Now that you have found a muscle car to look at, here are some tips to help you buy it.
1. Get Answers Before You Look At It
This is very important. Contact the seller and ask the important questions BEFORE you go to look at the car. You don’t want to waste your (or their) time checking out a car that you don’t want. Here are some key questions to ask the seller if they are not mentioned in the ad:
a. Is everything original? (especially the engine and powertrain)
b. Exact specifics (type of engine, transmission, major options)
c. Does it run well?
d. Any major body damage, dings, or flaws in the paint?
e. Any safety issues?
f. Any known mechanical problems?
g. Any history of accidents?
h. Does the seller have a clean title? (if not, don’t even bother)
i. What is the asking price? (at least a ballpark figure)
2. Set A Time And Date To See The Car
The key is to set a date at the seller and your convenience without appearing too eager (“right now!”) or too far in the future (when the car may be sold already). Remember that there are other buyers out there.
3. Do Your Homework
Buying a car is serious business. You may be about to spend a lot of money on a great unknown. Do your research. Know as much as you can about the make, model, and year of the car. The more educated you can talk about the car, the better you can bargain and the less likely the seller can pull a fast one over you.
4. Show Up And Bring A Friend
Out of common courtesy, show up at the agreed time. If you are serious about buying, bring a friend (preferably one that knows cars). A friend can provide a much needed second opinion and drive you to the appointment, so that you can perhaps drive your new purchase home. Also, if you are serious about buying, bring cash. No intelligent seller will take a personal check and since the price is negotiable, you won’t know what amount to make out a cashier’s check for. See below for further payment tips.
5. First Impression
As in any situation, first impressions are key. Acknowledge the seller, shake hands. Treat them as more important than the car right now. This will put the seller in a good mood and will help ease the tension for the rest of the visit. Ask them about how they came to have the car, their experiences with it, and why they are selling it. Try to get a sense about their knowledge of the car and about muscle cars in general. I tend to trust sellers that know their cars a lot more than those that don’t.
6. Look The Car Over
Now, begin to look over the car. If you have a friend, have them follow all the following steps as well. A second opinion is extremely valuable in this situation. Hopefully, you are seeing the car outdoors, in direct sunlight. Shadows and artificial lighting can hide serious flaws in the body and paint. Start by checking over the exterior. Make sure all the panels are straight. Make a note of any rust, especially below the rear windshield, and the lower edges of the fenders and doors. Check the condition of the paint and make sure the body gaps are uniform. Irregular gaps could indicate that the car was in an accident or that the frame is bent. Look at the wheels and tires. Are the wheels original? Are they damaged? How about the tires – are they bald or brand new. Check out all badging, and exterior trim pieces. These can be hard to find. Casually point out any flaws you find. Don’t make the seller feel bad, just let him know that you know about them and are mentally taking them into account.
7. Check Under The Hood
Open the hood. Check the engine. Is it the correct one? Check for any leaks or telltale stains from leaking coolant or oil. Check the belts – are they worn? Is the battery tray rusted out?
8. Check Inside
Open the doors – do they sag? Check the interior. Is the upholstery in good shape? How about the dash and instruments? Does the VIN plate look original or tampered with? Take note of any problems. Most owners pour too much money under the hood and neglect the interiors, content with ripped seats and cheap Pep Boy speakers. Interior trim pieces are tough to find, so you want one in the best condition possible. Check the carpeting, looking for water stains that might point to rusted out floor pans. Open the trunk. Did it open easily? The trunk pan is usually rusted out so be sure to check that. Check the area between the trunk and the rear windshield for rust. Check for the spare tire and jack – are they original? Close the trunk.
9. Start It Up
The big test, start the car up. Most muscle cars are finicky and are difficult to start when the engine is cold. Don’t complain that the car doesn’t start as easily as your Camry – let’s face it, Carbs are not the same as Computer Controlled Electronic Fuel Injection. Pump the gas and few times and turn the key. If the engine doesn’t start in 5 seconds, turn it off, wait 10 seconds and try again. Of course, if it doesn’t start by the 2nd or 3rd time, this might be a problem. Once it is running, how does it sound? Give it a few shots of gas. Does the engine rev smoothly? Get out and check under the hood (you left it open, right?). Is the radiator fan spinning smoothly? Are the belts relatively quiet (no squealing sounds)? Make sure that the engine idles relatively smoothly. V8s are inherently balanced so one that makes a lot of ruckus might just be out of tune (a cheap fix) or have more serious problems. Now go around back by the exhausts. Check the exhaust coming out of the tail pipes. While pre-1977 cars don’t have Catalytic converters and thus will produce visible smoke, it should be faint. Dark, black smoke indicates leaking oil in the engine or worse. Listen to the exhaust. It should be fairly even. If not, there is a leak in the exhaust system or the engine is not in tune. Close the hood.
