Vehicle Inspection

Vehicle Inspection

Or How to kick tyres like a king:

My buying guides give a reasonable insight into what you are looking for when you inspect a car, However I have had requests to elaborate on a few points, so here is the lengthy version for people with time on their hands. Here goes vehicle inspection

Paperwork: You have read my other guides, so you know all about paperwork; this is the provenance of the vehicle and the first and most important thing to check. V5 obviously, but the service book and service receipts ,coupled with Mots(valid and expired) receipts for any additional work, receipts for Alarm fitment, Tyres etc I’ll even look at your Petrol receipts if you have them ! *.  laid out in front of you these documents tell the story of the car, you want everything to tally as it should with no unexplainable gaps in the servicing.

Clocking: I am going to be a bit cavalier like my usual guides and say that clocking is not the problem it used to be. Now I want to qualify that statement before the backlash. Clocking a car is a doddle there are numerous mileage correction services advertised nationally. For £50 or so, they come, take out your clock, plug it into a computer and re-install it. Some cars they don’t even need to take the clocks out, they can run a code breaker through the ECU.  What I am saying though is that it is increasingly hard to legitimately sell a clocked car and get away with it.  Not so long ago clocking was big business. People used to accept scabby service histories, cars got new clocks and new service books and off they went. Now you want to see the service books /or main dealer print outs, Receipts, mots etc to back up what it says on the clock. If a seller doesn’t have anything to support what’s on the dial then it’s clocked! No excuses, service books do get misplaced etc but all can be replaced. Most manufacturers keep a national register, for example if I buy a VW without a service book, I can ring their customer services they can sometimes tell me on the phone if they have serviced the car and when. If they can’t do that they can tell me the supplying dealer and I can ring their service department direct. Anyway as a car buyer this is what I do in my spare time, you as a buyer should not have to do any running around. The seller needs to present their car for sale and if they don’t have the facts to hand, then they are shady and should be given a wide berth.  Increasingly cars hold Mileage memory in a number of the cars electronics, so while it is easy to change what it says on the clock it is very hard to erase the criminal act. Any car dealer that has any intention of staying in business and out of the papers would not attempt to sell a clocked car. The vast majority of private people sell their car genuinely with all accompanying paperwork.

I don’t want to turn scaremonger but there is a small but becoming bigger, problem with non service contract lease cars that get the clocks wound back.  I am going to write a separate post on that because it’s a big subject. You will find it in the index section when complete and I will elaborate then.  For the moment though, be wary of ex lease 2-3 year old diesel repmobiles that have covered under 10,000 miles a year and are just due their first service. I’m not calling foul 100% I’m just saying it’s unusual to lease, say a diesel Golf or BMW and then somehow only do bingo hall mileage.

Cut And Shuts: The old two cars welded together to make one good car. Let me tell you about cut n’ shuts.  I used to work as a vehicle repairer. Even twenty years ago it was ethically absurd and financially unfeasible for it to be happening in the trade, as a result there would be a few tales knocking about, of the very odd fly by night operation (not even qualified garages) that got away with doing the odd one before they were run out-of-town. Now in the year 2011 when most cars have about twelve airbags (they cost a fortune to replace and demolish your interior) I would reckon they are about as rare as the three Titted Unicorn of Ulan Bator. If you find one please send me a picture!  I concede that there are some crashed cars out there that will not show up on a register and every car should be inspected with due diligence, but respected magazines still talk about cut and shuts like its one in every ten cars, trust me it’s not .

Tyres: When I look at a car I like to see a complete set of same make tyres showing similar wear, or at least if you replace the fronts due to them wearing out quicker than the rears ,then you change the pair together. This sounds picky but it’s a real good indicator of cars maintenance. If someone can’t be bothered to spend a few quid on the bit of rubber that holds them to the road they probably can’t be bothered to get the car looked after in general. Mismatched tyres, a different type on each corner? Yeah it’s a taxi run away.

Under the bonnet: you are not a mechanic so looking under a bonnet is not too beneficial. Don’t be fooled by a shiny engine bay it’s nice that the owner cared or it shows the car has had a proper valet, but it’s not adding actual value. Obviously you’ve had a listen, and basically it should sound like an engine, I’d like to be more technical but that’s about it. The Car should sound normal on start-up, should idle without hunting i.e. holds a rev usually 800-1000rpm and doesn’t lurch up and down erratically. It shouldn’t make any knocking sounds or rattly tappet sounds; you don’t need to bring your stethoscope, audible abnormalities are what you are after. Satisfied that it sounds healthy, all you can really check now is your coolant level to see it is where it should be, not over or under filled. Then check the dipstick for oil, make sure again it is not under or over filled. The condition of the oil should be in line with the servicing schedule i.e. fresh oil doesn’t look like olive oil for long but it should still be viscous and drip off the stick freely, if the car hasn’t had a service in a while it will be greasy gunk the more congealed the worse.

