Here we look at how to spot a vehicle that’s been crashed and badly repaired plus issues that arise with chrome, glass, rubber seals and plastics. Also at the information you can obtain from vehicle Build and Identification plates that can save you money.

Crash Repairs

Modern cars can suffer serious deformation from relatively minor impacts. They’re designed to do that to soften the impact on occupants and are meant to be junked after a serious crash. Some, however, are purchased at salvage auctions, cheaply repaired then sold to unsuspecting buyers.

Registers of written-off vehicles do exist, but if the wreck was purchased in another state, tracking its history becomes difficult. Close inspection initially, followed by a professional check once you decide to buy, is the best defence against choosing something that could be a source of long-term problems.

Water leaking through a boot-lid or rear hatch seal is a common indicator of poor-quality repairs. If the cargo area smells musty, the floor coverings are damp or there’s surface rust beneath them, something is no longer fitting properly.

Gaps between body panels should be reasonably consistent. If there is a massive space between the bonnet and mudguard on one side and virtually nothing on the other, or doors showing similar inconsistencies, the car has probably been in a major accident. Find another one.

Doors that are hard to close or ill-fitting can be a legacy of crash damage, or just old age and a hard life. Either way, rectifying the problem is an expense you don’t need. Ignoring major gaps isn’t an option as not only water and dust can sneak into the passenger area but also dangerous exhaust fumes.

Door and Window Seals

Rubber seals attached to doors or to the main vehicle body  need to be in excellent condition and replaced when they are damaged or worn.  How many times during the life of a car, however, have you had the rubbers replaced?

Most will soldier on until they are flat or rock hard and not doing their intended and quite important job of keeping the vehicle cabin sealed against water and fumes. The condition of the rear hatch seal is especially important because it is the one most likely to let dangerous gases from the exhaust outlet slip past.

The other thing an old, weather-beaten seal can give you is a link to the car’s past. Peel up another section and underneath should be the car’s original paint colour. Is it similar to what’s there now or has there been a quickie colour change at some point?

Paint, Plastic & Chrome

Mismatched or inconsistently faded paint are big hints that the car has been in a crash or three during its life. These may have been minor bumps that come with the territory when buying an inexpensive set of wheels, but a vehicle that’s been repainted from the windscreen forward or down a complete side has had a major ‘whack’.

With the vehicle in a shaded area, look for areas of mismatched paint. This is relatively easy to see on darker cars or those with metallic paint, less obviously with lighter colours.

General fading or minor paint blemishes are common on lower priced cars, but if a repaint extends from the front or rear panels all the way to the roof, the vehicle has probably had a hefty hit and could be suffering structural damage as well.

Tyres that aren’t wearing consistently are big hint that you’re looking at a dodgy car. Excessive or patchy tread wear, especially to the inside edges are symptoms of serious problems that a wheel alignment won’t cure.

Chromed bumpers have largely disappeared and that’s a good and bad thing depending on your perspective. The old-fashioned steel ones will cop a knock with less damage than modern plastics but rechroming an old-style bar has become horribly expensive.

Damaged or missing body moulds, chrome strips and wheel covers can actually save you money. They don’t affect a vehicle’s drivability but will reduce value, so you can save by picking a tatty car over a pretty one.

ID and Build Plates

Australians have grown used to seeing vehicle Build and Compliance plates attached to various parts of the underbonnet sheet-metal. Some made life easier for roadworthy inspectors and car valuers by putting a VIN strip at the lower edge of the windscreen.

However, some manufacturers in Europe, the USA and parts of Asia mount plates in quite unexpected places. The Handbook for the vehicle will tell you where to look and what should be there.

The things to look for when you do find the identifying plates are the model designation (so you know it at least relates to the correct model) and the build year.

Quite often a vehicle will have been built in one year (say 2008) but not been fitted with a compliance plate until a year or even two later. So it is a 2008 (build) or 2009 (complied and sold) model? Finance companies will always work off the build date when establishing realistic values and so should you.

There are sites on the internet which give value ranges for vehicles the same ages and type as you are buying or you can have the one you are buying individually valued. This will take account of kilometres travelled, any obvious wear or damage, even its colour and the options fitted.

© Cliff Chambers 2020


Overall Condition

The health of a vehicle’s body is vital. Engines that smoke, gearboxes that whine, torn seats and faded paint can all be fixed (or in some cases ignored) but there is no cheap way to safely repair a car that is seriously rusted or structurally damaged.

A quick walk around looking for dents or rust is not enough. Smart sellers will repair superficial damage well enough to pass a cursory inspection.

Look at any vehicle you are inspecting from a distance before looking close up. Is the paint dull on some parts, shiny on others? Do plastic bumpers sit straight and is one headlight sitting a little lower than the other. Does a number-plate have damage while the area around it looks perfect? Look closer, the car might have been repaired after a big accident.

Don’t ignore the windows, tint and sealing rubbers. If they are scratched, chipped or letting in water the costs of repair could be substantial.

Find That Rust

Just because a car carries a roadworthy or Safety Certificate does not mean it is free from life-threatening rust. Metal welded or even riveted over rotten areas will often disguise serious structural problems.

Rust in structural areas will seriously compromise a vehicle’s safety and occupant lives. Areas to look at very closely are the sills that run below the doors (inside especially), the firewall between the engine and passenger compartment, roof pillars and rear suspension mounting points.

Rust that will cost you money but perhaps not your life appears in the lower sections of doors, windscreen and rear window surrounds, the boot floor and lips around the wheel-arches.

