Beyond Skin Deep

A wise man once said you can tell how well a restaurant keeps its kitchen by looking at its bathroom. If they're willing to show you an unkempt lavatory, then you should assume the places you can't see are no better.

The insightful food writer went on to say he refuses to eat in restaurants with dirty bathrooms, and I dare say this is sage advice for the car buyer as well. Beware of the vehicle that is beautiful on the exterior and neglected where you can't see. This is especially true with any collector car because enthusiasts should know better; if they don't, they are not enthusiasts and the car should be judged accordingly.

Study the condition of the engine with an eye for leaks, frayed wiring, mismatched or missing hose clamps, swollen hoses, grime and general neglect. Check fluids. Likewise, look at the undercarriage and all four wheel wells. Leaky shocks get grimy over time. Add rust to the equation and you've got plenty of items for a checklist. That inspection, along with maintenance records, will give you a decent picture of the true character of the car before you even get behind the wheel.

Finally, consider the seller. Does the owner seem conscientious? How about credible? The rule of thumb is you're not just buying the car; you're buying the seller.

There were a couple of places that needed some TLC in my engine bay, but nothing a good washing, some touch-up paint and a little elbow grease can't change. Here are a few things I've done over the past month:

BEFORE: Small aftermarket battery. No big deal, but it was getting tired.

AFTER: A Mercedes battery fit snugly in the tray and just felt right.

BEFORE: It's all there, but the paint is flaking and it needs overall TLC.
This is behind the grill, so it inevitably gets sand-blasted from road debris.
AFTER: A little satin black touch-up and TLC.
The Mercedes M104 powerplant in all its glory. Still some nooks & crannies to clean, but tidier overall.

I'm no detailer, but if you're at all curious, here's what I used to clean the engine bay along with a healthy dose of elbow grease: