Determining the Market Value of a Classic Car

Buying or selling a classic car? You'll want to determine its fair market value

Man Looking Under Hood of Classic Car
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Whether you’re buying or selling a classic car, you will want to determine its fair market value. Publications such as the Old Car Buyers Guide, Hemmings or NADA's Classic, Collectible and Special Interest Car Appraisal Guide & Directory are a good place to start. Their price guides rate a car's value using 6 categories according to their conditions that range from “pristine” to “basket case”.

How to Appraise a Car

To appraise your car and determine what category it fits into, rate each of the following items on a scale of one to five, using five as the maximum value. Then total your points for all 20 categories. Compare the points you have given the car to the 100 point maximum. Use this six category valuation to determine the car's market value:

  • Category 1 would be a 90+ point car
  • Category 2 would be an 80-89 point car
  • Category 3 would be a 70-79 point car
  • Category 4 would be a 60-69 point car
  • Category 5 is would be a 40 - 59 point car
  • Category 6 is any car under a 40 point car

To determine the fair market value of your classic car, you will need to inspect and rate the exterior, interior, mechanics, authenticity, and other aspects. Below are some checklists for doing just that.

Inspect and Rate the Exterior 

1) Body

  • Stand 2 to 3 feet in front of each headlight and taillight individually so that you can view the side panels at an angle to inspect for waves or bulges or any signs of poorly done body repair.
  • Check for paint blisters for signs of rust, especially over wheel wells, along with rocker panels and around headlights.
  • Use a magnet over various parts of the body to check for body filler, signs of previous damage and those typically known for rust.
  • Check for uniform gaps between the body and the doors, trunk, and hood.

2) Doors

  • Check to see if the doors sag when they are open, particularly the driver-side, as this will be a sign of worn hinges.
  • Look for signs of aging and cracking in the weather seals around the doors and windows.
  • Check for paint blisters that would indicate rust, especially along the bottom edges.

3) Hood and Trunk

  • Inspect the hood for any rippling, denting and underlying rust.
  • Check under the carpeting in the trunk and around the wheel housings for rust.
  • Are the hood and trunk aligned properly so they close and latch easily?

4) Top

  • Originally convertibles built prior to 1950 had canvas tops, vinyl tops appeared in the 1950s. Is the top made from the original-type material?
  • Is the material worn or discolored, is the stitching coming apart?
  • Convertibles built from 1965 into the 70s usually had glass rear windows. Is the rear window of the convertible top of the original type?
  • Check the condition of the convertible top mechanism, does it lower and raise easily and does it fit snugly in place.
  • Check for dents on vehicles with metal tops.
  • On vinyl covered metal-topped cars, inspect its condition and assure it's sealed tightly without rips or other damage.

Inspect and Rate the Paint, Glass, and Trim

5) Paint

  • Does the finish reflect a high gloss or is it dull? Is the finish smooth or does it have an orange-peel texture?
  • Can you spot any runs, cracking or drips in the paint that would indicate an unprofessional finish?
  • When possible you should ascertain if the car is painted in its original color?
  • Look for indications that the car has been repainted by checking doorjambs, inside the hood and trunk. If it has, how well does the re-paint color match the original?

6) Trim

  • Inspect all chrome-plated trim pieces. Is the chrome bright and shiny or is the base metal starting to show through?
  • Are the headlight and taillight housings or any other plated die-cast parts badly pitted?
  • Pitting on die cast parts is not easily repaired.
  • Inspect the grill for damage and broken parts.
  • Check for missing or dented stainless steel trim on body side moldings.

7) Glass

  • Check for factory markings on the glass which would indicate originality.
  • Inspect the weather seal around the glass for cracks that would allow water to leak in around the seal.
  • If it has cracks, then look for signs of water leakage on the dash or around the inside of the rear window.
  • Inspect the glass itself for chips, cracks or discoloration.

Inspect and Rate the Interior

8) Dashboard and Instrument Panel

  • Inspect the general condition of the instrument panel and dashboard. Look for wear and aging on plating, knobs, and switches.
  • Are there knobs missing?
  • Do all the knobs and switches work, for example, the lights, horn, wipers, etc.?
  • Is the lettering around the knob plate worn or have letters missing?
  • Are the gauges original, intact and working? Or do they have non-original gauges or aftermarket radios that have been installed and cut into the dashboard?
  • Is the material covering the dash shelf cracked or splitting?

