The fins, the chrome, engines measured in cubic inches – it’s not hard to see why so many people are enamored with old cars. 

It can be a rewarding hobby, but it’s seldom an inexpensive one. If you’re thinking about getting into it, there are two ways to do it.

One is headfirst, which is usually costly. Or there’s wading in carefully, where you’re most likely to end up with a cool car and a happier wallet. Headfirst you’ll have to do on your own, but as far as wading in, we certainly have some advice.

Some people have a particular car in mind, and they set out to find it, while others fall in love with something they spy at a car show or in a magazine. All come with the usual good-car/bad-car routine.

If you’re already set on a specific model, it’s likely to be a popular one, which will usually mean higher dollars—maybe a 1957 Chevy, for example. That doesn’t mean you can’t get what you want, but be prepared for a stiff price tag. 

You might think about alternatives: a 1957 Ford is a pretty cool car too, and will probably cost less than its Chevrolet rival.

Finally, should you consider a hot rod or a stock vehicle? Each has pros and cons. A hot rod will probably be easier to drive than an unmodified version of that vintage, but if you’re buying one already built, be picky about the quality of the work on it. Most were built (or have been rebuilt) by hobbyists in their home garages, and while some of these guys are extremely talented, many are not. 

A stock vehicle offers the pleasure of a historic ride, but its brakes and handling won’t be up to par with modern vehicles, and may contain components unfamiliar to younger motorists, from carburetors and points on relatively newer ones, to king pins and mechanical brakes on the really old stuff.

Always buy the best car you can afford, and always remember that no car is ever better than you think it is. Unless it has just had a complete restoration, even a so-called “mint” car will undoubtedly have some problems lurking within. 

They may be minor enough that you can drive the car without worrying about them, but it’s highly unlikely that you’ll buy anything that will never need a wrench put near it. And no matter how good it looks, you’ll probably find a bit of rust somewhere.

That’s not to say that you should never buy a car that needs work. Instead, you need to figure out if the work will be worth it. This will depend on a variety of factors, including how much you can do yourself, and what you’ll pay for what you can’t.

(Be realistic with your time, too. The build-it-fast television shows can seemingly finished a car in seven days, but that’s the magic of television. They’ve either got an expensive crew of experts working round-the-clock, or the finished product isn’t very good, or they simply took far longer than the show leads you to expect. In reality, the market is full of half-finished cars whose owners finally tired of months – or even years – of grinding away with no end in sight.)

Don’t simply assume that the worst-looking stuff will be the most expensive. Knowing the probable costs will be invaluable if you’re comparing similar models with different problems. A rusty fender could be relatively inexpensive compared to replating all of a 1950s car’s chrome, while the unique grille, badges or taillights on a rare trim line might end up costing more than the engine it shared with other models.

Never underestimate the peripherals. Let’s say you buy a “project car” (that’s a Latin term that means “lots of work and cash”), with the intention of turning it into a hot rod or restored original. You may think the powertrain and paint will be your only big-ticket items, but you can easily ring up $10,000 or more in the wiring, steering wheel, glass, window rubbers, fuel lines, gas tank, gauges, and wheels and tires.

Beware of too-good-to-be-true. If you see a high-dollar model selling for small dollars, use your head instead of your heart. It’s not a deal if it costs you more to restore it than it will eventually be worth.

A local car will be available for you to check out in person, and you can easily get it home. Again, do the math. The more expensive car in your back yard could be a better deal overall than a cheaper one you have to ship across the country, or get across the border.

If you prefer buying a car in a southern state that doesn’t see winter weather, check its history. It really doesn’t matter if you bought it in Arizona if it spent 90 per cent of its life in upstate New York.

Buying a car sight unseen through an online or classified ad sometimes works out, but often doesn’t. You and the seller may have an entirely different definition of “mint.” It’s always best to have an unbiased third party look at the car if you can’t get to it in person.

If you’re buying a vehicle in the U.S., there are rules you’ll have to follow when bringing it back across the border, including those imposed by Transport Canada and Canada Customs. “Read about it here, and make sure all your paperwork’s in order()”:

Time for a quick primer on older vehicles. Despite what you may think, there are no universal legal or accepted definitions for either “antique” or “classic.” Some licensing jurisdictions and insurance companies set age limits on those terms, but it’s at their discretion. Same with hot rod, street rod, muscle car, collector car, or just about any other name you’ve heard. If a seller uses a term, be sure you understand exactly what he means.

Only three descriptions are absolutely set in stone: “Full Classic,” a trademarked term that refers to specific cars recognized by the Classic Car Club of America and for domestic cars, “pre-war,” indicating 1942 and older, and “post-war,” for 1946 and newer. (North American automakers built war materials instead of vehicles during those interim years, so there are no model-year 1943, 1944 or 1945 civilian cars.)

At one time, that was an unqualified “yes.” Unlike most antiques, which have value in their original finish, cars are usually worth more when they’re spit-and-polished. Recently, though, car collectors have started to recognize the historic worth of vehicles that have never been restored. 

If a car has been extensively overhauled in the past, go ahead. But if you find a car that’s “barn fresh” – the term for one that’s never been touched, but stored away in original condition for many years – talk to an appraiser before you get out your tools.

There’s also a recent trend that if a vehicle’s solid but the paint is faded or worn away, it’s simply left as-is, with this patina intact. If it’s to your liking, leave it that way. And of course there’s also the popular rat rod, made with rusty and often mismatched body parts.

Of course, all of that applies solely to the vehicle’s appearance. If you’re going to drive it, the brakes, steering and other mechanical parts must be up to safety standards.

That’s up to you to decide, but once you’ve been bitten by the old-car bug, it’s tough not to scratch. The great thing about the hobby is that there are so many levels, and you’ll be welcomed into any of them. 

Whether you want a million-dollar Duesenberg to compete at Pebble Beach, or just a plain little four-door sedan to drive to the local cruise night, here’s the scoop: do it right, and it’s all good.