There are many variables that influence the true value of a classic vehicle...
It’s very easy to conclude a vintage car’s value from classic car shows and auctions on TV, review prices that individuals and dealers are asking on Ebay and other advertising mediums when determining a value. However, without actually looking at a car, you really have no idea of what damage is lurking behind the scenes of the cosmetics and the cameras.
In this article, I would like to concentrate on the actual body of the vehicle and how to competently inspect a classic car in order to determine if it has indeed had any extensive bodywork. After all, a competent value is based on many variables with past body damage being one of those primary variables.
When buying a classic, one must be able to properly inspect the vehicle in order to evaluate whether there has been damage and if that damage was repaired in the proper manner. A good evaluation of this potential damage will enable you to calculate a more accurate value, which in return will enhance your investment and make your classic car experience much more fun.
There are four visual areas of interest that must be focused on when searching for past body damage on a vehicle:
- Body Lines
- Body Panels
- Bumpers & Body Trim
#1. BODY LINES
As you begin this inspection, keep in mind that the lines should be very uniform in distance (See example A). Start by analyzing the doors. Both sides should have a similar gap between the front of the doors and the fenders and between the rear of the doors and the quarter panels. This does not mean you need to buy a micrometer, the eye is a sufficient judge. If there is a noticeable differentiation between the door’s gaps in any area, this is an indicator that there could have been a past collision that was not repaired properly (See Example B). If the door lines look uniform move on to the hood and trunk, but if there is a discrepancy, STOP and investigate further.
The most efficient way to understand how these lines are supposed to look is to inspect these areas on an original vehicle. Once you gain an understanding of the correct way in which these lines are formed by the manufacturer, it will be easier to detect poor quality body work, as most of these quick fixes never show a line that is formed true to the manufacturers specs. (See Example C).
#2. BODY PANELS
Another good technique I use, especially at auctions where the light is sometimes limited, is to back up around 10 feet in front of the car and on back of the car on both sides and level my face with the panels. Once positioned in that manner you can move left to right slowly and it is very surprising the imperfections that come into sight. If you can’t see it from 10 feet move closer in to around 5 feet. Sometimes if I do not detect any damage and I have strong interest in the car, I will perform the inspection several times. For some neurological reason, our brains see more and more as we focus on the same thing multiple times. Guess I should have thought about that inspection technique when I married my first wife.
Keep in mind that some of the larger classic vehicles show slight waves, due to the stretching of the panel skins during assembly and manufacturing. As you perform this damage seeking technique more and more your eye will become keener in detecting a panel that has been worked. If you feel that you do not have the experience to be confident in your determining the damage, there are ways to fast-track and train your eyes. Perform this technique on cars you own or friends’ cars, in which you know for certain that there has been no body work and then try it on cars that you know have had bodywork on a particular panel. Eventually, you will start seeing where the work has been performed and your eye will become more tuned in to detect damage and your level of confidence will increase.
The next question to ask is, “Is the damage I have detected substantial or minor?” You should not walk away from purchasing a vehicle if you detect bodywork, as most classic cars on the market have been painted and have had bodywork, but the puzzle you are attempting to resolve is how bad is/was the prior damage and what are you willing to accept. You are only viewing a car over a few minutes, which is just a snapshot of that car’s lifespan. So a 1956 Chevy, which has a 60 year history also has, in reality, a nearly 32 million minute history; therefore, your inspection time is very small in the grand scheme of the car’s age. Your goal is to dissect the vehicle through your learned damage knowledge and hopefully bring to light some of the minutes that this car was being repaired after damage occurred.
You may want an original untouched car or a restored #1 car. In that instance, it is important that you are very diligent in determining if there is any unknown damage on an original car or if the fully restored car was properly fixed. On the other hand, you may want a restoration project or just a fun driver in less than perfect condition. It is still important that you have the sufficient knowledge to know what you’re investing in.
If you have detected a panel that is as wavy as a flag in the wind, chances are there has been some pretty poor body work performed on that vehicle. Beware, you have no idea what is under that body filler until you start grinding on it. I cannot tell you how many times I have seen a wavy rocker panel, fender or quarter panel and started grinding into the bondo, only to find gallons of bondo in large areas of rot and rust all over the car.
Start being more observant of paint jobs much closer up and you will begin to see damage indicators that you were never aware of. Sometimes a classic has been painted that is a straight vehicle, meaning little to no bodywork has been performed, but as more and more classic cars are renovated in mass quantities for quick money, the classic car market has been flooded with a number of cars that have had quick fixes and poor bodywork with intentions to cover up the damage, then a glossy paint job is applied in hopes that the next buyer will not notice the prior damage.
Start by looking at all the chrome around the windows and other areas for paint overspray. Most of these quick fix shops do not restore or paint their vehicles by removing the chrome properly. They just tape it off and roll the car into the spray booth. Please do not let this raise a flag every time, a classic car can be taped and painted, but it must be done properly. It is fairly easy to detect overspray on chrome and on the inside of body panels and upon inspection. If you do detect this overspray, chances are this car has had some damage. Anyone who is a true car guy and has a passion for classic cars is not going to take an original car that has had no damage and perform a poor paint job on it. There are some out there, but it makes me sick to see a beautiful, original, untouched classic with a poor paint job.
