I recently appeared on Fox Business Television to do a segment on the classic and vintage car market. I really had a great time. Check it out!
Question: I’m considering the purchase of a 1957 Chevrolet BelAir. The car belonged to the brother of the person selling it, but the brother died some time ago and the car is still registered in the brothers name. The seller has the proper “transferable registration” and he said that his brother signed it before he died. I’m a little leery about buying the car from this person. If I complete the purchase, can this come back to haunt me?
Answer: Transactions of this type are very common, they are illegal, and they can constitute fraud. As such, they keep people like me busy on a regular basis as an expert witness in court.
Simply put, with very few exceptions (such as a surviving spouse-and a copy of the death certificate) a deceased person cannot sell you a car. In this particular case there are many possible implications that can come back to haunt you. Suppose the dead brother’s estate was probated and this car, which is considered an asset, was hidden? Or suppose that while the brother was alive, he pledged the car as collateral, and the creditors are now looking for it? There are many other possible dangerous implications, but these are the two most common.
The “transferable registration” is the proper document used to convey ownership of any motor vehicle that was manufactured prior to 1973, and is registered in New York. However, it does not place a value on the vehicle. For these purposes a Bill of Sale may be necessary, and once again, a deceased person is not in a position to sign a Bill of Sale. One trip to the DMV and you will quickly discover that the names and signatures on all documents related to this sale must match.
Over the years I’ve seen many deals of this nature that had to be undone. It is not easy and you will likely be the one that loses the most. My suggestion is to insist that the seller do whatever is necessary to obtain a “transferable registration” in his name. At the very least he will have to obtain insurance-and pay sales tax, which is why most sellers try to avoid this step, but in the end he will have a registration that he can sign over to you. It’s important to understand that this does not completely eliminate the risks outlined above. It simply means that if in fact there is something fraudulent going on with the sale of the car, it does not extend to you. This puts you in a much better position should a problem arise in the future.
Recently, a client posed this question: I’ve decided to buy a vintage car but I’m having trouble deciding what I should get.I really like the styling seen in the mid to late 1930s. However, I want to be able to drive my collector car on a daily basis. The problem is, I don’t think a ‘30s car is practical for today’s streets or highways. What should I do?
Answer: I applaud your desire to use a collector car on a regular basis. You question whether it’s practical to use a car built in the 1930s for this purpose. I believe that the answer is yes, but it depends on how you define practical. Structurally, these cars are practical for use on today's roads. They were built to last, at a time when roads were not as improved as they are today. These cars have frames that look as if they were made out of the same I-beams that support the Empire State Building. And the bodies were made out of steel that is of a much thicker gauge than that used today. They are also perfectly capable of keeping up with today's highway traffic at legal speeds, and providing a comfortable ride while doing so.
Practicality must also take into account dependability and ease of maintenance. These cars rank very high in both areas. Although they are almost eight decades old by now, dependability is not an issue, and they are simple enough that maintenance is minimal and straightforward. Almost all parts are readily available and inexpensive. With routine maintenance there is no reason that you shouldn’t be able to enjoy a cross-country trip, let alone a cross-town trip.
Last, but certainly not least, practicality must also take safety into account. Don’t expect to find air-bags or anti-lock brake systems on a 1930s car. Windshield wipers will likely be vacuum operated so they’ll stop working any time that you step on the gas (when the engine vacuum drops). Electrical systems will do an adequate job at best of lighting your way at night. There was no such thing as a 5 MPH bumper, and the term “crumple zone” would not even exist for another four or five decades. These are all safety issues that we’ve come to take for granted.
But all is not lost. There are many ways to address these issues and dramatically improve the safety of a mid 1930s car. The best part is that on many of these cars it’s already been done. Since you’ve come right out and asked “What should I do”, I’ll tell you.
You should benefit from the technology with which the hot-rod world has provided us, including modifications that not only dramatically improve safety, but comfort and convenience as well.
Many of these cars have already been modified by having the original drivetrain removed and a more modern drivetrain installed. Often a front subframe is installed which provides a modern front suspension with disc brakes as well as rack & pinion or power steering. Along with this transplant comes a 12 volt electrical system that eliminates electrical issues. Dim lights are a thing of the past, and our windshield wipers will work any time we need them because the motor is operated by electricity instead of vacuum.
Further adding to the issue of practicality are many comfort and convenience opportunities. It is not uncommon to find air conditioning, power windows, power door locks and stereo systems.
Cars from the mid 1930s are practical in their own right, but when modified in the manner described, their level of practicality almost equals those of our daily drivers. The best part is that with relative ease, you can find these cars modified to any degree that you wish, and the prices are not likely to give you sticker shock. There are plenty of high quality cars around that were prepared by very competent hot-rodders, mechanics and hobbyists which can be purchased for far less than what’s been invested in the car.
