Buying Your First Musclecar: What to Look For, What To Look Out For

buyingusedcarleadartIf you’re buying your very first classic musclecar, chances are you’re not buying a complete, trophy-winning show car – most of the time we work up towards that kind of purchase. But when we decide we want a classic car, we look at a few factors before we make that decision and aside from make and model, the cost is usually a big part of that decision.


A fresh coat of flat black could mean they didn’t want to give it a real paint job. It could be hiding a multitude of problems. This is a red flag.

Depending on the area you live in, the price for a classic car can vary, in some areas they’re plentiful and affordable while in other areas they’re priced out of our range. The price can mean the difference between a car that needs very little work to a car that needs a lot of work. How much you’re willing to spend is sometimes inversely proportional to how much work you’re willing to put into the car.

If you’ve followed along on car forums, there’s always that lucky sonofagun who stumbled across a classic car that was always garaged, and the car owner has passed away with the surviving spouse to sell the car. With no idea what the car is worth, the spouse sells it for a ridiculously low price and the new owner brags about it and we all secretly loathe him for a few weeks, even though we think it’s cool that he got such a killer deal.


While this car looks great from a distance, don’t let that fool you. It’s your money – don’t be afraid to open the doors, or look in the trunk and under the hood. Be sure of what you’re buying.

The rest of us hit the classifieds, eBay, Craigslist, and Hemmings to see if there’s a car out there with our name on it. Finding one locally is usually best so that you won’t have to pay a lot for transporting the car, but that makes the choices even slimmer.

Once you’ve looked at a few cars and you have decided what you like, how will you know whether the seller is being honest, or if you’re being taken for a ride – and getting yourself into something that’s not worth fixing?


Sure, this makes the trunk look great, but who glues carpet down to the trunk floor? Nobody does, and peeling it back revealed the rusted out trunk floor that the seller said was solid. They tried to hide it, but gluing a carpet down here is another red flag.

Are You Getting A Good Deal Or Being Taken For A Ride?

There are a few things to look for when buying your first musclecar, and a few things to look out for. We’re going to give you some pointers and help you with some of those little things that sellers do to try to sell their car. Unfortunately, selling a used car places some people into that undesirable territory of being a used car salesman and they’ll tell you what you want to hear – unless it’s the truth.

If you’ve ever talked to someone who has bought a used musclecar the experience can go from “great purchase” to “what was I thinking”, and everything in between. Unfortunately, most people find out too late that they bought a basket case because it was hidden under a bunch of new paint or parts, so it’s best to do your homework and have an agenda of your own.


When three friends bought this car to restore it and flip it, they knew they had some work to do, but after about a year they realized that it wasn’t worth the effort, time, and money that they had invested.

If you’re lucky, the seller will be completely honest with you and tell you everything that is wrong with the car before you buy it. That’s a rare situation, because most people who want to sell a car want as much money as they can get while the buyer wants to pay as little as he or she can. It helps to talk with local shops and other enthusiasts to get opinions; you’ll run into a few “experts” and then you also might find people who know enough to help you make a decision.


The interior wasn’t that great, and the headliner was gone. Be sure that you’re prepared to get new upholstery – or live with what you’ve got for a while.

Taking a friend along to see the car is always a good idea – there’s strength in numbers and it’s harder for a seller to be dishonest to two people, especially if one of the two appears to be there as an expert resource. Often times the seller will list a car “or best offer (OBO)” and that puts buyer and seller into an infinite loop: “What’s the lowest you’ll take?” and “What’s the most you’ll pay?” are much like the staring contests we had as kids – who is going to blink first?

Below, we’ll share some of our insights and hope to shed some light on the experience and help you to look closer at the car you’re about to buy. We can’t generalize every used musclecar or seller into one category because everyone is different. But we have seen enough that makes us realize that maybe we can help some people avoid the pitfalls of buying a used musclecar that many of the rest of us have experienced.


Top: After opening the hood the hole in the core support became a concern.
Bottom: common areas for rust include lower fenders/quarters, around windows, floor boards, and the cowl. The patch panel in the lower right image means there's a problem underneath.

