At car auctions you can buy anything from a clapped out banger to a brand new top-of-the-range model; from a run-of-the-mill family saloon to a rare collector’s item. Auctions are an ideal place to pick up a bargain or your perfect motor.
Check that the engine and body numbers have not been erased and that they correspond with the details on the registration document. The numbers are usually to be found on aluminium fastened onto the engine and the body in the engine compartment, where they can be seen easily. At an auction, look and listen when the engine is started before it is driven into the ring. If there is a very loud metallic rattling sound at the start, which may disappear when warm, suspect that the big or small end is going.
But you must be sure where the noise is coming from. If it is in the centre or the bottom of the engine, then it could be either the big or small end, but if it is at the front, for example, in a Ford, it could be a simple to fix design fault such as a worn camshaft or belt. Let the engine just tick over and listen hard.
A low rumble from the centre again indicates big end wear. Constant knocks and/or rattles can be attributed to timing change, timing change tensioner, or badly adjusted, loose or worn tappets.
Check the battery. Take off one of the filler caps from the top and check the distilled water level. It should come just above the metallic elements you can see. These days, new batteries are often sealed for life and you don’t have to worry about the levels. Check the terminals for signs of erosion (white, powdery deposits) which will impair its ability to discharge and recharge. Check the inner body panels for rust and welding work, especially around the tops of the shock absorbers. Take a good look around for any leaks or signs of leaks emanating from any of the fluid pipes, petrol or oil. Check the thicker pipe, water pipes, water leakage and also for rusty orange stains anywhere where these pipes join the engine and radiator, which is a clear give-away of a leak.
A rattling sound from the front end of the engine could mean a worn timing chain or cam belt. A regular knocking noise may indicate that the main crankshaft bearing, water-pump bearing, or alternator bearing is going, or it may have a bent or loose pulley. Finally, with the engine ticking over, observe whether the entire engine complex rocks or bounces excessively. Such movement suggests split or weak engine mounts or that the timing needs attention.
Other areas that should be looked at carefully if you get the opportunity at the auction are the underneath of the vehicle, particularly checking for any bends or crumple in the sub frame, leaking pipes, hoses, drums, damaged petrol tanks and, of course, the exhaust system. Similarly, you should examine the interior of the car. Inspect the seats for wear and tear and also the carpets. This will indicate to you whether the car has been used or abused, and even whether the wear corresponds to the mileage shown.
Take off any seat covers which may have been put there for show or to cover cigarette burns, loose stitching or excessive signs of wear. If you have the opportunity at the auction, check that warning lights come on when you turn on the ignition.
Checking the brakes on the vehicle at an auction can be quite difficult but if you are buying the vehicle under warranty you have one hour after you have paid for it to take it for a short test drive and check the brakes. When on the test drive and at a very slow speed, on a clear bit of road with no other people or cars around, brake carefully with your hand lightly gripping the wheel. If the brakes are in alignment the car should pull up directly in front of you and should not swerve or move to either side.
Here is a well-known way of checking the clutch to see whether it is in good order. Sit in the driver’s seat and start the car. Engage second gear and the handbrake. Rev the car up to about midway and slowly let the clutch out. If the car revs decrease proportionately to your letting the clutch out or the car stalls completely – then it is okay.
If not then it means that the clutch is slipping and is either worn or has oil on it. Either way it will need replacing soon. When you depress the clutch the operation should be smooth and there should be no noise. A whirring noise when depressed indicates wear of the release bearing and will need replacing shortly.
Take the handbrake off and using clutch control, pull away from stationary in second gear, the car should not stall and should accelerate slowly but smoothly.
Check the exhaust by looking, listening and smelling. Listen for a puffing noise emanating from underneath the car indicating a hole in the exhaust system. A low grumbling sound, like a racing car, when a car is being revved suggests the same, or that the exhaust pack has shaken loose.
Look under the car and see if the exhaust is old and rusty, or is any smoke coming out of any other place rather than the hole at the back end. Grab the exhaust (when cold) with your hands and shake it gently, if it feels firm and doesn’t rattle or knock then you know that all the mountings and brackets are there and working properly.
If you experience a smoky or gassy smell in the cabin when the car is running, then exhaust fumes could be finding their way out of a hole and into the interior of the car, which can be very dangerous. Replacing an exhaust is not cheap but obviously costs vary on the type of car and where you get it done. Check the emissions from the exhaust and you can tell a lot about an engine. A good engine, when warm, should not produce any visible smoke though a little is to be expected in an old car, but only when cold. Black or blue smoke indicates piston ring wear; white smoke indicates a blown cylinder head gasket.
If a car blows out smoke when started from cold and the smokes stops after a few revolutions, that suggests worn valve guides which are allowing oil to seep into the cylinders when standing. Start the car and place your hand over the exhaust outlet about six inches away. Leave it there for a few
seconds and then look at your palm and smell it. There should be no fluid deposits on your hand, other than perhaps a little water when cold. There should be no oil (suggesting worn out piston rings) and certainly no unburned petrol (which would suggest that a cylinder is not firing properly).
To check the gear box, sit in the driver’s seat and without starting the engine, depress the clutch and check whether the stick goes into all gears easily and smoothly. Start the engine and do the same.
With the engine still running, check that the gear stick does not excessively vibrate, which is a sign of wear. The easiest gear to test is fifth. To test the gear box and synchromesh put the car in reverse and drive backwards a short way. As the car is still moving backwards put the car into first gear. If you find it difficult or it makes a noise, then this suggests a tired and worn synchro which means an expensive gear box change.
Get a Professional Opinion
While there are obviously other areas such as steering, tyres, suspension and shock absorbers that should be tested, one way of doing this is to bring along a trained mechanic with you to the auction. In many cases, they will have a very good idea of what a car is worth and will be able to assess it fairly quickly. They will also be able from their experience and knowledge to identify any major defects or faults quickly. Many mechanics or trainee mechanics will provide this service to you on a part-time basis for a relatively nominal fee. This is money well worth spending and an outlay of £25-£35 can save you extreme grief later on, and indeed help you buy a better car than you might otherwise have done.