So You Want to Buy an Old Car? (I Know I Do)

Jamie Lincoln Kitman

Jamie Lincoln Kitman | Apr 04, 2012

You would think you would learn something owning thirty old cars, as I do -- mostly British, with some Italian, French, German and American ones thrown in for the sake of internationalism -- including, of course, my 1968 Travelall 4x4, which is as International (Harvester) as it gets. And I have learned a few things. Mostly, that I need more cars. But there are a few other things I’ve learned, too, mostly about how to buy older – I mean old -- vehicles. Having learned this information the hard way, I will share it with you now, dear reader, saving you collectively several millennia of aggravation and lost time, not to mention the billions of dollars you might mistakenly torch, and never to return, chasing your old car dreams.

Jamie Kitman is caught putting the miles on his 1968 International Harvester Travelall. (Alex Nunez)

Meanwhile, there, I’ve said it, thirty cars. Reveal this personal information early enough in your acquaintance with others and you may as well introduce yourself as an escaped mental patient, or at least as a frequent sojourner along the dusty trail that lies between obsessive compulsive disorder and involuntary hospitalization. The initial smile of disbelief soon passes and then they look at you sadly, then with a touch of fear. Resentment often follows.

That’s because people think you’re rich when you have thirty cars. They’re peeved when you don’t dive for the dinner bill every time or offer to pay down their mortgage when it’s their birthday. Little do they know that the bank owns 130 percent of your home and that your children are being readied for an exciting career in waste management, to commence upon their having learned all there is to learn... in kindergarten. Call me old-fashioned, but an education is too important to forego in today’s new economy, which is why no child of mine will ever enter the work force without having learned at least substantial parts of the alphabet and how to count to ten with a minimum 85 percent accuracy.

1974 Citroën D Special. (Chris Dubuque)

To be fair, actually, I am rich. Outsmarting the recalcitrant second-gear synchros of a 105-series Alfa’s five-speed transmission or pondering the threat to life and limb when a sticky Lotus Cortina caliper has suddenly presented at speed, makes me realize I am rich in spirit. A veritable Sultan of Brunei where spirit is concerned. But, cash? Never touch the stuff.

More rich in spirit than in cash with this 1965 Alfa Romeo Giulia Super Sedan. (Ben Sandler)

And like so many of today’s self-made richies, I’d like to share my secrets for success, but being too busy to write the book, The Sixteen Essential Habits of Old Car Whoredom, I offer here, for your edification, as many tips for buying old cars. Don’t bother sending me your thanks. Checks, wire transfers and other negotiable instruments will do nicely.

1. Buy what you like.

2. Don’t buy the best you can afford.
Buy the best there is, or skip it – you can’t afford a [insert car name here.] The best is cheaper in the long run.

3. Mechanical repairs are preferable to rust repairs.
No repairs are better still.

4. Don’t be afraid to walk away from a potential purchase.
The only one who thinks it’s a desperate tragedy when you fail to close a deal (besides the seller) is you. Something else will come along sooner than you think.

5. Buy original.
Location, location, location? Originality, originality, originality. When original paint, chrome and interior are in place, when the serial numbers all match, you can’t go wrong. However...

6. Not everybody and not everything can be a virgin.
There’s nothing wrong with people and machines that have experienced life’s rich pageant in all ways, short of crashing. But let someone else find out how expensive it is to restore your preferred model to a high standard. Profit from their mistakes, yet expect to spend more to smooth out the inevitable remaining rough edges. Someone else’s tragic, money-losing restoration is your lucky day.

7. Don’t be cheap.
Travel to find the car of your dreams. Hire an appraiser familiar with the make to assess condition. Spend a little, save a lot. Pay to have it shipped, it’ll be worth it. The cost of purchasing from rust-free climes afar will be a fraction of your potential exposure if you buy wrong and rusty locally.

8. Don’t expect to make money on old cars.
Prepare to lose a lot and be pleasantly surprised when you lose only a little.

9. Cut your losses.
If you realize you’re in over your head with a particular machine, stop the madness without delay. Sell right away, then, next time, buy smarter. There is no shame in admitting defeat when the war is unwinnable.

10. Don’t be cheap, part 2.
Never delay repairs. An object at rest tends to stay at rest. With each passing month another inactivity-related problem may rear its costly and time-consuming head -- dead battery becomes flat tire, becomes leaky rear brake cylinder, becomes full brake job, becomes frozen clutch, becomes leaking rear main seal, and so on and on.

11. Take professional advice, before and after purchase.
Whenever there’s a job to be done, do it right, with original or high-quality replacement parts.

12. Don’t lie to yourself or others in the sale or purchase of automobiles.
Instant kharma is going to get you.

13. Drive your car.
You bought it, you drive it. Spend more time polishing than driving and you’ve got a problem.

14. Join a club and read their mags or, better yet, cruise the Internet.
You’ll find the parts and knowledge you want without having to get upclose and personal with the pocket-protected wing nuts who are the keepers of such things.

15. Standing water, weather, bird and tree droppings kill cars.
Keep it indoors or, if not possible, under cover on a hard, dry surface.

16. Make sure all safety equipment is working properly.
Use and, if necessary, install seatbelts. You may save someone’s life. Which, like at least thirty other things in my life, is clearly more important than saving money.

1959 Morris Minor pickup. (Ben Sandler)

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