A car should be viewed cold and if you find the car has been running and is hot when you arrive, it is not a great sign. A rattly engine can sound sweet after ten minutes running. Now you don’t have to run away, the seller may have just nipped to the shop for fags but keep it in mind, and if the car is not giving you the full come on, then it could be worth a second look when cold. Cars blow a bit of smoke particularly diesel or turbo diesels. On a cold morning any car will blow out steam but you need to look for excessive and consistent smoke.  A light rev (about 3000-4000rpm)  should show a  bit of smoke then the gases should run clean, A smokescreen of white ,black or blue smoke is bad and an end of inspection. Obviously a turbo diesel will spool up the turbo and blow out initial smoke as it clears its throat, if it is slightly excessive then it’s gagging for a service , if it’s very excessive then you have an expensive turbo problem. Like the Cherokee would say “big smoke big problem” so you have left the car behind, but for your own curiosity: White smoke can be water/head gasket problem or sometimes low compression. Black Smoke is a coking problem possibly injectors or a turbo. Blue smoke is an engine wear problem usually its burning through oil so piston and rings but either way is a sign of a tired donkey.

A common test that is often prescribed is take the oil filler cap off to see if there’s any watery greasy gunk around the cap which shows the head gasket is on the way out or is already gone. This is something I really only check on old cars and pick up trucks. If I ever suspect overheating/head gasket problems then me and the owner are going for a good drive together to see how much it likes to heat up. Obviously not a concern when buying from a garage but a fifteen minute drive(if you must in an old suspect motor) will be enough to heat it up to where it should be, obviously if it continues to rise way above midpoint it’s not for you. Don’t buy a car that has or has had an overheating/head gasket problem even if its fixed, it’s liable to go again sometime soon. (This last paragraph is really for older cars, it’s not so much an issue with a recent vehicle)

Bodywork: This is the hardest thing to teach, you either have an eye for a car or you have S**t in your eyes. By the latter I mean some people amaze me with their inability to spot that a car is 3 different colours, or from five yards away they can’t notice the ugly sandpaper grooves under the paint. Socrates said it best when he said “know thyself” If you are the sort of person that can only spot the sweet wrapper stuck in the lacquer when it is pointed out to you, then you should “know yourself” and accept that you suffer with S**t in the eyes and bring along someone who can help you. If you fancy your eyes then let’s go on. First off walk the car panel for panel, you are looking for it to be the same colour (not shades of) you are looking for a uniformity of texture to the paint. What you are really looking for is accident damage. Check that door gaps are uniform, that all doors and boot open and close correctly. If you are going to forensically examine any part of the car, make it the roof. The roof is one part of a car that I would do my best to avoid painting, as it is so hard to blend it into the A-posts and quarter panels. If a roof has been painted it requires closer examination.

Check under the bonnet and in the boot, look for welds and sealer that match on both sides and look like manufacturer finish. Lift the boot carpet, inspect the boot floor for possible hammer marks, look along the edges of the quarter panels both sides of the boot, again looking for uniformity of finish. Open all four doors, inspect and ensure all edges and sealant are the same. Under the bonnet, same again, looking for uniformity along both wings, follow down the inner valances and the chassis legs, looking for any fresh or non uniform finish. Look at headlights to see that they are original manufacturer and look like a pair. Check the wheels for excessive kerbing; Check the spare to make sure it’s not damaged if it is investigate which corner of the car it came off. Now get physical do a push up and look under the sills,both sides. They should have the same uniform Schultz finish. The only marks there, should be light stonechips to the front or possible scratches around a jacking point. If you want to get real physical you can get that press up real low and have a look under the front and rear. The advantage of doing this is to spot any underside damage (when they go off the road it shows underneath) at the front look out for new suspension parts,wishbones or subframe. Under the rear, evidence of damage or a particularly rusty exhaust that may need replacing soon should be spotable. The other advantage of this technique is it will give you a good burn across your pecs and reduce the size of your man boobs.

