Journal: When Buying a Classic What Matters Most–Drivetrain Or Body?

When Buying a Classic What Matters Most–Drivetrain Or Body?

By Jonathan WC Mills
January 10, 2014

The notion of buying a vintage car, once settled, is usually one of intense personal choice. Which marque, which model, which decade, the list is endless… But once these questions have been answered, the real work arrives. Saving the money, hiding it from your significant other, secretly clearing garage space, and of course, fanatically cruising the web looking for ‘the one’. But alas, the one never quite ‘is’ often because most of us can’t afford ‘the one’.

So it comes to the age-old question; do you buy for looks or performance? We all want to make the rational decision and pick the car with the least issues. But the answer to what you consider an issue often lies in your mechanical skills, bank account, and extended network of automobile enthusiast friends. Sometimes chance decides whether you fall in love with a perfect body even though the motor has long since been discarded, or a shade-tree mechanic sleeper with see-through floorboards and pristine V8 growling under the hood.

So what will it be? All show no go? Or something rough around the edges with a heart of gold?

Photography by Yoav Gilad and via

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Rubens Florentino
Rubens Florentino(@rubens_florentino)
4 years ago

worked selling parts for classic cars for over 7 years and I had seen many guys who started a restoration on a budget making the same mistake, starting with the body… they all wanted to see the car pretty before making it road worthy.
Soon the body/paint job would devour the last spared penny and that car would became another unfinished project collecting dust and likely with a “for sale” sign on it.
Start with the drivetrain, drive it, have some fun with it and perhaps you may find it even looks good with all that patina and some rust

Rick Bond
Rick Bond(@rickz)
4 years ago

Anyone who ever restored an old car , say 30 years old or more , will agree that bodywork is most labor intensive and will swallow up the most hours and money . Not to mention a good paint job , which with al the rules concerning the environment is becoming a very expensive part of the restoration .
And then when you finally get your freshly painted car body back again , you will not dare to put those dull and pitted chrome parts back again …. add that to the body and then you know ..

Johnny Assarapin
Johnny Assarapin(@johnny_assarapin)
4 years ago

If i had a choice. I would pick the car with the best body I could afford. That’s not always possible I know. I only have Mercedes experience. In those cars mechanical bits are fairly easy to come by. But body parts like chrome pieces floor pans etc are expensive if available.. in rarer more collectible cars it can be the same .. for example cars like 250 Tf Ferraris. Who’s going to fix that body???

4 years ago

This story has a lot in common with a relationship. In fact, it is a relationship. I bought an Austin Healey project, because I had always loved the looks and sound of the car since I was a kid. It had both looks and a nice big engine. Couldn’t afford a fully restored one, besides the restoration project was really what I wanted to do. 12 years later and way too much money spent, I end up with a concours car. Never having driven one, I am worried about driving it, about bumps and scratches and being disappointed about all the stuff that goes with ownership. But I do anyway and I start to really like it, almost as much restoring it. It has nothing to do with a modern car —when I drive it it’s like being in a time machine. I would say that for me it turned out to be the perfect choice, because I put a lot of time into it, it is now paying me back in my old age.

Brett Evans
Brett Evans(@evans-bt)
8 years ago

Well, most of my cars have been decent lookers and poor runners, so I’m inclined to say I’d rather have a car that looks nasty on the road than one that looks good jacked up in the garage.

8 years ago

Anyone who has had a car restored will know that the big part of a restoration job is the hours of labour.

Unless you are a skilled mechanic or bodywork specialist, it normally happens that an engine or transmission from most of the old cars we can afford to buy, can be refurbished at a reasonable cost, even if there are some bits missing, because it can be easily removed from the body and fairly easily taken apart, renewed and reinstalled again, but if you own an old car with severe body damage or severe rust in critical areas, the amount of time needed to dismantle, repair (cut, weld, etc), refit, repaint and rechrome, ends in most cases converted in bills that exceed by far the market value of a concours unit of the same car.

