Thoughts and advice on the care and feeding of fine automobiles from Machine Aficionado and bestselling author John Elder Robison, owner of JE Robison Service in Springfield, Massachusetts

We are independent restoration, repair, sales and service for Audi, BMW, Bentley, Jaguar, Land Rover, Mercedes-Benz, Porsche and Rolls-Royce automobiles.

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Collector cars for sale: Inspect Before You Buy!

“I’d like to warn you about a crooked car dealer . . . .”

How many times have you heard that line, in the collector car world?  Here’s a message I got just this morning:

I would like to warn you about a dealer in Florida who is selling used automobiles on eBay. This fellow sold me a 1980 Rolls-Royce Silver Wraith II for $29,900, represented as in excellent condition with no issues. When I received the car, it is basically a rolling wreck, worth maybe $7-9,000. There are numerous problems with it, including brake cylinder leaks, inoperable windows and door locks, apparent body damage that was inexpertly fixed, interior damage that was not disclosed, etc.

After contacting him, he offered to trade the car for anything else he had in stock, which I obviously declined given my first experience. I requested a refund which he refused and now he will not answer my calls or emails. I have reported him to the FBI's Internet Crime Complaint Center ( and am in the process of suing him for the return of my money based on his fraudulent misrepresentation.

How did this situation come to pass?  To put it bluntly, the buyer was naïve.  He accepted the seller’s representations without employing an expert to check them out.  He didn’t ask the seller for references, so he knew nothing about him, either.

By his failure to do any sort of due diligence, the buyer set himself up to be cheated.  It’s just his bad luck the seller was a person ready to exploit that weakness.  Don’t put yourself in that guy's position! 

Before you buy a collector car, I urge you to do three things:
-       Employ an independent qualified expert to check out the car;
-       Make sure you are familiar with the “usual condition” of cars like you are buying, so you can put the car you are considering in proper context.
-       Investigate the reputation of the seller.

If that had been done the story above would never have unfolded.  The inspector would have disqualified the car based on its condition, and the investigation of the seller would have revealed a history of similar complaints.  The deal would have never happened.

Do not assume "your lawyer will handle it," or "you will just get your money back."  In many states, as-is means as is, and your lawyer will not get anywhere.  When you make a decision to buy something, it's final.  Credit card companies often steer clear of motor vehicle arguments also.  Help from them is chancy at best.  When you buy a car with no warranty from a dealer 1,000 miles away you should assume you got what you paid for - a car with no warranty from a dealer 1,000 miles away.  Even if the seller is required to offer warranty, that won't generally cover the cost of shipping, and his obligations under any required warranty are usually very limited.  The lesson:  Do not rely on any implied used car warranty.  

So how do you find an expert?  That’s not always easy.  Ideally, you need an inspector who has some kind of qualification for the car you want to buy.  You might look at the people who are tech consultants for the car club of whatever you want to buy (like the Rolls-Royce Owner’s Club, or the Porsche Club of America.)  You might even call club headquarters and ask them for a reference.

If the car is a later model you might call the dealer, though they are not usually much help for cars more than 20 years old.  I would only use the so-called “vehicle inspection services” as a last resort.  Inspection services are accustomed to looking for common safety problems on ordinary cars.  They will not know the vagaries of antiques and collectibles.

Finally, whenever possible, have the car inspected in a shop, where you are in a neutral environment with proper tools to lift and examine the vehicle.  It’s very hard to fully evaluate a car in the owner’s suburban driveway.

When we inspect cars I encourage the seller to be present for some or all of our inspection.  That way whatever problems we find can be brought to his attention and explained while the car is still in the shop.  Doing so heads off arguments about the accuracy of inspection, where the buyer says “the car needs brake work” and the seller says, “I just did brakes!”  By showing the seller exactly what we are reporting there is no confusion.

Mechanical condition is very important to me because so many “restorations” are cosmetic only, leaving a beautiful car that is barely safe to drive.  We check driveline condition, steering, brakes, suspension, and operation of all accessories.  We make sure the car is free of objectionable rattles, wind noises, or vibrations. 

We check the mechanical condition of the car, and we also look the body over carefully.  We do out best to identify rust, corrosion, and accident repairs.  We distinguish good original parts from what is restored or still damaged.  We also point out substandard repairs and modifications wherever possible.

When we look at the paint, trim, and interior, we put it in context with other similarly priced cars.  For example, when we look at Silver Shadows, we have one expectation for a $5,000 example and another totally different expectation for a $25,000 example.  We are asked to examine cars at both ends of that curve regularly and it’s important to put the inspection report in proper perspective with the buyers expectations and the stated price.

In some cases we get the sense that the buyer’s expectation is not realistic in some way.  The most often areas of misalignment are in the areas of value for dollars, and anticipated performance and reliability.  Most antique cars will not have either the finish quality or the performance and reliability of a modern Mercedes S550.

Other times we are asked to get serial numbers from components, evaluate their originality (were the numbers original, or re-stamped into blank new components?) and check the numbers themselves against manufacturer databases.  We may be asked to check service histories or local records as well.

Pre purchase inspection of a collector car is very different from pre purchase inspection of a three year old Toyota.  The more unusual the car, the more specialized the inspector you will need.

Remember that there are plenty of honest and good dealers out there, but there are a lot of crooks too.  As the old adage says, “Trust but Verify!”

John Robison

1 comment:

manoj singh said...

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