3 January 2014

Potential Money Pits: High-maintenance classics

The miracle of depreciation has put a tempting array of classic exotics within reach for many of us. Be warned, though, that very often, the check you write for the purchase is just the first of many checks that you’ll write if you make a poor or unlucky choice. Keep in mind this maxim: The cheapest examples almost always wind up being the most expensive in the long run. Here are four that famously can be punishing on the wallet:

  1. 1966-80 Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow:  At around the cost of a loaded Ford Focus for a nice one, it’s hard not to be tempted by the old money, English drawing room, upper crust looks of a vintage Rolls-Royce. But go in with your eyes open:  A simple brake service can exceed $1,000, with the special Rolls-Royce brake fluid going for $125 all by itself. Try to substitute something from your local auto parts store and you could be looking at $3,000 or more to repair the damage. Should the guy in the Excursion be less than deferential to your Roller when parallel parking? That famous Parthenon-like grille in front is about $2,500 used if you can find one. The hood ornament alone can cost more than $1,500 should anyone decide to make a souvenir out of yours. Ouch.
  2. 1975-85 Ferrari 308 GTB/GTS: At around $30,000, this lovely thing represents one of the lowest points of entry to the storied Ferrari brand. Fortunately, Thomas Magnum probably never had to foot the shop bill to maintain his employer’s 308. If he did, he’d likely have had to pawn the Hawaiian shirt and moustache. While Ferrari 308s have gained a reputation for being reasonably reliable cars as Italian exotics go, they are maintenance-intensive and things do break, particularly with the oldest now  approaching 40 years old. That lovely combination switch that operates the turn signals and pop-up headlights? They can cost close to a grand (and they do fail from time-to-time).  A belt service including the all-important timing belt needs to happen at least every five years or 30,000 miles. Ignore it and you could be on the line for a $15,000-plus engine rebuild.  At three to five grand to perform, it’s easy to see how people can tempt fate on this. And 308s without a documented recent belt service are all but sale-proof.
  3. 1968-72 Mercedes-Benz 300SEL 6.3: The 6.3 is the closest that Mercedes ever came to building a Detroit-style muscle car back in the day (albeit a four-door one). Sporting a huge 384 cubic-inch V-8 with fuel injection and over 300 hp, the 6.3 was capable of a sub-six second 0-60 run and a 14.2-second ¼-mile time. All of this came at a huge price, though, both in acquisition costs and maintenance. A complete rebuild of the air suspension system can cost more than $5,000, as can the wonderfully complex pre-computer, mechanical fuel-injection system. At least the parts are available. Unlike other manufacturers that tend to abandon their classic models, Mercedes-Benz through its dedicated Classic Center will happily supply any parts needed.
  4. 1961-74 Jaguar E-Type: The E-Type is actually nowhere near as chronically troublesome as its reputation would suggest. This gorgeous car still seems to take a punch on a regular basis (most recently in a plot arc of AMC’s “Mad Men,” where a suicide attempt was botched because the car wouldn’t start). It is, however, a fairly complex car that takes kindly neither to abuse nor fools with tools. Burn out the clutch in your E-Type and you may wish you hadn’t been born. The list of things that have to come off of or out of the car to do the job is longer than the Unibomber manifesto. The entire massive clam shell hood, headlight and front fender assembly known by the British term “bonnet” is just the tip of the iceberg. It has to come off simply to get at the engine and transmission, which also need to part company with the rest of the car — along with three grand or so of your kid’s college fund.

