How to Spot a Car That's Been in a Major Collision

Spotting a Vehicle That's Been in a Major Collision


It takes years of experience to learn what to look for, to spot a car that's been in a major collision. With the shape that the economy is in these days, a lot of people are opting to buy a used car, rather than to get buried under the burden of a long term payment book. Just as the present state of the economy is effecting consumers, it has an ill effect on retailers and wholesalers as well. When sales are down, this is when the unscrupulous bottom feeders turn up. For those without respectable business ethics, there is a wide variety of ways to profit from an unsuspecting consumer with an untrained eye for spotting the details that make previously damaged vehicles stand out, to those of us who know what to look for. There is a variety of ways to tell if a used vehicle has been in a serious wreck. There are just as many reasons that you don't want to own one of these cars.

major collision


Spending many years hanging around my father's auto garages, where I saw a lot of cars that had been in a major collision. As I got older, my father began teaching me to fix cars and how to diagnose technical issues with them. Being that my father's garages were small, he would often pick up work from a couple of different smaller auto dealerships. Quite often these car dealers would attend auto auctions, where they would frequently purchase wrecked vehicles being sold by insurance companies. Now, as you can imagine, cars that are being auctioned off by insurance companies aren't in the best shape.

Now, don't get me wrong, with the shape that the economy is in, there is nothing wrong with buying a used car. However, there is a lot of things to know before you jump into buying any used car. After reading this article, if you are considering buying a used car, I strongly suggest that you read another article that I wrote called, “Best Tips to Buy a Used Car.”

Many unsavory used car dealers will employ various underhanded tactics to make a less than stellar vehicle appear to be in much better shape than it is.

Major auto collision
Major auto collision

Used car that's been in a major collision

Orange peel
Orange peel

Major Collision


Body Work- There are many ways to hide minor body damage to cars, but when you are buying a used car, if the body damage is so minor that you can't notice it, then I wouldn't worry too much about it. Major collision damage is where the problems lie and what you need to look for. If you have a suspicion that a car has been involved in a major accident the things to look for are;

Orange Peel- Orange peel is when a car has been repainted and there is a noticeable flaw in the paint's surface. Just as the name implies, the surface of the paint share a similarity with the texture of the surface of an orange. This is one of many signs that a vehicle has been repainted. If you find that there is no major damage to the vehicle other than this flaw in the paint, it can usually be fixed fairly easily by being wet-sanded and buffed. I wouldn't recommend trying to fix this yourself, unless you have experience with body prep and paint work. If you can get the car at a low enough price, that you could afford to have this fixed and still come in at, or below the car's Kelly Blue Book value, it's up to you.

Repainting certain body panels
Repainting certain body panels | Source


Frame Damage- This is a major problem with cars that have been in a major collision and often times is quite hard to notice. A lot of times you can't tell if a car's frame is bent or twisted and taking it in to a body shop where they have special equipment just for this purpose will be the only way to tell. However, one telltale sign that a car's frame is damaged, is that the steering wheel will pull to one side or the other when driving in a straight line. Although this is often a sign of a bent frame, not every car that “pulls” has a bent frame. Another sign of a bent frame, when approaching the car from the rear, you will notice that the rear wheels aren't parallel with the front wheels. This is called dog tracking and it's much more obvious when you are behind the car as it is driving.

Repaint- A sure sign that a car has been in an accident is when it has been repainted. Things to look for when you suspect that a car has been repainted include mismatched shades of paint. When you observe the vehicle from different angles in different light, you will notice that the color of one body panel won't quite match the one next to it. They might only be off by a shade, so you'll have to pay close attention to notice this. Another thing to keep an eye out for spots where the vehicle didn't get painted. As unlikely as this sounds, it does happen. Sometimes in their rush to make a profit, a car dealer will cut corners and rather than disassembling major components of the vehicle to paint hard to reach places, they'll leave the vehicle assembled painting around these areas. Usually, with all of the new technology at their disposal, they will be able to pretty closely match the original paint color. This makes it difficult to notice. The most common places to look to find mismatched paint is anywhere that it would be hard to get at with a paint gun, like along the firewall behind the engine, in the door jambs, on the rocker panels where the carpet meets the trim and around the edges of tail and head lights.

