The dangers of fear-selling a classic car

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I have to confess that my car collecting hasn’t always been free of neuroses. The dominant one is what I like to call “The Nuclear Winter Scenario.” You won’t find it in The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, which is the gold standard of North American psychiatry, but it’s characterized by a fear of having the economic equivalent of a dirty bomb go off in your garage. As a result of this “what if” fear, I’ve sold a number of cars that I really enjoyed and should probably still be enjoying.

I take pride in my bottom-feeder status. I’ve spent a lifetime picking up some really interesting cars at the bottom of their value curves—some actual A-listers have been among them, too, like a 1967 Maserati Mistral, a 1984 Ferrari 308 GTS QV, and a 1965 Jaguar E-Type coupe. Inevitably, when I buy something like this, I’m met with taunts from my bottom-feeder posse, comparing me to Icarus, the character in Greek mythology who ignored his father’s instructions not to fly too high, lest he have his wax wings melt.

The thought that I might be flying too close to the sun owning vintage Ferraris and Maseratis was reinforced by the modern-day equivalent of Icarus’ father, Daedelus—the infamous internet forums and the “experts” who opine therein. I loved my Maserati Mistral. It was posh, pretty, and looked expensive with its Borrani wire wheels. The fuel-injected, twin-plug, 4.0-liter straight-six was right out of a 1950s grand prix car. I happily paid the $2500 freight to upgrade the finicky Lucas mechanical fuel-injection system, and I enjoyed the hell out of the car. But my mood shifted after a conversation at Pebble Beach with a marque expert who regaled me with a story about a Mistral owner whose car had a timing chain break. “He’s still waiting for a set of pistons and his shop bill is over $30,000,” I was told.

Mistral front three quarter
Dark thoughts of expensive repairs forced your author to sell his lovely Mistral … for a loss. Rob Sass

Paranoia was my copilot with every subsequent Maserati drive. I sold the car at a loss in 2009, and I’ve seen it twice since—once on a multiplex screen (it’s the car parked outside the villa of René Mathis, James Bond’s doomed fellow spy in A Quantum of Solace), and then last year at Rétromobile, where it sold at an auction for about three times what I got for it. I’ll never own a car like that again, and that realization makes me more than a bit sad.

mistral bond film quantum of solace still wide
The Mistral, looking like a million bucks in Quantum of Solace. MGM

Oddly enough, I never really had such fears with my Ferrari 308. I had the good sense to listen to my friend Art Mason, who was a multiple 308 owner and a Ferrari Club of America judge. He was fond of reminding me that the bottom ends of 3.0-liter Ferrari V-8s are pretty much bullet-proof, and top-ends are generally good for at least 75,000 miles (my car was about 50K shy of that at the time). Gearboxes rarely fail, and if you are diligent with timing belt changes, there’s no real nuclear winter scenario with a 308. I had it for an angst-free four years, did a belt change, and replaced a few power-window switches, and that was it.

The Porsche world that I mostly inhabit now is far from free of “what-if” angst. Not long ago, I daily-drove what was probably the best car I’ve ever owned, a 2002 Porsche 996 Twin Turbo. It was brilliant at everything, in all weather. Maintenance expenses were, however, exotic-Italian-car level. To accomplish nearly anything, the engine had to come out. After being told that the coolant-system refresh the car was due for could total almost nine grand (after all of the “while we’re in there, let’s do this stuff”), the anxiety of having that big of a mouth to feed became crippling, and the 996 TT was no more.

Also crippling was the naturally aspirated 996 that followed, a Guards Red car with a factory aero kit. It was a concours-quality GT3 lookalike, but the bore-score and cylinder failure issues that affect a tiny minority of these cars took up space in my head. Eventually, I rationalized selling it for a far less exciting gen-two 997 cabriolet.

The point is, in 30 years of playing with cars, despite my fears, I’ve actually never had a nuclear winter event occur. Not even close. It’s all been unproductive worrying about what-ifs. The silver lining, I suppose, is that such worrying has forced me from car to car to car, which is the best kind of musical chairs there is.




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    I enjoyed the article. Noteworthy though is that apparently “bottom-feeder” is all relative. I also call myself a bottom feeder, but I think I’m actually at the bottom. I found that Hagerty had a $5,000 mininum value when I tried to insure a couple of my honest-to-goodness bottom feeder cars for $4,000. I think that minumum has since decreased some though.

    I started my Hagerty adventure here as well, with a high mileage NA Miata just barely at the 20-year minimum of the time, and barely tipping the minimum valuation scales. (Some … embellishing may have occurred in that phone call.)

    But, there is nowhere to go from there but up! And every adventure is worthwhile.

