Buying a Vintage Car: Steps for Beginners

Updated April 6, 2022
1929 Packard Model 640

Buying a vintage car can feel like an impossible task, especially for people who have very little experience in the auto industry. What's been marketed as a retiree's hobby is actually something that's obtainable for just about anyone, so long as they do a little research and are willing to put in a little work.

What's Considered a Vintage Car?

Enclosed drive Rolls-Royce cabriolet with extension closed, c1910-1929

If you've ever watched or been to a car show, you've definitely heard terms like vintage, classic, and antique thrown around without any seeming rhyme or reason. Well, these distinctions help better categorize cars by manufacturing date.

Unlike with regular collectibles, vintage cars don't describe automobiles made closer to the modern day. Rather, vintage cars describe automobiles that were manufactured between 1919 and 1930. Given that this period was the real dawn of the automobile age, this encapsulates iconic early vehicles like the Model-T.

The Necessary First Steps for Buying a Vintage Car

Buying a vintage car can be quite easy, but doing it properly takes some preparation and research before diving in headfirst. While anyone can grab what looks like a cool car for a few thousand dollars, not everyone should take that risk, since it almost always ends up being too good to be true. Thus, every beginner should take a few necessary steps before jumping ahead and finding the vintage car of their dreams.

Determine Why You Want One

Owning an early automobile isn't just a throwaway task, so before you take on a new car, make sure that you're absolutely certain of why you want that car. Your answer will probably determine what type of car's going to be the best fit for you. The most expensive answer is wanting one that's 100% road worthy, as this means you'll need to hunt down a fully restored model. If you're just looking for one to collect or to try to resell later, then you won't necessarily need it to be restored and will get away with paying far less. Or maybe you're looking to try to restore it on your own. In that case, you'll be able to take one home for much cheaper than most other collectors will.

Establish Your Budget

You absolutely need to give yourself a budget for buying a vintage car before you buy one. Having a hard out is a must whenever haggling with owners, as you might find yourself a few extra thousand dollars down the hole. And if the car needs repairs, then you're looking at extra money wasted.

Familiarize Yourself With the Models You Want

The worst thing you can do when buying any historic vehicle is get caught up in the thrill of it all. It's far too easy to be swayed by their bright paint jobs and shiny waxed surfaces. If you don't have a concrete idea as to what models and years you're looking to purchase, then you might find yourself walking into a deal that you never intended to make in the first place.

Tips for Making a Good Deal and Not Getting Scammed

Jim Weldon of Ontario Auto Auction checks out

First of all, it's imperative that you visit any car you're thinking about buying before you buy it. When it comes to historic automobiles, there's so much that you need to see in person to check over before handing over any money that you absolutely must look it over yourself - even if that means traveling to where it is.

But once you get there, there are a few things you need to look over to make sure that the car is exactly what you think it is:

  • Check the VIN - You need to look for the car's VIN number, which is a series of numbers that've been stamped into various parts of the car. Cars with matching VIN numbers are worth more than those who've been pieced together, and sellers might try to charge you more for a car that's supposedly 'all original' but really isn't. However, VIN numbers weren't standardized until the 1980s and broadly used until the 1950s, meaning it might be a hunt to find where the car's serial number is located on these older models.
  • Ask for the most recent maintenance completed - Another thing that sellers might try to do is pass off a car that's been sitting on their lot for fifteen years without having a bit of maintenance done to them. Knowing just how much money you'll need to spend to get the car to your place and then to making it road or show worthy will determine what kind of a deal you make.
  • Find a mechanic before buying - One of the lesser known, but highly important, steps to take before settling on a collectible car is finding a mechanic who can actually work on it. This is especially true for vintage cars since mechanics who're prepared to work on them are few and far between.
  • Make sure the condition matches the listing - Most importantly, you want to check that the listing matches the actual condition of the car. This can involve going over the car for things like rust, missing parts, working motors, and so on.
  • Have recent sales on-hand - Do your research on the model of the car you're interested in, and check to see if other models in similar condition have recently sold. This can arm you with the price range for you to haggle your seller with; this is particularly important if you're trying to buy a car that's been fully restored since every nut and bolt might be figured into the seller's asking price.

Best Places to Buy Vintage Cars In-Person and Online

Auctioneers take in bids during the Mecum Auctions

If at all possible, find your vintage car in your area. Traveling to pick up a vintage car can be both expensive and a pain, while shipping a car can be a nightmare for some, particularly if the car isn't road safe. That being said, to see if there might be anyone around you either selling a vintage car or with connections to someone who is, you should look for classic car mechanics or retailers in your area. Typically, they tend to be located in more metropolitan areas thanks to population density. If those turn out to be a dud, you can reach out to any car collector communities that're in your area to see if they can help you in your search.

While it's important to see your cars in-person before buying them, it isn't as important to find them in-person as well. There're a ton of great websites that gather listings around the world for old cars of all types, and you can browse through their inventory to see if any of them speak to you. Here are just a few of the biggest names in the business to check out:

  • Mecum Auctions - Mecum is a giant automobile auction company that regularly televises their auctions, and they frequently sell cars of all kinds. While you will be fighting against avid collectors with deep pockets when you look through Mecum's catalog, there's still a chance that you could take home that car you've been looking for.
  • ClassicCars.com - A great compendium of vintage, classic, and antique cars from across the country, ClassicCars.com is a top-shelf place to go if you're looking for a hard-to-find vintage.
  • Hemmings - Hemmings is a more specialized online retailer that hosts a wide variety of vintage, classic, and antique car listings.

Take the Highway to Heaven in Your Vintage Car

While buying and caring for a vintage car is a daunting task, when you take it for a spin on the open road, you'll understand why exactly you went to all the trouble in the first place. While that Packard may not be cruising down Main Street that fast, it'll get you from point A to point B in style.

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Buying a Vintage Car: Steps for Beginners