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Hemmings Insider: The five-minute auction inspection

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I rated this 1938 Graham 97 Supercharged, bodied by Saoutchik, a condtion 1 car for its excellent restoration with no discernible faults. Photos by author.

One of our primary areas of coverage here at Hemmings Motor News, both in print and online, is the collector-automobile auction market. While the “what’s it worth?” question can sometimes be the wrong one to ask for a lot of our car features, it’s still a relevant one. It is, after all the grease that moves the wheels in the collector-car hobby.

When we report on auctions, we take in the whole atmosphere and try to keep a pulse on which segments are heating up and which are slowing down. We look at the results, we marvel at the auctioneers (sometimes our eardrums get pretty beat up when we are that close to the block, but such are the hazards of the job), and we later look at the final numbers to analyze what’s going on. But we spend far more time actually looking at the cars that will cross the block.

Collector-car auctions we cover range in size from a few dozen cars to several thousand. In addition to seeking out the headline-making main attractions, at a typical event, we pick out, at random, about 40 cars that we use for a short, 700-character write-up for either Hemmings Motor News or Hemmings Muscle Machines. That’s a lot of cars to look at in a day. That gives us about 5-10 minutes, at the absolute most, to make a quick assessment of an auction car.

Below is some of what we look for when given a few scant minutes to examine a car’s overall condition. The following is not meant as a guide on how to size up a car you are interested in buying. If that were the case, the inspection should be far more than cursory and should also include a visit to the auction desk to get a look at the car’s history file, and, if possible, a meeting with the owner or a representative to discuss the car. An inspection by a marque expert would be a pretty good idea, as would be some proof of its operating condition, but that’s a whole ‘nother ball of wax. Our goal is to get a quick overall assessment of a car’s condition. We have neither the time nor the latitude to investigate too deeply. We have to act somewhat like Joan Rivers on the red carpet: We are judging cars for their brief moment in the spotlight before the next hot number rolls through.

Rather than attempt to do what we do when a car is either crossing the auction block or being prepared for it, we arrive before the auction starts, with the best time being early on a preview day when foot traffic is low and we can get around a car unimpeded by the paying customers. It makes a big difference to be the only person checking out a car, rather than having to fight through a crowd.

Catalog Description: At most auctions, a lot number and a description are often visible on the windshield, or, at the higher end venues, on a tablet mounted to a stand in front of the car. These descriptions vary from “immensely vague” to “granularly detailed.” We prefer the latter, and reading the description gives us a guideline to what we may be on the lookout for, such as whether the engine is original (or at least period-correct), or if it’s been replaced by something the factory never put in it. Likewise, while we are there to assess a car’s condition, its originality definitely has an effect on its value, which we analyze later, back in the office and after the results are in. The listing can be a road map to examining what’s important—or not—about a given lot.

Body: First things first: We take a look down the side of a car from a very obtuse angle, to see if there is any waviness in the panels. That will often stand out, but some colors are better than others at hiding such things. Secondly, we want to see if the panels line up evenly. Uneven door, hood or trunk gaps are a sign of either a hasty restoration, less-than-perfect work, or a simply a task that the restorer was not up to completing properly. During one particular high-end auction, we came across an expert on some very high-end cars who clued us in to a very obvious, but not commonly checked body and frame integrity issue. He pointed out that the front wheel on the driver’s side of a seven-figure car he was examining was not as evenly spaced in the wheel well as the passenger’s side wheel was, indicating possible frame damage underneath an otherwise impeccably refinished body. Some things are right in front of our noses, but without paying attention to the wheel gap on both sides of the car, one might never see it. We don’t even need a ruler, instead using our lined notebook or even a few fingers to measure the difference from one side to the other.

Paint: At first glance, we look for chips, scratches, blemishes, and any other damage to the paint or body. It’s highly unusual to see a significantly damaged car at a collector-car auction. We’re not talking about a Copart sale, after all. But a small dent or a ding here or there greatly affects a car’s condition. For cars with older or original paint, we look to see if it is wearing thin, perhaps at the tops of the fenders. We also look for how well a car was masked, and, of course, any presence of orange peel or contaminants in the finish.

