Question of a Lifetime: Buying A Classic From Afar – Yea or Nay?

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One reason I’m unable to post articles here as often as I’d prefer is that my job as a nurse makes me far too tired to pursue much in the way of hobbies. After working twelve to sixteen hour shifts, I am fully content to do nothing on my days off. This doesn’t mean, however, that my car lust has died and despite working an entry-level job, I finally have the money to pursue it. The job market for nurses in Southern Indiana is not the best in terms of wages or union representation, and the used car market is just as bad. My choices are usually rusty and the sort of cars I seek are better represented on the coasts.  So what’s a boy in my orthopedic shoes to do?

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Naturally, the answer is to go online and search.  SearchTempest is a grand search engine which automatically scans all of Craigslist and other similar sites.  Just type in a model name and go–given the nature of classifieds, I like to limit the search to the most recent five days.  I do this quite regularly, and among the cars I found today was this ’89 MR2 in dry, sunny, import-happy Los Angeles.

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A base, naturally aspirated model, I think it looks great with steel wheels and black plastic mirrors and door handles (I have always preferred the way most cars look in base-spec).  It’s been driven 89k miles over the course of its 27 years and suffers from no rust or cracked plastic trim.  And since MR2s don’t have the same cachet as, say, Miatas or GTIs, one is actually able to find a decent example without paying through the nose.  The owner is asking $5999; given how much people ask for, say, CRXs, I think it’s fair.

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Of course, my purchasing this car is not going to happen.  Buying a car over the internet, with bizarre faceless interactions over email and phone just gives me a bad feeling.  I tried a few times to do this over the winter.  I found a very well kept 1987 325i sedan in New Jersey and went through the initial steps of contacting the seller and asking questions, etc. when the car was sold to a more certain, more local buyer before I could make a final decision.  I also found an interesting, very cheap five-speed Mercedes 190E with a 3.0 swap; the seller was unwilling to provide the very basic information one expects to have when forking over $2500 to some one 800 miles away (he wanted to conduct the transaction 100% under the table, did not accept PayPal, wanted no “paper trail” as he put it), and I’ve encountered more than a few similarly flaky, shady sellers.


On the other hand, there are a lot of much happier stories.  Paul helped CC reader Chris Green in his purchase of this pristine 2nd-gen Prelude, helping him recruit a car inspection service to scope out the car which he’d found online.


Enthusiasts in Europe get big American boats imported regularly, while Canadians get very interesting bubble-economy era Japanese metal sent over.  The practice continues, so buyers must be happy.  Persistence is key, but can you ever be 95 percent sure you’re making the right choice?  What if you get that dream car of yours delivered to you only to find the brake pedal sinks to the floor when you first turn the key?  What if it reeks of air freshener?  Such minor issues are only the tip of the iceberg–there are so many variables involved and ample opportunities for details to be botched.  I can’t speak for everyone else, but as someone who works damn hard for every penny, the potential sense of defeat stemming from a bad purchase is terrifying.

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I can find something to love about virtually any car, on the other hand, and I know the chances for satisfaction and joy are just as high.  I would by happy in anything from an ’84-’88 Audi 5000, to a Miata, to a turbocharged first-gen Legacy, to an ’80s Buick Estate Wagon, to a ’70s Plymouth Fury, to an RX7, to a VW Quantum, to an Mk2 Jetta… You get the point; unless I’m pulling a code blue, the day dreaming is non-stop.  When I get the chance, writing for CC functions as a nice blow-off valve, but it’s not just myself I’m worried about.

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My partner’s Mini Cooper S, as brilliant a machine as it is, is now 11 years old and is extremely expensive to repair.  After a $3000 repair for a blown brake line (the complex sculpture which is that car’s muffler needed to be removed to access the brake line and was too rusty to stay in one piece when put back in place) and various other ultra-expensive repairs (window regulators and interior door releases, both broken at the same time, well after the warranty expired), I’d really love to surprise my partner with a Volvo 240 or Saab 900 which is neither beat to hell by a hipster nor overpriced like so many of the decent examples are (go look on eBay to see what I mean).  I’m in a race against his father, who’ll replace it with god knows what tacky machine.  I found this cool one in NJ on eBay; no rust by the A-arms, no rust at the bottoms of the doors, and a headliner which is intact.  At $5,500, it’s actually quite worth it.

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So what do you all think?  Is buying a car from hundreds or thousands of miles away wise if done correctly?  And how can a person so consumed by his job conduct such a transaction with intelligence and savvy?  Does an enthusiast operate under the assumption that most any thirty year old model in good condition is rare or does one embrace a “plenty of fish” protocol?  Chat amongst yourselves and advise: we’re all ears.