10. Test Drive
Take the car for a test drive. NEVER buy a car without a test drive where YOU drive. If the seller drives, they can hide a lot of flaws. When you begin the test drive, pick a course that allows some slow and fast driving, stopping and accelerating, straights and turns. Don’t give the seller a heart attack, just drive like you did for your Driver’s License Test. The purpose here is not to drag race the car at every stoplight. Rather, you are paying close attention to the following details:
a. How does the car react when you push the gas pedal? Smooth? Is the power instant?
b. How does the car react when you push the brake pedal? Does it slow down smoothly?
c. Does the car drive in a straight line?
d. Does all the accessories in the car (Air Conditioning, Power Windows, Power Locks, Convertible Top, etc.) work?
e. Are there any groans from the suspension when you take a turn?
f. Any strange odors?
11. Final Inspection
Take the car back and turn off the engine. Does it ping or make any other strange noises? Go back and check the exhausts – any strange smells? Take one more good look at the exterior and interior of the car. Replay the test drive in your mind. Ask all your questions now. Ask about any spare parts or tools that might come with the car. Most sellers have a garage full of parts that they were going to put on the car, but never got around to it (which is why they are selling it). Also ask for the original parts (such as factory exhaust manifolds) that they took off to put on aftermarket parts (such as headers).
12. The Decision
Now comes the big decision. If you decide to pass on the car, thank the seller for their time, but graciously decline. Mention why you are declining IF it is something the seller could fix. For example, point out that the car seemed to pull to the left or was leaking a red fluid. Don’t say stupid stuff like you don’t want the car because it is Green (you should have known that before you even got there). If you are interested in the car, start the negotiation.
13. The Negotiation
This is often the hardest part. Begin by mentioning the price in the ad, if there was one. If not, mention the going market rate for the vehicle (which you should know from the homework you did). Then deduct all the work that the vehicle would need to get it to the point of “Good Condition.” For example, you might say the following:
“Well, your ad mentioned a price of $10,000 but from my research, its actual value is usually closer to $9,000. However, I would need to spend about $1,000 to repaint it, $500 to replace the rear passenger quarter panel, and $500 for new tires. How about $7,000?”
Note: Be realistic. If the car is worth $7,000, don’t offer $3,000. A smart seller will know that you are not serious (or trying to rip them off) and will just be insulted. If they are dumb or just plain desperate, well then, anything goes! But no matter what, bargain. A $100 drop in the price is an extra $100 to buy parts!
At this point, the seller will probably counter offer. It is human nature to compromise somewhere in the middle. Mentally set the maximum price that you will pay and stick to it. It is all too easy to overpay because you “have to have this car.” If you brought a friend with you, talk it over with your friend. Have your friend play “Bad Cop” and have them keep pointing out the flaws with the car and why you shouldn’t buy it (but in a nice way, of course). This helps reduce the appearance that you really do want this car (which is why you are even negotiating to begin with).
One trick I have learned is to use cash to your advantage. Let’s say the seller says the price is $7,000 firm. If you brought enough cash, mention that you have $6,750 in cash right now. Show them the envelope with the cash. The sight of a lot of cash makes it really tough for the seller to say no.
More likely, though, you don’t have the cash with you. You can just say that you have $6,750 to spend on a muscle car. That’s it. Not nearly as effective.
14. The Actual Purchase
Once you have agreed upon a price, you have to pay for it. If you have the cash, you can complete the transaction right now. Otherwise, you have to arrange to come back at a later time with the cash or a cashier’s check. Be sure to get a verbal agreement from the seller that they will NOT sell the car to anyone else before your next meeting. Generally, the seller will insist that payment must be made within 24 hours. This shouldn’t be a problem because you already though of how you were going to pay for this purchase, right? When you meet again and have the funds, be sure that the seller fills out and gives you all the documents that your particular state needs. Usually this is just the Title to the car, but sometimes there are separate Transfers of Liability or other paperwork that needs to be filled out. Make sure that the VIN on the Title and Vehicle Registration match the VIN of the car. Be sure to get this all completed. DON’T buy the car if the seller doesn’t have the Title, it is a “Salvage Title,” the VIN doesn’t match, or it looks suspect.
15. Good Bye
After completing the transaction, thank the seller. Ask again about any spare parts they might have to give you. Before you leave, check the car one last time! This is your last chance to catch any problems. If you drive it home, and discover a huge scratch on the hood – it is too late! Now get in your new (old) car, start it up, take off, and enjoy.