Living With A Classic: Part One
So, you want a classic car? Okay, then. Let's have a talk.
Almost every day of my life, I have a conversation with someone about our small and humble car collection. The comments and questions are usually pretty much the same. "How much is that worth?". "How do you keep them all running?". "You must have a big garage". Of course, the most satisfying ones are those of joy and praise. "My neighbor had one of those!", or "I have always dreamt of having one of those". It sometimes gets old, answering the same questions over and over, but every now and again, you stumble upon someone who really knows and understands. That is the fun stuff. And it is often one of those conversations that sends someone in search of the classic car they have always wanted. You can almost see it in their eyes, as they talk to you. You just know that as soon as they get home, they're going right onto Craigslist, while they formulate the right words to justify their upcoming purchase to their partner. Many of us know it well.
Most people would never buy a classic car, and for obvious and very well justified reasons. But for some, these reasons are either too trivial, or they don't even register at all. For a small subset of us that venture into this particular rabbit hole, money is no object, and to those folks I say, just go buy the damn car, and treat it well. Oh, and thank you for preserving history. But for the rest of us, logic and rational thinking are perhaps not our strongest allies. We are working stiffs, forever subject to the stubborn laws of time, space, and foremost: economics. But we have passion and desire, and that is often the most important, even if fatal, part of the equation.
Thinking about starting your classic car collection? This series of articles is for you, fellow working stiff. Perhaps you know exactly what you want. Perhaps you are searching. Maybe you just want some advice on how best to start doing it. No matter what camp you fall into, I hope that I can at least offer some real world insight into how to make the right decisions, for you.
Why Am I Doing This?
The specific model of car you want may seem like the most important decision, and in some ways, that might be true. But in reality, I think it falls just short of top priority. In practice, the single most important thing to suss out, is exactly WHY you want a classic car, especially if it's your first classic. My wife and I have the good fortune to already have a small collection, which allows us the luxury of choosing our next car on different merits. But our first car sort of fell into our laps, and without much consideration as to the why, we just jumped right in. We fell in love almost immediately. It's worked out just fine, but I won't lie. I have often wondered if we would've made a different choice if we took a little more time. I'm talking about our 1966 Ford Thunderbird (which we've named Dottie). Owning her has been a trip, to be sure. Oh, we saw the rust. And yeah, we thought we would fix that a lot sooner than four years. And oh yes, the headliner was easy. We'll sort that out next week, right? But alas, we haven't. And as expected, the rust has kept on rusting. This winter, it finally goes in for surgery. But not until I fix that nagging exhaust manifold leak, and newly wayward steering. Anyway, lest I digress.
But really.... WHY do you want a classic? Ask yourself that question, not in the sense of a self help audiobook, but in a real, relatable sense. Do you want an investment? Are you looking to buy something to eventually sell and make a ton of money on? Or perhaps you want a car that you keep for decades and only drive a few days a month. Maybe you want something a little less precious that can be your somewhat daily driver during the warmer months, and take some of the mileage off your main car. Any way you cut it, you'll fit into one of these categories. We all do.
The Ubiquitous "Project" Car
Like many of us, I'm always browsing Craigslist or Facebook Marketplace, looking at interesting older cars. It's usually aimless and without a specific car in mind, although sometimes I get an itch that I feel the need to scratch. In these searches, listings are littered with cars that are basically abandoned projects. You've seen it, I'm sure: "Bought this car 5 years ago, but I have too many projects now, and this needs to go to make room for a new one". It could be a template for more than half of the classic cars currently for sale throughout the world. They're literally everywhere.
Buying a project car can be the most rewarding experience, if done properly. Maybe it's a father and son dream, or just something you've always wanted to do. Either way, you have to be prepared for the untold time and money that you will inevitably spend on seemingly simple problems. Then there are the big problems, which most weekend spanners aren't equipped to tackle. Stuff like pulling the engine to replace a sensor, or lifting the car to drop the gearbox.
Much of it will depend on your level of knowledge and skill, as well as the tools at your disposal. If you know next to nothing about mechanics, but hope to learn whilst fixing your project car, then I implore you to reconsider that. Unless you're comfortable with the idea that statistically speaking, you will most likely abandon the project, it will just be a money pit and a time suck. Of course you could hire the help of a garage to do all of the work, but that sort of defeats the purpose of the 'project' car. That's just a restoration car, a different kind of project.