I rated this 1931 Packard Deluxe Eight convertible coupe a condition 3+. Its restoration was an older one, and the car showed paint chips on the body and undercarriage plus minor surface rust in a few areas.

Glass: Old windshields tend to start delaminating after a time. It’s just what they do. Even if a car is original, its condition is its condition, and old glass doesn’t tell too many lies. We look for not only the chips, scratches, and that delamination, but also the condition of gaskets and felt, particularly how well a windshield or backlight was replaced. Evidence of a botched job usually shows up in the use of excessive adhesive, which is usually easy to spot.

Chrome and other brightwork: Chrome-plated, nickel-plated, anodized, aluminum, or stainless-steel parts are not always easy to redo, replace, or repair, and also, not cheap. I look for not only how well those parts look—be they original or redone—but also, for instance, what the chrome bumpers look like on the inside, where they are not plated. It is not unusual to see shiny chrome bumpers from one side against surface corrosion on the back side. The bumper mounts, too, particularly on prewar cars, tend to be exposed to the elements and we look for corrosion of chipped paint there. Pitted chrome pieces are not uncommon on older cars, but we have seen fresh chrome plating right over previously pitted chrome, which seems a pretty lazy way to do things. We have also seen plenty of cars with big chrome bumpers and lots of shiny trim replated, surely at significant cost, only to be reinstalled on a car with an original, beat up aluminum grille. Though it’s likely that such a part is no longer available and difficult to replace or properly restore, it still counts as part of the car’s condition.

Engine bay: Under the hood, we look first to see if everything is tidy and in order. We immediately see things like batteries, and even modern cells can be made to look like an original battery. We look to see if the engine has been modified, a wholly understandable action but still a consideration in value. Even the modifications need to be assessed. After all, a day-two install is not the same as a modern mod. We look at stickers, wires, finishes, and anything that appears anachronistic under the hood. One thing we don’t get too hung up on, however, is chalk marks. It’s a controversial subject, since assembly line chalk marks are not necessarily standard on any given model, and only the most knowledgeable experts can verify the authenticity of such marks. They are irrelevant to the work we do.

Undercarriage: Getting down on our hands and knees, carrying a flashlight—a smart phone takes care of that these days—and taking a gander under a car sometimes tells a different story than the shiny bits up top. We look for rust and any obvious damage to the frame or chassis components. On the other hand, sometimes we get down there and the bottom is as spic and span as the top of a car and it’s as equally impressive. That definitely marks a pretty quick method of seeing how thorough somebody was in restoring a car and preparing it for auction.

Wheels and tires: Radial tires make for more predictable handling, but they also look out of place on many 1950s and ’60s cars. Wheels and wheel covers can often tell a story about how thorough, detailed, or old a restoration might be. With each tire change, there is the chance to chip paint on a rim edge. Corrosion is not uncommon in older wire wheel or spoke metal rims as they age after restoration.

Lights and lamps: We look for hazing and crazing in plastic lenses as they age. As part of a relatively quick walk-around, noticing busted or poorly aging turn signal, parking, and tail lenses is usually a simple task. Likewise, we look for the same things that might be happening to badges with plastic or acrylic-like finishes.

Interior: As with the exterior, fit-and-finish matters here too, as does wear-and-tear. Since a steel panel is far easier to restore than say a uniquely molded plastic piece from decades ago, many of those parts need to have been well preserved to pass our scrutiny. We look at knobs, buttons, steering wheels, shifters, and center consoles to see if the finish has been worn away. Older steering wheels tend to be cracked and the center button often aged, if not taken care of. In most cases, those parts simply can’t be replaced.

Other items: Door handles matter, as does the condition of the seats. Even reupholstered cushions, fabrics, and hides will begin showing wear almost as soon as their first use.

As you can see, that’s a lot to take in with just a few minutes to spare. Typically, we size up a car for those first couple of minutes and then begin taking notes, either on paper, or more expediently, via voice notes that can be transcribed later, allowing more to be taken down in a shorter amount of time. The goal isn’t to determine what the car is worth at that moment, as there is far more to consider, be it provenance, pedigree, performance, or rarity. The goal is to quickly assess the car’s condition. That value analysis comes later.