The Cars That Keep Me Coming Back for More
Among regular TTS readers and other folks who know me well, it’s no secret that in my 33+ years of driving, I’ve bought and sold a LOT of cars. The last time I attempted to compile a comprehensive list, the count was somewhere around 130. Mind you, I’ve never (formally) had a dealer’s license nor has this hobby provided me any meaningful profit. All told, I figure I’m about even – which really isn’t bad when you consider that automobiles are generally considered depreciating assets.
Although I’ve bought (and sold) a wide range of cars, there are a handful of models that seem to draw me back in: those cars that I’ve had great experiences with, that occupy a particular place in my heart for whatever nostalgic reason, or the ones where I think “if I just got a slightly better one, it’d be perfect.” Perhaps you can relate?
1. Mercedes-Benz W210
I was motivated to write this having brought home my second Mercedes-Benz E55 AMG – my fourth 210-chassis Mercedes (the others being a 1997 E300 Diesel and a 2001 E320 4Matic wagon). Sure, I know these are DaimlerChrysler-era cars, but to me they are the last of the old-school E-Class, with upright, almost boxy styling, prominent grille with hood star, and perhaps most importantly the window switches are located in the center console – where the obviously belong – instead of on the door. The M113 5.4 liter V8 is one of the more bulletproof Mercedes motors in recent memory, with common fail points for well-maintained cars largely limited to crank position sensors and valve cover gaskets. The bigger issue with W210s in general is rust. If you find a rust-free one (like it appears I have with the Black E55 – fingers crossed) just make sure you keep it that way. If you live in the rust belt and drive in the winter, clean the underside regularly! Ask me how I know. The reason we replaced the 210 wagon was rust. Lots of it. In really weird places. Parts availability for 210s is excellent, and they handle great – if you like that classic, heavy German feel.
The 210 is still a modern, good looking car when when it’s not rusty and the headlights are not faded and yellowed!
2. Alfa Romeo Spider
We all remember fondly our first
love car, and mine was a 1977 Alfa Spider (the one in the obviously lower res photos below). Alfa Spiders are a little different but pedigreed, and high school me really liked that. I remember a classmate asking me “is that a Ferrari or something?” to which I simply responded “Yeah.” I mean, it was definitely an or something. The Spider’s peppy little DOHC 2.0 liter inline-4 won’t win any drag races (for that see E55 AMG above), but has more than enough get up and go. My original BRG spider rusted past the point of no return, and I sold it in 1990 to a guy in Hartford who was going to use some of the cool Euro stuff like headlight covers, mirrors, headlights, and so on in a project Spider he had going. I got $750 and a ride back to campus in a yellow 308GTSi.
Fast forward 18 years and I bought a nearly identical green 1978 spider. It had less than 20K original miles, but was just so clean. That car taught me the that low miles does not automatically equate to like new. The Spica fuel injection that had been a paragon of reliability (I kid you not!) in the ’77 was a train wreck in the ’78, ultimately making me decide to replace it with dual Webers. Beyond that, every single piece of rubber on the car was brittle or degraded. Lesson learned.
Not to be defeated, a few years later I bought a series 3 (read: big spoiler on the back) Spider with Bosch fuel injection. While I prefer the more classic styling of the Series 2 spiders like both of my green ones, the S3 was mechanically a happier car. It also had air conditioning, for what that was worth. I also like S2 and early S3 “two pod” dash better than the later S3 and S4 monopod, but the driving experience is just as good in all of them. I regret selling the red S3, but I (mistakenly) thought we were getting a car that made it redundant. Always wait until the car is in your driveway before making major decisions! What I can say with reasonable certainty is that since Alfa Spiders are still one of the best kept secrets in the classic sports car world, I’ll have another one. Or more.
