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Getting the Buyer and Seller on the Same Page

Buying a vintage automobile isn’t even remotely like going down to the dealership and buying a new car. Even the most perfectly restored old cars are likely going to have one or two issues that are simply part of the old car ownership experience. They weren’t as polished or sophisticated as modern cars, and one has to adjust one’s expectations of what an old car can and cannot deliver in terms of performance, condition, and reliability.

Some of the biggest issues in any old car sale are often the result of very different expectations of the buyer and the seller. Most owners who have owned and operated an old car for any length of time have become accustomed to the car’s idiosyncrasies and have simply learned to give the car what it wants to operate at its best. It is not unusual for two otherwise identical cars to need slightly different starting procedures, and they will often make different demands on the driver as far as routine operation.

Buyers, of course, are not privy to this information, and what may be routine for an owner can seem like a glaring flaw to a buyer. Where an owner is often more than willing to overlook these idiosyncrasies and may not regard them as significant, they can be troubling to a prospective buyer, no matter how routine they may be. It is at this point where buyers need to adjust their expectations and keep the big picture in mind. There is no such thing as a perfect car, new or old, and acting as if a vintage automobile with a unique set of requirements is defective is unfair to the car and the owner.

Case in point: I recently visited a client’s collection, which includes some absolutely spectacular 1930s American Classics, all of which are near-flawless #1 cars. We were moving cars around his garage, and I climbed into a 1930 Cadillac V16 roadster to help out. As I am familiar with my own 1929 Cadillac, I had a pretty good idea of how to start and operate the car. And, of course, as a half-million dollar car with a recent, show-winning restoration, there was just no question that it would start and run. So I turned the key, opened the choke, hit the starter, and let it crank. It caught, sputtered, and died, so I adjusted the throttle, pulled out the choke a little more, and tried again. Some more grinding on the starter and finally it started, smoothed out, and I drove it about five feet before it stalled. A little more choke, and as I was cranking it, fuel started running out of the carburetor. The collection’s head mechanic came over, pushed the choke in, hit the starter, and once it fired, he kept his hand on the choke for about 15 seconds, constantly adjusting it until he was satisfied it was running properly. After that, the car operated flawlessly. Embarrassing for me to be certain, but what if I was a prospective buyer? Is the car defective or am I?

Even the most perfectly restored old cars are likely going to have one or two issues that are simply part of the old car ownership experience.

Despite knowing how to start and operate my own similar vehicle, it is nonetheless MY fault the car did not start, and should not be considered a flaw. However, many buyers would undoubtedly use this as a lever to try to move the price in their favor, which is patently unfair. My point is that as a buyer, it is critical that you understand the difference between a flaw and simple operational requirements. It’s simply not reasonable to expect new car levels of performance and reliability, even from the best restored vintage automobile.

Now, this certainly doesn’t mean that buyers should not be critical of cars, and this is why it is important to know the subtle difference between a genuine issue and a simple misunderstanding. Many sellers truly do believe that their cars are perfect, and often refuse to acknowledge genuine flaws. In some cases, they’ve learned to work around these flaws to the point where they almost forget them. I’m reminded of a client whose 4-speed Dodge Challenger violently popped out of second gear, but otherwise drove perfectly. His answer was to simply skip second gear when he drove the car—the big block under the hood didn’t seem to mind, and it avoided the problem altogether. To him, it was a quirk, not a flaw, and he’d learned to ignore it, while simultaneously convincing himself that anyone else should be perfectly happy to do the same. When we tried to explain to him that this was a flaw that needed to be corrected, we were accused of trying to get him to underwrite an expensive rebuild for a prospective buyer’s benefit, all so we could pocket some quick cash.

There are two problems with this: First, it is reasonable for a buyer to assume that a car that is presented as restored and road-worthy will be functional with no glaring issues that affect drivability and safety. And second, that second gear problem would probably make the car completely impossible to sell in a market full of similar cars without such issues. It would absolutely require a discount greater than the cost of the repairs to even get a potential buyer in the door, let alone willing to write a check.

Again, there’s a disconnect between the two parties who fail to understand each other’s needs and requirements. In short, owners often take pride in their ability to master a car’s unique operational requirements, yet buyers expect new car levels of perfection. Is it any wonder why negotiations can be strained on even the best cars?

It is my job to explain the differences to both sides. On the one hand, I often have to convince the owner that his beloved car is less than perfect and may need even more money spent just so he can sell it. On the other, I have to explain to the buyer that he is not buying a new Mercedes, and that there’s no such thing as a perfect vintage car at any price. It requires diplomacy as much as a comprehensive knowledge of cars, and it can be frustrating to all parties involved.

Ultimately, it falls to me to accurately represent a car, but it is just as critical that owners take a critical and realistic view of their car’s condition and its value, and that buyers understand that the asking price doesn’t necessarily represent a perfect car. Going into a transaction with all parties on the same page can go a long way to making the process a pleasant experience for everyone involved, and having fun is what this hobby is all about.

Vintage Motor Cars


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