Mazda’s MX-5 at 30: the story of history’s greatest roadster
Still the most fun you can have with the roof down
Few things are still going strong at 30. Humans start to grey around the edges. Fridges hum worryingly. Jumpers lose all shape. But not the Mazda MX-5.
Over three decades and four generations, Mazda’s plucky roadster has become the bestselling two-seater convertible of all time. And for good reason. Compact in stature, modest in performance and truly sublime to drive, the Mazda MX-5 was never meant to win drag races. It was designed to make drivers smile.
Yet Mazda bosses weren’t sure about the concept when it was pitched in the mid-Eighties. It faced, in the company’s own words, “significant resistance from some of Mazda’s senior executives”. A simple front-engine, rear-drive roadster like the best British sports cars of the Fifties and Sixties? Didn’t that whole industry go a bit pear-shaped in the Seventies?
Well, yes. Killed off by the Eighties by more stringent safety and emissions regulations, the compact two-seater wouldn’t have been touched by the old guard with a crash test dummy – let alone a bargepole.
Instead, the Italians were pursuing outright performance with the F40, the Brits were going big and brutish with GT luxury (see: Aston Martin Virage) and the rest of Europe was squabbling over saloon supremacy. Which left a pocket-sized opportunity for an uncomplicated sports car in the mid-century mould.
And it was Bob Hall who saw the potential. Asked in the late-Seventies by engineer Kenichi Yamamoto what car he’d have Mazda build, the American journalist and Japanese car enthusiast was unequivocal in his answer: a reimagined roadster.
Rather than laugh him out of the room while cackling “Triumph TR7”, Yamamoto was apparently taken with the idea – even if he didn’t show it. When Hall joined the marque as a product planner in 1981, Yamamoto gave him the nudge to look into it.
Working tirelessly out of the firm’s California office, the committed Hall tasked designer Mark Jordan with sketching out his idea for a featherweight sports car free from complexity, inspired by the likes of the Lotus Elan – arguably the ultimate driver’s car of the Sixties.
Then, just as things were looking good for Duo 101, Mazda decided to make the new concept a competition between three rival offices. Hall had to pitch his front-engine, rear-drive roadster against the more traditional proposals of two Japanese departments – Tokyo going for mid-engine, rear-drive and Hiroshima fancying front-engine, front-drive.
Initially it seemed one of the Japanese offerings would win out. Fitting a sports car shell to an existing front-wheel drive model would be cheaper and easier to build and would probably sell well enough to justify production. But it wouldn’t be a proper roadster – and the engineers knew it.
The result? Hall’s brainchild won out and history’s greatest two-seater convertible was born.
Designer Tom Matano was brought in to create the production design, sketching an appealing shell that was timeless in its clean simplicity, while Mazda’s engineers – led by Toshihiko Hirai – got busy crafting a lightweight machine that could drive like nothing else.
Through it all, they were steered by the concept of *jinba ittai *– or “rider and horse as one”. Marketing guff? Not a chance: with the MX-5’s fizzy engine, perfect balance, expressive handling, impeccable suspension and lovely exhaust note, the Japanese marque had succeeded where it’s British counterparts had failed – creating a roadster that could stay relevant for decades.
Launched at the Chicago Motor Show in February 1989, it was an instant hit, garnering acclaim from journalists, a shelf-load of awards and huge sales to boot. Four generations later and Mazda’s sold well over a million.
Marketed variously as the MX-5, Miata and Eunos Roadster, the two-seater proved that horsepower wasn’t the only route to a good time. While hot hatches such as the Golf GTI and Renault 5 GT Turbo competed for supremacy in the car park, the ostensibly pokey MX-5 didn’t trouble itself with such hooligan behaviour.
Instead, in the words of Hall himself, it delivered the “most smiles-per-gallon”. Cheesy, yes, but true: whether you drive a Mk1 with its quirky popup lamps and zippy 1.6-litre motor or the latest 155bhp model, the MX-5 remains pretty much the most fun you can have with the roof down.
Accessible, enjoyable and forgiving, it’s everything a sports car should be – and, at a time when electronic aids do most of the driving for us, we need it more than ever. So we say cheers to the MX-5, doing better at 30 than almost anything else.
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How the humble Mini became a very British legend
As the iconic supermini turns 60, we ponder what made this diminutive car such a cult classic
It started in a supermarket car park. While I waited for my better half to return with a wedge of parmesan, there came a knock on the window. Looking up from the baguette I was fastidiously preparing, I was greeted by the crisp uniform and crisper visage of a Polizia Stradale officer.
“Papers,” he stated. Was this really happening? Had the Carrefour parking lot become the setting for my own Le Carré moment? Alas, no. After a stilted exchange, it turned out he was only interested in our ride.
Waved off from this first brush with the law, we’d twice more be pulled over as we drove the roads of Italy. And when pot-holed Puglian asphalt put an end to the ailing exhaust, half the village turned up at Gabriele’s garage just to get a look at our motor.
So what was it? A stunning crimson Ferrari? A gleaming Lamborghini? No, it was a Mini.
Even now, six decades after that moustache grille first appeared at the end of a bonnet, to drive one, it seems, is to drive an icon. And not the kind of obscure legend that petrolheads pore over online. A bona fide, beep-in-the-street symbol of Sixties levity and bonny British motoring – and one that still garners love and affection the world over.
But what is it that makes this plucky little Brit so enduringly popular? Ours is a new-generation model, yet even he – for Otto is a he, born in Oxford but named for his Bavarian masters – received huge attention from the Italians. Who, might I remind you, invented the supercar.
Ask a motorsport fan and they’ll tell you it was the terrier-like tenacity of the John Cooper-tuned rally variants that fired the upstart Mini into the collective consciousness. But your average Giuseppe probably doesn’t know about its three Monte Carlo Rally wins, impressive as they were.