3. Mercedes-Benz W123
The first Mercedes-Benz I ever knew personally was a 123-chassis 1982 280TE wagon purchased new as a company car by my parents when we lived in Hong Kong. It was Thistle Green with olive green MB-Tex interior. If I think hard I can still smell that car vividly – in a good way. While the Alfa was my first car, that 280TE was my first Mercedes experience – even if I only drove it once and <ahem> not very successfully at that. I remember when we went for the original test drive at Zung Fu’s Causeway Bay showroom in a silver on black wagon. I loved the styling all around, but particularly the sculpted dash with its round vents. My Dad the Ph.D mechanical engineer was a fan of Mercedes as the very best of automotive engineering. As a kid growing up in Hong Kong’s status-oriented society, I liked the little star on the front and only grew to appreciate the cars as engineering marvels as I matured.
I bought my own first W123 in about 2000, the second Mercedes I bought behind a W124 300E 2.6. It was a 1984 300D Turbodiesel in Light (German taxicab) Ivory with palomino MB-Tex interior and I felt immediately at home. That car was my daily driver for about three years and apart from a little bit of difficulty starting on the coldest of days never let me down. I’d bonded with that car, even (properly) installing OEM rear headrests in it just because I liked the look. Never should have sold it, and have bought a number of subsequent 123s in an effort to have that great experience again. I’ve gotten close, but.. Still, among the 280E, 240Ds, 300Ds, and 300CD that I’ve had (about 12 by my calculations), only the rusty 280E was a letdown.
I would daily drive a W123 300D Turbodiesel with the OM617 inline-5 again any day of the week and twice on Sunday. Chances are one of these days I will. I just need to do it before prices for decent ones get even stupider than they are now.
3. Mazda MX-5 Miata
A Black 1994 Mazda Miata was the first car my wife and I ever purchased together. It would be our wedding car and we drove it for about two years before deciding that with as many people seemed to be coming to visit us newlyweds in a our new Washington, D.C. home we needed a more practical car. I’d lusted after Miatas from the first one I saw at the NY International Auto Show the year they were released and shortly thereafter at Adzam Motors (see what they did there) in Mount Kisco, NY. They were billed as the best of classic British and Italian roadsters without the drama. I particularly liked the 1991-only British Racing Green limited edition, probably because it reminded me of my Alfa (see above).
The Black Miata went to my in-laws, who drove it seasonally and even kept it in a carpeted garage until 2017 when it was offered back to us. It’s in need of some mechanical TLC but remains cosmetically excellent. It’s at a friend’s shop in Marlborough, CT awaiting a time when his regular workload lightens up, and I’m doing my best to be patient but very much look forward to the day we get it back.
In the intervening years since we first sold the black car to my in-laws and today, I think we’ve owned four others. I did finally get my BRG, too, but short attention span got the better of me once I’d put on the cool Chaparral minilite-style wheels, Racing Beat intake, and Crazy Red horns, so it’s living somewhere down south last I heard. Miatas really are the answer to so many automotive questions, as they say, and I don’t know I’ve ever owned or drive a car that was more fun to toss around the twisty roads where I live. You can drive a Miata to its limits and feel utterly satisfied at the end of the day. Damn, I want my Miata back.
4. Mercedes W126
If the W123 was the first Mercedes I ever knew, the W126 was the first one I ever officially drove. In fact, I took my driver’s test in a 1981 300SD. A couple of years after our family moved back to the States – in 1986 – my folks were offered the opportunity to buy this low-mileage, garage kept W126 300SD in Champagne with Brazil brown leather. You see, my cousin was housesitting for the estate of Benny Goodman, the King of Swing, who lived in North Stamford, CT (as we did) and attended the same church as my Aunt and Uncle. My cousin put my Dad in touch with the Estate lawyer, we went and looked at the car, and after several Manhattan happy hour cocktails one night, Dad called me and told me to pretend I was him (not together an uncommon occurrence for more mundane things like confirming an airline reservation), call the lawyer, and tell him we’d buy the car. I never totally forgave him for trading it it on a Lexus LS400 some 8 years later, although older me understands it better. Someone somewhere is driving Benny Goodman’s car and doesn’t know it – because short of a catastrophic accident there is no reason a W126 300SD isn’t still on the road!