While you are analyzing the chrome for overspray, you should also be aware of other indicators of covered damage. Look for sand marks on the chrome especially around the window chrome trim, as these trim pieces are usually time-consuming to remove properly and the majority of the time, these quick fixes usually hit the chrome with their power sanders, whether it be a DA sander, a jitterbug, an air file or even by hand.
The next thing to look for is the actual paint work. Get your eye focused as closely as possible straight on the paint from around a foot away. Start moving around the vehicle inspecting in the same manner. If it has been properly painted the reflection will be uniform throughout the car and the depth will reflect nothing but a smooth finish, but again in these quick fixes, even in the paint, and once your eye is trained, you will be to see sand marks through the clear coat and base that were never properly worked out of the primer (See Example E).
It is also smart to pay close attention to curves and angles in the actual body panels. Once a car has been painted you can follow these curves and angles with a close inspection, similar to the technique in Example D, wherein you level your eyes with the angles and curves to enable your line of sight to determine whether these portions of formed body panels are uniform. Poor bodywork will standout in these areas, because when a manufactured crease or curvature area in the body panel has been poorly worked the inconsistency of the panel will reflect this poor bodywork.
Once you have detected sand marks when eyeballing the paint job close up you can reapply what you have learned looking down the side of the panel for waves and bodywork. Eventually all these tips will start to merge into a clear picture of where actual damage has been repaired on the vehicle.
#4. BUMPERS & BODY TRIM
In this Cadillac’s case, the driver, who was an elderly man, ran off the road steering to miss hitting a deer and right side of the car took an impact. I could fix the body beautifully, but leaving the right rear bumper light assembly unfixed is a clear indicator of the impact and it is not my mission to just fix this to hide the impact.
There is no thin line...it's either repaired properly or it is not.
Now that you have some tips on what to actually look for when attempting to detect hidden damage, your damage sensing abilities should be more attentive. As stated before, start applying all these techniques when looking at all cars. You may not see the damage with one technique or even immediately, but you may with the next look. As you look closer and closer, the damage will become more apparent. Ask your friends or others if a car has been wrecked in an area and attempt to seek out the hidden damage. Once you are able to see these damage indicators, your money will be more effectively invested when buying you first classic car or your 100th.
[BONUS]: ADDITIONAL TIPS & TRICKS
For the most part, people in the classic car industry have been very honest with me about damage over the years, but unfortunately I have come across some individuals wherein their only mission is to pass along a piece of damaged junk that was covered up.
The more you educate yourself, the better equipped you are to assure that you will make a great investment and enjoy your classic or classics for years.
Here are a few more tips when inspecting a car for damage:
- Although the car has “Good Lines” this does not mean that the car has never been involved in some type of impact.
- Feel under the fenders, rockers, lower inner door panels and quarter panels. Where there are openings, run your hands around these panels on their inner sides. If you feel bumps, inclusions or rust, there could be an issue. Note: Be careful, as I still have a scar on my finger from running my hand under the inner side of a 1955 Cadillac fender. Some rust had been repaired, but the bodyman just bent the rust back and it was sharp as a knife.
- Open the truck and feel around the inner wheel panels and the quarter panel interiors for body work.
- Focus closely on the body areas around the windshield, rear window trim and the drip shields, as these areas are notorious for rust and faulty repairs.
CONCLUSION: THERE ARE MANY VALUES THAT INFLUENCE THE TRUE VALUE OF A CLASSIC VEHICLE
It is imperative that we understand the value indicators when investing in a classic car. There are many variables that contribute to determining a true value. How many of that make and model were made? How many still exist? What is the rarest color? Is it a low mileage car? But, regardless of the above fixed variables, if the car has had serious or even minor damage and it was poorly repaired, the value can be effected and sometimes drastically.
If you were investing your hard earned money in a company directly or indirectly through the market, would you want to gather the correct information as to what that company’s history is (including any negative therein)? Of course. Give yourself that same assurance when buying a classic and assure that you have full confidence in knowing what your investment is going into. I hope the information in this article accomplishes just that when you are finding and buying your next classic car.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: RICK DUNCAN
I grew up in the classic car business. My Father was an avid Car Guy and his passion for cars of all kinds rubbed off on me. From the time I could hold a jitterbug air sander my Father had me sanding on cars. I have never lost that passion and I love to apply my vision to an old restorable classic and watch it be turned into the beautiful machine that it was coming off the assembly line. There is nothing more exhilarating than seeking out an old car of any make and model that looks like it is beyond hope and turning into the original and beautiful car that it once was. To me, bodywork, painting and restoration is not work, it is an artform.
Due to my passion for classic cars, I founded www.myklassic.com, wherein users can join for free and correspond about anything related to classic cars. It is an online classic car community. Users can also buy and sell as well.