Classic Car Buyers Guide

Mini HeadlampThere are several important aspects to consider when deciding what classic car you would like to own, drive and restore. The considerations are largely related to how much time and money you have to invest. However, a deeper understanding of how a classic car may affect your current lifestyle can play heavily on your decision and is essential to picking the right classic car, at the right price.

Likewise, it is important to fully appreciate how your purchase will impact your lifestyle and to fully understand what new provisions you may need to put in place to make certain your classic is well tended to, and suitably protected and maintained.

The first consideration potential buyers should ask themselves when looking at purchasing a classic car is how much time they expect to spend using it. With that in mind, ask yourself the following questions:

  1. Will you use your classic as your main car?
  2. Will your classic just be used on sunny weekends?
  3. Will you use your classic all year round?
  4. Will you use your classic during the winter months?
  5. Will you exhibit your classic at events and shows?
  6. Are you looking for something for your family?
  7. Are you looking for something for just you and your partner?

The answers to each of these questions can greatly impact the outcome in terms of what make, model and type of car you ultimately select. With these questions answered, now ask yourself how much time you will be able to spend restoring and repairing your classic? Also, consider how much money you have, or are willing to spend, to purchase and restore the classic car of your dreams?

  1. I'm looking for something complete or nearly finished.
  2. I don't want to spend a lot of time repairing anything.
  3. I'm looking for a classic sports car.
  4. I'm looking for a comfortable 4 seater.
  5. I want to carry out all the major work myself.
  6. I want to restore the car but leave the bodywork to an expert.

The above questions and statements should start to shed some light onto the practicalities of restoring, owning and running a classic car. For example, there is a big difference between a sports car and a family car. Knowing the likely use of your car will impact what you ultimately select, and is therefore of great importance. Understanding these practicalities reveal further considerations such as:

  1. Where will you drive your classic car while restoring it, or wait until it's roadworthy?
  2. Do you have off road parking, a roofed garage or a shed?
  3. How hands-on and practical are you?
  4. How much time and effort can you spare to learn about car repair and restoration?

Considering all of the above, you may now be in a position to shortlist classic cars that fit your needs. Flicking through the private sellers in various free ad publications, trade publications, or searching online will yield many potential buys. You may already have a particular make and model for your classic car in mind or maybe you are interested in something from a particular era that appeals to you. Perhaps you have your eye on a classic Beetle, Jaguar or Morgan from the 1960s or an Austin 7 Chummy, Triumph Super 7 Gnat or Riley 9 Tourer from the 1930s. Your interests, wants, dreams, and likes will obviously narrow your search down even further.

We're Not in it for the Money

Hopefully, you will have already realised that classic car restoration is not a lucrative affair. It is not a way to get rich quick and owners of classic cars are not in it for the money. You should not expect to get a return on money spent working on restoring and maintaining a classic car. Restoration projects are more about the love of the car and the era it represents and satisfaction with that particular style than it is about a wise investment or a quick return. Classic car restoration time and money costs will far outweigh future book value.

Join the Owners Club

Owners Club LogoIf you accept these simple facts as truth, and decide on the car of your dreams it is highly advisable to join the owners club. Before you have even purchased or decided on an exact model, join the owners club - you will be glad that you did. Clubs offer access to a great wealth of resource, and since everybody involved is an enthusiast; you will be welcomed and given as much advice as you need - and probably much more.

Club members will be able to help you to find a good deal, let you know specifically what to look out for when buying, and will provide access to vehicle expertise. Club membership fees generally pay for themselves with savings on Insurance or by giving access to otherwise unknown resources. Think of the owners club membership as your own personal consultation group where you can get helpful tips, advice, troubleshooting helps, and share your passions and road and restoration stories with like-minded people. The link pages here list many of the owners clubs around the UK.

Search For An Owners Club Here

Hopefully this guide will help you to search for, short list and carry out basic checks to make sure you are getting what you pay for. Before buying, also consider a HPI check. The AA and RAC offer deals for as low as a £5.