Body Filler- When a car is in a major collision , rather than spend the extra money that it would cost to purchase aftermarket replacement body panels, many body shops will opt to pull out the dents as much as they can, fixing the remaining dents and holes with body filler or Bondo. To find these areas where body filler has been used, takes somewhat of a trained ear. All that you need to do is, walk along the car tapping on the body with your knuckles. While you are tapping on the body, you should be listening very closely for a difference in the sound that the tapping makes. Body filler will sound slightly more hollow. Also, when tapping on a metal body panel, it will make a distinct sound when compared to the areas that were repaired with body filler. Another way that you'll notice areas repaired with body filler, if you look very closely, you'll see that the area has been repainted. When trying to spot repainted areas, you'll notice that they'll look just slightly different from the rest of the car, shinier, duller, smoother, rougher or else the color may be slightly off.

As always, this is just a guide to help you out. However, I still recommend that you take any used car to a qualified mechanic for a second opinion before making your final decision.

Used Cars/Major Auto Collision: Comments 14 comments

ktrapp profile image

ktrapp 4 years ago from Illinois

I've always been a little hesitant to buy a used car since I am unsure of what to look for exactly to tell if the car was ever in a major collision. These are excellent tips!


Ivona Poyntz profile image

Ivona Poyntz 4 years ago from UK

Some really good tips on used cars here: very useful info, thanks


aidensdada profile image

aidensdada 4 years ago Author

Thank you for reading my article, I appreciate all of my readers. If you are looking for tips on buying a good used car, you should read this http://hubpages.com/autos/Used-Car-Buying-Tips2...


aidensdada profile image

aidensdada 4 years ago Author

I'm glad you enjoyed my article, thank you.


genuineaid profile image

genuineaid 4 years ago from USA

Sometimes even dealers won't tell you the truth about some car being wrecked before...

Just look very closely around the whole car to make sure there isn't something major :)


aidensdada profile image

aidensdada 4 years ago Author

Yeah, car dealers are weasels. They'll tell you anything to get you to buy a car from them. Thank God for the advent of Carfax


aidensdada profile image

aidensdada 4 years ago Author


davzkny profile image

davzkny 4 years ago from Western New York

Take some advice with a grain of salt. While is some truth to this, some facts aren't quite accurate.

The small stuff - Orange peel in the clear coat isn't a flaw, it's a sign of poor application from someone not trained and a poorly adjusted spray gun. It can however be sanded and buffed to smooth out the surface as long as there is enough clear coat there to not sand/burn through it. Flaws are noticeable things such as a dirt nib or small bump in the paint, or a fisheye which looks like a small crater or chip under the paint, or runs where you can see the wavyness in the clear that looks rippled like water running down glass.

Some other easy ways to tell if a vehicle has been worked on is to look at the bolts where the exterior panels (doors, fenders, hood etc), if the paint is chipped off or looks rough then someone has had a wrench on them. This is easier to see with body color bolts instead of silver/metal colored bolts. Also feel the edges of the panels, if they are smooth then it is either original or has had a quality paint job done to it. If the edges are rough, and I don't mean from rust or chips, then the panel was probably painted.

As for frame damage - there are 2 categories. Very few vehicles have actual full frames anymore except trucks, vans and larger suvs. The rest are built on a unibody frame, or several pieces of metal fit together to form the 'chassis' of the vehicle to which all bolt on parts are mounted. With a full frame you have to be careful to watch for the 'dog walking' where the rear wheels do not track with the front correctly. This is rarely if ever the case on a unibody type vehicle. Both have 'crush' zones built in to absorb energy from an impact and save the passengers. A full frame can twist from front to rear, and unibody will typically stay within a certain area. Those panels can be removed and good new parts welded in their place. On a unibody type car (most except a few german models) if you look below the doors at the bottom of the car, on the rocker you will see a flat metal flange. If you see marks on 2-4 spots between the weels, then it has been clamped down to a frame machine. German cars mostly use different tie down pegs so its harder to tell.

You don't want aftermarket new parts over a factory part, or repairing a panel that is repairable. We try not to cut and drill aparts factory welds unless necessary to repair the vehicle correctly. 'Bondo' or body filler is a necessary evil however. When replacing some panels, it is necessary to use this to smooth the transition from panel to panel so it isn't noticeable. If done correctly it really is not a bad thing.

