Living With A Classic : Part Four
Choosing Your Victim - The Cruiser & The GT
When it comes right down to it, the most popular choice of car collectors the world over, might just be the big, smooth, and the comfortable. Europeans call them GT cars. We Americans say cruiser. They're most often cars that were built for elite performance, especially in Europe. But in America, they were built to haul you for a long time, in good comfort and at least modest luxury. In fact, my last piece about muscle cars included some classics that would likely be called cruisers, if one was being pedantic.
I love cruisers and GTs. Much as I prefer sports cars, I do love being able to take a good long cruise without the nervous energy of my little sporty, and with some modicum of luxury. I like being able to visit the grocery store without rationing myself due to space, and I do quite love being able to listen to the stereo from time to time, without engine and wind noise turning Beethoven into Megadeth. I like being able to have a conversation with my wife, without talking louder than a bartender at midnight. It's these little things in life.
This category of cars is truly massive, which makes discussion a bit of a challenge, really. In thinking about what to write here, I've decided that I'm going to talk about the two major types of cruiser. The performance car vs the lazy Sunday car. There may be better ways to break them down, but bear with me.
The Performance GT
In European automotive parlance, GT means 'Grand Tourer'. Strictly speaking, a GT car needs to be primarily about performance, which always separated them from their American counterparts, although America made some important contributions to the category over time. A GT is typically considered the ultimate in luxury motoring, on both sides of the pond, and the category itself probably includes some of the most valuable cars ever built.
Of course, I'm not going to spend time talking about the classic Aston Martins or Ferraris. That's just useless. None of us will own one, so why bother? Not to mention, there are volumes dedicated to these artworks, that will do far more justice than I could dream. No - as usual, I will focus on some of those more affordable gems of the GT world. Cars that you can buy tomorrow and enjoy the hell out of, without hocking everything you own.
Porsche is the first that comes to mind, namely the 928. You'll recognize it perhaps from the movie 'Risky Business', with its sloped rear and exposed bug-eye headlights. A big and sexy car that for a short while, held the title of 'fastest naturally aspirated road car in the world'. It went from 0-60 in 5.6 seconds, and made a thrilling 350bhp in its GTS form. Even the base model 1985 928 made almost 300bhp, and for the time, that was a damn good spec, especially in a car that weighed in at less than 3500 pounds.
A 928 today is valued far shy of its 911 brethren. For a variety of reasons, these cars tend to get short shrift in today's classic car market. They're not easy to work on, and parts are very expensive. They were also bought originally by well heeled drivers, who tended to sell them once they got a little long in the tooth, and the next owner usually had nowhere near the means to capably maintain them. So they got worn down and neglected over time, and for any German performance car, that's not a good recipe. Because of the market for them, you can often find a gem in the bunch, and for it, you're rewarded with a car that is not only a sexy machine, but the ultimate in performance luxury. The manual 5 speed isn't known for being the best thing Porsche ever designed, but if you don't mind an automatic, you'll have the pick of the litter. Best part is, these cars are only increasing in value as people get reacquainted with how incredibly lovely they are to drive.
Another German contribution to the GT was the BMW 635csi. A timelessly handsome design, the lovingly nicknamed 'shark nose' of the 635 became a true 80's icon. Prices do reflect this to a degree, as the best examples regularly top $20k. But you can still find reasonably priced cars that just need a bit of love here and there. And the love is worth every second, because these cars define the BMW driving experience. Besting 220bhp, the 635 is a nimble but powerful car, not known for breakneck speed, but rather effortless power and handling.
One of my personal favorites in this group, is the Jaguar XJS. Built as a replacement to the now legendary E-type, the XJS never quite got the love of its predecessor. It had big shoes to fill, and as a result, values have wallowed for now almost two decades. But they're on the rise now as people get hip to this sexy beast. Yes, you'll deal with electrical issues, as is the commonality of pretty much any classic Brit. And the big fluttering V12 may give you some headaches along the way, but a crisp and well sorted XJS drives like a dream, and even the straight six cylinder variants crank out about 238bhp, which is nothing to sneeze at. These cars are fast becoming classics now, with enough time and space to appreciate that they're not an E-type, but a whole other thing, altogether.
You'll notice that there's nothing American in these paragraphs above. That's not a slight on American cars, it's just that most American cars that had the performance to be considered a true GT car ended up being called muscle cars. However, there are a few notable exceptions to this, at least in my eyes. The Chevy Impala, though a full sized car with big everything, could be loosly called a GT. Classic Impalas had huge powerplants and cranked out tons of power, and were built with a bit more 'luxury' than their Chevelle and Nova counterparts. And even though I called it a muscle car in my last segment, the Buick Riviera remains one of the all time great American examples of luxury and power, combined. Hugely powerful and insanely comfortable, the Riviera may not have been built to snake around a mountain circuit, but it sure took you down a straight line in style.
