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A list of questions to ask the seller before you travel to see a vintage car

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Photograph by Thomas A. DeMauro.

Most of this past summer was spent searching for my 17-year-old son Tommy’s first car. He’d gotten his license, had a steady part-time job for a year, and had been saving his paychecks. With some additional help from my wife and I, he had enough to get the driveable project that he wanted.

His stipulations sounded simple enough—a cool car that was old, needed cosmetic work to keep the price down, but was mechanically and structurally sound enough to be daily driven. Third- and fourth-gen F-bodies were on his short list of candidates and given my preferences, that’s where I concentrated my efforts when searching numerous online classifieds, auctions, and print ads, and tracking down local word-of-mouth leads.

During this process, I was reminded of the many pitfalls associated with seeking out a solid vintage driver. Everyone’s opinions regarding the condition of a car are different. That fact can become painfully evident the moment you pull up to one after having driven two-plus hours to see it.

I was also somewhat surprised by how a few ads I came across (for many different models) were written. “Don’t call me with stupid questions, just come and look at it.” “No dumb questions.” “Don’t waste my time.” “Don’t think you’re going to talk me down.” “I’ll part it out and junk the rest before I let it go for less.”

While I can understand a seller’s frustration with having to show a car to people who aren’t really interested, being belligerent in your ad is not conducive to getting what you want. Ads written in that manner were simply ignored.

I was also frustrated at how little information was provided about the car for sale in many ads. Some had just one photo. What’s worse, a few times that one photo was of the car with a cover or tarp over it, in a dark garage, or parked in bushes. Many also had little-to-no description of the condition of the car… nothing but a price.

I don’t know if it’s a generational thing, my son is just shy, or I’m too picky, but he wanted to text as few questions as possible to the owner and then go see each car. I, on the other hand, wanted to learn everything I could about each car, preferably via a telephone call, to ensure that it was a good prospect before we drove, on average, two hours away to look at it. I also felt a telephone call was a better way to gauge the demeanor of the seller.

Tommy was concerned that the seller might get annoyed by having to spend time on the phone answering my questions. My rationale was that a seller who has nothing to hide won’t mind answering questions. By asking specific ones, it should also show the seller that I’m serious about his/her car and not just a tire kicker, as I wouldn’t waste my own time with all these questions unless I was interested.

Those sellers who wrote nasty ads would have been smart to realize that 10 minutes on the phone answering questions from a serious buyer probably would have saved them from showing the car to 10 different people who pulled up and realized in the first 30 seconds that it was junk or simply not what they’d hoped. All that time wasted for both parties because the seller refused to provide the desired information about it beforehand.

By the end of the summer we finally found the car my son wanted—a 1988 Camaro with a TBI 305, automatic, and T-tops. For 1988, the base Camaro got a rear spoiler (different from the optional one shown on the car in the lead photo) and ground effects standard, so it looked sporty. It’s red but needs a repaint because much of the clearcoat peeled off as has some of the red paint, but it was otherwise a solid driver that ran and rode well and had excellent interior for its age.

It was a two-plus hour trip to see it. We checked it out top to bottom in the owner’s driveway, test drove it, made an offer that was accepted, and left a deposit. We went back the next day to pay for it and do the paperwork. Then, we drove it home without issue, with the T-tops out, of course.

Below is a list of questions I asked sellers before we went to look at each car. You may think some are worthwhile and others aren’t for your situation, so pick and choose as you please, or add to them if you like.

Keep in mind, we were looking for a daily driver, so things like current registration, insurance, and inspection (Pennsylvania also inspects for rust) were important to us but may not matter for those of you looking to purchase a major project. Hopefully, these questions will help you when searching for your next vintage car.

Questions to Ask the Seller

  • Car year/make/model
  • Owner’s name
  • Phone
  • Email
  • Does the car have a clean title?
  • What’s the mileage?
  • How long have you owned it?
  • Why are you selling it?
  • Has it ever been in an accident that you know of? If yes, please describe what happened and when, and how it was fixed.
  • Is the car currently registered and insured?
  • Is it inspected?
  • Can it be test driven?
  • Does it have any warning lamps lit on the dash like a “check engine” light?
  • Is anything wrong with the car that could keep it from passing inspection?
  • Is there any serious rust (holes etc.)? Frame? Body? Floors? Rockers? Trunk?
  • How is the paint? Are there any major scratches, areas that are peeling or other paint defects? Has the car been repainted? If yes, when?
  • Are there any dings or dents in the body?
  • Have there been any body repairs of dents or rust using primarily body filler?
  • What size engine does it have?
  • Are there any engine issues? Does it start easily? Idle smoothly? Accelerate normally? Make any odd noises? Smoke from the tail pipes?
  • What transmission does it have?
  • Are there any transmission issues? Does it shift normally? Does it make any odd noises?
  • Are there any differential issues? Does it make any odd noises?
  • Is the car dry underneath or are there leaks? Coolant? Engine oil? Transmission fluid? Brake fluid? Power steering fluid? Differential?
  • When was the exhaust system last replaced? Does it need to be replaced? Any leaks?
  • Was the catalytic converter (if equipped) ever replaced?
  • Does the suspension need any work? Shocks? Springs? Bushings? Steering system?
  • How are the brakes? When was the last brake job?
  • How are the tires? Wear? Dry rot? Damage? Age?
  • Does the car drive normally around town and at highway speeds? No vibrations? No pulling? No odd noises?
  • Does the A/C work (if equipped)? If not, do you know why?
  • What on the car doesn’t work?
  • What work was done to the car recently?
  • Has the water pump ever been replaced? If so, when?
  • Has the timing chain (or belt depending upon the car) ever been replaced? If so, when?
  • Has there ever been any major mechanical work? Engine? Trans? Rear? Suspension? Electrical system?
  • How is the interior? What is the condition of the: Seats? Dash? Door panels? Headliner? Carpet? Console?
  • Do the power accessories work? Windows? Seat? Etc.
  • Can you email me additional photos (if needed)? Front and rear exterior (outside in daylight), each side exterior (outside in daylight), engine overall, interior overall, trunk, chassis (if possible)
  • When are you available to show the car and have us test drive it?
  • What’s your address?