If you’re like me—and really, I hope you’re not, but we all know that deep down you are—you’re always looking for the next car. Fingers reflexively type certain things into Craigslist and Facebook Marketplace. Some of them are impossibly hopeful things like “E-Type.” Some are masochistic things like “Lotus Elan,” “Triumph GT6,” and “TVR.” But mostly I stay within my BMW-related wheelhouse, as the knowledge that’s accumulated from nearly four decades of familiarity with a marque or model translates into a huge amount of risk reduction at purchase time.
Of course, that’s to be traded off against the lure of the new. Buying the Lotus Europa in 2013 may have gotten me into six years of trouble, but I do love the car, and it did give me a great opportunity to break out of my BMW myopia.
As we head into the heart of fall in New England, when the colors on the trees are a delight to the senses yet you can feel the cold blasts of winter lurking just around the corner, my biorhythms seem programmed to get me thinking about what I can buy in the short window of opportunity before the snow falls. Last October, my purchase actually made some sense: It was a 2004 BMW X5 with the triple-unicorn-rare combination of six-speed manual transmission, sports package, and tow package that made me think that, in theory, I could have one car that was both a fun enjoyable daily driver and also a tow vehicle to drag home other cars. However, as the saying goes, theory and practice are the same in theory but not in practice. I drove the X5 last winter, which was so mild that I never had an all-wheel-drive-saves-your-butt experience. But more to the point, I never really warmed to the X5’s size and bulk, never used it to tow anything, and was glad to sell it this past spring and go back to driving my E39 5 Series sedan.
As it happened, that X5 was the last car I bought and the last car I sold. Much of that has been a result of COVID-19. At the start of the pandemic, any departure from quarantine seemed unnecessarily risky, and going out and looking at a car seemed the height of frivolity. As the months have passed, though, and there’s better data on virus transmission mechanism and contact risks—e.g., you’re unlikely to catch it from a steering wheel or a shift knob, and those chances fall to zero with nitrile-gloved hands, but it’s a good idea not to share a test drive with the potential buyer or seller—I’m peeking my head out of my shell and thinking about what the next car might be.
Now, I am blessed in many ways, and the cars are certainly among those blessings. Whenever I open up my garage and see the vintage BMWs and the Lotus, my brain literally feels a rush of endorphins and thinks, even after all these years, how happy it is to see these cars and how lucky I am to own them. And if you want my advice, that, my friends, is the single largest determining factor of what you should buy and hold onto. Buy what makes you think, “Wow, I can’t believe I really own this thing,” every time you open the garage. People can extol the virtues of Miatas and Broncos and WRXs all they want. It doesn’t matter. I am never going to buy one. They don’t light my fire. I can’t ever imagine opening my garage and being happy to see one. You probably feel the same way about the Europa. And that’s fine. Vive la différence. We love what we love.
Let’s drill down a level deeper to deconstruct the taxonomy of automotive attraction in general. If you love the exterior lines of a car, the interior (particularly the dashboard layout), and how the car drives, you’ve hit the trifecta and you get hooked on that particular model for life (but a strong pull on any two of these can render the third nearly irrelevant). I love the purity and simplicity of small, light, functional, quick, tossable, pre-big-bumper, pre-catalytic cars, so a well-set-up BMW 2002 or 2002tii with a goosed-up engine and stiff suspension checks all the boxes for me. My 1973 E9 3.0CSi coupe is more of a touring car than a corner carver, but it’s just so gorgeous that its highway comfort is hardly a demerit. The dashboard of the Lotus doesn’t light my fire the way a vintage Jaguar does, but the car is just such a slot-car hoot that it still takes home the prize. The Z3 M Coupe (the “clownshoe”) is so badass-looking, quick, and fun to drive that the fact that it’s not “simple” is lost in the rear-view mirror with the scattering leaves.
