Home » What You Need To Know Before Buying Your First Vintage Car: Tales From A Service Advisor

What You Need To Know Before Buying Your First Vintage Car: Tales From A Service Advisor

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I’m lucky enough to work in a shop that sees a wide variety of cars and, among them, a wide selection of years. Considering my own garage features a 1976 Lancia Scorpion sitting next to a 2018 Alfa Romeo Giulia, I don’t generally find anything surprising about the repairs being so different for different eras of cars. For example: my Giulia needs a new oil level sensor because some Italian engineer with no knowledge of Italian car history thought that checking the oil via the infotainment system was a good idea. My Lancia has this wild technology called “a dipstick” that works quite well and could teach that Alfa engineer a thing or two.

As a shop, we are happy to accept vintage cars. We have vintage tools to work on them and we have a “vintage” technician who was installed back in the ‘80s and was working on cars before they were vintage. We even have a few owners who have watched their vehicle transition from modern to vintage under many years of our care and, frankly, it’s all a bit adorable in cases like that.

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[Ed Note: Andrea Petersen is a new voice we’re featuring on the site. She’s a service advisor who brings a unique perspective on the automotive experience. – MH]

The cases that are sometimes less adorable are new owners of vintage cars. Any time you are new to something wildly different from what you’re used to, there will be a learning curve. So it is for vintage car ownership. Unfortunately, some folks seem to think “well, I’ve owned a car before and this is a car too so no big deal.”

Anothercar

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This would be like holding your smartphone in one hand and grandma’s old rotary dial telephone in the other and deciding they’re the same. Yes, you can make a phone call with both, but good luck typing out an article with your thumbs (something I’m doing right now) on a rotary phone. Yes, you can drive a vintage and modern car in largely the same way, but I don’t have to say a prayer to make my Alfa start like I do with my Lancia.

Part of the fun of a vintage car is it might shake a little, it might sound different, and I guarantee at the very least it smells different. All of these things are part of its undeniable charm. Usually less charming are the squeaks, rattles, and stains on the garage floor. We are more than happy to help with these issues, but sometimes, that’s just how old car life is. Modern cars are built with much tighter tolerances in the manufacturing process. They have fancy modern gaskets made with fancy modern polymers invented by smart people in lab coats. Old cars sometimes have seals that were once growing on a cork tree. Those gaskets get replaced with new gaskets that were also once part of a cork tree.

Morgan Engine

Sometimes when you go to fix one thing on a vintage car, the process of loosening and retightening other parts as part of the repair will cause entirely different parts to spring a leak. It becomes a game of problem-solving Whack-A-Mole, and while we can foresee the possibility of this happening, we often can’t foresee exactly which problems we’ll have to chase. The test drive after a successful oil leak repair can end in a parking lot a mile away after pulling over with a sudden coolant leak. Then the wait for parts and time on the schedule to do the cooling system repair can mean the car sits for two weeks and, when the technician tries to pull the car in for repair, the battery is dead. A quick battery test reveals the summer heat or winter cold has wiped out that six-year-old battery, adding a new item to the list.

At the end of the day, yes it may be leaking, but sometimes it’s best just to leave that can of worms closed. It’s sometimes odd to tell customers “your car is leaking, just let it.” At these moments, I try to remind myself of visits I’ve paid to places like The Petersen Museum (no relation, but it makes for a great photo op!) and all the aluminum cookie sheets I noticed carefully tucked under the otherwise pristine cars on display.

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Petersen

Some folks choose to open the worm can, and all I can really tell them is the car may have a long stay with us; be prepared for a hefty bill. This is when a car crosses the line from a couple fixes to a borderline mechanical restoration. If we’re really lucky this will start with an inspection, and we’ll get an overall idea of what all we might be up against, but this often isn’t the reality. “Just make it stop leaking” doesn’t account for the myriad of other things that have been holding together, settling, squashed and stretched for the last few decades.

There’s also the wild card of what all previous repairs were done over the years. The likelihood of finding anything from chicken wire to drywall screws holding a vintage car together in places is really pretty high if I’m being honest. We will also likely find plenty of spiders, possibly hornets nests and occasional dead rodents. One of our technicians pulled a massive dead black widow out of one last week. We don’t consider pests in your car to be an indictment of the cleanliness of your garage, they’re just a reality of dealing with cars in general.