New Paint Job

With most any classic car, the potential of rust is likely to be present. It can be around the windows, on the lower quarter panel, or even the floorboards. Quite often, that rust is going to lower the price of the car so the seller might take the car out for an inexpensive paint job to hide a multitude of sins.


Clearly, this car wasn't prepped properly, and it wasn't de-trimmed before applying paint. Further examination revealed that they removed the trim on one side, but got lazy and simply masked off the opposite side. Glue from the trunk weatherstrip wasn't cleaned up and the paint was applied over top of it. The paint and interior work was executed poorly and was done just to sell the car - typical of many car-flippers.

If the car isn’t a show car but has a new paint job, that’s a little bit of a red flag. Most people won’t spend a lot of money on a paint job if they can’t make it back on the sale. If the car is under $7,000 and is priced at fair market value, chances of the paint job being a high quality refinish gets pretty slim.


This is just being lazy; they didn’t bother to remove even simple parts that were held in with two screws, and the overspray wasn’t cleaned up. Shoddy work by a painter who doesn’t care about quality.

The first thing is to find out where the paint was done; if it was a reputable local body shop and they offered a warranty, you can expect that they wouldn’t paint the car if the body wasn’t prepped properly.

A well-known or established body shop is a plus, but if the car was painted at a production shop like you always see advertised with $300 paint jobs, it might not be the best paint job out there, and the prep work might not have been the best.

People don’t pay $300 for a high quality paint job, and prepping a car is a huge part of the process. If the seller tells you that his cousin or his friend painted it, that’s a major red flag that he spent very little money to make the car look better, and that paint might be hiding a lot of stories.

Again, rust lowers the price of a car considerably, so look under the carpets if you can, in the trunk, around the wheel wells and on the lower quarter panels. Look around the windshield and rear window for rust, and if you see bubbles in the paint there is likely a bit of rust that wasn’t treated properly and is starting to come through.

Rust doesn’t go away if it’s not treated properly, and there are a lot of people who will tell you, “there’s no rust in this car” and expect you to believe it. Again, if you’re paying for a show car, you can expect that the paint and prep were done properly.


Bring a magnet to check for body filler. The magnet stuck to the fender and quarter panel, but the sail panel was another story. There was a large patch of body filler here.

Check The Fluids

Another area that we like to check is the fluids: coolant, oil, transmission, power steering. The coolant is a catch 22 area – if it looks like brand new coolant it may have been topped off, or just changed and it doesn’t tell the full story about what’s happening inside the engine or the radiator. If it’s slightly dull and looks used, it might be okay, but if the water is brown it could be pretty rusty and not well maintained. Brown water could mean a lot of rust in the system and that could cause problems with the coolant passages and the radiator. Remember: classic musclecars don’t typically have the later red coolant (Dexcool) and use the typical green coolant.


If the engine was just rebuilt, the oil should be very clear, not murky or black. Again, this is your money, don’t be afraid to check the fluids.

Seeing that lime green coolant in a car that has several thousand miles on it is an indication that they just changed it and who knows what condition it was in prior to the coolant change? Be sure to ask when the coolant was changed and why it was changed. This is another area where shady salesmen like to mask off problems – they know you might pick up on that dirty water in the radiator.

Check the oil, too, and see what it looks like, as well as what it feels like. If the oil is a little gritty between your fingers, there may be a potential problem there. If the oil looks like it was just changed, ask them how often they changed the oil. If the oil looks new, look at the filter – see if it’s new or if they simply drained the oil and added new oil. Ask what brand they use, and see if the filter is a name brand or a cheap filter was used.

How Does It Run?

This is one area that we like to find out for ourselves; too many sellers will tell you it runs great and then after you bring it home you realize that they weren’t being completely honest with you. Here’s a trick that we like to pull: tell them not to warm it up for you so you can see what it starts like when it’s cold. After all, this is what you’re going to be doing the next time you start it and you want to make sure that you’re not going to sit there cranking the starter over for 40 minutes, draining the battery.