Film buffs, meanwhile, will point to The Italian Job as the reason for the Mini’s cult status. A cockney ex-con and his gang of ne’er do wells looting Mafia gold, stuffing it in the back of bijou British cars and fleeing the scene via the rooftops and sewers of Turin? It was pure motion picture brilliance – and the Mini was its best supporting automobile.
Thing is, Fiat wanted its cars barrelling around the Italian city, not those pesky little rivals from Blighty – and they offered the producers a lot of money to make it happen. If they’d said yes, would the 500, iconic as it is, really enjoy the same international appeal today?
It can’t be ubiquity, either. Yes, almost 5.4 million Minis were made over the original machine’s lifetime, but Vauxhall built 1.8m Cavaliers and you don’t see those on posters. Nor is it a total rarity: some 12,000 remain registered on UK roads – yet tell me you don’t remark upon seeing one, “Oh, look, a Mini.” And that’s not because Mr Bean drove one.
No, I’d argue that the Mini’s continued appeal comes from one thing and one thing only: brilliant design.
Penned by Sir Alec Issigonis for the British Motor Corporation in the late Fifties, it was a masterpiece of packaging that’s often been imitated but never bettered. Here was a compact, economical and affordable car that could fit the whole family, yet squeeze through the tightest of Roman alleyways, should the need arise – and that was all by design.
Take the revolutionary engine arrangement: mounted sideways in the nose, mated to the gearbox and connected to the front wheels, the motor was so space efficient that it left room enough in the cabin to comfortably seat four adults, even if their luggage was limited to a spare pair of socks.
And despite the ostensibly pokey motor, its featherweight build meant the Mini – in any guise – was bags of fun to drive. Steer one today and you’ll feel more connected to the road than in any modern sports car, partly because you’re sitting a foot above the tarmac.
The icing on this diminutive cupcake? It all came wrapped in a simple, understated shell that’s proven utterly timeless, its squat stance and cheeky face cutting through the clutter of every supermini since.
Launched in 1959 as the world was set to swing, through seven generations, countless variants – from the sporty Cooper to the barn-door Countryman to the open-top Moke – and more badges than a student activist, the Mini stayed largely true to its origins: a practical, zippy thing you could slot into the smallest of spaces.
BMW might have decided it needed a revamp at the turn of the millennium, but the modern Mini owes everything to that 60-year lineage. Just ask Officer Romano.
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What’s fame without a Ferrari? Not much – and McQueen naturally owned one of the finest: the 275GTB/4, a stunning Sixties GT as multitalented as the man himself. Delivered while the star was shooting Bullitt, he tasked Lee Brown – the man behind the movie Mustangs – with refinishing the hazelnut two-seater in a more arresting crimson shade. Suitably recoated, McQueen proceeded to deal the V12 coupé some pretty tough love and the odd prang for good measure. Did that harm its value? A $10.2 million sale price in 2014 suggests not.
Of course, no one with the hard man’s appetite for speed could be expected to stop at a single Prancing Horse. In fact, the combative actor would own a total of four Italian stallions over his lifetime, including a 275GTS and a NART Spyder once crunched by a truck. Last of the quartet? A lovely example of the 250GT Lusso, a stylish tourer bought by McQueen’s first wife and finished in brown – presumably to match his many leather jackets.
McQueen’s Le Mans remains a stirring cinematic tribute to the world’s greatest race – and the actor shared more than just a steely eyed stare with his character, Michael Delaney. See, it might be the race-winning 917K that graces posters today, but it was Delaney’s Porsche 911S – the one that opens the flick on a pensive drive through the French countryside – that McQueen took a shine to. Ordered for the film and delivered on set, he had it freighted to LA to join his other 911 after shooting, only to sell it a year later.
More than an enthusiast, McQueen was an adept racer in his own right and had every intention of driving at Le Mans to get footage for, well, Le Mans. In the late Sixties, he went out and bought a Porsche 908 Spyder to prepare for the event. And prepare he did, steering the aerodynamic wedge to second place at the 12 Hours Of Sebring in 1970. When the insurance company put the kibosh on his plans for France, the 908 still served as a camera car, capturing high-speed shots during the race.
Not that his affinity for Porsches was anything new: McQueen’s first truly speedy piece was a Super Speedster, used by the gallant to claim class wins in sports car races in the late Fifties, before he swapped it for something even more streamlined. That something? A lightweight Lotus Eleven – an out-and-out racer, which, thanks to a featherweight build, could put the wind up many a more powerful machine and one that McQueen credited with greatly improving his racecraft.
A fearsome D-type racer made good for the road, just 16 of Jaguar’s glorious XKSS roadsters survived a devastating factory fire in 1957 – one of which found its way to an appreciative McQueen. Nicknamed ‘The Green Rat’, the British beauty would become a favourite of the throttle-happy actor, and he frequently fired the sinuous sports car down Hollywood streets of an evening, simultaneously acquainting it with local law enforcement. When he parted with the 149mph machine? Regret soon followed and, after a bit of wrangling, McQueen bought it back. You’ll find it in the Petersen Automotive Museum today.
© Evan Klein
If Patrick Dempsey rocked up in Kent, begged a favour and raced a Ford Focus in a round of the British Touring Car Championship, you might rightly be quite surprised. But that’s exactly what Steve McQueen did in 1961, bagging a guest drive in Sir John Whitmore’s Mini at Brands Hatch. That might also be what inspired the star to pick up a pocket rocket of his own a few years later. When he bought his plucky Cooper S in 1967, he promptly had it made over in gold, with an interior to match.
Giving credence to his immortal line, “Racing is life. Anything that happens before or after is just waiting,” even McQueen’s family sedan had to be quick: a Mercedes 300SEL in its ultimate guise – then the fastest four-door car in the world. Equipped with a 6.3-litre V8, good for 135mph, the luxury German wagon could comfortably outgun his 911S, which probably explains why, according to son Chad McQueen, it was “one of his favourite cars”. Which, in turn, explains why it was so vastly overpriced at auction in 2015. Such is the legacy of the legend.
George Harrison had a phenomenal selection of cars
The former Beatles star loved cars, yeah, yeah, yeah. On what would have been George Harrison’s 77th birthday, we pick nine of his best drives…
Money can’t buy you love, but it can buy you cars. Which, all things considered, is probably a better investment. George Harrison certainly thought so. To call him a car enthusiast would be like referring to him as a successful musician – something of an understatement. He adored cars and if that didn’t necessarily sit comfortably with his desire to eschew the excesses of the material world, well, so be it.
His fascination with all things vehicular led him to spend the best part of a year following the Formula One World Championship around the world. It’s possible he took a little too much inspiration from his Grand Prix idols, because he had his licence taken away twice for reckless driving, the second time after an accident that nearly killed his wife, Pattie.
Nobody seems to know how many cars Harrison owned over the years, such was the frenzied abandon with which he bought and sold them. Rather irritatingly, there is no record of him ever owning a Beetle and very little evidence to suggest that the first draft of his famous solo hit was entitled “My Sweet Ford”. His tastes were a little, well, less pedestrian. By way of illustration, here is a rundown of just a fraction of the cars Harrison owned…
Ford Anglia 105E
© Beaulieu Enterprises Ltd
For a modest car, the Ford Anglia has enjoyed a stellar career in the showbiz spotlight, starring in everything from Z Cars to Heartbeat, appearing as Roland Rat’s Ratmobile and the Weasleys’ flying car. But its biggest claim to fame may be that it was the first ever car owned by George Harrison. Yes, before all the Jags, the Porsches and the Mercs, there was a little second-hand Ford Anglia. It’s difficult to find out more information about his car, because: a) it was at the outset of his career (hence the fact he was driving an Anglia!) and b) any internet search for “George Harrison Ford” produces lots of photos of Han Solo.
© Heritage Image Partnership Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo
The story goes that Brian Epstein bought George Harrison an E-Type for his 21st birthday. Certainly this car was first registered on 28 February 1964, three-days after Harrison turned 21. The customised car even featured a dash-mounted record-player. A missive from Harrison to a young Beatles fan, Susan Houghton, was published by Letters Of Note in 2010, including a tongue-in-cheek seven-point plan for how to wash the E-Type. Point seven is to take all the “dirty, muddy, greasy water” round to a nearby address and dump it over the Ford Classic in the street outside. The address was Paul McCartney’s.
1964 Aston Martin DB5
© National Motor Museum/Shutterstock
In 1965, Harrison bought his first ever extravagant car – a white DB5. Paul McCartney, also something of a petrol head (though nothing in comparison to his band mate) bought a DB6 that same year. In December 2011, Harrison’s DB5 was finally sold at auction, to an anonymous Beatles collector, for £350,000.
Porsche 928 S Coupe
© Peter Byrne
The late 1970s saw Harrison enter his Porsche phase. He bought two 911 Turbos and a 924 Carrera GT. In 1980 he bought a black 928 S Coupe, before selling it three years later. In 2003, Leeds-based car enthusiast Raj Sedha bought it for spare parts and would have stripped it down had his wife not taken a look at the log book, revealing the car’s celebrity heritage.
Mercedes 300 SEL
© Tracksimages.com / Alamy Stock Photo
With apologies to Harrison’s second wife, Olivia, to whom he was married for 23 years until his death, perhaps the greatest love affair he had was with Mercedes cars. In 1970 he bought two Mercs, a red 250 CE Pillarless Coupe and a white 6.3 litre 300 SEL. He was driving the latter in February 1972, on his way to a party being given by Ricky Nelson, when he crashed into a lamppost at speed. He escaped with a few scratches, but his first wife, Pattie, suffered concussion and broken ribs and was hospitalised for two weeks.
Mercedes-Benz 600 Pullman Limousine
© Adrian Dennis/EPA/Shutterstock
At more than six metres long, this beast of a car boasted a drinks cabinet and a Phillips Mignon EP record player in the back, as well as the all-important privacy screen. Originally owned by John Lennon, he sold it to Harrison in 1971 when he and Yoko decided to up sticks and move to New York. The car was bought by Mary Wilson of The Supremes in 1976 and used on the group’s US tour in 1979.
Mercedes 500 SEL AMG
© Peter Byrne
Of all of the cars Harrison owned, this was probably the one he drove the most. He bought it in 1984 and promptly spent a whopping £85,000 customising it, including lowering the suspension and upgrading the body kit. He must have liked the results, because he hung on to the car for 15 years and clocked up 30,000 miles in it. That’s a fair few long and winding roads.
© Darryn Lyons/Daily Mail/Shutterstock
Definitely the priciest on the list, which is hardly a surprise, seeing as only 106 were ever built, custom-made for each buyer. Designer Gordon Murray was later to report that Harrison was so excited about receiving his car, in 1994, that he would phone up and good-naturedly pester the makers on a regular basis. The end product, with a dark purple pearl exterior and black satin wheels, is still owned by Harrison’s estate, in spite of Eric Clapton’s repeated attempts to buy it. Other famous F1 owners include Rowan Atkinson, the Sultan of Brunei, Elon Musk and Jay Leno.
Austin Mini Cooper S
© Heritage Images
The most iconic of the lot. In 1965, Brian Epstein teamed up with Terry Doran (supposedly “the man from the motor trade” mentioned in “She’s Leaving Home”) to buy Minis at cost price to give to all four Beatles. Harrison’s Mini was customised by coach-builder Harold Radford with a full-length sunroof, horizontally-mounted Volkswagen tail lights and hood-mounted rally fog lamps. In 1967, he had it decorated with psychedelic images inspired by the book Tantra Art. Later that year, the car came to prominence when it featured in the film Magical Mystery Tour, before being given to Eric Clapton. Harrison regretted parting with the car and Clapton returned it to him years later.
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Many men have the classic car bug hit them at some point in life. Maybe they want that car they dreamed about in high school (or actually drove, and still miss). For others, it’s the idea of taking a rundown classic and restoring it to mint condition. Some guys just like buying investment-grade cars with hopes of profiting off them in the future. No matter what your reasoning for wanting a vintage automobile, before you buy one on a whim, let’s dig into the reasons you might buy a vintage car, along with developing a plan for getting the best car for your budget and lifestyle.
