I’ve been inspecting classic cars long enough that I’m rarely surprised by many of the things I find on the vehicles I look at for my clients. Every car I look at is different, of course, and they all have their defects and quirks, but after a while, the inspection process develops a rhythm of sorts. That’s not to say that I find what I do to be mundane- in fact I love what I do. It’s my job to pull out the details, and help my clients to understand exactly what they are considering before their investment arrives on a transporter. When you look at hundreds of classic cars a year, you come to expect that none of them are perfect, and will likely require some degree of repair and maintenance.
That said, there have been vehicles that have given me fairly significant pause during their inspections. It’s fairly uncommon that I examine a vehicle that is truly unsafe to drive. I may find cars full of Bondo, or cars with no functioning lights, or an engine mixing oil and coolant, but it’s quite rare for me to walk away from a car and think to myself, “Wow… 5 more miles in this sled and I might not be here to talk about it.” While rare, there have been certain unforgettable cars in my portfolio of inspections that have had the potential to quickly injure me or someone else. It’s after driving these cars and discovering their dangerous flaws that I’m grateful that all my insurance policies are paid up!
So far this year, there have been three.
The first was a beautiful pre-war Ford Cabriolet. The car was a cantankerous inspection from the start; its 6 volt battery was stone dead on arrival. It had not been started in months, and it was not happy to be awakened by me. After much trial and effort, its old flat-head 8 was finally coaxed to life, displaying no oil pressure on the gauge. The dealer said they thought it was working in the past, but weren’t sure. Although idling smoothly and quietly, the last thing I wanted was for my client to have an unexpected issue with the engine. So, after a quick removal of the oil pressure line, my mechanical oil pressure gauge informed me that all was well. Moving on.
Ordinarily, I save test drives for the very end of the inspection. I like to get to know a car before I head out on the road; it seems to save me lots of potential surprises. Some days though, you know the rain is coming, and in order to ensure you get the drive in before the down pour, you have to break up the routine. Such was the case with this Ford. Once underway, the Columbia overdrive needed a few warm-up miles to get with the program, but it was soon working. The car drove fairly well, but I did notice a bit more play than I expected in the steering. Even for a pre-war car on bias-plys, it was certainly on the loose side. Still, the test drive took me out on some nice sweeping rural roads where I was frequently going at least 60.
Back at the shop, car in the air, I began the chassis inspection. Straight off, I noticed several very loose and even some missing fender mounting bolts on both the driver and passenger front fenders. Then I noticed the castle nuts securing the u-bolts to the transverse front axle leaf spring were missing their cotter pins. Luckily, all the bolts were tight, but I made a note for the client. The steering linkages were where I got my nasty surprise about this car, as both outer tie-rod bolts were the wrong length for the spindles, and the castle nuts were both loose and literally “hanging by a thread”. About one turn on each nut was all it took for each linkage to drop from the spindles. I was a few good left and right turns away from having no steering in this very beautiful and expensive classic. Attempts to tighten and secure the nuts properly were pointless; there weren’t enough threads available to even come close to clearing the tops of the castle nuts, and no chance of getting a cotter-pin in the hole. Wrong parts, installed anyway. Not the first or last time I’ve seen that.
The other two vehicles to nearly cause me or others bodily harm were both K5 Blazers. K5’s have been very popular for some time now, and I look at lots of them for clients. I’ve driven properly sorted K5’s with tight steering and relatively good handling, despite their lift kits and oversize wheels, and I’ve driven others that were going to need some work to dial in the handling a bit. This test drive revealed a truck that was not a happy driver. The truck was swaying back and forth all over my lane, and its steering was inexplicably un-predictable. I refused to drive it over 40, and carefully made my way back to the dealership, where I found all the bolts holding the steering box to the frame loose and nearly ready to fall out. Steering box properly locked down, the truck naturally felt much better going down the road. I observed a similar issue about a month ago on a Toyota FJ I looked at, but that time I caught it before the test drive. Steering boxes aren’t great for steering a 3500 pound truck when they’re not properly secured to the frame.
My most recent (and frankly, scariest) near-miss was with another K5. I had the vehicle out for a while and was nearly back to the dealership after a 10 mile test drive. As I started slowing down to turn into their lot, the back end suddenly felt very loose, and without warning the nose of the truck turned into the oncoming lane. I quickly countered that by turning the wheel hard right, and when I did, the back end of the truck bucked upward aggressively and then immediately slammed down hard as the driver’s side rear wheel came off. I let loose a whole string of expletives as it was happening, and a review of the test drive video footage revealed I had missed a head on collision with a passing Suburban by about 5 seconds. It was later learned that the vehicle had previously been in for repairs, and the shop had neglected to torque down the lugs.
Scary stuff, but things happen. All three clients were long-distance purchasers, who had hired me to be their eyes and ears before committing to purchase. Had these three clients bought these cars without a pre-purchase inspection, the ending of the story may have been much worse for them. These inspections show exactly why it’s so important to actually get a car up in the air for inspection, something not all inspectors or inspection companies’ offer. That Ford had at least a couple dozen nuts, bolts and fittings on its chassis that needed to be tightened, and in a few cases, replaced with correctly sized fasteners. With my equipment, I am able to get every car fully off the ground, unload the suspension, and truly inspect all those components for wear and damage which may cause my clients serious trouble down the road.
Of course, not all defects are immediately serious, but will require attention and are very real safety issues all the same. I have looked at 2 SL Mercedes, 1 C2 Corvette and a P1800 Volvo this year that all had serious and terminal rot in all the wrong places. In the case of both SL’s, large holes in the front sub-frame rails (among other places) were covered by original undercoating; and the metal had rusted from the inside out. SL’s have known and common areas where they rot, and both these cars had it in all the expected places. The Corvette was easy; notable rot was found at the rear of the outer frame rails, doglegs and frame corner gussets. All the most common places for Vette frames to rot. The P1800 had a 7” long rust hole on a front sub-frame rail that was a combination of thin metal and a layer of filler (I’m not kidding about this) painted black to mask the damage, with a few other rotten floor pan supports covered with filler as well. My screwdriver went through the thin patch on the frame rail like a thin sheet of ice over a puddle. All of these cars except the Corvette were inspected for overseas clients, and all would have been looking at very costly repairs had they purchased these cars sight un-seen, and “as-is”. These things are always purchased “as-is”.
If you’re considering purchasing a classic car sight unseen, never buy without a pre-purchase inspection. While I have saved a number of clients from purchasing a classic car that does not meet their expectations, I have also helped many other clients connect with cars that exceed their expectations. I’ve also worked with clients who occasionally become fatigued while searching for the classic that’s right for them. My advice to them is to stay the course. There are many excellent classic cars available for purchase from honest sellers, but sometimes it takes a little time to find the right one. It is, of course, reasonable to expect a few issues and imperfections when considering a decades old classic, but a competent and through pre-purchase inspection is a necessary step in the process to ensure you buy something safe, with no unpleasant, and occasionally dangerous surprises waiting for you when the vehicle reaches your door.
John Hansen is an automotive writer and owner of Michigan Automotive Inspection Services, which provides professional pre-purchase inspection, consultation, and appraisal services for classic automobiles located in Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio.