What Should a Buyer Look for in a Vintage Car?

Vintage cars on display at a 2010 auto expo in New Delhi. 

Photo by Manan Vatsyayana/AFP/Getty Images

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Answer by Stan Hanks, If I had all the money I’d spent on cars, I’d spend it on cars:

If you can afford it, and it makes you feel good, then do it.

Do not buy a vintage car assuming:

  • It will be easy to buy
  • It will be easy to keep in good repair
  • It will make you cool
  • It will appreciate and make you money
  • It will be anything other than a pure entertainment expense

All of those are provably false.

Buy something that speaks to you, something that resonates with who you are, with what matters to you.

For me, it’s pretty cut and dry: Porsche 1958-1963 356s, 1969-1989 911s, any purpose-built race car; BMW 2002s, Bavarias, and E12s; VW 1963-1967; Volvo 164E and some 24x. I entertain and have owned a pile of others, but that’s the stuff that always gets my attention. That’s what speaks to me. That’s what gives me a feeling of connecting to another time and place. That’s what puts a big smile on my face when I drive it. There’s no other reason to buy a vintage car, whatever it is for you.

Now, the unspoken question: How do you buy one of these, if you know what it is that you’re looking for?

That’s a much simpler answer than it used to be. For every car ever made, somewhere, there’s an online forum of owners and enthusiasts. There may be a local club for some of the more popular makes and models depending on where you live. Find “your people.” Join in. Learn from them all the nuances.

If you decide that your “thing” is the Hudson Hornet, awesome. You’ve got seven model years to choose from, two generations, and a ton of trim levels and option packs. Which should you buy? Damn if I know, but I guarantee you that you can get 20 different opinions in half an hour with a little effort with Google.

Every vintage car has it’s peculiarities. Some of them are endemic, like rust under the battery box in Porsche 914s, and you just expect it and deal with it. Some are “Oh crap, run away,” like a Mercedes-Benz 450SEL 6.9 with completely rusted-through floor boards and frame rails. The experts—the guys who live and die by that car—will be able to tell you.

Completely unsure what you want? Look for vintage car shows. If there are vintage racing events in your area, many of them have associated car corrals where car club members bring their pride and joy to show off. I highly recommend you start there.

Concours d’Elegance events are a great place to see excellent (out of your price range) selections of many different cars. The big ones like Pebble Beach, Meadow Brook, Amelia Island, or the Louis Vuitton Classic in midtown Manhattan are just pure car porn. The regional events like Forrest Grove, Hershey, and Dana Point are just as awesome, and being a lot less “monied,” they are often more accessible.

Once you figure out what you’re looking for, the mechanics of finding a good one are about the same as buying any other used car, with two added factors. The first is patience. One of the cars I owned was one of 247 built; I waited about seven years for one to come up for sale in my price range. The second is condition. To get the car you really, really want, you might have to buy a subpar specimen and fully restore it yourself. That’s a topic for a different post.

Good luck, and happy motoring.

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