I won´t deny that for many of us, passion is the key for irrational decissions but the experience should finally take you to the golden rule of classic car buying: get the best unit you can afford even if it takes longer for you to be able to buy it, and while searching it is much better to lose ten good ones than to gain a bad one

Matthew Lange
Matthew Lange(@365daytonafan)
8 years ago

As a general rule I would rather go for a car with a rough mechanicals and a good body as engines are generally easier to fix than bodywork. Obviously if the car in question has some exotic mechanicals with unobtanium parts that might chance the balance of the decision.

Corjan Bast
Corjan Bast(@lekkersturen)
8 years ago

I’d go for a car with a decent exterior and a great engine. The body doesn’t have to be perfect, and I don’t mind some paint imperfections or small blemishes, that way I will actually drive the car instead of being worried it will get a scratch when driven or parked. Here’s the beetle I brought to Europe:

Future Doc
Future Doc(@futuredoc)
8 years ago

I would say the overall package… not ugly and not boring. Does not have to be “the fastest” but rather it has to be quick and then fun. It has to have its own personality. Looks are not overly important (there are great looking but boring driving cars)… it has to be interesting and follow some function, but I normally do not go for pretty, rather quirky. I prefer nothing “fake” so scoops actually have to scoop something. I do like a nod to tradition but I do not like tradition dictating style.

Finally, don’t take things too seriously.

I am better with the sheetmetal than the gears so I am willing to work more on the cosmetics to get it perfect but I get more out of the mechanical accomplishments just because it is more effort.

Stephen Ross
Stephen Ross(@shross)
8 years ago

Funny but I just took apart the engine in this picture. It’s a BMW 503/507 series. I am ordering all the parts I need in the next few days. The body is more important…

8 years ago

I vote for body, mainly paint. It’s not something most folks can do in their own garage, and it’s not easy to get right.

Chris Colachis
Chris Colachis(@fatchris)
8 years ago

if you are buying it because cars are a true passion it shouldnt matter. to true car people, body work or drivetrain will never be a question.

if you are buying your classic car to look cool or impress, then yeah, go ahead and agree with everyone commenting here, bodywork is more important for looks. A car drives, that is its essence. a cars essence is not to park and get its picture taken, or be videoed by the petrolicous staff. it is to be driven.

id rather be driving on the road, and not on the side looking at my beautiful bodywork because the drivetrain is wacked. plus real age is earned, not given. that said, my classic car is not perfect, but i plan on keeping it my entire life, so investing in a ground-up restoration at one point in its and my life wont be an issue. my completely biased opinion is, drivetrain.

Paul Steel
Paul Steel(@steely)
8 years ago
Reply to  Chris Colachis

I think your missing the point, the reason most people consider bodywork more important as a purchase consideration (we are not talking about ownership) is that bodywork is generally more difficult and expensive to fix, especially for the home mechanic. Of course both are important, but if it comes down to a rusty shell or an engine rebuild, I go for the engine rebuild.

Doug Churchill
Doug Churchill(@decoupe)
8 years ago

Surely it depends on the car. If it’s a BMW CS/CSi/CSL the accepted truth is the body is what will empty the bank account fastest. Just about any driveline component from any 6 cylinder model from ’68 to ’92 will bolt right in with minimal fuss so the mechanicals are very reasonable to repair, restore or upgrade.

jia the mini
jia the mini(@mr49)
8 years ago

I’m in the mist of a 62 mini restoration project, from which I have learned that bodywork is most time and money consuming part. Most home garage is adequate for working on engine and drive train rebuild. But it takes some dedication to do bodywork at home. If I ever get another car to restore, I’d pay more attention to body condition.

Ib Erik Soderblom
Ib Erik Soderblom(@kaiserpingo)
8 years ago

Primarily, I go for the looks.
Also with my cars…
Classicaly, my problem then is, that the most beatiful cars, are also the most expensive ones.
I can’t afford a Bertone Alfa og a Lancia Fulvia, or an Esprit.
If I’m lucky, I can find a 1′-gen Scirocco, but I really hate the engines…
I’m difficult, I know.
My problem is, that I love Classic cars, but having a 156 2.5 V6, I kinda already ownes the really good look’s, and a really awesome V6…
As a supplement I got myself a little Honda Prelude 2.0i, but thats not really a classic either, but a lovely and rare litte coupe.
Affordable and beautiful, and with a good engine, from the 60’s/early 70’s…, I cant find it…
and if the looker has gotta have an exiting (technicaly og power), then it’s even more difficult.
Something unknown, from Japan…, maybe?