Spiderinfest

Courtesy of one of our service techs: Spiders love to make nests in cars that sit parked for long periods of time. Just ask David.

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I’ve been on the other side of the counter for vintage car repairs a time or two myself. While I enjoy turning a wrench, I acknowledge that I have time limitations as well as skill level limits, and there just so happens to be a shop across the alley that accepts just about anything weird. Want to electric swap an old farm truck? No problem. Want to make your MG absurdly fast? They got this. So, when I had to admit I just didn’t have the weekend time to replace the massively leaking water pump on my Scorpion, I was welcomed with open arms. I loaded up the car with a stack of manuals, a new drive belt, and the water pump I had finally managed to source, and limped in knowing that I would be agonized every day by the knowledge that my little silver wedge of joy would be so close but so far away for a while. I tried to give them what I would dream of getting from my own customers; a bunch of patience and quick responses to any questions or needs.

All that being said, every shop operates differently. While the shop next door may have no problem with a weirdo goth girl showing up with a stack of poorly photocopied books missing pages that are partially in Italian and a part sourced from a site they’ve never heard of run by some guy on another continent, this probably wouldn’t fly with me. We prefer to source parts from our own trusted suppliers and I’m quite sure all of our technicians would probably stare at a German page in a manual like it was the Voynich Manuscript. Rule of thumb; if you have to start learning a foreign language to deal with your car, you probably need more than just a normal independent shop.

Trying to get someone with their first vintage car to understand how all of this works, especially if they’re not really a full-on car enthusiast in general, can be challenging. Yes, some cars make a decent investment, but most do not. If you buy a vintage car with the hope of fixing it up to sell, you will need to buy it for very, very cheap. Ideally it was free. Bonus points if you can do most of the work yourself and just use a shop for the tricky, annoying jobs or things you don’t have time for. If the difference between what you got it for and what a fair to good condition car is worth is less than five or six grand, you probably will not come out on top, despite what all your internet auction get-rich-quick fantasies make you believe. I would highly recommend reframing the investment idea as investing in your own enjoyment rather than anything purely financial. If you enjoy research, making friends in far flung places, and maybe learning how to say “my car is broken” in another language, as well as driving and possibly showing the car, then you are truly ready for vintage car ownership.

Mg Motor

The best advice I can give is: If you’re looking at a vintage car as an investment or a short term fashion item, get a more common vintage car in already good condition and drive it until you either get bored and move on to your next questionable idea or you fall in love and want to go to the next level. If you want to pour your heart and soul into it, do a whole bunch of studying, and learn the ins and outs of the car you want. Get a basic mechanical understanding of the car via a Haynes manual at least. Once you have the basic knowledge, buy the car.

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Above all, have patience. We may have to source parts from some small time guy in Wales or Florida, instead of the usual overnight wholesalers. We may have to order a wide selection of belts and try a bunch till one fits because they threw just about anything on at the factory and didn’t take notes. We may have to fix much more than anyone expected. We may have to douse it in several cans of insecticide. In the end, you will have your cool vintage car, but nobody ever said the process is easy.

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Photos: Author, CCA, Newspress

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Geoff Campbell
Geoff Campbell
1 year ago

Fabulously correct..wish I had heard this when I was 17! I rebuilt several cars and bits here and there…never learning, for a long time passing, the common knowledge of how aging is one of the demons ????

Clubwagon Chateau
Clubwagon Chateau
1 year ago

“We even have a few owners who have watched their vehicle transition from modern to vintage under many years of our care and, frankly, it’s all a bit adorable in cases like that.”

I feel seen! Thanks!

Gmaxim317
Gmaxim317
1 year ago

Old cars are much easier to diagnose and work on this guy is full of shit.

