the steering wheel will be obvious, but don't forget to check the less obvious. Make sure all the gauges work. Try the radio and air conditioning, if so equipped. (Remember, if it's cool outside, the air conditioning may feel like its blowing cold air when actually all you're feeling is the cool air from the outside.) Do the seats feel excessively mushy? Are controls like knobs, handles and pedals exceptionally worn? The car could have more miles on it than you might guess. If you're a Midwestern guy, used to seeing cars dissolve before your eyes from rust, a California car is going to look to have what you presume to be low-miles, due to the lack of rust. The truth is, collector vehicles from any rust-free area tend to be high-mileage cars because they hold up so well. You may find a ’64 Chevy Impala that shows 34,000 miles, only to find through a registration check later that it has 234,000 miles!

Start the car's engine. Did it start right up, or did it seem to grind? Look for smoke, rough running idle, soft and mushy power brakes, squealing belts, and other strange noises. Firmly press your foot on the brake pedal. Does the pedal go down slowly? Get out and look for leaks. These are all things to check carefully.

Since you're in the middle of a big show and a sea of hobbyists, it's likely you will not be able to drive the car, but at least put it in gear and see how smoothly it engages in both forward and reverse. Listen for a clunk that would indicate warn U-joints. Be on the lookout for short cuts taken in prepping the car. A sure sign of a car thrown together before a show just for resale is a quickie red paint job (known in the trade as "resale red") and cheap, narrow whitewall radial tires. A dead battery or a car out of gas is a guaranteed sign of a car owner cutting corners on the quality of the vehicle to make a quick buck.

Don't be Afraid to Negotiate

Sellers at these events expect to be negotiated down from their asking price; something around 10% is the norm. You may want to start out by offering 15% or 20% less than the asking price. This gives the owner the opportunity to come down 5% and you up 5% to arrive at the 10%. If the car is way overpriced, decide if you want to bring the owner down to reality, or just move on to the next prospect. We've seen offers made in the range of 50% of the asking price resulting in some harsh words between the parties involved. If you're not confident on what to offer, pick up a copy of one of the major value guidebooks such as Old Cars Price Guide or NADA Collector Car Value Guide. Some shows have appraisers on the premises. (The official appraiser for the Carlisle events is the Auto Appraisal Group.) You can actually have a pre-purchase inspection done by an appraiser at the event on a car in which you are interested. Sellers usually welcome this, IF they are not trying to hide something.

Making the Purchase

Let's say you've made your deal. How do you make a purchase of a car in the middle of a big swap meet? At events like Carlisle and Hershey, you will find title clerks right on the grounds to transfer the paperwork on your purchase. You don't pay tax at that time, as you'll have to pay it in your home state at the time you buy your license plates. Most of these on-site title services offer temporary tags to get you home as part of the fee they charge. Failing that, the seller may permit you to run home on his plates. In any case, be prepared to show proof of insurance from your insurance company. Make sure the seller has a good clear (or open) title. That means the car is in his name only, and open to list you as the next owner. Sellers who are "jumping" title to avoid paying sales tax on a car they recently purchased may try to get you to take the car and tell your state's DMV that you bought the car from another party. This is not a good idea. In some states you will end up with a world of paper work problems dealing with a jumped title. If the car has no title, look for a different car. The headaches can quickly turn a sweet deal sour.

Cash Money!

Payment for the car is almost always expected to be in the form cash at these events. We know this sounds insane, but you, a perfect stranger, are driving off in somebody's car. Cash will be expected.

Some sellers may accept a check. Beware—writing a bad check for a car and driving across state lines is in fact Interstate Car Theft and not a wise thing to do. Sellers are more protected than they know!

One other alternative is to pay with a check and take possession of the car while the seller continues to hold the title and paperwork until the check clears. Whatever method to which you and the seller agree, make sure you have payment and possession terms understood before you start doing the paperwork. Shows such as Carlisle have ATM machines on the premises and credit card loan advances, if you need more cash to complete the sale. Finally, it's wise to make the cash transaction in an inconspicuous location. The privacy of the car itself is usually pretty good, but the hood of the car is not a good spot to count out the cash!

Ship or Drive Your Car Home?

If you live a short distance away, it's likely you 'll want to chance driving your car home. This can also turn into a real adventure in an unknown car. If you do this, make sure you look over tires, hoses, belts, oil and coolant before setting out. Make sure lights work and that the generator is operating. We have seen too many people stranded along the highway with a dead battery because the car had a bad generator/alternator.

Most major events have car shippers on hand. Some of the better known long-distance companies include Horseless Carriage Carriers, Interstate, and Passport Transport. You can also go to to arrange shipping nationwide and get competitive bids. If you have to move your car overseas, some of the trucking companies mentioned here can service your needs. You can also select a specialist such as TransOcean Autos, which handles a lot of the overseas business from Carlisle and Hershey. Regional shippers, like Seaman Transport, serve specific shows like Carlisle and Hershey east of the Mississippi.

The final step is to explain the purchase to your wife, or significant other, when your new treasure arrives in your driveway. And that's where the advice here is going to end, because you're on your own at this point! However, flowers are always nice...or maybe that antique coffee table which she's been admiring is a really good idea about now!