Sill rust and half-baked repairs are the easiest to check. Simply running your hand over the painted area below the doors can reveal areas which have been filled or had patches welded over rust holes. Any bubbling indicates the metal below has corroded.

Some cheap repairs involve welding a new outer sill over a rusted original. Look at the ends of the sill panel where they join the wheel-arches to check for signs of recent remedial work. Shiny paint, file marks or uneven joins are common clues.

The final and often most revealing check is to feel the join between the sill and floorpan inside the car for dampness that will indicate water entering through gaps or rust holes.

Body filler can be detected by lightly running your fingers along the lower edges of door skins, around the wheel-arches and rear roof pillars. It takes an expert repairer to apply filler and replacement paint so well it can defeat the ‘touch test’.

Don’t be overly concerned if paint on panels below the doors or bumpers feels rough to the touch. Some carmakers and repairers use a more durable finish to help protect against stone damage. Do be concerned by uneven paint on the underside of the sill or if it’s a different colour to the upper section.

Serious rust in the firewall can be difficult to spot, especially from above. If you have the opportunity to put the car on a hoist or floor jack, then this is the time to check this area and the points where the front sub-frame meets the main body. Make sure the jack capacity is at least double the weight of the car you’re lifting and use axle stands in case it collapses.

Four-wheel drive vehicles often have a hefty chassis but certainly aren’t immune from life-endangering rust. Even late-models that have been frequently driven near salt water can display advanced chassis rot.

The first areas to check are outriggers that run from the central frame to the box-sections behind the sills. While checking these for damage, look at the jacking points to see if they are separating or suffering crush damage.

The condition of rear suspension attachment points, especially in models with ‘leaf’ springs, is critical and often overlooked during an inspection. Mud collects in these areas and can rust the metal to which the spring hangers are attached. You may need to use a small implement (see Toolkit) to carefully scrape away accumulated dirt.

Be concerned if there are signs of recent welding in these areas as rust could have been patched over rather than removed.

Floor-pans are susceptible to impact damage and can rust from underneath, so a hoist or jack inspection is again recommended. Any car with damp carpets or a musty smell inside will likely have holes in the floor that are allowing water to enter.

Likewise, remove the spare wheel and check underneath for rust. While you’re there, make sure the rim isn’t damaged and the tyre is properly inflated and has legal-depth tread.

Rust bubbles in the metal surrounding front and rear window rubbers can point to more serious rot in the roof or pillars, so be wary. Repairing rust in these areas can be expensive and often involves replacement of the rubbers as well. Better to pay a bit extra for a sound car than spend a lot more on repairs.

© Cliff Chambers 2020


When looking for low-cost transport do you want something that can carry a load and be easily fixed by the amateur mechanic? Something you can give to an inexperienced driver and be pretty confident it will bring them home again safely? Here’s one.

Subaru’s improved Brumby utility was launched into Australia during 1984 and you would think after all this time there would be very few left. Not so, and simplicity is the key.

Unlike passenger models in Subaru’s L Series range (which are by now almost all gone), the Brumby engine ignored overhead-camshaft technology and stuck with easily maintained overhead valves. Even when the sedans and wagons moved to fuel injection, the Brumby kept its old-style carburettor.

This all contributed to a vehicle that could be easily maintained without a time-wasting trip from the farm to a dealer and many that are still running have exceeded 500,000km with a single engine rebuild. 

The downside to sticking with old technology was the four-speed gearbox which made highway running louder and less fuel efficient than it might have been. However, the 4WD transmission is dual range and helps the low-clearance Brumby into and out of places it really should not be able to go.

Inside is sparse and simple too; vinyl seats and rubber flooring with manual windows. Most don’t have air-conditioning and only the scarce Sport with its lift-out roof panels had a cassette player as standard.

Some Brumbys will sit higher than others because owners have found the suspension adjustment points which give around 30mm of extra clearance. For serious off-roading there are also lift kits available for use with bigger wheels and tyres, however modifying the suspension affects stability at higher speeds and wears the tyres prematurely.

Rust is rarely a big problem with Brumbys.  This is due in part to effective rustproofing and because their limited clearance discourages beach use.

Constant velocity (CV) joints are prone to damage and the overhead valve train needs regular adjustment to minimise noise.  A new water pump every 100,000 kilometres accompanied by a radiator flush will control overheating but in general these cars are mechanically immortal.

Underbody scrapes are often evident, with crushed exhaust pipes and damage to the catalytic converter on ULP models as well. Check that the rubber boots on the rear driveshafts and front CV joints haven’t been damaged.

Brumby prices remain high for a vehicle of its age, but $5000 should secure a very good later model with a bull-bar and perhaps even the desirable rear canopy.


. underbody damage

. engine oil leaks

. overheating due to faulty water pump

. damaged driveshaft boots

. dents and rust in load area


Affordability: 7/10

Durability: 8/10

Running Costs: 7/10

On The Road: 5/10

Safety: 3/10



YEARS BUILT: 1984-94

BODY STYLES: two-door utility

ENGINE: 1.8-litre overhead valve four-cylinder with carburettor

TRANSMISSION: four-speed manual (dual-range)

POWER & TORQUE: 61Kw @ 5200rpm, 127Nm @ 2400rpm

SUSPENSION & BRAKES: independent front & rear, disc front/drum rear

PERFORMANCE & FUEL CONSUMPTION: 0-100km/h – 16.2 seconds, 10.0L/100km

PRICE GUIDE (1990-94)

FAIR: $1800         GOOD: $3600                     EXCELLENT: $5000

©Cliff Chambers 2020