There are some others, too. The classic Mercedes SLC is a great example of a car that can almost be called a GT. Though heavy, they had fantastic powerplants, looked stunningly good, and surrounded the driver in total luxury. Pontiac's LeMans was also an excellent example of American GT style. Big power, and big comfort combined to make it so good, they developed it into the now legendary muscle car, the GTO.
The truth is, like any classification of car, we're bound to have disagreements about what constitutes a proper GT, especially if you're reading this across the pond. That's all good and well. What matters is that the car has power and luxury. That's really it, to me. And that leads us to the next group of motors.
The Lazy Sunday
I don't know the full statistics on this, but I would guess that the majority of classic cars currently being bought in the US, are just humble drivers, with no specific performance pedigree or heritage. Maybe they've been slightly upgraded over the years, but with prices for the true thoroughbreds having gone through the roof many times over, newly initiated classic car hobbyists are forced to look to more modest cars to begin their journey. Largely gone are the days where you stumbled across a nearly untouched barn find, in need of only refreshing and new fluids. These days, American adverts are littered with Dodge Coronets, Lincoln Continentals, Pontiac Bonnevilles, and a slew of other forgotten cruisers from the era of the muscle car wars. Then there are the loads of 7-series BMWs, Mercedes SL convertibles, Jaguar XJ8s. These cars were too big to be called sports cars, and lacked any of the required performance to be called a GT. Nonetheless, they sometimes represent a worthwhile investment to the right buyer, and they can be loads of fun to restore and to drive. Not to mention, they still look way cooler than most contemporary cars.
My favorites of this type of car, are the Mercedes SL and the BMW 7 series. Both of these represent not only handsome design, but a superb driving experience for a lazy weekend cruise. No, they won't knock your socks off when you take off from a stop light, and they won't wow your friends when you pop the bonnet. But doesn't that sometimes get boring? Actually, it doesn't, but that's beside the point. These cars were built for the well-to-do family driver, and even 30-40 years on, they still look the part.
The Euro cruiser will naturally represent a maintenance challenge to the weekend spanner, but with some decent skills and some patience, most issues can be sorted without breaking the bank. The biggest problem will be parts availability. Mercedes is notably better than BMW in this regard, but you'll find no shortage of help on internet forums and auction sites, for some of the harder to find bits. Just be patient and thorough.
The American cruiser is a common sight in most towns. Cars that were once unnoticed are now the talk of any parking lot, as the years become more kind to some of the forgotten Detroit relics. Even the most boring Plymouth will garner looks and exuberant waves from onlookers these days. That's the fun stuff, really. That's the sort of thing that keeps this whole ball rolling, and ensures that these dinosaurs will continue to live on.
The Lincoln Continental is always at the top of my list when it comes to the American cruiser. Not much beats the handsome and stately lines of a black mid 60's, suicide door Continental. They were big and tough, without having to prove anything. They drive like boats, and they handle like spaghetti on a spoon, but damn it, if that's not fun sometimes. Continentals are certainly not cheap cars anymore, but the later Mark III and IV variants are still very affordable, and though maybe not as sexy as the Mark II, still represent the same aesthetic inclination: power and class.
Cadillacs too, are deeply embedded into American cruiser culture. The Cadillac Eldorado is an iconic American lump, as is the Coupe deVille. Both somehow synonymous with either Northeast golf club elites, or Texas oil tycoons, these cars just exude wealth and entitlement. It's part of their charm, and they're so very American, in the way that a double-decker cheeseburger is.
Then there are the true forgotten heroes. These are the cars that were originally made for normal working class folks, but have found a resurrection in the hands of the now working class car collector. From the Caprice to the Catalina, you can find cars like these in your local adverts and Facebook Marketplace, all day long and for reasonable money. Parts are sometimes an issue, and you have to constantly remind yourself that you'll probably never extract your investment if you sell it, but as I've said a number of times, that's not always the point.
Staying the Course
A lot of the cars I mention here are not for the weak. Because they're either incredibly complex machines from a time of transitional innovation, or they were never regarded highly enough to build any kind of aftermarket support network around, these cars can often be more trouble than they're worth. That's a shame, because many of them are incredible cars, just in need of a little attention and respect. Skillful and resourceful collectors won't be scared off by them, and neither will those who can afford to have someone else fix the problem. That's how these cars end up in a category that is all their own. As a collector, you do need to balance the pros and cons realistically, and understand exactly what kind of child you're adopting. It may be the difference between enjoying it, or cursing its existence.