Volume IX, Number 5

A beginners guide to spotting repainted or restored cars

by Stephen Bresnehan

Philosophy of collecting

It is one of the longest-running debates in die-cast collecting- are restored or modified pieces okay, or must they be factory original to be worth collecting? Each collector will have his or her own opinion, but essentially there are two camps: the original-is-all brigade versus the where's-my-paintbrush rabble. Each approach to collecting is valid and each has its particular advantage in collecting.

Junk to some, raw material to others.

The ethics of modifying and repainting

There is nothing inherently wrong with restoring or customizing cars per se. It only becomes a matter of ethics when the modified pieces are being traded or sold. The ethics then become those of any private sale- a seller's reasonable disclosure of information, and at the very heart of it all, caveat emptor, or Buyer Beware. The only way to be sure of a purchase is to do the research, and to know the item you're looking at. This sort of information can take years to amass, and for a new collector it is bewildering. Without the benefit of experience, mentors, books, checklists and variation guides, you are relying entirely on an inspection of the car itself. This article sets out to give new collectors a few pointers for spotting a modified car.

What to look for in a modified car

There are several clues for a beginning collector to look for. These signs can be small or well hidden. The best place to begin is the rivets, which indicate if the car has been opened up at any stage. Other things to watch for are overprinting, paint in the wrong spot, or odd mismatches in the condition of the parts. Clues from a close inspection, along with a good working knowledge of the model itself, will help you spot most non-original pieces you come across. Not all, but most. Always keep in mind that the skill of some restorers is very very high.


Most cars are riveted together. Technically, they're not rivets, but it's the name that collectors have given them. To open up a car, these rivets have to be drilled or ground away. Once the car is apart it can be repainted, wheels and other parts can be swapped or it could be totally rebuilt.


Matchbox TVR Tuscan S- one intact, the other has been drilled.

Drilled or ground rivets have a characteristic appearance- instead of being domed or belled, they will have a countersunk appearance as can be seen on the red TVR above. Sometimes there'll be a small tap-hole in the centre. Amateur restorers often botch their rivet drilling, as is shown on the Superfine Turbine below on the left.

A selection of drilled rivets: Hot Wheels Superfine Turbine, Playart Fiat X1/9, Matchbox 41C Ford GT


It is also worth remembering that a drilled rivet may be replaced with a screw or a rivet end-cap. These are a perfect finishing touch to a restored piece, but also mask the signs of a tampered rivet. A replacement rivet end-cap can be very hard to spot, but sometimes there may be some glue residue around it. Often the caps are cast from white metal, so look for an unusually pale or whitish colour to the rivet metal if you suspect caps have been fitted.

Repro rivet caps

A Fun Ho Chevrolet, repainted and fitted with white metal rivet caps.

Paint in odd spots

If the rivets look intact but you suspect its been repainted, a good clue is to find a bit of paint in a spot where it shouldn't be. Many castings are intricate and even a practiced brush painter can't always avoid getting paint on the wrong bit. The Budgie Rover 105 below was sold to me as a repainted car. I had done the research and knew the Rover came in this shade of green, so when it turned up in the post I looked long and hard for the signs to tell me it wasn't original- one tiny bit of over painting confirmed it.

It is also worth looking in the hard-to-reach spots for signs of an earlier paint colour underneath the paint. Under wheel wells, inside engine bays or up underneath the roof- any little cranny that might be missed by a later coat of paint. Keep in mind that sometimes a car may have originally had two layers of paint, such as a base coat and topcoat for a candy-apple effect, common through the seventies and eighties. Other models are known to have been repainted from the factory, such as the early Matchbox XK140 coupe, where some red versions had white paint underneath.

A tiny scrap of green paint on Auntie Rover tells the story.

Mismatched condition of parts

Generally, an intact car will show a nearly uniform level of playwear all over. Wheels, leading edges and roof surfaces will often cop the brunt of rough play, but other parts of the car will also show traces. A major difference in condition between one part and another is a hint that the car may have been repainted, or rebuilt from two or three beaters, or has some reproduction parts added.