Why Are You Buying a Vintage Auto?
As noted above, people buy vintage vehicles for all kinds of reasons, and being realistic about why you are buying a classic car is essential if you want it to be an enjoyable experience rather than one filled with rancor and regret.
The key is to buy for all the right reasons for you.
For example, you might want to get a 1965 Mustang convertible to go get milkshakes with the family. A rust-bucket/project car, assuming you have the time, money, and dedication to restore it, is going to take several years before it is roadworthy. By that time, your kids are in high school, and they have no interest in hitting the malt shop with Mom and Dad. In this case, a turnkey, ready-to-drive option may be the best bet for you.
If you’re someone with lots of spare time (and perhaps money as well) who enjoys fixing anything mechanical, a full restoration project might fit your profile.
If you want to buy a unique car in immaculate condition with strong investment potential, that car is going to be doing a lot of sitting without much tinkering or driving required. But as I’ll explain next, it’s important to understand that most classic cars don’t actually turn out to be a good investment.
Most Classic Cars Are Not an Investment
We’ve heard of the guy who doubled his money on a car sitting in his grandmother’s garage, but most attempts to flip a vintage vehicle for profit don’t turn out that way.
The truth is that these old cars are simply that: old cars. They have carrying costs: storage, maintenance, insurance, etc. Depending on the car, these costs can run hundreds to thousands of dollars per year.
And that’s not to mention restoration costs, of both money and time. That Mustang we referenced earlier might require $15,000 in work to get it in the condition you desire and it will still be worth about the same price you paid for it. A 1960s Corvette might cost $40,000, require $60,000 in restoration work, and now be worth $70,000-$90,000. Even if you do the repair work yourself, you might save tens of thousands of dollars in labor costs, but spend hundreds of hours in the garage away from your family. This begs the question: What is your time worth? If you like cranking a wrench on the nights and weekends, go for it. If you are thinking you will spend a couple hours a week working on a project car, you could lose interest long before its appreciated in value.
If your plan is to buy an investment-grade vehicle that you don’t plan to drive but will instead park in a temperature-controlled garage, waiting for demand to push the price up, do your research carefully on what car you buy. For example, many cars from the 1950s and 1960s have had no price appreciation for a decade. One theory is that the collectors, generally aged 60+, who used to desire these cars are either dying or downsizing their collections. Meanwhile, cars that were popular in the late 1970s to 1990s are experiencing price appreciation as the children of this era approach middle age with discretionary income to burn on collector cars.
Where to Buy Your Throwback Machine
Buying a classic car is not the same thing as buying a brand new Honda from the local dealer. You can’t just walk into a dealer, pick your comfort package, engine size, interior/exterior colors, and drive home that day with exactly what you want. To find the car you really desire, it’s going to take some work.
When buying a used car (emphasis added because racing stripes and polished wheels may make it seem new in your mind), constantly remind yourself of the phrase caveat emptor — “buyer beware.”
Buying at Auction
Classic car auctions are sexy. The crowd, the excitement, and the potential to get a deal on your dream machine all sound appealing. Here are some pros and cons for going this route:
- Auctions do a great job bringing in high-end cars that may have never sat in a consignment dealer’s showroom. Some of the most desirable (i.e., expensive cars) have sold at auction rather than by private party or dealer.
- Auctions can often be accessed via phone or internet, giving you the opportunity to buy a car from the other side of the world.
- You can get a deal on a car with a no, or low, reserve. If only a few buyers bid on the car, you could walk out with a steal.
- The buyer has limited options for inspection. Aside from walking around the car and maybe hearing it turn over, the chance of a complete inspection is non-existent. Only after you buy the car will you begin to discover all the surprises in the car you just purchased, and remember there are no “do-overs” at auction.
- The seller and buyer premiums added on to the sale price can tack on 10-25% in fees to the price of the car compared to a private party transaction.
Buying From a Dealer
Just like people, there are good dealers and bad dealers. Most classic car dealers run a consignment shop, where private car sellers leave their cars on the lot for sale. In return for handling the advertising and drumming up a buyer, the dealer receives a percentage of the sale proceeds. Some dealers will buy the car directly from the seller and attempt to flip it for their own profit.
- Good dealers will run their inventory through an inspection before selling it. A reputable dealer will have no problem with you conducting an in-depth inspection of the car along with bringing in an outside inspector to verify that the car they advertise is the one you are buying.
- There’s good negotiating power. The dealer will try to get you to come up on price, but they’ll also try to get the seller to come down on price; they want to get the deal done. This is a negotiation, so do not be afraid to go in 20-25% below the asking price when starting out.
- Dealers are in the business of turning over inventory. They often do not have intimate knowledge of the car’s history outside of what an inspection might garner.
- Dealers are middlemen. This means you indirectly pay a higher price because the seller will be paying a commission of 10-15% of the total sale price.
Buying From a Private Party
This method takes a lot more work than buying from a dealer or auction, but you can get a great deal on a classic car if you put the time into your search.
- You deal directly with the seller. Oftentimes, they will be long-time owners, or at least more intimately know the history of the car. Some of these owners look at selling their car as giving away a child and want it to go to a good home. These collectors are the ones you want to buy from because the car’s condition will generally reflect the seller’s passion.
- You can get a much better price here without the fees of a dealer or auction house acting as a go-between.
- This method takes work. You need to scrounge for sale ads on every car site you can find. Many sellers only list on 1-2 sites and assume that is good enough to market the car. Unless you are searching all the classic car classified sites, you might miss your deal.
- You might be more likely to blindly trust a passionate private seller. Each claim the owner makes about the car should be verified, if possible. If the deal does not pass the smell test, keep moving. No one is going to sell you a rare 1970 G.T.O. Judge for half off market prices just to avoid paying auction or dealer fees. What he is probably selling is a G.T.O. he’s made to look like a Judge in order to outsmart an uneducated buyer.
