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How To Buy A "New Classic" EFI GM

Part I: Inspections and Appraisals

Rick Jensen Jan 29, 2014
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If you came of driving age in the '80s and '90s, you witnessed the rebirth of GM muscle cars. Pavement-pounding Turbo Buicks, sleek TPI and LT1 F-bodies, and 170-mph Corvettes led the charge, while wicked AWD Syclone and Typhoon trucks conquered the stoplight battles. It was a new performance era—a fuel-injected era—that seems like only yesterday.

But it wasn't yesterday—as hard as it is to believe, some of our cherished EFI GMs are nearly 30 years old. And just like you (and us), they've become classics.

If you've been keeping up with their values, you know that many have bottomed out, and are now appreciating. That can be good or bad, depending on if you are an owner or a buyer. But whichever side of the deal you're on, know two things: One, Internet car shopping is full of perils. And two, whether it's in your garage or in your dreams, you don't know nearly enough about that vehicle—or its value!

Let's say you're shopping for a low-mile LT1 Corvette, or one of 5,512 1986 GNs made. Chances are you'll visit some online "trader" sites, do some research, and run a Carfax. You've found a few possibilities, things are looking good, and you're starting to get excited. At this point, all it will take is a good sales pitch from an owner, and you'll gladly spend serious money to get the EFI GM of your dreams. But before you pull the trigger, answer this: how well do you really know this vehicle?

Buick And Chevrolet 2/6

Now, let's turn the tables: say you already own a couple of valuable EFI classics, like an all-original Syclone and an LT4 Camaro SS. Life is grand, right? But think on this: if they're ever in an accident, will your standard, stated-value insurance (or the other guy's insurance company) give you a true market value settlement? And if you go to sell them for way more than the current book value, will you be able to get that price, and will the buyer be able to finance the deal?

Both scenarios are examples of what can happen, when the affordable EFI GMs we grew up with skyrocketed up in price and desirability. And that makes it all the more critical that you cover all of the bases when buying them, and understand their true value when owning them.

Thankfully, you can protect yourself, both before, and after the sale with pre-purchase inspections and appraisals.

Pre-Purchase Inspections

The pre-purchase inspection is a great tool for a car buyer. And it's especially important in the age of online car shopping. Because online car shopping is both the best, and the absolute worst; guys wanting crazy money for project cars, shady hustlers pushing chop-shop "beauties," and that one chooch with a "factory" 1999 LS6 Vette. Once you realize that there's no way you can make several long-distance trips to inspect your finalists yourself, you understand why it makes sense to spend a few bucks for a professional to inspect them for you.

"Our pre-purchase inspections help online car shoppers weed out bad examples," states David Williams of Auto Appraisal Network. "Lots of guys are getting sentimental and looking online for the car they owned, or wanted to own, years ago. And the best way to find a mechanically sound, good-driving vehicle is to have it inspected beforehand."


Just as a pre-purchase inspection protects potential buyers, an appraisal helps current owners, and their insurance companies, determine a vehicle's worth so there are no surprises if a claim comes up.

"Any time insurance companies are involved, a solid, thorough appraisal is needed to be able to prove what you have," David says. "And that takes a substantial amount of vehicle information."

Knowing an accurate value is great. But it's critical if, God forbid, you're ever in an accident in a "fault" state. You'd want the other person's insurance to pay, but even if it's their fault, it doesn't mean that their insurance company values your classic like your classic insurance company does. In this case, an appraisal would protect you from possible lowball settlement offers.

Appraising Your "New Classic" Late-Model Vehicle

Once you book an appraisal with a company like Auto Appraisal Network, appraisers at the home office will start researching the vehicle and its options. Next, a trained professional will meet up with you to visually inspect the vehicle—and they'll bring a camera, computer, and the requisite knowledge, of course. The appraisal may take several hours, with customized vehicles needing more time. Documents, awards, magazine articles, etc. will be documented, as will the vehicle's history from the original owner to you. Engine and drivetrain options will be verified, and the entire vehicle will be photographed to document its condition. Any differences between an original and a restoration will be noted. Major power options, like a power top, will be checked for operation, and the vehicle will be inspected for leaks. A test drive may also be done.

The VIN, cowl tag, odometer, and any other identifying numbers, like block codes, will be checked. And because newer vehicles have the longer, 17-digit VINs, appraisers get more info from them than from the older VINs.

"One nice thing about this era is the standardized, 17-digit VINs," David explains. "They give a lot more information, specifically digits 4-8, which decipher the drivetrain and body style.

17 Digit Vin 3/6

1 Our late-model EFI GMs have 17-digit VINs, which are chock-full of useful information, including drivetrain info and body style. In comparison, older vehicles give appraisers the full picture with a mix of VIN tags, trim tags, and codes on the block and elsewhere. This VIN, for a 1987 Turbo Buick, is found in the lower driver-side corner of the windshield.

"At the same time, some of the other IDs have become less important, but as these cars appreciate in value, someone will amass all the details specific to a collectible car of the period. I'm sure the information is there, but until the values increase it's not readily available." (FYI, David's site links to a popular VIN decoder; you can use it at

Trim Body Tag Buick 4/6

2 Trim/body tags, like this tag under a Turbo Buick’s wipers, are also a good source of info; Interestingly, appraisers pay close attention to the rivets or bolts holding these tags in place. If the paint looks “off” or the plate doesn’t look right, it may have been tampered with.

The computers in our newer hot rods pose a challenge to appraisers. While some vehicles require a trip to a specialist, appraisers often can use portable diagnostic tools to determine if the vehicle is stock or modified.

