The whole scoop on how to buy, insure and register a classic car

Buying a car is not as easy as handing someone a stack of cash and driving away. Cars have to be registered, inspected and insured, and it’s sometimes a bit of a nightmare to manage all that. To make matters more complex, the rules and processes are often different and more complex for older cars. If you’re buying an old or classic car, here’s the best way to do it.

Step 1: Assess the market

Once you’ve decided on the model and year of car you want, the first thing to do is to learn about the market for that car. Internet classifieds and auction sites with “buy it now” options are great ways to see what cars are actually selling for. Take time to see what different specifications and conditions are worth in the market. This will help you judge how well “your” prospective car is priced.

If you’re looking for a car in the U.S., is a great tool to use as it allows users to search Ebay and Craigslist ads from multiple cities in one quick search.

Step 2: Use the enthusiast forums to your advantage

Almost every classic car, no matter how niche, has an online community that gathers in an Internet forum. These online message boards are full of knowledgeable marque experts and helpful information. Most forums have a buyer’s guide in the FAQ section and if they don’t, make an account and ask what to look for when buying that classic car. This is great way to learn the trouble spots and areas to check that might not be obvious to most people. These guides often include where rust usually happens and which mechanical maladies are deal-breakers for buying that particular car. Assuming you buy the car, a dedicated forum is an incredible resource and a great way to meet people who share you interests.

Poll Online Slurs

Step 3: Contact the seller and ask a lot of questions

It’s always best to speak to the seller on the phone. If an email address is the only contact available, email the seller and say something to the order of:

“I’m very interested in the 1968 Delotrex Velociraptor you’re selling and I would like to ask a few questions about the car. Please call me on my cell at 123-456-7890 whenever is convenient.”

Sellers often give more complete answers over the phone and posing a question verbally gives a crooked seller less time to cook up a phoney answer.

Michael Tumbach is a car enthusiast who has bought 23 used cars in his life. He likes to ask the following questions to sellers: How long have you owned the car, how often was the car driven, what does it need to be 100% perfect, and was the car stored inside or outside?

Two of the best questions to ask are:

“Sounds like a great car, why are you selling it?” This question forces the seller to say why they’re getting rid of a car that they spent $3,000 on parts to maintain. If they don’t have a good answer for this one, they might not be telling you something.

“I’m planning on taking the car on a 400-km trip this weekend. Any reason it wouldn’t be able to make the trip?” Plenty of sellers are deceptive, but even crooks have a breaking point. I once inspected a C4 Corvette to buy and right before I was about to hand over the cash, I mentioned that I planned to drive it 1,000 miles back to Canada. He then decided to tell me that the car burned coolant. This is a great question to ask.

buying a car

There’s not really any need to tear the engine apart but a flashlight is always a handy thing to have during a pre-purchase inspection!
Clayton Seams, Driving

Step 4: The initial inspection

This is usually the first time you see the car in person and it’s smart to bring a mechanically minded friend to help you with the inspection. A second set of eyes will help you pick up things that you may have missed or overlooked due to excitement.

The first step is to have the seller start the car while you stand back by the tailpipe. Never start the car yourself! Standing at the tailpipe will allow you to see whether the car smokes white or blue on startup. This startup smoke usually disappears very quickly and it’s important to see it. Blue smoke indicates oil burning, which is normal and natural for an old car as long as it’s not a ridiculous cloud. White smoke is the one to watch out for. White smoke indicates burning coolant, which means the head gasket is likely leaking. A head gasket replacement requires tearing down the engine to the block and is a very involving fix.

Tumbach says that it’s smart to check the body lines and body panel gaps for irregularities, as they can be evidence of repaired crash damage. He says that it’s also a good idea to check the colour of the panels, as repainted or repaired panels will always be a slightly different colour.

After the car is started, walk around while the engine idles up to temperature. Check for rust in the rocker panels, fenders and wherever else the forums said it might be. Take care to notice things like missing or broken interior pieces, which don’t affect the cars function, but are great bargaining chips to lower the price. Your attitude should be interested but hesitant. You always want to make the seller think you are just about to walk away from it. Don’t insult the car, and compliment the owner’s care of it. It pays to be likeable here.

buying a car

A test drive should always contain a highway portion. But certainly no need to drive it for hours!
Clayton Seams, Driving

Step 5: The test drive

Take time to adjust the seat and mirrors. You’ll be driving a strange car that you (probably) have never driven before and the last thing you need is to get it into an accident.