The Pontiac convertible on the right looks a little play worn, but very nice nonetheless. A practiced eye will spot the reproduction windscreen- the original was tinted pale blue. Even without that knowledge, the difference in condition between windscreen and the rest of the car is visible- there's not a scratch on that screen at all. This model has a habit of losing its windscreen, and it can be snapped in and out without taking the car apart.

Matchbox 39b Pontiac convertible

The Porsche 959 has a lovely blue-gray paint, very similar to the real thing. It is not highly decorated- in fact there are no tampo graphics on it at all. This in itself is unusual for a Hot Wheels car. The paint does not have the deep shine most Hot Wheels cars have either. While both these are good hints it's a repaint, it is the condition of the wheels that clinches it. While there's not a trace of playwear on the paint work, the wheels have noticeable wear on the chromed surfaces.

Hot Wheels Porsche 959

Stickers, decals and wheels

Non-original stickers and decals are much harder to detect, as fitting them does not require the car to be popped open. Reproduction stickers and decals are available for many early models, and a home computer, with the right software and printer, can produce high quality reproduction and custom stickers and decals. Without reference material to work off, spotting repro or custom work can be very hard. The best hint is to look for traces of other restoration work, or a mismatch between the condition of the sticker and the rest of the car- an early piece with playwear but intact decals may be original, but more likely the decal or sticker would show an equal level of damage to the paint work. Look also for signs of scratches or chips underneath the decal or sticker, which suggest a replacement one has been fitted.

A customized Hot Wheels Jaguar XJS- a great example of the quality that can be achieved with a home computer and the right printer.

Paper stickers age and many will have naturally discolored or turned translucent from the glue underneath- even NRFB examples can show this. Inks also can fade or discolor, so look for signs of age, or patina. Corgi Whizzwheels models in particular have a habit of sticker deterioration. An early model car with a crisp, bright sticker on whiter than white paper is worth giving very close scrutiny if it is being offered as original.


Aging stickers- MB BMW 3.0CS, Corgi Whizzwheels Austin Healey Le Mans Sprite and Corgi Whizzwheels Stock Car

Some wheels can be swapped about with careful work, leaving little or no sign. Early Hot Wheels redlines can be popped on and off easily ( both type 1 wheels with the little white plastic bearings, and type 2 with the black plastic backing-plate), and many early Matchbox Superfasts had their wheels held on by black bracket clips. Corgi Rockets, with their removable black chassis, are also very susceptible to wheel swapping.


We had one, but the wheels fell off Hot Wheels, Corgi and Matchbox.

For other models, it is possible to swap wheels about- either by opening the car up, or by grinding the end off an axle. Look for signs of tampering, tool marks or glue. Also look to see if the wheels line up perfectly from left to right- one wheel swapping technique is to glue each wheel in separately on a half-axle. Amateur wheel-swapping using this technique will often result in a bit of glue sticking a wheel in solid, so check to see if they all still spin.

A set of repro Matchbox regular disc wheels swapped onto a repainted Hot Wheels Mustang.


Case Study 1: blue Matchbox 33c Lamborghini Miura

This Lamborghini Miura is a typical example of an amateur repaint. Even without any information on what colours and variations this car came in, a quick inspection shows yellow paint underneath the blue- inside the doors, under the grille lip and in the wheel wells. It was repainted intact, so the rivets show no tool marks. No fooling anybody with this one!

A lovely model of a great car- the engine detail is wonderful.

A classic example of an amateur repaint, and probably a young kid's prized handiwork. I'm keeping this one as-is.


Case Study 2: red Matchbox 53a Aston Martin DB2/4

Most of these were a pale metallic green colour but there is a much more rare red version. Is this one? A long-time collector with good information sources will be able to say straight off that it is a repaint- it's the wrong red and anyway the red version had plastic wheels, not metal ones. For a newer collector, what are the signs to tell it's a repaint?

