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The Classic Car Buyer's Mini Handbook

American Government Special Collections Reference Desk

The Classic Car Buyer's Mini Handbook

March 5, 2013

Are you looking to buy a classic car? The fact is that, at least in the U.S., there is no official government designation of what makes a classic. In a lot of cases, when someone calls a car a classic, what they really mean is “iconic”. There is an entire industry built around the market for “collector cars” which covers classics, iconic Lenny cars and unusual cars like the Crosley.

There are a few important rules to keep in mind when your Uncle Lenny puts that bubbletop on the market, and the back of your brain starts itching.


Rule One when buying any car, regardless of age, model or value, is to buy the car in the best condition you can find. If it’s a convertible, will it need a new top? Check for ripples or waves in the paint while the car is on a contrasting surface. This could indicate damage or repair. How about rust? Talk to a club for the kind of car you want to buy. The members can let you know the secret rust spots and the parts of the car that frequently need attention or have design problems. Ask what work has been done on the car and if he knows anything about the history of the car.

They don’t build them like they used to, and that can actually count against you when finding someone to repair the car. Modern technicians are not always equipped or trained properly to deal with issues specific to repairing old cars. Just like Lenny’s bubbletop, specific knowledge about repairs and design issues on a car like this can become obsolete and disappear. And that's where sites like this come in really useful!


If Uncle Lenny’s “classic” is in serviceable condition, repairs will be relatively inexpensive, the same as any postwar car made by the top U.S. automakers. Locating parts, shipping them, body and trim repair and finding rare accessories are examples of complications that can add to that expense, however.

If it’s an extremely rare historic piece, or a hand assembled exotic car, proper repair and maintenance are going to require expensive specialists.


How are you going to move the car from place to place? Many classic cars, especially those that are in “like new” condition or fully restored, will lose significant value if driven very much.

A lot of muscle cars begin to lose their appeal on a long highway trip. Decades of advancements in comfort and noise control are things you learn to appreciate. The sheer cost of feeding fuel to Lenny’s big block Impala can make you think twice about any road trips longer than a couple of days. A truck and trailer or a hired carriage transport is something to think about if you want to relocate a classic.


How rare is this car? If the make and model are commonly available, its market pricing should reflect that unless the car has unusual or desirable options like luggage rack, clock, air conditioning or power brakes.

You have now come to feel that Lenny’s bubbletop is an iconic design, long and low, spacious and flowing in its lines. It’s a classic. You and Uncle Lenny are likely not the only people who feel this way, considering how well the cars sold when new. If you want the car for what it is, more than for its market value, that’s “desirability”. If others have that same desire, the value of the car will likely rise over time or at least hold its value well.

Desirability alone can drive a price upwards more than condition or rarity. Ford produced over a million Mustangs in the first couple of years. Obviously they are not rare. But the fact that just about everybody wants one helps to keep prices up. So a nice Mustang with the right equipment and options can be a solid investment to hold value, based on its desirability.


Documentation is paramount. The most important paper is the “build sheet” that accompanied the vehicle down the assembly line. Other desirable documents include the original dealer purchase order and the order sheet filled out by the original customer. Any documents showing modification or installation of dealer options are good. Warranty work, service slips and parts receipts are also items you want to document the car’s history. This paper trail can make a huge difference in the resale value of the car, as well as its insurance cost.

With a little patience, hard work and determination, you can find the right classic for your situation. Too bad Uncle Lenny traded his bubbletop for a modern car before you got done with your research. That car was a classic.

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