Classic car auctions are great places to find your first classic car or an addition to your existing collection. The best thing about these auctions is that you can look at hundreds of cars at one time, the difficult thing is that usually you can’t drive the car, hear it run, nor can you speak to the owner unless you get lucky and you happen to catch him going by the car the same time you are near it. The better auction houses like RM and Mecum will never knowingly allow a misrepresented car into their catalog but it’s difficult for them to check everything. Not being able to drive the car or even hear it run can be concerning so arm yourself with everything that you can learn so that you are an educated buyer, you may just find yourself a nice deal.
My auction strategy goes like this, if time allows I like to stop by the auction hall on set up day. This way you can see what cars are brought to the event by whom, and if they are pulling it off of a nice trailer with other quality cars or is it coming off a tow dolly behind a rusty truck. Does it start right up, no smoke? This will even give you a chance to talk to the owner and see what you can learn. If you spot several cars that interest you then you can go on line in the evening and see what the going prices are so that you don’t over pay and possibly do a little research on a particular car to learn about problematic areas to look at.
If you can’t make it to set up day, don’t worry, you can still learn a lot at the show. I like to walk the whole show first and take note of any car that gains my interest. After establishing my hit list I go back to each car to give it a more thorough going over, keeping in mind the type of work you don’t mind tackling yourself. If you spot a couple minor issues, others will see them too and this may help keep the price down.
When I start to go over a car I start with the easy stuff first, no sense wasting time if you find an easy deal killer out of the gate. Look under the car for oil, coolant, or transmission fluid, while we’re on fluids, don’t forget to pull the dipsticks and see what the fluids look like. The motor oil should be full and clear, smell the transmission fluid to make sure you don’t smell a burnt odor. Check the coolant to make sure it isn’t brown or tan, that would mean oil leaked into it. Bring a small flashlight with you and look around under the hood for any fluids that may be landing on the frame and not making their way to the floor, or leaking around the valve covers and getting soaked up in some dirt. Check out the wiring, a butchered up wiring harness will give you difficulty. Turn the lights on, just for a second, take a look and see if they glow strong or if they are dim.
After the mechanical stuff I start going over the body, how is its stance, are the panel gaps reasonably straight and flush to each other? Do the doors, hood and deck lids open and close freely? Those high pressure sodium lights in large halls are not very complimentary but they do show paint imperfections pretty well so you should be able to see orange peel and check for color matching. Is the chrome smooth and shiny or is it pitted. Even bigger, is it all there? Some of those small chrome pieces can impossible to locate.
I also go around the car and feel the bottom of the doors and fenders to make sure they are metal and not filler. I like to bring one of those soft bendable refrigerator magnets with me so I can check suspect spots with it but not damage the paint like a metal magnet might do. Another area to check is in the corner where the “A” pillar meets the dash board, many 50’s, 60’s and 70’s cars leaked at this point and they often show rust issues there.
Look down the body at various angles, is it smooth or do you see fill. Remember that the darker the paint the more it imperfections will show out in the daylight. Look at painted surfaces that have trim on them like door guards or emblems. Very often the holes drilled for the fasteners rust out. Vinyl tops also have a propensity to hold moisture between the vinyl and the metal so make sure you feel and look around bubbling one the roof line and the points where the vinyl meets the paint. Pull up the trunk pad to check the trunk floor for rust, do the same thing with the passenger compartment floor. If you can get the carpet up then take a look, if not then go around and hit the floor with your fist or push around on it to make sure it feels solid.
Look around the rest interior for tears, burns, worn spots, seams coming apart, or stains. Put additional focus on the driver’s seat as that gets the most use. Take a look at the head liner, interior trim and emblems. Don’t forget to make sure all the knobs, levers and controls are present and correct. Buy the way, did someone cut aftermarket speaker holes in the door panels or rear seat shelf?
Unless you are looking at a car that is represented as being of concourse quality, none of these items are meant to be deal killers. Collectedly they may be but if the car falls short in an area, use that information to help you place a reasonable value on the car when it comes to the block. Establish a dollar limit in your head, don’t forget about commissions, taxes and transportation fees; don’t fall in love – yet, and stick to your number.