    I was similarly affected by the use of that term in the article, TG. I think the most expensive vehicle I’ve ever owned (minus some semi-trucks and at maybe one farm implement) was still seriously closer to the “bottom” than even the paint job on a 308. Put simply, MY definition of bottom feeder car collecting fits more closely with LeMons racing than LeMans! 😋

    My ears are burning… but yes I tend to feed at the very bottom myself. There aren’t too many examples in my collection that had a bigger than 4 digit purchase price. My biggest dirty bomb purchase was my Allante – loaded with unobtanium parts. It has hung in well though and no regrets. My actual dirty bomb was a broken timing belt on a 944 Porsche that crashed the valves so hard (at an idle) that they were shaped like s’s. It also tore up something in the bottom end, and I gave up after installing a new head. This however was a 4 figure purchase that I got 14 years of enjoyment out of… so again no regrets. Buy low, and buy what you love, and you’ll never have them

    Man, I hope them ears cool off soon – I hate to be the cause of any pain or discomfort to my friends.
    It’s kind of weird – some of the most “bottom end” purchases I ever made were semi-decent tri-five Chevys. But this was back in the ’60s when they were available all over the place for less than $500. Cars that conceivably are worth 5 or even 6 figures today. I once bought a ’66 Chevelle SS396 (well before it became profitable to clone them) for $900 and sold it several years later for $700 in much better condition than when I bought it. So in a slightly different way, Jeepcj5’s comment about the term being relative is also true. What was a bottom-end purchase at one point might be a highly sought after collectable at some other point!
    But I embrace your philosophy with one adjustment, TG (whew, got it right this time): Buy whatever end of the spectrum you can afford, but buy what you love, and you’ll never have any regrets!

    No worries… It’s really not about afford in my case. I enter at the low end for two key reasons. One, the tinkering is a big draw for me. When I get all of my broken toys to full drivable condition, I’m looking for the next broken toy to tinker on. Two… I drive ’em… Grocery store, work, you name it they go there (with some reasonable exceptions). I would never want a low-mile museum quality piece in my collection

    I currently own a 996 Turbo. If someone quoted you $9000 to refresh the cooling system, I do have to wonder WTF they were planning on doing? That far surpasses replacing the coolant hoses and radiators. At that point I’d expect engine out, new clutch, coolant lines welded/pinned and every single plastic and rubber bit replaced. Which at that point, would make a car that’s basically bullet proof, ready to go for another 200,000+ miles.

    The nine grand included all that you mention, plus welding the coolant pipes, a water pump, and probably other stuff like plugs and coils and a new secondary injection pump.

    I sold my Model-A out of fear, and at bottom feeder prices- $6,200 I think it was. And the fear was of my wife, 77 year old mother, and sister. They all ganged up on me and said get rid of it you’re not doing anthing with it! You can use that garage space and have more fun with the kids! True. I also sold my 2002 Trooper and 1995 Maxima at bottom feeder prices, both just under $4,000. Both many many years ago but still. The problem now is there are no good bottom feeder deals out there, like a good driver for your teenager for example. Sorry I’m rambling.

    I tend to be a “bottom feeder” too – my current “toy” is a very nice 1996 longbed ranger. I bought it from the original owner 12 years ago in showroom condition for half the cost of the cap and bed liner ($1500 Canadian). Sure – it had 307000km on the clock and needed a clutch. I’ve put double my initial investment into it over the last 12 years and added another 80000km to the clock and it’s now worth about twice my total investment?

    I’m still a bottom feeder… but avoid (and no interest in) expensive European stuff. Decades ago, a pal who had a Lusso, told me to “sell those Fords and buy any 12 cylinder Ferrari; you can get them for the price of the motor”. This was in the eighties, 10-15 grand. Problem was, I didn’t care for Ferraris like I did ’60’s Fords.
    I knew I could have made money, but I cared more about what I liked. Kept the Fords, still have several.
    Let’s talk real bottom feed- I recently bought a neighbors mid-nineties Corolla that he was thinking of donating. $300. Running and driving, bad gas tank. I now have about $1,000 in it total, and it’s a perfectly functioning grocery getter. I’ve done all the tinkering myself, and really enjoy it. Parts are cheap, junkyards are full of them. Reminds me of my Fords in the ’80’s. It’s much more fun than an expensive impractical sports car that I have to worry about.

    I generally avoid the timing belt… which puts a lot of european stuff on the I don’t think so list… with the exception of my 1 Series… which is coming due for a timing belt

    Nothing wrong with an accessible timing belt on a non-interference engine. I should likely have replaced the timing belt on my ’72 Firenza (Vauxhall Viva HC 2300) long before it forced my hand on the side of the road half way between Sydney and Halifax Nova Scotia – thankfully before I got into the USA – and thankfully the (likely) only belt east of Montreal (and possibly Toronto) was hanging on a nail in the dealership in Sydney – – – Back on the road half an hour after the part arrived – and about 2 hours after “the guinea pig died”

    This was very similar to my years bottom feeding. Buy them for peanuts, fix them myself and get a lot of use out of them, then do it again. That ended when we moved and I ran out of the space I needed to do that with cars, so I moved over to scooters and motorcycles. There are lots of them if you look carefully, and the bits and pieces aren’t that heavy. My fun car is a 2002 Miata that generally just runs well, with very little involvement from me.

