XK Buyer’s Guide by Philip Porter, founder of the XK Club
Buying an XK, like any serious purchase, needs care. It is crucial to make your decisions from a position of knowledge, based on researching the subject, talking to others with experience, weighing up the options and taking a little time to get your choice right. It is a complex subject and you can easily get burnt. Buy the wrong car and it will destroy all the enjoyment of XK ownership.
We will always try to advise members wherever possible, and can do our best to guide you in the direction of the the good guys and away from the bad guys! If you make the right decision, you will find the XK is a truly exciting, fabulous car that will give you many years of satisfaction and enjoyment, but beware! In this XK buyer’s Guide, I have tried to cover many aspects of the subject and pass on some of our knowledge, based on many years’ experience. One of the big advantages of a car club is that you can mix with, or correspond with, other owners and learn from their experience and even mistakes, hear recommendations and even warnings about the less-scrupulous companies. The XK Club, being focused just on these cars, should be able to help you more effectively than any other club.
Buying A Restored Car
This is a high risk activity. You will obviously be risking a far larger sum of money for a start. So you need to be very sure of what you are buying before taking the plunge. It is essential to have as much history with the car as possible. You should be very cynical and start with the attitude “guilty until proven innocent”. In other words, believe the worst and only change your view when you have been totally convinced. What will help to convince you? A photographic record helps, though this will only show what has been done and not how well it has been done. Long-term ownership by the previous custodian may inspire confidence, certainly more than a car which has changed hands frequently. A large number of invoices adding to some astronomical sum can be very misleading and as good as useless if the work has been done by a bunch of cowboys, even if those cowboys are masquerading behind large adverts, large premises and plenty of hype that gives them a very upmarket image. They are still con men. So it is important that ALL the work has been done by a reputable firm or firms. Or by a dedicated, truly skilled individual. A car that has been used frequently is likely to be a very much better car than one which has been standing around for a long time. It is amazing how much and how quickly a car deteriorates with a lack of regular use. Try not to get too emotionally involved at this stage. Always be realistic. You may love the car now, but what if you change your mind or your circumstances change? Will this car be easy to sell again, or have they seen you coming?
Buying A Car For Restoration
Buying an XK for restoration is in some ways easier and in some ways more difficult than purchasing a car that purports not to need restoring. Generally, you will be able to see exactly what you are getting and if you expect that you are going to have to tackle every aspect of the car, you should not (in theory!) have any nasty shocks. There should be less scope for roguish dealers to exaggerate their description and mislead you. If you are looking for such a car, I generally advise people to look for the worst they can find. That rather outrageous statement needs some important and immediate qualifications. All bodyshells are normally very rotten and need the full works, with the exception in some rare cases of bodyshells which have lived in kinder climates. However, these good shells are rarer than most people would have you believe. It is also important for the car to be complete. I would be very, very wary about buying a car that is in a collection of boxes, rather than one complete rolling lump. The restoration will probably have been started, and there may well be a selection of new parts with the job lot, but even the greatest expert can never manage to fully assess whether the pile of parts is complete or there are some missing. The only way to check exhaustively would be to sit down with a Parts Book and work through it. This would take weeks and is hardly practical. The missing parts may be unobtainable and thus be time-consuming and costly to find. Alternatively, they may be replaceable parts but the deficiencies can add considerably to your costs. Such a car should, therefore, be worth considerably less than one which is a complete entity. It is important to many people, and will affect the value, to have ‘matching numbers’. In other words, the engine (particularly) and gearbox should be the ones the car started its life with. This is not vital and will not worry some people, but you should be aware that a ‘matching numbers’ car will always be more desirable than one with, say, a replacement engine. It is important that the engine is the correct type for the car and not out of, say, a much later saloon. There are some cars which have been converted from Fixed Head Coupés to Roadsters, which in my opinion is most regrettable and must adversely affect the value – not that value is everything by any means. Check the chassis number and make sure it started life as whatever it is now. My book Original XK lists all XK chassis numbers, and where to find them. Beware of crooks who have converted cars as this is a seriously fraudulent behaviour and you will make a very costly mistake. A number of cars in recent years have been changed from lefthand to righthand drive, and vice versa. These cars are possibly a little less desirable than an original XK, but only marginally so. The point I am trying to make with regard to buying “the worst you can find” is that you can easily pay more for what appears to be a better car only to find that, in fact, you have to do the same amount of work and need the same quantity of parts. For example, if the car needs retrimming, it needs retrimming. Unless you can save the seats, it is likely that a total job will have to be done. If the car needs painting after body repairs, it needs painting. The price will be the same. Often you will be involved in the same amount of work, and thus cost, whether a car is quite bad or very bad (providing it is complete). If you are able to do the work yourself, then this is the best route to satisfying XK ownership, but it will take a very long time. Even professional restoration generally takes a minimum of a year.
