The Adviser

If only we'd known then—car collecting lessons for our younger selves

by Eddy Eckart
27 October 2022 5 min read
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Photo by Cole Ligette

One of the best things about classic cars is that they’re always teaching us. Every carburetor rebuild, track day, or parts search is a path to learning something new. The same goes for buying and selling. We at Hagerty have, collectively, many decades of experience on that front. We’ve also made plenty of mistakes along the way—or at least know something now that would have saved us time, money, or aggravation back then. There’s a rabbit hole’s worth of additional wisdom that could put a newbie on better footing, if they only knew! So, what other advice would we give our younger selves, or those just getting started today? I polled my fellow writers to find out. Have another useful lesson? Share it in the comments.

Drive it.

Sam Smith doing what we’re meant to do.

You only regret the miles you didn’t put on the damn thing. I spent too much time thinking, “I’ll drive it later,” or “that trip can happen next year.” Use it. Put more fuel in it and use it again. If the tires age out before they wear out, you might be missing the point. —Sam Smith

Take time to figure out what part of the hobby suits you: sometimes it’s not what you expect.

Sometimes the work is the best part: Kyle Smith at 17 and 29 enjoying air-cooled goodness. Smith assures us that jack stands were in use!

It’s a lame trope, but I was late in understanding the notion that the “journey is the destination.” It was years of doing DIY work before I realized that was what I enjoyed most, and fighting it was fruitless. Now I buy things mainly to work on them and only occasionally drive them (compared to most). If I would have realized that sooner I probably would have made some different investments and learned a lot more by now. —Kyle Smith

Take your time, and don’t feel any pressure.

Work on your machines. The value of turning your own wrenches cannot be overstated, and the slower you can afford to go, the better. That brings me to my second lesson, which is the flip side of the first: many people have the ability to toss their project up on stands and fix it at their convenience, but that isn’t everyone. If you picked an enthusiast car as your only means of transportation, you may occasionally just have to deal with a minor issue for a bit. You don’t need to feel ashamed every time someone looks at you in disbelief when you explain that putting that car out of commission for a few days to re-do some bushings isn’t in the cards right now. Most of these machines are far more durable than we tend to think. —Nathan Petroelje

Speaking of wrenching:

Go ahead and spend the money to buy the proper tool. You can’t do it right if you don’t have the right tool for the job. Also, your other tools will live longer if not used improperly as drifts, wedges, picks, pullers, scrapers, etc. Buy good tools and take care of them and you won’t have to buy tools again. —Aaron Robinson (Bonus tip: aside from the basic “every tool box needs them” implements, consider buying tools as corresponding projects arise instead of all at once. I slowly built up my set through my teens and twenties this way, and still come up with a new tool need at least once a year. —EE)

Find someone who can help you along…

I wish I’d had someone or found someone to show me how to work on cars from a young age. My dad wasn’t a car guy, and none of my neighbors were, either, and my high school didn’t have a shop program, so I never really saw anyone working on cars around me. Now I just find the whole experience daunting and messy and frustrating, which helps explain why I’ve had a dead Volvo in my driveway for six years. —Stefan Lombard

And that “someone” can be on the other side of a screen

I wish I’d known how much information for my hobby was available online! Even as a kid of the 1980s, I suspect the old Bulletin Board System could have taught me more than the car magazines and library books that were currently available to me. While BBSs are long gone, at least you can still visit 10+ year old posts on forums and learn a lot! —Sajeev Mehta (Sajeev speaks the truth— spending time searching old forum archives will often get you a level of detail and information that’s hard to come by in today’s world of less-than-informative Facebook groups —EE).

Expand those horizons, and get to know your new ride.

