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A Tale of Three Inspections

About a week ago I was looking at an “OJ era” Bronco for a client out east at a classic car dealership I occasionally travel to. The Bronco was pretty nice, a super solid California truck with no major surprises, just a few repair and maintenance issues that would need a little work. While I was there, I noticed a couple other inspections taking place during my visit.

The first guy showed up to look at an MGA, a longtime favorite of mine. The “inspector” was with the car about 40 minutes. He spent about 15 minutes of the inspection struggling with the convertible top, which can be a little tricky on an ‘A’ if you’ve never raised or lowered one before. It’s a fairly clever design; the entire top folds and stows, completely disappearing behind the seats, which makes for a much cleaner look with the top down. After about 15 minutes he gave up and asked an employee at the dealership to help. He needed help starting it, too, apparently unaware there is a starter pull button on the dash. Once someone else started it for him, he checked the lights, popped the hood and trunk and snapped a few photos, took some exterior and interior photos, and left. Never got under it. Never drove it.

With a price tag of over $30k, this was not a cheap MGA. I have no idea if that car is a decent value for the money, I have not inspected it, but I very much doubt the person who looked it over knows either. Hiring an inspector to spend 40 minutes looking at an antique British sports car with half that time spent snapping photos and messing around with the top is a risky way to buy a classic car sight unseen, and just a waste of money.

The second inspector turned up an hour or so later, looking at an old Buick. 30 minutes, in and out. A few photos, a 3-minute test drive around the building, and on his way. He too never got under the car to inspect anything, but that really seems to be the standard, as few inspectors carry any equipment to get a car off the ground, and in many cases, there is no hoist available.

Inspections like this drive me nuts, because they make people reluctant to hire qualified inspectors who possess the necessary expertise and take the time to inspect a car properly. A quick search for reviews of nearly any national inspection firm with teams of sub-contracted inspectors will turn up lots of unhappy customers who purchased mis-represented classic cars delivered with nasty, and costly, surprises. Last year I inspected over a dozen cars for clients who had ordered a PPI from another inspection firm and were disappointed with the amount of information provided in the inspection. Several clients also complained of difficulty getting the inspection scheduled and completed as well.

A competent, detailed and professional pre-purchase inspection on a classic car simply cannot be done in 30 minutes. I’ve gotten to know a few other highly competent independent classic car inspectors in different parts of the country, and the ones I network with are all generally on the same page; a quality inspection, that provides a detailed look at not just the cosmetic but the mechanical attributes of the vehicle in question can’t be done in the time it takes to watch a sitcom. With classic cars trading hands at ever increasing prices, it’s easy to make a mistake that can cost you thousands of dollars when buying sight unseen.

My inspections are vastly different. With the videos and photography I shoot as a part of my inspection process, my inspections always run anywhere from 3-5 hours, depending on the car, of course. If I am fully authenticating provenance, cleaning castings and stampings on engines, cylinder heads, transmissions, rear-ends, recording date codes and part numbers, capturing images of all the documentation associated with the car, performing engine compression or mechanical oil pressure tests, that sort of work, the inspections will run even longer than that. Some old cars are like onions- on cars with secrets to hide, the inspections start to feel a bit like peeling an onion, layer after layer, and the more you peel, the more it stinks. Here in my home state of Michigan, that stink is sold “AS-IS”, with little recourse available to the buyer after the sale if they bought the wrong car.

Money spent on a competent, qualified inspector who will take the time, and do it right is one of the wisest investments you can make in the process of acquiring a classic car. As a buyer, you have a responsibility to perform due-diligence on any classic you are considering. Shop carefully, ask your inspector lots of questions on the front end, and get a sample report to preview their work.

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

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