Buying An Un-restored Car
Buying an original, unrestored car is not easy. The chances are that, though it may look quite nice, under the skin it will need a lot of work. Many of the comments about buying a restored car apply to this category as well. Additionally, you should consider the following questions. Has the car been well cared for? Where has it lived? Has it been garaged (depending on which part of the world the car has lived in, this may or may not be vitally important)? Has it been regularly maintained? Are there invoices with the car? Can you build up a picture of how the car has been treated? Has it been owned by an enthusiast? Has he, or she, been involved in club events, such as tours? This will give a good indication of reliability and the faith the present owner (or previous owner if it’s a dealer selling the car) has in the car.
Buying A Semi-Restored Car
This category can be split into two. There are semi-restored cars that are on the road and semi- restored cars that are unfinished restoration projects. Taking, firstly, the cars on the road, you should again be very cynical. Has the work done been carried out properly? That is an insultingly obvious question but it is important nevertheless. If reasons of cost have restricted the amount of work done, has that work been done with an eye on cost more than quality? What remains to be done? How urgently will the unrestored aspects need attention, or can you be truly convinced that they will be satisfactory in the long-term? We cover elsewhere the areas of the bodyshell to examine, but do remember that a few bubbles in the paintwork, the odd blister here and there, will probably indicate the whole shell is rotten. As to an uncompleted restoration project, this is another minefield. For a start the car will probably not be complete, so you need to assess what is missing which, as mentioned elsewhere, is almost impossible. What is the quality of the work done? Has it been done by reputable professionals or a capable amateur, or the opposite? Much of the work done can only be assessed when the remaining work is completed. For example, do the rear lamps fit the contours of the body? It could be very expensive, and upsetting, to find out later when the shell is painted that they do not. Why has the project stopped? There could be a very genuine reason, such as illness or divorce. More often it will be lack of funds. Whatever the reason, it will be sad for the owner who will never realise his dream and will be very unlikely to get his total expenditure back. For this last reason, IF all the work is satisfactory, this can be a cheaper way of acquiring a car, especially if you can do the work yourself. If you are going to take the car to a professional restorer, you should bear in mind that everyone works differently and one restorer will, almost always, criticise the work of another, and often with justification. But it doesn’t make pleasant listening. If the professional completing the work for you is not so reputable, he will use this as an excuse to up the bill very considerably and you will find yourself in a dreadful dilemma. There are very rarely any cheap answers and it pays to go to the best, because in the long run they really will be the cheapest. But do not think that just because a firm is expensive they are going to be good.
