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Stepping Into a Classic - Part Two

We introduce to the world of automotive classics and give you some practical buying tips...

By Michael Knowling

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This article was first published in 2003.

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In the first part of this two-part series we introduced you to a few classic cars that might tickle your fancy. In this story we'll discuss what to look at when buying a classic and how to keep it in top condition...

Inspecting a Classic Car

When assessing a classic car for purchase, the condition of its chassis is the most important consideration. It's great if the engine purrs and the trim is top-notch, but if the chassis rails are rusted beyond repair - as they sometimes are - you've got nowhere to go. Some of the old Alfa Romeos are notorious for terminal rust in the chassis rails.

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After checking the chassis, the next priority is dependant upon the type of vehicle you're looking at. If, for example, the vehicle has rare body parts and a driveline derived from more conventional models (like many classic Mercedes coupes) it makes sense to pay particular attention to body condition. This means taking the time to check under the doors, inside the boot (including under the boot mat), the wheel arches around the windscreen and rear glass etc.

Note - while rust is far from desirable, be very sceptical of cars that exhibit absolutely no sign of rust (unless they've been recently restored). More than 30 years of weathering will cause rust in any vehicle, so be wary of anything that might be hidden, perhaps under a recent coat of paint.

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The condition of the driveline - the engine, transmission and differential - calls for some traditional car assessment techniques. Take out the sump dipstick to check the condition of the oil, check for 'milk' in the coolant, watch for tailpipe smoke under heavy accelerating and decel and, of course, tune in for any noises.

When it comes to the gearbox, make sure the trans doesn't slip under load and - for a manual - make sure the clutch doesn't slip and that gears engage as they should. Whines from the gearbox or differential are signs of normal wear, but should not be excessive.

A service history and books are a great pointer to the upkeep of a classic vehicle, but in most cases they will come with a very incomplete history - documentation has often been retained by previous owners, lost, etc. In some cases, however, you might be able to trace some servicing history by contacting local dealers/marque specialists with the registration number and VIN.

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While you're out on your road test, it's a good idea to perform an emergency stop or two to ensure the brakes work as they should - a car that pulls to the left or right might indicate a sticking wheel cylinder.

Many old cars are pretty bad in terms of steering feel and directness. It helps to test drive a few examples of a given car so you know how much steering free-play is normal. On vehicles equipped with power steering, check for full-lock pump noises.

Keep an ear out for any suspension creaks and clunks and take note of the performance of the dampers - these can be quite costly to replace with new parts. Check for any cracked suspension arms.

We should point out that the popular Mercedes 300SELs came fitted with airbag suspension, which has a well-earned reputation for costing mega dollars to fix. The airbags, along with an array of control valves, tend to leak and the only remedy is to buy brand new replacements, because chances are second-hand replacements will be stuffed too! A telltale indication that the airbag system is leaking is the amount of time it takes for the body to sag down to near the ground - it should take a few days at minimum, but some 300SELs will be found sitting on the deck every morning...

And now onto the trim.

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Good condition interior parts are very difficult to come across so factor in a considerable amount of cash to revive the usual areas of wear - the seats, steering wheel, gear selector mechanism, switchgear, carpets, door seals, roof and door trims. (But note that leather which is just a bit tired - no cuts or tears - can be brought back to life with proper leather treatments.) In old Benzes and Jaguars there is a lot of timber trim which is very difficult to find in good condition. Be wary of power windows that don't work - they usually cost a frightening amount of money to fix.

It's a good idea to get involved in a web forum associated with a particular vehicle. Ask for other enthusiasts' experiences, what to look out for, how much to pay - and you'll be much better informed prior to any purchase.

What If...?

For a first time classic car buyer, we strongly suggest purchasing something a little less exotic and demanding. Parts - and complete wrecks - for relatively unpopular classic cars are much more affordable.

Ongoing Maintenance and Repair Costs

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Aside from the initial purchase cost, the other major cost of a classic car is maintenance and repairs; you can't expect a 40-odd year old vehicle to be completely problem free! There's a very real chance that the engine, transmission, differential, suspension, steering, brakes and/or electrics might need attention at some stage of ownership.

Let's begin with basic servicing.

The service intervals of a typical 1960s vehicle is around 3000 miles (4800 kilometres), and includes adjustment of the ignition system and, where required, tappets (tappets need adjustment about every 12,000 miles or 19,200 kilometres on average). Other special steps in a routine service should include greasing specific points of the suspension and steering. Note that servicing a classic car is quite different to a modern car and each marque has different requirements - it's best to have all servicing done by a specialist or dealer.

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In the event of an engine failure you may be able to find a replacement second-hand job, but unlike a modern car, this is fraught with danger. What guarantee is there that the replacement engine isn't about to die as well? In many instances, a professional rebuild - preferably by a marque specialist - will cost significantly more, but you end up with a lot more peace of mind and a greater chance of motoring a number of miles without any further hassle.

Car Club Benefits

There are car clubs that support just about every type of classic car you can think of. Becoming a member of a club is really an essential cost - the amount of information that you gain access to, along with parts and know-how, are invaluable. And chances are, somebody in the club will be wrecking a car and have a very handy collection of parts...

And what about parts availability?

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In some instances, local car dealerships keep in stock or are able to source brand new parts for your classic vehicle. If you want a new exterior mirror for a 300SEL, for example, you can ring your nearest Mercedes dealership - it may take a while to arrive and cost a horrendous amount of money, though... Failing this, resort to a car club, classified ads and local wreckers.

Day To Day Usage

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A classic car cannot be treated the same way as, say, your get-in-it-and-drive Holden Commodore. In addition to routine servicing, it's a good idea to always be on the lookout for oil leaks, engine noises or anything else that might seem like a minor issue; these 'small' problems can easily blow out to massive repair jobs.

Fuel is another issue. With all new cars manufactured after January 1986 running on unleaded petrol, the leaded fuel that the classics were designed to run on is no longer available. In most instances, LRP (Lead Replacement Petrol) will suffice, sometimes with changes to the engine's ignition timing. Check with your state motoring body (such as NRMA) for specifics.

What WE Did...

Keen on a break from turbo cars with 'the usual' mods, I recently purchased a 1968 Mercedes Benz 280SE. The '68 280SE is not exactly a collector's item, but it is an excellent entry into the world of classic cars - it's strong, reliable and very cheap.

Here's the advert that hooked me...

MERCEDES BENZ 280SE 1968, vertical headlight, 2.8 fuel injected 6 cylinder, automatic, air conditioning, power steering, lots of chrome, lots of woodgrain, truly remarkable condition, first to see will buy, RFH-883, $2950

Unlike many other cars from the era, the 280SE is decked out with air conditioning and power steering, (mechanical) fuel injection and 4-speed automatic transmission. We've been told these engines can do 400,000km given good maintenance and, typical of a Benz, everything is very well built.

After owning the car for only a couple of weeks, I am extremely happy with this 'automotive adventure'. The seats and ride are comfortable, there's surprisingly decent performance and it's the sort of car that makes me smile every time I drive it (which has been an awful lot!). The ornate timber trim, the beautiful chrome work and the big, thin-rimmed steering wheel are also a part of its appeal - not to mention watching the sunlight glimmer off that big 3-pointed star at the leading end of the bonnet...

Michael Knowling

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