Classic cars are highly coveted by car lovers - not only because they look smart and are rare, but also because they are valuable. Particularly rare and old vehicles can increase their original value many times over. Even seven-digit amounts can be reached in good cases. Fraudsters also know this and pass off cars as alleged vintage cars. Caution is therefore required when buying - also because a car can be incorrectly issued as a classic car for various other reasons. A classic car dealer from Ditzingen near Stuttgart is currently suspected of having "fraudulently traded in exclusive classic cars".
In fact, vintage cars can be counterfeited or manipulated so well that even an expert cannot see it with the naked eye. FSP, a subsidiary of TÜV, has therefore specialized in testing classic cars. If a suspicion arises when looking through the vehicle documents or the visual inspection of the chassis number, the experts carry out special test procedures. "In the so-called magneto-optical resonance examination, we bring in a very strong magnetic field to make changes visible - even under a surface that, for example, is painted or has been filled," explains Sebastian Hoffmann, head of FSP, to the star. Any numbers that have been ground out can also be made visible again.
If the chassis number seems to be correct, there are other ways to check its authenticity. Because: "The number can be perfectly fine and not manipulated because it is stamped on a new part," Hoffmann knows. But then there are atypical weld seams or serial changes in the periphery. Different X-ray machines are used to detect this. Even if nothing suspicious is found here either, one cannot be sure that there is no forgery. "It could theoretically be that the vehicle frame is completely new." Then there is neither a manipulated number nor atypical weld seams, explains the expert.
In such a case, "that which is often decisive" is used, namely checking "whether the frame, the car or the component actually comes from the time when the car was presumably built". With the help of a so-called spectral analysis with an optical spark emission spectrometer, a mobile analysis of the metal is carried out, which is intended to determine the approximate production period of around a decade.
Ultrasound can be used to measure the thickness of a material. Specifically, this involves the measurement of paint layer thicknesses and non-destructive repairs. In the case of a Porsche with a six-cylinder engine, for example, the engine number is stamped on a thin strip at the back. If you grind this out and hammer in a new one, the bridge becomes thinner.
If virtually nothing is known about a car, all test methods would be applied. Otherwise, the experts only rely on the type of test required in each case - depending on the given circumstances. According to Hoffmann, there is a high probability of using the process to identify counterfeits. Especially since they would be subject to years of development and were more modern than the examined cars themselves.
The fact that a vehicle that was put into circulation at least 30 years ago largely corresponds to the original condition and is in good condition is ultimately a prerequisite for being able to bear the designation of a vintage car.
The current case from Ditzingen near Stuttgart shows that the topic of counterfeit vintage cars is by no means unreasonable: According to the Stuttgart public prosecutor and the Baden-Württemberg State Criminal Police Office (LKA), a company is said to have manufactured and sold professional duplicates of vintage cars that had not been traded for a long time. Specifically, it is about the case in which the company is said to have sold a Mercedes Benz 300 SL Roadster for 1.6 million euros to a classic car dealer in 2019. However, the car was already registered with the same vehicle identification number.
The original was built in 1961 and delivered in the special color "Fantasiegelb". In 1962, a businessman from Switzerland bought the car and had it repainted red. According to the investigations of the LKA, the Ditzingen company is said to have offered the alleged Mercedes Benz 300 SL for sale with the same identification number as the original. However, since the company traded the car in "Fantasiegelb", it must be a duplicate of the original, which was repainted red, according to the officials.
The company, which was suspected of fraud, then described the allegations in a press release as "unfounded". She never restored the affected 300 SL Roadster and only brokered the sale of the car. The investigations into this are still ongoing.
So what can consumers do to avoid unknowingly buying a counterfeit classic car in the first place? Hoffmann advises you to find out about the vehicle on offer in advance, for example in forums, used car books or by doing a used car check. And: "Take a close look at the papers for the car." All papers and documentation are very important. For example, with Mercedes models there is always a data card detailing exactly how the car was delivered. At Porsche there is a "birth certificate".
In addition, you should not go alone to a car inspection, so that you can get a second opinion on site. It is advisable, for example, to be accompanied by a trusted person from the circle of acquaintances who is familiar with cars. If the classic car purchase is actually imminent, you should take an expert with you, recommends Hoffmann. "He can tap a few things and maybe also pay attention to many things that a layman would not pay attention to."
If you know the teething problems, you can finally check the vehicle specifically for potential damage. But what could that be, for example? With the Mercedes 124 series, for example, there are often problems with the jacking points. Or with a Porsche, you should check whether the stud bolts are in order or whether it is losing too much oil, explains the expert.
If you want to buy a restored vehicle, you should ask who did the restoration. It is also important to check documents and invoices, for example, to see whether they have been documented. According to the car expert, the "hottest tip" is a Google search for the chassis number. Especially with more expensive vehicles you often get a hit. This would avoid buying a fake.
To ensure that you don't end up buying an overpriced car, Hoffmann suggests checking the Internet and at auctions to see how such vehicles are actually being traded. "It is important that you identify the car exactly and know exactly what specifications it is. Because sometimes there are small differences, but they can make a very big difference in value."
In some cases it is better to keep your hands off a vehicle. According to the expert, this is the case, for example, if you have no connection to vintage cars and are considering a purchase purely for investment reasons. After all, this can quickly become very expensive if hidden costs suddenly arise. In addition, Hoffmann warns of fraudsters who lure with bargain offers. Even a well-known dealership does not guarantee a perfect vehicle. "You should also take a closer look at large retailers," says the head of FSP.
Hoffmann cannot say how many fake vintage cars are actually in circulation. In his company, the number of such vehicles is relatively high. However, many customers would also come to him "because the cars raise questions".
In addition, there could be "infinitely many profane reasons" for changes to the vehicle. For example, a car may have been in an accident during its 70 or 80 years of existence, damaging the VIN. Or a car could have burned out. So if you want to buy a classic car, you should find out enough about the desired vehicle in advance and check it thoroughly for defects and possible manipulations before you buy it. If you want to further reduce the risk of a bad buy, you should probably consult an expert beforehand.