I’ve told the story of my first exposure to the W126: there was a corner of the Hong Kong showroom with a turntable where they’d display various top end Mercedes. I rode by it twice a week on the old HK trams between my after school bowling class and my parents’ office. One day it was the familiar W116 450SEL, and the next it was a glorious black 500SEL. It was sleek, modern, and had such presence. That was fall, 1980. Fast forward 6 years, and I was ecstatic that my folks had bought one. A year later I could drive it on my own. It was all the better that Dad had a company car that he drove to work every day, so many days I had the (very Fairfield County, CT) choice of driving the Alfa or the Mercedes to school. First world problems.
I think I’ve owned more 126-chassis Mercedes than probably any other series. At least five have been 300SDs, three or four 560SELs, two 300SEs, a couple of 420SELs, a 300SDL, two 560SECs, and, well, those are just the ones I can remember. These cars have presences, and they are so well designed and built. Moreover, I’m not afraid to wrench on them myself. I am particularly fond of the short-wheelbase cars, and of those the 1st generation 300SD and 2nd generation 300SE are tied for my favorites. I keep thinking about importing a 500SE from Europe, since we never got them here. I do like the long wheelbase V8s – the 560SELs in particular – but they are more complex and I just don’t like the LWB proportions as much. If I were chauffeur-driven, I’d probably feel differently. I still love a good 126, and the one I sold right before COVID-19 became a thing won’t be last that I buy – or sell.
5. Porsche 986 Boxster
I think every European car enthusiast dreams of owning a Porsche at some point or another. I’d always admired the air-cooled 911s of my formative years, and still fondly recall the first time I ever rode in one – when my pediatrician drove 12 year-old me to the hospital one afternoon for an x-ray. Nothing was broken, but I got the ride. My mother still questions my motives there… Anyways…
I bought my first Boxster – the yellow 2000 2.7 above – in 2013 a few months after my Dad passed away. Maybe I was feeling very mortal, maybe it was mid-life crisis, or maybe I was just doing it because 986s were (and still are ) dirt cheap for what you get. It was probably all three.
In s strange way that I can’t put my finger on, on the outside 986s remind me a little of Karmann Ghias. I think it’s something to do with the bulbous curves of the bodywork. The Boxster is clearly more sports car than the Ghia, but it is what it is. On the inside it’s the same as sitting in a 996 911 apart from the smaller gauge cluster. And although the styling is a little dated by modern standards, it’s a clean design that I think looks good so long as it hasn’t been abused.
I followed-up the first Boxster with the 2000 Boxster S you can see below – in the same Speed Yellow on black, except this one had some factory yellow accents inside, a 997 shift mechanism rowing six gears instead of five, heated seats (yay!), and the significantly more powerful 3.2 liter flat six.
In terms of dollars x fun, I don’t think there is a car out there today that beats the 986 in either base or S form. They are better balanced than contemporary 911s with the engine in the middle as opposed to hanging out back, and handle as well as just about anything on the road today. In hindsight, I actually preferred the 2.7 base model to the 3.2, because I felt like I could use more of it. It seemed happier to rev, even if it was slower by a decent margin. I search pretty regularly for good 986s. I remain a fan of these cars in Speed Yellow., but wouldn’t mind a nice early 2.5 in the original show car’s silver on red or a 2004 550 edition in GT Silver over brown leather.
6. Mercedes W124
Are you sensing a trend here? Surprise! I like RAD-era/youngtimer Mercedes Sedans from the late 70s through the early/mid 2000s. I blame my parents. I blame period car magazines and writers like David E. Davis, Jr.. I blame Stu Hammel. I blame Dean Laumbach. Really, I have nobody to blame but myself. But automotively speaking, is it such a bad addiction?
The W124 sedans and subsequent wagon and coupe models were somewhat of an amalgamation of everything that was good about the W123 and W126 rolled into one car. They were right-sized for the 80s executive, and even the basic 300E which was the original entry-level W124 here in the U.S. had more oomph than the majority of cars on the road. Later 24-valve inline sixes and V8s just made them that much better. These and the W140s were really the last of the overengineered hewn-from-solid Mercedes sedans.
