How and Where to Buy a Classic Sports Car?

Perhaps since my last article you’ve read a few magazines about your favorite marque and now you’ve got your mind set on one….or maybe you are wavering between a couple marques and/or types of classic cars.

The bad news is you are hooked! And you know you are ready to take the leap; you want to jump in with both feet and join the rest of the poor souls who have been bitten by the classic sports car bug.  Congratulations!

Now, the obstacles to purchasing a classic sports car begin to materialize; how to figure out what to buy, maybe you know what you want but are not sure of the best path to acquiring it.  Perhaps you feel eBay is the best way to buy, or Hemmings, or you know of one behind a barn in your hometown. How do you avoid buying a true nightmare of a car, how do you know the right things to look for and what to avoid, who can you trust, how do you avoid paying too much?

Take it all in stride.  Remember that this is supposed to be fun- the whole thing should be fun, so don’t make it a chore.  There is a process that you can follow and have good success at purchasing your classic sports car, but you need to ask and answer honestly some questions of yourself and your abilities.

Take a full accounting of your desires from the car, your available financial resources, and your personal capabilities for maintenance and restoration, then ponder the answers to these questions.

How do I choose the car for me?
Buy the car that gets your heart racing, buy the car that you always lusted after when you were a kid, buy something that makes you smile every time you look at it.  Don’t buy the most sensible car, don’t buy based on miles per gallon, etc.  You get the idea.  Purchasing a classic sports car is mostly folly, but have fun!

Now that you’ve decided on your first classic sports car and you know the marque/type/series, etc., you have some homework to do. Go to your library or favorite bookstore to learn as much as possible, but also start lurking on bulletin boards and visiting clubs that support your marque/type. Read all you can about what is most prone to failure, rust, or was bad design from the start. In a nutshell, learn from what others have experienced and empower yourself before you embark into the world of classic sports car buying.

Take all of what you learn and develop a checklist for what you will use as criteria for a pre-purchase inspection. Also, know that you can pay professionals to do this for you (this is especially convenient if the car is across the country) – but there’s no fun in that!

List the major areas/systems of the car: Brakes, Electrical, Engine, Transmission, Glass, Chrome, Paint, Interior, Suspension, Steering, and so on.  Within each of those areas/systems, list out all the particulars to test/inspect and know your Pass/Fail factors.

The car that you ultimately purchase must be something you can live with – don’t compromise if it will cause you sleepless nights!

Assemble an inspection kit: print out your checklist, pack a flashlight, a blanket (to keep you clean when you kneel or lay under the car), a refrigerator magnet (magnets stick to steel, not Bondo), maybe some Handi-wipes, etc. The idea is to have simple tools at your reach that will help you assess the car.

Now go out and look at some cars. Do this on a sunny, dry day.  Don’t go at night or in the rain. I know it sounds like something that doesn’t need to be mentioned, but I have actually sold cars to guys who either never inspected the cars further than starting them or actually arrived at night to look at them. For every car you look at, run the same routine and score the car based on your findings.

I spent an hour inspecting my Porsche 912 before I started the car. But after that, I knew I was very interested in driving it – all the important inspection checks passed. Driving the car is just as important as all other checks, obviously. But your first time driving a classic sports car may be a learning experience – take it somewhere with little to no traffic ideally and take your time to really feel it out.

If all the questions about the car are answered to your satisfaction, if everything works or you can fix it, and if the price is right; make an offer!

My best advice:  Don’t be pressured by time, emotion, or price. I always say that if I can’t walk away from the car, it’s not a good deal – meaning that I may be too emotionally committed to make an equitable deal for myself. Sometimes, the owner can weave a sob story to hook you in, or you just absolutely love the color combination, or the price is unbelievable and you know the next guy will snag it, and on and on.

Don’t do it. Stick to your objectives and you will have 99% higher chance of not getting buyer’s remorse.

For more information on specifications on marques/types I like Bentley publications and Haynes publications.

