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Choosing a Cheap Classic Car - On The Line

Why Do Anything Else?

Apr 13, 2005
Epcp_0504_01_z+classic_cars+jaguar_xk150 Photo 1/1   |   Choosing a Cheap Classic Car - On The Line

Summertime and the living is easyOnce, I owned a Jaguar. It was a soft gray XK150S Coupe with red leather upholstery and red wire wheels. Not that long ago, the XK150 was decried as being too large and soft to be a "real" sports car but by the time I owned it, all was forgiven and it was pretty cool ride. The best thing about that lovely old Jaguar was driving it home from visiting friends late on a summer evening as the sky was in the last stages of fading to dark. The reflections of light from the chrome spear down the center of that long feline hood, with the tiny red indicators atop the parking lights on the curvaceous fenders, made you feel like the king of the world. It was the perfect place for two people to spend time together as they rushed through the twilight. Those golden memories of that car got me thinking that I really do need a big and comfortable GT car to add to my stable. As with most obsessions, this one started as simply as that. For a time I tried to push it aside, but soon I was scouring the want ads and looking online for a car that would give me the same sense of style and panache. The only hitch was I figured I only had about three grand to make that dream come true.

Let's be Impractical
Okay, I'll be the first to admit that 3,000 bucks isn't enough to buy a decent used Jeep Grand Cherokee, let alone a sophisticated and suave grand touring car. But wait. What if the car you bought didn't have to be reliable enough to take you back and forth to work everyday? What if it didn't need to be a substitute for the family minivan or haul trash to the dump? What if it could just be a fair weather toy, for those days, and more importantly, those nights when you wanted a little romance in your life. A car that might take you on one or two enjoyable weekend trips and a whole bunch of memorable evening drives? If that's your only goal, then a world of possibilities suddenly opens before you.

There Has to be Some Rules
Let's set some ground rules. The car has to be cool. That's a subjective thing certainly, but just as beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so is coolness. It should be at least reasonably fast. That means keeping up easily with modern traffic and able to spurn the advances of large trucks and overly inquisitive SUVs. That pretty much rules out something like an MG Midget (much as I love them), a Porsche 914 (ditto) or even an old VW Beetle (love them too.) That still leaves some pretty pleasant machinery, even when my pathetically low $3,000 limit is imposed. A manual transmission is preferred, but not required if the automatic is a good one. Because we are looking for a toy, a two-seater, or better yet a convertible will get maximum points.

Porsche Choices
My first thought was a Porsche 928. Wow, you're thinking, "Is he crazy?" It's hard to fathom the depths of financial trouble one could get into by purchasing a $3,000 Porsche 928. On the other side of the ledger, they are really fast, amazingly beautiful and very charismatic. Any of them in my price range would be automatics from the late '70s or very early '80s and they are fraught with all manner of well-known and expensive electrical and mechanical issues, but man, what a ride when they are running! Okay, the 928 is too risky. How about a nice Porsche 944? They are certainly available in the price range (at least the early ones) and are among the finest handling cars ever placed on the planet. When I worked for Michelin years ago, we had a pair of them in the test department because they were so reliable and such an excellent testing platform. Many of them are pretty ratty by now, but that can work in our favor as we look for a low-cost example. Definitely put that one on the list.

Jolly Ol' England
I opened this story with my memory of my old Jaguar, so how about another motor car from Coventry? It turns out that the Jaguar XJS models built in the '70s and early '80s have dropped into the fringes of my price range. Hold on a moment. We're talking about a V12-engined sports coupe with massive curb appeal and an old-world ambiance that few modern cars can touch. All that for a measly $3,000? Where do I sign? Except, as risky as a bargain Porsche 928 might seem, the V12 cats of this era were even more dodgy and unreliable. There is a reason so many of them have had their silky-smooth V12 replaced with a small-block Chevy engine. There isn't really much wrong with the Jaguar engine itself, mind you. It's the myriad electrical-connection and vacuum systems supporting it that let the whole car down. The extreme temperatures generated under the hood cause them to deteriorate to the point where the whole thing just stops running. Not good when you are far from home on that romantic weekend getaway. But think of the joy of sitting in your garage gazing upon your beautiful (if immobile) V12 Jaguar. It's almost worth it.

Italy?
We had a lovely Alfa Romeo Spider. It was built in 1979 and had the problematic SPICA fuel injection, but never really gave us much trouble. The top went down in a flash and its five-speed gearbox was entertaining whenever the road got twisty. As much as I love old British roadsters like the MGB, the Alfa was really a much better car 90% of the time. The biggest enemy of these cars is rust and finding one that is whole and safe is becoming a chore. It was a great car when we owned it, but I wanted to find something different.

Germany?
How about a BMW 633? It's hard to imagine a more beautiful coupe from the 1980s. Sure they have their problems, but even standing still while you work on them, they are a work of art. Prices are all over the map, so you should be able to find one for under three grand. There is a strong club and lots of knowledge about keeping older BMWs on the road. The same is true for a Mercedes-Benz, although finding anything in the 450SL range that isn't completely rusted away could be a challenge. Still, keep your eyes open and cars do show up from time to time.

The Unexpected Choice
Who would of thought that I would finally turn to the Swedes for some passion? In this case it is a 1990 Saab 900 Turbo 16-valve Convertible. I know, Saabs are generally thought to be pretty staid and rational, but consider that this car is quick (thank you Per Guilbrand for inventing turbocharged Saabs in the 1970s), has a smooth shifting five-speed transmission, handles well and has a top that lowers at the touch of a button. Its styling is, um, unique, but the Saab 900 has to be considered one of the most recognizable shapes on a road filled with aerodynamically similar cars. It comes with a leather interior and also has seat warmers and all of the other creature comforts a hedonist could want on a cool summer's eve. I found the one that graces our garage on an online auction and bought it sight unseen. Consequently it has a bit more rust than a car I would ordinarily choose, but structurally is still solid. As it will spend the rest of its life as a summer-only car, I should be able to keep ahead of the corrosion. With shipping from Connecticut to my doorstep, I bumped up against my $3,000 limit, and a new exhaust system pushed me over by a couple hundred bucks. There are a few other little bugs to sort out, but it's a pretty good car and the first time I put the top down I couldn't resist taking it out for a spirited drive, rorty exhaust and all.

Now it's Your Turn
So what are you waiting for? There are bargains to be had in middle-aged performance cars whose time has come and gone. Consider that you could own a car from one of the great marques like Alfa Romeo, BMW, Jaguar, Mercedes-Benz, Porsche or even Saab. Set your sights a bit lower than the Concours circuit and see if you can't find a nice old machine to while away your sultry summer evenings. I'm sure you can come up with your own list of desirable cars, and maybe that's half the fun. Then it's just a matter of finding your dream. You might surprise yourself in what you choose. Who would have thought that mine was going to be Swedish?

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