(Editors note: please also read our Fraud Awareness Tips found here for additional information.)
Buying a collectible muscle car has never been easier. There have never been more venues for finding your dream car, whether online, in print, or at large collector car auctions. Instead of searching locally or regionally, it’s now possible to scour the entire world in your quest for the perfect car.
That’s the good news. Unfortunately, just as your search horizons have expanded, so has the reach of unscrupulous sellers and even worse, scam artists pretending to be sellers. It’s not pleasant to consider ugly words like fraud and scam when thinking about your favorite pastime. Hobbies are supposed to be fun, but in order to maintain the fun factor you need to watch for fraud.
Fraud comes in many varieties and degrees of nastiness. We view the scam scale from white lies to treason. Overall, the old car hobby is filled with well-meaning, like-minded people. They’re friendly, honest enthusiasts that just want to sell one car so they can start their next project. They’re not adverse to making a profit, but not at the cost of making an enemy or going to jail.
Car hobby camaraderie can shield crooks, because we want buying and selling old cars to be a pleasant experience. We’re not looking for trouble, but the potential for serious financial losses means we have to be more cautious than ever.
Long distance transactions and the relative invisibility of the Internet make it easier for crooks to hide and avoid face-to-face confrontations. There are various means of legal redress, but they can be time-consuming, expensive, frustrating, and the express lane to high blood pressure. Precaution is a bargain. A gallon of unleaded prevention is worth a tanker truck of high-test cure.
Don’t be hesitant to exert due diligence. Honest sellers understand your reluctance, because they’ve likely been in similar situations. They could very well have bought the car you’re considering via a long distance transaction. Honest sellers have nothing to fear; it’s the crooks who want to rush/pressure you into ill-advised decisions.
The following topics are things to consider before buying a muscle car long distance.
Rose-Colored Glasses and White Lies
Just because most car collectors are good people, that doesn’t mean they’re naive. They know values; they watch auction coverage; they long for lottery-winner buyers; and the more they sell their current car for, the more they’ll have to spend on the next one. You, on the other hand, want to find the deal of a lifetime, Rip Van Winkle’s zero-mile Hemi ’Cuda, or the terrible speller with the “Yanko Komero” that eludes all search engines until you stumble across his ad.
In other words, there can be a pretty wide expectation gap between sellers and buyers. Know that the seller will highlight his car’s positive attributes and downplay the negatives. You need to adjust your expectations, so that when the car arrives (or you see it in person) in better than expected condition you’re thrilled, not disappointed.
If It Seems too Good to Be True…
The Internet has pretty well eliminated the uninformed seller. There is too much easily-accessible data to grossly under-price a collectible car. In fact, the opposite is too often true – many non-hobbyists over-value their “classics.” So if a car seems way too cheap, there’s probably a catch.
There are sellers with financial hardships, but by the very definition of their money problems, they need to get as much cash as possible in a timely manner. That means they will set their price at the impulse-buying threshold, but not so low that they can’t solve their cash flow problems.
The best muscle car deal is a great car at a fair price or even a little above fair. You can’t go wrong erring on the side of quality and originality when buying a muscle car.
There are many steps that should be taken before you even warm up your check writing hand. The first step is to decide what you want. That may seem obvious, but you need to decide if you want a specific muscle car or just the best candidate that fits your budget. Hunting for a specific car allows you to really focus, while a broader search involves learning about many cars.
There is an old saying about knowledge being power, and that’s very true when buying a muscle car. The more you know about a specific car, the less likely you are to make a poor purchase. Read reference materials, attend car shows, talk to current owners and take notes. Make a file of important facts and numbers so you’ll have it handy when calling about a car or inspecting one.
If there is a local club dedicated to your favorite car, it would be wise to join. Other owners are the most knowledgeable people, and they often know of good cars that are for sale. National clubs may prove helpful if you need someone local to check out a potential purchase.