So go out and find a car that you love and start driving it! You can thank me later
Classic Car Services
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Question: I’m looking for a 1975 Caprice convertible. I like the body style and it’s the last year for the convertible. I’ve seen quite a few in the $15,000 - $20,000 range that are fully restored. Most of them have between 50,000 and 100,000 miles, but they look better than new. Just when I thought I had settled on a car, I saw one that was in beautiful condition with only 16,000 original miles. It is completely original including paint and interior, and the owner even has the original Window Sticker and Bill of Sale. Which one am I better off with?
Answer: There’s one group of people that prefer “over-restored” cars because they literally look “better than new.” There’s another group of people (myself included) that prefer original cars that are in excellent condition.
Cosmetically and mechanically speaking, restored cars can actually be better than new because the materials that are available to restorers are better than those that were available when the cars were manufactured. However, as restorers go, the quality of the workmanship varies widely, and this quality (or lack thereof) is often not evident until some years, or miles down the road. So buying a restored car is always somewhat of a long-term risk.
On the other hand, as much as we hate to admit it, most manufacturers of collector cars actually made a pretty decent product that if cared for would last for many decades. The reason that we don’t see more of these cars on the road is because when they were purchased new, they were never intended to be anything more than transportation. The relatively small number of cars that have survived in excellent condition is a tiny fraction of the number of restored cars.
That’s why in today’s collector car market original cars are in tremendous demand. In many cases collectors are willing to pay much more for an original car (warts and all) than they would for a comparable restored car. Remember, “They can only be original once.”
What it comes down to is personal choice. Some people like shiny and some people like original. But there is no doubt about one fact: from an investment perspective an original car will always have a greater intrinsic value than a restored car. You can always restore another car. You can’t always find an original one. Guess which car I would buy?
Question: There’s an out-of-state dealership that specializes in Triumphs, MGs, Morgans, Austin Healeys etc. They have two TR4As that I’m interested in. The owner of the dealership said that the cars are in great shape and he sent me pictures. I can’t get out to see the cars. Do I “roll the dice” and take a chance on the owners word?
Answer: This is the million dollar question that I'm asked all the time. The answer depends on how much of a gambler you are because “rolling the dice” is exactly what you’ll be doing. Sometimes you get lucky and sometimes you don’t.
The risk that you’re taking is not black or white. If it was, you would either get exactly the car that you had bargained for, or you would get no car at all.
There are shades of gray. Perhaps you’ll get the car but the engine will need to be rebuilt, or the paint won’t be as nice as described, or the accessories won’t work, or the top will have a tear, or the tires will be bald and so on. The list of possibilities is literally endless.
It doesn't happen often, but I've even been involved in several cases (all with dealers) in which the seller was in financial trouble. In each case, the buyer got the car, but never got the title, because the dealer never paid the consignor, and the consignor would not release the title until paid.
The bottom line is that you dramatically minimize your risk if you or someone else you trust sees the car before you buy it. At the very least you’ll know the car exists. Then again, gambling exists because some people enjoy gambling. Do you?
Contact Steve: firstname.lastname@example.org
I get to drive a lot of classic and vintage cars, and one of the things that never ceases to amaze me, is how few of them “just feel right.” There is absolutely no direct relationship to how much money might have been spent on a restoration, or how little for that matter.
I’ll occasionally have a conversation about this subject with some of my colleagues and friends, and they know what I’m talking about. But most people simply don’t understand what I mean.
This most often takes place when I’m inspecting a car for a prospective buyer. I’ll give them a written report extolling the virtues of the subject car. Pages and pages of how the car was taken off of the frame and every single suspension part replaced, whether it needed it or not. The acres of flawless leather upholstery, and the paint this is literally flawless. I’ll usually continue with a description of all of the documents, and receipts for the parts and labor which will often exceed the cost of a new home.
Ultimately I get to the part where I give my opinion as to how the car feels when you drive it, which is something very subjective indeed. And very often I have to end my report by stating that this expensive masterpiece of a restoration, something that is cosmetically and mechanically far better than new, “just does not feel right.” Naturally when my customer receives the report, their first response is “How can this be?” And the truth is that I have no answer. I explain that I don’t mean to imply that it doesn’t drive well, or handle well, or steer well, or stop well. In most cases it does. But still, it “just does not feel right.” I suppose that what I’m trying to say is that it does not feel the way that it did when it was new.
This brings me to my next point. How do I know what it felt like when it was new? Sadly, I came of age during the time that many cars that are now considered collectible, were new. And even if they were not new, they were only a few years old. I also seek out and collect “survivors.” Although this term is bandied about to include just about anything that is not restored, including junk, my definition is a bit more discerning. I believe that a survivor must be in excellent, un-restored, original condition including drive-train, paint and interior. But I go one step further. It must have very low mileage…usually not more than 20,000. It is this last criteria is what makes it possible for the car to not only look right, but also feel right. In effect, what I look for is what would have been advertised as a “low mileage used car in excellent condition” 40, or 50, or 60 years ago. As it turns out, I’m not the only one who appreciates this virtue. “Survivors” are one of the hottest segments of the collector car market. When you ask someone why they collect “survivors,” the number one answer is “They just feel right.” The number two answer is usually something along the lines of “They’re only original once.”
