Living With A Classic: Part Two
Choosing Your Victim : The Sports Car
If you're here, you've likely decided what kind of project you want to have in your life. Maybe it's a frame up resto. Maybe it's not a project at all, and it's just something you wash every other day, in between joyrides. Better yet, maybe it's something you want to drive, rain or shine, and fix the bruises as they come. None of that matters. What matters most is that you've taken the first proper step in the adoption process, and you're ready to move onto the fun stuff : choosing your car.
Now of course, many of you will be thinking, "I already know what car I want. I don't need this guy to walk me through it". Yeah, I get it. We all have our dream cars. We all 'think' we know what car we want to pull into our garage. Problem is, it rarely happens quite that way. More often than not, your first classic is actually not your dream car, and usually for good reason. Frankly, our heroes sometimes disappoint us, and the cars we love the most are often the most unexpected. We're gonna go through some general considerations here, moreso than specific models, but I won't be shy in making some recommendations. Mind you, any of these recommendations are far from comprehensive. There aren't enough ones and zeros to go on and on about every sports car ever built, so many won't get a mention here, just simmer down.
The other thing to remember, is that if you've got gobs of money burning a hole in your pocket, I'm not really having this conversation with you. Go buy what you want, and get cracking. This is truly for the uninitiated, who have a little bit of money, and want to buy something cool, that they will enjoy, and is in their comfort zone in terms of ownership. The working class stiff. The classic car virgin. Welcome back, y'all.
To Sports Car, Or Not To Sports Car. That Is The Question
Lots of us, when looking at our first classic car, naturally think about sports cars. Maybe you've always wanted a little convertible roadster, or perhaps a hard topped, two seater speed demon. Sports cars are made for fun, no doubt. And owning one does often translate into pure fun. I myself, am absolutely a sports car guy. I adore them in nearly every way.
First things first though. If you've decided you want a sports car, then just accept that it won't be an American car. Full stop. There is really only one proper classic American sports car, and that's the Corvette. Problem is, it's not all that much a sports car, and the good ones are the early ones that cost way too much money for most people. Affordable Corvettes are sort of like clearance fish at the grocers. It's on sale because nobody wanted it in the first place, and now it's just going to make you sick because it's past expiration.
I know there's someone right now, ready to type a comment saying that the Mustang is proper sports car. It's not. Just stop it. The Mustang is fun, but a sports car it is not. There are most certainly some good American sports cars, namely the Shelby Cobra and the Ford GT40. But you ain't buying these, and if you are, stop reading this and go ask your butler to wash your feet for you. But you really want a Mustang, you say? Great, buy a Mustang. But stop calling it a sports car.
American cars were never designed to twist and turn the way that European cars were. That's basically gospel at this point. And don't let the power specs seduce you. The fact is that American cars did often turn out tremendous and muscular power, but their weight and suspensions always slowed them down on anything but a razor straight line. If you've ever gone from an old Mustang (any displacement) into say, a 1980's Porsche 944, you'll know exactly what I mean. It just is what it is. So let's move American muscle into a different category, and let's talk about sports cars, for now.
Topless In Seattle
Convertibles are always a big part of the conversation when talking about sports cars. There is nothing like the romanticized image of cruising along a coastline roadway with the top down, wind in your hair, and sun in your face. Indeed it is one of the great joys in my life as well, and it's likely that I will never live one more day of my life without a convertible in my garage. But, topless life isn't without its drawbacks, and sometimes they're quite reliably significant.
First, be prepared to get wet. There is really no way around it. A classic convertible will always let water in. Without fail, you will at some point be out on the road, and the sky will darken around you, and you'll soon find yourself at the side of the road, struggling to put your top up as you get drenched with rain. Meanwhile, the leather that you carefully conditioned earlier that morning will develop spots, and your windshield will fog up, and as you start driving again, the water will always find its way into the gaps of your 50 year old weatherstripping and spray you in the face. It's bound to happen, so you just have to accept it. It's sort of part of the fun, but it's also incredibly annoying, so be ready for it.
The other thing about convertibles is the infamous 'scuttle shake', or cowl shake. The scuttle is the area just around the front of the doors and across the part of the car that meets the windshield. Convertibles, especially older ones, are infamous for having loads of flexibility in this region, mainly because of the lack of rigidity from having no roof. Some cars are worse than others, too. My Alfa Spider has a ton of scuttle shake, and yeah it's noticeable. My old MGB had it too, albeit less. But even newer Mazda Miatas have it. It's just the nature of the beast. You have to get used to it, because it can be unnerving at first. Lowering tire pressures can help a bit though, and don't worry, the car is not going to fall to bits when it happens.