It’s also important to get your finances in order before shopping in earnest. The best cars can go quickly, and when there is more than one prospective buyer, the person with the ready cash will prevail.
If a car is a long ways from home, you should check into transportation options. Most sellers will accommodate a little storage time, but they want their garage space for their next project.
Professional carriers may seem expensive at first, but if you factor in all the related costs, including time away from work, the pros can be very attractive. You can often save money with terminal-to-terminal service instead of door-to-door delivery.
Many Internet ads ask you to respond via e-mail. That’s fine for the initial contact, but you should give them your phone number so you can talk one-on-one. Then get their number so you can call them (and track them down later if necessary). Their area code should match the physical location of the car. You can better gauge a seller by talking than writing. Be polite, and don’t be a time-waster. The seller is forming an opinion about your seriousness just as you are trying to gauge the merits of his car.
Cars and people have stories to tell. The condition of the car should match the seller’s story. Discrepancies are red flags. An old detective's technique is to reword key questions and ask them later in the conversation. The answers should always match.
Genuine enthusiasts know their cars. Scam artists are more about convincing you how hot/urgent the deal is. If you’re knowledgeable, it shouldn’t be hard to trip up a scammer. Consider asking some trick questions that a non-enthusiast probably won’t catch (such as a technical statement that applies to another brand/model). Only use this tactic if you suspect something bogus. Otherwise, a serious seller might think you are a scammer or a flake.
Our favorite question is, “Why are you selling the car?” The answer should be simple and believable.
A Better Look
If you think a car has merit, investigate it further. The near universality of digital and video cameras makes it easy for a seller to send detailed images. Don’t rely on what the seller offers you; ask for specific views/angles that have the best chance of revealing problems and/or verifying seller claims.
Ask for images shot at the highest possible resolution. You want to be able to blow up the images to look for flaws. If a car has been recently restored, ask for in-progress shots. Serious restorers usually document the work. Quick buck artists don’t want photographic proof of the sloppy workmanship or how bad the car was originally.
Exhaustive photos are good, but they’re not foolproof. The best inspections are done by human eyes.
Up Close and Personal
If, after viewing photos/videos and talking to the seller, you’re still very interested, it’s time for an in-person inspection. You are the best person to inspect the car. If you’re truly serious about a car, a discount airline ticket is cheap insurance for peace of mind. High quality muscle cars aren’t cheap; so don’t cut corners on the inspection process.
If you can’t make the trip, have an impartial third party inspect the car. A knowledgeable car person would be best, but even a friend or relative that doesn’t know a tie rod from a tie tack can take photos based on your very specific directions.
Make a shot list that’s highly detailed. You could (even should) talk them through the inspection via cell phones. Ask the inspector to make value judgments about things such as paint and upholstery condition.
It’s ideal if the car can be put up on a hoist. Ask for shots up inside fenders, inside trunks, under floor pans, or anywhere else that may indicate serious rust repairs or collision damage. Get close-up shots of VIN numbers, trim tags, and casting numbers.
If you can’t come up with a shirttail relative or friend of a friend, contact a local repair shop. Make some calls and find the shop yourself. Don’t rely on a shop suggested by the seller. Expect to pay their full shop rate plus maybe a little more, because a repair shop will have a hoist and mechanically knowledgeable staff.
The most reassuring muscle cars have excellent paperwork. Documents can be faked, but you’re dealing with big time crooks then, and most quick buck artists aren’t that ambitious. Paperwork such as original invoices, build sheets, service records, and restoration receipts are all good. You can’t have a collectible car with too much paperwork/documentation.
You can’t get history reports such as CARFAX on older cars, but you may be able to contact previous owners. These people should be more candid about the car’s history/condition. They may even reveal that the red big-block car was a green six-banger when they owned it.
Big collector car auctions can get a little crazy in terms of bidding wars, but these cars tend to be better documented than the average swap meet cars. Auctions do a good job of identifying clones, where a private seller might offer up a lame, “The guy I bought it from said it had a titanium block.”
