Rust. Where exactly did that go? It usually lived in the sills and made your used purchase terminal in the old days. For the past 20-odd years, though, rot has been fairly low down on the ‘what to look for’ list. Mostly, it seems to be cosmetic.
Rust, then, is confined to all the rubbish from the 1960s, 1970s and early 1980s that would disintegrate before your very eyes after a couple of salty winters. Except that rust never actually went away. I have come across a few Mercedes-Benz CLKs and the odd E-Class from the famously fragile W210 era that have looked awfully crumbly. Late 1990s Fords weren’t great, either. Fiestas and, in particular, Kas and Pumas would crumble quite alarmingly.
That was then, but right now I am indebted to reader Nick Williams, who recently bought a 2008 Honda Accord 2.4 automatic. He described it as fantastic “with every extra imaginable, but it had a rusting sunroof at the front. I think prospective buyers and current owners should peel back the rubberand look for any rust.”
Nick had a conversation with Honda UK, which did the right thing and replaced the sunroof. As a rusty aside, he also complained that there was no spare wheel - only a spray can - so Honda gave him a spacesaver. It even valeted the car. So full marks to Honda customer service, but back to rust.
You still need to look for it. I’ve heard that Mazda MX-5s aren’t that great and neither is the Honda S2000. Anything imported secondhand from the Land of the Rising Rust Bug needs extra-special attention, because the bodies don’t need to last so long there.
Potentially, anything can be bitten by the bug, and location can have something to do with it. It is all very well picking up an OAP’s marginal-mileage retirement Ford Mondeo from the salty air of Bournemouth’s seafront, but it could bite you back at MOT time.
Indeed, the MOT test, with all its flaws, remains your best guide as to whether a vehicle is roadworthy or not. Otherwise, it is down to your common sense and going back to good old car-buying basics: checking for musty smells and dampness, carpet lifting and general poking around with a sharp screwdriver.
So should you ever buy a model with a reputation for rusting out? Well, every car is different and, crucially, is treated differently by each keeper. If you want the car, buy it, but bear in mind that long term the bodywork is always the really expensive part of a car to fix. Remember that and you will always remember to look for rust, whatever the year and whatever the model. Good luck.