Under 30 grand exotics that are far from terrible

The old Top Gear show had regular fun ripping on run-down £10,000 exotics. Who couldn’t help but laugh at the sight of Richard Hammond’s rat bag Dino 308 GT4 as it inevitably self-immolated on the M1, five miles from the chuckling seller’s house.

This isn’t about those cars – the run-down Ferrari 412s and clapped-out Maserati Biturbos that lurk on Craigslist – the ones waiting to torpedo your wallet below the waterline. These are actually potentially decent cars if you select carefully.

Even in the current market, where it seems like everything worth owning has doubled in the last three years, there are still some conspicuous bargains in the exotic world. Here are five that you might just make out OK with:

  1. Qvale Mangusta– Kjell Qvale was a legend in the West Coast import car world. A Norwegian import himself, San Francisco-based Qvale became one of the nation’s largest British car dealers back when there were actually British cars to sell. Eventually, Qvale became the owner of Jensen Motors of West Bromwich, England. He sold a good number of Jensen Interceptors in the U.S. and brought the Jensen-Healey into the world. The fuel crisis killed the Interceptor and the unproven Lotus 907 engine killed the J-H and Jensen itself. But Qvale wasn’t done. Around the turn of the millennium, struggling De Tomaso looked like an ideal target of opportunity because it had the fully developed, Marcello Gandini designed De Tomaso Bigua ready to go into production. Kjell re-named it the Qvale Mangusta (in a nod to an earlier De Tomaso product). While far from Gandini’s most graceful design, the Mangusta was well-built and had a unique three position rotating hard top. Power came from a 4.6-liter Ford modular V-8 pulled from the SVT Mustang Cobra, along with the rather cheap-looking dash and HVAC controls from that car. Mangustas are rare (most sources cite under 300 sold in the US) and fast. They look quite exotic, but aren’t any more finicky than an early 2000s Mustang.
  2. Panoz Esperante– The Georgia-based Panoz family has done just about everything in racing: from team and track owner to constructor. Not satisfied with taking the traditional route of turning a large fortune into a small one via racing, they decided to build a street car. Starting with the Panoz AIV (Aluminum Intensive Vehicle) Roadster, they graduated to something a bit more substantial in the Esperante. Like the Mangusta, it utilized an SVT Mustang V-8 and some of the Mustang’s dash but it was far more sporting and less GT than the Qvale. Carbon fiber helped lower the Esperante’s weight. About the only thing that Panoz didn’t address was actual professional styling. It’s not awful, but the Esperante defines generic roadster. That is until track day when a well-driven Esperante will show its drab tail lights of vague origin to most anything else.
  3. Ferrari Mondial 8– The Mondial was the replacement for the once maligned, but now fashionable Dino/Ferrari 308 GT4. Initially sold only in coupe form with plus-two rear seating (like the GT4), styling was a bit overdone, with cheese-grater-like side radiator intakes and an unattractive black, plasticky interior. Still, you got Ferrari’s lovely – and actually very durable – flat-plane crank V-8, in either two or four valve 3.0- or 3.2-liter injected form. Under thirty grand these days means that your only choice is probably going to be the two-valve, fuel-injected Mondial 8 coupe, the slowest and least powerful of the bunch. But if you can tolerate a Ferrari that takes about nine seconds to hit 60 mph, it’s not all bad. There’s room in back for the kids, and rowing the lovely alloy gated shifter through the gears is a sublime experience, as is the exhaust note. As for maintenance costs, whoever started the rumor that you had to remove the engine to do a belt service must have been working for Porsche. The twice-a-decade belt service on an early Mondial can be performed with the engine in place for under two grand. You can also do it yourself for about $300 in parts if you care to buy an inexpensive cam locking tool.
  4. Aston Martin DB7– Those in the know realize that the DB7 started life as a warmed over version of a stillborn potential successor to the Jaguar XJS. Granted, the warming over in question was executed by the masterful Ian Callum. Also, the DB7 did essentially save Aston Martin and put the company on its present trajectory. Nevertheless, a ton of old Jaguar engineering and Ford parts-bin pieces went into the DB7. Ultimately, none of that really mattered: The car was drop-dead gorgeous, sounded great and went like a thoroughbred GT ought to. You could even get it with a manual gearbox. DB7s came in coupe and convertible form with either a supercharged six-cylinder or Aston’s brilliant V-12. Under thirty grand probably gets you a six-cylinder, likely a higher mileage convertible or a nicer coupe. Hold out for a manual. Lower miles and service records are key, as is a parts interchange guide: It’s much nicer to pay $18 for a Ford window switch than $100 for an Aston-branded one. Other than that, leaky windshields, occasionally dodgy electricals (huge shock in a British car) and water pumps with cheap, disintegrating plastic impellers are the main trouble spots.
  5. Lotus Esprit Turbo– Lotus long ago joined the clever made-up acronym/taunt club a la Fiat (Fix It Again Tony) and Ford (Found On Road Dead). For the record, it goes: Lots Of Trouble, Usually Serious. As a two-time Lotus owner, I can tell you, this is probably only half true. While a Lotus can be a fair amount of trouble, most falls squarely into the category of minor irritant. And Esprits in general are worth the occasional minor irritant. Although the styling was refreshed three times during the car’s long production run, there isn’t an ugly one in the bunch. Personal preference and finances generally dictate here. Pre-1988 Giugiaro Turbo Esprits are getting pricier, but acceptable ones can still be found for under $30,000, probably not for much longer though. The post-1987 Peter Stevens re-styled cars are the bargain sweet spot at the moment. They are flat out the mid-engine exotic steal of the century. They have every bit of the appeal of a Ferrari 308 or Lamborghini Jalpa and they often cost less than $20,000. Absolutely crazy. Credit Lotus’ reputation for unreliability and the fact that it’s a four-cylinder car in a market that demands at least twice as many cylinders. Still, Lotus matched or exceeded Ferrari or Lambo performance with lower weight and turbocharging. Only the Renault-sourced transaxles are potentially very pricey problems. Fortunately (sort of), if you do get unlucky or forget to change the timing belt and grenade an engine, you’re looking at a fraction of the cost to rebuild it versus something Italian.
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