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.

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Land Rovers

A beautiful dropped Bentley like this would be a fine addition to any collection

Experts agree - If you’re looking for a pre-owned high end car – of any vintage – you are well-advised to get a pre-purchase inspection.  In the real estate trade many banks won’t grant a mortgage to a home that has not been inspected and given a clean bill of health.  It’s a mystery to me why auto lenders don’t impose the same sort of rule with high-value cars. 

Interior of a Rolls-Royce Corniche S (c) J E Robison

Most home inspectors are certified or licensed and they have a set of standards they adhere to in the course of their work. Unfortunately, auto inspectors do not have licensing or standards that apply to this situation.  Most states license collision damage appraisers but that’s a totally different job.  Some states license mechanics as well but that does not say anything about their knowledge of a specific brand.  And fixing the mechanical problems isn’t the same as evaluating the whole vehicle. Dealerships may be of help, but their capabilities are often limited to current-generation cars and they tend to have a focus on quick maintenance and warranty repair, which has little to do with collector car evaluation.

The other issue with dealerships – and this is not too well known – is that looking cars over for problems kind of goes against what the manufacturer tells them.  One of the things carmakers watch closely is the stream of warranty repairs from their dealers.  Most manufacturers discourage dealers from looking for problems; they are supposed to respond to customer complaints but they are not supposed to go looking for little things to fix in warranty, unless they are safety hazards.

That makes sense from the manufacturer perspective, as they want to keep costs down.  But that and the fact that dealer technicians are mostly paid on a piecework basis means the techs have every incentive to whip through a job as fast as possible, and small issues that are unmentioned by the driver go ignored.  That’s not what you want when checking a complex old car.

Ideally you want an inspector who is a recognized expert on cars like the one you want to buy.  Inspecting a 1995 Rolls-Royce is very different from inspecting a 1995 Chevy Silverado.  A good used car appraiser can judge the originality and condition of paint on any car, but someone who is accustomed to “ordinary” cars may dramatically underestimate the costs to repair cosmetic flaws in Rolls-Royce or other high end vehicles.

Mechanical inspection is much more specialized and brand specific.  A successful inspection is predicated on knowledge of what goes wrong with particular makes and models.  This is particularly important when a manufacturer model line undergoes significant technological change.  For example, a technician who was trained on the 2003 and newer VW-based Bentley would have little to guide him when inspecting the servo brakes on a 1965 Bentley, which uses totally different systems.

My suggestion is that you look for an inspector on the forums of the marque club for the car that interests you.  For example, a prospective Rolls-Royce buyer would do well to join the club – and ask about inspectors in the area on the club forums.  An endorsement from several club members would mean more to me than an ad from the Internet.

If the car club can’t point you to an expert, your best bet will be to find a qualified and impartial service facility and engage them to evaluate the car.  Thanks to the Internet it’s easy to look at reviews and descriptions of shops all over the country, and those shops may also be checked out on car club forums.  You could, for example, search out “independent Porsche service in Des Moines, IA” or “independent Land Rover repair in Springfield, MA.”  Call the shop, talk to them, and see what they say.

