Buy the Car You Loved in High School (Without Losing Your Shirt)

A few decades late, you’ve finally got the cash to buy the car you coveted in high school. You can picture yourself behind the wheel, finally looking really cool. But do you have any idea what you’re getting yourself into?

a man sitting in a car: Here’s how the experts say to make your classic dream car a reality.

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Here’s how the experts say to make your classic dream car a reality.

“I tell people, ‘Cool your heels, you’ve waited this long, find the best one you can,” says John DiPietro, editor for classic car dealer Carroll Street Auto in Manchester, New Hampshire, and former automotive editor at


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Nothing about buying your dream car will be easier than buying a new car. For example, most banks usually don’t finance expensive 20-year-old collector cars. You’ll need cash or a really low-interest personal loan. And without special classic car insurance, it’s valued as just another old beater if it gets totaled.

And keep in mind that many old cars are “creaky, they don’t have the latest safety equipment, they get lousy gas mileage, and they’re much smaller than today’s cars,” says Mark Holthoff, used-car editor at Klipnik, a website for used-car enthusiasts. That said, he’s averaged buying one car a year for two decades — usually vintage Mercedes — and loves driving older cars because he feels more connected to the machine and to the road.

But if that vision of your high school car just won’t leave you, here’s how the experts say to make your dream a reality.

Where to search for your classic car

These days, the internet allows you to cast a wide net when searching for a classic car. DiPietro’s method is just to type the year, make and model into Google, followed by “for sale.”

Holthoff recommends looking at the classified ads from owners clubs such as for Mercedes-Benz or BMW. Also, check auction sites including Bring a Trailer, eBay, Hemmings and Cars & Bids.

Auction sites “artificially drive up the cost of classic cars,” DiPietro says. “You get two rich guys bidding for a car and — boom — now a regular Joe can’t afford it.”

Still, just watching the prices and comments at auction sites can be educational. And you might find a bargain in the opening days even at the nationally known Barrett-Jackson auction.

“I look for a car that isn’t necessarily highly collectible, but for some reason someone fell in love with it, took great care of it, but now they have to sell it,” Holthoff says.

Pricing your dream car

In recent years, the cost of many classic muscle cars has shot up, so you probably won’t find many good ones at bargain prices, DiPietro says. But there are exceptions, and there are still cool, affordable cars that are under the radar such as the Mazda RX-7 or even a Mustang GT.

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That doesn’t mean they’re priced like 30-year-old used cars. In general, well-preserved and original cars from any decade sell at a premium. The question is, how big should that premium be?

Well-known pricing guides such as Kelley Blue Book are little help in setting an older car’s value since so much depends on its condition and availability. Instead, look at the finished prices of auctions and on eBay. Hemmings offers data on past asking prices as well.

Once you locate several cars that look good, “don’t buy the cheapest one, buy the best one,” Holthoff says.

“You’re not just looking for the right car, you’re looking for the right owner to sell you the car,” Holthoff says. A short phone call will speak volumes about how the owner feels about the car and how it’s been cared for. Be sure to ask for service records. If major work has been done, such as an engine rebuild, ask who did the work and call them or check them out on the web.

While you might pay more than you expected, it will save you money in the long run in repairs, reconditioning and resale value. And, plan to spend a little more money “sorting the car,” taking care of things such as buying a new battery or a set of tires, DiPietro says.

Test drive and inspection

It’s essential to test drive the car you want since the reality might not match the dream. Buying sight unseen from a distant auction is risky.

When you go to see a car, try to “bring a wingman with you,” DiPietro says. “You might look at prospects with rose-colored glasses, so it helps to have someone with you to keep you grounded.”

You’ll want to take a traditional test drive and be on the alert for odd noises, smells or blue exhaust. But what you’re really testing is whether you still want to write the check.

If the car seems OK on your test drive, take it to a mechanic who can put it on a lift and more thoroughly inspect it. Yelp is a good way to locate mechanics who specialize in different makes of cars — and could be the right person to work on your car once you buy it.

Finally, if everything looks good, and the price seems fair, consider paying the asking price. Knocking $500 off the asking price isn’t worth the risk of losing it to another eager buyer, Holthoff says.

And, what if you never find that car you wanted in high school? “Well,” DiPietro says, “they always say, ‘Don’t meet your heroes — let them be great in your mind.’”

Philip Reed writes for NerdWallet. Email: [email protected]. Twitter: @AutoReed.

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