12 Reader Comments

  • 1
    Doug Leithauser Michigan April 4, 2014 at 09:42
    As I read this article, I get the impression that some people actually pay someone else to work on their cars. That is a concept I am not familiar with. :)
  • 2
    Max United States July 19, 2014 at 20:44
    I don't understand why articles like this always quote shop prices. Generally speaking, anyone who is going to buy such a classic, is going in with eye and toolbox open. Please, when you write these articles, think of the true aficionado, and go from there.
  • 3
    Bill So California August 20, 2014 at 17:42
    Not to forget the Jaguar Mark series. I am still reeling from the financial pain of ownership. Do the work yourself? Impossible unless you were raised by a Jaguar family!
  • 4
    Rob MI September 22, 2014 at 13:59
    I had a shop owner friend who told me he wouldn't work on the V12 Jaguar engine unless he had another next to it to help put it back together. Not sure if he was joking or not.
  • 5
    Bruce Cable Louisville, Kentucky October 15, 2014 at 16:38
    I can assure you that he wasn't joking. My father was a Jaguar, British Leyland & Lotus Dealer during the mid-60's - mid-70's, and although young at the time, I recall that it was a nightmare whenever there was a new model or a major mechanical feature change. There was no internet of course, and the technical documentation always seemed to arrive long after the cars did, so there were times when a "Donar" car was a neccessity, to get a new customer with a previously unseen problem back on the road..........
  • 6
    Robert Jenson Arizona December 11, 2014 at 00:14
    In 1966, I had opportunity to buy a 1963 Austin Healey. My father-in-law ran a fleet of cars and advised me to talk to the gentleman who maintained his cars - an experienced mechanic. In chatting with this gentleman, he gave me some sage advice - "If you want to buy a sports car, you will be in one or another group. You will either have the financial means to hire someone to maintain the car, or you will be in the other group that doesn't have the finances and will have to do the work yourself". Not being in the first group, and having "cut my teeth" with a 1929 Model A Ford, when the Healey came into my possession, the factory workshop manual was procured and devoured. The advice has stayed with me these many years though, and now with the car having been restored, there is no one else that will be maintaining it.
  • 7
    J Preuss Kirkwood, MO April 1, 2015 at 13:38
    I've owned ten Jaguars and can speak from experience: the Series 1 E-Type Jaguar is a reliable car if properly maintained. They are much more simple to work on than today's autos with their complex computers. Most owners can perform routine maintenance with basic tools and most repairs can also be performed by a moderately skilled home mechanic. Parts are generally available, although some may be expensive. I drove my E-Type roadster daily fr a number of years and continue to drive a Jaguar regularly.
  • 8
    paul florida April 1, 2015 at 10:04
    I owned a v12 back in the 70s and remember the chief mechanic who was trained and worked in Britain from the only dealer in the southeast told me he could only fix 60% of the problems that came in the shop,i only kept the car for 7 months after in and out of the service dept so often.
  • 9
    Sam M Smyth CEO Cincinnati Ohio February 9, 2016 at 01:10
    Like all motor cars the ones with out proper service orders are the cars that cost the most after purchase
  • 10
    Sam M Smyth CEO Cincinnati Ohio February 9, 2016 at 01:10
    Like all motor cars the ones with out proper service orders are the cars that cost the most after purchase
  • 11
    Hugh Australia March 11, 2016 at 06:54
    Having owned 3 Mercedes 6.3 a Silver Shadow and a Ferrari 400 V12 and still own a 6.3 my experience were. A Rolls can be catastrophically expensive even a great one. It is a great car but... The hydraulic suspension and brakes require special Castrol fluid that is very hydroscopic. A rebuild of rams accumulators etc will cost around $10000. An engine will cost $30000 plus. The engine has an Alloy block which is Virtually designed to fail as corrosion accumulated behind cylinders. Finding good blocks is costly. Parts are available. The Mercedes engine is far stronger and more durable just watch the alloy heads. 1000000k is quite possible! The suspension is the least of your worries. It isn't difficult to fix. Parts are harder to find than the Roĺls. But its the most fun to drive. The Ferrari has a glorious engine but Magneti Marrel parts are simply no longer available. It is the least reliable because of these ageing electronics. But such a nice car. I loved them all but my 6.3 with all the options is easily the most enjoyable. And no its not for sale.
  • 12
    Mark Desade DENTON TX April 6, 2016 at 11:47
    Today's 5 April 2016. I got here after Googling a 308GTB for sale @ $119,000. Your article's example lists a price of $30k. Have these dogs gone up that much, that fast?

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