How to Buy a Performance Car

The GM 10-bolt rear end, found in the 3rd and 4th generation F-body cars, is the weakest part of the drivetrain. Most dedicated to drag racing with the platform have opted to upgrade to the GM 12-bolt, Ford 9” or Dana 60. Those who haven’t are warned to do so before catastrophe strikes.

There’s nothing more exciting than buying the performance car you’ve always wanted. Maybe you didn’t buy it new because of the house, the baby, the cost of the car itself or whatnot. The day is finally upon you to buy the car you’ve wanted. You’ve found it on or through another channel. You’re going to buy this car!

Buying a performance car (or anything that’s been modified) can become a hassle. Here’s a list of the things to look for and ask of the seller. This is assuming you’re purchasing through a private party. If you’re at a dealership, you’re on your own. Most dealerships will take a trade-in without talking about the vehicle with the soon-to-be-previous owner. No records or histories are given, and the only things you can go by are intuition and any vehicle records (CarFax).

1. Research the platform you’ve chosen. Don’t use magazines or websites, but instead use forums. Find out what goes wrong on every single car; seek the proverbial “Achilles heel” of the platform, and then the biggest (most expensive) complaints that other owners have.

How to Buy a Performance Car
The GM 10-bolt rear end, found in the 3rd and 4th generation F-body cars, is the weakest part of the drivetrain. Most dedicated to drag racing with the platform have opted to upgrade to the GM 12-bolt, Ford 9” or Dana 60. Those who haven’t are warned to do so before catastrophe strikes.

2. The age of the seller matters. This isn’t about the car, but pertains to how the car was treated during its ownership. The younger the owner is, the less likely that the car had an easy life or is up-to-date on intermediate maintenance items. The older the owner, the more likely the car was actually “never raced” and that the vehicle’s life was indeed used for Sunday driving.

3. Why are they selling it? If the normal “marriage, house, baby” response comes out, that’s perfectly acceptable. Anything else such as “can’t afford payments” or “not really for me” should bring about suspicion. If the current owner was making bi-weekly or weekly payments on the car, the dealer who sold them the car could be less than reputable. Also be suspicious if the price is below fair market value. If affordability is an honest reason to sell the car, the price could be higher. If the previous owner purchased the car as a “killer deal,” you need to look over the car very closely. It’s possible that the vehicle was in an accident and repaired “under the table,” meaning the owner paid cash and the accident isn’t reported in the CarFax history or other vehicle records databases. Verify that it has a clean title, or be comfortable with the title if it isn’t.

4. Length of ownership and driving style. Ask the seller to be honest and give an accurate description of their driving style and how long they’ve had the car. If you’re buying a supercharged C6 Corvette from a 21-year-old, odds are it’s seen redline about 100 times per day. Those tires with 3/32nds tread on them? Purchased last week. If the owner is honest and says it’s been to the drag strip, and it’s had a few engines, transmissions and other major components replaced, take that truthfully. If the owner comes up with a story that sounds false against your knowledge of the platform, note that things might not be as they appear.

5. Try to find out how long performance mods have been installed on the car. They are not indestructible parts and will wear out as well. A set of Bilstein shocks installed 100,000 miles ago does not count towards a “premium” on the sell price. If the seller explains they bought the supercharger used on eBay, reliability drops to nearly zero. Receipts showing original purchase, labor towards rebuilding the engine and other expensive mods or upgrades give credibility to the seller. Knowing the shop that performed the work allows you to research their reputation and workmanship.

How to Buy a Performance Car
These Bilsteins have seen better days. Don’t let the seller add older parts as a “premium” to the sale price. Used performance parts are as valuable as used factory parts.

6. Test drive the car. Do not joyride it, but test drive it. Ensure everything works accordingly. Wheel bearing noises start at about 35 MPH, while out-of-balance tires normally start making noises at 55 MPH. Get on the accelerator to ensure the engine does not have problems. Shift through all of the gears at speed; even use reverse. You do not need to go wide open throttle and red-line the engine. A 500 HP Corvette will put you in your seat before 4,000 RPMs. If it’s turbocharged or supercharged, ensure everything works properly. Sometimes a turbocharged car will drive normal under “no boost” conditions, but problems arise once the turbo spools. Hit bumps, take tight turns and make sure everything works the way it should. Check anything electrical, and bring a CD to test the audio system. If the seller refuses to allow you to drive the car, show money first. If they really do not allow you to drive it, ask them to take you for a ride and take notes.

How to Buy a Performance Car
You’ll have plenty time to joyride and do burnouts AFTER you buy the car. Pay attention to noises, vibrations and other signs of needed maintenance when test driving the car.

7. Verify the parts put on the car, either through driving or visually. If the owner says it has thicker sway bars and polyurethane bushings, you should immediately feel a difference in the handling. If the car has a set of 4.10 rear end gears, you should be shifting out of gears sooner than what’s considered “normal.” Check under the hood and find what has been replaced or upgraded. Question anything that looks factory original that is supposed to be aftermarket.

How to Buy a Performance Car
The author’s Trans Am had ceramic coated long tube headers, which were visible from the engine bay. Always look under the hood when purchasing a car!

8. What exactly has been done to the car and why? The worst response to hear is “because it looks cool,” due to the fact that the owner is not performance minded. Who knows what other mods have been done, and if they were done properly or professionally? Are they from reputable companies or shops? If you’ve never heard of the company, research and then possibly steer clear.

How to Buy a Performance Car
Someone thought it’d be tasteful to copy the Mitsubishi Eclipse from the original The Fast and The Furious movie… With a Camaro Z28! It will cost too much to undo the mods to this car, unless it’s to your liking as is.

9. Where was the owner on the path to performance? Everyone who is performance minded buys a car and lays out a plan for it. Life happens, and suddenly the supercharger gets pushed back a year or two, and then the baby comes and now the car is up for sale. People undergo a lot of priority changes in life, but some people have already made investments into their car. Were they trying to build a street/strip drag car? A drift car? An auto-cross racer? The reason this is important is that a drift car has a different setup than a drag car. If you want a drag car and buy a drift car, a lot of performance mods are probably going to have to be replaced. Don’t put yourself in a situation that warrants more work.

10. Finally, set a budget and don’t be afraid to walk away. The car isn’t the only one made of its kind. Price, mileage and condition are not reasons to purchase a car that gives you a bad feeling. If something seems “out of place,” simply don’t buy it. If it has a modification you don’t like (body kit, giant rear wing or tacky cheap wheels), it’s most likely going to be expensive to undo the alteration. Anything that gives you a “red flag” means walk away.

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