Many cars will run much better when they’re warm, but cold is a different story. If the car is tuned properly and everything checks out, it should start after one or two tries – even in colder climates. If the seller doesn’t want to start it cold for you, there’s another red flag… what do they have to hide?


We looked underneath this car and the nut was missing from the steering box pitman shaft. Lots of luck trying to drive this car home; we also found that the steering linkage was missing cotter pins and castle nuts. This is a recipe for disaster.

Interior Condition

The interior on many used musclecars is fair, and often times if the car was reupholstered it may have been done just to raise the value of the car so it could be sold. Find out where it was done, and who did the work. Just like the paint work, if it was done by the seller’s cousin it may have been slapped together and stitched poorly. Pull up the carpets and check the floorboards, open the doors and see if the material was installed properly and wrapped around the trim panel.

Look at any piping on the seats: if the piping is wavy then it was done poorly and might eventually come unstitched or pull apart. One our Belvedere, the material on the doors didn’t have a pattern in it, but we could see the pattern underneath. The upholstery shop didn’t bother removing the interior trim and simply put the new material over top of the original material.

It might look good from a distance, but getting a closer look revealed that the pattern for the door trim panel was underneath the new trim. An extra speaker in the door means a hole had to be cut in the door shell and the trim panel to install the speaker.

Helpful Hints

Not every used car salesman is going to be dishonest, but we hope that these hints give you something to look for when you’re buying your first used musclecar. How little you spend up front is inversely proportional to what you’ll spend afterwards fixing things and it can add up quicker than you’d think.

If you just want a beater that you don’t care about restoring – have at it. But if you want something that you can work on and you want to restore or restomod the car, make sure of what you’re getting yourself into: make sure you aren’t buying someone else’s problems.


If you’re not ready to cut out and replace a floor board, then don’t buy a car with rusted out floor boards! It’s a lot of work and needs to be done properly or you’re just creating more problems.

Here are some quick hitters to consider when you go to look at a car:

  • Is the car registered or is it non-op? Is there back registration that needs to be paid to bring it up to current?
  • If you’re looking at a Camaro, get on a forum and ask where they are prone to rusting the most.
  • Bring a magnet, a flashlight, even a mechanic’s mirror to look places that are hard to see.
  • Check the VIN on the car with the VIN on the registration, make sure the numbers are the same.
  • Don’t buy a car simply because it’s different – find out if replacement parts can be found or you’ll be stuck.
  • Don’t buy an automatic if you want a manual – conversion aren’t cheap, and rarely get done.
  • Find out who did the paint work and the upholstery, if it wasn’t a reputable shop, can you live with it?
  • Pull back carpets, open doors, open the hood and the trunk, take a look underneath.
  • Look for bubbles in the paint around windows and fenders/quarter panels, and on the floor boards.
  • Check the fluids and see if they’re clean or in need of changing, find out when they were last changed.
  • Find out if everything works, start the car and check the wipers, the lights, the radio, and the heater.
  • Tell the seller not to start it before you get there – you want to see how it starts when it’s cold.
  • Check under the car for drips and leaks, ask the seller where the car is regularly parked.
  • Be patient! Don’t buy the first car you see, check a few of them out before you make a decision.

The bubbles showed that rust was coming back, and this patch panel was bought to repair the rust. As you can see, it's a lot of work.

We hope that these hints and images help you to make an informed decision when you buy a car, and that you practice patience and good car buying skills. Nobody wants to buy a car full of problems, and you have to remember that the seller has one goal: sell the car. Don’t be afraid to make an offer that is a little lower – especially if you can foresee a lot of work that needs to be done. We’ll follow up this article with another providing advice on what maintenance to do once you’ve bought your used musclecar. Until then, be cautious, and when you find something that you like, share it with us!

About the author

Michael Harding

Michael is a Power Automedia contributor and automotive enthusiast who doesn’t discriminate. Although Mopar is in his blood, he loves any car that looks great and drives even faster.
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