If Only We'd Known Then ...

Car collecting lessons for our younger selves

One of the best things about classic cars is that they’re always teaching us. Every carburetor rebuild, track day, or parts search is a path to learning something new. The same goes for buying and selling. We at Hagerty have, collectively, many decades of experience on that front.

We’ve also made plenty of mistakes along the way—or at least know something now that would have saved us time, money, or aggravation back then. There’s a rabbit hole’s worth of additional wisdom that could put a newbie on better footing, if they only knew! So, what other advice would we give our younger selves, or those just getting started today? I polled my fellow writers to find out.

Drive it.

Sam Smith doing what we’re meant to do.

You only regret the miles you didn’t put on the damn thing. I spent too much time thinking, “I’ll drive it later,” or “that trip can happen next year.” Use it. Put more fuel in it and use it again. If the tires age out before they wear out, you might be missing the point. —Sam Smith

Take time to figure out what part of the hobby suits you: sometimes it’s not what you expect.

Sometimes the work is the best part: Kyle Smith at 17 and 29 enjoying air-cooled goodness. Smith assures us that jack stands were in use!

It’s a lame trope, but I was late in understanding the notion that the “journey is the destination.” It was years of doing DIY work before I realized that was what I enjoyed most, and fighting it was fruitless. Now I buy things mainly to work on them and only occasionally drive them (compared to most). If I would have realized that sooner I probably would have made some different investments and learned a lot more by now. —Kyle Smith

Take your time, and don’t feel any pressure.

Work on your machines. The value of turning your own wrenches cannot be overstated, and the slower you can afford to go, the better. That brings me to my second lesson, which is the flip side of the first: many people have the ability to toss their project up on stands and fix it at their convenience, but that isn’t everyone. If you picked an enthusiast car as your only means of transportation, you may occasionally just have to deal with a minor issue for a bit. You don’t need to feel ashamed every time someone looks at you in disbelief when you explain that putting that car out of commission for a few days to re-do some bushings isn’t in the cards right now. Most of these machines are far more durable than we tend to think. —Nathan Petroelje

Speaking of wrenching:

Go ahead and spend the money to buy the proper tool. You can’t do it right if you don’t have the right tool for the job. Also, your other tools will live longer if not used improperly as drifts, wedges, picks, pullers, scrapers, etc. Buy good tools and take care of them and you won’t have to buy tools again. —Aaron Robinson (Bonus tip: aside from the basic “every tool box needs them” implements, consider buying tools as corresponding projects arise instead of all at once. I slowly built up my set through my teens and twenties this way, and still come up with a new tool need at least once a year. —EE)

Find someone who can help you along…

I wish I’d had someone or found someone to show me how to work on cars from a young age. My dad wasn’t a car guy, and none of my neighbors were, either, and my high school didn’t have a shop program, so I never really saw anyone working on cars around me. Now I just find the whole experience daunting and messy and frustrating, which helps explain why I’ve had a dead Volvo in my driveway for six years. —Stefan Lombard

And that “someone” can be on the other side of a screen

I wish I’d known how much information for my hobby was available online! Even as a kid of the 1980s, I suspect the old Bulletin Board System could have taught me more than the car magazines and library books that were currently available to me. While BBSs are long gone, at least you can still visit 10+ year old posts on forums and learn a lot! —Sajeev Mehta (Sajeev speaks the truth— spending time searching old forum archives will often get you a level of detail and information that’s hard to come by in today’s world of less-than-informative Facebook groups —EE).

Expand those horizons, and get to know your new ride.

I wish I would have been more amenable to modern cars. Growing up, I was dispassionate toward anything built after 1981 (save for maybe Monte Carlos and Corvettes). Boy, I was really missing out. It wasn’t until I drove an SN95 Mustang that I really started to turn the corner. Also, as far as the buying process goes, even if the listing says “You could drive it home,” bring a trailer. Get that sucker home, get it on jack stands, and then give it a once-over before you take it on the road. —Cameron Neveu

Take time to figure out what you want, not just what’s popular.

GT500s are nice, but our Conner Golden is more of a Terminator Cobra guy when it comes to Mustangs, and that’s ok.

I wish I learned not to listen to the hivemind as much as I did/do. And, to be happy with something that isn’t at the apex. Stuff like:  If you buy anything without a manual transmission, you’re not a real enthusiast. No, you shouldn’t like that car, it’s not as cool as this car. What, you want a Mustang GT? Wow, guess you don’t want to get a GT500. —Conner Golden

Due Diligence is your friend…

Ask questions about the car before you go to see it. I’ve wasted a bunch of time driving out to see enthusiast cars only to be told things like, “I don’t actually have the title. Why, does that matter to you,” and “the odometer stopped working years ago, so the miles listed is way off.” One other thing: if you aren’t comfortable doing a thorough inspection, pay someone else to perform one. Even if (actually especially if) you’re buying it from a dealer. —Matt Fink

…Regarding the car and the seller.

My worst purchase experience was a Sunbeam Alpine that was “restored.” The owner was clearly nuts, so I should have assumed his restoration was equally nutty. It was: he made it a thousand times worse than it was in its previous decrepit state. As Leno says, you buy the seller as much as the car. —Aaron Robinson

It never hurts to look at the math.

Borrowing might help you afford something better.

I wish I’d known more about financing when I was younger. As a person who entered adulthood during the great recession, I thought any loan was risky and that I wouldn’t have access to it anyway. The result was that I wound up only looking at the extremely disheveled cars for which I had sufficient cash. I’m not suggesting people, young enthusiasts in particular, should finance Skylines (even though I hear they do); rather I just wish I’d realized I could finance, oh, $4k and wind up with the world’s best Miata rather than a more questionable example that needed ~$5k of work. Of course, the work was lots of fun, and I learned a lot… —David Zenlea

Try different things.

Variety is the spice of life. Yes, I will wash my Boxster soon.

I was a dedicated muscle car addict as a child, and my first two cars were a 1992 Firebird and a 2000 Camaro SS. Then, a whole new world opened up when I drove my friend’s 1999 Miata. I had a thing against front-wheel drive till I drove a Mazdaspeed3. It took till I was in my mid-twenties to embrace all types of cars, and by then I had a lot of catching up to do. I haven’t cast aside my love for American cars—two reside in my barn alongside models from two other continents—but I have come to appreciate a lot of different metal. So go for a ride or see if you can drive a friend’s toy that “isn’t your style.” You just might like it. —Eddy Eckart