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RADwood On The Cheap

I didn’t start out wanting to cover RADwood-eligible cars. It just sort of happened.

For the tragically unhip, the phenomenon known as RADwood bills itself as “a celebration of ’80s and ’90s lifestyle, blending period correct dress with automotive awesomeness. An event for cars, trucks, and bikes from 1980-1999 that captures the essence of a bodacious era.”

Kudos to them for using a serial comma, but personally I think their time span is a bit long; 1995 or 1996 feels like a more natural cutoff. By 1997 we were careening toward the new millennium, with a focus on “the future.” Or at least getting back to it. While the dates are their own, the core of my formative years crashes squarely into this time period, so my opinion matters.

You can get off my lawn at your leisure.

Anyway, I was poking around for stupid cars at or around the $5,000 mark, ideally with a manual transmission, when it occurred to me that a lot of what I was finding fell into the RAD timeframe. There were some interesting and certainly strange outliers – a crazy clean 2001 Pontiac Firebird V6 with a 5-speed, a tatty 1979 Chrysler LeBaron station wagon with a slant-six and a four-on-the-floor manual – but many others slotted in nicely.

All this got me thinking that it’s financially reasonable to enter a RADwood show. Finding an appropriate ride wasn’t that hard, assuming you’re willing to travel during a pandemic, and assuming you don’t need a perfect example. Even if you went for a full-RAD weekend with a Reebok, Jordache, and Generra Hypercolor T-shirt ensemble from eBay – holy cow, vintage Member’s Only jackets are cheap! –  come Monday you’d still be driving something cool.

We’ll go oldest to newest, because it’s my lawn.

1980 Mercury Capri – $3,500

When is a Fox-body Ford not a Mustang or an LTD? When it’s a Capri.

Fairly rare compared to its brothers, this low-spec Mercury received a lot of body and paint work, including a seven-layer-dip of Corvette Emerald Green and an owner who cared enough to install the hatch badges in their correct locations. That hatch and the tail lights below it are from a later Capri, but you’d have to be a real nerd to know.

Did I mention it’s low-spec? A basic 2.3-liter four-cylinder, a four-speed manual, an AM radio, and boxes left unchecked for power brakes or power steering all harken back to the days when you could order options a la carte. The interior looks pretty clean, and certainly stock. Somewhere along the line someone installed aftermarket air conditioning, which doesn’t work. Probably just needs a charge, right?

Otherwise the seller says this Capri is safe and ready to go. So let’s go.

1985 Nissan 200SX – $3,750

Remember when compact sport coupes were rear-wheel drive and had pop-up headlights? Sure, you do.

This list could have had a lot more Nissan products in it. My travels around the interwebs produced a ridiculously clean 1994 Sentra GXE 5-speed, a lovely 1984 short-bed 4×4 pickup, and a very tempting 1981 Datsun 280ZX. But those were less interesting (though they drive nicely), lacked multiple quality pictures, or were a bit over my $5,000 price cap, respectively. So here we are.

Not a lot to know about this 200SX, apparently. It’s a two-owner car with less than 100k miles on it. As advertised, it really does look clean and straight with shiny paint, albeit in a dull color. The interior looks solid but needs some scrubbing. It even comes with a middle-aged man in a mask, which is a rare and highly prescient 1985-only Nissan Genuine Accessory.

Mechanically, these are pretty simple cars, and this one has a new clutch, new brakes and tires, and comes with a stack of service records and manuals.

Decent S12 Silvias do come up, but these days not so frequently. Hopefully, this one remains unmolested and is not turned into a drift mongrel. If everything works and it really does “drive excellent” this could be a fun fly-in/drive-home machine.

1989 Honda Accord LX-i Coupe – $4,600

Your friends here at Totally That Stupid will always have a crush on 1980s Hondas with low cowls, five speeds, and pop-up headlights. (Sensing an, um, illuminating trend here?) This LX-i Coupe would have been a nice stepping stone between the 1985 Preludes we both had and the Acura Legend Coupe my cohort eventually bought.