In closing just a few things to keep in mind. There have been a lot of bad shops out there in the past that did poor quality and unsafe repairs, now its much fewer and farther between. We would love to see every backyard repairer shut down, but as long as there are people that will pay less for substandard work then they will remain. Unfortunate that the few ruined it for the many.

As for carfax, its not 100% accurate. We have had cars that when we get them in and tell them of poor repairs we found when we took them apart, they say 'well they showed me the carfax and there was nothing on it'. If a person pays out of pocket then it won't likely show up, same with someone who has it done by the dads friends uncle in his garage on the weekend. And if you read the fine print, carfax has a dozen loopholes on how they can't be held responsible.

Long story short, the repairs are only as good as the shop that does them. Some people have it in their mind the car will never be right again, and there isn't much you can say to change that. Some people have kept there 'wrecked' cars for many many years after without returning for problems.

Great start to this post, just wanted to sharpen a few facts


aidensdada profile image

aidensdada 4 years ago Author

Thank you for taking the time to add this great comment.As I stated in previous articles, I'm writing from my experiences. I welcome any comments, even if they are a slap in the face LOL. In retrospect, I guess I was a bit vague on some points. Thanks davzkny. Check out some of my other articles.


davzkny profile image

davzkny 4 years ago from Western New York

No problem, sorry wasn't trying to come across that way. I am just cautious of what and how things are explained. Yours had some good info, and definitely with good intentions. I will absolutely read through some of your other posts! take care


aidensdada profile image

aidensdada 4 years ago Author

I must also add that orange peel is definitely a sign of poor application of the clear coat, by a poorly trained body man. However, a car that has not been in an accident will usually have its original paint, which was applied by robots at the factory, not a poorly trained body man!


clyde horseman 19 months ago

I've been considering buying a used car from Craigslist and just stopped negotiations because of the glorious info in this post. So thanks! So before I continue my search for a vehicle, in the orange peel damage sign, what exactly happens chemically and/or mechanically for the effect to take place? It seems odd that the texture would change at all when you apply another coat of primer and paint after already fixing it.http://alloutcustomsandcollision.com/auto-body-rep...


davzkny profile image

davzkny 19 months ago from Western New York

A few things. Some factory clear coat is not very good right when its new. What he means is if you have differences between panels, thats a sign of refinish. So if the factory paint is fairly flat, but a few panels appear 'rough' or almost duller in appearance that is a sign. Also, feel the edges of the panels, they should be smooth (aside from possible chips). If they are not, that may show paint work was done.

Partly it depends on preference, and whether the repairs were done correctly or poorly. On a $3000 car, most people are not going to be as picky as you are not paying top dollar for a really nice car in good condition. On a nicer, more expensive car this would be more of a consideration in my opinion. Good repairs should be invisible to most, and hard to notice by a trained eye.

Some reputable shops are willing to look at a vehicle if someone wants a second opinion to tell you if there is anything that really stands out. There are also third party vehicle inspection companies you can pay to go look at a vehicle like carzinspection.com that has people all over the country. There are a few others, but thats the first that comes to mind.


davzkny profile image

davzkny 19 months ago from Western New York

A few things. Some factory clear coat is not very good right when its new. What he means is if you have differences between panels, that's a sign of refinish. So if the factory paint is fairly flat, but a few panels appear 'rough' or almost duller in appearance that is a sign. Also, feel the edges of the panels, they should be smooth (aside from possible chips). If they are not, that may show paint work was done.

Partly it depends on preference, and whether the repairs were done correctly or poorly. On a $3000 car, most people are not going to be as picky as you are not paying top dollar for a really nice car in good condition. On a nicer, more expensive car this would be more of a consideration in my opinion. Good repairs should be invisible to most, and hard to notice by a trained eye.

Some reputable shops are willing to look at a vehicle if someone wants a second opinion to tell you if there is anything that really stands out. There are also third party vehicle inspection companies you can pay to go look at a vehicle like carzinspection.com that has people all over the country. There are a few others, but that's the first that comes to mind.

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