Andre L  Hulstaert
Andre L Hulstaert(@andrehul)
8 years ago

No question: bodywork. With a caveat of completeness and type of car. But, it is my experience that one car estimate quite accurately the cost of rebuilding the mechanics while body rot is real cancer, one does know where one starts but not where one ends, not at all. AND the metal is weakened in the vicinity of the rot and prone to rust again

Zachary Simard
Zachary Simard(@fb_699907889)
8 years ago

Honestly, I would say that the answer is neither: it’s passion. Personally, I bought the car that I’d always wanted as soon as I found one in my price range. Not a single part that was supposed to move did, the passenger side door and fender had huge gouges in them, and the paint job was done in someone’s back yard. I didn’t care about any of these issues; I figured that I would learn the solutions as I went through my project. In the end, my love for the Datsun Z Car overcame any practical considerations, simply because I am absolutely in love with my car. And, the best thing about buying for passion is that the passion can only grow as you pour more of your heart and soul into making the car move. Simply put, I love my car.

Dustin Rittle
Dustin Rittle(@mosler)
8 years ago
Reply to  Zachary Simard

I personally thought my answer was good but after reading your story id have to give it to you on this one 🙂 passion should be the really important thing in any car or hobby

Zachary Simard
Zachary Simard(@fb_699907889)
8 years ago
Reply to  Dustin Rittle

Thanks! I do agree with you though, if you can afford it you should look for something with a bit of balance. If nothing else, this gives you wider experience in maintenance and repair skills.

Ollie Streek
Ollie Streek(@olliestreek)
8 years ago
Reply to  Zachary Simard

Lovely Z! I have two 240’s. The first, is mechanically perfect, very fast and drives fantastically. However the body work is nothing pretty to look at! The second, has a perfect body, immaculate restoration in the last 2 years, but standard engine, not as mechanically perfect. I love both cars for different reasons and different occasions.
But it’s obvious we both share the ‘Z passion’.

Zachary Simard
Zachary Simard(@fb_699907889)
8 years ago
Reply to  Ollie Streek

Thank you very much. I love the 240Z so much, but I live in Canada so most of them have succumbed to the salt.
I really love the “ratsun” styling that you’ve got going on the first car. Along with the legitimate and probably well-earned patina, it looks like you’ve added a couple of mods that are totally performance related. I love the wide tyres-totally changes the way that the car handles!-and is that a large bore (guesstimating 2.5-3″) exhaust pipe I see dangling beneath the car?
I also love your second car, because is illustrates a trait that I think most people miss in the Z: elegance. Those mesh wheels are exactly what I would’ve picked for that car, and in my opinion the front air dam looks so much more natural on this car than the stock front valence. If you’re ever looking to put a nicer exhaust on it, I cannot recommend Motosport Auto in Orange, CA highly enough. I bought their glass-packed system and I am overjoyed with it.
Anyways, thanks again for your compliment, and thank you for daring to be different and for helping to keep the Datsun name (NOT the new shit they’re making in India) alive.

Daniel Kelly
Daniel Kelly(@deke)
8 years ago

Yeah, I’d have to lean more towards the body being more important. I’m not at all a stickler about an all original engine bay, so replacing/upgrading parts is not a huge deal to me. Also, getting bodywork done outside of an insurance claim has always seemed like a huge hassle to me.

Paul Steel
Paul Steel(@steely)
8 years ago

Personally bodywork and paint is more important than mechanics, but usually I find that if the bodywork has been looked after the mechanicals have too.

Dustin Rittle
Dustin Rittle(@mosler)
8 years ago

I always believed the best things in life are a best when in a balance of sorts and buying a classic car is no different. I dont think body or drivetrain have a pull over eachother at all..Whenever i decide to buy a classic car im gonna go through the body and drivetrain with a fine toothed comb. Now i want everything to be in working order it doesnt have to be pitch perfect but as long as everything is solid and go to go im happy with that. I honestly dont mind if somethings are rough around the edges because that type of thing can be easily fixed or just gives the car more personality