Selecting and Buying a Car
OK, first things first. What you are about to read is not gospel and no doubt many of you will disagree with some of the information written here. This is just basic advice that we compiled when searching for our perfect adventure vehicle.
Where to Start
Firstly you need a good idea of what kind of trip you are going on before you can narrow down what is going to be the best type of vehicle for you. Ask yourself a few simple questions.
What kind of budget do you have?
How long are you planning on being on the road?
How much off-road driving are you planning?
What creature comforts can’t you live without?
Where about in the world are you going?
These five very basic questions are going to help you narrow down your vehicle selection really quite quickly. Combine these with a little bit of internet research and you should have a shortlist in about an hour. For us, some of the answers to these questions played a more important role in vehicle selection than others. Firstly, our budget was minimal, both Emma and I sold pretty much everything we owned to fund our adventure. The most we could afford to spend on an unprepared vehicle was £3000. The idea being that any preparation work was carried out by us or friends in the know.
Our small budget pretty much ruled out any big Unimog style overland vehicles, any new(ish) 4x4’s and anything with standing room in the back. So straight away we had a fairly tight buying criteria. We set a goal to circumnavigate the planet; this meant parts for the car needed to be available worldwide. Our planned route also took us through some pretty harsh terrain, where at times we would be hundreds of miles from any civilisation, this meant the vehicle needed to be reliable and easy to fix as well as self sufficient with somewhere comfortable to sleep. The route also requires the vehicle to be shipped, so our car has to fit into a shipping container. All these important factors helped in the decision to choose the vehicle we went for.
So, just to recap...from those five questions we deduced that...
From these answers we narrowed down our selection firstly to a large old 4x4, then after some internet research and looking at local availability we narrowed it down a step further and put together a more specific shortlist of...
Mitsubishi L200 Crew cab
Toyota Hilux Crew Cab
Toyota Landcruiser (80 Series)
Toyota Hilux Surf
It is at this point that the internet research really helped, we researched each car thoroughly using forums as a base to listen to the users of the vehicles themselves. We also looked at other overland adventurers and listened very carefully to their advice on choice of vehicle. From this research we weened out a few of the cars. We read far too many reports of Landrovers breaking down to justify looking at them (prompt the hate mail), which I was a little gutted about, I have always had a soft spot for the Defender, even if I’ve never had the bank balance to own one.
The Hilux Surf came with two engine options, the 2.4L and the 3L. The 2.4L has a serious problem with overheating and cracked cylinder heads and gaskets so that ruled the 2.4L out. However the 3L seemed to have nothing but good reports with the exception of the odd overheating problem that is easily remedied. Locally (within a 5 mile radius – I live on an island) we have an abundance of Surfs, so it seemed a logical choice, as did the Hilux and L200 twin cabs.
From internet research it seemed that the ideal vehicle of choice for our adventure would be a Toyota Landcruiser (80 Series) but these are seriously scarce locally and it is pretty impossible to find a great example that sells for less than £3000 in the UK.
We decided to keep an eye out for all of the vehicles on our shortlist both locally and on the mainland, excluding the Landrovers. Having said this we did watch a fair few expedition prepared Defenders on Ebay just to see how much they sold for, and for a little inspiration.
I think in total I ended up watching about 70 or 80 vehicles via Ebay over a two-month period and had a look at about 8 or 9 cars locally before we spotted ‘the one’.
This basic list of areas to inspect when buying a second hand car is pretty typical for buying any second hand car. Some things on the list are 4x4, overland and Toyota Hilux Surf specific. Again, I’d like to mention that this list is not gospel and by no means exhaustive (“exhaustive”, get it? Exhaust! Car related! Oh dear!).
Prior to looking at the car research common problems and complaints, almost any vehicle has some problems or weak spots specific to that make and model. Forums are a great place to do this, most cars have crazy fanatical followers who like discussing their 4 wheeled pride and joy. The Hilux Surf is no exception, click here to see.
Take a pen and paper and make a note of the asking price, registration, mileage, etc. Also take a check list, torch, tissue (to check oil) and most importantly a CD to check the stereo.
You can download our 'Quick Used Car Checklist' here to take with you.
When You Arrive
First thing to do is feel if the bonnet/engine is warm. Hopefully it will be cold. A cold start will help indicate if the car has any starting problems. Ask why the owner is selling it.
Checking the Exterior
Take a stroll around the car and check the general appearance of the vehicle, has it recently been cleaned? Does it look over-clean? This is an indication of how well the car was taken care of. Jot down any defects you find: cracks on the windshield, scratches, dents, corrosion spots, broken lenses, faded mirrors, worn wipers, etc. You can use these problems to negotiate the price down.
Have a look for any signs of crash damage or repair, doors that don’t shut properly, mismatching paint colour, ripples in bodywork, etc.
