How To Beat The Bodgers Part 1: MOT History
Buying a classic car can be the start of a beautiful new friendship or it can be a trip down a very deep, black hole lined with £10 notes. Even serial classic car enthusiasts will have experienced the mind numbing horror of trying to make right a car that is one short simple word - a dog.
So how can you sort the cream from the crap? Through our sister company Great Driving Days we've bought and sold a lot of classic cars and while it hasn't immunised us against duds and bangers, it's taught us a few tricks.
This is the first article in a series designed to help you sift the diamonds from the dogs. It's based on what we've learned from 13 years dealing with old cars. To pre-empt the tiny minority of keyboard warriors out there - it's not an exhaustive checklist, but it should give you a helpful head start when buying a classic car.
Read The MOT History Carefully
The DVLA isn't particularly noted for its positive contribution to motoring, but its decision to put the MOT history of every car online is one of its best. Like any historical documents, to get the best out of this information you need to look at what it implies, not just what it actually says.
And yes, we know that classic cars over 40 years don't need a MOT. To which we say - if the seller can't be bothered to voluntarily get an annual MOT check done, don't bother buying the car.
The mileage is not just there to help you avoid a clocked car. From the mileage figure you can build a picture of how often the car is used. Miniscule mileage is not, in our opinion, what you want to see - unused cars store up problems for future owners, problems that will reveal themselves as soon as you start using the car frequently. Low use is often cited by owners as a positive - we think differently. When we add a car to the Great Driving Days fleet the sudden increase in use always flushes out problems, often involving ancillaries like alternators, starter motors and so on. Lack of use also affects brake parts.
Reasonable use of 1,000 miles per year or more is healthy use.
Barely used cars therefore potentially present a higher risk that you should factor into your negotiations.
The exception to this rule is any low mileage car as this is part of the value of the car. In these cases we'd want to see proof of good storage and regular servicing.
The frequency of MOTs also needs to be interrogated. Classic cars that are often little used tend to miss MOTs from year to year, either because they're not being used or because the owner doesn't want to spend the money.
Ideally, you want a full set of annual MOTs or an explanation for gaps. If the owner tells you his car doesn't legally need a MOT, this should be a red flag. It is true that cars over 40 years old don't have to be MOT'd - but this is not the same as 'not needing' a MOT. All cars 'need' a MOT, because it provides an annual, independent assessment of their condition. Without it, how do you know what condition it is in?
MOT fails should not unduly worry you. Classic cars are old cars and they're prone to deteriorate, even within 12 months between MOTs. The occasional fail is par for the course.
But you should watch out for both regular fails, because this can indicate poor condition or poor maintenance, and how quickly the fail converts to a pass. The time taken to repair the problems will tell you how flush the owner is and how much the car gets used. You should ask to see the invoice for the repair work - or evidence of the work if the owner has done it themselves.
Also check whether the fail and pass were issued by the same MOT station. It is not uncommon for different MOT testers to take different views on fail items. Obviously you want to rely on the more fastidious tester who failed it in the first place.
Cars that fail a MOT then mysteriously pass weeks or months later need to be checked very carefully. Invoices for repairs or parts should back up the work. A car that fails on a long list of structural problems then passes first time, without advisories, at the next test should be a cause for concern. It is not uncommon to find re-tested cars fail on one item or have various advisories, either because the owner has requested that only major items are fixed - and not advisories - or because repairing the car throws up new faults, such as emissions or new brake parts that take time to bed in. A car in poor condition does not usually magically transform into one in A1 health without a few teething problems.
Don't forget to ask the obvious question: if the list of MOT fails looks expensive, perhaps more than the value of the car, is it really likely that they were all fixed correctly?
MOT Test Station
If you have access to the car's V5 then you can get more details on the test station that issued the MOT. Potentially this could be very useful, but you're unlikely to have this information until you buy the car. And we can imagine MOT testers getting quickly irked by potential owners calling them to check up on cars.
A car's history is your guide to its condition. Because you can't always see that condition, either because it's hidden by original design or artfully bodged, you need to sift through the clues. And there's no better place to start than the MOT history.
Old MOTs give you a record of the car's use and condition over time. So you get a useful jumping off point to cross check against the maintenance invoices. Bear in mind that lack of use is not necessarily a selling point and make sure that any MOT repairs are backed by garage or parts invoices.