Use an Inspector Whenever You Can
When you’re buying from a dealer or private seller, and have the possibility of bringing in an inspector to look at the car, it really behooves you to do so.
An inspector acts as a second set of eyes that will make sure the car is exactly as described in the dealer’s sales literature or private owner’s claims. An inspector also functions as an important reality check: reining in your emotions is important to make sure you’re not overcome with the excitement of getting a classic car and end up with an overpriced toy needing more work and money than you’re comfortable with.
To find a good inspector, ask for recommendations at local car clubs or classic car dealers. Another option is calling a restoration shop that specializes in the car you are buying and hire them to do the inspection. Even if the shop can’t do it, they may be able to suggest someone who could.
In addition to hiring an inspector, you will also be well served by taking the car to a mechanic who can make sure it runs correctly too.
A Short Word on Prices
Classic cars come in all prices and conditions. You can pick up a near-mint condition Model T for around $10,000-$15,000. You can’t even find a project Porsche in that price range.
As a broad rule, more money spent upfront will save you gobs of money throughout the life of the car. As you scroll through classic car ads, you will often see statements such as “$75,000 invested, asking $45,000 or best offer.” Is the seller lying? Probably not. Restoration projects, especially those done at professional shops, involve hundreds or thousands of labor hours plus parts. Once the work is done, the owner may drive it around for a couple years, get bored with it, and dump it on the market. This is where you move in to save yourself thousands of dollars.
A collector car usually has no functional or practical value. Just like you wouldn’t depend on a 1982 Commodore 64 for finishing your work report, you’re not going to jump in your 1982 DeLorean DMC-12 to pick up your son from basketball practice in the middle of a snowstorm. In many ways classic cars are valued and priced the same way as other fine art is: condition and demand. Scarcity may add to the allure of a car, but does not always guarantee a high price. Compare this to how your kindergartener’s art project is one-of-a-kind, but won’t be on the block at Sotheby’s next to a Klimt or Dali.
What Car to Buy — A Few Ideas for Starters
Even though something like a Bricklin SV-1 (made in the mid 1970s with a total production of around 3,000) may really be intriguing to you and cause traffic jams as people stare at you at stoplights, there are much better cars for a first-time collector. For your first classic car, like with really any collection, stick with the popular models. Here are the main reasons why the quintessential collector cars are great for first timers:
- Parts availability. Many of these cars can be built out of a catalog. In some cases, you can even order an entire steel body for the car. This is important because you want access to parts that are reasonably priced and readily available.
- Support. There are classic car clubs for all your major cars across the nation. Whether you are a DIY guy or simply want to join a club to talk about your passion for the car, it’s nice to know there are other people in the same position as you. Many of them are more than willing to give advice or even lend a hand.
- Exit. Even though you are in buying mode now, one day you will probably want to sell your car. It is a lot easier to sell a mainstream classic with an established marketplace.
Although there are many cars to choose from, below I’ve listed some examples by price range. This list is intended to give you some starting points based on budget as well as characteristics of in-demand collector cars. The price ranges listed are for cars in nice driver condition; they won’t be perfect, but won’t be in the shop every weekend either:
$10,000-$15,000 — 1962-1980 MGB
Over 500,000 of this English car were made. There are several companies that make parts for this car and there are clubs all over the USA. These cars are generally simple to work on, but are known to sometimes have numerous electrical issues.
$15,000-$25,000 — 1965-1970 Mustang
This car defined a generation with over two million cars made in this time period. They are available in all conditions and dealers love these cars because the market is very established.
$25,000-$50,000 — 1955-1957 Chevy Bel-Air
These iconic cars are decked out in chrome and were made well before placing emission controls on cars was even being considered. Available in two-door, four-door, and convertible options, if you are looking for something with simple mechanics, this is a great place to start.
$40,000-$75,000 — 1963-1967 Chevy Corvette
Only made for five years, this head-turner had power that left almost all cars from its decade in the dust. The ‘Vette’s flat hood and distinct rear end look like no other of its generation.
At this price point, there are many different options available. These cars are often investment grade and in superb condition. Before diving into one of these cars, understand that they require extensive due diligence and thorough market research.
One point to make for this price point: everyone thinks they need an exotic, European sports car to differentiate themselves from the masses. However, any classic car, regardless of price, will attract attention and provide you unlimited enjoyment.
For instance, in 2000 I was driving a 1977 red MGB convertible. I pulled into a gas station to fill up the tank. Immediately behind me, a brand new Ferrari parked to top off too. Within minutes, my $2,500 car had three guys hammering me with questions about it while the driver of the quarter-million-dollar Ferrari was all alone at the gas pump without anyone even glancing in his direction.
Above all, take your time and enjoy the hunt for the car. The time you put into the research will pay you back tenfold once you find the right car for you
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1974: Anne Peace buys GRW 2N new – at a discount; chrome just wasn’t in
‘Argue all you like about the aesthetics of the rubber bumpers fitted to the MGB in 1974, but they were at least something new – on a car that had seen little development since its birth in 1962. Certainly MG dealers saw it that way, and did their best to get people excited about the new black-bumpered cars. But Anne Peace, then a 25-year-old primary school teacher, saw things a bit differently.
Most people these days prefer the classic look of the chrome-bumper cars. Anne was no different then. She found one of the last of those early models in a Midlands MG dealership and fell in love with its unusual purple colour, called Aconite. Better yet, the dealer was keen to clear out old stock pending arrival of the new models. ‘They offered me a good deal,’ remembers Anne, who sold her Triumph Spitfire and took out a bank loan to pay for the MG – but couldn’t stretch to the extra cost of the optional wire wheels she really wanted. ‘I also managed to choose my registration number from the available list.’
GRW led to the nickname ‘Great Racing Woman’, though Anne now winces at the thought. ‘That’s a bit cheesy now. My mum had one as well, HRW – we called it Heated Rear Window.’ GRW took Anne to the Cotswolds and Hampshire on her honeymoon in 1977, but when the first of her three boys arrived the MG had to be moved on. ‘It was sold to pay for carpets and a dishwasher,’ she says sadly.
