Thoughts and advice on the care and feeding of fine automobiles from Machine Aficiionado 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.

Bentley archives

Land Rovers

Just yesterday one of our clients called about a 2012 Range Rover in Atlanta.  “It’s got a clean Carfax,” he said, but we both knew that wasn’t enough to make a decision on a 75k-plus automobile.

“Ask the dealer for paint gauge readings,” I suggested.  In this essay I’m going to explain what that means, show you some readings, and help you understand how they are interpreted.

One of the questions any professional appraisers asks is, “Does this car have any paint work?”  When I worked as a used car buyer (in the 1980s and 90s) we could spot 99% of repaired paint with our eyes.  Today, computerized paint matching and improved techniques and materials have made repairs much harder to see.  But paintwork and originality is just as important now as ever.

We used to find paint repairs by careful examination.  We checked to see if all the panels were the same color, and if metallic textures matched.  We looked for masking lines round door handles and lamp fixtures, where those areas were taped over in a repair.  We looked for overspray under door edges and in hard to reach spots.

Good as that was, the Elcometer company revolutionized the industry when they offered us an electronic meter that measured the thickness of the paint in a matter of seconds, by simply touching the gauge to the side of the car.

These gauges burst on the scene about 1994.  Within two years of release it seemed like every body shop manager, and every appraiser worth his salt had one. They are ubiquitous today.

This is an example of a current product:

The paint gauge is a tool any used car professional should own – especially those of us who work with high value cars.  A walk round the car with a gauge will tell us things that simple visual inspection simply won’t reveal. 

Here’s an example on a Ferrari:

This corner has 14.4 thousandths of paint - certainly a repaint, maybe a repair

6 thousandths of paint - possibly original, certainly one less coat than the corner

The right rear corner shows 14.4 thousandths of paint, while the quarter panel two feet away has just 6 thousandths.  That’s a sure sign of repair in the right rear, whether we can see it or not.

Paint on a modern production car is applied by robotics and is highly consistent all over the vehicle.  A car will leave the factory with 4 to 7 thousandths of paint, and the coating will not generally vary by plus or minus a thousandth wherever you look.  When we read the side of a new Range Rover we see 6, 6.4, 6.4, and 6 as we walk from rear corner to rear door to front door to front fender.  That consistent paint thickness is a strong indication that side of the car is original and untouched.  A reading of 9 or12 in the corner would indicate a repair of some kind.

Robotically applied paint will be highly consistent all over the car

Variation from roof to side is under .001 on this original  late model Lexus

Collector cars are often painted by hand, and you will see more variability there.  The paint is also often thicker.  A 1990s Rolls Royce might have 8-12 thousandths even when new, and it could have 4 thousandths variation right out of the factory. 

So you have to interpret the readings in context.  Modern production car = highly consistent readings.  Custom car = variable readings.  Markedly thicker paint on one panel usually indicates rework or repair. 

Paint readings below 4 thousandths indicate paint that was either applied too thin or has worn away to nothing.  That’s a less common issue but you do see it.  Here’s a shot of an antique car with worn out paint.

Three thousandths - you can almost see through the paint!  Worn finish on a 1940s Willys

So what’s the takeaway here?  If you are buying an expensive car online, and you are talking to a dealer as opposed to an owner – ask the seller to send you photos of the paint gauge on all four corners, and in the center of every major panel.   Make a map in your mind, and consider what the results tell you.

In my opinion, if someone is selling a $50k or more car, they should be ready and willing to do this.  Frankly, I'd expect it for any car.  When I used to buy cars for big dealerships I'd be asked for numbers on $10,000 rigs.  It's a reasonable and ordinary request of any used car professional.

Internet photos can make any paint look great.   The Elcometer readings reveal valuable truths that pictures don’t show.

John Elder Robison is a NY Times bestselling author and the founder of J E Robsion Service of Springfield, MA.  Robison Service is a long established Bosch car service specialist, with expertise in BMW, Jaguar, Land Rover, Mercedes, Porsche, and Rolls Royce/Bentley motorcars. Find them online or in the real world at 413-785-1665

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