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Steve Hansen Take note: Buying a vintage car requires a keen eye

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Steve Hansen

Posted: Tuesday, November 22, 2011 12:00 am

Collector car auctions can be a lot of fun. Millions of people have interests in vehicles from the past. I suppose it's a link to a happier time in our history.

Others simply appreciate the freehanded art and originality of older automobiles. Those were the days of unbridled creativity before the advent of massive government regulations.

Back in the late 1970s, a friend of mine asked if I would take him to the next classic car auction in Fremont. He knew that I had owned several older vehicles and wanted some advice on his "dream machine" — a 1957 Chevy.

"I remember that car in high school," Jack told me. "I always wanted one and now I have the means to get it."

I gave him some of the basics of old car-buying. "Condition is everything," I said. "You'll find collector cars here from 'trailer queens' (cars so pristine that they only ride in enclosed trailers between car shows), to junkers that are barely running."

I advised him not to be the first to raise his hand. Let the bidding play out and see where it goes. Have in mind a set price you want to pay, and don't let the "ring men" get your emotions rolling. It's their job to get the highest price possible and yours to get the lowest.

There were a few hundred cars at this auction, so Jack and I split up for most of the event.

The next time I saw him, he was running toward me with a Cheshire cat grim: "I did it," he proclaimed. "I bought my dream car!"

He couldn't wait to lead me to his newly found treasure — parked among a sea of multicolored machines.

It was a real "Plain-Jane." Its ugly "adobe beige" paint, coupled with a gray interior, was not a standout as compared to the two-tone pastel color combinations of that era. It was a lower line "Two-Ten" post model — not the popular Bel-Air hardtop or convertible. The old Chevy had a six-cylinder engine, not the sought-after dual four-barrel or the first year fuel injection V-8 motor. It was equipped with a minimal amount of accessories that even did not include an AM radio. The condition was average, at best.

"What did you pay for this 'artistic masterpiece?'" I inquired.

"$2,500!" he proudly boasted.

When he told me, I gasped. He had shelled out way too much for a grandma's day-to-day transportation timepiece. (In those days, it was about a $1,000 car.)

Jack's faced dropped at the news. He looked around and suddenly disappeared. The next thing I remember was an announcement over the PA system: "Will the person who just bought the beige '57 Chevy please come to the information desk."

I didn't see Jack for the rest of the auction. I returned to my car in the parking lot, figuring he would eventually show up. To my surprise, there he was — hunkered in the back seat.

"Hurry, let's get out of here before someone sees me!" he pleaded.

We left without a hitch and obviously, without that '57 Chevy. Jack had ditched the deal. For a long time following that experience, he wanted nothing to do with the old car market until a few years later when the bug bit him again.

This time, we went to a reputable classic car dealer and picked out an all-original, low-mileage, two-owner read and white Bel-Air beauty that included the first bill of sale.

Collector cars can be interesting and fun. If you get the urge to join this historical hobby, just remember two lessons from Jack's embarrassing experience:

Do your homework and "caveat emptor."

Steve Hansen is a Lodi writer.

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