Buying a Classic Car – A Complete Guide

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Buying a classic car – a complete guide

It's easy to fall for the romanticism of owning a classic motor – the nostalgia of simpler times, the idea of racing around quaint countryside with the top down in a classic. The decisions you make when buying a classic car can be the difference between buying a life-changing, investment piece or a clapped-out financial burden.

There are so many things to consider when buying a classic or collectable car that it can be a daunting task, but our guide will help you navigate the process to getting your hands on the motor of your dreams.

What type of classic car should I buy?

Everyone has their own reason for wanting to buy a vintage or classic car. Maybe it's linked to a memory of the past that you want to relive, maybe it's the idea of taking a rusty, rundown classic and bringing it back to life with your own hands? For some, it is about making an investment.

Whatever the reason, it is paramount that you buy the right classic car for you. Don’t go buying on a whim, consider everything before you make your purchase. Let’s delve into the reasons and try to answer the question “what type of classic car should I buy?”.

Types of classic car

The easiest way to look at different classic cars and find which is right for you is to look at the eras that these vintage vehicles come from.

You need to consider your budget, whether you want something practical or fun, something mainstream or rare. Is this a car for everyday use or more of an occasional showpiece? Let us guide you through the different eras of cars to help get the process started.

  • Pre-war cars

    Pre-war cars are not for everyone – they are slow, often need a lot of work and are not great for journeys over long distances. But they are packed with charm and are incredibly good fun to drive. Parts for these vehicles are often difficult to come by and very expensive. These cars are expensive and a real labour of love.
  • Post-war classics

    The change from separate chassis to monocoque construction in the late 1940s and 1950s means that cars from this era are difficult to restore but quite easy to maintain. Getting a vehicle in good condition will be a good investment.
    Again, performance-wise cars from this era are often slow but are packed with charm. The arrival of glass fibre brought about the release of low-volume popular cars like the Ford Pop and Morris Eight.
  • 1960s and 1970s

    When people talk about “classic cars” they are often speaking about cars from these two decades! There are certainly far more cars considered “classic” from the 1960s and 1970s than any other era.
    This is because of bigger production numbers, improved performance and better quality of the build. This is also the period where popular culture (TV and movies) started to make cars stars in their own right. Think about the classics of the Bond films for example.

    Choice became a much larger factor at this time with convertibles, coupes, saloons, small hatchbacks and estates all on offer.

    But the improved quality doesn’t mean that these cars are not prone to rotting or deteriorating. Refurb can also be tricky – while supply is good for some models it is very poor for others. This is something to look into before buying.
  • Modern classics

    Cars from the 1980s and 1990s have started to become collectable, with some models like the Ford Cosworth becoming quite valuable, but in general, the market has yet to get really excited about these newer cars.
    There is, therefore, a lot of opportunities to bag a classic, especially if you are buying 1990s vehicles. These could be a great investment. As they are more modern they tend to be better rustproofed so have more chance of survival. However, the more modern you get the more electronics are involved, making simple maintenance and findings parts complicated at times.

It is also worth considering whether you want a mainstream or cult classic. While it is nice to own something offbeat that few people have, they are harder to come by and come with a price tag to match. It may also be harder to find parts and spares, and they will again be costly.

Where can I buy a classic car?

Buying a classic car has never been easier, but where should you start your search?

  • Dealerships

    There are many classic car dealerships across the UK. They will have models to browse on the day, and their staff will be able to guide you to the right car and answer any queries you have. Certain dealerships may specialise in certain manufacturers, models or eras.

    It is worth visiting several dealerships to look at different models and find the most competitive prices before buying your classic car.
  • Auctions

    Auctions can be daunting places until you get to know them but done right you can potentially bag your dream classic car at a great price.
    The hustle and bustle of auctions aren't for everyone. You get very little time to view the vehicle, will get little or no chance to speak to the seller and decisions will have to be made quickly. That’s even before the bidding battle begins.


A lot of cars will start at a small starting price to attract bids but will more than likely have a reserve (minimum sale price) to hit before it can be sold.

To get a jump on the competition most auction houses today put the different sales on their website before the day of the auction, so you can check out what is available and do some research beforehand.

  • Online

    A quick Google search will find you loads of dealerships and private sellers that will have classic cars to sell. Specialist websites like Car and Classic, generalist car sites like Auto Trader and even online auction site eBay all have options for you to explore.
  • Private sellers

    Buying from second-hand car sites and auction sites you will often be dealing with a private seller. Although, you might get a great price there are fewer guarantees on the purchase. Most vehicles will be sold "as seen" (you have to accept the condition of the car when you buy it) and it won’t come with a warranty (if you have issues you will be paying). You will also be liable for all the paperwork, declaring the purchase to the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA).

    When buying from a private seller it is more important to ask questions and go through all the necessary checks, that we will now look at below.

What to check when buying a classic car?

So you’ve done all your research, found the right place to buy and given the vehicle the once over. You’re all ready to make buy your classic car! But is important not to rush and take your time to cover all the bases to avoid any nasty surprises.

This is what to do before buying a classic car?

  • Speak to the owner
  • Make sure the panels fit
  • Check the car frame
  • Check for rust
  • Check the brightwork and exterior trim parts
  • Check the interior trim
  • Check the engine – oil leaks, faulty carburettors
  • Check the gearbox
  • Test the steering
  • Test the suspension
  • Check the tyres and wheels
  • Test the electrics

If you are not a mechanically minded person, it is worth taking an expert with you to help make these checks. It is not worth missing something. Even paying a mechanic to come and do the checks will be considerably cheaper than missing something that is not covered under a warranty.

Affording a classic car

Whatever classic car you go for it is a serious investment, and you may need to look at finance options to afford the purchase.

There are many different specialist options for classic car loans and hire purchase, while some dealerships will even take an exchange of your current modern vehicle to help the sale of a classic car.

To cover your back after the purchase it is also worth exploring specialist classic car insurance.

It is worth speaking to specialists in classic car finance to see what your options are and find the right route for you.

Hidden costs of owning a classic car

As a general rule, older cars will cost more to keep running. There are costs that you might not have considered that you need to know before owning a classic car.

  • Servicing costs

    While specialist parts can be rare and expensive and tricky fixes might cost the Earth, because most older cars were simply engineered simple maintenance, servicing and upkeep isn't as daunting or costly as you might expect.

    By purchasing a decent car manual (Haynes do the best) you should be able to keep on top of this.
  • Running costs

    Consider things like maintenance, mileage per gallon and the cost of insurance into your classic car purchasing decision.
  • Tax free classic cars

    Here’s a real positive! When a car is over the age of 40 years old it is eligible for free road tax and often doesn’t require an MOT – although it is recommended to get one for peace of mind.

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