Title troubles are a variation of the paper trail. A car without perfect legal paperwork isn’t worth buying unless you enjoy trouble. Learn about how different states register and title older cars. Scam artists often “wash” titles by registering cars in more lenient states/counties. A good title and trim tags can be used to turn a plain donor car into a much more valuable muscle car. A re-bodied car isn’t the same as a restoration.
Late model cars can be flood damaged and so documented, but an older car could still have a hidden wet history. Wet equals rust, and rust is public enemy number one for old cars.
Dealers or Private Sellers?
The question of who to buy a muscle car from may be answered by who has the car you want. Private party cars are generally more attractively priced, but specialty dealers have many positive points. They have to be more pragmatic; they need to turn inventory; and they have reputations to uphold. Dealers are much better equipped to handle financing and transportation. Don’t overlook established specialty dealers during your search.
Appraisals, Show Winners, and the Greater Fool Theory
“Professional” appraisals can be helpful in determining values, but comparing ads, calling ads, and asking sellers what a car sold for (compared to its asking price) are ways you can gauge prices. The problem with some appraisals is that they can be overly optimistic. After all, the seller paid for the appraisal.
The term “show winner” is often used to imply excellence. There are many cases where that’s true, but there are also cases where it meant that was the only car to show up.
How much the seller invested is his problem, not yours. Don’t be the “greater fool.” Base your offer on what the car is worth, not what the seller “invested.”
Money problems tend to be bigger issues for sellers than buyers, but everyone should understand a few things. Cashier’s checks can be bogus (as can certified checks), checks can be stolen or forged, all checks take time to clear the bank, people can put stop payments on checks, bills can be counterfeit, and there are fake “escrow services.”
Out of the country sales should be avoided (Canada excepted). Africa may be a hotbed of muscle cars, but it also seems to be Scam Central for bizarre overpayment/refund schemes. How many zillionaire “princes” can there be who want to overpay Americans so they can collect their inheritances and regain the throne?
Companies such as AutoTrader Classics are dedicated to combating fraud. They are actively working to prevent fraud and prosecute Internet criminals. The AutoTrader Classics website has excellent information on fraud awareness and resources related to Internet fraud. The information is more extensive than the length of this article permits. We strongly recommend both buyers and sellers check out this valuable information.
Enjoy your muscle car quest, but always remain alert.
Additional photo information:
The overall shot of the Cyclone indicates a ragged vinyl top. The seller admits it needs replacing and that there is a little rust by the rear window. This close-up shot shows how serious the rust is.
Rust problems around rear windows and trunks are common. The multicolored primer indicates repair work. Check carefully that repairs were done right.
If you can’t inspect a car personally, have someone else thoroughly photograph the car with a digital camera set at its highest resolution mode.
Ask for close-up shots of all ID numbers. Here, the camera is focused on the numbers stamped on the right front block pad of a Chevy 396.
Numbers matter, decals don’t. This admitted Z28 clone has the correct style cowl intake air cleaner and 302 decal, but the engine block code isn’t for an “MO” 302.
Factory build sheets are somewhat rare and often in poor condition, but they are invaluable paperwork. The rust marks on this sheet indicate it was under the rear seat.
Original window stickers (or reproductions) are much more common. They list the original equipment and options. The VIN on the sticker must match the car.
Trim tags are another way to determine how a car was originally equipped.
Having the original emissions equipment intact (even though this air pump is disconnected) is a big plus, because so many smog parts were discarded when new.
Make-specific car shows are an excellent place to learn about your favorite muscle car. There are often nice cars for sale, too.
Major collector car auctions draw many outstanding muscle cars. High documentation and 100% numbers-matching cars are very desirable.
Muscle cars are all about their engines, so having the original engine is a huge price factor. Aftermarket parts and amateur modifications are common on lower-priced muscle cars.
Many contemporary muscle cars should become future collectibles. Now is the time to buy a perfect example with all its documentation.
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