What’s it worth?





Does that sound familiar? It never ceases to amaze me the number of times this quotation is asked of anyone driving a nice old car. Most of the people who ask this question are not really car buffs but are just “Lookie Loos.”


            You can tell these people any price from a thousand to a million and make them happy. They are more interested in the monetary value than in the car itself. Too many people that buy, drive or collect old cars are directed only by what the car is worth.


            What a particular car is worth in money is usually secondary to a true car lover. The actual cash value of any old car boils down to the formula of what the buyer is willing to give and the seller is willing to take. When this figure is agreed on, then you know “What it’s worth.”


            Many times I am called on to help a Club member evaluate and appraise a car they are thinking about buying. Therefore, I thought it would be a good idea to give out a few guidelines to help you determine “What it’s worth.”


            The first thing you have to decide is why you want to buy it. If you are looking strictly for investment value, check old car price guides and auction results and plan on selling it within 60 days, taking your profit (or loss) and go on to the next car. The market is always changing.


            If what you really want to know is, “How much will it cost me to restore this particular old car to the way I will love it and enjoy it and still stay within my budget,” maybe this article will help you.

            When looking at a car that you might buy, first of all, fix in your mind what the car will be when restoration is complete and make sure it is a car you can love and enjoy. Once you have decided on a year, make and model, figure how much variance you will accept before you start looking.


            Once you have this decided, you are ready to look at cars. The biggest determining factor to look at is the completeness of the car.


            This is by far the biggest expense you will run into if you have to replace missing parts.            If a car is all disassembled, this can be very difficult to determine.


            The next item to look at carefully will be originality. If the car has modifications and/or “improvements,” this is about the same as missing parts when it comes to expense.


            Look carefully for rust or rot. This is a big difference. Surface rust is not serious, in fact, this can bring your purchase price down. Rot is a different matter. Moderate rot can be repaired at a moderate cost. Major rot will either be major cost or unrepairable at any cost. This could easily change your dream car into a parts car.


            Look carefully for serious accident damage. Does the car sit crooked? Do the doors fit reasonably straight? Are the bumpers level with the ground? If not, determine why. It can be anything from mismatched tires, broken or weak springs, even a bent frame.


            Most of these things can be restored—some things, however, can get costly. If you are doing a frame-off restoration, a good frame shop can take care of some fairly serious frame damage at a reasonable cost if the body is off the frame.


            If you get this far and the project is still a “go,” let’s go on to other items to look at and evaluate.


            The paint job on an old car is the most visible and really the least important. Unless it already has a real good paint job, you will probably repaint. It won’t cost any more to paint a car that looks awful than one that looks good—think about it.


            This brings us to body damage. On these good old cars, it takes a lot of body damage to be beyond repair. If it doesn’t have numerous dings, pits and scratches, it has probably been repaired and/or repainted recently.


            The same theory applies to upholstery. It doesn’t cost any more to replace ragged and rotten upholstery than to replace just worn and/or dirty.


            When it comes to tires, unless they are near new and it can be proven, don’t go by looks. Figure on buying new tires. Tires that have a lot of tread but are real old are not worth trying to keep.


            The chrome and stainless steel should be inspected, first of all, for fractures and missing parts. Repair of these items can be moderately expensive. Many times chrome and stainless steel can be polished out and won’t require replating. Also, chrome replating is something you can put off until later in your budget.


            The engine and powertrain is always going to be a mystery until you actually get into it, especially if the engine isn’t running or is frozen. In that case, figure a full overhaul. You might bear in mind that the labor cost will be about the same for a “bare bones” budget using old parts as it would be for an all-out new parts overhaul. The parts cost difference would probably be less than $500.


            An average cost for a good complete engine overhaul in the older Cads and LaSalles is about $2800. Of course, if the block has been frozen and cracked, you may want to consider finding a replacement. Unfortunately, many times, this can’t be determined until the engine is out and work has begun.


            The electrical wiring is an item that nearly always needs to be replaced. Old wiring can look good but can cause more trouble than you can possibly imagine. Complete new wiring harnesses that are high quality and trouble-free are available for usually less than $400 and worth every penny.


            Glass for the older cars that have all flat glass is not that expensive, actually about $225 for a four-door sedan.


            The rubber parts are somewhat expensive and a full restoration will average about $1,000 per car.


            Now you have a few guidelines on what it will cost to restore your old cars, but the question still remains: “What will it be worth?” Resign yourself early to the fact that the amount of cash put into a car is not likely to be the true cash value. The true “worth” of your fine old car should be decided on by your heart and your wallet.


            In reality, the whole question of “What’s it worth?” comes down to the issue of whether you’re buying or selling. The person you really need to convince is your spouse because you have already made up your mind that it is worth it.