It is certainly less obvious than the Miura above. The rivets look okay- a bit dinged about but no sign of drill or tool marks. No sign of any glue either. Despite looking intact, those dings are not consistent with the perfect condition of the body paint, which gives us our first hint- is the difference in condition between the body and the base or other parts likely to have occurred naturally? In this case, I'd say no- a perfect shiny finish above, but play worn below.

Another hint is the faintest sign of another paint colour on the underneath of the body- looking up under the wheel wells. With the right angle and some good light, it looks like the original green paint is still there. There are also hints of the green paint in the centre of the rivets. If I found this piece for sale, I'd be concerned as to its originality.

An early model, from before Matchbox fitted windows and interiors to their cars.

Beneath the Aston Martin.

Case Study 3: green 1973 Hot Wheels Xploder

This car has small rear wheels- is it a genuine factory error or has it been modified? The signs on this one are less certain- the paint carries enough wear to be genuine, and the wheels are the correct types too- many 1973 Hot Wheels cars had a combination of the earlier and later redline wheel types. However, the rivet shows a clear sign of tampering- the white frosting is a characteristic telltale of superglue. One other odd sign is that the rear engine hatches are missing- if this was being 'faked' then this damaged part would most likely be replaced with an intact set of hatches so as not to put off a potential buyer who may have seen one before. A faker might also re-do the body in a rare colour, such as pink.

If I was buying this one at a high price as an error piece, there are enough hints not to trust it- I'd ask the vendor for more information. If it were cheap, then I wouldn't bother querying it- its still a nice old redline after all.

A lithe and characteristically late-sixties wedge supercar design.

The Xploder is a 1973 re-issue of the spectraflame era AMX/2 show car by AMC.

Case Study 4: red and yellow Matchbox 70b Grit Spreader trucks


Two Ford grit spreader trucks- these are a common casting, but is one a variation? Paint shades on these two are very different, so are there any clues to either having been messed about with? The paint shading is consistent across the trucks, so it is unlikely to be fading from too much sun.

The rivets look fine, but there's a couple of bits of over painting on one that gives the game away. The rivet end is the same colour as the base, when it should be bare or have traces of the yellow paint. Also, inside the bin the gray plastic chute gate is painted yellow- in fact the paint has glued the slide shut. There are a few bits of red paint on the side of the yellow bin as well.

Verdict? This is a very well repainted piece, done by brush without dismantling the truck. Playwear gives it an air of authenticity, as we expect repaints to be nice and fresh.

A very popular and common piece from the late sixties.

A tiny hint of paint here and there tells the story.

Case Study 5- Matchbox 19a

Another thing to keep an eye out for is the increase of reproduction cars, particularly early Matchbox pieces. Generally, these are cast in white metal and sold as kits. Look for very poor quality casting, odd bits of flashing or poor detail. Also remember that a white metal replica will weigh about three times the original!


Left- not a resto, or a custom, but an entire reproduction of the early Matchbox MG (right).

Playing in the big end of town

For rare variations, errors or other unusual pieces, the collector value can be very high compared to the more common versions of the same piece. Naturally, this will attract the attention of the unscrupulous, who see the possibility of buying cheaper common pieces, making a few modifications and selling them on at hundreds of dollars or possible even higher.

Some restorers are capable of doing very high quality work that is undetectable from the original even to very experienced collectors. These high-quality pieces may not have been made with any intent to pass it off as genuine. However, the big risk with replicas of rare cars is what happens to them if they are sold out into the big wide world as a replica. A later owner may choose to misrepresent a good replica as genuine, even if the original creator of the replica didn't. Further down the track, subsequent owners may sell it on believing it to be genuine and get caught out through no fault of their own.

A simple guide to buying expensive rare variations is to protect your investment with research. Get the books, find the websites, and join a club or online forum. Look at the 'provenance', or the model's history- who is selling it? How long have they had it? Was it in a long-time collector's collection or is the vendor a known and respected dealer? Anything that will give you the knowledge to know what you're looking at will give you that bit better protection from accidental or deliberate misrepresentation.