Sunday, October 7, 2012

So you want to own an old car with style? How to start your search

If you love old cars but don't know a lot about them, you might assume that you can't own one without spending big, big bucks.  Not so fast - there are a lot of cars out there that you CAN afford to buy, and some that you can even afford to maintain!

The market for old cars varies a lot. Too keep things simple, I'll define old cars as ones with carburetors, not fuel injection.  So think further back than 1984.  If you want seat belts (optional in some cases) and air conditioning, the farther back you go, the tougher your search.  Seat belts didn't become standard in cars until the mid 1960s.  Air conditioning was pretty rare in cars up through the 1970s.  So your first step should really be to list some "must-have" features you want in your old car.

Ask yourself how you will use the car -- do you want to tow a trailer with it? If so, you need to know what that car's towing capabilities are.  Do you want to drive it in parades - be sure it's not prone to overheating.  Do you want a pristine show car that you will baby and worry over, or a "driver quality" car you can park at the grocery store without worrying too much?  Do you want a completely original car, one that has been "restored", or one that has some customization or safety modifications?  How many people do you want to be able to have ride with you - if you have a family, will the car or truck have enough room for everyone?

Generally speaking, price equates to popularity and condition (and time of year).  A late 1950s to mid 1960s convertible will usually be priced higher than a nice two-door coupe; and a station wagon will usually get a higher price than a 4-door family sedan.  A car with a V8 engine will usually be priced higher than a car with a six cylinder or smaller engine.  But a lot of price variability has to do with condition.  Thanks to televised auctions, a lot of people with old buckets of rust that haven't run in 30 years think their car is worth $50,000.  Yea, right.  Having owned about 10 old cars over the years, I can tell you that it's cheaper in the long run to buy a decent, running car than a car needing a lot of mechanical or body work.  If you are patient and not impulsive, you'll probably get a better deal on a convertible in the fall or winter than you will in the spring or summer.

If you are seriously considering getting an old car for occasional pleasure driving, your goal should be to become a budding expert on the car of your dreams before you do any serious car shopping.

Get online and search for different makes and models of cars.  Google is your friend here.  Do image searches on Flickr or other photo sharing sites. Look at a lot of pictures.  Look at eBay and craigslist ads for a 50-mile radius around your area over a period of time to get a feel for what's available, what is selling, and what isn't selling.

Depending on where you live, the availability, condition, and value of old cars will vary, sometimes by a lot.  Make a short list of cars that appeal to you.  Try to narrow your interest to a particular make (Ford? Chevy? Buick? Chrysler? Rambler?) and model (Mustang? Impala? Corvette? Thunderbird?).

Do some more searching and see if there is a car club near you specializing in the kind of car you are interested in.  Contact someone in the club, and start networking to find people who wouldn't mind helping you find some cars to look at.  Go to some club events and meet others who own cars similar to what you think you want.  You really want to find someone knowledgeable about the common problems found in the make/model/year of car that interests you.  You want to learn if a car is easy or hard to find parts for.  What will it cost to insure the car?

Find a local repair shop with someone old enough or experienced enough working on carburated cars and non-electronic ignitions.  Think simple.  The challenge is, a lot of technically trained mechanics have never worked on an older car.  Ask around.  Go to a car show and talk up an owner of a car you like.  Usually you can find at least one person who can point you to a trustworthy mechanic who knows and works on old cars.

Once you've narrowed your interests to a particular kind of car, one of your first goals should be to find someone near you who would go with you to look at cars for sale.  Or at least get a referral to a nearby mechanic or old car expert who can evaluate an old car for you. Spending $100 - $200 on a comprehensive inspection before you buy is a smart investment that could save you from buying a car with hidden, high-dollar problems.

Be realistic about your abilities and buy the best condition car you can find for the money.  Driveways and garages and backyards are littered with projects that turned out to be overwhelming after the "project" was dragged home.


  1. I am getting my old cruiser out for the day! Thanks for this!

  2. Love that '58 Impala! Sure would look good in the garage next to my '59!

  3. Cool post! My parents had a 58 Chevy...two-tone dark turquoise and white, and my first car was a 64 Impala SS...bright red with bucket seats and lots of chrome.

  4. Great colors, great design, lots of style - we could use more of that today!

  5. I've got a 1958 Pontiac Bonneville. Instead of telling people to narrow down the choice, I'd tell them to keep their options open.