I had to chuckle last week when I arrived to perform an inspection of a Mercedes SL500 for a client of mine. The car was at a classic car dealer I work with on occasion, and as I was walking over to the car, I ran into one of the salesmen. We discussed the car briefly, and as the conversation was wrapping up, he told me, jokingly, that he hoped I would be able to figure out how to open the trunk. I laughed and walked around to the back of the car and pushed the locking button next to the passenger taillight and the trunk opened on command. I looked over the raised trunk lid at the salesman quizzically, eyebrows raised.
He explained that another inspector had been in recently to inspect the car for someone else, and the inspector had to come find him to ask how to open the trunk. Seems he couldn’t locate the button. I asked the salesman if maybe the car was locked, and the button locked out too, but he said no, he did just what I did, and the trunk opened right up. I grabbed the keys out of the ignition and thumbed the trunk release button on the keyfob. Once again, the trunk popped open at once. Out of curiosity, I asked the salesman how much time the inspector spent looking at the car. His reply: “oh, less than an hour, he never took off the hardtop, and didn’t get it out for a test drive.”
This is not the person you want inspecting an older Mercedes for you.
While not necessarily complicated by today’s standards, when these cars were new, they were technological titans, with all kinds of high tech safety and comfort features engineered in. Take just the central locking, for example. In an ordinary car, you hit the door lock button, and your doors lock. Simple. In an SL, central locking locks the doors, but also locks the dash mounted center storage compartment, armrest compartment and the storage bin behind the passenger seat. On the pre-’96 cars, the inner door panels on both sides have automatic locking compartments, too, which were lost when side airbags were introduced. It’s a convertible, after all, and Mercedes wanted to make sure your Persol’s were safely stored when you're not around. These locks are vacuum operated, of course, and that’s just the beginning for these cars. Their retractable convertible tops are fabulous until they don’t work properly, and messy when their hydraulic cylinders start leaking, as any SL owner with oil oozing around their sun visors can tell you. It takes a lot more than an hour to go through one of these cars properly. I spent about 4 hours inspecting this car, not including the 10-mile test drive.
I’ve heard a few stories like this recently. Some worse. One dealer recently told me of an inspector who wrecked two of his potential sales. The dealership, trying not to hover over the inspector, left him unattended to inspect classic cars in their inventory on two separate occasions. Both times, the inspector was unable to get the car to start, and rather than tell anyone at the dealership about it, the inspector just left, noting in his reports that the cars would not start. Now to be sure, I’ve dealt with many classic cars that are reluctant to start. It happens all the time; many of these cars sit in showrooms for months, waiting for an interested buyer. Dead batteries, empty float bowls, loose wiring, there is always something, but the idea of leaving an inspection without further investigation, and without telling anyone a car wouldn’t start? Incomprehensible.
I heard about two inspections last year where the inspector was unable to complete a test drive- because the inspector couldn’t drive a manual transmission. It seems to me that one basic requirement of a vehicle inspector would be the ability to drive the inspected vehicle.
For all of these reasons, it’s not surprising to me that certain inspectors and inspection firms are sometimes banned from car dealerships. I hear about them from time to time. Inspections like these are a waste of time and money.
I don’t mean to diminish the work of all inspectors in this industry. There are many capable classic vehicle inspectors out there, who have a great foundational knowledge, and the attention to detail it takes to do this job well. It’s important to connect with the right inspector, one you are comfortable with, who can answer your questions and address your concerns.
Another type of “inspection” I hear about from time to time is the “brother-in-law” inspection. It usually runs along the lines of “my brother-in-law (father-in-law, step-dad, whoever) lives nearby and I’m going to send him to look at it”. This is not always a great idea, for a variety of reasons. I’m reminded of a client looking at a ’65 Mustang last year. He had already sent a relative to see the car, who gave it a look and said he thought it looked pretty good. My client was thinking of just proceeding with the purchase, without a pre-purchase inspection, but being out of state, he decided to proceed with the inspection, just to be cautious. The car had been mis-advertised, listed as an “original” 289 A-code car, that was actually born with a T-code six. This car was loaded with body filler, particularly the rockers and rear quarter panels, hidden by a shiny new re-spray. The underbody was a rusty mess in all the usual places, with areas of soft, crunchy metal cleverly hidden under a thick layer of undercoating. There were a few other minor issues with the car as well. My client was prepared to pay way too much for a car he would have hated once it was delivered. You can’t be mad at the relative, chances are he’d never carefully examined a first-gen Mustang before; I inspected over a dozen of them last year alone for clients. Another issue; pretty much every classic car dealer I know would be reluctant to turn a stranger loose for a test drive in one of their units, especially if that stranger is only the buyer's designated tire kicker. As a professional classic car inspector, I have developed relationships with many of the classic car sellers in my region, who after several years have come to know and trust me. Several of them know me so well they don't bother to ride along anymore. Your brother is unlikely to be extended the same privileges, if he gets a test drive at all.
If you’re considering spending five or six figures to acquire a classic car from halfway around the country, a modest investment in a thorough, professional pre-purchase inspection is simply a must. Shop carefully.
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 throughout the United States. You can learn more at michiganais.com