"With some vehicles, we can use electronics to ‘ask' the car what's been done," Williams reveals. "This era started out with basic OBD-I and OBD-II systems. For most cars, the lines of code add up in characters, and at the end of the code, it is called a checksum. This checksum is an electronic ID for firmware on a car. Manufacturer-specific tools can read the checksum and determine what code is installed—think of it as the digital version of checking a classic car's rear axle."

Depending on the goal, these electronic tests can be taken in a positive or negative light: Finding a checksum for "Euro" firmware in a vehicle may be more sought after than a U.S. checksum, due to our lower power outputs and more stringent emissions regulations. Finding a checksum for a modified tune may be desirable for a performance enthusiast—or it can be a deterrent to someone who wants a dead-stock vehicle.

Once the appraiser is finished, all of the information is sent back to the main office. There, the company organizes the photos and reviews the report. The VIN, chassis numbers, and engine numbers are checked to make sure they match up, and the options list is gone through for abnormalities. Comparables are run on stock vehicles to establish a value, and a final report is created for the customer, containing vehicle info, photos, details of the inspection, comparables, and a replacement value of the vehicle.

That value may be higher or lower than you think it should be. But whatever the value, you and your insurance company can use it to your advantage. This is the first big step in protecting your investment.

Whether you need a pre-purchase inspection or your current vehicle's value, these tips will help you make the best choice.

Pre-Purchase Inspection Or Appraisal?

Which do you need? Well, pre-purchase inspections deal with the vehicle's condition; they protect potential buyers from vehicles in poor condition, or of questionable provenance.

And appraisals deal with the vehicle's value; they protect a current owner by proving its actual value. This reinforces any agreed-value insurance that you set with your company, and protects you from lowball settlement offers from the other guy's company, in case of accident. (We'll be covering collector car insurance in a future story.)

Buick Turbo Gm Service Parts Identification 5/6

3 The GM Service Parts Identification Label (SPID) identifies parts and options that were originally installed on that specific vehicle. They can be found in various places, depending on the vehicle. Turbo Buicks have one underneath the trunk lid. F-bodies have one in the glovebox up to ’97, and in the driver’s side door jam on ’98-’02 examples, like on this ’02 WS6.

Chevrolet Camaro Gm Service Parts Identification 6/6

3 The GM Service Parts Identification Label (SPID) identifies parts and options that were originally installed on that specific vehicle. They can be found in various places, depending on the vehicle. Turbo Buicks have one underneath the trunk lid. F-bodies have one in the glovebox up to ’97, and in the driver’s side door jam on ’98-’02 examples, like on this ’02 WS6.

Stock or Modified?

According to the AAN, owners of stock vehicles may be able to do online appraisals themselves. They're typically more affordable than in-person appraisals, and a good resource for owners in rural areas who don't mind taking their own photos.

THe AAN also states that the owners of modified or custom vehicles, or vehicles that are worth over $60,000, will probably require in-person appraisals.

However, most appraisers recommend or require an in-person appraisal whenever possible; things like paint quality are hard to judge by looking at a photo. And some vehicles may have replacement engines or other hard-to-spot changes—a trained appraiser will be your best friend in these cases!

Ask Around

Your local body shop or insurance company might have leads for you, but be sure their recommendations are objective. When you find a potential appraiser, here are some good questions to ask:

Do you have a personal connection to this vehicle, or its owner that would prevent an objective appraisal?
Are you licensed/bonded/insured?
How long have you been doing appraisals?
Do you have experience with many kinds of vehicles, and my model?
Do you work with my insurance company? What other insurance companies do you work with?

Use caution with appraisers who claim they're experts in all vehicles—each appraisal is a massive undertaking, so those individuals probably aren't.

Be sure to spend some time with each of your "finalists" and listen to your gut—good appraisers should come off as friendly, helpful, understanding, ethical, unbiased—and not an expert about everything, anywhere.

Also, be sure to ask your insurance company if they'll honor an appraisal, and if they do, from which companies.

Get Quotes

Get cost estimates, or fill out online request forms, for your finalists. Be sure to input the vehicle info consistently on each estimate. Be specific about your vehicle type, mods (if any), timeframe, and ask if any other fees will be applied to this appraisal (travel mileage, etc.)

Choose Your Appraiser

If they have given you good service and a good gut feeling, they know your vehicle type, and they've said they'll give an objective appraisal, the hard work's done. Choose your company, and schedule your appointment.

Prepare For The Appraisal

Appraisals are usually done at your place, but they can also be done at the appraiser's office. Assemble the license, registration (title), manual(s), keys, service records, and any tank stickers, Protect-O-Plate, etc. documentation for the appraiser. Move the vehicle to a place with uniform light (no hard shadows/lights), clean out the interior, and wash the exterior, if you like.

Pay and Wait

Most appraisers ask for payment after the on-site appraisal is done. Check with your company to be sure.

When the report comes, you'll be like a kid on Christmas morning. As you pore over the vehicle's newly revealed awesomeness, realize that you're in a much better place knowledge-wise, and covered from a legal and insurance standpoint. Good times.

Mechanical inspection

Finally, consider a mechanical inspection of the vehicle while you're waiting for the appraisal to come back.

If you like what you see in your pre-purchase inspection report, be sure to have a mechanical check done by a reputable, objective mechanic before making an offer. If it passes, you're about as informed as you can be! Now, don't forget to tune in to Part II of our How To Buy a "New Classic" series—we'll be discussing how to get financing for classic vehicle purchases.


Auto Appraisal Network
Lake Forest, CA 92630



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