Learn how to protect your investment, your wallet, and your ego when buying a piece of automotive history
Picking out a classic car you'd like to own is easy. It's finding and buying the thing that can be as challenging as a full-on rotisserie restoration.
Finding it involves scouring "Antique and Collectible" classifieds ads (Hemmings Motor News, Old Car Trader, etc.), and checking with clubs devoted to the make/model you're after (for example, the Pontiac Oakland Club International), to find a candidate.
Unless you're incredibly lucky, when you find a car up for sale, it won't be local - maybe not even in your part of the country. This is where things begin to get tough. You can proceed from afar, trusting the seller's honesty as well as his perception of what such terms as "slight rust" might mean, or you can road-trip (by plane/train or automobile) to actually check it out yourself. The first option involves a lot less expense/hassle up front. But the second option might save you a lot of heavy-duty grief later on, even if you do burn up some gas/airfare/time and trouble.
Personally, I'd recommend inspecting the vehicle yourself. There are so many advantages that it's almost a no-brainer. If you do it yourself you can do all of the following and sleep better the night after you take on the pink slip.
Talk at length with the seller, in person, about the car.
It's much harder for a seller with something to hide to bamboozle you in person than it is over the phone. He has to look you in the eye - and you can use your "Cheese-o-Meter" to sniff out any bad vibes.
Walk around and crawl around the car.
A car that looks like a show-winner in a .JPG digital snapshot might hold up a lot less well in person. You'll be able to sight down the quarter panels for evidence of Bondo; bring a magnet, wrap it in tissue paper and use it to check for body filler/rust repair. If it doesn't stick to a panel that ought to be metal, you can bet your Quadrajet there's something fishy. And you can eyeball the undercarriage for signs of serious problems such as frame rot (be very suspicious of recently applied black undercoating; this stuff is often used by shady sellers to disguise Swiss-cheesed floor pans and frame rails).
Hear it and drive it.
Some people have been lucky and bought a collectible car they've never even sat in until the day the truck brings it to their driveway for the first time. And while most people involved in the old car hobby are exceptionally nice as well as above-board, there are some stinky clowns out there who will sell you a Motor-Honeyed turducken with 180,000 miles on the clock instead of 80,000. In contrast to modern cars, it is incredibly easy to roll back the odometer on a car built in the 1960s or 1970s. And it's equally easy to do a cheap "rebuild" to get the engine to stop smoking, at least for a little while. These are things you'll be much more likely to detect if you're there in the flesh and behind the wheel of your new baby.
Don't capitulate, negotiate.
Nothing beats being physically at the seller's place, cash in hand, when it comes to whittling down the price. He wants to get rid of the car - and there you are, wad of bills distending your pocket. The immediacy, the nearness of the boodle is an enticement that just can't be equaled by making offers over the phone. After all, you might change you mind, leaving the seller holding the bag. But if you're a seller looking to get $18,500 for your mint '67 Mustang and have already dealt with half-a-dozen Internet tire-kickers it's mighty tempting to accept a real-deal offer of $17,900 from that nice dude you've just spent half an hour with in your driveway.
On the other hand, sometimes, you've got no choice but to buy from afar and sight unseen. If your dream car is highly unusual or very rare, opportunities are often few and far between. You may not have the luxury of time to get out and see the car before someone else beats you to it. Rather than lose what may be once in a lifetime (or at least once every five to ten years or so) opportunity, it may be necessary to dig deep and hope for the best.
But you can hedge your bet, at least a little. Here's how:
Ask to leave a deposit.
Ask the seller if he'd agree to accept a deposit to hold the car and hold off other buyers until you can make arrangements to go see it yourself (or have a trusted friend do it for you). If the car turns out to be less than you'd imagined or been led to believe, you can always walk away and lose only the deposit instead of being stuck with the keys to a clunker.
Get the VIN.
Ask the seller to provide you with the car's Vehicle Identification Number (and any other supporting documentation) to back up claims of the vehicle's status as a collectible. There are unscrupulous people out there who will take a standard-issue model of an older car (for example, a six-cylinder Chevelle) and with aftermarket and reproduction parts and trim, create a faux collectible (in this case, an SS 396 Chevelle). Many of these clones are superbly done and the only way to tell the difference is by a thorough examination of the VIN, engine stampings, body codes on so on. But a clone is almost always worth far less than a real-deal original.
If you are not extremely knowledgeable about the particular car you're looking at, find someone who is to advise you and to coach you about the right questions to ask the seller. You can find such an advisor in a club devoted to the make/model car you're thinking about buying - for example, the membership of the Pontiac Oakland Club International has a membership base of hobbyists devoted to classicPontiacs like the GTO and Firebird. With encyclopedic knowledge, they're usually happy to share with someone interested in getting into the hobby.
Always listen to your gut.
If it tells you something's not right, even if the car looks great, take a long minute to think very hard about doing the deal. As anyone who has been at this game for awhile can tell you, that inner sense that something's not quite kosher is almost always right on the money.
Ignore it at your peril!