Most cars are appliances. A tool for the job. They get us from point A to point B with no emotion necessary. But convertibles are special. They’ve always been. Convertibles don’t just get us there—they get us there with a big toothy grin and joy.
Driving a classic drop-top on a warm summer evening isn’t about the destination, it’s about the drive and the wind and the sun and smell of freshly cut grass and blooming honeysuckle. It’s about the beauty of your surroundings and the experience of movement. It’s the ultimate freedom. And stopping for an ice cream doesn’t hurt either.
But buying that first classic convertible—the one you’ve always dreamed of—can be daunting. Where do you get started, and how do you make sure you don’t end up with a clunker? How do you find a fun, reliable, easy-to-maintain, and drop-dead gorgeous classic convertible that you can afford?
Those are good questions, and you’ve come to the right place for the answers. In this beginner’s guide to buying a classic convertible, we’ll offer important tips to help you purchase your dream car, so you can start enjoying it with your family and friends.
Run away from rust
Rust can be a problem for old convertibles, even more so than on closed classics. This is because water from rain, snow, and decades of car washes can more easily seep into convertibles and corrode their metal structures and body panels from the inside.
But there’s rust and then there’s RUST. A few small bubbles under the paint at the bottom of a door or on the lower corner of a wheel well can be unsightly but aren’t a very big deal. However, a rusty frame, floor, or trunk pan can undermine the integrity of the car and make it unsafe to drive, and can also cost thousands of dollars to repair.
To check for rust, always inspect a car on a lift before buying it so you can see its undercarriage clearly. Bring a flashlight and look in all the tight, dark corners. Feel around. Also, if possible, pull back the carpet and trunk mat to inspect the floor and trunk pans from above.
Get a professional inspection
It’s always best to inspect the car yourself in person. Even better, bring along a friend who knows something about classics. It’s always good to get a second opinion. Never buy a car unseen, and always resist the temptation to buy a car over the internet. Even if the car looks great in photos, you won’t really know what you’re buying until your money is gone, and by then, it may be too late.
First-time classic car buyers shopping for vehicles far from home should budget for a few plane tickets and hotel stays. The added expense will pay off in the long run, and your own peace of mind is worth it.
If the additional cost and time of travel isn’t practical, stick to shopping cars locally or hire a qualified vehicle inspector to check out the car for you. These services are easy to find online anywhere in the country, and they’re not very expensive. The inspector will send you a complete report on the vehicle’s condition and needs.
Always take a test drive
Another reason it’s best to inspect the car yourself is so you can take a test drive. This is important, especially if you’ve never driven a classic car or other examples of the particular make or model. Spend a little time behind the wheel and make sure you like it.
Drive it with the top up and down. And don’t just drive it around the block. Get it up to speed. Run it through the gears. Drive it on the highway. How does the suspension feel? Do the brakes operate as they should? Does the engine sound right and rev freely?
Keep in mind that it’s a classic and isn’t going to drive like your new SUV. Some play in the steering is to be expected, but not too much. The car should track straight down the road without pulling from side to side.
Stick with more modern models
Classic convertibles range in vintage from the 1920s to the 1990s, and first-time buyers have literally thousands of models to choose from. However, we recommend sticking with models only as old as the mid-1960s, as they’re easier to drive and will have an easier time keeping up with modern traffic.
By the mid-1960s, much of America’s interstate system was complete and highway driving had become more common. Cars became better at going faster as the automakers improved their engines, suspensions, steering, and brakes to handle the higher speeds. Automatic transmissions also improved and started to become more common in the 1960s.
Of course, as the decades moved on, technology improved, so a classic from the 1970s will drive even better than one from the mid-1960s, but not as well as one from the 1980s, and so on. Also keep in mind that starting in 1975, all models were equipped with catalytic converters from the factory, so their exhaust shouldn’t be quite as stinky. However, they’re also subject to frequent emissions inspections in many states, while older models are not.
Make sure parts are affordable and available
When you’re narrowing down your search for the perfect classic convertible, it’s always a good idea to factor in the costs of parts and repair to your budget. Any old car, even one in “perfect” condition, will need some mechanical repair at some point, and some models are more expensive to fix than others.
Parts may be hard to find for some obscure European brands and usually cost more. Parts and repairs for other high-end machines like Porsches, Mercedes, and BMWs also usually demand a premium.
However, American classics like vintage Ford Mustangs and Chevy Camaros are more simple machines and usually more economical to repair and upgrade. Many businesses also offer an endless list of new reproduction parts for vintage American classics, so they’re easy to find and order online.
Fight the urge to overpay
There’s an old saying in the collector car world, “Always buy the best example you can find.” And it’s true. But it’s also important to stick to your budget. Fight the urge to overpay, even if you’ve finally found “the car” you’ve been looking for (the red one with the black top and optional air conditioning).
Even if you’ve found the car you want, if the seller isn’t willing to turn it loose for the price you can comfortably afford, then it’s not the car for you. Yes, it may be difficult to walk away, especially after a successful test drive, but it’s important to remember that there’s always another car, and it may be even better than this one. You just have to find it.