Make a Buyers Shortlist, Call the Sellers

If your shortlist for cars that are of interest to you has ended up as more of a long list, consider calling the sellers and getting more information from them to further narrow your initial selection. Ask about mileage, service history, MOT history, pervious owners - ask if the V5C Registration Document is available, the reason for selling, and any known problems with the vehicle. Ask if the original vehicle handbook is available. Make sure the seller is willing to give you a receipt if you do decide to purchase from them. Buying a classic car is a mammoth investment, and it would be in your best interest to be as prudent and cautious as possible.

Check the Price Guide

Use a classic car price guide to determine if the selling price is reasonable or not. Practical Classics publishes an online guide. Also, check with the owners club to see if they have a price guide or simply ask for someone's help to determine if the seller's asking price is reasonable. Also, carry out a nationwide search of your vehicle - this will help to determine the available model ranges and price brackets. This will make it easier to judge if asking prices are reasonable or not. A word of caution, do not extend your search beyond what you can afford, and be sure to include travel expenses and petrol into the final cost of the car if you need to travel a long distances to view and collect.

Narrow Your Search and Start Viewing

After narrowing your search, you will be ready to view some of the potential purchases you have lined up. It is highly advisable to take someone along at least once when viewing a potential purchase. Someone from the owners club would be ideal because of the knowledge and experience they possess. Better still, purchase from someone in the owners club - the likelihood is that the history and price will be right.

Take a Test Drive, How Does it Feel?

Jaguar Test Drive(79K)A test drive is a must if the car is roadworthy. Check to make sure that your current insurance will cover you to drive another vehicle as part of a test drive before purchase. Above all, this is your chance to see whether the car suits you - remember a lot of older cars weren't designed and developed with the ergonomic standards we expect today. If you plan to use your classic car on a regular basis this can be a big selling point and it is important to know if your back or legs can handle sitting in the car for an extended length of time. A test drive also gives you the chance to determine if the engine, brakes, clutch, and suspension have any major noticeable faults. Pay attention as you drive and listen out for suspicious noises - turn the radio off and try to keep idle conversations to a minimum while driving. Watch for a smoky exhaust, try to determine if the brakes pull one way or another, and check to see if the clutch is smooth or not. Remember on some classics, the clutch will not be synchronised so you will need to be able to double declutch (Austin Sevens for example) - here a smooth clutch means something completely different as double declutching a gearbox usually sounds and feels very clunky. Another important point to remember when test driving a classic car, is to stand your ground. Don't be pressured by the seller to make a quick decision; take your time and try to drive around a town and at a good speed on a nice A-road or motorway. Reverse or try a parallel parking manoeuvre to check the gears, tires and suspension. All the while, be sure to listen out for unusual noises and think about how you 'feel' driving the car.

Basic Checks Around the Vehicle

Our classic car buyers guide suggests some basic checks can be carried out to help determine if the vehicle is in good shape or not. Try to remember that classic cars, due to their age, will not run perfectly so when checking over the car any faults you may find will need to be repaired at some point. If you buy the car, this work will need to be done by you, and therefore the price you pay should reflect the actual condition of the car. Also remember, the more little jobs to get fixed, the more time you will need to spend fault finding and restoring. Include these into your calculations for cost, labour, and maintenance.

Following are some of the more important parts of the classic car that need to be checked before purchasing.

Oil Colour Check

Check the level and colour of the oil. A clear golden colour indicates the engine is in good health or the car has just had an oil change. Watch out for black sooty deposits and more importantly watch out for a milky grey colour which indicates that the engine is leaking water or coolant. This is a bad sign as it could mean that the Cylinder Head Gasket needs replacing or more seriously that the engine block is distorted, cracked, or something worse. A blue colour may indicate that valve guides or piston rings are worn. Classic car faults and problems are quite well documented, and each model, make, and style may have its own glitches that people have come across time and time again. For this reason, it is important to do a little homework on any of the faults you find to determine what the best and worst cases may be.