Paintwork: Paint is a contentious issue. There is sinister paint and cosmetic paint. Sinister being painted because of damage, cosmetic being painted because someone scratched your ride at Asda and you like it to look good. If you have given the car a good look over and are happy that it has not been pranged then we are looking at cosmetic paint. In this section there is only two types’ Good paint and bad paint. Good paint should be close to undetectable and only to someone trained who crawls over a car. There won’t be any overspray on door edges, window rubbers or glass. Bad paint will be noticeable; it is up to you to decide how bad it is. A car that’s had bad paintwork i.e. that’s shiny and dirty or patently off colour and really waving at you is obviously undesirable. Paintwork can be rectified but a panel beater would rather start from scratch with a damaged panel than have to redo someone else’s bad work, so pricewise you should be hitting the car. Overspray on rubbers etc is not a disaster and can be removed with a Stanley blade and some patience. If a car has had paint but you think it’s pretty good and you are satisfied it has not been crashed then it shouldn’t really affect the price or desirability of the vehicle. This is why I say it’s a contentious issue some people say if you see any paintwork on a car you should walk away. This is nonsense, most used cars have had some paintwork. If I was showing a car on a forecourt with a light scratch down a door the first thing the customer would be asking is, “ Are you going to get that painted “ .  So you see it can’t add value and take it away at the same time. If you are happy that it’s an honest car and the paintwork is fine then proceed with trying to buy it.

Where are you buying the car: If you are buying privately I have covered in my buying private guide what to look for in a seller, I’ll just add to the director’s cut that you should ask people straight questions about any paintwork damage that the car has had during their ownership, or any prior damage that the previous owner disclosed to them, the same for any mechanicals and ask them if they are aware of any faults or non working items. Some people don’t always offer information unprompted but when asked a straight question will struggle to lie, unless of course you have sussed them as dubious in which case you are off.  If you are buying from a garage make sure you are happy with the person you are dealing with and feel comfortable with the set up. Invariably with any mechanical object, you may have problems; weigh up your chances of being taken seriously and looked after should this happen. Does the garage actually consist of three skinheads in a portacabin who look like they would tell you to speak to the warranty company. It sounds like I’m being snobby, I’m not, plenty of excellent garages are run on tight budgets from cramped premises but you should be dealing with people you trust. There are laws to protect consumers but you don’t want to be doing your business in the courts

Buying in the rain or dark: Is a bit of a no no in vehicle inspection. If you really, really have to, then you must. But be warned that buying a car when it’s wet or dark is like finding the love of your life at in a nightclub. Rain is the worst, at least if you have to examine a car at night you can drive to a nearby petrol forecourt and examine it under severe light. Every car looks good in the wet; it’s like a coating of magic cover all shine. If I buy a car in the wet I have to devote twice as much time to it, I will be able to ascertain that it is has not been crashed and will be able to see deep scratches, but it is impossible for me to spot scratches any smaller than gouges, and more times than not when its dry you will discover its had more paint than a lighthouse. Do your best to not have to do this.

Checking a cars Vin Plate: You will find a cars VIN(Vehicle Identification number) under the bonnet, under a carpet flap in the interior compartment, or on a commercial or 4X4 it may be stamped on a chassis leg at the front, so look under the front wing. You can Google the model of car you are looking at and you will find where to look. “Once you have found the VIN make sure it has not been replaced or ground down and matches the cars V5”.  Again this is mostly B***oxology the last time I saw a VIN interfered with was on some Lexus that came in from Dubai about ten years ago. and was obviously a very suspicious batch of cars, A blind man from a galloping horse would have spotted it. I have also heard the good one about checking the car’s engine number against the V5?  Is this for real? Most engine blocks are stamped in some obscure spot that a mechanic with a ramp, a litre of Gunk and a wirebrush would be lucky to find. This is something to check when buying a classic car and I’ll be doing a guide for that but back in the real world, if you have followed my guides and you are 100% with the Garage/People you are buying from then you don’t need to go to these lengths.


* I once traded in a Nissan from an elderly couple, when the old boy dropped it off he said “I’ve left all the books in the glovebox”.  Later when I had a look for said books, on top of the service book ,where a number of diaries that the man had kept from the first day he collected the car new . These detailed every tank of fuel he had ever put into the car, how many miles he got out of it, where he had gone and how the car had performed.  I sold the car to an old world trader who probably threw the diaries out to make room in the glove box for his 100 Bensons. Shame really, but this is the sort of service history you are after and if the car doesn’t have it  then walk away !  : )