Once you find a person to inspect the car, it’s important to cover what will be inspected.  Here are some thoughts.  At a minimum, he(she) should . . .
  • Evaluate paint and body condition, including paint thickness; and the originality and completeness of trim
  •  Evaluate the interior condition, particularly with respect to the need for and cost of leather and wood repairs.
  • Evaluate the structural integrity of the car, including the frame and body.  This requires familiarity with the use of wood in coach-built bodies, and the structural weak points of the car under consideration.
  • Evaluate the mechanical condition of the car with respect to things that don’t work, are worn, or possibly unsafe.  This requires familiarity with all the equipment on the subject car and how it should work.  Knowledge of what fails and why is brand and model specific and valuable.
  • If you're looking at a pre-1990s car, you should expect a compression test and possibly a leak down test.  Compression is seldom checked on newer cars because compression is monitored by the engine ECU and a compression loss in a post-1997 car will result in a check engine code.
  • Expect a physical check of suspension, brakes, hoses, and undercarriage.  This will typically require a lift, and it’s one reason we only do these inspections in our shop (as opposed to wherever the car happens to be.)
  • Check the age of the battery, its condition, and the condition of charging and starting systems.  On a collector car look for a battery tender and possibly a cutoff switch.
  • Review the service records for the car and look for exceptionalities.  Also look to see if the car was cared for properly and what services may be due now.  Compare the written record to the observable evidence of the vehicle.
  • If you are looking at something exotic and fairly new a well-connected inspector may be able to access manufacturer service records.  They may also access the as-built record and compare that to the car’s appearance now.
  • The inspector should drive the car and evaluate its function on the road.  Does it feel right?  Is it free of rattles and annoyances?  Does it perform as it should, without overheating or showing other signs of trouble?
  • Look for the manuals, tools, and other little bits that came with the car when new. The more of that you have, the better in the collector world.  The inspection report should tell you what's there and what's not, and if there are any additional materials (car cover, sales literature, etc) that should be mentioned.  On a car like the Corniche S Rolls in the photos below you would spend several thousand dollars to replace missing manuals, tools, and key fobs. So be sure the inspector pays attention to that.
  • If the car being evaluated is newer than mid-90s, you should expect a scan of electronics and a report on issues that the scan reveals.  This would include fault codes, odometer discrepancies, changed modules and anything else unusual.  Note that a manufacturer specific scan tool is needed for this level of inquiry; the inexpensive generic OBD scanners won’t give this detail.
  • Compare the car to others of its kind – is the vehicle under study better than 90%, or just average? Why?  This requires extensive knowledge of the car line and model under study.

Don't forget the little things - owners manuals and tool kits for example

Here at Robison Service we produce a written inspection report backed up with photos, and I would expect the same in any intensive inspection.  But keep in mind that time is money – a really thorough inspection backed up with a well-documented report may cost you 6-8 hours of labor. Checking everything I list above is not a quick casual thing. That said, you don't always need that extensive a check. In some cases you may be well enough served by paying for 1-2 hours of the inspectors time and a verbal report.

When we inspect complex cars like Rolls Royce I tell potential buyers that I might reject an obviously unsuitable or problem-filled car in an hour's time but a thorough evaluation of where to go next on a promising car might take be 4-5 hours more as we check hydraulics and do other time consuming tests.  

I encourage is to have the seller present when the car is inspected, and I recommend you ask the inspector to present his findings to the seller.  That way you have less chance of a seller disagreeing with what’s being reported – he can disagree right then and there and a good inspector will support his position or recognize his error.

I hope this gives you a sense of what’s involved in a comprehensive pre-purchase inspection, and how to get one done.  The biggest problem – once you get outside the big cities – is finding qualified technicians to do the work.  If you are making a major investment, don’t hesitate to pay the costs to transport the car you are considering to someone really qualified to look it over.  And if the seller refuses when you offer to pay costs there (and back if needed) . . . consider that a big red flag. 

This process is often complicated when the car is in an auction environment.  At a Kruse or R-M style live auction you can usually arrange to inspect the car at the auction facility in the days before the sale, but the inspector will have to go to the vehicle and that may limit what they can check in the absence of a workshop and lifts.  When the car is on eBay there is no telling what the inspection environment may be.  Some cars will be at dealerships while others are at homes.  Sellers may or may not be responsive to your request to bring a car to a shop for inspection in an auction environment.

Depending on the complexity of the inspection and the detail of the report, an inspection like I describe may cost anywhere from $150 to $1,000+. If the inspector has to travel to the car or the car must be brought to the inspector those costs will accrue too.  Expensive as that may sound, it's a lot smarter to spend the money in due diligence than it is to pay top dollar for a piece of eye candy that falls apart as soon as it lands in your driveway.

It’s a buyer beware world out there, folks. Know what you’re getting.

(c) 2015 John Elder Robison
John Elder Robison is the general manager of J E Robison Service Company, celebrating 30 years of independent Rolls-Royce and Bentley restoration and repair specialists in Springfield, Massachusetts.  John is a longtime technical consultant to the RROC and other car clubs, and he’s owned and restored many fine vehicles.  Find him online at or in the real world at 413-785-1665

Reading this article will make you smarter, especially when it comes to car stuff.  So it's good for you.  But don't take that too far - printing and eating it will probably make you sick.

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