Tire Pressure and Condition

Tire Pressure and Condition (71K)Tire wear, especially on one side, can be an indication of the vehicles steering or suspension geometry and the condition of the tires, rims, axles, or steering. The tracking maybe out and require adjustment or a more serious problem may exist. Wheels and suspension can go out of alignment if the car has hit the curb for example. Abnormal tire wear maybe due to the vehicle being driven with under inflated tyres. In the simplest of cases, the tire valve may need to be replaced. Check the tire pressure with a pressure gauge to see if there is an underlying problem with the tires themselves leading to underinflating- a small hole or ripped seam for example. Again, ask the seller if they know of any issues. Tyres that have worn evenly indicate that the vehicles steering or suspension geometry is sound.

Steering Wheel Play

Check for excessive (more than 1 to 2 inches of radial) movement whilst the car is parked. The wheels should turn before 1 to 2 inches of radial movement are taken up by the steering wheel. Excessive steering wheel play indicates that wheel ball sockets, universal joints, the steering gearbox, or the idler arm are worn. These kinds of repairs will undoubtedly increase the cost and labour involved in fixing the problems and making the car roadworthy.


Check the shock absorbers by bouncing the vehicle (with your body weight) to determine if the Suspension Struts are in good working order. The shock absorbers work as dampers in conjunction with a spring system. A vehicle will continue to bounce if the shock absorbers are worn. A vehicle will come to rest after 1 bounce if the shock absorbers are in good order. Check all 4 corners of the car. Depending on the car you are looking at, the job of changing the shock absorbers can vary in complexity from simple to extremely difficult.

Basic Electrical Components

Check the functionality of all electrical items fitted to the vehicle. Start with the lights, RH and LH Indicators, Hazards, Main Beam, Dip Beam, Fog Lamps - then work from front to back checking all electrical items. For example windscreen wipers movement and washer function, electric mirrors, radio, power assisted and heated seats, heater blowers, cigarette lighter, sunroof, rear wiper, and rear heated window. Also, if fitted check the air conditioning. Electrical repairs can be very time consuming, but tend to be less expensive to put right.

Soft Top Condition and Function

Soft Top Condition BMW (8K)Check for damage on the material of the soft top. Check that the roof mechanism works well and that the roof can be put up and down without major problems. If present, check that the plastic rear window is not scratched, or milky and opaque. The plastic can be polished back to an original form. Replacement soft tops can be pricey and difficult to install depending on the style and construction of the vehicle you are interested in. Also watch out for leaking seals around the windows or body fittings. Take a watering can or hose to the roof and sit inside to check if water leaks in - this takes two persons. Also check carpets and trims to see if areas under the soft top have been exposed to excessive water from leaks that might not show up with light rain but will become evident during prolonged rainy periods. There are many products for cleaning and restoring soft tops which claim to do a good job - from experience degraded rubber seals and soft top material can't be fully restored to their original condition but can be significantly improved with the right know how.

Alloy Wheels Condition

Check the general condition of the wheels. Is there a spare? Watch out for a set of wheels where one looks newer than the others. This could indicate that the car has been involved in an accident.

Safety - 2 and 3 Point Seat Belts

2 and 3 Point Seat Belts (10K)The fitting of front seat belts has been compulsory in the UK since 1968. The EEC made it compulsory in 1991 to wear safety belts. Modern advances in crash worthiness design, development and testing make our classic cars of the past look positively archaic by todays' standard. On vehicles pre dating the EEC directive simple, 3-point or 2-point (lap) safety belts were most common. On vehicles which have been involved in an accident, seat belts should be thoroughly checked by a qualified engineer. Watch out for 'sticking' retractor units or belts where the webbing material is worn, stiff or wider in appearance than the other belts in the car. A wider belt suggests that the safety belt has been put under an extreme load - seat belt webbing is designed to expand under load and control the forward motion and deceleration of a vehicle occupant. Check that safety belts can still be adjusted and that the tongue will click into the buckle unit and can be released. Also check for corrosion around the anchor bolt points of the seat belt system.

