Classic Pontiac Firebird
Whether your dream car is a classic Pontiac Firebird, vintage Porsche or even a DeLorean, here's how to buy it.
David Straight/Unsplash
By Benjamin Hunting / August 8, 2019 6:00 am

The beautiful thing about depreciation is that it eventually puts almost everyone’s automotive dreams within reach. Whether you’re looking to pick up the fantasy car you had on your wall when you were a teenager, or waiting until the price is right for a more recent model that you’ve been keeping your eye on, the secondhand market is often the best place to snag a deal on something special.

That being said, the cost of entry isn’t the only thing to consider when picking up a unique ride. You’ll want to make sure that you put in the due diligence required to avoid any regrets once the ink is dry and the keys are in your hands. A used dream car is still exactly that — a used car — which means you can’t let your passion and excitement blind you to the details when you’re on the hunt.

I’ve been on both sides of the equation, having picked up collector automobiles on impulse as well as having spent months, if not years, planning, searching and vetting the right candidates. Along the way I’ve learned a few lessons that I wish I’d known right from the start; but at the very least, I can share them with you today. 

Now then: let’s take a look at what the process of buying a vehicle like this is actually like, and how you can protect your dream from becoming a nightmare.

1. Know the Market

Chances are the car, truck or SUV you’ve got your heart set on isn’t a run-of-the-mill commuter, which means the market is going to vary considerably depending on what part of the country you’re looking in. Online price guides — unless based on actual vehicle-valuation data from an insurer such as those provided by Hagerty for classics — should be viewed as broad-stroke guidelines. To find out what you should really be paying, check out online auctions (eBay allows you to search completed sales, for example), in-person auction listings and classified ads in the area where you’ll be concentrating your search. Keep in mind that auction fever and retail mark-up can add a bit of wishful thinking to asking prices.

2. Understand the Vehicle

Each car, especially a dream-worthy model, has its own set of known issues and problem areas that require special attention when vetting a particular example of the vehicle. You’ve got two choices here: 1) Do the research, ask the right questions and get the photos and videos of what you need to see, or 2) find a local shop that is knowledgeable enough to take care of that for you (more on that in the next point).

It’s not just the condition of a car that counts, however, as maintenance is also often a concern. In addition to asking for records of oil changes and repairs, find out if required maintenance has been kept up to date. This can mean timing belt changes (dependent on mileage), engine-out work (for some exotic sports cars) and the replacement of consumables and wear items (tires, brake pads, etc.). You don’t want to get stuck with a ton of deferred maintenance from a previous owner, which can add substantially to the price you initially paid.

Vintage Porsche Sports Cars
No matter how tasty that Porsche looks, don’t buy before you get it inspected. (Valdemaras Januška/Unsplash)

3. Get It Inspected

Remember what I mentioned above about inspecting a vehicle? This is something you absolutely have to do prior to purchase. It’s also the step most buyers end up skipping because of the logistics involved (especially when buying remotely), a lack of automotive knowledge or the perceived expense of tagging in a professional.

Unless you’re a very experienced mechanic, your dream car deserves a trip to a qualified mechanic for an on-the-lift inspection before you seal the deal. When looking at a classic, if provenance is important to you, you’ll also want to verify that the drivetrain is original to the car or matches what the owner claims is under the hood.

If you are out of town, contact an online forum or Facebook group dedicated to that type of vehicle to find out which local shop can do the job for you. The $100-$200 investment is well worth saving thousands down the road on potential problems.

4. Join a Forum Anyway

Even if the car you want to buy is just around the corner, you should join an online discussion forum anyway. This is the single most effective way to have your questions about a vehicle answered quickly and with a variety of different opinions when it comes to many of the questions listed above. You’ll have to sort through the responses, of course, but it’s often clear which members are respected experts and which ones are just popping off in the comments whenever you ask a question.

5. Look Into Parts and Labor Costs

The majority of the time, no matter how nice of an example you’ve found to buy, the car or truck will need at least a little work at some point. Lining up a list of reliable parts sources as soon as possible can be the difference between enjoying your ride and having it sit in the garage while you try to sort out replacement components.

Again, asking other owners — either online or in a local club dedicated to your vehicle — is a great way to get a feel for which vendors deliver quickly and at a fair price. It’s the same when it comes time to find a trusted mechanic to work on your vehicle. Don’t just assume that a general repair shop will be willing to take on an unusual automobile, or have the skills required to do the job right. Definitely ask around for the right spots to hit up, and introduce yourself to the mechanics and owners there before you need to have any work done.

Not a fan of the 2020 Corvette Stingray? Get an older model (with a manual transmission). (Teddy Österblom/Unsplash)

6. Inform Your Insurance Company

It happened to me: I bought a car without thinking for a second about whether my own insurance company would be willing to write me a policy. It turns out they wouldn’t, and I had to scramble last-minute to find someone who would be happy to cover a classic car.

If you work with a broker, then you shouldn’t have any issue locating insurance. If you’re doing it on your own, after you contact your existing insurer, it’s worth looking around online for specialty insurance companies that handle unusual automobiles. If you’re plating as a classic then that can also introduce policy restrictions, too, so inform yourself prior to taking delivery.

7. Look Into the Past

A vehicle-history report can be a useful tool in determining whether the dream car you are looking at has ever been involved in an accident or had major repair work done. That being said, don’t take it as gospel; there are ways to wash titles and conceal accidents on paper. Combine any history report with an actual inspection to make sure VIN numbers and other serial numbers line up with what’s being advertised.

8. Don’t Get Carried Away

It’s very, very tempting to jump on the first car you find that meets all of your criteria. It’s natural to be excited, especially if it’s not easy to find the colors, options or model year you are looking for, and if the one that’s popped up is sitting at or around the price you’re prepared to pay.

That moment is where you need to take a deep breath, step back from the situation and go through the above points one-by-one to make sure that the vehicle is exactly what you think it is. I’ve spent a year or more hunting down cars on my list, and along the way I went through many, many potential purchases that all turned out to have flaws (rust, mileage, rust again, poorly-done body repairs, etc.) that eventually ruled them out.

A new paint job, nice set of wheels and attractive sales price can hide any number of problems with a particular car. If something feels too good to be true, it most likely is — but that’s why you’re getting it inspected and checking its history, right?

Any car worth buying is worth buying right. Take your time, be patient and the right vehicle will come along that will provide you with thousands of miles of driving pleasure.