Where should I buy the car; from what type of source?
There are many resources at your disposal for aiding you in purchasing the car; used car lots, private sellers, car brokers, online car auctions, live car auctions, an old lady down the street, and so on.  I’ve bought cars through eBay, through brokers (sight-unseen), through Want Ads, and in-person behind someone’s barn.

My preference is to buy the prospective car from the actual seller/owner of the car after a satisfactory in-person, pre-purchase inspection and road test. But barring that, what are your options for inspecting a car when you can’t physically get to it? What if you live in St. Louis and the car is in Ft. Lauderdale?

Hire a pre-purchase expert that is local to the car. You’d be surprised at how many people perform this type of work. They can usually be found through your marque’s club or you can be referred to these folks through classic car brokers or the SCCA (Sports Car Club of America) and VSCCA (Vintage Sports Car Club of America). These guys are usually quite happy to perform a pre-purchase inspection for a couple hundred dollars. Just make sure that you have your expectations on the table with them and that they fully understand your level of attention to detail.

What are the “things” to watch out for in a classic sports car?
An old adage that holds true: “Buy the best and cry once.”  Buy the best example of the car you want at the price you can afford. Restoring a car is time-consuming, expensive, and you will rarely realize a profitable return on your investment.

Rust is the biggest detriment to any object made of steel; all old cars have rust. The challenge for you, the buyer, is to find it and assess the damage. Rust on the inside of the wheelwells is not a dealbreaker for me, but rust on suspension perches is.

Know your car, know the most obvious or critical places prone to rust and check them. If there is too much rust or it is in a critical area – walk away from the car and don’t look back.

After rust, the next potential “gotcha” is probably paintwork that either covers rust or just plain, bad bodywork. Sometimes referred to as “resale red,” many classic sports cars are painted red because it is a flashy, attractive color.

Depending on the car, the rarity, the availability of parts, and the availability of skilled mechanics that work on them, missing or improper parts can be detrimental to a deal as well. Consider the parts that are missing or have been replaced with non-standard parts and assess the cost of obtaining them – if this is not an issue for you, move forward with the deal.

How do I physically acquire the car?
You bought the hunk, now you need to get it home.  In a best case scenario, you can drive it home, but more often than not, for one reason or another, you cannot. How do you get your new prize home?

Shipping a car across country and even overseas is more common than you might think. I have no personal experience buying a car and shipping it from overseas, but I have had the pleasure of having one delivered within the U.S.
When I say pleasure, I mean it.

I don’t know why, but it is like Christmas morning to take delivery of your new toy right in your driveway!!

There are almost countless numbers of firms that ship cars daily. My best advice is to work with the seller or broker that you are dealing with – if they sell cars often, they will have good contacts for this type of work.

My least preferred/suggested method of getting the car home is actually driving it. I know it sounds counter-intuitive, but it is pretty dangerous to do this even if you did a thorough pre-purchase inspection.  Remember: It is more important to be able to stop than to go.

Even if you are local to the car, save for a couple streets over, you should always opt to have the car flat-bedded home – to be safe!

Good luck, and remember to have fun!

About the photos:

All of these cars are examples of cars I avoided – I walked away from every one of these for various reasons, but I have no regrets. The interesting thing is that all of these cars probably sold at some point — it proves that if a person loves a car enough, it will sell….and possibly get restored!!

  • The green car that is being reclaimed by the woods is a 1955 Jaguar XK 140 — people buy these, but this was way too much for me.
  • The white car is an 80’s BMW M3 — did not run and you’d have to have a PhD in electrical engineering to fix it.
  • The red car is a late 70’s Corvette — wrong motor in bad shape and no interior.
  • The blue car is a late 60’s Jaguar XKE (E-type) – nice car, but it had a lot of niggling issues and a spotty history, the straw that broke the camels back was the high price…I walked. In one of the pictures of the E-type, you can see my 1966 Porsche 912.

Author: Erik Brzoska

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2 Comments

  1. My father is a big fan of classic sports car and i was planning for a long time to gift him one. Thanks for the advice and points that i should keep in mind while buying.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Vicky!

    Good luck in your shopping….be careful and have fun!

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