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How to Buy Speed Parts

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by Bruce Caldwell  More from Author

Advice for purchasing used speed equipment

Buying used speed equipment/high performance parts is a classic good news/bad news scenario. The good news is that there are some tremendous bargains out there; the bad news is that there are some tremendous rip-offs out there. This reinforces the three cardinal rules of buying used speed equipment: Rule #1: Buyer Beware; Rule #2: Buyer Be Even More Aware; and Rule #3: Buyer Be Incredibly Aware.

Whether or not sellers are purposely trying to take advantage of unsuspecting buyers, the primary fault for getting hosed falls to the buyer. It’s your money, and you don’t have to part with it unless you want to. A seller usually has a single item to sell, while the buyer can choose from several sellers with the same item. It’s up to the buyer to pick the best deal.

The current economic climate is excellent for finding great deals on used speed equipment. People are taking a harder look at the unused parts cluttering up their garages. Many people have decided that they’d rather have the extra cash than some dusty intake manifold. The desire for current cash is replacing the potential of using the parts on a possible future project.

Another factor that may be playing a role in the increasing inventory of used speed equipment (as well as countless other categories of “stuff”) is the trend for baby boomers to downsize. Many people in the car hobby with the largest stashes of neat parts fall into the baby boomer age group. Their kids have left home, and it’s time to move to a smaller house. That can mean leaving a large garage/workshop. These people may decide to focus on one collector car and sell the other(s) they were planning to build someday. Getting rid of a car can mean selling lots of extra parts.

Baby boomer sellers are also likely to have bought desirable parts many years ago, when supplies and prices were better. They may or may not have kept current with prices. Your odds of finding a highly desirable part with one of these sellers are better than finding and “stealing” the part, but when it comes to the best parts, finding them is the most important thing.

Regardless of the sources, the parts are showing up more and more, whether in print ads, online, or at swap meets. The challenge is to find the best deals.


GENERAL ADVICE

Part of the aforementioned buyer beware axiom is to gain as much knowledge as possible. Know what you’re looking for and what you’re looking at. Research new and used prices. If you know the facts, it doesn’t matter what kind of fairy tale the seller tells you. There’s little point in arguing with a delusional/overly optimistic/outright liar seller.

Judicious use of knowledge can improve your bargaining position, but probably not a lot. Sellers don’t like to lose face or back down too far on their price/position. Also, it often takes the loss of a couple potential sales before a seller will realize their mistake. That won’t do you any good if you were the first person to burst their price bubble.

The best use of knowledge is to be able to spot the great deals quickly and act on them ASAP. The wealth of available knowledge on the Internet and in reference books means that very few people are uniformed about values. Your best hope is to find motivated sellers who know their prices are low but want quick sales.


KNOW WHAT IT FITS

One of the biggest problems with used speed equipment is buying parts that don’t fit your application. The returns department for used automotive parts is permanently closed. Typical swap meet guarantees are 5 feet or 5 seconds, whichever comes first. Knowing what a part fits is often as valuable as having the part.

Sellers have one primary goal—sell the part. They’re not looking for repeat business or new friends. A common swap meet inquiry can go like, “What does it fit?” “What do you have?” Magically, the part “should” fit exactly the car you have.

The best way to know what something fits is to have part numbers and reference information. Mail order catalogs from the big companies can be excellent reference sources, as can specialty catalogs. If you already have a similar part at home, take measurements and/or photos. You can photograph key features or part numbers with a small digital camera and play back the images when you’re checking out a potential purchase.

Measuring tools, a small flashlight, and a notebook are good items to carry when shopping for used speed equipment. A few basic hand tools, wrenches and/or vise grip pliers can be handy for inspecting items such as a manual transmission where you might want to remove an inspection plate.


WHERE TO BUY USED SPEED EQUIPMENT

The choices for where to buy used speed equipment are many. They include local and long distance, swap meets, Internet, print publications, garage sales, auctions, and pawnshops.

Given a choice, local beats long distance buying. The ability to personally inspect parts is important. Even the best e-mail photos can’t always show everything. The rarer a part is, the more likely it is that you’ll have to consider buying it long distance.
Swap meets are excellent places to find lots of parts in a small area and in a defined window of time. If you’ve attended more than a few swap meets, it’s pretty easy to tell the occasional sellers from the pros and semi-pros. The best deals are most likely to come from people cleaning out their garages.

A problem with the best swap meet deals is that the other sellers are some of the best customers. The pros and semi-pros are experts at spotting parts they can easily resell. Since these sellers are on the grounds during setup, they are poised to snap up the best deals. The best way to combat this problem is to arrive as early as possible.

Semi-pro swap meet vendors often have parts for sale that they bought in bulk somewhere else. The parts that weren’t on their personal cars can be difficult for them positively identify. That’s where the “what kind of car do you have” issue comes up.
Garage sales can be a giant waste of time. The odds of finding speed equipment at a neighborhood garage sale are slim. The good news is, if you do find speed equipment here, the competition should be minimal, so prices should be attractive.

Auctions (online and local) generally aren’t where the best deals are found. The problem is the competitive nature of people. Buyers can easily get carried away in their zeal to “win” a bidding war. In-person auctions often charge a 10% buyer’s premium and sales tax. The tax is computed after adding the premium, so that can boost the final price by 20%.

Tools are more likely to turn up at pawnshops than speed equipment. The problem with pawnshops is that they know prices and lean toward the optimistic side. Also, they have to charge sales tax.


WHEELS AND TIRES

One of the most popular categories of used speed equipment and high performance parts is custom wheels and high performance tires. There can be huge savings, but you can also get stuck with damaged goods.

