Buying a classic car: how to check the bodywork and trim

When you’re checking out a prospective classic car purchase, many of the checks you need to make are much the same as for when buying a used car.

However, older cars are more likely to be rusty - because they've had longer to age and because older cars weren't as well rustproofed as modern ones. With classic cars, it's the bodywork that's the most likely area to cause problems, and repairs take skill and equipment - so don't under-estimate the resources you'll need to turn a rotten classic into something worth owning.

With classic cars, it’s the bodywork that’s the most likely area to cause problems

Because fixing bodywork properly takes time and skill, it may be worth getting a professional to do some of the trickier bits as it’ll take them a lot less time than it’ll take you. But that'll cost you money - and suddenly the classic route isn't the cheapest...

  • If a car has been badly pranged it can be difficult to attain proper alignment of everything, so make sure all panels line up properly. Check for rippled inner wings and shutlines that are all over the place – sorting these can be very costly, if not impossible. Unless you’ve got specialist bodywork skills, you’re best avoiding any car that’s been in a major shunt because you’ll never get everything to line up.
  • Reshelling is common, as it’s often more economical to source a decent used bodyshell than to patch up a badly damaged one. Although the legality of this is sometimes questionable, it’s usually safe – unlike the cut ‘n’ shut. This is likely to affect only recent classics – but still ensure the car doesn’t consist of two cars welded together across the middle. Don’t even consider a cut ‘n’ shut, but a properly reshelled classic can make a great buy.
  • If you’re considering taking on a restoration project, check panel availability first. Replacement panels are often extinct, and where repro parts are offered, the quality is variable. Often you’ll need to create your own panels; for hidden items such as inner wings that may be fine, but outer panels can be very demanding because of their subtle contours. Unless you’re a whizz on the wheeling machine, you might need to buy an easier project.
  • Rust is the most common issue, so check every nook and cranny for paint damage, microblistering or bubbling. Common rust traps include the sills and wheelarches, so run a magnet over them to check for filler. Seams and brightwork also frequently harbour rot, as do rain gutters. Cosmetic rust needn’t be a problem, but structural rot could be, depending on your metal-bashing skills. Structural areas include the sills, bulkheads and any floorpan crossmembers.
  • Other areas to check include the door bottoms plus the front and rear valances, which often rot from the inside out. Also look at the leading edge of the bonnet and trailing edge of the bootlid; these start to corrode, get left, then dissolve. These areas aren’t structural, but can be tricky to repair without specialist skills. Also ensure the rubber seals are intact; they perish then let water into the cabin.
  • If the car has a sunroof, make sure it’s not leaking and that its surround hasn’t corroded. Lift the bonnet and see what state the inner wings and battery are in, and look closely at the bulkhead. If this has corroded it’ll mean an engine bay strip down (and possibly dashboard removal) to effect proper repairs – extremely time-consuming, but not usually that difficult. If the car has MacPherson strut front suspension, look at the strut tops for corrosion.
  • Check the floorpans from underneath (including the spare wheel well) and lift any trim for a view from inside. Repairs to these areas can be time-consuming, as you may have to remove fuel and brake pipes and mechanical parts such as brake or suspension systems – but once stripped, repairs are usually straightforward. Finish by checking the doors aren’t dropping because of rotten A-posts or worn hinges; the former is often very difficult because of poor accessibility.
  • Any car with a separate chassis needs careful inspection, as effecting proper repairs can mean removing the bodyshell – and you can’t skimp, because a chassis gives a car most of its strength. Check the entire chassis for corrosion, along with stress cracks where sections meet – especially around suspension mountings. Repairs are usually easy, but it’s common to have to remove fuel and brake lines or mechanical parts such as the suspension, before work can begin.
  • Exterior trim can cause headaches, with some model ranges having many different trim specifications. Light units get broken while chrome trim gets pitted, and replating mazak (or ‘monkey metal’) isn’t usually possible so you need to find new parts. A lot of repro stuff is badly made and original bits are often unavailable or overpriced – so check all the exterior trim parts are present and in good nick or get costs for replacements first.
  • Ensure the door panels, carpets and seat covers are in good nick, because these usually cost hundreds of pounds to sort, and retrimming is a specialist skill. Also make sure any wood trim, the headlining and hood (if it’s a convertible) are sound as these often need professional help to revive. Newton Commercial remanufactures trim for some classics; otherwise it’s a case of scouring autojumbles or buying from fellow club members.