    Rob – I understand. Tho my vehicles were not purchased at “bottom-feeder” prices, I usually managed to sell at paranoia-driven prices that set the bottom for pricing. The list is long and magnificent: ‘65 Chev SS, ‘64 Vette, ‘65 Porsche 356 SC, ‘62 Healey 3000 and my exotic, a ‘37 Ford firetruck.

    The 356 SC is fine example of my paranoia-driven decision-making that later became oh-so-clear as a horrid decision. In ‘72, I had a pristine ‘65 356 SC coupe with all of 28,000 miles. A magnificent factory-delivered example, it had the European full gauge set and all the other factory-original accessories. It had become my post-divorce daily driver. A good friend (as he kept reminding me over and over) told me about “a cousin who knew a guy who had a friend who had neighbor who spent $4K to get the rusted out frame-rail heater ducts rebuilt.” I looked at mine and, sure enough, there was some surface rust from Illinois roadways’ winter road salt. I’d just gotten divorced and didn’t have the proverbial pot to p!>> in. The Porsche had become my daily driver. Porsche shop rates were obscene: $65 an hour! Visions of bankruptcy danced in my head.

    So, I sold that 356 SC for $1800 – only $50 less than I’d paid more than two years before. Was I one shrewd wheeler-dealer or what? In fact, I was so shrewd that I rolled that money into a brand new Chevy Vega. A whole ‘nother story…

    I to have been a bottom feeder since high school. My first cars were a 67 mustang fastback and then I got my moms 68 XL convertible that she wanted me to have. She just wanted me to stop getting into trouble with the mustang. Tom Bertino blew up the mustang while I was at graduation. I later picked up a Porsche 918 for $1800, then an older Supra. After that I went through 3 Fiat 124s and 1 Fiat X1/9. These were a blast to drive. They had very little power, but handled curves like a go kart. As I got older with real income I bought a 93 Porsche 928S4 for $22k. The funny thing was a did not believe I could afford the car and the dealer worked out a deal that I could not refuse. Hunting for 928s was exhausting, but I was determined to have them approved by the Porsche mechanic who was old school and factory trained. After he rejected 4 cars he finally said buy this one. Only a few issues he said. When asked what the issues were he said don’t worry I fixed them. He was great and used my warranty like it was a free bank account. He did almost 12k worth of work under that warranty and would also say your timing gears are dirty, so since I am already inside buy a new set and i will install them free. I loved that guy and my 928. I love Fords, so I kept buying those when I could find a deal. I was working on a cheap Cougar XR7, but the old lady said I was killing myself working on it everyday. I was having a lot of physical problems from it, so the next thing out of her mouth was for me to buy what I wanted complete. Jackpot!! I found a 69 Mach 1, with a 600hp 428ci engine, with a 5 speed Tremic trans. It was a scratch build with Mustang II suspension and Wildwood 4 piston disc brakes all around. I bought it, but found it incomplete, but it is a beast and I do not drive it. Need to sell it and buy a useable vehicle. So much for paying real money to be happy. I am now back to restoring old junk. Kept my 68 Cougar to finish building and also picked up another 81 Fiat 124 for only $350, but I am ready to paint after an unneeded engine rebuild. I am still under $5k at this point. It should be worth $11k when done. Hail to bottom feeders! More fun doing the restorations on an old car that you will have a blast driving.

    I can relate to this article somewhat…in my case though, my fear of expensive problems is offset by my fear of being “that guy” that sold too soon, and regrets it later…these offset each other and cause me to take no definitive action. That said, the real downside for me is that both of these fears conspire to cause me to drive a little less than I otherwise would like to…when I have a lot going on and just don’t want to have deal with another problem…even though I’ve never had the nuclear problem either.

    Rob. I can’t understand why you sold the Mistral because you were afraid of the cam belt breaking. Why didn’t you settle your worries by having a new belt installed before the current one broke? I only sold my Mistral because some idiot offered me much more money for it than I could refuse. At the time I figured it was a brilliant idea, later, not so sure. Wish I still had it.

    It’s a timing chain, not a belt, the chain itself was a fortune, replacing it was beyond my skill set. Engine out, front cover and cylinder head off.

    The Mistral story hurts a bit. But I get it. People who live on a paycheque are not usually in a position to rebuild a badly busted Maserati engine without a LOT of warning… I would have done the same. And regretted it too.

    I hate to do this to you Rob, but all modern water-cooled Porsche engines have locasil coated cylinder walls and all will eventually experience bore scoring. One exception — the Mezger engine in that 911tt you sold (and a few other 996 and 997 cars). The 996 Turbo remains one of the great bargains. Get another one while they’re still cheap!

    I personally solved the ‘996 has a delicate engine’ issue by spending a pretty penny on an rebuild by Jake Raby at Flat 6 Innovations. I figured I would head off the disaster before it happened.

    The love for cars has been replaced with the love of selling cars. To me, that’s sad.
    Everything in my collection would fit the author’s description of bottom feeders. All are fun to drive, none are perfect. None cost more than $5,000.
    None are for sale.

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