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A classic vehicle may seem like just another old car to some, but to enthusiasts they are rare treasures to cherish and buying them is just one part of the exciting journey. Aside from the usual pitfalls like the seller disappearing with your deposit or finding undeclared accident damage, buyers need to be extra careful with older cars as detailed information can be much harder to come by. To better prepare you for your next purchase we have highlighted a number of things to look out for before parting with your cash. 

Paperwork checklist:

Evidence of detailed paperwork is the single most important method to verifying any claims regarding your purchase in these situations so let’s start with the basics:

VIN Plates: Almost all cars will have a Vehicle Identification Number imprinted somewhere on the chassis, generally found at the base of the driver’s side windscreen or door. Rebuilt or highly modified classics may not bear these marks anymore, this is where detailed info on any restoration or modifications is essential.

Ownership: Proof of ownership needs to be shown by the seller as buying a car that is still being paid off or is owned by someone else may mean that it could get repossessed. If the case goes to court claiming ignorance by the buyer does not always work.

Other pertinent documents: Values of classic cars are highly influenced by their history, originality and quality of any restorations, if one has been carried out. Period newspaper clippings, detailed photos of rebuilds and car club documents all help to prove the cars provenance.


Vehicle checklist:

Once you have confirmed that all is in order with the paperwork, a thorough examination of the car needs to be done. Scammers tend to make it difficult to view the vehicle or offer elaborate payment methods removing any recourse should the deal fall through. Do not agree to anything you are not comfortable with and check for the following:

Murky model modifications: Unscrupulous sorts may modify standard cars to seem like highly valuable special edition models. Getting in touch with car clubs, model specific registers and double-checking that all-important paperwork should help clear up any uncertainties. Old road tests and spec sheets can also shed some light on what the differences between standard and limited-edition cars were.

Clocking: Winding the odometer back to increase the value of a vehicle is an age-old trick and while analogue instrument clusters are easier to fiddle, digital units are also susceptible. Mismatching numbers in service books as well as excessive wear and tear relative to the mileage shown can all point to a car that has been tampered with. It can get a bit trickier with older cars that have had their instrumentation replaced after a restoration. Some unscrupulous sorts can also disconnect speedo cables so be sure to compare the condition of the car to the mileage shown as well as any available service history.

Cut-and-shut – When a vehicle is welded together from other cars this is known as a cut-and-shut. More common in historic race cars and classics that have recently jumped up in value. Look for the usual signs of poor repair work or numbers that do not match the available paperwork.

Repaired writeoffs: Cars written off by insurance companies because they were considered uneconomical to repair can sometimes be purchased by a third party and put back into service by.

The extent of the original damage and the quality of the repair make a big difference to the value of the car and for many rare classics the fact that it has been crashed and repaired can negatively affect values.

Restored/refurbished: If a car has undergone a thorough restoration then check how many of the original components have been used and whether the process was well documented. Some refurbishments may have been undertaken due to previous accident damage rather than to bring an old car back to pristine condition.


Online Scams:

While knowing what to look for regarding the car and its paperwork is a step in the right direction, the convenience of online purchasing means that ever larger numbers of transactions are taking place in this way. This has opened up new avenues for scammers to try and defraud buyers of their money, here are some things to look out for:

  • Fraudsters will generally try to avoid meeting with the buyer so while it is not always possible, meeting the seller at their house/business to view the car is highly recommended.


  • Never make payment on a car sight unseen, once the money has been handed over the buyers’ recourse in the case of a scam become very limited. If the car is being purchased from overseas it may be worthwhile to get it looked at by a 3rd party if possible.


  • If you do end up buying from a seller situated in another country the use of a reputable Escrow service can help ensure that all goes smoothly, however there are many dodgy operators out there so make sure you do a thorough background check on the company beforehand and be wary if the seller insists on using a service of their own choosing.


  • Pushy sellers who try to get quick online deposits rely on the buyer not having the time to assess the validity of the sale so do not be bullied into a deal.


  • Email addresses that are comprised of various random numbers and letters are often used by scammers, if only a mobile number is provided then this should raise alarm bells too.


  • While there are a number of legitimately good deals out there, cars advertised for way below their market value should be approached with caution. A relatively common scam is the desirable car listed for a bargain price with the seller claiming that a quick sale is needed for various reasons (move overseas, unwanted inheritance, money troubles etc.) As the interest is strong, they push for a deposit to secure the car. There is of course no car and the seller quickly disappears once the money has been transferred. Be sure to verify the existence of the vehicle and if it is ‘sold’ before you get there then chances are it never existed at all.

Final Words

In the classic car world, condition, rarity, mileage and an interesting history all heavily influence values, and these are where the scammers will be focusing. Buying from reputable classic car dealers is never the cheapest route but it does give you more of a safety net if something is amiss.

Private deals can save you some money but make sure that the cash only changes hands once you have done your due diligence. Follow these guidelines and the enjoyable world of classic motoring awaits, unless of course you buy a lemon.

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