Cosmetics and Overall Condition

Cosmetics and Overall Condition (7K)Rub black bumpers to see if they have been 'temporarily' conditioned to look newer. Black plastic body parts fade over time. This is the nature of the plastic used in the past. A typical pre-1990s automotive specification allowed for degrading (and therefore decolouring) of material after 5 years. A trick used for displaying or photographing cars is to use a Silicone based washing up liquid to lightly wipe over black bumpers and give them an, albeit temporary, new matt-shine look. Remember here that the owner may genuinely do this to showcase the car at its best - if the car looks shiny and polished elsewhere it is likely that the owner has taken good care of the vehicle and is therefore a positive sign.

Body Panel Fitting

Vehicle Panel Body tolerances have advanced over the last 80 years, the allowable tolerance of body panels pre-1980 was measured in centimetres or half-centimetres, today it is more like millimetres or half-millimetres. Check body panels fit to each other and the car well, but don't compare it to anything available today.

In addition, watch out for:

  1. Potential clocked vehicles - vehicles where the odometer has been illegally wound backwards to make the car look like it has done less miles. This is quite difficult to judge on older cars, especially since odometers maybe on their second or third time around the clock.
  2. Cloned vehicles - where an almost exact vehicle is give a new number plate.
  3. Cut and Shut - the dangerous practice of welding together two bodies of write offs to 'create' one new body and vehicle.
  4. Seat covers that hide damage or excessive wear and tear. Not such a big problem but you should know exactly what it is you are purchasing.
  5. Dubious bodywork repairs - take a magnet with you to check areas prone to rust (wheel arches, floor panels). Test bodywork areas with the magnet to see if it is steel or whether an area has been repaired with fibreglass or filler.

Bodywork, Bodywork, Bodywork!

Ferrari Bodywork

Providing the parts are available the mechanical workings of pre-1990 cars are pretty straightforward. Owners Club enthusiasts are generally 'tinkerers' and have enough experience, know-how and knowledge to guide you through any mechanical restoration or repair. This is less true with Electrical Systems, however as older Car Electrical Systems are 'generally' simple, with the right tools and a logical, methodical approach and enough patience most electrical repairs can be managed without too much trouble.

This is NOT true for bodywork. Repairing dents, replacing panels, rust curing, rust remedies, paint matching, and paint finishing requires a good deal of experience, patience, and practice. Unlike mechanical repairs, which can be stripped and restarted relatively easily, body work is built up in layers. Each layer requiring a near perfect finish before the next can be prepared. The issue here is that if the last layer is not satisfactory the end result certainly won't be and a mistake here will be a great set back!

Rust Bucket (16K)The bodywork on your purchase is therefore one of your most important considerations. Look out for rust, signs of rust, paint bubbling, both on the body you can see, the body you can't, and also on structural components like suspension arms, chassis and struts. Take a look under the carpets on the cars' interior to see what 'good' body work would look like for a car of that age. Provided of course that the inside body is sound and has not been exposed to damp or wet carpets due to perished seals or missing floor panel grommets.

Try to look at the vehicle in direct sunlight, or with an inspection light. Looking at the car on a dull, grey day or with a simple flashlight should be avoided as the shadows and dimmed light make smaller blemishes easier to miss. It is also important to be on the lookout for accident damage that has been repaired or covered up.

Modern cars are produced using paint etching technology which means the days of excessive corrosion are over. In contrast, Classic Cars are old by nature and therefore rust and corrosion are inevitable. You will be very lucky indeed to find a vehicle whose paintwork and body is perfect. If you do, expect to pay a premium for it. Generally, paint, minor body work such as re-patching or re-polishing will be required.

Ensure that whatever the condition of the bodywork that you either have the tools and expertise, or the available funds to pay for a professional job.

Part Finished Projects- take control in manageble bite-sized steps

Workshop Manual List Buying a part finished project could be a mammoth task if all the component parts are in separate boxes and stored in different locations around someone else's house, shed, or garage. The most logical approach is to get hold of a workshop manual and to go through each part, line by line, crossing off what is included. Trusting a seller, even one with a proven track record and with the best intentions, is a gamble. Human error can come into play and the promise that 'all the parts are here' is ok taken on face value, but in reality not every part will be available in a part finished project.

