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How To Inspect a Classic Car

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Two senior male friends examining car tire
Hero Images/Digital Vision/Getty Images
When ever we are considering a car that might be a potential for purchase, we use this 90 point inspection check list. And never make an offer unless each point has been evaluated thoroughly and then discussed with a trusted mechanic. When you love older cars as we do, it is very easy to be intoxicated by them. This list helps us take off the “beer goggles” and see the car for what it really is and what it might do to our budget.
Difficulty: Average
Time Required: 1 to 2 hours

Here's How:

  1. Ask to see all paperwork and documentation.
    • Make sure the VIN matches other VIN's on the vehicle and paperwork (original/no alterations)
    • If the car has been restored, ask for any pictures taken before, during and after
    • Check service history for repairs, oil changes and scheduled maintenance
  2. Start the car.
    • Check for smoke coming from the exhaust
    • Listen to the engine idle quality when cold and hot
    • Rev the engine; is it smooth? Document any noises
    • Keep it running until the engine is hot and check for exhaust smoke again
  3. Take the car for a road test.
    • Inspect engine performance and acceleration
    • Listen for engine noise at high/low speeds
    • Listen for automatic transmission/transaxle noise
    • Is the automatic transmission shifting smoothly
    • Listen for drive axle and transfer case bearings or gear noise/vibration
    • Check the manual clutch for engagement, chatter or slippage
    • Test the steering for responsivness/smoothness/play
    • Test brakes for effectiveness/operation/noise/pulling
    • Check gauge operation; Speedometer/Tachometer/Odometer
    • Document temp/oil/battery gauges when hot and cold
    • Check the suspension on a rough road
  4. Visually inspect the exterior.
    • Check everywhere for rust
    • Visually inspect for repairs or damage
    • Check body panels for dings, dents, alignment, mismatched paint and overall paint condition
    • A magnet can detect any filler used in repaired dents
    • Inspect for chrome damage, alignment and improper repairs
    • Open and close doors/hood/trunk/tailgate for proper operation
    • Inspect grill/trim/molding for bends, dings, missing parts and proper attachment
    • Inspect the windshield and side and rear windows for damages, pitting, repairs, wiper marks or cracks
    • Check the mirrors condition and hinge operation
  5. Check to make sure all interior/exterior lights are operational.
    • Head lights, high and low beams
    • Tail lights
    • Brake lights
    • Parking lights
    • Hazard lights
    • Reverse lights
    • Turn signals
    • License late lights
    • Fog/Driving lights
    • Interior lights
    • Dashboard lights
    • Check for cracked or clouded lenses
  6. Inspect the interior.
    • Are the seat belts operational
    • Test audio/alarm/speaker systems
    • Test heating/ventilation/AC/defogger/defroster
    • Is the clock keeping time
    • Check the horn
    • Inspect the lighter/power outlets condition/operation
    • Inspect glove box/glove box light/hinges
    • Inspect armrest/console condition/operation
    • Is steering tilt/lock operational
    • Check rear view mirror condition
    • Check fuel filler door release
    • Check that all door handles operate
    • Inspect interior trim/carpet/floor mats/door panels/headliner/sun visors
    • Make sure that the automatic/manual door locks are functional
  7. Inspect all leather/vinyl/material.
    • Check the condition of seat upholstery for wear/rips/cracks/fading/stains
    • Check the dashboard/door/headliner for splitting or water damage
    • Inspect sunroof/moon roof/convertible top
    • Inspect convertible tops condition/operation/fit
    • Check convertible top boot
  8. It’s time to open up the hood.
    • Check for oil leaks
    • Inspect air filter for oil
    • Check the oil for water/sludge/clarity/level.
    • Inspect timing belt/chain.
    • Check all fluid levels.
    • Inspect belts for wear and fraying.
    • Check hoses.
    • Inspect wiring.
    • Inspect engine mounts.
    • Look for water pump leaks.
    • Pressure test radiator cap.
    • Look for fuel pump leaks.
    • Inspect fuel filter.
  9. Kicking the tires.
    • Inspect tires for correct size/tread depth/pressure
    • Check the tires for abnormal wear
    • Inspect condition of valve stems
    • Do all the tires match
    • Does the spare match
    • While you’re checking the spare, inspect luggage compartment for rust
    • Is there a jack or tools
  10. Don’t forget the car’s rubber parts
    • Check windshield wipers condition
    • Inspect interior and exterior rubber trim for splitting

Tips:

  1. If at any time during your inspection the seller tries to point you in a different area of the car or wants you to take their “word” that something is in good working condition, that's a signal to look more closely. Only when you have completed a checklist like this will you have a good understanding of the car’s imperfections.
  2. Make copious notes on everything and discuss what you find with a trusted mechanic. He can then provide an estimate on any repair costs to assist in your negotiations with the seller.
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