How To Sell A Classic Car: 5 Steps for a Perfect Listing

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Story and Photos by Tim Suddard • Illustrations by Sarah Young

Turning a car into cash isn’t that hard: You simply put it up for sale and take the first offer that comes your way.

Getting top dollar for that sale, though, can take some extra work. It’s why so many classics–especially projects–are sold for less than their owners would have liked.

A little while back we stumbled upon a 1965 Sunbeam Tiger that seemed like a good deal. While the seller was willing to part with it, he hadn’t done any preparation for that sale. The car didn’t run, was full of junk, and sat crammed into the corner of a garage. In other words, it was a total mess.

We had found a great deal for ourselves, but there’s something here for all of us: This was a great opportunity to show how much proper preparation matters when selling a car. So we snapped up this Tiger with the express purpose of documenting the process of purchasing, prepping, and selling a car–hopefully for a profit.

Last issue we examined the dos and don’ts of that initial sales transaction. Now it’s time to look at how we got our new prize cleaned, running and ready to fetch top dollar. Don’t think you can do this? You’d be surprised: In the end, this stage of the project didn’t require much time or money–just a weekend and about a hundred dollars. We expect to be repaid several times over for these modest expenditures.

1. Develop a Plan

Before you get started, you will need to make a plan. This is true whether the car you’re selling is a project, incomplete or just in need of some serious TLC.

Your plan should start with the hard reckoning that there are really only two ways to sell a car: as a project, or as 100-percent complete. Anything in between will most likely lose you money.

Let us repeat that: Unless you can convince the buyer that your car is complete and correct, you’ll probably end up selling it as a project. The latter may not be stated outright, but the price will reflect that status.

Why do incomplete projects so frequently sell for pennies on the dollar? Parts are bought, cars are disassembled, fresh paint is sprayed—often at considerable expense—but when the owner decides to sell at this point, much of that money is never recouped. Why the loss? Not having overseen the work themselves, buyers are unable to determine true condition.

Were those transmission and engine rebuilds done correctly? What’s that paint job hiding? Do those boxes really contain all of the parts needed to complete the car? If you’re going to buy or sell a project, the price and expectations need to reflect these concerns.

The first item on the agenda our new purchase was a wash. We wanted to figure out what we'd actually purchased; under the grime and debris, we discovered a pretty good purchase.

Buyers fear the unknown, so learn the answers about any car you're selling. We asked Tiger expert Joe Chiappetta to help evaluate our Sunbeam; he noted that our floors looked nearly perfect and the exhaust was original.

The engine compartment was a hot mess. However, some quick detective work revealed that the car still had many of the special Tiger bits, including the generator, valve covers and air cleaner; that air cleaner, by the way, is now worth more than $1000.

We'd later find the original fan shred and oil filter adaptor in the boxes of spares. Unfortunately, the modern distributor is a giveaway that the engine is most likely not original.

2. Clean It Up

We used our Kärcher heated power washer to clean the engine compartment and chassis. Afterward, it was much easier to provide potential buyers with good, clear pictures. Those photos showed the true story, both the good and the bad: a solid chassis, Koni shock absorbers, and some rust in the wheel wells.

Even if it’s not restored, a clean car is generally more appealing than a dirty one. But how much time are you willing to spend? This usually depends on how far you want to go in order to maximize the price.

Even at the project car level, people buy with the eye. If something looks like a mostly intact, previously well-loved car that just needs a bit of restoration work, it will bring more money than something resembling a hopeless, dirty and abandoned piece of junk.

The idea is not to deceive the buyer, but to accentuate the positives. You want to show off what is really being sold, which means cleaning away the junk, clutter and distractions.

In the case of our Tiger, the car was essentially sound, but that wasn’t readily apparent because the car was buried under decades, worth of grime and debris. We figured that a few days’ work could bring dramatic improvement; even if we couldn’t turn the car into a 10-footer, we could at least make it into a 20-footer that presented itself in its best light.

Whether you have owned the car you want to sell for 25 years or just dragged it home to flip, commit to spending a day with it just learning and cleaning. This way, rather than telling a prospective buyer that you “don’t know of any rust but haven’t really checked,” or, worse, that the car was rust-free when you parked it under that tarp in the backyard 25 years ago, you’ll be able to give a clear report of the car’s current condition.

Your day or weekend of cleanup will bring other benefits: Unless you really want to try and embrace the whole “barn find” approach, taking the time to clean the car inside and out will enhance its value. It will also tell the prospective buyer that you care–something that is surprisingly important to a sale.

One caveat about cleaning: Be careful that you don’t start blowing off decals and other delicate details. You want to clean the car, not damage things.

Which would you rather have: a clean trunk or one filled with junk? Our tiger came with a trunk that was not only a mess, it also smelled like rodent urine.

