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Old 12-02-2003, 03:46 PM
Vronsky's Avatar
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Join Date: Jul 2002
Location: Amsterdam, Old Europe
Posts: 838
How to spot a well maintained car?

Recognize this? You're looking at this attractive, nice, shiney and clean used car, no obvious defects visible in the engine bay, but you want to know how well it's been serviced and maintained. What to look for? What are easy signs to spot that the cardealer usually won't bother to 'improve'?
For me, I always pay special attention to the tyres and the coolant. If the tyres are of a cheap brand (or worse, brand-less), the same maintenance standard probably applies to the rest of the car aswell. Also for the coolant: if it's murky and very old, the previous owner has been careless, walk away.

What do you think?
Any other suggestions?
'01 DT41 - M54 - A5S 325Z - 482
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Old 12-02-2003, 04:08 PM
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Join Date: Feb 2003
Location: Ontario, Canada
Posts: 3,160
Look for OEM parts, like oilfilter, airfilter, etc.
I also pull the dipstick, for an indication of frequent oilchanges.
Service history is nice to have/see.
Any cheap aftermarket accessories make me suspicious.
2007 C 230 Sport.
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Old 12-02-2003, 04:34 PM
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Join Date: Aug 2002
Location: Toronto, Ontario
Posts: 310
For a car with an automatic transmission, pull the dipstick and smell the fluid. If it smells burnt, chances are the transmission hasn't been serviced properly. You can also take the oil filler cap off and look on the underside for sludge buildup. If it coats the underside of the oil cap, its probably all over the inside of the motor as well.

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Old 12-02-2003, 05:28 PM
Q Q is offline
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Posts: 839
On a lot of cars, you can see the valve train components through the oil cap. Nasty and black = stay away Jack.
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Old 12-02-2003, 05:37 PM
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Join Date: Nov 2003
Location: Nashville, TN
Posts: 285
I like to look at how clean/dirty the engine bay is for one, because it is often neglected. If the motor is clean and nice, like mine , and not rusty and dirty, then chances are the car is a keeper.

Checking tyres for brand name and match is a good start too. For me, the first thing I look at is the overall condition and it is more important to me than the mechanical stuff (to a point, you can tell by driving the car, if the motor/trans has been maintained) as mechanical parts can be replaced, but bad paint and interior cannot be renewed as easily and shows a general lack of care by the owner. Plus more often than not, the cleanest original car is the best mechanically. If a car has been painted, I walk away, unless it has been documented why, because there is no reason for a more modern, post-85, Merc to have bad paint, IMHO. Just look at my car, the paint is darn good and is original, if the owner has respects his/her car, they will maintain the mechanicals as well as the interior/exterior. I've looked at a lot of used cars and its never one particular thing that gets me staying or walking, but the general condition. Has the leather been conditioned or is it torn, are the carpets clean and stain free, has the wood been polished, are the door panels dirty, etc. I guess I'm just the obsessive-compulsive owner (OCD)....

For example, this weekend over Turkey-day, I removed the whole interior of my w126 to clean the carpets, headliner, rear-shelf, etc… I reinstalled the driver’s seat to make the car usable, but there are no carpets underneath and the power adjustments and memory are unplugged at the moment.

Also look for factory original parts... clear corners are cool for the kids, but that means they spent there money on that and not on other things, like cruise control, air-conditioning, window regulators, etc. My own personal bias says that a car with mud-guards is a good one because it shows the previous owner cared more than most about rock-chips and scratches, but that's just me.:p
link to pics of the w126 on MBWorld thread
1998 S600
2001 E430
1990 300SEL gone
1979 450SEL gone
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Old 12-02-2003, 05:54 PM
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I stay away from cars that have spotless engine compartments. It might be a sign the seller is hiding fluid loss, such as weeping heads, p/s, trans and hydraulic fluid leaks. Or it might be a way of re-directing the potential buyer away from other "issues" -- call it overcompensation (?)
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Old 12-02-2003, 06:20 PM
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Location: Guatemala, Central America
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I would pull out all the mats and have a look underneath. Additionally, pull out the backseat and have look. Furthermore, check the spare tire well and under the plastic and mats in the trunk. (look in the cracks and creveces) If these areas are clean I would tend to believe that the car was well maintained. But if brand new with armour all on these areas, I would be skeptical especially coming from a dealer.

Do they have records for all maintance? Even though I do some of the work myself and do not have shop stamps in the book, I keep all receipts together on all the parts that I have purchased or maintained. If you have a nice history like this then it is a keeper.

Lastly, I tend to stay aware from dealers. Especially ones that clean the car up way too much! I prefer to wait and look and find that keeper coming from a private seller.

Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

2006 - Suzuki Gran Vitara (2.0 L fully equipped) Like this car so far except for trying to put on the seatbelt.
1988 - 190e - 2.3L - 172K miles (It now belongs to the exwife)
1999 - Chevy Blazer LS Fully Equiped - killed it June 2006
2001 - Honda Civic EX - 68K miles (sold June 2004)
1963 - 220S - Dual Carb 6 cyl. (sold)
1994 - Yamaha WaveRaider (fun to ride)
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Old 12-02-2003, 07:04 PM
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Location: San Francisco, CA
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I agree with all of the above and I would like to add:

-Cars can kind of "talk" to you. That is, they tell a story.

The harder you look, the more story you get. Whether dirty door jams or not, or a clean motor or not, these items alone do not say whether specifically the car has or has not been abused.

I take very good care of my cars and they have clean door jams and engines.

-Become a student of the subject: If I am interested in a particular series, I will start going to lots and looking at them in parking lots.

What I am suggesting is attaining a well-trained eye. Be able to spot the strengths and weaknesses. I did this before buying the 91 300E. When I finally spotted it, I knew immediately that was the car I would buy, and get this, from a distance! Yes, I inspected it carefully before actually paying for it, but I could tell it was a great car.

-It pays to get your knee dirty: An old car business saying but still holds true. Get under the car. Lean down or get it up on a lift. The most expensive pieces are rarely seen from above.

-If in doubt, check it out: Pay for an "Inspection for purchase". Most shops and dealerships do this. Usually an hour or two of labor but WELL WORTH it.

'03 E320 Wagon-Sold
'95 E320 Wagon-Went to Ex
'93 190E 2.6-Wrecked
'91 300E-Went to Ex
'65 911 Coupe (#302580)
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Old 12-02-2003, 08:45 PM
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Location: North Central PA
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Have someone start it up while you are looking at the exhaust
pipe for puffs of white, blue or black smoke. Listen to the engine as it warms up. any knocks, unusual sounds, etc?

good luck
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Old 12-02-2003, 10:38 PM
Senior Member
Join Date: Sep 2002
Location: New Jersey, U.S.A.
Posts: 2,398
I'm surprised no one mentioned the wheels! If you find a car that has wheels with NO curb damage it's a good bet the owner LOVED the car. If they loved it, it's likely the car was well cared for. I know it sounds trivial, but it's true. Also, ask your local dealer to provide a VMI. Lastly, a pre-purchase inspection by a QUALIFIED shop is always worth the expense.
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Old 12-03-2003, 08:36 PM
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Location: Carol Stream, Il, USA
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I look for a clean engine - not just one that has been recently detailed but look for signs of oil/coolent leaks.

Look at the condition of the air filter as well as the smell and color of the trans and oil fluids.

If you can look between the condenser and radiator check for debris (leaves, dust and dirt).

Check the condition of the transmission and oil dipsticks. If the dipsticks show any sign of burnt spots then there is a good chance that the engine has overheated (run don't walk away).

Listen to the engine running - observe any unusual sounds. Look for any leaks expecially around all gasketed areas, seals and water pump.

Check fluid levels and tire air pressure.
1998 Mercedes E320, 200K Miles
2001 Acura 3.2TL, 178K Miles
1992 Chevy Astro, 205K Miles
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Old 12-03-2003, 09:49 PM
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Join Date: Apr 2003
Location: Richardson, TX
Posts: 92
Here are some additional tips that I've heard.

* Run a carfax report and make sure the title hasn't changed hands like a hot potato.

* If it has higher than average mileage, check the condition of the rubber pad on the brake pedal. It might help indicate if they were highway or city miles.

* For body work, check if the paint has been disturbed around the bolts fastening the body parts.

If you don't know the vehicle's history, then I should hope you're getting a good deal.
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Old 12-03-2003, 09:59 PM
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Join Date: Apr 2002
Posts: 321
i have examined a few.

it is not only the appearance that counts. it is the running of the vehicle. never fail to take it out for a spin. that drive will tell you a lot. make sure you can run it on a stretch of road that will allow you to put your boot into it - so that you can feel how the tranny works, so that you can discern any misfiring, so that you can observe any funny smoking from the exhaust pipes.

if the car passes the run test, get it up on a lift at a good independent garage. in the last five years i have acquired 4 previously-owned benzes. i examined a dozen to find those 4.

here are the criteria that my eyeballs told me indicated a vehicle deserving of more intensive mechanical scrutiny...

1. condition of the interior. headliner. seats. dash. carpeting. a well-cared for car will look like my 250,00+mile, 1986 560sel. AS IF NEW.

2. weather stripping condition. should look new.

3. make sure to examine the bottoms of the doors. you do not want to see any evidence of corrosion.

4. door hinges. are they painted? or unpainted? if unpainted, find out why.

5. pay attention to paint under hood. if the car has been the subject of a respray, it will show up here. if you think that you see a respray, examine the service records and find out why the car was re-painted.

6. open the trunk, take a deep inhalation. mildew, damp, will reveal itself. pull the carpet. check the spare. see if it has any air. make sure that the tools and jack are there.