Juan Butera
Juan Butera
1 year ago

Advice for 20-somethings reading this: “do not sell it if it interests you”. I bought new and drove 90,000 miles and sold a 1964 Pontiac GTO (Tri-Power, 4 speed). I bought new and drove 140,000 miles and sold a 1969 Jaguar 4.2 XK-E fixed-head coupe. Selling the Porsche 924 is less lamentable. I should have kept the 1975 Chevy Suburban, 3/4 ton, 4WD 4-speed, granny low gear stick just for its bullet proof solid-axle chassis and 4WD driveline. Maybe one of the two 1980s Jeep Grand Wagoneers for the same reason: 4WD solid axle chassis. I probably should have kept the 1980s M-B 300SD just for the charming 5 cylinder turbo diesel engine – a biggish comfortable sedan that got over 30 mpg on the highway. But, then I’d have a museum and would hardly ever drive any of them.

JDE
JDE
1 year ago

letting them sit is definitely the hardest thing for them. Bad gas does bad things to Carbs, Pumps and even fouls plugs. the oil takes a little bit to get where it needs to be and the coolant system can get scaling.

we all think we want old cars and motorcycles, because they are cool to see on the road, but they have quite few less creature comforts and the occasional break down can give you a negative feeling about reliability.

I have a Scout II and a 68 Camaro. the scout I have only now brought back mostly from the abyss of sitting around too long. the 68 I have sadly been guilty of not driving enough and it is telling me this. the alternator or the regulator caused the lights to brighten with the throttle and the car started lightly misfiring at stops due to lack of electricity to the coil. All easy enough to fix though, jut not cheap if you don’t have tools and knowledge.

Curtis Loew
Curtis Loew
1 year ago

It’s not that bad really. I daily drive a 67 Chevy II. It doesn’t leak anything on the garage floor. Not all old cars leak. When they were new owners didn’t tolerate a puddle of oil on the ground from their new car. They leak if they sit for years and things dry out. Mine doesn’t require more service or maintence cost than a new Corrolla really. Choose a common old car, parts for mine are cheap and available everywhere both locally and online overnight if needed. With the recent surge in values it’s probaby worth twice what I paid for it.

JDE
JDE
1 year ago
Reply to  Curtis Loew

and if you really wanted 300-400 HP reliably provided while getting 20 plus MPG with AC blowing cold you could very easily swap a 6.0 LS and 4l80E trans from a 2WD workhorse GM truck.

Opa Carriker
Opa Carriker
1 year ago

When I bought Virgil, my 1932 Chevrolet Confederate, I was just scratching an itch that I wasn’t even aware I even had until it really began to gnaw. When we first got together I was 73 and he was 89. I am now 76 and he is also a bit older. I had built a few cars in my life and had bought a lot of new cars but had never had a really old car. Virgil was a first. He’s gorgeous! Beautifully restored in a forest green over black with dual side mounts, dual trumpet horns, dual genuine GMC fog lights, a marvelous wood and leather trunk and an original mohair interior.
Over the last few years, I have learned a lot about leaks, required maintenance, and the never ending search for just one more part. It has been a bittersweet journey filled with triumphs and angry moments.
I wouldn’t change it for the world. I hope Virgil’s next owner cares as much for him as I do.

Austin Vail
Austin Vail
1 year ago

My first vintage car was/is also my first car in general, a ’66 Thunderbird I bought in 2017 while I still had my learner’s permit. I had low expectations for reliability, and fortunately it exceeded them, getting me from A to B every day for a year almost without fail, only leaving me stranded twice due to problems which were easy to fix. I learned mechanics on this car, rebuilding the engine during my senior year of high school after I admitted to myself it was running like crap. I still learn new things working on this car, and I treat it as an investment in the sense that I intend to keep it until death or destruction do us part, so I want to take the best care of it I can.

Fortunately it’s not leaking at the moment, though it took a lot of work to get to that point lol. Classics can be reliable if you drive them regularly and understand their quirks well enough to diagnose why it’s being fussy. By the time you know how to survive daily driving one, you will have built a bond with it that no modern car can match 🙂

Articles like this might dissuade some people from buying a classic, but I’d encourage anyone with the resources to give it a chance. It’s hard to describe what makes vintage cars so enjoyable, but if you know, you know. They have a way of making you fall in love with them despite the occasional inconvenience, and they’re full to the brim with character. No two classics are exactly alike, and their individual quirks are half the fun.

DEcarTrouble
DEcarTrouble
1 year ago

Hit the nail on the head.