I wish I would have been more amenable to modern cars. Growing up, I was dispassionate toward anything built after 1981 (save for maybe Monte Carlos and Corvettes). Boy, I was really missing out. It wasn’t until I drove an SN95 Mustang that I really started to turn the corner. Also, as far as the buying process goes, even if the listing says “You could drive it home,” bring a trailer. Get that sucker home, get it on jack stands, and then give it a once-over before you take it on the road. —Cameron Neveu

Take time to figure out what you want, not just what’s popular.

GT500s are nice, but our Conner Golden is more of a Terminator Cobra guy when it comes to Mustangs, and that’s ok.

I wish I learned not to listen to the hivemind as much as I did/do. And, to be happy with something that isn’t at the apex. Stuff like:  If you buy anything without a manual transmission, you’re not a real enthusiast. No, you shouldn’t like that car, it’s not as cool as this car. What, you want a Mustang GT? Wow, guess you don’t want to get a GT500. —Conner Golden

Due Diligence is your friend…

Ask questions about the car before you go to see it. I’ve wasted a bunch of time driving out to see enthusiast cars only to be told things like, “I don’t actually have the title. Why, does that matter to you,” and “the odometer stopped working years ago, so the miles listed is way off.” One other thing: if you aren’t comfortable doing a thorough inspection, pay someone else to perform one. Even if (actually especially if) you’re buying it from a dealer. —Matt Fink

…Regarding the car and the seller.

My worst purchase experience was a Sunbeam Alpine that was “restored.” The owner was clearly nuts, so I should have assumed his restoration was equally nutty. It was: he made it a thousand times worse than it was in its previous decrepit state. As Leno says, you buy the seller as much as the car. —Aaron Robinson

It never hurts to look at the math.

Borrowing might help you afford something better.

I wish I’d known more about financing when I was younger. As a person who entered adulthood during the great recession, I thought any loan was risky and that I wouldn’t have access to it anyway. The result was that I wound up only looking at the extremely disheveled cars for which I had sufficient cash. I’m not suggesting people, young enthusiasts in particular, should finance Skylines (even though I hear they do); rather I just wish I’d realized I could finance, oh, $4k and wind up with the world’s best Miata rather than a more questionable example that needed ~$5k of work. Of course, the work was lots of fun, and I learned a lot… —David Zenlea

Try different things.

Variety is the spice of life. Yes, I will wash my Boxster soon.

I was a dedicated muscle car addict as a child, and my first two cars were a 1992 Firebird and a 2000 Camaro SS. Then, a whole new world opened up when I drove my friend’s 1999 Miata. I had a thing against front-wheel drive till I drove a Mazdaspeed3. It took till I was in my mid-twenties to embrace all types of cars, and by then I had a lot of catching up to do. I haven’t cast aside my love for American cars—two reside in my barn alongside models from two other continents—but I have come to appreciate a lot of different metal. So go for a ride or see if you can drive a friend’s toy that “isn’t your style.” You just might like it. —Eddy Eckart

Comments

  • BCJ says:

    All good advice. I would add: buy what you want and don’t listen to others. Sometimes I’ve bought older cars and had friends, also collectors, say: “What on earth would you want that for?” Or just laugh. Who cares what they think. Buy what you want and enjoy it.

  • Jim Rosenthal says:

    The adage “buy the best one you can afford” has been proven in my life several times, sometimes by mistakenly NOT buying the best one.

    PPIs are a very valuable tool. They are not foolproof, but they are right more often than they are wrong.

    Everyone should drive a French car at least once. By which I mean a Citroen.

    Certain cars (you know who you are) are never free of rust. It just takes longer to find it in them.

    A woman friend once told me “cars are not your friends”. She could not have been more wrong.

  • Doug L says:

    I agree that buying good tools is important but these days good quality tools are available at many places, including stores like Home Depot and Menard’s, and the better stuff at harbor Freight. Leave the super high quality, and price, stuff like Snap-On to the professionals.