There are always smaller components such a screws, hoses, or smaller assembly pieces that will be missing or damaged and will need to be purchased separately. The challenge here is to make sure you get as much as you can (i.e. a box or two are not left unaccounted for) and that parts that are not included in the sale can be found online - sites such as for example, through the owners club, or at one of the many UK Autojumbles. We regularly list UK Autojumble events on this site and on our facebook page. Missing parts that have been methodically identified can also help to strike the best deal with the seller.

Make a list and get organised

It may also be a good idea to mark each box 'Box 1', 'Box 2', and so on, and write down the box number next to the part as you go through the list. That way when you need to locate the part later, especially if you have a lot of boxes, you will be able to find the part easily. As you go through this process, you may also come across a part that you do not recognise or can't be identified by the seller. In that case, why not put it into another box marked 'unidentified', take a photo of the part and identify it later looking at the workshop manual schematics or take it to the owners club and get some help there - digital cameras are ideal for this. If you are computer literate, you could post it on the owner's club chat room - someone will recognise it quickly and you can label and store it accordingly.

Check for Damaged Parts as You Go

Missing Studs (50K)It is also worth mentioning at this point, that if possible, check for bent, damaged or seized parts as you are sorting through them. Sometimes a part may be present in the sale but ultimately ends up being useless because it is too big or too small or is broken or damaged. To be honest this is part and parcel of the fun of restoration and can't be helped, however if you know what is missing or broken you can start the process of locating the parts that you need. This again, will help you to strike the most reasonable deal for the car.

Parts Availability

In general, the less popular the vehicle was when it was first sold, the less likely it is that there are an abundance of new or used spare parts available. In contrast, the Mini and VW Beetle, for example, have ample parts still available today. In fact some parts are made 'factory new' due to the high demand. Be extra careful that all parts are either included in the sale or available elsewhere. These days anything can be made as a one off but costs will shoot through the roof. We have an extensive collection of 'new-used' parts - use the search box below to look for anything in particular or contact us if there is something you can't find. Jonnie is a most helpful fellow!

Classic Car Buyers Guide Search

Now that you have bought your classic car, here are a few words on the restoration process. Good luck!

Austin Seven Engine (32K)The order of restoration is one of the most important jobs you must do shortly after getting your car home. Some jobs may be carried out in parallel. For example, you could be making the body good whilst rebuilding the engine. The weather could play a large part in what you do and when. The summer is undoubtedly the best time to be working on body restoration as the air is dry and the wind is less likely to blow dust and debris around your workshop. Damp weather can affect the body work due to moisture absorption and corrosion. It is also possible to fabricate and weld in direct sunlight which is a much more pleasant and easier environment to work in. Engine rebuilds on the other hand can be undertaken at any time of year and are probably best done inside and away from any wind, rain and snow. A lot depends on the facilities you have available so obviously your own judgement will determine a lot of the restoration activities - there is no fixed formula, and every job is different. Some restorers find it useful to make a small planning chart, listing the jobs that need to be done down the left side of the page (top to bottom) and the time they plan the whole restoration will take along the top (left to right). Then, next to each job (top to bottom) simply draw a bar according to the planned start, length and end of each job. This will be particularly useful when trying to understand the overall rebuilding process and also if you have any outside work that needs to be planned and carried out. It is also possible to match the restoration project with any budget restrictions or income you may have.

Classic_Car_Restoration_Plan (25K) Rolls Royce Flying Lady (60K)

Once you have your project back on the road, remember to keep a regular check on oil and water levels. Check the tires frequently and watch out for the dreaded corrosion on the body. Waxing and polishing paint work will help, so will washing the car regularly to remove salt deposits that may be picked up from the roads. Also be sure to have regular safety inspections done to ensure engine, brakes, belts, and all other components are operational and not posing a hazard to you or other drivers. Good luck with your search, purchase and restoration project, and above all, get what you want and enjoy your classic car! This is your indulgence, your dream; they will be your hours spent restoring. Don't get to the end of the project and 'wish' you hadn't settled for the second best.