Buying a classic car: Inspection checklist

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

  • Check the VIN
  • Check for original, replaced, replica, and modern parts
  • Gather the classic car's history and maintenance records
  • Look for damage to the interior and exterior
  • Assess the condition of major parts

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. 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.

Why do I need to check a classic car VIN?

You should compare the VIN on the classic car's title to the VIN on the car and its parts to make sure they match. If they don't, it could indicate that there was:

  • Accident damage: This isn't necessarily a problem if it's disclosed to you. If a seller tries to hide a car's history, find out why or consider looking elsewhere for your classic car purchase.
  • A major rebuild: Getting a classic car back into shape may involve getting parts from multiple models, so the VIN on a classic's major parts may not match the car's VIN. Make sure the owner informs you of any major work that's been done.
  • Theft: It's rare, but a vehicle VIN that doesn't match the title may indicate that the car was stolen and has a counterfeit title. When buying a car from a private seller, verify that the titled VIN matches the classic in front of you and that it can be legally sold to you. Learn about theft protection devices for classic cars.

The National Motor Vehicle Title Information System (NMVTIS) has approved a handful of data providers for access to their database of car thefts. You can run a VIN check with any of these providers to research your classic car's history. 

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.

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

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, and consider getting a mechanic's perspective before making your classic car purchase:

  • 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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