What's on a classic car inspection checklist?

When buying a classic car, your inspection checklist should include getting a full picture of the car's history as well as its condition and the status of its internal parts. This will help you determine if the classic is a car you want, how much you're willing to pay, and what work it might need if you decide to buy it.

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Buying a classic car: Inspection checklist

This basic classic car inspection checklist is designed to help you get a full picture of the vehicle when you're shopping:

  • Check the VIN and gather the classic car's history and maintenance records
  • Check for original, replaced, replica, or modern parts
  • Inspect the condition of the vehicle — either yourself or by taking it to a certified mechanic
  • Take the car for a test drive

How do I check a classic car VIN?

A car's vehicle identification number (VIN) is a 17-digit code uniquely identifying a given car. It can help you trace the history of a classic car you're interested in, as well as verify the vehicle's title. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) standardized the code and its placement on a car in 1981. Many older cars also have VINs or other identifying codes, but they may be harder to find.

If the VIN isn't on the driver's side dashboard and visible just at the base of the windshield or on a sticker inside the door jamb of the driver's door, here are a few other places to look:

  • Inside the wheel arch of the front driver's side tire
  • On the underside of the steering column
  • On the firewall inside the engine compartment
  • On any of the major original component parts of the car

If you still can't find the VIN, you may be able to use maintenance records to contact a mechanic who worked on the car and get the confirmation you need. You may also be able to contact the manufacturer or a car club specializing in the make or model of the car you're inspecting. Learn more about running a VIN check on a classic car.

Pro tip:

When buying a car from a private seller, verify that the titled VIN matches the classic in front of you. While rare, if the titled VIN doesn't match the vehicle's VIN then it may be stolen. Check out our guide to buying a classic car for more tips.

What other paperwork should I review for a classic car?

You should review the maintenance and repair records to better understand the classic car's history. The more complete the records are, the more confidence you'll have in the quality of the car. You'll also have a better understanding of the classic car's value and how much you should negotiate with the seller. Ask to see the car's title so you can confirm that the seller owns it. If they don't, or if there's no title at all, that could add a few hurdles (and extra costs) to your purchase process, should you still want to move forward.

Important note: The seller should also be able to tell you whether the vehicle has all original parts or if some have been replaced with OEM, replica, or modern parts. You can double-check by researching the vehicle and part number in question.

What else should be covered in a classic car inspection checklist?

You should strongly consider getting a pre-purchase inspection done by a mechanic or other certified professional, especially if you're buying from a private seller. They'll check the vehicle from top to bottom to identify any cosmetic or mechanical issues and tell you if it needs any work. Inspections generally cost a few hundred dollars, but they can save you even more than that if they uncover any serious defects.

If you're confident in your inspection skills, you could also check the vehicle for issues yourself. Progressive offers classic car insurance through Hagerty, which has a Collector Vehicle Inspection Basics Guide that breaks down a physical inspection into categories. Review these basics of a physical classic car inspection to help assess the condition of a classic you're considering:

  • Body: Look for panel gaps, bumps, or rough edges.
  • Paint: Inspect the paint for bubbles or lifting, grit in the surface, and damage.
  • Glass and trim: Study the condition of the glass, plating, rubber seals, and trim.
  • Top and interior: Check the fit of the top and its fabric, the interior's condition and upholstery, and the instruments and controls.
  • Undercarriage and suspension: Examine the condition of the wheels, tires, and exhaust, how the car sits, and any evidence of rust or damage.
  • Engine and drivetrain: Consider the cosmetics and running conditions, the components, and any modifications or non-original repairs.

Hagerty also recommends you carry three things with you whenever you're inspecting a classic car: a flashlight, a magnet, and a piece of carpet or a towel. The flashlight is for peering into all corners of a car. The magnet is for checking whether steel-bodied cars have been restored with plastic filler. And the piece of carpet or towel is for you to lie on as you inspect the car's undercarriage.

What should I look for when I test drive a classic car?

If the car is operational and street legal, take it on a test drive to see how it feels. Hagerty recommends driving at various speeds and evaluating how it accelerates, brakes, and corners. They also suggest paying attention to unusual sounds or smells, if the car tracks in a straight line while cruising and while braking, and whether the car still handles well at highway speeds. Before taking the car on the road, make sure you and the owner have the right insurance for a test drive.

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