Survivors are in tremendous demand, with sometimes tremendous premiums attached to the prices. I find it interesting that the attribute that makes them so desirable, is virtually unquantifiable. How do you define “just feels right”? I think it means that the car feels the way that it did when it was new. No better. No worse. Worse is very easy to achieve. It can be accomplished by ham-fisted backyard mechanics, ordinary wear and tear, and the use of improper parts. Better is also easy to achieve thanks to talented mechanics, as well as parts and materials that are superior to those that were available when the car was new. It is very difficult to achieve that “just right” feeling, and that is why collectors are willing to pay a premium for a “survivor.”
That is not to say that it can’t be done. There are restoration shops across the country, and the world, usually marque specialists that have spent decades learning how to make cars “just feel right.” The wait to get a car into one of these shops will often be measured in years, and be prepared to have an open checkbook. You would be surprised how many cars that “just feel right” were restored in a collectors garage. The amount of time and love that they have lavished on these cars cannot be translated into dollars, but they can sometimes be translated into the way it feels.
Occasionally I’ll see a collector walk away from purchasing a concours quality restoration. I’ll ask them why, and they’ll respond “It just didn’t feel right.” That impresses me.
Contact Steve: Steve@stevelinden.com
I really didn’t want the Corvette. I ended up owning it because I wanted another car that belonged to the seller and he would only sell them as a pair. By buying the pair for a set price I had absolutely no idea what I was paying for each car individually so I arbitrarily set a very low value on the Corvette.
To most normal people the Corvette would be nothing more than an eyesore, and they would be absolutely right. It was a “restoration in progress” that someone had abandoned a few years ago. The fiberglass body was stripped of paint, and the interior had been removed from the car. At some point, the cost of storage must have exceeded the value of the car, because all of the interior parts that had been carefully removed had been carelessly shoved back inside of the car. It had become less of a car, and more of a miniature storage unit. This car had the unfortunate fortune to have been built in 1978, arguably one of the least desirable years for a Corvette.
But it was still a Corvette, and that fact alone earns it a closer look before sealing its fate as a “parts car,” or worse. So that’s exactly what I did; I looked at it, but no matter how long I looked at it, it didn’t look any better.
Financially it made absolutely no sense to restore this car. The cost of a restoration to nice, but not show quality standards could easily exceed $20,000. All of this for a car that might be worth $10,000 on a good day. So I looked at it some more.
The major parts of the car including the frame and the drive train were in great shape, and I figured that they were worth about $3000. The rest of the parts could bring another $1000 if I were lucky. At those prices I could actually make money on the Corvette. But I’d been down this road before and I knew that the only way to accomplish that would be to disassemble the Corvette myself, catalog the parts, and slowly sell them off. I really didn’t have the inclination, or the time to do this, and even if I did, the cost of listing the parts on eBay would cut deeply into my profits. I could pay someone to do all of this for me, but I would have to pay them more than the parts were worth. So I looked at it some more.
It wasn’t worth restoring, and it wasn’t worth parting out. In a way I was glad that it wasn’t worth parting out because the car was complete, and structurally it was far too nice to meet that fate. Many people faced with this decision would simply push the car behind a garage or a barn, cover it in a blue tarp, and leave the decision for another day. “Leave the decision for another day” is code for “Accelerate the process of deterioration while providing a home for the local rodent population, so that in less than two years the car will be ready to be picked up by the local scrap-yard,” thus effectively avoiding a decision. Neither my wife nor my neighbors would have approved of this, so I looked at it some more.
The mind of a car collector is unlike that of a normal person as evidenced by the fact that I had thought about the possibility of restoring the Corvette, parting it out, and and storing it before deciding on what would have been obvious to most people in the first place. Simply sell it as is. If you read this blog and shared in my anguish, you are a car collector. If you wondered from the very beginning why I didn’t just sell the Corvette, you are normal.
The next morning my first telephone call was to a friend who buys, sells, and restores Corvettes. I told him I just wanted to sell the car, and by the end of the conversation the car was sold, at a fair profit no less. It turns out that one of his customers was owed a significant amount of money by a body shop, with no likelihood of him ever being repaid. In exchange for repaying the money, the body shop had agreed to restore a car for him if he would supply the car, a fair deal for everyone. A normal person would have made that telephone call before doing anything else. I could finally stop looking at the car.
Contact Steve: email@example.com
Steve was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1957. He grew up in a time
and place where cars were worshipped, and none more so than the
“American Muscle Car,” although this was a phrase that wasn't coined
until decades later.By the age of twelve he was repairing just about
anything with an engine.
Steve Linden is a recognized expert in antique, classic and collectible vehicles. He offers a wide range of services to the classic car community.