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Mileage - does it really matter?
This always makes me smile.

Published 10/1/2005

"CHEVROLET IMPALA: 1963 sport coupe, with only 14,000 original miles! 409/425, Red/Red, 4-spd, all numbers match, frame-up restoration, $35,000 obo. Larry (262) XXX-XXXX WI."

Of course it could be any car, but would someone care to explain why would a car with only 14,000 miles on it from new needs a complete 'frame-up restoration'? New paint and bushings maybe - but a total frame-up?

You'd think this example may be an isolated case, but we see over and over again as we sniff out bargains everyday among the classic cars for sale in the States. Outlandish mileage claims are something that still seems to happen often in America, yet for some reason Europeans it seems would never try to get away with claiming a vehicle has low mileage unless they are the original owners and have a stack of service receipts and other paper work to validate their claim.

Think about a brand new car, and what condition it would be in after being owned for just about one year - You'd expect it to be barely used, right? People generally take extra special care of their cars when they are new. The seats would be great, the carpets, the engine and compartment would still have the stickers on them that they left the factory with! This car has been around almost 38 years! Unless the guy selling the car is the original owner who can prove with a receipt from the dealership, that he bought it new, and has a damn good reason why anyone would shell out (back in them days) a couple of thousand dollars for a brand new car, use it for a year and then park it - You've got to know that the seller is a complete fool if he really thinks anyone is going to believe it.

The purpose in writing this article is to highlight cases perhaps not quite so obvious as the one above. You may see a car from the 70's advertised with low original miles and think its great deal. Like this one:

JAGUAR XJS 1979, Signal red/ Biscuit 12 cyl, 70,000 original miles, garage kept, $10,000 firm. (800) XXX XXXX Miami

On the face of it this sounds like a good deal doesn't it? 70,000 miles over 21 years translates to about 3300 miles a year - talk about gently used! But again, unless this is the car's original owner, with supporting paperwork, it could have done 270,000! Upon a visual inspection, it's often easy to tell from wear on the seat, carpets, pedal rubbers etc. that the car has high miles, However, I've known unscrupulous sellers purchase a 'new' interior from a real low mileage car from the same year, that was totaled in a wreck and switch them out. Wouldn't it have been easy to simply ask this guy fax you some documentation to back up his claim before you waste your time traipsing all over the country?

I believe a good rule of thumb would be, not to expect to get a genuine mileage reading from a car that is more than say 10-15 years old. By that time it's probably passed through two or even three owners and rarely can its full history be traced. The bottom line though must be, whether or not the odometer reading is truly important, remember that a genuine low mileage car can in many ways be a worse buy than a high mileage vehicle that has been correctly maintained or restored. Additionally, who decided that a car with 100,000 miles on its engine is shot? Take each vehicle on it's own merits, and when it comes to classics, mileage should often take a back seat to factors like original equipment and structural condition, and even these can become irrelevant if the asking price is realistic!

That being said, if you are looking for the 'Real McCoy' you may be wondering what lengths one has to go to avoid getting burned? Well it's really not so hard, you simply have to set your emotions aside and pay attention to the tell-tale signs.

Instrument binnacles with odometers that have lower mileage on them are easily found and can often be swapped out with equal ease, so here are a few checkpoints and hints that can help you recognise a potentially original low mileage classic whilst inspecting it in someone's driveway. Remember at all times that things can easily be faked, as most parts are available through reproduction. There is no substitute for a good all-round knowledge of the model and of course common sense goes a long way in assessing the ratio of 'wear: mileage' ratio.

You must look for the things that show wear and are difficult to replace or overlooked. The carpets for instance, but don't look at the obvious, look at the floor beneath the carpet in the drivers foot well, especially where the driver's heel pivots to the accelerator? Check the headliner for stains or damage, the gearshift knob for wear, and the spare wheel, has it been used? If not it's a good sign, but is it the original tire it left the factory with? If it has been used, how worn is the tread? Also, check the spare wheel fixings like the jack, lug wrench etc.- have they seen much use? The tires - broadly speaking, most cars leave the factory with a set of tires good for 40,000-miles and 25,000-mile brake pads; bear that in mind when you consider if a vehicle's odometer is accurate or not.

Pedal rubbers can also give clues, are they worn to excess or appear 'too new'? Pull back the rubbers and check to see if the pedal is polished from direct foot contact. Keys give good clues, are they showing the brass on the finger contact area - are they a 'sloppy' fit in the ignition barrel? Or do you believe the story that the originals were lost at the Newport Jazz festival in 1969 and the car has been little used since? The steering wheel, ask yourself if the surface is sufficiently 'scuffed' for the miles? Look at dash controls like heater knobs and the like.

Don't forget the engine bay, does it appear to have been 'prepared' or recently cleaned? Are the engine mounting and bell housing bolts all present, correct and facing the right way? You may accept new water hoses, fan belt or water pump etc. But is it the original clutch, and if not, why was it changed?

In all the years I've been in the business of buying classic cars for people, VERY rarely do genuine low mileage cars come up, they do - but it's not too often.

One example that comes to mind was an Austin-Healey that was bought brand new by a soldier two weeks before he was sent to Vietnam. He never came back. His mother, knowing how much he loved the car, couldn't bring herself to sell it, and it sat in a barn in Pennsylvania for over 30 years until it was discovered by a neighbor shortly before the old woman passed away. Ah Yes, those are the tales that keep us cranking our necks every time we think we catch a glimpse of an unusual car in someone's yard. My wife kids me that I have 'Superman' x-ray vision that can see through trees, around barns and even in people's back yards! Perhaps, but I can tell you there are times when I would give my brothers right arm for a helicopter!

Written by Jeff Webster
Buyer Services International LLC.

Originally released 6/18/2001

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