That all said, there are some cars that lend themselves to the first time wrencher. Old MGBs are excellent cars to learn on. They're exceedingly simple and straightforward. Old American cars tend to be quite straight ahead as well, although their size and weight demands a larger workspace and some more capable tools. It's no surprise that as cars became more advanced, particularly in the areas of emissions controls and computers, they became harder to repair. The older cars, typically pre-1975, are usually the best candidates to learn on, if one is so inclined. And of course, there are local classes you can take, to learn basic mechanics while you wrench on your project.
One important consideration with any classic, project notwithstanding, is the health of the parts market. Availability will be a huge factor for the prospect of many a car, in the journey back to roadworthiness. I've squashed more than a few potential project cars for just this reason. Take for instance, my 1979 BMW 733i. It's a brilliant car, and many of its parts are readily available in the aftermarket. But recently, the ignition control module went bad, causing it to die in the parking lot of a store. Turns out, the only ones available are scavenged from old donor cars. And while there are a few companies that rebuild failed modules, the cost is high, and in the meantime, you're shit outta luck. And that's not to mention the early BMW L-Jetronic fuel injection system that is extremely difficult to source parts for. Chalk it up to the ever growing list of things I wish I had known....
The biggest issue with project cars though, is almost always rust. The mechanical stuff, even the large and imposing bits, are almost always fixable with the right resources and help. The rust and body stuff is a different story, and those are the sorts of things that more often than not, send the car to a slow and agonizing death, usually under a tree and in some bushes, with a tarp for a cover. Rust is the true killer of most project cars, as the vast majority of weekend mechanics can't weld or do bodywork. And that kind of work is prohibitively expensive to farm out. Unless you're intent on learning how to weld, using your new classic project as a canvas, I would suggest leaving those sorts of projects to more capable hands. And yes, painting is really hard. Believe me.
Of course, buying one of these cars could be a good choice. That's a whole other conversation that we'll get to. The more important thing to consider right now, is that you may very well be writing that same exact ad in a few years time, and it may just be the most important thing to remember in your search for a car. There's a reason for so many 'project' cars on the market. It sounds obvious of course, but we frequently overlook the obvious because we humans tend to be prideful, arrogant, impetuous, and frankly, stupid.
I've never bought a full restoration car, nor have I ever had much interest. I think these cars are mostly for those that have a little bit of cash in the ol' savings, and the time to boot. Most resto buyers that I've ever known are the ones who send the car to their shop of choice, and write a blank check, and just wait for the call that it's ready. If that's you, then fantastic. Have at it. I envy you, to a degree. I'm also glad that you're helping to keep good mechanics in business. I won't judge the fact that you know nothing about cars, and can't bother to turn a wrench. More power to ya, as they say. Don't mind me if I go over here and talk to someone more interesting...
The Humble, All Original Driver
This is my favorite type of classic. This is a car that runs, drives, turns, and stops reliably, but maybe needs some cosmetic love, and the usual maintenance. Maybe it needs new seat covers and carpets, or perhaps just a little turn of the wrench here or there. These are usually cars that are priced well, and where the previous owner cared for and loved the car, but decided to move on, or wasn't prepared to take the full deep dive into total restoration. More often than not, they're all original and unmolested, and have been garaged most of their lives. They haven't been pampered, but they haven't been beaten to death either. They've been driven and loved.
These are the true gems of the classic car world, in my eyes. Many would agree. These are the best cars to learn on, mostly because you have a baseline. If you're lucky, you know what the engine is supposed to feel like when it's healthy. You know how responsive the steering is, and how firm the suspension is supposed to be. That all helps, because the time will come when something breaks, and you'll at least have a reasonably good picture of how to fix it. And in the meantime, you can check the little things off your list, like a new rearview mirror, or a new door handle.
If you're fortunate enough to find a car like this, you'll be able to drive it home, register it, and then drive it as often as you like until it needs something. And because you've got a head start on that part, many things that go wrong can be dealt with easily. The bigger issues are then so much less daunting, because you have already offset the cost of outsourcing the repairs by doing most of the smaller work yourself. It's a delicate balance, but if you've got the right car, it won't feel like you're constantly pushing a stone uphill.
