Last week’s trip to Europe has me contemplating all sorts of next moves related to the things automotive in my life. Really, there are 2 considerations: upgrade the Accord Hybrid to something modern and fun with all of the bits and baubles that one expects with a new car, or buy something fun as a weekender – ostensibly in place of the recently-acquired Mercedes 300D Turbodiesel – that may even be well-positioned to start appreciating if looked after. Truth be told, as dull as the Honda is, I cannot deny the benefits of using the carpool lanes to commute from Fairfax, VA to Washington, D.C. every day. It easily saves me an hour a day. That leaves me looking at the classics.
My current thinking is that now is the time to buy one of a handful of interesting cars at or near the bottom of their depreciation curve. Certainly, the following list of possibilities is biased to my personal taste, but then, it really didn’t seem appropriate to include the Cadillac Allante or the Buick Reatta. In any case, these are cars at various price points, all available for less than $25K, which in my opinion have some pretty significant chance to appreciate in the not too distant future. They are also, incidentally, cars on my short list of potential purchases, if I don’t convince myself to go and buy the 2010 BMW 335d I have been eyeing for the last several days. But I digress – here goes:
1995-1999 BMW E36 M3
The BMW E36 was the car that really brough BMW Motorsports to the masses, for better or worse. In both 3.0 and 3.2 liter form, the US-spec M3 was good for 240hp and 0-60 times in about 5.5 seconds – not too shabby by any standard. While many were bought by boy racers and abused to within an inch of their lives, there are many M3s out there that were owned by more mature owners who cared after them well into six-digit mileages. For someone looking for a fun track day car, these can offer a lot of bang in the sub-$10K price range. I’d personally avoid the white leather, because it is never, ever clean. Potential owners should also look close at the rear subframes to make sure they haven’t torn out of the sheetmetal.
1980-1993 Ferrari Mondial
The Ferrari Mondial was something of the redheaded stepsister to the more mainstream Magnum P.I. 308-series Ferraris of the late 1970s and the 1980s. Truth is, they bore the same 3.0 and 3.2 liter motors, shared similar Pininfarina styling, and are reportedly somewhat easier to work on. And in some cases the top even goes all the way down. There is one simple factor that has held the Mondial down compared to its contemporaries: the fact that it has a back seat. For me, I have fond memories of Anthony Michael Hall and the other guy driving around in a Mondial Cabriolet in Weird Science with Kelly LeBrock and her breasts riding shotgun. Engine output varied over the Mondial’s production run from 218hp to 300hp, resulting in respectable performance across the range. And you get a dogleg manual transmission and the trademark Ferrari gated shifter. A prancing horse for less than twenty grand? How can you go wrong?
1999-2009 Honda S2000
So what on Earth would possess me to want to add another Honda to the stable? Easy: rear wheel drive, VTEC mated to a manual transmission, drop top, and the cool push-button starter. Sure, I could do without the PlayStation gauge pod, but I’m willing to let that slide in favor of the super-revvy 2 liter DOHC-VTEC motor delivering 240hp. I mean, seriously, this thing redlines at over 8,000 rpm. Talk about screaming! Plus, with all that other stuff you also get Honda reliability, assuming the car hasn’t just been totally thrashed – and those cars seem to be fairly easy to spot. Just look for the matte grey finish, bolted-on bodykit, and coffee-can exhaust. Good ones seem to list in the $12,000 neighborhood.
1971-1989 Mercedes-Benz R107 SL-roadster
Bobby Ewing had one, and so did Wonder Woman and Jonathan Hart. The R107 is the car that conjures in the mind of many a car enthusiast (or not) at the very mention of a Mercedes convertible. They are not sports cars, but they don’t pretend to be. They are convertible grand tourers, and to be honest I like them even better when they have the rear jumpseat for the kiddies. They are ultimately usable, and offer the same built to last forever quality that all of us Car Geeks expect from Mercedes of their vintage. I’d have to add European headlights (and ideally the smaller Euro bumpers as well), but otherwise I’m quite smitten with these classic beauties. Pick of the litter for me would be a Euro-spec 500SL, or possibly a 280SL with the manual transmission. The 560SL is the US-spec model most likely to appreciate, although the Euro 500 beats the 560’s output by about 12hp and is lighter to boot. Neither is a slouch. Very good driver-quality cars are trading for about $12K, excepting ultra low-mileage cars which speculators are trying to get $20K+ for. I think they’re a little bit ahead of themselves, but not by much.
1978-1999 Porsche 911 SC and Carrera
These cars were the last of the classic 911s. Sure, the subsequent 964 and 993 cars were still aircooled, but Porsche went out of their way with plastic add-ons, fancy sliding glass targas, all-wheel drive, and all that kind of stuff with those later cars. When somebody says Porsche 911 to someone approximately my age (+/- 40), these are the cars that come to mind. My ideal 911 is about a 1984-1986 Carrera Targa in a period metallic color, much like the car pictured here. Many extoll the virtues of the later G50 gearbox, and I’ll grant you it is easier to drive, but the old 915 ‘box is part of the 911’s charm for me. I do, however, like the Carrera’s 3.2 liter flat-6, pumping-out 207hp in US-specification, but still good for less than six seconds 0-60. The fact is that if the 1966-1974 911s are any indication, these cars are set to skyrocket in value as more people from generations X and Y jump into the fun collectible car market but don’t want to pay the $50K+ for the nice early cars. These 1980s 911s vary in price, but $15-$25K, depending on spec and condition, should buy a very nice car.
And all of them for less than the price of a new Kia Optima Hybrid. Not that I’ve been comparing… Now, what to do?