How to buy a classic car

Older models have great character, but you have to be careful when buying, as our guide explains

Ever fancied a classic car? You’ll be amazed at what you can get hold of for a fraction of the price of a new car, and there’s something for every budget.

Only £7,000, for example, will get you a Jaguar XJS, or for less than half that, how about a mint- condition Ford Sierra from the eighties? Our comprehensive guide will take you through the buying process to show you what you should be looking for.

We chose to use the XJS as our classic car case study. It’s an iconic sports tourer that’s great value, and well cared for models can be picked up for less than the cost of a new supermini – although prices are rising.

We visited Jaguar’s Heritage Centre in Gaydon, Warks, to look over a 1975 XJS with a super-smooth 5.3-litre V12, and get expert advice from Tony Ridge of the Jaguar Enthusiasts’ Club.

Follow our tips and you’ll be well on your way to netting a great deal on a classic – and avoiding some of the potential pitfalls.

Getting started

Do your homework first. There’s no substitute for it, and it’s the surest way to get the car you want. Start building up your knowledge by reading magazines which specialise in classic cars, like our sister title, Octane.

Then you should decide what you’re planning to use your classic car for. If a grand European tour is on the agenda, reliability will be a much bigger factor than if you simply want a couple of runs on a dry summer day. Work out what kind of car, and in what condition, your budget will stretch to.

Once you’ve made up your mind, join an owners’ club and draw up a shortlist of cars to visit. To avoid wasted journeys, find out as much as you can from the vendor before visiting – why they’re selling, what the car’s history is and how long they have had it for. Most importantly, establish where it’s been kept.

Inspection time

The usual rules apply, but there are some extra steps that we would recommend for classic cars. If you’re not mechanically minded, take someone who is. Pay an experienced classic car engineer to come along with you, or an objective friend. Again, talk to the owners’ clubs to get recommendations of specialists who’ll carry out inspections. When it comes to classics, specialists will have more knowledge of a particular car than the AA or RAC.

An expert can tell the difference between noises, quirks and characteristics of the car, and faults to be concerned about. It can take time to get used to driving a car that’s more than 20 years old, and some things can catch you unawares; our XJS had no wing mirrors, for instance.

Don’t be afraid to follow your intuition; if something seems wrong, ask lots of questions, even if they sound naive. Bring along a checklist so you don’t forget anything, make notes and take plenty of photos.

The number one enemy of classics is rust. The milder steel used in days gone by had less protection against corrosion, so you need to inspect the car properly. Check for rotten body panels – on both sides – plus wheelarches, engine mounts and the floor. Our expert, Tony Ridge, said: “Front subframes need to be inspected – they have a cavity construction and can rot and crumble to nothing. And it can be hard to get hold of spares.”

Faced with a choice of a pretty XJS needing mechanical work and a perfect runner requiring a lot of time in a bodyshop, the former might be better. Tony told us: “It’s easy to source mechanicals for the XJS, and the engines are, in the main, bombproof. However, some replacement panels can be very hard to get hold of, so repair costs could mount up.

“Pay attention to places that trap leaves and dirt, such as the bottom of the radiator and behind trim, like bumpers. Rainwater can cause problems, too, so lift the carpets in the footwells and boot to look for signs of damp or rust.”

Worn or torn upholstery and sagging headlinings are not deal- breakers, but can be expensive to fix. Ask yourself if the work needs doing, or whether it’s down to the car’s age, which can add to the appeal. Trying to return any car to showroom condition is time-consuming and costly, so decide what you want to achieve.

Go through the paperwork thoroughly to find out what’s been repaired or replaced, if any history is missing and if the maintenance schedule has been followed. The only way to prove it’s been carried out is with receipts, and checking can highlight if any big jobs have been missed or are just round the corner.


There's no universally accepted age when a car becomes a classic, but as a rule of thumb, it needs to be at least 15 to 25 years old. Insurers will use their own discretion and take into account whether it’s collectable, only used for recreation and will be covering a restricted mileage.

Classic policies are normally great value as owners tend to be mature and look after their cars, so they’re considered a low risk. Insurance valuations for classics are normally agreed at the start of a policy – as there are few examples on the road and the value is sensitive to condition, they can be difficult to assess after an accident. Most insurers will agree a valuation, but they will need detailed photos of the car first, and may even want to inspect it themselves.

Cars registered before 1973 qualify for free road tax, but still have to display a disc and have a valid MoT and insurance. HM Revenue and Customs refers to these vehicles as historic.


Classic cars and damp conditions don’t mix – rust is the biggest issue, but damp electrics are prone to problems and corrosion, too. We wouldn’t recommend keeping a classic unless you can store it somewhere dry.

If you don’t have your own garage, try renting one. They cost from £25 to hundreds per month, depending on where you live. Most waterproof covers let damp in from underneath, which then can’t escape. Rigid air chambers set up on a driveway are better, while another option is a set of breathable covers. 

Looking after it

To ward off rust, keep your classic dry, above freezing temperatures, and out of direct sunlight, and use a dust cover, too. Try to keep off salted roads. If that’s not possible, make sure your classic receives a good rinse with cold water and is dried after use.

Sealing the underbody with wax oil can give good protection, but that will depend on the car’s condition before you apply. Many classics sit unused for a large part of the year and are then exposed to ultra-violet light in summer, causing paint fade.

Insect residues and bird mess attack the paint, too. Wax finishes, like Race Glaze British Classic wax, lock in shine and protect the paint, while restoring polishes, such as Autoglym Paint Renovator, revive faded paint. Rubber and plastic trim, meanwhile, needs nourishing – a gel like Black Diamond Trim Gel will keep black plastic oiled and richly coloured. Old leather upholstery needs to be cleaned and protected, and on Page 103 we feature some products from Muc-Off that are worth considering for this.

Of course, the service schedule should be followed, and it’s best to try to run the car every month to keep all parts moving and lubricated, and ensure the tyres don’t become misshapen.

Owners' clubs
The best place to get advice about buying and owning a classic is through an owners’ club. Members have been there, done that, and bought the T-shirt – so you can quickly get up to speed on what to watch out for, fixing problems and sourcing parts or accessories. There’s a club for virtually every model of car, and a quick search on the Internet will put you in touch.

Jaguar contacts
Independent Jaguar specialist XJK provides service, inspection and parts prices (01782 613434 or
Jaguar Enthusiasts’ Club (01179 698186 or

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