Naturally, the only proper topless sports cars only have two seats. That's not to say that all two seaters are sports cars, but it's practically a global truth that no true sports car has more than two seats. Of course, some cars are called a 2+2, where the back seats are functionally useless for anything bigger than a Cocker Spaniel or a purse. This is especially true in a convertible. No four seater convertible is a sports car. I say this all as a reminder that if you want to take your family on a joyride, a convertible sports car is not the best choice. You likely know this already, but it's hard to overstate the absolute lack of space in all but a few classic drop tops. I can't tell you how many times I've taken either my MG or my Alfa to the grocery store, only to come out and realize that I've made a grave miscalculation. Once again, the nature of the beast.
One last thing to mention about classic convertibles : they are indeed less safe. We in car culture tend to downplay or outright ignore safety considerations, but it is something to not dismiss out of hand. If you like to drive fast, and take corners like you're the next Niki Lauda, you may eventually find yourself looking into a pile of dirt and mud from upside down. Luckily, most classic drop tops give you loads of fun at slower speeds, because they often make you feel as if you're breaking land speed records at 65 mph. Nonetheless, keep this in mind, if outright speed is your drug. You just may wanna look elsewhere for your fix.
The Gutsy Brit
It seems like every major country has tried to claim the title of greatest sports car, at one point or another. The reality is that Germany, England, Italy, and yes, Japan, have all built outstanding sports cars in the last 60 years, and choosing one will be primarily about preference and budget, as with anything. Driving style, looks, power specs, and reliability are the key areas as usual, and every country brings certain strengths and weaknesses to the table.
Let's start with the iconic British Roadster. It has inspired many a hobbyist, and even many a future car designer. There are many British roadsters, and the Jaguar E-type is certainly the most handsome, but prices have risen into the stratosphere, and frankly, it's probably not a good choice for the virgin car collector, especially if your maintenance budget is less than Jeff Bezos' yearly salary. So that leaves you with a handful of other, more affordable options. You've got Triumph, Austin Healey, Lotus, Sunbeam, and yes, the ever ubiquitous and plentifully outstanding granddaddy of all British roadsters, the MG.
The MGB is probably one of the most recognized of all the classic sports cars. This is for good reason. It's small, gutsy, handsome and cute, and while it has a reputation for typically British unreliability, it is rather easy to fix. Not to mention, the parts and support aftermarket for the MG is rivaled only by the American classics, if not even better. The fact is, the MGB is truly one of the best choices for a first classic sports car, even if its 1.8 litre 4 cylinder engine is a little, shall we say, primitive.
Driving an MGB is most certainly memorable. They're known for being gutsy cars, and mind you, that doesn't mean powerful. But, gutsy describes it quite well. Yes, you can drive highway speeds, and no, it won't go from 0-60 in record time. But that isn't always the point. Shifting is not soulful like an Italian car, or elegant and precise like a German car. But it's sort of raw and visceral. The best part is that you can find the MGB as a convertible or hardtop (GT). The GT is only slightly slower, but that's offset by its good looks and increased cowl rigidity. No matter which one you choose, rest assured that you're choosing a car that is pure fun, and cheap, to boot.
The other British roadster that deserves a mention is the Triumph TR6. You'll recognize it by its slightly more rakish profile, and more traditionally sporty stance. The TR6 has more power than the MGB, sporting a 2.5 litre straight six, at 125-150bhp. And while it shares some of the driving traits of its rival, there's little question that it offers a little more of the 'sport', with its synchromesh gearbox and more common overdrive. Once again, parts supply is always plentiful, and the network of support for Triumph lovers is nearly as robust as the MG. Electrics are the achilles heel of these, just as in the MG, or any other British car from the period. But a Triumph will give you all of the raw energy of the MG and more, at a price only a bit higher, which is a good feeling.
There are certainly other very good British roadsters. The Midget, the Sprite, the Spitfire, TR4, TR7, the Lotus Elan. They're all great fun, and they all look good from certain angles. There is no dearth of information and very excellent knowledge to be dished out elsewhere on these cars, so I won't waste space here. But the reality is that the MGB and the TR6 became icons for a reason. Part of that is the sheer numbers that were built, but that's because they were great fun to drive, and people wanted to buy them. And yep, they still do.
The Hot-Headed Italian
Pardon the stereotype, but there is no doubt to any car lover, that Italians have always designed their cars with a temper. Much like every true Italian I've ever known, they're sexy, moody, romantic, and fashionable all at once. I've driven a few Italian cars in my time, and though I even own one, I still am perpetually confused and enamored by them. They are a mystery, through and through.
The truth is, there aren't really that many affordable classic Italian sports cars. Not good ones, anyway. Sadly, the prices of vintage Ferrari, Maserati, and Lambo marques are well beyond the means of most, and relegated to wall-porn status. And while you can certainly find some affordable examples of the 'ugly ducklings' from these makers, it's rarely advisable for a first time classic buyer, for more reasons than I could count in a Swiss bank account. But there a few marques that are still affordable, and most excellent to look at and drive. I'm talking mostly about Alfa Romeo and Fiat. Both of these companies have built excellent sports cars, and many of them are still quite affordable for the average Jane and John.