Besides knowing if the bolt pattern is correct for your car, you should know if the offset suits your wheel wells and suspension components. The best way to get wheels that you know will fit is to buy factory take-offs. This is where someone installs custom wheels and tires and sells the original equipment wheels/tires. So many factory alloy wheels look as good as custom ones that take-offs can be an inexpensive way to upgrade a vehicle.

Mounted wheel and tire combinations are almost always a better deal than individual items. There is considerable savings in not having the tires mounted and balanced.

Wheels that are still in their factory boxes may not be perfect. The wheels could be factory seconds or blems. Always try to buy wheels and tires in complete matching sets of four. Buying three and trying to find the fourth later can be difficult and often expensive.


INTERNAL ENGINE COMPONENTS

Internal engine components such as pistons, connecting rods, crankshafts, camshafts, lifters, pushrods and bearings can be risky to buy used. Condition and size issues can turn a bargain into scrap metal. Items like camshafts should come with their spec card. Pistons should be marked as to size. There doesn’t seem to be much financial advantage to buying lifters, pushrods and bearings used. Buy these parts new, unless used is the only way to get a particular part.


CYLINDER HEADS

Cylinder heads are commonly seen at swap meets, especially older high performance Chevy heads. Unless the heads come with a receipt for recent machine work, it’s best to consider these items as cores.

Things to look for with cylinder heads include signs of excessive milling, amateur porting modifications and cracks around the bolt holes. You should plan on buying new valves and springs.

Aluminum or extensively modified iron cylinder heads can be expensive. Our question to sellers is, if these heads are so great why did you take them off your car? The best answer is because of a racing association rule change or because they changed classes


INDUCTION SYSTEMS

Intake manifolds and carburetors/injection systems are popular used speed equipment items. Certain items are necessary for restorations, but if it’s just an aluminum intake for performance gains, consider buying a new one.

Aluminum intake manifolds should be checked for signs of being milled to fit different cylinder heads. Look closely at all mounting bosses for cracks. Check the condition of the carburetor mounting threads.

Carburetors are expensive, so used ones can seem attractive, but condition can be difficult to ascertain. It’s tough to tell if a carb leaks when it’s dry. You also don’t know the condition or size of jets. The best way to buy used carburetors is if the price is still a deal after you’ve allowed for a rebuild.

Fuel injection systems and components are trickier than carburetors. You need to know which parts should be there. Good reference materials are vital here.


IGNITION COMPONENTS

Used distributors, coils, plug wires and other ignition-related components are risky purchases. The less expensive items such as plug wires should be bought new. Distributors can be worn out. You can turn the gear and try to check for sloppiness, but you won’t be positive about condition until the distributor is installed on an engine.

Ignition components that appear unused and still have their original packaging can be decent deals. Our advice is to pay about half of mail order retail to cover any possible problems.


EXHAUST COMPONENTS

Exhaust systems take a lot of abuse, which is why non-cast iron components wear out. Buying used mufflers doesn’t make much sense unless they’re nearly free. Tubular exhaust headers wear out easily, so they should be closely checked for rust.

Cast iron exhaust manifolds seldom wear out, but they can have a lot of flakey metal inside. Check the mounting holes where the manifolds mount to the cylinder heads and the studs that attach the exhaust pipe.

Knowing the correct casting numbers is important when shopping for special exhaust manifolds for a high performance restoration project.


POWER ADDERS

The more horsepower a particular piece of equipment is supposed to add, the more expensive and more problem-prone it can be. Items such as superchargers, turbochargers and nitrous oxide systems are huge power adders and expensive when new, so used ones can be tempting price-wise.

The potential problem with superchargers is their internal condition. Turbochargers can have similar problems with wear. Nitrous systems are more straightforward. Whether you buy parts likes these used probably hinges on your ability to take risks and handle any negative consequences.

There are lots of great deals on used speed equipment, but in order to separate the good from the bad you need to be informed and cautious.



Shopping for used speed equipment is sort of like gold mining—sometimes you hit pay dirt and other times it’s just dirt. Either way, the quest is part of the excitement.




Swap meets are a good place to find desirable factory styled wheels, such as these Monte Carlo Super Sport wheels. Buying a complete matching set of four is always the best idea.




Mounted wheel and tire sets are invariably a better deal than buying individual components. The exception is junk tires. Then you have to pay to have them removed.




Clean, name-brand parts that have obviously been used sparingly and still have their original boxes are the kind of used speed equipment to seek.




Aluminum intake manifolds and large CFM carburetors are expensive new; so considerable savings can be had with used parts. These components should be inspected carefully.




This 4-speed vendor obviously knows transmissions. Having the inspection covers off and an available shifter lets the buyer see what they’re getting.



This big-block Chevy crate motor was offered by a private party and was a fair deal because it had never been fired and came with all the paperwork/receipts. It also had all accessory items.




This very well used big-block was an OK deal, because we heard it run before it was removed from the donor truck. Otherwise, it shouldn’t be priced at much more than scrap value.




Rare factory speed equipment such as this ’57 Chevy dual quad setup is valued as much for rarity and completeness as condition. Less-than-perfect components can be restored.




This Camaro Pro Street subframe had surface rust but was a super deal. It was priced at less than the cost of the hard parts and included a thousand dollars worth of new wheels and tires.




This nitrous oxide system appears complete, with all the plumbing hooked up to the intake manifold. It’s hard to know if all the solenoids are in good working condition. The used racing slicks should be bargain priced to make them worth buying.



Sellers that are just looking to unclutter their garages generally have the best prices. You can tell by the lack of multiples of the same items that they’re not semi-pro sellers.

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