I bought a 1947 CJ2A that seemed like it would be a good investment. Then I realized they generally won’t go over 50 mph, parts are unobtainium or expensive, and not just anyone one can fix a cast iron block. Ended up giving it to someone who could treat it better than I ever could and bought a 2001 BMW Z3. It is rusty (thank you North East winters), leaks oil (not a single piece of hose or gasket replaced ever), and the transmission is dodgy but works. I am in love with the German Miata.

Happy Walters
Happy Walters
1 year ago

Hey! You’re NeonDancer, aren’t you?

Andrea Petersen
Andrea Petersen
1 year ago
Reply to  Happy Walters

Guilty as charged ????

Happy Walters
Happy Walters
1 year ago

I knew I’d seen the Scorpion pics before, and the voice seemed familiar. I quit the Bird app a while back (even before it got weirder.) Keep it coming here!

Happy Walters
Happy Walters
1 year ago

You got it right: in my cars I can smell things a dog would not notice, and can hear things that a bat would not register. It’s part of the joy. Maybe.

Happy Walters
Happy Walters
1 year ago

You own a Lancia Scorpion? You wonderful, wonderful fool!

Dug Deep
Dug Deep
1 year ago

You’ve nearly convinced me to get a brand new Corolla with an extended warranty.

Andrea Petersen
Andrea Petersen
1 year ago
Reply to  Dug Deep

We have a GR Corolla in the garage as well, it’s a delight and I would certainly encourage any sensible enthusiast to procure one

Manwich Sandwich
Manwich Sandwich
1 year ago

Great writeup. Keep more of this type of thing coming!

Ossipon
Ossipon
1 year ago

“It is not the leak, it is the amount that is leaking which is the danger.” Words my Dad said in the 70s. Vintage cars have a different issue as well for leaks. Gaskets get old faster when the vehicle just sit. And most Vintage cars just sit except for the Sunday drive or once a month.

Idiotking
Idiotking
1 year ago
Reply to  Ossipon

This. My Scout leaves a little piddle wherever it goes, but that’s basically just an International marking its territory. If the puddle is ever larger than quarter-sized, I’m taking a closer look. But that’s also why it gets started and run for 10 minutes religiously during the winter months, when the salt hits the road and it dozes in the garage until springtime: hoses and gaskets need to be lubricated.

R53 Lifer
R53 Lifer
1 year ago

Wait, modern cars aren’t supposed to leak?

Crimedog
Crimedog
1 year ago
Reply to  R53 Lifer

— Says everyone with a Pentastar V6.

Andrea Petersen
Andrea Petersen
1 year ago
Reply to  R53 Lifer

If modern cars didn’t leak, about 60% of our business would go away and I would need to get a different job. As long as they keep leaking, I can have a job to keep writing about.

MikeInTheWoods
MikeInTheWoods
1 year ago

I’ve made one vintage mistake, and one correct choice. I learned it’s better to start with something that runs and drives to enjoy while you tinker with the other issues. That way you can have the satisfaction of driving a vintage car instead of just staring at it in a garage.
I actually found a barn stored, rust free 1969 Scout 800. Bought it cheap but it had no engine and I was way over my head. Sold it for a hair over what I paid and was sad I could not achieve my dream.
The itch was still there, and I was eyeing a 1956 Lincoln when one day while stuck in traffic I saw it had moved from it’s position on the lawn to the neighbor’s driveway. It was alive. I bought it and took my kids and their friends out for ice cream for several summers. It was glorious to ride in. The absolute pinnacle of luxury. No wind chop or buffeting with all the windows down. No modern car can do that. Plus it easily fit 8 humans and a small dog. Power bench seats. Everything still worked. I would have kept it but it was huge at nearly 20′ long and I was wise enough to realize with my limited budget that if I took it apart it would never get back together again.

The F--kshambolic Cretinoid Harvey Park
The F--kshambolic Cretinoid Harvey Park
1 year ago

> my own garage features a 1976 Lancia Scorpion sitting next to a 2018 Alfa Romeo Giulia

So you like to take your work home with you, eh?

Andrea Petersen
Andrea Petersen
1 year ago

We’re German only except for on Fiat that begged it’s way in. Just from the initial conversation I knew what was wrong with it, what it needed and could easily direct the technician, so it was no big deal. Got us a good Google review ????

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