Being an Alfa Spider owner myself, my first inclination is always to serve up copious love and adoration for one of my own children. And it's not a bad thing for me to mention. The Pininfarina designed Spider is one of the all time great Italian sports cars. More powerful than its British ancestor, and far more elegant to drive and experience, the Alfa Spider was exported to the US in healthy numbers, so the availability and supply has kept prices in relative check. Aftermarket support is also good, albeit not as strong as the British network. And then there are the looks, which frankly, take the cake, for me. They look outstanding. Even the later models with the silly black duck tail are good looking. The true gem is of course, the early 'boattail' Duettos, which push the definition of affordable a bit more than the Series 2 spiders, which are undoubtedly the best value in the lot. But truly, any good Alfa Spider will give you a driving experience like no other, and one that you likely won't tire of for many years, I assure you.
Similarly, Alfa's GTV 2000/1750 coupe, designed by Bertone, is a stunningly good classic sports car, and it shares much of the same guts as its Spider brethren. The superb Alfa dual overhead cam engine, disc brakes all around, and a well designed cockpit all make it an irresistible place to spend many an afternoon. Prices run a bit higher on these, simply because less of them exist. But if you find one in good repair, you'd be foolish not to consider it. At least drive the damn thing.
Fiat too, made some fun sports cars, and the first one to get mentioned is nearly always the 124. The Fiat 124 can be found as both a convertible (124 Spider) and a coupe (124 Sport Coupe). Also designed by Pininfarina, the Fiat never made as many horses as the Alfa engine, but it was a damn fine looking car, and just as fun to drive. Though spartan in its offerings, the interior always had a little extra class, with its wood paneling and beautiful gauges. And just as with the Alfa, the manual convertible top is probably the very best ever made. You can easily pull the top up whilst sitting in the driver's seat, not having to struggle as you would with an MG or a Triumph. It's easy to understate how nice this is.
As with anything, there are bound to be other excellent Italian sports cars that are still affordable. There is the very excellent Lancia Fulvia, the more muscular and Alfa Montreal, even the later 80's hatchbacks like the Alfa GTV6 or the Lancia Delta Integrale. All of these cars are worthy of consideration, if you're prepared to spend more time looking, and more time sourcing parts. But I beg you, please stop looking at that $30, 000 Ferrari Mondial. It's a Ferrari, yes. But it will break your spirit, and it probably won't be worth it. There really is a reason that it's within your budget. Just as with the British icons, there are reasons to consider the more commonly available candidates. You did mention you wanna be able to drive the thing, yes?
The Disciplined German
Germans aren't exactly known for their humour, or their penchant for dramatic pantomime. But they are most definitely known for the attention to precision detail. German cars are no exception. Germany has churned out more reliably brilliant cars than probably any other nation, and they continue to this day. Porsche, BMW, Audi, Volkswagen, and even Mercedes have all built superb sports cars, but because of myriad reasons, most importantly, post-WWII rebuilding, the earliest examples of these cars tend to be too out of reach for mere middle class mortals. That being said, I'll focus on the more attainable late 70's through mid 80's cars here, as they represent excellent value and sublime engineering, as well as fun.
You can't talk about German sports cars without mentioning the Porsche 911. Though there are affordable versions and years of the 911, the truly breathtaking ones are very expensive and quite daunting for the uninitiated. There plenty of resources to exhaust if you just have to have a 911, and yeah some of them are indeed plentiful. But be aware that this car is a beast. In every incarnation, the 911 does things that almost no other car can or should do. The rear engine makes it handle much differently than most anything you've ever driven, and it's also a bit of a faff to work on, because of the size of the engine bay, and the tight layout of the powerplant. All of that strife though, comes with the reward of pinpoint steering, precision shifting, and visceral flat 6 power, all consistent hallmarks of every 911 ever made.
But, one of my real favorites out of Deutschland, is the Porsche 944. I just cannot give enough love to this car, in all its variants. Even the base model, with its humble 4 cylinder making about 150-175bhp, is outstanding to drive. I wouldn't call it 'fun' per se, but I can tell you that the feeling has never left me, to the point that I still daily search for a proper, clean 944 to adopt. The Turbo is certainly more fun, but the lag is a bummer to be sure. The real gem of the 944 lineup is the S2, made from 1989-1991. It's naturally aspirated, and puts down about 208bhp. As you'd expect from a German car, the shifting is brilliant and pinpoint, and the handling is superb. It just doesn't fail to put a smile on your face. Some people call it a 'poor man's Porsche', but those are only people who have never owned one.
