No event in our lives holds as many hopes and expectations, or as great a potential for a crushing letdown, as buying a used car-except for maybe a date with a supermodel (tip: always find out what she models). If you're anything like us, you love the excitement of looking for that next project. We buy all the typical publications: The Recycler, Auto Trader, Hemmings Motor News, and the like, and we scan the Internet. As we're doing our research, visions of rust-free, dent-free Camaros dance through our heads. We find a couple of Camaros that fit our imaginings and make arrangements to take a look at them, but, unfortunately, they rarely live up to our expectations.
We were recently on the hunt again, this time for a First-Gen Camaro. So we went through our regular routine and-eureka!-finally found just what we were looking for. Follow along as we detail what our routine is and pass along some tips we've found that make the entire process easier and more rewarding.
Set Your Goals
Before you can even start a successful Camaro search, you need to set some parameters. How much money you can afford to spend will dictate the type and condition of the Camaros you can reasonably look at. Can you afford to buy one that's fixed up and ready to enjoy as is, or do you need to find one that will need some work and parts that you can purchase as money allows? Never spend all your money buying the Camaro; after all, it's a used car and unexpected repairs are inevitable. Nothing is worse than being unable to drive your new Camaro because you don't have the money to fix a problem.
How much of the work can you do yourself? Do you have the garage space and tools necessary to do the work? If you'll need to farm out a lot of the labor, then you must realize that a large portion of your budget will be allocated for that. One of the biggest problems first-time builders have is that they arrive at the middle of a project and then run out of money, or enthusiasm, or both. A tried-and-true practice is to estimate your expenses and then double the amount. Also, keep in mind that these half-finished projects can be a good buy as long as the work has been done well and meshes with your goals. You don't want to have to redo a lot of the work.
It's also essential that you consider the type of Camaro you want. Be true to yourself: It's your money and you're the one who's going to drive and cherish it when it's done. If your dream Camaro is a Third-Gen with a six-cylinder, then by all means build it. But do so with the knowledge that when the time comes to sell, it might take a while, and you might not realize a return on your investment. After you've set the year and model you want, devise a profile of what you expect it to do for you after the buildup. If it will be a daily-driver, then a blown-injected, alcohol-burning big-block might not be the best choice.
Other important factors to consider are the parts you're going to have to replace. If you have a fresh engine and transmission sitting in the garage, then look for one with no engine or an engine that's not running. It makes no sense to pay for parts that are going to be replaced during the buildup. In my case, I knew I'd be replacing the entire drivetrain, so the most important thing for me was to find a Camaro with a clean body and a straight subframe.
Camaros are everywhere. Typically, it shouldn't be necessary to travel too far to find what you're looking for unless you want an ultra-rare model. The obvious place to start is the newspaper classified ads for the local and surrounding cities. Most areas are covered by some kind of a specialty publication, such as The Recycler or Auto Trader, which cover a broader territory than the local paper. Several nationwide publications, such as Hemmings Motor News and Old Car Trader, are also available if your search has come up empty. The problem with these publications is that they list ads from around the nation, so you need to be prepared to travel.
Read the ads thoroughly, the Camaro you want might not be listed in the area where you think it should be. Someone might be trying to sell two vehicles in one ad. For example, if someone is selling a GTO and a Camaro, the ad might be in the Pontiac section. Read as many ads and look at as many Camaros as you can to educate yourself on the going rates for the model you're interested in. Once you've found some potential candidates, call the sellers, and if they still sound interesting, go look at them.
Swap meets and cars shows are good places to start your search. Be prepared for some variations in asking prices; some owners operate under the theory of testing what the market will bear and put outrageous prices on their cars. Others really want to sell that very day and set their price accordingly. If you find a Camaro you like, but it's priced higher than you think it's worth, write down the seller's phone number and call in a few weeks. It'll probably still be unsold, and the owner might be motivated to lower his price. This strategy also works well when responding to classified ads. It's not uncommon to call about a Camaro that was advertised a couple of months before and find it not only still for sale but for less money.
You can also find a deal by driving around your neighborhood and scouting the type of Camaro you want. Don't be afraid to ask the owner if it might be for sale. If it's not, maybe he knows of a similar one that might be. Leave your phone number with him and thank him for his time. You might be surprised by the number of return calls you get. Of course, the majority of calls will come after you've found your next project.
