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How to Buy a Classic Car Without Going Broke

You drive out onto the open road in a classic car, immediately lost in a wondrous dream, the metaphysical melding of man (or woman) and machine that takes place at some intangible, unconscious level. And then you wake up, brought down from your automotive high by the sobering reality of the price tag that accompanies the dream of classic-car ownership. You might find yourself asking some desperate questions. Where does one find a black-market surgeon? How much is a redundant organ worth, anyway? Stop right there; it's not enough. But there is another way.

It's entirely possible to buy a classic car without going broke. True, it might not be the one you've got your heart set on, but it's still very doable if you're willing to make a compromise or two, and put in a little sweat equity.

Be realistic with your expectations, and your budget

Sure, you want an E-Type Jaguar, but unless you're in a position where dropping six figures in cash on a good-condition example doesn't equate with going broke (lucky bastard), you're going to have to face certain financial facts. Once you've sussed your budget, you can start looking for cars in that price range, but you need to leave extra wiggle room for needed repairs and anything that goes wrong -- and on any car of a certain age, something will eventually fail.

Consider compromising on the next best thing

If it's already skyrocketing in cost, you may have missed the boat on the car of your dreams. But you can often get most of the way there for a lot less money. Say, for example, you have your heart set on a 2001-2002 BMW Z3 M Coupe, which is already a modern classic boasting an engine that's well on its way to achieving BMW-legend status. In 1999 and 2000, though, you could buy essentially the same car, but with a still very good, but lesser engine. Today, that's the difference between a $25,000 car and a $55,000 car.
 

Go for a newer generation of something

As a general rule, the values of classics are appraised by generations, rather than specific years. Time and again, you'll see Mustangs and Camaros priced cheaply, relative to the ones produced just a few years earlier. Assuming you aren't completely turned off by the "newer" model, don't be afraid to get on its bandwagon early.

Believe in the power of sweat equity

You don't have to be an expert mechanic or body repair specialist to give an older car some TLC. You'll save a ton by doing as much of your own work as possible. Replacing the carpet is easy on most cars, and many paint jobs can be made to look great -- at least from a few feet away -- with a good day's work.

Research what parts will be pricey -- you'll probably be surprised

It's very easy to fall into the false belief that if a car is mechanically sound, the rest of the car will be relatively simple to fix. The thing is, though, that most manufacturers use mechanical parts on more than one car (think engine and transmission overlap between a Camaro and Corvette, etc.), but some interior and exterior trim pieces could be very hard to find -- and very pricey, even if you manage to track them down. Find an owners forum for the car you're considering and get a feel for what you should watch out for -- other people will have found this stuff out the hard way.

Craigslist is a daily grind in the search for a classic
Screenshot via Craigslist

Be patient, vigilant, and flexible

Once you know exactly what budget you're dealing with, and you've got the car picked out, and you have a good idea of what to look for when you do find it, don't jump on the first one just because it's there. Wait for the right car. Stalk it on eBay, Craigslist, and other classified ads with all the vigilance of a crazed ex rifling through your Facebook. When you do find it, be prepared to make compromises. The color might not be what you want, or it might be a year or two older, and have a few cosmetic differences than the image you have in your head. But in the grand scheme of things, it's quite possibly as close as you're going to get for the money.

Don't be afraid to change the car to make it perfect

OK, so you've found the perfect car, with the right options and everything else, but it's an automatic. So what? Most of the time you can find every part you need in junkyards to convert it to a manual, and for some cars you can buy pre-packaged kits that do the research for you. A car with a heavily oxidized paint job is a great excuse to have the entire car repainted.

There is, however, one fairly huge caveat here: don't ruin a potential classic for something else. Some classic cars are in very good condition overall despite having never been restored or modified in any way. It's an unwritten rule of the car world to preserve them, rather than change them around to your whim.

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Aaron Miller is the Cars editor for Thrillist, and can be found on Twitter. He's been down this road. More than once.