Do you have proof?

This is an article by Beat Walti published in Automobile Club of Switzerland (ACS) Section Zurich magazine in February 2021. The translation to English and publication in TMC has been authorized by the author.

Buying a classic car is a matter of the heart. Often it is love at first sight that leads us to spontaneous purchases, but the old saying “love is blind” unfortunately also applies to the most beautiful hobby in the world. I know countless stories of disappointed buyers who paid a lot of money for classic junk. I’ve been dealing with classic cars for almost 50 years now and I think I know my way around, but I’ve also had to learn one or two lessons the hard way.  I bought a classic car unseen over the phone once – nota bene on the recommendation of a brand specialist(!)…the result of which I ended up with a bloody nose! By the time the car finally met my expectations of quality and operational safety, I invested roughly twice the market value. Never mind, as I now enjoy the car tremendously and selling it is out of the question anyway!

With today’s sources of information and the large number of recognized specialists, it’s easier to get a qualified picture of a specific car (or motorcycle). Originality and authenticity are essential, and as such, one must always seek the most complete documentation of a classic car possible. An engine can be restored, a tattered interior or paint replaced,…but a missing history is, in most cases, lost forever. Gaps in the vehicle’s documentation of years or even decades are, for me, killer arguments against its purchase. As a buyer, you have the greater leverage. There are dozens of E-Types on the market, there are around 30 Daytonas on offer at any given time, not to mention probably hundreds of 911s or MGBs. In this context, beware of statements such as: “The car was probably driven by Niki Lauda once”, or “(such and such celebrity) was probably the first owner” or the classic par excellence: “According to our information, the engine was restored a few years ago for 60’000 francs, but receipts can unfortunately no longer be found.” Sound the alarm! Forget it! Run as fast as you can!

Only what can be proven beyond a doubt with official, bona fide documents, invoices, letters, photos, queries from previous owners, etc. is credible. There are now enough recognized (brand) specialists who can reliably check the documentation of a classic car for sale. I recently checked out a Bentley S1 Saloon (an unfulfilled dream of mine). The only thing the seller could show in terms of history was an invoice for a minor service two years ago. Rarely have I laughed so much. If you are lucky enough to get hold of a fully documented classic, keep every tiny snippet. Never throw anything away! If the fuel pump is replaced, keep the old one! The original corroded magnesium rims replaced with reproduction parts? Store them! Never have “matching numbers”  been as valuable as they are today.

There are now excellent tools such as “The Motor Chain” to bring order and clarity into the documentation of your favorite classic. It is a highly effective tool, not only to organize the history of your car, but also to save it for all eternity. Depending on the amount of data available, the initial effort to scan everything, take photos and classify them by subject area on this platform may sound a little time-consuming. But the result is a wonderful documentation of your car, which you can even view on your mobile phone at any time. You can give your garage owner or a potential buyer customized and private access to the data. A history that is as complete as possible is essential, regardless of whether the car costs “only” ten thousand or one million. No matter how seductively shiny the Pagoda may be, if the history consists only of question marks and unconfirmed information, extreme caution is required.

But what about the sensational barn find without any documentation? The ominous Alfa 8C (wishful thinking!) which has served as a chicken coop for the past 70 years? These, dear collectors, are the exceptions to the rule…the Mikron in the world of classic cars. Even with such a supposed treasure, today’s technology can reliably verify whether the chickens laid their eggs on the very seat where Tazio Nuvolari once sat or whether they were the victim of a scam. Not that the chickens would care very much, I suppose.

In any case, you, dear buyer, have the advantage in the current market. There is a huge selection of good vintage cars. If the weight of all the documents you have collected roughly equals that of your engine, you are in good shape! Seriously: to secure the best classic all you need is a cool head and patience to find the most authentic example and not fall victim to charlatans. Henry Ford called history “bunk”. For a classic car though, it is irreplaceable in the truest sense of the word.