This example isn’t perfect, but it’s not awful. The body wears some battle scars, including paint scuffs and dents, but no rust. The worst of it appears to be the trunk lid, but it shouldn’t be too hard to find a replacement. The interior is classic Honda, with near-perfect ergonomics. The seats look great and the dash shows no cracks. Is that brown? Because it looks brown.

Mechanically, it has some aftermarket suspension in it, and those eBay wheels are subtle… enough. The AC works but the fan makes noise on max-blow. With timing belts and oil changes (definitely check the former), these engines will run until the sun goes out. What doesn’t it have? A hot-air intake under the hood and a fart-can exhaust out back.

A bubble-era Honda that isn’t a crumbly mess is always a good idea in our collective book.

1989 Honda Civic Wagovan – $5,000

An Accord Coupe a little too mainstream for you? No problem.

If you think of the metamorphosis of the traditional station wagon format into today’s ubiquitous CUV/SUV, this is the first step: It is literally a Honda Civic sedan with a tall station wagon greenhouse. Pretty much everything from the beltline to the pavement is either the same or essentially similar. That means you can modify a Wagovan much as you would any fourth-generation Civic.

Which this seller has. The mod list is long, but looking over the car and reading the description tells the tale of a person who loved their little wagon for over a decade. I like the lowered look and white Mugen wheels. The paint is burned here and there, and there are some bumps and bruises from 32 years of just being a car. Some proper JDM wrap-around glass headlights would really cinch the look. Rust shouldn’t be a problem.

The “Evo” Recaro seats match the blue interior rather well. I’d like to see what’s lurking under the dashboard mat as well as how the rest of the interior plastics have weathered the Arizona weather. The seller says everything works, so let’s add the air conditioning to that list.

See above about a solid bubble-era Honda always being a good idea.

1992 Saab 9000S – $3,700

In these types of posts, we really do try to not duplicate cars. However, finding one decent Saab 9000 with three pedals is hard enough. Finding two is dumb luck, especially when they’re cheap. This 1992 is the first.

The seller doesn’t tell us a whole lot other than regurgitating some recent maintenance – clutch, some manner of belt, gaskets – and noting the air conditioning works. There is a specific call out on the lack of turbo, which may be how this car has lasted 29 years and 116k miles. Under the hood looks dirty but not horrid, and stock to boot. The pictures show a broken headlight and the Swedish equivalent of a heckblende between the tail lights.

A Saab 9000 interior is a handsome place to spend time. Very Swedish, very comfortable. There is lots of room in these 5-door hatchbacks. You’ll have to take my word on these things – or scan down to see the next Saab’s cabin – since the seller provides no pictures for any of it.

Nice car, but remember: “No low balling and please don’t waist [sp.] my time.”

1995 Mercedes S320 – $5,000

Normally I’d leave a Benz to Reed’s capable keyboard, but this W140 came up in my search and I was quite taken with it. Maybe it’s the classic color combination, or the presentation. The funny thing is – and Reed will attest – I don’t even like the W140 body. I always thought they were porky barges overloaded with dubious, fragile technology while simultaneously lacking the sleek shape of the previous W126. And this one is relatively slow, too, with its six inline cylinders.

The ad doesn’t tell us much. The car has around 96k miles (maybe), and I’m not going to quote the brief superlatives followed by multiple exclamation points. It’s possible the seller is a complete moron. It’s equally possible this is a bogus ad.

There is no information about any mechanical or electrical systems, including the  M104 engine’s failure-prone head gasket and biodegradable wiring harness, or the transmission. Does the HVAC work? How about those little parking indicator pins that pop up at the back edges of the rear quarter panels? Inside, the materials seem to have held up well, including the wood and leather. Bonus points for a stock stereo.

Additional nits to pick: The trunk nameplate is woefully misplaced. The bumper corners have scrapes. Someone should secure the last clip on the air cleaner box. There are no seat heaters.

A W140 Mercedes isn’t a car I would buy from a distance in the best of circumstances. But if I were already in Atlanta or its northern suburbs, I might be tempted to go look.

1996 Saab 9000CS Turbo – $1,699

The second 9000 in our list has well over twice the miles of the 1992 above (331k), enough to have traveled to the moon, spent a nice long weekend, purchased some green cheese at the gift shop, and made a decent dent on the return. The owner has had this one for 17 years, and is allegedly only selling because there’s another Saab in the family. In a couple of the photos there is a red 9-5 wagon in the background, so sure, why not?

