Tim Suddard
Tim Suddard Publisher
12/10/18 4:40 p.m.
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How do you differentiate a car in stellar condition from one that’s simply in really, really good shape? What separates the so-so from the kinda terrible? The good from the okay?

That’s where a grading system comes into play. In recent years, those who buy, sell, restore and show classic cars have adopted an objective four-point condition scale. Insurance companies, led by Hagerty, have also made it their business to price virtually all collector cars based on this shared rubric.

Settling the Score

However, not everyone fully understands these ratings. Case in point: We recently purchased, sight unseen, a 1971 Alfa Romeo Spider. This is last of the 1750cc-engined Spiders and also among the first of the square-tail cars.

According to Hagerty’s valuation tool–which you can access for free at hagerty.com, even if you don’t have a policy–prices for this particular year and model have been totally flat for the last five years. We’ve watched earlier Alfa Romeo Spiders climb in value and figured now was the time to lock in a square-tail car.

This one was billed as a No. 3 car–more pristine than a daily driver, but not really a show winner. Think of No. 3 vehicles as good examples.

Once we fetched the car, however, we found its condition to be a notch worse than advertised. We’d charitably call it fair–on the grading scale, that’s No. 4, the lowest rung.

There are numerous issues to correct, most of them cosmetic. Rather than complain, we see an opportunity to more deeply explore this rating system as we fix the car’s flaws. Our mission: Elevate our Alfa’s condition by a grade.

Easy as 1,2,3,4

For every year, make and model of vehicle, Hagerty offers value estimates for four condition levels. Here are their specifics:

No. 1 vehicles are the best in the world. The visual image is of the best vehicle, in the right colors, driving onto the lawn at the finest concours. Perfectly clean, these vehicles have been groomed down to the tire treads. Painted and chromed surfaces are mirrorlike. Dust and dirt are banned, and materials used are correct and superbly fitted. The one-word description for No. 1 vehicles is “concours.”

No. 2 vehicles could win a local or regional show. They can be former No. 1 vehicles that have been driven or have aged. Seasoned observers have to look closely for flaws, but are able to find some that would be unseen by the general public. The paint, chrome, glass and finishes all appear as excellent. No excessive smoke is seen on startup, and no unusual noises emanate from the engine. The vehicle drives as a new vehicle of its era would. The one-word description for No. 2 examples is “excellent.”

No. 3 vehicles possess some–but not all–of the issues of a No.4 example. These issues are balanced by other factors, such as a fresh paint job or a new, correct interior where applicable. The casual passerby will not find any visual flaws. No. 3 vehicles drive and run well, but some parts might be incorrect. While they aren’t used for daily transportation, they are ready for a long tour without excuses. “Good” is the one-word description of a No. 3 example.

No. 4 vehicles are daily drivers, with flaws visible to the naked eye. The chrome might have pitting or scratches, and the windshield might be chipped. Paintwork is imperfect, and perhaps the body has a minor dent. Split seams or a cracked dash, where applicable, might be present. No major parts are missing, but the wheels could differ from the originals, or other non-stock additions might be present. A No. 4 vehicle can also be a deteriorated restoration. “Fair” is the one word that describes a No. 4 example.

A Fairly Good Deal

The ad for our 1971 Alfa Romeo Spider described it as “a solid No. 3 driver-level Spider with clean cosmetics.” We paid about $8000 for it via Bring a Trailer. Assuming it really was in No. 3 condition, we figured we’d stolen it.

Once we saw the car in person and determined it was actually a No. 4 car, we still thought we did okay. The latest Hagerty Price Guide lists the following values for our particular make and model:

• No. 1 (concours condition): $31,400

• No. 2 (excellent condition): $18,800

• No. 3 (good condition): $14,200

• No. 4 (fair condition): $9,500

Rounding Errors

How would most people rate their own cars? No. 1, right? Well, they may need to take off those rose-colored glasses.

No. 1 cars rarely exist–maybe a few hundred out of the entire universe of classics. They’re the absolute best of the absolute best. Picture a Pebble Beach winner, and that’s your No. 1 example. The minute that No. 1 car is driven off the Pebble Beach greens, its condition drops to No. 2.

What most of us know are No. 3 and No. 4 cars–good, honest examples that, we have to admit, aren’t quite as they rolled off the showroom floor.

Then there are No. 5 cars, a category Hagerty doesn’t cover. These are the non-runners, restoration projects and other examples needing a lot of work.

In our case, we had a No. 4 car that had been advertised as a No. 3. What will it take to move it up a grade? In our next installment we take a closer look, piece by piece, to determine what needs fixing.

Read the rest of the story

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