Body – What To Look For
Front wings corrode quite badly around the sidelight housings and headlamp pods, particularly in front and below. They are separate pressings that were welded to the main wing panel and lead-loaded around. Run your fingers over these areas and see if you can feel any bubbles or slight lifting. Any such signs very likely mean there is rot in this area. Even restored cars suffer problems in this area if the housings have not been filled with rust-proofing fluid or any porosity has developed from below. Poor lead-loading can also lead to problems. The wired edges along the bottom of the wing panels and around the wheelarches are a good haven for rust as moisture gets trapped in here. The rear bodywork is of quite complex construction and by the time you have replaced the inner wings, boot floor, tonneau panel edges, B posts and outer wings, it is cheaper and better to throw away the whole rear end and purchase a new, complete replacement. The sills, which join the front and rear body sections and mount to the chassis will undoubtedly need replacing if they have not been. Doors, depending on the model, will at best need reskinning or the whole door may need rebuilding/replacing. Feel along the bottoms. If water has collected and not been able to escape, it will have done its worst. The doors on the Coupe models are very heavy and the hinges originally had no means of lubrication. Open each door and from the open end try gently lifting them to see if there is any play in the hinges. Water can percolate down in the box sections in the 'B' post area and be retained, causing some havoc unless there is rust-proofing to fight off the corrosion. Have a good look round this area.
No Turning Back
You cannot weld good metal to old corroded metal. So once you have started by replacing one panel, it may be necessary to replace the panel adjoining it, and so on. More and more corrosion may become apparent as you strip off paint and filler. As the work escalates in this way, it becomes necessary to remove more and more of the outer trim, the chrome-plated parts and suchlike. As the area receiving attention increases in proportion to the whole, the argument for painting the whole shell becomes stronger. Obviously, painting certain parts of a body is always a compromise. So if you have reached the stage where it makes sense to paint the whole shell, do you want to go to all the trouble and expense of stripping all the exterior trim, and probably the interior, preparing the surfaces (which are so important to the final finish), painting the car, and then refitting everything, if you are going to have to do the whole exercise again when you tackle the remainder of the shell? Clearly, this does not make sense and so you are, effectively, trapped into doing the whole job properly in one go. You may have no choice anyway as the stripped shell may be so unsound that it is unsafe.
Restoring the bodyshell properly will involve removing all the exterior trim – the bumpers, lights, door handles, soft-top (on Drop Head Coupés and Roadsters), glass and so on. You should be aware that refitting is not always going to be straightforward and extra costs must be budgeted for. You will need to fit new rubbers for example. You may wish to have the brightwork rechromed or replace these items as rechroming may not be practical. Items may break upon removal or be found to have worn badly. Door locks are a good example of the latter. Even experienced restoration firms often underestimate the true cost and time involved in refitting a car. Everyone thinks that once a car is bodily rebuilt, painted and mechanically completed, that the work is very nearly done. Nothing could be farther from the truth and ‘refitting’ is one of the most labour intensive and parts consuming stages of all. Also, the work has to be done with extra care because one slip with the screwdriver while fitting the sidelights, for example, and the resulting scratch on the pristine bodywork means a trip back to the paintshop.
One of the advantages of mechanical components is that, generally, they can be repaired in isolation, unlike bodywork. The XK engine is famous for being robust and for its longevity, if properly maintained and, like any engine, allowed to warm up thoroughly before higher revs are used. The engine has so much torque that it is rare to use high revs in normal driving. Check the oil pressure when the engine is thoroughly warm. Many of the mechanical components were over-engineered, such as back axle, steering and suspension. They may not be the lightest but they are certainly used to hard work. Often such parts were designed for the much heavier saloons (sedans).