1977: GRW makes an exotic Mini replacement for £1500
Jon Smith had been thinking of buying an MGB roadster. ‘My wife was not too keen on the wind-in-the-hair experience, and I always thought the styling of the GT was more attractive,’ he says.
‘I was offered the opportunity to drive a GT that a friend had been loaned for a few days and this convinced me that I had to have one. The feel and sound of the car seemed exotic compared to the Minis I was used to, in particular the exhaust sound which had a distinctive note at certain revs. I was also taken with having an overdrive option on third and fourth, which gave the car a very relaxed feel when cruising.’
Jon became the second owner of GRW, and the MGB regularly made the long trip from the Midlands to Cornwall for his summer holiday. On one of these trips it was accompanied by friends in a Triumph TR7, which suffered from an overheating engine. ‘They had to keep the speed down and the heater on full to try to keep the temperature down,’ Jon recalls. ‘It all looked very flash but the reality was that there were two very hot and uncomfortable occupants of the TR7, whereas we felt very comfortable and smug in our trusty MG.’
Jon did most of the maintenance GRW needed himself. He remembers the exhaust system being a regular problem, as it would crack around the centre silencer. Jon fixed that by welding a strengthening plate to the front of the silencer, which also helped to protect the low-slung exhaust from damage. The MGB only let Jon down once, after the fuel gauge sender failed – though he’s quick to take the blame himself. ‘For a short while I had to estimate how much fuel was remaining,’ he says. ‘I got it wrong one night and ran out a few miles from home. I had to walk to a farm to phone my wife to ask her to bring me the full spare jerry-can that I had conveniently left in the garage.’
By now Jon’s young son was outgrowing the carrycot that used to get wedged behind the MGB’s front seats, and a bigger car was needed. Jon moved on to a Ford Escort XR3i (‘one of my less inspired decisions’) and then Porsches. GRW moved on.
1982: a thorough polish brings back the Aconite shine in fine form
‘I was always into cars,’ says Jane Lambert, who bought GRW aged just 19. ‘I lived at home and had two jobs – all my money went into the car.’
It was the distinctive Aconite hue that attracted Jane to GRW. ‘I loved the colour. I’d seen others and they were rusty, but this one was fantastic.’ But GRW was in need of a thorough clean, which Jane tackled with help from her younger brother Mark. ‘When we polished it, it came up like a blackcurrant,’ Jane recalls. It got a new nickname, too: the GRW 2N registration was reinterpreted as Grew Two Inches.
Jane used to make regular trips from Leamington to London to see her husband-to-be Richard Lambert, who remembers waiting often for her to arrive. ‘I used to look out for these dodgy old headlights to come round the corner saying she’d made it,’ he says. Richard spent many hours tinkering with GRW – fitting radio speakers, replacing leaf springs – and it regularly took Richard and Jane away for long weekends.
The catalyst for GRW moving on came in 1985 when Richard met a chap in an Islington pub who owned a down-at-heel Triumph TR6, and made an instant decision to buy it. To make space for it the MGB had to go, and it was sold on to Jane’s sister Lindsey for £2000. It wasn’t a happy time for GRW: it was involved in an accident and sat unloved for many months before being part-exchanged for a Fiesta XR2. Jane, meanwhile, never came to terms with Richard selling her favourite car…
Rarely does any discussion of Bristol cars get very far before the name of LJK Setright pops up. For decades Setright penned erudite articles for Classic Cars – and other, lesser, organs – which more often than not sang the praises of the cars from Filton. He wrote the definitive marque history, the vast two-volume A Private Car in 1998, in which he confessed he was ‘barmy about Bristols’. It was Setright’s unstinting praise over so many years that prompted reader Martin Roberts to put a Bristol on his dream drive list, and we’re about to make that dream come true.
Martin teaches classics at Winchester House School in Brackley. His fleet includes a Rover 3500S, Toyota MR2 Mk1, Citroën 2CV, Chevrolet Corvette ZR1 and a Jaguar E-type Series 1 4.2. ‘I love driving classics because there’s such diversity,’ he says.
- Messerschmitt KR200
- Daimler Majestic Major
- Mini Cooper S
- Ferrari 308GT4
- Bristol 410 or 411
- Morris Minor MM
- Citroën CX Turbo
- Lamborghini Urraco
- Austin 7
Sitting in the wood-and-leather-trimmed cabin of a 411 Series 5, Martin explains why this is the Bristol he most wants to drive. ‘I like the things that are most developed, when there’s all that constant engineering over a long time – and it’s not done down to a cost, it’s done to get it exactly right,’ he says. In some ways the 411 marks the apogee of the V8 Bristol line, gradually developed from the 407 in 1961, combining the effortless elegance of the early cars with a decade and more of development under the aluminium skin.
That perfectionist engineering work is still going on at Bristol, though no longer in Bristol. The new management team at Bristol Cars is as keen to maintain and enhance older models as it is to introduce new ones (a hybrid Bristol is due in 2016). There are plans to remanufacture parts for older cars and re-issue workshop manuals. Bristol bought this 411 last year to act as a development vehicle, and it now sports some discreet modifications, including a Seventies-style Becker radio that cleverly hides a satnav system, and a big brake kit engineered by the Bristol service department at Brentford. At the front the massive ventilated discs are clamped by AP Racing calipers, and to clear the new brakes there are 16-inch alloy wheels carrying modern Avon tyres. A four-speed automatic transmission, as used on later Bristols, is planned.
When Bristol re-acquired this 411 it was painted a bright orange with a brown interior, a colour scheme that would probably look great on a Seventies Lamborghini but is a bit peculiar for a Bristol. It has since been repainted a more sober midnight blue, which suits the 411’s restrained curves and provides an excellent contrast to the chrome exterior details. ‘It doesn’t show its identity easily,’ says Martin, surveying the subtle badging on the Bristol’s nose and tail. ‘You have to get up close. That’s part of the appeal – it’s discreet.’