With our Surf we were not too bothered about the odd scratch or dent here and there, or surface rust on the bumpers. Having said this, light scratches in the paint will be a sign of bush/hedge scrapes, this might have been a sign that the vehicle had been taken off road.
Have a good look at the tyres. Are they a well-known brand like BF Goodrich, Bridgestone, or "no-name" kind of product? Again this will give you an indication of how willing the current owner is to spend money on the car. Are they all the same or different? Look at the tread wear. Any un-even tread could mean alignment or suspension problems. Check for any cuts, bubbles and cracks in the sidewalls. Are they pumped up to the correct PSI?
Check the wheels for dings, dents and cracks. If the car has wheel locks installed make sure the key is available. Whilst there visually check the brake discs and pads, a worn disc is pretty obvious. It will be dull and have worn grooves in it. Ask when they were last changed. Whilst you’ve got your head stuck in the wheel arches have a good look at the shocks, any leaking?
The inner arches should also be solid and in fairly good condition, expect some surface rust on older vehicles, but it certainly shouldn’t have any rotten areas, flaking or holes anywhere. The sills need to be solid, keep an eye out for any welding that looks like it shouldn’t be there. Whilst underneath check for any leaks from the transmission (diff and transfer boxes), sump and axles, also check the ground where the car is normally parked for leak evidence. If the vehicle has been serviced on a regular basis all the rubber bushes on the tie rod ends, steering and suspension should all look fairly fresh and not squashed and cracking.
Take time to look at the underneath, has it been wax-oiled or pressure cleaned recently? A quick glimpse at the chassis will tell you how well the vehicle has been looked after. Our Surf had apparently been wax sealed underneath at the beginning and end of every winter for the last 7 years and so at a glance it was fairly obvious that the seller was telling the truth. It was in great condition compared to any other 16 year-old car. Have a look at nuts and bolts, they should look like you could undo them easily and should not be rusted together. If you can see the bottom of the petrol tank a quick visual check should tell you if it has been leaking anywhere, also if it has any flakey rust spots.
If the spare wheel is located under there, have a quick look and check the condition and how rusty the fixings are. Has it got a tow hook and has it been used to tow?
Under the Bonnet
Have a look at the battery/batteries they should look clean with no corrosion on the terminals, have they recently been wiped of dirt?
The alternator and belts should all look in tip top condition, these will tell you how well the car has been taken care of.
With the engine cold, check the radiator for any obvious cracks, pin-prick holes and leaks, especially along the top edge. If it has been leaking you will more than likely see a dried out white residue. Check the coolant level and colour, the coolant should be clear, blue or green, coloured by the antifreeze. It should NOT be soapy creamy or white.
Check all gaskets and make sure no oil is leaking from anywhere on the engine, especially around the head gasket. Take the oil filler cap off and look inside, make sure it doesn’t have any fresh wipe marks. Look out for any white creamy oil – THIS IS BAD. Equally look for any thick black deposits, the oil should be clear and clean.
Check the dipstick, the oil stuck to it should be clear or least favourably black. IT SHOULD NOT BE WHITE OR CREAMY, this is a sign that water and oil have mixed. Steer well away from any cars that have this. Check all levels in the reservoirs.
Look for any duff repairs, squashed bulging gaskets, missing nuts and bolts, sheered off bolts, cable ties, duck tape, dodgy wiring, etc. This will be a sign that the vehicle has not got a dealer service history. Find out when the timing belt was changed, it should be somewhere between 60,000 – 100,000 miles.
Hopefully from cold get him to start the engine whilst you can see the exhaust pipe. It is likely to smoke a little, but check the colour of the smoke and make a note of if it is black, blue or white. Also make a note of if it was started from hot or cold. Blue smoke at start-up may indicate engine problems - avoid such a car. Black smoke means the engine consumes too much fuel - possible problem with fuel injection. Normally, there should be no smoke at all (Diesel engines may have slight black smoke at a cold start - it's normal). A small amount of white water steam and water condensate dripping from the exhaust is normal.
Listen for any unusually knocking. Diesel’s will have a bit of a knocking/chugging noise, but this shouldn’t be excessive. It should sound like a healthy London cab. Knocking or tapping at a cold start is one of the indicators of poor maintenance. Knocking, tapping or rattling noises indicate excessive wear of internal engine parts, not cool! Get him to leave it running for a good five/ten minutes and keep an eye on the exhaust smoke. Once started it shouldn’t smoke excessively. Rev it a couple of times and listen for anything unusually and again keep an eye on the smoke. After ten minutes of being sat still with the engine running the cooling fan on the rad should come on and run through a cycle.
Check the dash, there should be no warning lights such as "low oil pressure", "low oil level", "overheating", "check engine" or "service engine soon" etc.
Check the transmission fluid, it should not have a burnt smell. It should be clean and transparent. Dirty transmission fluid indicates internal problems with the transmission.