In an automatic car, slide the gearshift into each gear one by one including reverse with your foot on the brake. You should be feeling if the transmission clunks or slams into gear at rest. If so, this is an indicator of a worn transmission, worn universal joints or both. For a manual, note the engagement point on the clutch, if it engages near the top of the pedal travel, the clutch is very worn.

Once rolling at about 30 km/h on a flat surface, slightly remove your hands from the wheel and stop quickly. The vehicle should stop in a straight line and not pull to one side or the other. Pulling could represent an alignment issue or poorly adjusted brakes. At around 50 km/h, wiggle the steering wheel back and forth to see how much play it has. The amount of play varies from car to car but excessive play in the steering can indicate worn steering bushings.

Ben Ward is a long-time car enthusiast who has bought and sold dozens of classic cars over the years, and he says it’s always helpful to have a brief highway stint in your test drive.

“You want to shoot for a 10 to 15 minute drive over a variety of terrain features at a variety of speeds in order to test the suspension ND THE the powertrain,” he says. Ward also mentions that sometimes finding a stretch of stop-and-go traffic is helpful to find cooling problems.” He also advises to “test the headlights, the radio, the AC, the door locks, everything you can” during the test drive.

Upon returning, park the car and check underneath for leaks. According to Tumbach, some leaks don’t appear until the fluids are hot and circulated.

Ryan Griffith, a mechanic at Mini Downtown in Toronto, works on Mini. Some things are better left to the pros.

Ryan Griffith, a mechanic at Mini Downtown in Toronto, works on Mini. Some things are better left to the pros.
Jennifer Roberts, Postmedia News

Step 6: The professional inspection

Savvy buyers would do well to have the car in question inspected again by a professional set of eyes. Canadian Tire will perform a visual inspection for about $100 and it takes about an hour. If transporting the car there is a problem, you can use a mobile mechanic service to inspect it on location. Expect to pay about $170 for a mobile pre-purchase inspection. A pre-purchase inspection might seem like a lot of money and hassle, but it’s well worth it for piece of mind.

If the seller is against having the vehicle inspected, it’s a giant red flag and you’d be smart to walk away. These inspections always pull up random leaks that may or may not be critical to the car functioning, but make great points to haggle a lower price.

buying a car

Doing your homework when buying a car can result in a cool car in your garage for cheap
Clayton Seams, Driving

Step 7: Insure it and drive it home!

Congratulations on your new car! Assuming that it passed inspection and you found an agreeable price, you just bought a great drivable classic. But just because you own it doesn’t mean you can drive it on the street yet. Many insurance agencies will allow you to insure a vehicle over the phone using your credit card number and the vehicle’s VIN. It helps if you have a pre-existing policy with the company and it’s always smart to call and arrange insurance before you buy.

Most provinces have a grace period of a about 10 days from when you bought and insured a vehicle to when you have to register it. Double check your local laws, but if that’s the case where you live, once the vehicle is insured, you can legally drive it home with or without license plates. Though you’d be smart to drive it right to a registry.

It’s always smart to shop around for the best insurance policy and if you’re older than 26, the obvious choice is a classic-specific provider like Hagerty or Grundy. Hagerty insures nearly one million classics and is ideal for people who want to drive their classics 6,000 to 8,000 kilometers per year.

“The biggest reason classic car owners should choose a company that specializes in classic cars is because of their expertise on market values and how they treat the value at the time of the claim,” Hagerty’s Jonathan Klinger says. Hagerty’s policies are aimed at people who use their classic primarily for “pleasure use” and Klinger says, “We want you to enjoy your classic!”

Vanity plates

WOAHRSY = Whoa horsey. We actually don’t hate this one. It doesn’t hurt that we’re imagining it on a Ferrari, though.
Handout photo,

Step 8: Registration

Who’s ready for a fun afternoon at the registrars office? Fun or not, registration is a mandatory part of driving a car in Canada. Historic or antique plates are available for those who plan to only drive their cars to and from shows but Klinger from Hagerty recommends to “register the vehicle with standard plates” to avoid the restrictions of an antique or historic plate.

Hopefully, this guide will help you find and buy your dream classic!  If you have any other tips or questions on buying an old car, let us know in the comments below.

About Clayton Seams