3 April 2013

Buying a Car Long-Distance: 10 rules for a stress-free purchase

eBay may have made the collector world smaller, but you can still be a long way away from your dream car. Here’s one case which answered many of the questions that can arise.


The advent of eBay enabled people across the country to buy cars they’d never actually seen in person. When the truck arrived, it was a bit like tearing the Christmas paper off a present from Aunt Marjorie as a child – almost certain to be disappointing.

It seems it doesn’t matter how much people are prepared to pay for a dream car, they can’t bring themselves to spend 1/100 of that much on an inspection. If you don’t have friends at a distant location, track down the local club for the make and model you are investigating, and arrange an inspection by an expert. It’s the best money you can spend.

Recently, I was involved with what I’d consider a very good example of how to buy a long-distance car successfuly. There may be more pitfalls, but the case of Mike Kearney’s 1969 Mini Woody Traveler has gone about as well as one could hope.

My first contact with Mike was an email, in which he introduced himself as a business neighbor in Great Falls, Va., of my old friend Dave Kinney. Mike runs an Irish pub “The Old Brogue” and his wife a little café next door. The café has started doing Cars and Coffee on Saturdays and recently attracted 400 vehicles one morning. As Mike Kearney put it, he was feeling left out.

Rule #1: Involve a very knowledgeable friend.

Dave Kinney is one of the deans of classic car auction reporting, an appraiser who put together his own Cars That Matter price guide (now the Hagerty Price Guide) and has written for numerous publications for more than 20 years. He suggested Mike check out eBay, and Mike found himself a 1969 Mini Woody Wagon, out in Oregon, on the other side of the United States.

Rule #2: Try to find a personal connection with somebody at the location.

The next puzzle was how could Mike check it out? The ad was very short on details, no photos had been posted, but the car was said to have been restored. Mike contacted the seller and asked for photos. They looked good. Mike asked Dave what to do next. When Dave learned it was in Portland, Ore., he sent Mike to me. I’ve lived here for 30 years, and been an auto journalist for 40.

Rule #3: Make sure you have local knowledge of the address.

I was able to Google the address, and confirm that the car was located in a prosperous area of gentleman farmers, in the hills south of town. The address was real, with big houses and barns and paved roads. I could view it, it wasn’t in felony flats, or a warehouse district down by the port, or the parking lot of an apartment building where the car sat out in the rain.

Rule #4: Take an expert with you.

I’m pretty savvy about cars, having owned a couple of hundred over 50 years. I’ve owned Minis too, starting in England. But I’m not a Mini guru. That’s Jeff Doan, who’s been working on Minis for 30 years and is the kind of guy who makes his own special tools, if necessary. I also figured Jeff would either know the car, which would speed the plow, or he wouldn’t, which meant he couldn’t resist tagging along. It turned out he didn’t know the car and he was hooked. The additional bonus was that if the Mini wasn’t any good, he’d warn Mike off it right away.

Rule #5: Experts immediately get involved.

The minute we saw the Mini, we were intrigued. It was in a modern barn which had clearly been a car showroom, with black and white tile, extensive neon light and framed posters on the wall. It was stored in a two-car garage space, which appeared to be heated. The wood on the wagon was very good, the interior was new and the paint was excellent. It was also clear that the 20-year-old repaint was a glass-out, frame-off job, done to a high quality, and the tires appeared new. It turned out the car had been left behind after a divorce “for the grandkids to play in” and the restorer had owned a chain of body shops. It had been a “boss’s car” restoration. However it hadn’t run in five years and the handbrake was stuck. We delivered our report to Mike, and waited for the eBay auction to expire. Because of the lack of information or photos, the car didn’t reach reserve, but thanks to our on-the-spot inspection we were able to advise Mike what a fair price would be, and he and the seller made a deal.

Rule #6: Make it a turn-key operation.

In order to ship a car, it needs to be driveable. The next task was to get it to  Jeff’s shop. After the bank transfer of money and the car’s papers had been handled between buyer and seller, Jeff and I returned on a Saturday to see if we could start the car or would have to tow it. In the meantime, Jeff had made time and space in his schedule to go through it, and make sure it was in running condition. We were able to back off the brakes to roll it outside, prime it and charge the battery. After some initial fiddling, we were able to keep it running well enough to test drive it and determine it could make it back the five or six miles to Jeff’s shop.