  • Jake says:

    One point I would add is this; I’ve never had a worse experience buying a classic than when I did not inspect myself and paid a “reputable” inspection company to perform the duty. It’s not their investment, so my inspector went through the motions and undersold the issues, oversold the positives and straight up missed a lot. My mistake was not going and looking at, and driving the vehicle myself. I will never use an inspection service again. I got the vehicle back into great driving condition, but it was an expensive lesson to learn. Buying the seller is a great point made in the piece. Very true.

  • Haig L Haleblian says:

    When I went t aviation A&P school in 1969, Snap On sold us a nice box of hand tools for $200. It was a great long term investment for Snap On and lifelong happiness for me. 53 years later I have a large S/O rolling chest loaded with a full array S/O tools Having high quality tools is as important for the hobbiest as the professional. Over the years, when I needed a tool for the job, I’d call my local Snap On dealer. A high quality tool feels good in your hands and never fails you. One thing I’ve learned over the years is it’s expensive to be cheap. By the way, I still have every tool from that original purchase 53 years ago.

    • Clare Snyder says:

      You don’t need to buy Snap-On – but CHEAP tools are almost always more expensive down the line than decent tools. Back in ’69 I bought a Craftsman starter set when I graduated from high school and started my apprenticeship. They were significantly cheaper than Snap-On – but definitely not “cheap tools” -I added some Herbrand, SK, and yes, even some Snap-Ons over the decades.
      I also bought some “cheap tools” to throw in the beaters I inevitably drove and they led to more skinned knuckles and unfinished repairs the few times I had to use them than my good tools did my entire working life. A ratchet that slips, a socket that splits, a wrench that breaks or bends, a screwdriver that hogs out a screw head – – – in short a tool that doesn’t do the job when you need it is worse than no tool at all.
      As in most things I’ve found never buy the cheapest or most expensive – either way you end up over-paying.

  • Brian says:

    Never, ever purchase a classic car on eBay or any auction without going out to look at the car to see for yourself how it is described in the listing. I made that mistake once. At the time, it was a contract to buy it, online, as I did and had to follow through. Part of the description was “no rust, excellent condition”. In the beginning it seemed ok but as time went on, bits of rust started coming thru the paint on each panel. Sometimes, the driver seat bounced as the floor was rotting out with rust and a hole in it under the carpet. I paid to have a new floor welded in. I complained to the previous owner who said “well where you gonna get a car for $5k? It actually ran well after the clutch was replaced. It’s long gone now. Please don’t make that kind of mistake. Do your homework and inspect it before you buy it. Don’t just take someone’s word for the description of the condition. Everyone seems to have a different idea about condition. Look for hidden problems ask questions and get honest answers.

  • Michaels Collection says:

    All good advice. My Dad told me years ago when buying (anything): First, decide what you WANT (or need), THEN figure out what you can afford. Regarding collector cars, I would add: once you decide what you want, be a little flexible, don’t fall in love with the first one that comes along, be patient, and yes, do due diligence, including a PPI, if not yourself, then at least an experienced appraisal company. An excellent company is Auto Appraisal Group (www.autoappraisal.com)

  • Gary Bechtold says:

    It’s also Ok for your tastes to change or to want to do something different for a season. i like this I want to try it, maybe you keep it 20 years and maybe you move on to something else. Either way if you had fun who cares.

  • John the Road Again says:

    I used to scoff at the notion of “performance tires”, since I’m cheap and they wear out much faster than standard all-season tires. But then it occurred to me that I never drive my classic convertible more than a couple thousand miles a year, and it hibernates during the winter. The standard tires age out long before they wear out. The performance tires drive so much better. Wish I had come to this conclusion sooner.

  • Pete Perea says:

    Listen to your dad. He’s not nearly as ignorant as you think. My first engine rebuild lasted just about fifteen minutes because I didn’t need his help since I was eighteen and therefore knew everything. He kept an eye on my progress, did not criticize when the knock manifested itself and just asked: Would you like me to show you what you did wrong? We had a blast doing the second build together.

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