Jim’s Blog: What to Look For in Your Next Buy

Old cars are a great place to spend your time, especially when you have a lot of time. A project car can suck up a year or more of your life, which if we’re being honest is not such a bad thing right now. The guy everyone loves to hate — you know him, he’s got a ’69 Charger, ’70 Mustang fastback or ’55 Bel Air half buried in weeds and will “get to it someday” — is starting to look pretty smart right about now. 

But, while a project seems like a not-so-bad idea right now, even if you spend a bit more than the car is worth doing it, a restored car is going to make more sense to own as soon as social distancing measures are lifted.

The life-is-short side of all of us is going to want to get out and drive — right now. We’re all going to be tired of being in our garages and houses. You can’t drive a project car that’s still blown apart, and you’ll want to. 

We don’t really know when things will ease back to normal, so unless your project is almost complete, you’ll probably need something else to drive in the not-too-distant future.

Where to these things cross? At those first few auctions post-COVID, where recently garage-restored cars are offered to a hungry market. But you’ll need to be careful, as not all restorations are created equal. Here’s what I’d be looking for:

Mechanical Restorations

The Barn Find is dead. Patina is the new king and has been for a while, as buyers have finally figured out that most barn-found cars were crammed into storage and forgotten for a reason. A patina car gives the feeling of time passed — the romance of a barn car — while also allowing for some restoration work underneath to make it actually functional and even comfortable.

So with that, my first stop is original paint and interior cars that have clean engine compartments, brake upgrades, and all the right paperwork. You want ownership history, receipts from years past, and evidence of recent work that have made a car usable. That thin original paint, showing years of washing, is impossible to duplicate, and there is a market for it in the rubble of the barn find movement.  

Seek: Original paint, untouched interiors, straight panels. 

Avoid: Rust, grubby mechanicals, too many speed parts.

Rule of thumb: For an end-user, an offbeat example with the right condition may be a better buy than a mainline model with needs.

Complete Restorations

Life is short. Why not have fun with something shiny? 

We’ve always said that buying a car complete is cheaper than completing it yourself, but if you’re not careful here, you’ll have the worst of both worlds — a car you paid up for because it was “done,” but with needs that have to be redone at your additional expense.

Watch out for restored cars that don’t have any documentation of the process — especially the paint and body. Rust repair isn’t fun for most of us, and there are a lot ways to hide not-so-great handiwork. Don’t get hung up on where the work was done — garage jobs can really be nice, especially if they’re priced right — but don’t ignore the basics of body fit, color match, straight panels, etc. 

The most challenging step to a resto is often making all those parts work together, and a lot of guys dump their cars before they’ve finished that step. Don’t fall for “zero miles since restoration” as a bonus.

Seek: Cars with miles post-restoration. Great cosmetics backed up with good mechanicals. Leak-free engine compartments. Cars with hundreds of photos of the resto process.

Avoid: Anything at all suspect. It’s a buyer’s market out there.

Rule of thumb: You may not need a high-end show-winner to have fun, but be sure you’ve adjusted what you’re paying to the car’s true condition.

Any other tips to consider? Let’s talk about them below.

4 comments

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  1. With all due respect, I’m wondering if you’re avoiding the elephant in the room. For most, ‘your next buy’ will be affected by math, economically speaking.
    What will happen to the collector car industry going forward? Will my cars value return? Which ones? Will prices drop, fire sales? Is there opportunities to buy?
    I’m just wondering what to do next?
    Appreciate your thoughts & any feedback.

    1. Jeff, I have been tracking the market so I can sell a LS3 61 Buick bubble top. It was suppose to go to Mecum Glendale in Mar and at the time I felt it was a power from up above that stopped. With the big auctions pretty much at a stand still I have been tracking some on-line selling grounds. Although, I have seen a decrease more in volume I have seen some solid numbers for quality. I think the quality will be the fact going forward, similar to the stock market where the high quality companies are bouncing back to the numbers they had before this happen. But with this being said, I have just started to socialize my car to find a new home this week. My fingers are crossed that someone will want some turn key excitement once they can leave their house.

    2. I touched on some of this a few weeks back in this blog: https://www.americancarcollector.com/blogs/jims-blog-buy-sell-or-hold

      Will there be fewer buyers on the other side of this crisis? That depends on a whole bunch of factors that haven’t completely played out yet — including basic demographics, and math, like you said. Who is your typical buyer at a Mecum or Barrett-Jackson auction, and how have they been impacted? Answering that will give you a place to start. But for the buyers who are still buying — and they’ll be out there — there will be plenty of opportunities, and some of that is what I’m focusing on here with this blog.

      The market will most certainly endure. I just finished running through recent sales to plan out the next issue of our sister publication, Sports Car Market. Those numbers, many of which came from online sales that took place AFTER the onset of the crisis, are promising. Some look like business as usual.

      The 2008 crash is our best reference point right now, and while the old car market did take a pretty large dip that lasted a couple years, it also fully recovered in most segments (and grew in others — trucks are a great example). Generally speaking, I think any dip will be followed by the same sort of rebound here as well. It may just take some time to get there.

      Will your car’s value return if it drops? I think that depends on model, condition, and its valuation pre-COVID. Will there be fire sales? Probably. Will there be opportunities to buy? Absolutely. These are great topics for next week.

  2. Jim, glad to see your take on the patina being King. I just picked up a 77 Jeep Cherokee S this winter, while on vacation in AZ. The individual that we got it from brought it on a Army base in that area in 1981. It still wears the base access sticker from then. But not much history from before since it was just a used 4×4 when he got it.
    However, when he owned it had been repainted and that paint had been blistering and peeling from being parked the last 15 years. We have were able to peel most of that repaint off, to show the factory blue underneath. It is a jeep so there some field love showing here and there, and for some reason since this is a wide body S around the rear steel flairs there are some bubbles and rust, but the rest of the truck shows true AZ rust free glory.
    As far as the interior goes, we are trying to get the seams taken care of on the front seats, but the rear is great. I did buy a complete replacement carpet kit, what was in there was just so ratty.
    It was parked due to some upper end issues, which led us to taking the heads off and having them machined with new guides etc. Since it was taken apart, everything else was freshen up and repainted, new hoses, lines, carb, oil pan gasket etc and even rolling new 33″ A/Ts. We also went through the AC, coolant system, cruise control and the push button 4X. We will upgrade the stereo since the dash was cut to a hands free blue tooth since I plan driving this when there is a threat on getting my other cars dirty.
    But like 80% of what is in the garage it will be available for someone to take home one day. As I saw myself putting this together taking it further and further away from that barn find, but fought building a restro that seems to be on the rise. So, as you said that patina is the new King, I hope that will be the case for this Big Chief S when the time presents itself.