9) Upholstery

  • Inspect the condition of the door panels, seat coverings, and headliner.
  • Do the interior coverings appear to be the originals? Even if they are in good condition, if they are not according to the original specifications of the car, it will affect the value.
  • If the seat coverings have been replaced, check to make sure a good foam foundation is underneath.

10) Floor Coverings

  • Are the carpets worn, soiled or torn? Do they seem to be the original color or pattern?
  • Look at the step plate along the bottom of the door coverings; are they deteriorated or missing?
  • If possible, always pull back the carpet to inspect for rust on the metal flooring underneath.

11) Interior Trim

  • Is the interior trim complete and to original specification?
  • Check for missing door handles and window cranks.
  • Are the door handles and window cranks in good working order?
  • Make sure all power accessories are working, such as windows, locks, seat mechanisms, antenna and side mirror adjusters.
  • What is the condition of the window moldings? Are they chrome plated or painted as original?

Inspect and Rate the Mechanics

12) The Odometers Recorded Mileage

  • Does the car’s recorded mileage appear to be accurate and do the owner’s service records provide confirmation?
  • Check the brake and clutch pedal pads; if they are heavily worn it would be a good sign of a high mileage vehicle. Another indicator would be a well-worn driver’s seat.
  • The signs of wear and tear on the vehicle should be indicative of the miles recorded on the odometer.

13) Engine Operation

  • Do the car start and the engine run? If not, there is no way to appraise the engine or most of the cars other mechanical components. In this case, always assume the worst and that the engine and possibly other mechanical parts will need to be rebuilt or replaced.
  • If the car starts and the engine is running, listen for expensive sounding noises.
  • Stand behind the car at the first startup and look for any smoke coming from the tailpipe. Blue smoke would indicate the engine is burning oil.
  • While the engine is running, check the oil pressure; it should be at midrange.
  • When checking the engine’s oil, is it fairly clean or is it black and thick which would indicate long intervals between oil changes and possibly poor maintenance and care.

14) Engine Compartment

  • Inspect the general condition and cleanliness of the engine compartment.
  • Are the engine and the accessories painted in authentic colors?
  • Does the wiring appear to be in original and good condition?
  • Is there frayed insulation and obviously un-original wiring patched in?

15) Breaks and Steering

  • If you drove the car out on the highway would you feel safe in doing so?
  • Do the brakes stop the car within a reasonable distance without pulling to the side or making grinding or screeching noises?
  • Is the steering tight? Does it keep the car in a straight line with minimal correction, or is there an excessive play which would mean some or all of the steering components need rebuilding.

16) Transmission

  • If a car is equipped with a standard transmission, check the condition of the clutch; does it engage smoothly and fully disengage the transmission.
  • If the car is an automatic, are the shifting points smooth or does the transmission seem to slip, especially under acceleration?
  • Check the automatic transmission fluid. The color should be bright red and not brown with a burned smell. This would indicate the transmission has internal damage and will need an overhaul.

17) Undercarriage

  • If it was a recent restoration the chassis should be clean and painted.
  • Does the engine, transmission or rear axle appear to leak oil?
  • Check for rust around the shocks and suspension.

Rating the Authenticity, Special Features, and Desirability

18) Authenticity

  • In addition to the originality of the paint, interior and engine, evaluate the cars overall authenticity.
  • Take into consideration the accessories that are included with the car such as special wheels, fancy wheel covers, and other dress-up items.
  • Do these extras match what was originally offered on the car? They may be attractive but if they're not authentic, it will subtract from the car's value.

19) Special Options

  • Examples of special options that will enhance the car's value would be a higher horsepower engine, upgraded trim or interior package, sliding sunroof or an overdrive transmission.
  • Price guides may assign a premium of 10% to 30% to these features, individually or in combination.

20) Desirability

  • Although desirability may not be a factor used by Price Guide publications, it should be a factor to you before writing the check or applying for financing.
  • What do you really like or dislike about the car?
  • Is it the car you've always wanted, the convertible you never had or is it the car your ex-wife never let you buy?
  • If the car resonates deeply in your soul, add points reflecting its appeal.

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