Buying From A Dealer
Buying an XK from a dealer can be a very high risk activity. Of course there are a few notable exceptions, but the majority of dealers will not really know what they are selling. This is firstly because they will probably be selling MGs, Ferraris, Aston Martins and other Jaguars, and they cannot possibly have specialist knowledge on every model of every make. They will be unlikely to have a workshop with specialist mechanics who know the cars inside out. They only make money if they sell the car relatively quickly and so it is not commercially practical for them to spend time and money on the cars. Furthermore, as we have seen, once you start working on a car it is possible for that work to escalate and the costs likewise. When buying, or if selling on commission, the dealer (unless he is an XK specialist) will have had to rely on the vendor’s description. Sitting in their showroom, the car will look very smart because they have concentrated on the cosmetics knowing that that is what sells a car to the uninitiated. But, as we stress elsewhere, a newly-painted car should be treated with scepticism. Unfortunately, it is a fact that restoration invariably costs more than the car is worth. This situation has varied over the years and, depending on the model and its rarity, may now have changed. When prices reached silly heights in the late eighties, cars were briefly selling for more than the true cost of properly restoring them, but when values took a dive in the early nineties this was no longer the case. For these reasons, it is rarely commercially viable for reputable companies to restore cars to sell. The exceptions will be historic, more valuable cars and firms that charge a high price for standard cars and find a few wealthy clients per year. In recent years ‘upgraded cars’ have entered the equation and these now generally command a premium (often considerable) over standard cars, making full restoration and upgrading more viable. Equally, a stunning time-warp car with exceptional originality can also achieve a higher price than an average restored car. Many people favour upgraded cars now as they wish to use their XK on events, such as tours, and not only should they be a little more reliable, they will be easier and safer to drive. The contrary argument is that the more original the spec, the more period character the car will have. For some, too much upgrading will sanitise the period feel. A dealer can be an entirely honest and honourable individual (and there are some) but with the best will in the world will not know the true state of the engine, or what quality of components has been used in a rebuild, or what the bodyshell is really like under that nice, shiny paint. Thus you need to deal with a reputable company or individual who will still be around if any problems do arise. If cars have not been used much, or even at all, they will need a bit of sorting. It can be disillusioning to have a succession of small but annoying problems. These will be ironed out, though. A bit of patience, perseverance and faith can be needed. You may doubt it at the time, but it is worth it. Just look at the owners who have been thousands of miles a year for decades.
Buying At Auction
Another way of buying an XK is at auction. Personally, I would advise people to be very wary, unless the car in question is an historic one with a known history. For lesser cars, the auction can be a way of quickly getting rid of something that would not sell in any other way. It can be a last resort. The extremely brief descriptions given in the catalogue are often vague and may not be based on reality. The cars may not have been viewed by the auctioneers and the catalogues are thus written from the vendor’s own highly optimistic, favourable opinions of their car. I know all this because many years ago, I was retained by a large firm of auctioneers to write some of their classic car catalogue entries. Typically, the first two thirds of the catalogue description is waffle about the model of car, rather than the specific example in question. Obviously, you have no way of thoroughly examining the car being offered and cannot road test it. Please be very careful. This is not say that there are not a few reputable auction houses but caution is needed and one should never make an impulse purchase.
Buying a car from an enthusiast who has some history with the car, who knows what’s been spent on the car and where it’s been for a number of years, can be a safer road to follow. You still need to be careful for this may be an owner who has devoted hundreds of hours of loving care and attention on his car or lavished thousands with genuinely good companies, or he may not fall into either of those categories. He may be a DIY man who has rather more enthusiasm than experience and skill. He may have had to take short cuts to save money on parts, or he may have been the victim of one or several of the many rogue restorers. So, care is still needed but there is no substitute for personal contact. This will allow you to build up a picture of the sort of person you are dealing with and how he will have treated his car. Obviously, the greater the history with the car the better, including invoices, MOTs and suchlike. Afull photographic record should be very helpful. Photographs will not necessarily tell you the work has been done right, but will certainly illustrate the level of work undertaken. You should be careful of comments about a car being restored by a particular firm, whom you have established are reputable. It is possible they may have only done part of the work, and yet their good name is being applied to the restoration as a whole. These comments also apply to buying from a dealer or an auction house.
A lot of my comments might seem very negative. They are designed to make you be very careful in the hope that you will avoid the pitfalls that many have fallen into. I want you to enjoy your XK. They are fabulous cars that can give enormous pleasure and be very practical but you must buy the right car for you. As with any major purchase, do your homework, speak to experts, talk to owners at XK Club events or via the web site. Read all you can. Become an expert and if we, at the Club office, can help we’ll be delighted to give advice. We want you to not only enjoy your XK initially but to keep using it for many years to come and, depending on where you are in the world, take an active role in the XK Club. The real joy of ownership is driving the cars.