The most interesting of the 124 family has to be the 500E/E500 develped and produced in partnership with Porsche – the only time the two companies collaborated in such a way. These are also the W124s that are experiencing the biggest uptick in value. Having owned two 500Es, I can tell you it’s not all hype. While my new E55 may be faster, it’s not quite as special. But that’s also why I paid about a quarter what a 500E in comparable condition would have cost.
As I mentioned earlier, the first Mercedes I ever bought myself was a 300E 2.6 – the lowest spec W124 we received on these shores. it’s the taupe car in the gallery above pictured in the snow. We bought that car after having had a C220 service loaner when having an Audi repaired and deciding we could do better. W124s do have some trouble areas, most notably wiring harnesses and headgaskets, but like just all the cars in this piece if you treat them well they will return the favor – for the most part. I’d still love to have another 124 cabriolet and I think they represent tremendous value in these cars. Brand new they cost exactly the same as the 500Es, but as used cars they struggle to command half as much in like condition. That said, apart from the 2.6 which i found a tad lethargic, I’d gladly have any W124 again.
7. Honorable mentions
While the above cars are no-brainers for my tastes, there are several others I’ve owned before (sometimes more than once) and would gladly have more of. To wit:
- BMW E3 Sedan: I’ve had three of these – two identical Nevada Beige 2800s and a Silver Bavaria. Prices for running, driving E3s have headed WAY north in recent years. I kick myself for selling the near perfect ’70 2800 I had for $6,500.
- Mercedes W116 6.9: There are still some great deals to be had on these “Banker’s Hotrods” despite growing recognition of their place in the annals of German performance sedans. Parts are pricey, but they are very civilized to drive.
- BMW E28 5-Series: Bought my first E28, a manual 533i, after driving TTS partner Jonathan’s Bavaria. It was a good car, but not the best example. I also had a 528e which I liked better than I thought I would. These cars were to BMW what W123s are to Mercedes. Still love them.
- Porsche 911 G-body: Having had a taste of owning an air-cooled 911, I think I’d like to do it again, but perhaps with a coupe or a cabriolet. Prices seem to have been normalizing lately, but cost of entry for me still likely means a collector car loan, so I’ll have to wait a little while until we finish some home improvements.. Or not?
- Mercedes 190E 2.3-16: We at TTS just just discussing the merits of the 16V vs the BMW E30 M3 and both of us – even the one of us more oriented to the roundel than the three-pointed star – prefer the 16V. Prices are on the rise, but not anywhere near the level of recent M3 sales (more on that on our friend Philip’s Turtle Garage). The 16V was the most fun factory Mercedes – at least in the US – of the entire 1980s bar none.
- BMW E23 7-series: I’m a child of the 80s. It is what it is. These cars were just so cool. Would love to have a Euro 745i Turbo, or any manual 733i or 735i. My 733i was a good car I never drove.
- And this doesn’t even include the newer stuff…….!
So what’s on your list of cars you’d like to own again?
Great article! Unfortunately, you’ve never had the privilege and pleasure of owning an R107!
I think Samir still has the orange 745i (Brutus!) at his house in CT. J. Bush remembers that car. Scary fun. Big sticky rubber. I took it up to the foothills one weekend and tossed it through the windy roads where possible. I have never been able to develop the attraction to MBZ that you have, so I’ll settle for my small pile of old, crappy BMWs. :^)
I would have Brutus in a second. Or, Brutus as I remember him.
Actually, if I had better pictures of that car, I would write about it.
These are all great! The other day I was cruising around my neighborhood and spotted a remarkably stunning black E55 AMG. I didn’t have time to whip out my phone so I looped around the block and made a second pass, so I could send a photo to my friend Brian in Florida who drives one. He appreciated the effort. The next car I think I’ll “come back” to is going to be a third-gen (1988-91) Honda Prelude, like the one I had in high school 20+ years ago. Sadly they’re almost all destroyed by now. Hope your weekend is going well!
Thanks, Tyson. We were just discussing G3 Preludes – Had 2 G2s and Dad had a G5, but have always wanted a G3. But more importantly, I wanna see that black E55, having just taken delivery only mine two days ago!! TotallyThatStupid@gmail.com..!