How to Buy a Vintage Car (With a Bit of Help from the Web)

As a kid, I thought I might become a race-car driver. I used to slam a Corgi model of a 1961 Ferrari 250 LM Berlinetta around my grandmother’s floor like Fangio himself. Approaching my 50th birthday, I began searching for my dream car. At some point every guy wants to be James Bond, or at least drive his car. On the Web site for Hemmings Motor News ( I found a Long Island dealer specializing in Aston Martins and took a 1980 Volante for a test-drive. Its sluggish acceleration, loose handling, and brutish manners would not have pleased Her Majesty, especially with a sticker price of $75,000. Back in the dealer’s showroom my wife pointed to a low silver wraith in the corner. “Now that’s a nice-looking car!” she said. It was a 1971 Ferrari 246 Dino, a design I consider among the most beautiful of all time—an elegant bridge between the sensual curves of early Ferraris and the menacing wedges of the eighties. It also cost more than double the Aston. Still, I fell totally in love.

finding value in google

I began haunting the Internet, trying to learn as much about my new obsession as possible. The Web has become the biggest auto showroom in the world, but buying a vintage supercar online is not the same as ordering a Toyota Corolla. As baby boomers hit middle age, their passions for the cars they loved as kids have led to an increase in classic car sales—and the Internet has made the reach of every seller truly global. I flew to Maine to see a pair of black Dinos I’d found on, then to Fort Lauderdale to see a third at Motorcar Gallery. An intriguing listing appeared for a super–low mileage car at a dealer in northern California and another link turned up a yellow one about to be completely rebuilt by Restoration and Performance Motorcars in Vermont. I even had a brief e-mail exchange about a car in Salzburg. I quickly realized there is a fundamental choice to be made when buying a vintage car (one some people make about their second spouses): original or restored? Many collectors and show judges prize “survivor” cars that have been well cared for and have never been changed or restored. Others want perfection— a car that looks and drives better than it did the day it rolled out of the factory. I clearly belonged to the former category.

A whole new world opened up when I discovered a Web site called It included a forum with hundreds of subscribers devoted just to Dinos. I had now entered the realm of the fanatic and found an extensive and expert support group. Most vintage-car brands have similar sites, and anyone considering a purchase would do well to become a member. One chatter said to check to verify the history of any car I was thinking of buying. Most stressed hiring a mechanic familiar with Dinos to do a thorough PPI, or pre-purchase inspection, and even recommended local shops. Others advised making sure the vehicle has all the books and tools with which it left the factory. “If it doesn’t, make an appropriate price adjustment,” one wrote. I asked the Long Island dealer about this, and despite his assurances that they were not important, it turned out period-correct items were worth more than $10,000. Buyer beware!

Narrowing it Down

Now almost two months into the search, I had worked my way back to the car in California, although, at nearly $200,000, it was the most expensive. “Buy the best you can afford,” a veteran wrote. “Less well-cared-for cars could cost a fortune in deferred maintenance.” I asked the dealer for information about the previous owners then called them—something surprisingly few do.

The first was an internist from Carson City, Nevada, now in his nineties, who had scandalized the town with his penchant for black Italian race cars. From him it had gone to a prominent neurologist in Pasadena who confessed to driving the car only once or twice a year, but keeping it under the care of an experienced mechanic. After the neurologist accepted an offer for the Dino from a dealer in Fort Lauderdale, his mechanic reminded him that he was promised last bid, which he exercised, then resold the vehicle to Legendary Motorcars, run by Terry Price in Gazelle, California. As it turned out, the Floridian dealer, Ed Waterman, was someone I had spoken to about another car. An honest gent, he advised me to buy the car—it was the real thing. The doctor’s mechanic, a cheerful Brit, told me the same. Dinophile Jim Selevan sent this message: “If you are advised by a marginal PPI report not to purchase the car, I guarantee that you will sandpaper your face and kick yourself in the behind one year from now when you have not enjoyed a year of driving the car.” I decided to take the plunge.

The Moment of Truth

I checked Terry Price’s references by speaking to three collectors who had bought cars worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, often just on his word. Price had begun to grow impatient with me: “I’m not going to beg you to buy the best Dino for sale on earth today!” Finally, he agreed that if I bought the car he would ship it to a first-class mechanic outside San Francisco, Juan Villarreal at Grand Prix Motors, to install new belts and hoses and do anything else necessary. And he would pay all costs over $2,500.

I searched the area’s Yellow Pages online and found a local private investigator to go to Villarreal’s shop and verify the car’s odometer and serial numbers. She called and said it was “one beautiful vehicle.” I was getting ready to send off a huge amount of money to someone I’d never met for a car I’d never seen. Chatter champtc, a car lunatic who lives nearby, reassured me: “I’ve taken two of these cars apart down to the frames. I promise you I’ll help you fix anything that needs it, and you won’t have to spend thousands of dollars, either.” A Californian chatter named Omgjon, who was in the middle of an epic restoration, promised extensive documentation and aid if needed. The check went out. Soon, Villarreal was on the phone. “This is the most original Dino I’ve ever seen,” he told me. The suspension and steering were tight and the engine was perfect, no rust or signs of damage anywhere. The paint was original, but a new water pump and Dinoplex ignition were needed. Price was good to his word and paid the overage.

Two weeks later a tractor trailer pulled up on my street, and the Dino emerged. It started up on the first turn of the key. On the road it handled more truly than any car I had ever driven. I was literally grinning from ear to ear. I posted some pictures on FerrariChat and received compliments and a reply: “Here’s one very important fact to consider. Regardless of visible wear, tire manufacturers recommend replacing tires that are more than seven years old due to structural and material degradation. Old tires can be dangerous, though they may look fine. Don’t take a chance on them!” Sure enough, two of the sidewalls crumbled when a local mechanic took them off the rims. “Whoever told you to do this saved you a major wreck and maybe even your life,” he said.

A few days ago my 14-year-old son insisted I take him on a drive. After two minutes he stopped talking, and we spent a half-hour just listening to the engine as I used some of the techniques I’d learned at a Skip Barber performance-driving school. Back in front of our garage, Wyatt bent down and gave the front fender flare a long hug. It was the beginning of a beautiful, well-researched friendship.

where to go online
Ferrari-centric chat site with forums
Ferrari info and vintage auto ads
Classified ad site for collectible cars
Honest and reputable dealer Terry Price offers many vintage marques.
Dealer Ed Waterman has an excellent reputation for vintage exotics.

top five tips

  1. Get a comprehensive list of previous owners and call them.
  2. Join a model-specific online forum for advice and help.
  3. Find a qualified mechanic and get a thorough PPI.
  4. Check for original books, tools, and service records.
  5. Determine age of tires, brake lines, and other vital parts. Where possible, modernize.