Rule #7: It’s always something.

Once Jeff began working on the Mini, it was clear that the restoration – though generally good – was such as a body shop might do. What they knew, they did fine, when they got to mechanical issues – not so good. The reason the gas gauge didn’t work was because somebody had installed the sending unit upside-down in the tank and failed to seal the screws. The reason the car didn’t want to idle was because somebody had glued the S.U. carburetor jet in place to stop it from leaking. The starter motor bell housing had one stripped bolt, which Jeff heli-coiled. Most difficult was the top motor mount, which stops the Mini engine from rocking back and forth on acceleration or deceleration.

It had been sheared off in the cylinder head ¼ of an inch from the surface, and a shorn-off bolt barely threaded in. So Jeff set out to remove the sheared bolt, but the extractor broke off IN the bolt. He ended up using a diamond-tipped cutter around the extractor and ultimately saved the entire thread in the block. Having solved that, Jeff converted the Mini to negative ground, replaced the regulator and went to get more gas. At the gas station, the coil decided it had completed its tour of duty, so Jeff got to walk home to fetch another.

Rule #8: “And now the shipping news …”

The basic rule of auctions is NEVER drive a new purchase home. That applies to any car bought more than 100 miles away, at auction or not. If it breaks down in the middle of nowhere, at night in the rain, you’ll be furious with everything and especially yourself. Even if you have roadside assistance, such as Hagerty offers, and your cell phone actually has service, you BROKE it and you won’t even know how badly until later. Spend the money on a big reliable shipping company, and then when the car’s unloaded at home, you can check it out in detail. I added up the mileage on my 1977 Daimler Vanden Plas when it quit about 6 months after I bought it, and I calculated that had I driven it home from Scottsdale, Ariz., in 2009, it would have failed about 100 miles the other side of Reno, Nev. Don’t bother to check the map, there’s nothing there. Even if it costs you $2,000 to ship your new car across country in an enclosed truck, do it. I don’t care if Boris and Natasha are your relatives; there’s no upside to a cheap ride on an open truck across the US of A, with the suspension completely collapsed by anchor chains and your car exposed to the elements.

Rule #9: Get to know your car.

So Mike now has a nice, well-sorted Mini. He backs it off the truck and everything seems fine. Now he needs to get to know his car, starting with reading the manual. If you don’t have one, get one. Wash the car and polish it. You’ll learn where the dings and scrapes are, if any. Get the car up in the air and check out the underneath. Any old brake lines? Any dodgy wiring, or any place the undercoating is coming off? Any rust? Any leaks that will need attention? How about service details? Where are the drain plugs? What are the capacities? As we’re talking about a woody, should the wood trim be refinished? Anywhere the wood needs to be reattached? Check it all out. Go and see a boat builder and get his opinion. What kind of varnish should you use? Drive your new car about, and figure out how well the brakes work. Any clonks from underneath, any noises that need attention? Then you’ll be ready for a Sunday drive. You did locate the jack and check the pressure in the spare, right? 

Rule #10 Beware The Long Distance Runaround

There’s an old adage that “If you want something in the worst way, that’s usually how you get it.” The Red Mist is dangerous at auction, when you just decide you’re going to have something and to hell with the consequences. But at least you’re looking at a real car. Imagine if all you can see are fuzzy pictures from half a world away?

As a final note, I once chased down a complete, original Jaguar XK 120 OTS in Australia. Purely by chance, I had a friend who lived close to the enclosed yard, where it sat outside in the dust, and another friend a couple of hundred miles away who specializes in shipping cars between Australia and the U.S. John went and checked out the address, which was real, but he couldn’t see any sign of the car, and nobody answered the door. Puzzled, he went back to the photos and enlarged them, then sent me a an e-mail. “I don’t know where this car is, Mate, but it’s not in Oz. That kind of barbed wire on the fence is illegal here.”

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