What You Want To Know
When it's time to make a call on an ad you're interested in, be sure to gather as much information as possible from the seller by phone before you go look at it. Remember the owner's trying to sell it, so take whatever he or she tells you with a grain of salt. The owner should be willing to take the time to answer your questions over the phone. If the owner acts as if you're infringing on his or her time, move on. Armed with all the information you can muster, you can better decide whether a trip to get a look at it is worth your time. But be prepared to be disappointed. Here are some of the most important things to ask:
*What's the model? Many times, the ad might not mention whether it's a Rally Sport or Super Sport.
*What condition is the body in? This one is very subjective; what's good to one person might be junk to another.
*What condition are the engine and drivetrain in? Find out how many miles are on it. If repairs have been made, ask if there are receipts to prove it.
*Is the registration up to date? If not, it can be quite expensive to renew. Check with your local DMV about the renewal fees before you make an offer.
*Does he have the Certificate of Ownership? Never buy a Camaro without the appropriate paperwork.
Diamond In The Rough
Make arrangements with the seller to look at the Camaro. Set a time during the day so that you have good light and can see as much as possible. Paint and bodywork can appear a lot better at night under artificial light.
Be prepared to crawl under and around it to look for signs of rust, rust repair, subframe damage, or poor maintenance. If the Camaro's front end is a different color, there's a good chance it has been in an accident. If that's the case, make sure the subframe is straight. Look at all the gaps in the sheetmetal. If there are wide variations in them, look for the reason why. Is it just an adjustment problem or is something out of square?
Check the fluids. Look under the seat and around the interior for bottles of oil or transmission fluid or the funnels used to top off the levels. If you find those items, then there's a strong indication that the engine or transmission might be burning more oil than normal. Both times when I went to look at the Camaro I bought, the owner was putting in engine oil. That's definitely not something you want to see unless you're planning to replace the engine and transmission soon.
Let's Seal The Deal
Now that you've found a candidate for your next project, it's time to hammer out a deal that, hopefully, will make both parties happy. Always be polite. If a Camaro you've arranged to look at is something other than as represented, take a quick look and leave. If you like it, but it's over-priced, make an offer. Don't tell the seller all the things that are wrong with it. He already knows and doesn't care. He knows you're interested or you wouldn't be there. If you upset the owner, he's not going to budge an inch. If he refuses your offer, leave your phone number, thank him for his time, and move on. Time is on your side, and you'll be surprised how many return calls you'll get.
Don't get emotionally attached. It's hard when you're looking at several Camaros and then find one that interests you. As a gearhead you already have the Camaro built in your mind and hate to give up on one that matches your visions. Even if that deal doesn't happen, another one will. There are lots of Camaros out there.
Bring the cash with you. Make an offer and show the seller the cash. Cash talks and everything else walks. Many times, just the presence of a wad of cash is enough to bring a reluctant seller around to your way of thinking. Another possible way to turn a no-sale around is to make sure the owner's wife or girlfriend witnesses the cash offer. She might be the one writing the checks and balancing the budget.
Following the advice outlined above will give you the best possible beginning and increased confidence when you're scouting for your next Camaro.
Some Useful Tips
Generally, it's less costly in the long run to buy a Camaro with a sick engine and a pristine body than one with a rotten body but a stout engine. Most of us can swap a motor, but bodywork gets expensive real quick.
Take an impartial friend along when you look at the Camaro. When you test-drive it, your friend can follow you and check how it's tracking and notice any unusual smoke from the tailpipe. But most importantly, he might notice things you missed in all your wide-eyed excitement to buy a new Camaro. Check the little things.
Make sure the headlights, wipers, heater, turn signals, seat adjusters, window cranks, and so on work. It might not seem important, but the first time one of those features fails to work, you'll quickly sour on your new purchase; some of the switches can be expensive to repair. Make sure all the paperwork is in order. I cannot recommend this strongly enough. What might seem like a great deal at the time can turn into a nightmare of frustration and expense when you try to transfer ownership. You should be able to go to your local law enforcement department and have someone there check the vehicle identification number (VIN) to verify that the Camaro is currently registered and not stolen (don't ask about registration fees because they will not have that information).
Pride Of Ownership
Always transfer ownership before doing any work on your new car. After you've spent hard-earned money and time rebuilding is not the time to find out that the paperwork isn't clean. If you bought a driver, spend a weekend getting to know it. Change all the fluids (engine oil, transmission fluid, coolant, and the like) even if the previous owner told you he'd just done it. Check the brake system and replace anything that looks questionable. Tune up the engine by replacing the plugs, points, and condenser (if so equipped). Replace the belts and hoses. By doing all of this you're guaranteed to have the best possible start down the road of Camaro ownership.