The thing about this type of car is that you're rarely going to find a bargain. You'll be looking at spending real money, but that's okay. The tradeoff is that you get to enjoy it right away, and you don't have to be scared about the odometer always waving its finger at you. And honestly, you don't have to make any apologies when you take it to your local Friday night meetup. You'll be the envy of the crowd, because you've got a great car and you do the lion's share of the wrenching on it. There ain't no substitute for that feeling.
Ah, the centerfold. This is the dream for many of us. Little by little, we save enough money to one day plunk down for our dream car, fully restored and problem free. It drives like new, looks like it came fresh off the showroom floor, and even smells like new. It's sort of like marrying your biggest lifetime crush. It's an opportunity to reward yourself with a true treasure.
Even for someone like me, who enjoys turning a wrench and getting under the hood, this is a true pleasure and a reward for years of hard work and patience. If you've read my recent piece called 'Honeymoon In Turin', you'll know what I mean. There is little else that compares to opening your garage door and being greeted by the near flawless majesty of your fully restored dream car.
The biggest thing with a car like this, is cost. It takes money to buy one, and it takes years to save that money, if you work for a living and can't tap into your family's trust fund. But that's the point, really. You've worked hard for so long, and you rarely reward yourself for that. Once you decide that you can take that plunge, you do so knowing that you'll spend more time washing the car than you will diagnosing why the car coughs and spits every time you turn the key. And that, my friend, is nearly priceless.
Of course, something is bound to break. That's the name of the game with these dinosaurs. But hopefully, being fully restored, the big expensive stuff has been dealt with, and you'll just have to sort out the small stuff when it goes. Relays are going to go bad, and ignition coils will fail at some point. You'll need to eventually replace the brake pads or the clutch. But, that stuff is usually pretty easy, and not terribly expensive. And if luck is on your side, you'll get so much driving pleasure out of your centerfold, that even the occasional expensive repair won't feel so much like a personal vendetta.
The best part of buying a car like this, is that if you're fortunate enough to get it at a decent price, you will likely be able to sell it down the road for a profit, if you go that route. So long as you maintain its condition, and take care of any issues that come up, simple mathematics tells us that the biggest expenses were already absorbed by the previous owner. And that makes it a good investment. Speaking of investments....
I can't say much about investment buying, really. I am always astonished at what people will pay for certain cars. I'm also frequently bummed out to find that a car I've been eyeing for awhile has turned into the 'hot new thing' to collect, thus kicking prices into the stratosphere. I certainly don't begrudge capitalism. I am indeed a capitalist myself. But much like the art world, there is most certainly a portion of the collector car world that just pisses me off. When they simply become symbols of status and wealth, it loses all appeal to me, as a true lover of cars.
That said, investing in classics, to eventually sell them and make money, is not the most insidious thing one can do. It's different than 'flipping', which is great fun. But, my gut tells me that if you're a working stiff, and you want to invest in something, cars may not be the right vehicle, pun intended. Affordable classics usually take a long time to truly appreciate in value, and you have to keep the car in essentially untouched condition while that happens. That means maintaining it, but rarely driving it. It also means having the garage space to keep it untouched by the elements. Basically, your garage becomes a bank. That's usually not the main reason people start to collect cars. They usually want to enjoy them.
But hey, if you've got some extra bucks kicking around, and you're willing to risk that your enjoyment of the car might affect its future value, by all means... buy one and enjoy it. There are worse ways to 'park' money.
I'm sure there are some categories I've overlooked, but really, these seem to be the main ones. In my experience, it's critical to decide which one of these camps you fall into.
I imagine that younger buyers are more inclined to go the route of the 'project' car, simply because it's the stubborn and prideful choice, as well as perhaps more affordable, at the starting line, anyway. Middle aged and handy buyers that have a little more time to spare, and the space to use it, will likely be looking at the humble driver. It makes sense from a number of levels. Most of my classics have been of this ilk. I can drive them more often than not, and when I have to fix them, it's okay not only because I have others to drive, but because I didn't spend a fortune on them. And lastly, the well heeled buyers are a different breed altogether. They have the pick of the litter, and can afford anything that steps in the way. They're probably not reading this.
No matter what, deciding what road you want to travel is just as important as the car that gets you there. What good is your classic car if it just causes you so much stress that it's not fun? Half of that stress comes from making the wrong choice about 'who' you are, from the get-go. Be honest about not only your wants, but your abilities. It just may make the difference between something you once did, or something you do forever.