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Tips for buying your first classic car

Carlton Boyce / 04 February 2016 ( 18 September 2018 )

If you are thinking of buying a classic car, our guide will identify the features to look for and help you get a good deal.

British classic car, the MGB
If you're brave enough, an MGB is a great British Classic to start with

Buying your first classic car is a huge subject that could easily fill a book (now there’s an idea…) but the basics are pretty easy to understand. 

So here’s our guide to dipping your toe in the classic car market.

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Be realistic

Your first job is to identify the type of classic car you want. Sounds simple, eh? It’s not, at least not if you’re painfully honest with yourself, which you’ll need to be.

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As an example, I fancied myself as a steely-jawed, all-British hero who’d jump into his vintage sportscar (sans roof, naturally) to undertake a grand tour of our little island before striding further afield into Europe, or even Asia perhaps. 

The reality is somewhat different and I was forced to admit that vintage cars are cramped, noisy, cold, smelly and unreliable. Too cramped, noisy, cold, smelly and unreliable for me, that’s for sure, which is why I’ve settled on classics from the 1980s and 1990s that have effective heaters and a roof. (Nor do I object to having air-con at my disposal, or ABS, or power steering, or fuel injection or all those other little advances that brought civilization to the automotive world.)

You might be made of sterner stuff (at least I hope you are, because otherwise we’re all doomed) and would suit an MGB perfectly. All I’m saying is that a Mazda MX-5 is cheaper, more reliable and far, far nicer to drive…

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Set a budget

Next, set a budget. Once you’ve set that budget you’ll need to knock off the cost of insuring the car. You might also need to deduct the cost of taxing it, paying the auctioneer’s fees and getting it to your house. The (probably by now pitiful) sum that’s left is what you can afford to spend on a classic.

After you deducted 10% as a contingency fee to sort out the immediate post-purchase niggles, that is.

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Don’t buy the first car you see

I know you will but do try to resist, won’t you? I promise, there are more examples out there and if you jump in with both feet you’ll spend the next month scouring the classifieds, beating yourself up as you find bargain after bargain, all of which are cheaper/nicer/lower mileage than the one you’ve just bought.

Where to look

The obvious place to look is eBay but other websites do exist. Pistonheads is a good one for modern classics, while Car and Classic caters for the older classic.

Don’t dismiss buying at auction, either. It’s not as risky as you might think and there have been some real bargains going through the specialist classic car auctions lately.

What to look for

As a rule of thumb, you are interested in three things: rust, provenance, and rust. 

Older cars will generally have been restored at some point in their life; the only question is how well it has been done. The oily bits are usually cheaper and easier to repair than the bodywork and chassis, so concentrate on looking for rust, rot, and poorly executed repairs.

The exception to this is when you are looking at more modern classics, many of which will be rust-free thanks to galvanized bodywork. In this case (and I’m looking at you, BMW and Porsche) a poorly maintained engine might write the car off. 

Google is a good starting point to find a buyers’ guide for the model you are interested in, and there are plenty of owners’ clubs out there who will happily give you advice and encouragement.

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Look for provenance

The other thing to look for is provenance. By that I mean the car’s history and the evidence that supports it. 

If the seller claims that it has FSH (full service history) but doesn’t have the service book or invoices to back it up, then he or she might not be telling the truth. 

What you ideally want to see is a folder stuffed full of bills, invoices, old MOTs and expired tax discs. This significantly adds to the value, so don’t baulk at paying a bit extra for a well-documented car because you’ll get it all back when you come to sell, plus interest.

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I know, we’re British, which means we don’t like to haggle. And that’s alright. No, really, it is. I mean, you’ll pay more for it, but that’s not a problem to me. Or the seller…

Haggling is easy; just say nice things about the car and bid low with a smile. Keep moving if you have to until you are within 10% of the asking price. Then stop and prepare to walk away if necessary.

The internet means that anyone selling a car is displaying their hopes and ambitions to the world, and if their price is too far off the mark then no one will contact them. As a result, asking prices are now generally much closer to the car’s true value and few sellers will drop more than 10%.

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Looking after it

I like to service a car when I first get it, even if it’s just been done. By doing this I start with a known baseline and can work from there; there’s no point in getting a new soft-top if the brakes are shot.

So do the essential, safety-critical stuff first. There will be plenty of time to do the shiny stuff when your dream classic is solid and reliable.

If I could give you one hard-won tip, it would be to invest in a trickle charger. Good ones cost around £50 and will keep your car’s battery in perfect condition all year round. I say this because there is no joy at all in having a spontaneous road trip cancelled because the flippin’ car won’t start.

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There are three books that will help fire your enthusiasm for buying and running a classic. The first is Memoirs of a Hack Mechanic by Rob Seigel. Rob makes fixing old cars sound like fun, and trust me, you’ll be doing a lot of that if you buy that MGB we talked about earlier…

Then second is The Gold-Plated Porsche by Stephan Wilkinson, in which he describes perfectly why we like to tinker with old cars, even when it makes no economic sense whatsoever. (And it rarely does.)

Finally, you should treat yourself to Backfire by Alan Clark. Like him or loathe him, there is no denying his passion as an old car buff. 

All three books are must-read classics and will, if nothing else, give you something to do when your better half isn’t talking to you because you’ve been stranded at the side of the road for hours.

Have you taken the leap and bought a classic car? if so, we’d love to hear all about it!

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The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.