Once we took a few minutes to clean out the rubbish and vacuum up the mess, the area actually looked presentable. We found a largely intact trunk floor, plus the clubs for the trunk mat that is unique to a Tiger. The one big minus was the poorly done patchwork beneath the battery.

There was more trash in the Tiger's interior, which was definitely not going to appeal to most buyers. We also found an incorrect shift boot that was installed, oddly enough, over the correct one. A little bit of cleaning and a lot of trips to the dumpster, made a huge improvement without spending much time, skill or money.

People buy with the eye. Our Tiger came with the rare, original air cleaner housing, but it was battered and bent. It took us just minutes to get it looking much more appealing thanks to some bead blasting and a can of spray paint.

VIN plates matter-a lot. So we took the time to gently and carefully clean our VIN tag, double-checking that the serial number was correct. Use great care when cleaning something this delicate and important, or you might destroy a crucial element. Our VIN tag was still attached by the original rivets, an important detail in the Tiger world.

3. Get It Running–or Not?

All else being equal, a car that runs is worth more than one that doesn’t; and a car that runs and drives is worth even more. But will the final sale price increase enough to justify the extra time and money spent?

That obviously depends on the car. If it’s complete and has just been sitting for a short time, then getting it running again is often a simple matter of getting clean fuel into a working carburetor. Add some air and spark, and you’re golden.

Obviously this is a pretty gross oversimplification, but on most older cars we’re talking about simple systems, so getting one running usually just takes a few hours and very little money.

As Carl Heideman, our in-house tech and restoration expert notes, the value of completing this step is mostly psychological. Knowing that a car runs–or better yet, runs and drives–is a big confidence booster for both parties.

Even if you can’t get it running, keep in mind that it’s easier to sell a rolling car vs. a non-roller. You will almost always be rewarded for any time you devote to turning a stationary sculpture into something that more closely resembles a vehicle.

Rennie Bryant, owner of Redline BMW Performance, likes working on old classics and offered to pitch in. We used our bead blast cabinet to clean the fouled spark plugs, replaced the fuel filter, and dumped some fresh gas into the tank. We also refilled the radiator with water. (Why not use antifreeze? If there’s a leak, water is easier to clean up.)

Before we invested in a new battery, we brought out a jump box to see if we could get the Tiger started-and were rewarded for our hour of work with an engine that came back to life.

This inspired us to take the next step and get the car driving. This can require a little more time and money, since it usually takes more than elbow grease to make components like the brakes and clutch functional again. Fortunately, our Tiger came with many new parts, including a new clutch slave cylinder, new rotors, new caliper bleeders and new brake pads. We just needed to pick up about $100 worth of seal kits from Victoria British.

4. Fix Minor Stuff

There is no reason not to fix minor problems. We removed a dent from the Tiger’s front sheet metal in 2 minutes using a hammer and dolly. We replaced a piece of trim that had fallen off. The deck lid’s Sunbeam lettering was missing its U, so we replaced that, too. The most difficult thing we did was weld up a broken seat back, which took us an hour and made the car much easier to drive. This is the type of damage that, unrepaired, made our Tiger look more like a relic than a viable automobile purchase.

Even if you're not going to restore the car you're selling, a little bit of bodywork can pay big dividends. Out Tiger's front sheet metal had a small dent - we figure it happened during the engine replacement - and it took just minutes, plus the judicious use of a hammer and dolly, to minimize the appearance.

While we didn't attempt to hide the repair, we made it clear that the fender was in pretty good shape overall.

Nothing throws the eye off like a missing molding; fortunately our friend Joe had a spare. We then cleaned up the chrome with the restorer's friend, some 000 stainless-steel wool.

The hubcaps were all present, but one was dented. We spent les than an hour repairing the damaged hubcap, then cleaned and installed the full set.

5. Decide When to Stop

Remember, sellers rarely recoup full value for money spent on project cars, so beware of project creep. If you’re not going to fully restore the car, know when to stop. Once we dove into the Tiger’s brakes, we could see that the car could also use new brake lines, not to mention wheel bearings and most likely a front end rebuild. And, of course, had we chosen to do that work, we would have wanted to fit new tires as well as cleaning and painting the chassis while we were there.

Instead, once we got the car up and running and were able to take a victory lap around the neighborhood, we stopped with the mechanical work. After all, we were selling it because we did not have time to restore it. At the end of our fix-it weekend we had a running, driving, presentable car–a huge improvement over what we had purchased.

Next issue we’ll jump back into the market with our Tiger, but this time as sellers.

Cleaned up, assembled and sporting freshly painted wheels, our Tiger finally looks like a car that is ready to sell. Next issue, we'll look at what it took to turn our car into cash.

Read the Full How to Sell A Car Series:

How To Sell A Car: 5 Steps to a Seamless Transaction

How To Sell A Classic Car: 5 Steps for a Perfect Listing (This Article)

How to Sell a Classic Car: Making the Sale


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