Inside, NYF 813P has been treated to a full retrim in cream leather with dark blue piping, and the veneered dash has been refinished. The big rocker switches operating electrical accessories are spread across the dash, each one labelled with words rather than symbols, while the white-faced dials are all grouped into a binnacle in front of the driver. ‘The instruments are all lined up exactly where you would want them,’ says Martin. ‘You can see it’s done by an aircraft manufacturer. And all the woodwork puts to shame the glossy tackiness of a lot of modern cars.’
There are two schools of thought on how to start the Chrysler V8s, according to Bristol’s Philip White. ‘The guys in the service department say put your foot down and turn the key. Others say you just flick the key and it should fire immediately.’ Martin gives the V8 some throttle, but it takes a few churns of the starter before the big Chrysler V8 bursts into life. It settles to a tickover so quiet and even that it’s barely noticeable.
Earlier Bristols had Torqueflite automatic transmissions operated by push-buttons, but by the Seventies there was a floor-mounted lever. Martin clicks the selector into Drive and we waft gently into the Berkshire lanes. ‘The power steering is beautifully weighted. It doesn’t feel over-light, but it isn’t heavy at parking speeds at all,’ he says. Conscious of the Bristol’s long wheelbase, he’s taking care to leave plenty of space at the apex of tight turns. ‘It’s the length of it, not the width, you have to be careful with. I love narrow cars,’ he says, pointing out that there’s still plenty of shoulder room inside because the doors are so slim. ‘They’re not full of crash bars and loudspeaker housings and who knows what.’
The Bristol’s engine note is always subdued, not that it would bother us if it was a little more vocal. ‘I just love the sound of V8s,’ says Martin, who owns Rover and Chevrolet examples himself. ‘They’re addictive. Put me next to a stock car or a power boat, I’m happy.’ With a prod of the accelerator he kicks the transmission down into second gear, and the 6.6-litre V8 burbles urgently ahead of us. ‘It doesn’t feel like a muscle car,’ he says. ‘It’s just so British – even with an American engine. It has that sort of quality.’
It also has enough presence to turn heads. Other drivers crane their necks for a better view, and as we thread the Bristol through the country roads around Maidenhead we pass a party of ramblers who smile and wave. Martin is revelling in the 411’s involving nature. ‘It makes you work a little bit – it doesn’t do everything for you. If you’re not having to put a bit of effort in, I think you’re missing out on a lot of the enjoyment. In a modern car you get that feeling that you can’t remember the last few miles you’ve driven. I don’t imagine you would ever have that problem in this, because it makes you think – it makes you drive. And yet it’s very relaxing. Look at this broken road,’ says Martin, indicating the pot-holed tarmac of the B-road we’re on. ‘You don’t notice it. It’s just very sophisticated. This is quality beyond anything I’ve experienced.
‘The thing I most like is the way it makes you feel a part of it – you’re not a person driving a car, you’re actually working in something that’s been designed to fit around you. It’s possible to get a comfortable driving position, the visibility is wonderful, the brakes are fantastic. I’m sure if I drove a modern car of a similar quality straight after it would be much more silent, far less wind noise – and with zero character,’ says Martin. ‘And people would think I were a retired night club owner.’
It’s my turn behind the Bristol’s Moto-Lita steering wheel. It’s easy to get comfortable in the big, manually-adjustable leather armchair, and the straightforward driving position is as good as it gets. Visibility in every direction is excellent thanks to the slim pillars, and from the driver’s seat the curved front wings frame the long bonnet stretching out ahead, making it easy to judge the 411’s width. Despite its length – at nearly 17 feet, the Bristol is a foot longer than a modern Bentley Continental – manoeuvring is easy thanks to light steering and excellent lock.
On the road it’s the steering that is one of the Bristol’s most impressive features. The wheel never fights in your hands, even when the 411’s fat Avons bump over imperfections in the road surface or splash through the pools of standing water that collected when the heavens opened. Yet there’s constant subtle feedback through the rim, reporting what the front tyres are doing, and the big Bristol steers with a delicacy and precision that belies its size. Good balance and relatively light weight help: the 411 has less mass to shift than contemporary rivals like the Jensen Interceptor, Aston Martin V8 and Rolls-Royce Corniche. It will hustle down a twisty road with aplomb, the gearbox locked in second and the V8 using its mountain of mid-range torque to haul the 411 out of the corners. Any excess of tractive effort tends to spin the inside rear wheel rather than set the tail sliding.
Performance, though, is brisk rather than bellicose. The stiffly sprung accelerator needs a hefty push, and then the Bristol doesn’t do anything so uncouth as ‘accelerate’ – it merely surges forward until it reaches cruising velocity, before oozing into the long-striding top gear. Its real forte is sweeping A-roads or along motorways, where it eats up miles in comfort.
‘Series 5s are good cruisers,’ agrees Philip White. ‘They’re very relaxing. Series 1s are more of a driver’s car. They’re slightly under-tyred at the back, and they have the 6.3-litre engine, which is actually a little more plucky than the 6.6. It’s a little more nimble, and you get slightly better miles per gallon.’ Fuel consumption is, by modern standards, epic: 12-14mpg is about the best you can expect day to day. ‘They’re good for motorway mileage,’ says Philip. ‘You’d get 18mpg.’
Martin agrees that the fuel consumption would one of the downsides of Bristol 411 ownership, but can see plenty of compensations. ‘It’s the sort of car you might find yourself rationalising your collection for,’ he says, and you get the impression he might be thinking of doing just that. ‘Not only is it enormously high performance, but it’s also the sort of you car that you could gently cruise around in when you’re not in a screaming hurry. And it doesn’t provoke a nasty reaction,’ Martin enthuses. ‘It shrinks around you and it feels part of you. It is difficult to see how anything else could combine such good taste, luxury, engineering and sheer roadability. I think it’s wonderful. It’s the complete car.’
