My wife and I were married fifteen years ago this year – the happiest years of my life. We’ve had two wonderful children, seen each other build healthy careers, and we’ve had about 80 cars. That’s right, 80, eight-zero, EIGHTY. Suffice it to say, we tend not to get too attached to cars around our house. Well we do, but everything has a price. Having written about many of these cars here and in other venues along with those cars that I’d like to have but for my lack of the funds, the space, or the guts to buy them, a lot of people ask me where I find them. It’s not rocket science, but timing is key.
As a buyer, finding just the right car used to be much harder, particularly for classic or collector cars. Before the internet the best resources were car clubs, local classified ads, and Hemmings Motor News. The problem was that often by the time you received the information the car was long gone. That still happens with the print version of Hemmings, but it remains fun reading in the bathroom nonetheless.
What the old way did do, however, was force the buyer to work harder to go and see a car for themselves before consummating a deal. These days many enthusiasts are all to quick to look at a handful of digital pictures believed to accurately represent a car and blindly send cash only to be delivered a car lacking in any redeeming qualities and looking nothing like the photos. Been there, done that, and have the scars to prove it. In fact, I will admit to being a repeat offender.
All that said, the internet has also made it far easier to find that needle in a haystack of a car that not that many years ago might elude you. Consider the case in point of our own “Disposable Sports Cars” feature here on TTS: the cars featured in that category are interesting, somewhat rare (and in many cases getting ever more so), and cheap. Sellers of cars in the approximate price range we cover are not generally interested in investing in advertising, rather they are looking to get the most they can for what the majority of the general pubic will see as a rot box, death trap, or at the very least a waste of money. Still, buyers are out there – maybe not in the same town or even the same state. Again, enter the internet. These are exactly the kinds of car you can find on Craigslist, but it’s a lot easier if you use one of those sites like www.searchallcraigs.com or www.allofcraigs.com that searches all CL sites for you.
The other low- or no-cost venue for car classifieds is the web forum. Hundreds of car clubs, parts vendors, and online communities offer cars for sale sections often accessible for no fee, sometimes requiring a registration or membership, but again rarely with a cost associated. These forums also often require a membership to view the full ads or photos of cars for sale. A simple Google search of “Mercedes Forum” turns up dozens of websites with classified ads, and the same is true for most makes. Many enthusiasts are more comfortable buying through an enthusiast community as opposed to the “anything goes” environment of the Craigslist world. You also hear far fewer stories about crimes committed against unsuspecting shoppers on BenzWorld than Craigslist, but I digress.
Sellers willing to pay for listings, here in the U.S., tend toward a handful of mainstream websites. Among them eBay is at this point likely the one most frequented by the enthusiast community. The auction format for car buying and selling is great for determining the real market value of a car, although these days in my opinion auctions favor the seller. If you go back to about 1998 the cars on eBay were mostly offered by private sellers and many of them had no idea what their cars were worth. They therefore set “no reserve” auctions and the cars went to the highest bidder – occasionally resulting in amazing deals. Likewise, a seller may have had something he didn’t realize had the cult following it did, resulting in a bidding war generating multiples of the price the sellers may have had in mind.
With savvy dealers and shady curbstoners alike prowling the ‘Bay these days, those deals are few and far between. The best deals are those where a seller a) doesn’t know what he has, and b) does a terrible job of describing it: poor written description, bad pictures, etc. Far too often those poor pictures and bad descriptions are intentional to mask bigger issues with a car, but if you do your due diligence and get everything in writing, you can improve your chances of a real find. Remember, though, there is absolutely no substitute for seeing a car yourself in person. One person’s minor oil leak is another’s Exxon Valdez.
Other pay sites like Autotrader and Cars.com seem to appeal more to the average person who happens to need to buy or sell a car as opposed to the car enthusiast, but that can be an opportunity as well. A few months ago I had a trip to the West Coast, an empty space in the driveway, and a little bit of car cash to spend. I also had an afternoon to kill. Before I left I started surfing the local classifieds, and tuned-up very little of interest on CL or eBay. However, on Cars.com I stumbled across a 1977 Mercedes 240D Diesel for sale by its original owner and loved from new right through the 453,000 miles it was wearing at the time. It was also completely rust free, had full service documentation from new which included a factory replacement motor and a complete air conditioning system rebuild about a year earlier. All of those details were not in the ad, but it did read as if someone who cared had written it. I bought the car, shipped it back East, drove it for a while, and sold it on for a small profit.
I tend to identify cars through search terms. Rarer models don’t require much in the way of terms because the market is small. For example, the phrase “Low-mileage Mercedes Gullwing” is unlikely to produce better results than a simple “Mercedes Gullwing” search. On more common models, however, the search terms will eliminate a lot of wasted time searching. A search for “Showroom 1985 Prelude” might turn up a time warp car where the simpler “1985 Prelude” will get you dozens of used-up rustbuckets. Other search terms I like include “classic”, “rare”, “showroom”, “mint”, “perfect”, and “original” linked-up with the cars I am looking for. In fact, occasionally if I’m not seeking a specific make or model these terms can turn up some interesting finds like the 1985 TVR featured here on TTS yesterday.
If you’re feeling particularly frisky and want to broaden your search horizons, I strongly encourage you to look into mobile.de which has been covered here on TTS previously and contains thousands of classifieds from all throughout Europe, along with PistonHeads which has some fantastic UK-based ads of interest to anglophiles or right-hand drive gluttons for punishment.
Now what’s to stop you? Get out there and start hunting!!!