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Car Quest Lessons

I really tried to be as smart as possible when I decided to get into the old car hobby. I researched, joined clubs, scoured the internet, and talked to friends. In the end, I think I did okay, but next time I hope to be even better informed. Here are a few of the lessons I learned both during the search, and since I bought the car. Some of these may seem to be mutually exclusive--in the end, this is all a bit of a juggling act.

Figure out what you want to do with your new car

One of the hardest tasks, especially if you've never had an old car before. I had a pretty broad range of things I might like to do, but no real idea of what I really wanted. Essentially, I was looking for some restoration work, a nice Sunday driver, and a car for the local shows. Maybe the occasional long weekend trip. Pretty much everything short of a full on concourse-type restoration. Really what I was looking for was a good first classic car that could give me a taste of all the things you do with one, so I could figure out what I did and didn't like.

Figure out your budget, now and going forwards

All old cars cost 2 kinds of money: initial investment money and continuing money. Plan for both. I figured out an initial investment amount based on the prices of the cars I liked, and my comfort level in spending money all at once. The continuing money for me comes from my music, so I looked at my gig schedule and made an estimate on what the ongoing budget could be. Once I was comfortable that these things would jive with my car desires, I moved on to the next step.

Build your short list

With your goal and budget in mind, build the short list of cars you will consider. This list grew as I researched cars, figured out what I liked, and figured out what I could afford. I intentionally kept the list pretty broad--if I liked a car and it was in my rough price range, it made the list. My eventual short list was essentially divided into 4 groups:

  • Untested cars were on the list, but I hadn't driven them yet or made any real decision.
  • Maybe cars I had seen or driven, and was still considering. Essentially, these were cars I would get if the deal were perfect (or the car free) but I wasn't going to search them out.
  • No cars I had driven or seen, and had crossed off the list.
  • Yes cars were the ones I would buy right now if a reasonable deal came through. I wound up with 4 on my list.

I found that I was continually adjusting the list, as well as my budget and understanding of what I wanted, all throughout the process. The more I learned about various cars, the closer these things got.

Decide how much work you can/will do on the car

How rough a car can you afford? If you're looking to get in to the restoration side of the hobby, you can go quite a bit rougher. Be realistic as to your abilities and such. The general wisdom is that it is almost always cheaper to buy a finished car than to restore one. A decent paint job alone could easily cost $4000 to do right. I wanted to get into the restoration side of the old car hobby, so I figured that any expense over the initial cost of the car would probably not be recouped when I sell it. I look at it as tuition for my home auto-mechanics school. I did try hard to pick a car that would at least keep its initial value, so that investment would come back, even if with little or no interest.

Drive as many as possible

Two things to be learned in a test drive early in the research. The first is "do I really like this car." Case in point: I've been a Mustang fan ('64 - '66 models) since I was a little kid, but I've never even sat in one. I found a local car for sale, and took it for a drive. What a disappointment. Compared to the British cars, it seemed clumsy, a little cramped, and really not that exciting. That early drive made the car a No on my list. I also figured out in an early drive that I do really fit in a Bugeye!

The other thing, later in the research, is to begin to get a feel for what a type of car is like to drive. The more good examples you drive, the better you can feel out a clunker (or a great example). I had little chance to drive car types more than once, but I at least got into the examples and got some notion.

If you find a good deal, take it

I lost one potentially good deal on a 66 Spitfire because I moved a little too slowly. One day earlier, and the car would have been mine. When I ran across the TR4 ad, I emailed right away, got a phone number, and called to get more info. Once I figured it was a reasonable deal, I moved on it. The internet is a wonderful thing, but it does increase the competition for vehicles.

Be prepared to walk away

The other side is summed up in a quote I picked up in some article on buying a used car. "The seller may have what you want, but as the buyer you certainly have what they want." Their car may be what you are looking for, or it may be a total hopeless case. You have cash. None of the cars I was looking at are particularly rare. There will almost always be another coming along.

The biggest balancing act for me was between the "act quick to not miss a deal" and the "take your time and get the right car" thoughts. I think that the more comfortable you are with what you want, and the more able you are to spot a good example, the easier this is. I struggled.

Develop a good inspection strategy, and use it

By the end of my search, I had a better list of things to check, and even made a little checklist to bring to a test drive. I'd gotten better by the end, but most times I just went, looked around the car, drove round the block, and came back. I would have done better to have gone carefully through this checklist. If nothing else, it makes comparing across cars a little easier, since you've got actual documentation and not just memory.

Don't settle for less than you want

If your heart is set on a particular car, after driving a bunch and reading up on all the details, then that's the car to buy. Don't be distracted by a good deal that comes along on something else. You'll be spending a lot of time and money on this car, so make it something you will be proud of.

After I bought my TR4, I did begin to wonder if I had really followed this. I really like the original Austin Healey "Bugeye" Sprite. My current favorite car. So why didn't I buy one of those instead? They are a bit more expensive, and are a little more limited in functionality (no overdrive, much smaller motor). More importantly, the deal came up first on the TR4. So did I fail here?

Shortly after I bought the TR4, I joined the local British Motor Club in a parade. I had fun, but thought a lot about my car choice during the event. Would I have had more fun with a Bugeye? Maybe--they sure get lots of smiles from the crowd, and they're pretty rare. The TR4 looks more modern, though still definitely British and old. Then I thought back to my first lesson to define what you want in a car. What I said was that I wanted to get a car to try out the all aspects of the hobby. The TR4 does that nicely.

I realized that I will run into all sorts of situations where I might prefer another car to the TR4. The big light bulb moment came with the understanding that this would represent actual learning! At the parade I may have figured out that I want a car that will stand out more (I have always been an oddball/underdog fan)--that's a valuable lesson. I wouldn't have figured that out without the TR4. The means my plan is working, and I feel much better about my choice.

As a postscript to this section, I wound up selling the TR4 and bought that Bugeye Sprite I was really after. I don't regret the TR4 experience, since I learned a lot about what I didn't want. The Bugeye is the car I wanted, and I'm much more willing to invest the time and money needed with this car.

Be prepared to make mistakes

It's hard to make mistakes, especially when they prove costly in both time and money. They are unavoidable, however, and are at the root of how we learn. I probably figured out more in my months of TR4 ownership about what I didn't want than about what I did want. That is some valuable learning, and in the end it didn't cost me all that much in time or money. Certainly less than if I had committed to a huge project and had the car in pieces before I figured it out. It is difficult for me to make those sorts of mistakes, but the more I think about the lessons I learned, the better I feel about it. I'm too used to book learning sometimes--easily digestible and all positive. Real life throws in a fair measure of negative experiences, but those are as valuable, if not more so.

The grass is always greener

This is true of most decisions -- it always seems that the minute after you decide something a better option comes along. (For a great discussion of how we make decisions and how we come to feel about them, check out "The Paradox of Choice" by Barry Schwartz.) The main point here is that once you've made your decision and have a car you can live with, don't spend all your time dreaming of the next one. There is no perfect car for you, so don't waste too much time or energy thinking how your next one would be better. Just enjoy what you have. At some point you may decide to move on to a different car, and that's fine. Just don't forget to enjoy the one you have.