1975 Bristol 411 Series 5 specifications
Engine Chrysler 6566cc OHV V8, Carter 4-choke carburettor Power 264bhp @ 4800rpm Torque 335lb ft @ 3600rpm Transmission Three-speed Chrysler Torqueflite automatic, rear-wheel drive, limited slip differential Brakes Discs front and rear, servo assistance Steering Recirculating ball with power assistance Suspension Front: double wishbones, coil springs, anti-roll bar, telescopic Koni dampers. Rear: live axle, Watt linkage, longitudinal torsion bars with self-levelling telescopic Koni dampers. Weight 3775lb (1712kg) Performance Top speed 130mph; 0-60mph 10sec Fuel consumption 13-18mpg Cost new £12,587 Value now £100,000
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As we head into the new year and new decade, people have locked up their classics for a good month or two now, keeping them dry-stored or covered up so they don’t get damaged by the blistering weather.
It is a time where people can reflect on the memories they have had with family and friends and ultimately… their classic car. Many people will never dream of letting go of their car, but some lose touch and forget about the fun they had with it.
We have comprised a list of ‘New Year’s Resolutions’ to make sure you classic car lovers keep the candlelight burning for the foreseeable future.
Don’t wait till the sun is out!
Have you just read the above and you are now itching to get your classic out in the cold conditions? Well other enthusiasts may look at you in disbelief whilst pulling their hair out. Not to worry though, there are some precautions you can take in order to turn heads in the winter:
– Replacing worn seals and checking the battery is charged is a good place to start, checking components are clean and repaired if applicable.
– Using tyres with strong tread and with winter capabilities. You will need a strong tread to avoid skidding and to regularly check the quality of rubber on tires over five years old.
– Like in any weather conditions it is paramount to drive at slow speeds at the start of your journey. Start the car and leave idle for a few minutes to heat up then set off at slow speeds until everything is up to temperature. Not doing this will degrade / wear some components much quicker.
– Take precautions such as covering the car in anti-rust formulas and cleaning it straight after your ride with appropriate chemicals.
Short distances are bad!
If you are constantly starting and stopping the engine without giving time for oil to circulate, or get up to temperature then you may start to have a problem in the future. It is like us doing multiple 100m sprints without having any water in between. It’s important to give time for the oil to get up to temperature and spread around the components, then you’re good to go.
Find beautiful new roads.
If you want to reconnect with your car, there is nothing better than getting on a road you have never been on before. The aim? Just take it all in, learn the new road and enjoy the scenery around you and the connection with driving. Many of you will be reading from the UK, in which any part of the countryside has a road that will potentially make you fall in love again. Get your road map out or fire up Google Maps and start looking for those little gems of tarmac.
Start your own small club.
Maybe some of you feel lonely, no one to share this joy with. Well don’t worry as there are plenty of people out there who just need someone else to go on a drive with. Start a group on Facebook, or join one, get connected and see what new memories you can make with your new friends – meet up for a coffee every Sunday, plan trips together and ultimately just have a good old chat about your classics. The roads are your oyster!
Attend classic car shows.
For some it may take someone else to say they “love your car” for you to reignite the infatuation you once had with your car. Maybe showing off your car at a show and speaking to other enthusiasts about their experiences may be just the thing for you. There’s nothing wrong with it, showing off your car and being proud of the condition you have kept it in is a testament to your personality and care you have for your treasured possessions.
We hope this list has made you think twice about keeping your classic locked away. We want people to love these cars as we know the memories and experiences made in these will never be forgotten. These cars are supposed to be driven, the question is, will your new year’s resolution be ‘to fall in love with your classic again’, or will it be something else? Let us know in the comments below!
Rust on classic cars can be a beautiful thing if they’re yard art. However, to a collector who treasures the beauty of the original gleaming paint and chrome, rust can make a grown person sob.
While every enthusiast of classic cars wants a car that has zero rust, it’s rare to find decade’s old vehicles without signs of rust. Most professionals will tell you to run from the purchase of a vehicle with rust. Once a rusty car, always a rusty car.
The key is to know where to look for the prevalent rust and determine how extensive the damage is. Will it be easy to repair?
Surface rust is exactly as it sounds: Rust on the surface of the metal, usually where the paint has worn thin and moisture from the air has gotten to the surface metal. This is the easiest to repair and the least destructive if caught in time. A light sanding down to bare metal and the application of paint primer will normally cure the problem with little detrimental effect to the vehicle.
Pitted metal is rust that has penetrated the body panel to the point of creating pits in the surface, but it has not yet rusted through the metal. While not great to see, this rust is still relatively easy to arrest. Again, sanding the surface or using a wire brush to remove loose rust will get to a more solid surface. Products containing phosphoric acid can be applied to encapsulate the rust. Once dry, the area can be sanded, then primer can be applied to cover the surface.
Rarely are the only rusted-through panels the easily removable body parts. The doors, hood, truck and bolted-on fenders are the easiest to replace if rusted to the point of not saving.
Look for large bubbles in the paint or rust-created holes in the lower door, the lower fenders just behind the wheel, in front fenders and in front of the wheel at the rear fenders. If you see through a steel panel, replace it.
More problematic are rusted-through panels that will need to be cut out with new replacement panels welded in place. Some areas are not as dire as others. Look at the door sills, the top and bottom of the windshield and rear window or the trunk floor. Though these areas may require extensive work, it is possible to do without major panel replacement.
Before you buy a project, check for major structural damage. Think long and hard before buying, as this can signal a major reconstruction. Check the floor under the pedal cluster. If there are small areas where it has rusted through, it may be OK — but if you can see a clear view of the ground below, it may be time to continue looking for a different classic car project. Major structural rust-through can be expensive or even the end of the line for this particular vehicle.
As we point out in all of our columns; nothing can substitute an abundance of research on the vehicle you are considering. The more knowledge and information you have in your arsenal, the better educated you are — and the greater possibility there is that you will come away with a project that will be rewarding and exciting.