Another indication of transmission problem is delayed engagement. It's easier to note delayed engagement after a car was sitting for a while: With the transmission in "P" (Park) start the car. With your foot holding down the brake pedal, shift to the "R" (Reverse) position. Almost immediately the transmission should engage - it feels like the car wants to creep backward. This should happen very smoothly, without a strong jerk or jolt. Shift to "N" (Neutral), and the transmission should disengage. Now, again holding the brakes, shift to the "D" (Drive) position. Again, the transmission should engage without a delay - you will feel the car wants to creep forward. This also should be without a strong jerk or jolt. If there is a notable delay (more than 1 seconds) between the moment you shift and the moment the transmission engages, such a transmission is either too worn or has some problem, avoid this car. Similarly, during a test-drive the transmission should shift between gears very smoothly without delays, jolts, slipping or shudder.
A quick visual check should confirm how well the car has been mantained. One area to check inside will be the foot pedals, the pedals should still have the rubber covers on them and not worn down to the metal. This is a quick and easy way to estimate whether the owner is telling the truth about the mileage. Also check the carpets and see how worn they are where the drivers heel would rest.
It might be fairly time consuming to check, but all the dash lights should all be working correctly. Check that no warning lights are showing. I once looked at a second hand car that had a sticker over the ‘Air Bag’ warning light.
Standing outside where you can see the front wheels, rock the steering side to side and check for any excessive play in the steering, it might have a little if the suspension has been upgraded but again this shouldn’t be excessive. The wheels should turn with the steering wheel.
Check the seat belts? Do they work? Are they worn?
Be aware of excessive use of air freshener, this is normally hiding something.
Take It For a Spin
The vehicle should start easily even if it's cold. It shouldn't shake, make excessive noise, or smoke.
Ask how often the 4-wheel drive is used, hopefully the owner should say never. 4-wheel drive should NOT be used on tarmac at all if it has selectable 4-wheel drive. Our Surf hasn’t been off road (yet) so the 4x4 has not been abused or in fact hardly used.
Check for any pull in the steering to the left or right, drive in a straight line and let go of the steering wheel, see if it veers off to one side. Is the steering wheel out of center when driving straight? Whilst your hands are off check for any wobbles on the steering wheel. Is the steering responsive?
Listen for any unusual noises, knocking, tapping, etc. The auto gearbox should change smoothly without any clunking noises.
Try to drive on a bumpy road, does the car make knocking or creaking noises when driving over bumps? Is it too "bouncy"?
If possible, take the car on the motorway. Try to accelerate - there shouldn't be any hesitations. Does the car feel stable at a highway speed? Any shudder, jerks, harsh shifting? Are the tyres noisy?
Check the brakes, any screeching or grinding? Does it pull to one side when braking? Any pulsation while braking? Try an emergency stop, but remember to warn any passengers (or not, depending on your sense of humour).
Go for a good ten-minute drive and keep an eye on the temperature gauge. It should be at a neutral position. Again, check for any warning lights.
Check the operation of the heater and the air conditioner. Let the engine warm up for a few minutes. Turn the A/C on. Unless it's very cold outside, the air conditioner should start working immediately after you switch it ON. Within a few seconds you should be able to feel really cold air blowing from vents. If this is not happening, it's very possible the air conditioner doesn't work. Be aware, besides the fact that the A/C problem might be quite expensive to fix, this also may indicate that the car possible has been involved in a frontal collision.
Check the heater. Try if all heater fan speeds work. One of the possible problems with the heater may be a leaking heater core that is very expensive to repair. If you feel moist air is coming from the vents with antifreeze smell, and windows become foggy when the heater is turned ON, that may indicate leaking heater core. If the car has rear air-conditioning unit test its operation too.
On Your Return
Have another look under the bonnet (be careful – everything will be hot) and check the rad is not blowing water from any cracks/holes. DO NOT OPEN IT!
Check the dipstick again, the oil should still be clear or slightly black (at worst) – NOT WHITE.
Open the oil filler cap (careful, it will be hot) and look out for any white creamy oil – THIS IS BAD
Sit back and relax - play it cool - the ball is now in your court. Don't agree to buy it and don't give a deposit until you are completely satisfied with the car. If you have any hesitation be prepared to leave, you can always find another car or come back later. Consider test-driving another vehicle of the same model to have something to compare it to.
If you find any problems with the car and the owner promises "to take care of it" make sure to discuss the details - what exactly will be done. For example, if the car needs new tyres, what kind of tyres will be fitted - cheapest possible or of reputable brand?
While this guide may help you to avoid cars with potential problems, I strongly advise to have the vehicle inspected by a mechanic of your choice prior to purchase. I am not a mechanic, just a nerd with a slight obsession, If I have blatantly left some really important information out please comment and let me know.