Really, I should’ve just bought that $7500 ’73 C3 Corvette I wrote about a few months back, the one with the accent striping, which I joked was like falling in love with a trailer park girl who wore too much mascara. It made no sense—the interior did absolutely nothing for me, and it was an automatic to boot—and yet I still keep looking at her photo like a cowboy in a country song would, and that tells me a lot. The pleasure centers of my brain would have lit up every time I opened the garage door and looked at her. I searched for other C3s, but none spoke to me the way the striped car did or had its attractive price point. It certainly would’ve been something different for me.
Of course, one problem is that I already have a car waiting in winter’s wings. It’s the 1999 BMW Z3 I sold to a friend and neighbor a few years ago. As I wrote in August, the car now needs a clutch, so I could buy it back at a very good price. However, both my neighbor and I have been careful not to make commitments or offers, as she doesn’t really want to sell it, and I’m not certain I want to blow my one available winter storage space by buying it. So, it’s sort of the back-up date to the prom if the girl you’re head-over-heels for turns you down.
For the fall search, I set my sights on a couple of cars. I’ve always thought that the Z32-chassis Nissan 300ZX sold in the U.S. from 1989–2000 is a beautiful, well-proportioned car whose value in the used market seemed to have been left behind by that of its childhood neighbor, the Supra. It seemed like, as recently as two years ago, there were solid, good-looking, stock, non-2+2, non-turbo Z32s in the $4000–$5000 range, but looking now, most of the intact cars seem to have drifted north of five figures.
In alignment with my odd, longstanding Rambler lust, I had a brief and bizarre infatuation with a dirt-cheap 1963 Rambler Ambassador 880 wagon, with power everything and killer patina, located in the high desert southwest of Palm Springs. I fantasized about doing another Ran When Parked (my book about buying a decade-dead ’72 2002tii and bringing it back to life). The fact that I have two nephews who live in San Diego, and I could have the beast towed to their place and work on it there, enabled the fantasy—but a few sanity-check emails with the seller revealed that the engine was seized.
But after this left-brain analysis of what the right brain is attracted to, there’s another category of ads we click on, the ones I call “WOW, I had no idea you could pick up one of these this cheaply.” Many big German luxo-barge sedans depreciate down into this category, but their bulk is such that, even with the price, I think “So what? I don’t want a thousand-dollar BMW 750iL as a daily driver and wouldn’t be likely to pleasure-drive one as a weekend car.”
German coupes and roadsters, well, they’re another story. For many years, the V-12 BMW 850i coupe was dirt cheap. You’d see running but needy ones for two and three grand. I even looked at a couple of rare 850i six-speeds that were advertised at around $4K. But, like the 300ZX, early ’90s nostalgia seems to have swept the value of these upward.
But then I stumbled across something new. Early this week, I saw a black and gray R129-chassis 1995 Mercedes-Benz SL500 on Craigslist. I’m not even sure how I found it. I may have been searching for “convertible” or “roadster” and sorting by price. The ad was short, saying only “315hp. No rust, excellent interior, everything works. Always garaged, low miles, nice driver, but it slips in reverse. All forward gears work perfectly. $2800 or best offer.” SLs have never really been out-and-out lust cars for me, but, I thought, damn, 315 horsepower, electric soft top, removable hard top … this car was ninety grand new. You can’t even buy a six-cylinder Z3 for $2800 (well, except the one I have on prom date standby).
I take pride in not wasting anyone’s time (including my own) or leading people on, and not asking endless questions about bargain-basement cars that can usually be answered by showing up and having a look. Unfortunately, the car was up in Burlington, Vermont, nearly four hours north of me, and I did need to know how bad the reverse problem was, as the inability to back the car out of my driveway would obviously be a problem. I texted the seller, who responded, “It doesn’t quite drop all the way into reverse. It kind of slips and engages weakly, but doesn’t pop out. I’m told it might be something called a P3 valve, which can be changed without dropping the transmission.” I did a little reading on a Mercedes forum and found posts that confirmed this was a possibility. Of course, it could also be a worn clutch ring, in which case the transmission would need to come out and be rebuilt. But for $2800, perhaps it was worth the drive and the risk.
