5 prep tips for getting top dollar | How to sell a car: Part 2

Photography by Tim Suddard; Illustrations by Sarah Young

Turning a car into cash isn’t that hard: You simply put it up for sale and take the first offer that comes your way. 

Getting top dollar for that sale, though, can take some extra work. It’s why so many classics–especially projects–are sold for less than their owners would have liked. 

A little while back we stumbled upon a 1965 Sunbeam Tiger that seemed like a good deal. While the seller was willing to part with it, he hadn’t done any preparation for that sale. The car didn’t run, was full of junk, and sat crammed into the corner of a garage. In other words, it was a total mess. 

We had found a great deal for ourselves, but there’s something here for all of us: This was a great opportunity to show how much proper preparation matters when selling a car. So we snapped up this Tiger with the express purpose of documenting the process of purchasing, prepping, and selling a car–hopefully for a profit.

Last issue we examined the dos and don’ts of that initial sales transaction. Now it’s time to look at how we got our new prize cleaned, running and ready to fetch top dollar. Don’t think you can do this? You’d be surprised: In the end, this stage of the project didn’t require much time or money–just a weekend and about a hundred dollars. We expect to be repaid several times over for these modest expenditures.


1. Develop a Plan

Before you get started, you will need to make a plan. This is true whether the car you’re selling is a project, incomplete or just in need of some serious TLC.

Your plan should start with the hard reckoning that there are really only two ways to sell a car: as a project, or as 100-percent complete. Anything in between will most likely lose you money.

Let us repeat that: Unless you can convince the buyer that your car is complete and correct, you’ll probably end up selling it as a project. The latter may not be stated outright, but the price will reflect that status.

Why do incomplete projects so frequently sell for pennies on the dollar? Parts are bought, cars are disassembled, fresh paint is sprayed—often at considerable expense—but when the owner decides to sell at this point, much of that money is never recouped. Why the loss? Not having overseen the work themselves, buyers are unable to determine true condition.

Were those transmission and engine rebuilds done correctly? What’s that paint job hiding? Do those boxes really contain all of the parts needed to complete the car? If you’re going to buy or sell a project, the price and expectations need to reflect these concerns.

2. Clean It Up

Even if it’s not restored, a clean car is generally more appealing than a dirty one. But how much time are you willing to spend? This usually depends on how far you want to go in order to maximize the price.

Even at the project car level, people buy with the eye. If something looks like a mostly intact, previously well-loved car that just needs a bit of restoration work, it will bring more money than something resembling a hopeless, dirty and abandoned piece of junk.

The idea is not to deceive the buyer, but to accentuate the positives. You want to show off what is really being sold, which means cleaning away the junk, clutter and distractions.

In the case of our Tiger, the car was essentially sound, but that wasn’t readily apparent because the car was buried under decades, worth of grime and debris. We figured that a few days’ work could bring dramatic improvement; even if we couldn’t turn the car into a 10-footer, we could at least make it into a 20-footer that presented itself in its best light.

Whether you have owned the car you want to sell for 25 years or just dragged it home to flip, commit to spending a day with it just learning and cleaning. This way, rather than telling a prospective buyer that you “don’t know of any rust but haven’t really checked,” or, worse, that the car was rust-free when you parked it under that tarp in the backyard 25 years ago, you’ll be able to give a clear report of the car’s current condition.

Your day or weekend of cleanup will bring other benefits: Unless you really want to try and embrace the whole “barn find” approach, taking the time to clean the car inside and out will enhance its value. It will also tell the prospective buyer that you care–something that is surprisingly important to a sale.

One caveat about cleaning: Be careful that you don’t start blowing off decals and other delicate details. You want to clean the car, not damage things.

3. Get It Running–or Not?

All else being equal, a car that runs is worth more than one that doesn’t; and a car that runs and drives is worth even more. But will the final sale price increase enough to justify the extra time and money spent?

That obviously depends on the car. If it’s complete and has just been sitting for a short time, then getting it running again is often a simple matter of getting clean fuel into a working carburetor. Add some air and spark, and you’re golden.

Obviously this is a pretty gross oversimplification, but on most older cars we’re talking about simple systems, so getting one running usually just takes a few hours and very little money.

As Carl Heideman, our in-house tech and restoration expert notes, the value of completing this step is mostly psychological. Knowing that a car runs–or better yet, runs and drives–is a big confidence booster for both parties.

Even if you can’t get it running, keep in mind that it’s easier to sell a rolling car vs. a non-roller. You will almost always be rewarded for any time you devote to turning a stationary sculpture into something that more closely resembles a vehicle.

4. Fix Minor Stuff

There is no reason not to fix minor problems. We removed a dent from the Tiger’s front sheet metal in 2 minutes using a hammer and dolly. We replaced a piece of trim that had fallen off. The deck lid’s Sunbeam lettering was missing its U, so we replaced that, too. The most difficult thing we did was weld up a broken seat back, which took us an hour and made the car much easier to drive. This is the type of damage that, unrepaired, made our Tiger look more like a relic than a viable automobile purchase.

5. Decide When to Stop

Remember, sellers rarely recoup full value for money spent on project cars, so beware of project creep. If you’re not going to fully restore the car, know when to stop. Once we dove into the Tiger’s brakes, we could see that the car could also use new brake lines, not to mention wheel bearings and most likely a front end rebuild. And, of course, had we chosen to do that work, we would have wanted to fit new tires as well as cleaning and painting the chassis while we were there.

Instead, once we got the car up and running and were able to take a victory lap around the neighborhood, we stopped with the mechanical work. After all, we were selling it because we did not have time to restore it. At the end of our fix-it weekend we had a running, driving, presentable car–a huge improvement over what we had purchased.

Next installment we’ll jump back into the market with our Tiger, but this time as sellers.


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