Answer: Oh boy…I’m going to get a lot of angry e-mails from readers who will interpret my answer as an endorsement of RUST, the most vile of four letter words.
Unless your car is going to be entered in shows and judged at the highest levels, then relatively small areas of rust that have been properly repaired simply don’t matter. Of course these repairs will most likely have an adverse effect on the value of the car when it’s time for you to sell it, but it will also save you money when you buy it.
If you are planning on having the car painted, then tending to rust in localized areas is not particularly problematic, but it must be done properly. Areas that commonly rust on these cars are the lower portions of the quarter panels, fenders, doors, trunk pans, and floor pans. I’m not suggesting that you buy a “rust bucket” that has rust in all of these areas as the cost of proper repairs would likely exceed the value of the car. However, I wouldn’t let a little rust in one or two of these areas scare me away from an otherwise excellent car. A good body shop or restoration shop can easily repair these areas by fabricating the panels out of sheet metal or ordering them from companies that sell reproductions of the panels that come ready to be welded into place. If the rust is minimal, and the repairs are completed to a high standard, it is not likely that the repair costs would exceed $2000.
It is important to be realistic about expectations when purchasing a collector car, and the value of the car will play an important role in those expectations. How realistic is it to do a nationwide search for a car that will most likely be valued in the range of $10,000? One could easily spend several thousand dollars just in pre-purchase inspection costs and transportation fees. Another expectation to be realistic about is the condition of “rust-free desert cars.” They may in fact be rust-free,” but the same elements that prevent rust will often dry out the interior and any rubber suspension components to the point of being unusable. The cost of replacing these parts can far exceed the cost of repairing a little rust. A few years ago I had occasion to inspect about 30 classic cars that were sitting in the Nevada desert for decades. It was so dry that paperback books that had sat out in the open for many years looked as if they had been placed there yesterday. Not a speck of rust could be found on any of these cars…but not a single car was a candidate for restoration. They were “parts cars” at best.
We live in the Northeast, and rust is a fact of life. Generally, it simply does not pay to restore most cars with excessive rust. On the other hand, there are many collector cars for sale that do not need a restoration. They simply need some minor rust repair and perhaps a paint job in order to provide the owner with many miles of driving enjoyment. These cars are often overlooked by buyers and can be a bargain. The secret is to have the car inspected first to make sure that the repair is simple and cost effective.