Then I went down the rabbit hole and spent several hours getting smart on R129 SLs. I learned that they’re generally very well-regarded as high build-quality cars and are probably at the bottom of their depreciation curve, valued at $10,500 in #3 (Good) condition. I also learned that they’re a bit sportier than their doctor’s-wife-image might indicate and that 1995 is the last year of the pre-facelift R129, whose four-speed automatic has a reputation for being sluggish on downshifts, has distributor caps and plug wires instead of contemporary coil-on-plug “stick coils,” and has no OBD-II connector (a proprietary 38-pin plug instead), which makes engine management diagnostics more difficult than 1996 and later cars. But high build quality doesn’t mean bulletproof; the “problems to be aware of” list includes A/C evaporator and heater core leaks that require removal of the dashboard, and attention to the 11 hydraulic cylinders that raise and lower the soft top.
Of particular concern is the fact that 1995 falls into the range of years where Mercedes, in compliance with Germany’s aggressive recycling laws, used wiring with biodegradable insulation, and unfortunately, the heat in the engine compartment caused the rate of degradation to be much higher than expected, resulting in insulation on the four wiring harnesses in the engine compartment becoming brittle, cracking, and flaking off. The result is that wires can short-circuit against each other and to ground, creating all manner of electrical issues. Some forums said that this is nothing to be afraid of, as most of the harnesses have already been replaced, and even if they haven’t, it shouldn’t automatically rule out an otherwise desirable car, but looking on eBay, I found that the going price for a used updated Delphi main engine harness was $700. So, along with the transmission issue, the cost of being wrong would quickly equal the asking price of the car.
Then I thought about the mechanics of the drive to look at the car. If it was only an hour or two away, I’d just shoot out there and check it out, but four hours each way is enough of a schlep that you only want to do it once—either drive up there solo with a truck and a trailer prepared to pounce and drag the kill back to your lair, or go in a car with a second driver so one of you can drive the newly-acquired car home. My wife would certainly be up for a leaf-peeping trip of a few hours, but eight hours of road time (which probably means 11 or 12 on the clock) is only fun for the car person getting the adrenaline rush of the thrill of the hunt and fresh meat for the garage. As for doing it solo, I don’t currently own a truck or trailer. Borrowing a truck carries risks, and by the time I pay for the diesel and the rental of the U-Haul auto transporter, it’d be about $200 out of pocket.
All of which means that, low price or no, it’s non-trivial ante to put on the table for a car I never really gave a second thought to.
The other stumbling block is the question I ask myself whenever I’m close to stepping outside my comfort zone: What would this car be for? Do I see myself as a Benz guy? The idea of the car having the hardtop is appealing, as it largely eliminates the “if you park a convertible outside, you kill it” issue, but would I get stress-busting top-down drives out of it like the lighter snappier Z3? Or is its only real appeal the bragging rights of snagging an attractive sub-100,000-mile R129 for $2800, even if it meant that I’d need to try to always park where it doesn’t need to be backed up? That’s a pretty weak basis for a relationship
And, most important, would I be excited to see it in my garage, or would it just be a novelty?
I needed to think about it.
I decided to text the seller and ask if he knew if the engine harness had been replaced. The answer was good news / bad news: “The reason for the salvage title is because the wiring harness was toast. It has been replaced. But it really is a solid car, no rust, nice paint and clearcoat, low miles.”
Wait, there’s a salvage title?
You know, I try not to ask a thousand questions…
Like that striped C3 Corvette, I find myself looking at the photo of the R129 in the Craigslist ad, hitting refresh, not sure if I hope it’s still there more than I hope it shows up as deleted, meaning sold. Because if it does, that probably means I’m taking my friend, the Z3, to the prom. That’s a practical choice. But it lacks a little romance.
We’ll see. The prom’s still a few weeks away.
Rob Siegel has been writing a column (The Hack Mechanic™) for BMW CCA Roundel magazine for 34 years and is the author of seven automotive books. His new book, The Lotus Chronicles: One man’s sordid tale of passion and madness resurrecting a 40-year-dead Lotus Europa Twin Cam Special, is now available on Amazon (as are his other books), or you can order personally-inscribed copies from Rob’s website, robsiegel.com.