Maintenance doesn’t seem to be a problem in that there’s a lot of it, likely in the form of a steady drip over several decades. The engine, in its clean compartment, is said to purr like a kitten. Kittens are great until they go sideways and rip your face off with their little razor fingers. Still, a purring kitten engine offers more comfort than the Blacklion Cilerro tires, courtesy or someone’s local Walmart. Apocryphally, the air conditioning just needs a charge.

Cosmetically, this 9000CS looks pretty good. I could do without the black wheels or the “Salt Life” decal, and there’s some minor bruising on the rump. The headlight wipers are askew and the antenna appears broken. But those are small things. The paint is shiny, nothing is obviously falling off, and the trim looks good. Inside, the dashboard is cracked, the steering wheel cover must have been a bundle deal with the tires, and the seat heaters don’t. But everything else looks great, especially the cloth seats, and the gauges and buttons are crisp.

Three-pedal Saab 9000s, as mentioned, are getting thin on the ground. This one looks like cheap fun with some easily correctable silliness.

1999 Subaru Legacy Outback – $3,200

Full disclosure: I tend to shy away from writing about Subaru and its cars. It’s not due to some deep-seated animosity. In fact, it’s quite the opposite: The cars and history are cool and the company does a tremendous amount of good in this world. While I am not directly employed by Subaru of America, my day job involves selling their wares. So as to avoid any hint of conflict of interest – because my client, my job, and my company all absolutely rock – well, there are plenty of other cars to blabber on about.

But this Legacy Outback is very cool. I mean, just look at it. And it’s 22 years old. So I’m feeling pretty okay featuring it. And for the record, SVXs will continue to be fair game.

Anyway, in 1999 you could still buy a regular Legacy station wagon. The Outback was the taller version, but this one is lowered on coilovers, lower than a stock Legacy longroof. The tires are pushed out by two inches and wrap around Volvo “Volan” wheels; the fenders have clearly been rolled to accommodate. The aftermarket exhaust seems to be making promises the stock replacement EJ25 may not be able to fulfill. There’s an oil leak at the back of the engine – rear main seal? – and the new throwout bearing makes noise. The five-speed manual is said to shift well, however, and there are other new mechanical parts throughout.

Sadly, there are no interior pictures. Since the seller doesn’t mention anything about it, we can assume it’s either stock (yay!) or modified in his/her vision (um…). The exterior shots look great. The red finish is shiny and the gray trim is mostly unblemished. The window trim needs a shot of black paint, but that’s a Saturday-morning-two-cups-of-coffee project.

More disclosure: We have in the fleet a 2018 Outback Touring in Dark Blue Pearl. There is a not-small part of me that want to lower it to “car” height and swap on some bronze-finish wheels. Getting buy-in on this plan may require some commitment.

This, but in Dark Blue Pearl with bronze-finish wheels. Photo burgled from Subzero_xt on

8 thoughts on “RADwood On The Cheap Leave a comment

  1. Well, it’s probably safe to write about the Subaru Justy. Unless your employer thinks that’s termination-worthy. First normal car with a CVT, methinks? Though I’m certain there are oddball predecessors out there…

  2. The lowered Outback stopped me in my tracks. Thanks for the great read and a trip down memory lane. I used to have a bunch of lowered (yet tasteful?) Subarus over the years, including an Outback. I miss those cars and the fun playing in the snow. I bought a modern era car for the first time ever and after 8 months of owning it I can say I hate all the new tech and lights and screens. My 2017 GTI 6spd with proper plaid seats was supposed to be a keeper but I already want to sell it. I call it the Beep-Boop car since it’s always making annoying statements and sounds. It chimes to let me know that it’s cold outside? Duh, I kinda noticed that while walking out to the car and then scraping frost off the windows.

    Trouble is: Finding a reliable, low mileage, manual wagon in the northeast that’s not rusty or insanely expensive. It might be time to ship a CA or AZ car here and then fluid film the heck out of it to keep it nice.

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