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