7. check medical kit in rear deck. run your hand over the rear deck fabric. make sure that it isn't wet. if you are looking at certain models, i think that you should take a hose and aim water at the rear window. then inspect the rear deck and the trunk.

8. for cars with low annual mileages, i think a borescope exam of each cylinder is indispensable. i learned this lesson the expensive way. w126's, driven by elderly women for only 4k a year to the country club and back will require a top-end rebuild. the evidence of that kind of usage will be revealed by observing the piston crowns.

9. with rare exception, try to find only one-owner cars out of snow country.

10. make sure you put it up on a lift. walk underneath it.

11. if you can, get its alignment checked as a part of your pre-purchase inspection.

12. if you can't inspect it personally, send a mechanic that you trust and use routinely. if you can inspect it personally, make sure that you get it to a garage on a weekday, and make sure that the inspecting mechanic talks to your mechanic considering the inspection.

13. get a quote for the repairs that are indicated by the inspection.

14. take lots of photos if you are not going to purchase the car and drive it home that day.

i say this because i have acquired old benzes from out of state locations and have had them transported to texas.

by and large, i have been lucky. but i have examined cars that could have burned deep holes in my wallet.

my favorite story concerns the 1995 e320cab that i did not purchase. it had less than 35,000 miles. the price was below market.

it was at parkplace benz in houston. i got them to hold it for me until my mechanic and i could inspect it.

what a revealing inspection. we put it on a lift. opening the doors revealed corrosion around the weep holes on the doors.

looking from below, looking from above, with the hood up, it was pretty clear that the car had been the subject of a recent respray.

while the dealer sales personnel were elsewhere, i found the owner's manual and examined it. it still had the original bill of sale within it. the purchaser was an attorney who lived in river oaks. i gave him a call to discuss his car. he never returned my calls.

this intrigued me. i learned his office address. the mileage on the car was so low. but then i made the run from his residence to his office. it worked. the car was only driven from home to office for 6 years.

but why was there corrosion at the door weepholes? and why a respray? and why wouldn't the original owner talk to me? and why wouldn't the dealer starmark it[particularly since it was starmarkable]?

so, i went to the building where the attorney worked. the garage had an underground component.

my conclusion: the original owner had the car underground when tropical storm allison hit. the car encountered water that floated it. so, the car was resprayed and repaired. then the original owner took the car to the m-b[dc] dealer and traded it in. and then the dealer worked to move it - and preferred not to have anyone thorough examine it.

and by the way, the carfax record on this car did not acknowledge any exposure to flood damage. let that be a warning to you. do not rely exclusively on carfax reports. as this incident should inform you, your own eyes and close scrutiny may tell you more than any carfax report.

lastly, never fear walking away from a car about which you have reservations. there are probably other ones out there.

life is too short to own a lemon.

has this been helpful?
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Old 12-03-2003, 11:02 PM
Registered User
Join Date: Sep 1999
Location: Miami, FL
Posts: 645
How to spot bondo

Take along a magnet. Magnets stick to painted steel, not painted bondo.

Of course, the fact that a part has been bondo'd does not mean that the car should be rejected, just than you should pay less for it, or avoid it completely if the bondo is extensive and the paintjob is recent.

The rest of your suggestions are also most helpful.

The best thing to remember is that the desire to buy a new(er) car is sort of like a disease, which often can prevent us from being as snoopy as we know we should be.
Semibodacious Transmogrifications a Specialty

1990 300D 2.5 Turbo sedan 171K (Rudolf)
1985 300D Turbo TD Wagon 219K (Remuda)

"Time flies like and arrow, yet fruit flies like a banana"
---Marx (Groucho)
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Old 12-04-2003, 11:11 AM
blackmercedes's Avatar
Just a guy
Join Date: Dec 2000
Location: St. Albert, Alberta, Canada
Posts: 3,492
Lots of good info, let's see if I can add anything...

Go to see the car first thing in the morning and hope that it's a cold start. Then, ask the owner to drive for the first few minutes so you can check out the radio, etc. If the owner bags the car while the oil is cold, RUN away. If he/she drives the car gently, allowing the engine to warm, then continue your examination of this car.

Does the owner KNOW anything about the car? When I bought my 190E 2.6 some years ago, I found one where the owner kept going on about the great V-6 engine in his Mercedes. He had no idea of how to operate the ACC and the car was missing the first-aid kit, tools and original spare alloy wheel. Bad signs, very bad signs.

Be very cautious about low mileage. Most cars do not do well sitting unless stored very carefully (lots of Ferrari owners know about storing cars) and they can literally rot away from the inside.

How long has the person owned the car? If less than a year, I'd be pretty wary. Sounds like they're trying to ditch a problem.

Check out (casually) their other car(s). If they're not cared for, but the one for sale is immaculate, smells like a clean up job.

No PPI means no sale. What, you want me to use your mechanic? Don't hold your breath...

Good thread.
John Shellenberg
1998 C230 "Black Betty" 240K

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