Muscle Car Forensics

The trip to check out a potential car purchase is always a highlight for any car guy or gal. There are a ton of items and processes to evaluate, and often red flags are easy to overlook when the urge to snatch up this latest tasty machine is too much to overcome. Especially when the seller claims he has two other perspective buyers who might just be ready to snatch it out from underneath you.

That’s why the more common-sense approach is to view this next potential purchase with a jaundiced eye. Look for its flaws and then decide if the price warrants the issues that you know will likely have to deal with.

The cliché holds true: the first impression is the most important. A clean engine bay beats a grease pit with oil puddles underneath. This engine bay is somewhere in-between, but kudos to the serpentine belt accessory drive over the V-belt system

The experienced buyer has looked at hundreds of potential purchases. They’ve bought some, passed on many more, and been beaten to the purchase on just as many. For this story, we’ve condensed a few of these experiences into some logical approaches for evaluating the heartbeat of your next muscle car purchase. The engine isn’t the only arbitrator, but it’s an important one.

Even before you fire the engine and listen to it rumble, popping the hood and evaluating the engine’s overall visual appearance will reveal many secrets. Is the engine compartment clean and detailed or heavy with baked-on grease or an inch of dust? We can begin our inspection by looking for the obvious runs, drips, and errors. Do the valve covers reveal clean spots where oil is leaking past the gaskets? Look to see if the engine has a PCV valve or breathers stuck haphazardly into the valve covers.

Our first quick inspection revealed a slight coolant leak from around the thermostat housing. Cheap thermostat housings are infamous for leaking, but this might be as simple as a new gasket to fix. Keep tabs of maintenance issues like this as you look everything over.

Look for coolant stains. They will generally be green if the coolant is fresh. If the engine is cold, remove the radiator cap and use your flashlight to inspect the inside for corrosion. If it’s brown and crusty, that indicates the engine has not necessarily had the care it deserves. Do the radiator hoses look pliable or are they brittle and ready to split? Look at the less visible freeze plugs. Steel freeze plugs and a rusty cooling system are poor bedfellows, and you can expect to replace all the freeze plugs after cleaning the cooling system. That’s a very common issue with older engines that have not seen proper attention.

Next pull the dipstick and check not just for level but also for its condition. A rusty, crud-encrusted dip stick tells you the engine’s interior is likely in a similar state. If the oil level is good but black as coal, this means the owner didn’t even bother with simple maintenance to improve his chances of a sale. That tells you something.

Checking the oil can tell you plenty about the engine’s condition. If the oil is clean and fresh, then the owner has put care into the car. This oil looks recently changed, a good sign. Be sure to check the automatic transmission fluid dipstick for pink-to-red fluid, if equipped.

If the above considerations don’t deter you to look deeper, then that’s when you can ask to have the seller start the engine. Listen carefully to how it cranks. If the engine is already warm when you arrived, it might be because the engine is balky and not happy when cold. Listen to how the engine cranks over. If the cranking is consistent, that indicates cylinder pressure is probably good through all the cylinders. If it cranks with a change in speed before it fires, this may indicate at least one or two cylinders are not making the same pressure as the others.

If the engine cranks very slowly, this may be an indication that the starter or its connections are not up to par, or it could be the battery or cables are suspect. Once the engine starts, does it idle consistently or does it appear to have a misfire? Listen carefully for internal engine noises. A light knock is a bad sign but not necessarily an immediate deal-breaker. A bad hydraulic lifter can mimic a rod bearing knock. But either way this is not a good sign.

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