Another excellent German choice is the BMW 3 series. Always a candidate for a good starter collector car, BMW's 3 series has a long and historied lineup. The first generation E21 and the second gen E30 cars are in plentiful supply, and have a huge following of wingnuts, dedicated to preserving them until the next ice age. The M3 easily gets top billing here, as it cranked out more power, and as with all BMW M versions, was fitted to be a properly thrilling performer. These are naturally more expensive, but worth looking for. The slogan 'ultimate driving machine' isn't just hyperbolic marketing. A properly setup Bimmer is about as rewarding as driving gets.
Talk of sporty Germans can't be complete without mentioning the Volkswagen Golf GTI. The VW is an icon because it revolutionized and ushered in a still very-much-alive class of cars, affectionately known as the 'hot hatchback'. The Golf also became synonymous with tuner culture, and as a result, it has a thriving aftermarket and has enjoyed a robust support community for decades. I've never been a big hatchback guy, but I know from driving them that they are pure fun. They're also super affordable, and excellent candidates for a first sports car.
I'd also be remiss not to mention the Audi Quattro, which firmly established itself long ago as a top tier rally performer. I've never driven one, and know very little of them, but something tells me it should be mentioned. Like the Golf, the Audi enjoys a wide network of aftermarket and repair support, and though they tend to run a bit higher in the price strata, they're still quite attainable to most working stiffs.
It's useful to remember that parts for many of these German classics are climbing in price, and often decreasing in abundance. Some of these cars I've mentioned have robust supply chains to be sure, but others are getting more difficult. Another thing to remember is that working on German cars is often not a straightforward proposition. The Germans have a long heritage of advancing technology in brilliant and cunning ways, which can often make them more reliable and bulletproof. But when they do fail - and they do - be prepared to undergo a procedure that will test every recipe in your cookbook. You may just want to find a shop closeby that knows these cars well, as a backup plan. Chances are, you'll need it at some point.
The Steadfast Japanese
I always hear people talking poorly of Japanese sports cars. Usually, it's because they're 'boring' and 'predictable'. Sometimes it's because they lack that elusive 'soul' and character of their Euro counterparts. I think that's all rubbish. Anyone who says this has probably never driven a cherry Datsun 240z, or an early Toyota Celica. They're amazing fun, and they go like 'stabbed rats', to borrow a James May-ism. Many of the great Japanese sports cars came long after the period I'm focusing on in this series, but there are a couple early classics that are deserving of attention. Let's take a gander...
Datsun is probably the undisputed champion of the vintage Japanese sports car. Their early roadsters are fun little drivers, but the now legendary 240z is not only a damn good looking car, but a great driver, to boot. It completely changed the optics of Japanese car manufacturing around the world, and it competed directly with many of the other cars I've talked about here. The rev-happy overhead cam engine, independent rear suspension, and then-novel disc brakes all around, made it a performer, not just a car. Like other cars imported into the US, mid to late 70's emissions standards compromised the excellent power of the early versions, and the 240z eventually gave way to the 260z, 280x, and eventually the 300z. All of these have their merits, but there are few cars as fun to drive and nice to look at as the early 240z.
Instead of wasting space and time talking about other, harder to find Japanese classics, I think it's best for me to mention the Mazda MX5, otherwise known as the Miata. No self respecting sports car enthusiast can ignore the elephant in the room, really. The Miata is in fact, the best selling convertible sports car of all time. This is no small feat, and incredibly, Mazda has managed to continually improve the unrivaled Miata with every generation. It was first introduced in 1989, so it does push the limits of the term 'classic', but for our purposes, I think it's worthwhile to consider the Miata a classic. My knowledge of them is limited generally, but having driven a couple, all I can say is that if you just want something that you can have fun in, and not spend a fortune on, the Miata may well be your huckleberry. No, it's not going to turn heads at a car show, or even the local coffee shop. No, you don't light up with that same sense of pride when someone asks what you drive. And nope, you probably won't be the only person on your block to have one. But chances are, you'll be driving while your buddy is trying to fix his overheating MGB, and you'll be doing it with way more power and comfort. That's often reward enough, isn't it?
The Long And Short Of it
The truth is, there are more sports cars around than you could shake a very large stick at. Options are seemingly endless, and as I've said a number of times, this series is by no means comprehensive. But I like sports cars. No, I LOVE them. I refuse to be without a sports car in my life, all other needs be damned. They're just too much fun. And though I also love that deep and gurgling power of an American muscle car, or the satisfying grunt of a European grand tourer, nothing compares to the way a nimble and nippy little roadster takes you through a road.
Even if you're fairly certain you want a bigger and more powerful car, go drive a classic sports car, at least once. You'll be doing yourself a huge favor because you'll either prove that you really do want that big lumbering American V8, or perhaps it changes your mind. After all, you're spending your own hard earned money on something that you really should enjoy, and not just sit around unloved because you didn't take your time.
Whatever makes you smile, I say. Whatever makes you smile.