Is All Fair in Love and Vintage Cars?

Facebook Marketplace

If I’m interested in a car and make contact with a seller but it’s not a drop-everything-and-show-up-with-cash-and-a-trailer situation, I’ll often say, “Let me think about it. If it sells, it sells. All’s fair in love and vintage cars.”

It’s a throw-away line, but it raises the question: What is fair? I think most of us would agree that there’s a special place in hell for people who sell a car out from under us when they’ve agreed to show it to us and we’re already on the way, but there’s even some gray in that.

The question was shoved to the forefront last week in an interaction over a 1971 Lotus Elan +2 (often written as “Plus 2”). The way it spun out left a bad taste in my mouth.

If you don’t know what an Elan +2 is, it’s a cool car. While the 1962–73 Lotus Elan was the 1500-pound, fiberglass-on-steel-backbone, front-engine two-seat roadster whose look was cribbed by the Mazda Miata, and while the Lotus Europa was the polarizing but well-balanced mid-engine two-seat coupe built from 1966 to 1975, the Type 50 Elan +2 of 1967–75 is a car that many people don’t know exists. It got the “Elan” name, and it’s sort of a stretched Elan. It’s two feet longer and about eight inches wider, and it uses the same basic fiberglass-on-steel backbone, with four-wheel independent suspension and four-wheel disc brakes. Power comes from the same iteration of the front-mounted Lotus-Ford Twin Cam engine, but the +2 is a completely different car; the frame, the fiberglass panels, the glass, and the interior and trim parts are not interchangeable with the Elan roadster. I think the 2000-pound Elan +2, the “family man’s Lotus,” is a beautiful car, particularly the ones with the two-tone roof. And, unlike my Europa, the Elan +2 looks good from every angle. I saw one for the first time when I drove my just-resurrected and barely-running ’74 Europa Twin Cam Special to the Lotus Owners Gathering in Sturbridge, Massachusetts, in 2019, and I was instantly transfixed by both the car’s lithe, unique exterior lines and the quintessentially British dashboard. And if all this sounds a bit familiar, I did write about it when I had a look at a drivetrain-less Elan +2 a few years ago.

Lotus Elan Plus 2 nose
The lovely nose of an Elan +2.Rob Siegel
1973_Lotus_Elan_+2S_130-5_rear_Hatfield_Broak_Oak
The rear quarter look is equally crisp.Wiki Commons/Acabashi
Lotus Elan Plus 2 Dash
And oh, that dash.Rob Siegel

As was the case with the Elan roadster, there were iterations in the +2’s trim and the power of the twin-cam engine. The Elan +2S succeeded the +2 in 1968 with nicer cabin appointments. In 1971, the +2S received the same so-called “Big Valve” twin-cam engine as the Elan Sprint and the Europa, and the new version was designated the “+2S 130,” which represents the engine’s 126 horsepower rounded up. This is a bit misleading for U.S.-spec cars, though, as the Federal version of the so-called “Sprint specification” engine was detuned with lower compression, I believe different camshafts, and emission controls. Further, the U.S.-spec engines had Stromberg carbs instead of Webers like the Euro cars. And the carbs couldn’t simply be swapped, either, as different intake manifolds were actually cast into the head. In fact, a substantial portion of the power boost reportedly came from modifications to the Weber-specific intake runners. The totality of these difference resulted in the Federal-spec “Big Valve” engines having a reported 113 hp. Lastly, there’s the uber-rare Elan +2S 130/5, the only +2 with a five-speed gearbox, all of which were reportedly right-hand-drive cars. In total, about 5200 +2s were built, with as few as 153 +2S 130 cars reportedly sold in the United States. So it’s a rare car—and a desirable one for Lotus nuts..

However, one of the problems with having resurrected a 40-year-dead 1974 Europa Twin Cam is that I know how much it cost me to do so, so there’s no fooling myself in thinking that reviving a dead Elan +2 would be any different. The Lotus-Ford Twin Cam engine is a wonderful little mill with a surprising amount of midrange torque for a 1558-cc four-banger, but the fact that it has a boutique Lotus twin-cam head on top of a Ford Kent pushrod block means that the entire front timing case is unique to the engine, and it includes a water pump that’s integrated with the cover instead of being a simple bolt-on part. This means that replacement of the water pump requires removing the front timing cover, which in turn usually means pulling the head and the pan. At least, though, in the Elan and +2, the engine’s in the front, so you don’t have to pull the engine as you do in the mid-engine Europa. This is one of the reasons Lotuses developed their “Lots Of Trouble Usually Serious” reputation—many of these cars developed a leaky water pump from sitting, and when the owners learned the cost of replacing it, the cars were parked, often for decades. When I saw the needy +2 a few years ago, I decided that, to make the numbers work, I’d need to get it basically for free.

So, with that backdrop, you can see why I was excited by the following ad on Facebook Marketplace. The ad said “Elan,” but the photos clearly showed a +2:

“Posting for my dad (who is not a tech savvy guy): For Sale: Lotus Elan Project or Parts Car. Are you a classic car enthusiast or a restoration expert? Here’s a unique opportunity to own a piece of automotive history! Car: 1972 Lotus Elan. Condition: Non-Running. Title: No Title Available (not needed in RI due to its age). Ideal For: Project Car or Parts. This iconic Lotus Elan is perfect for someone looking to embark on a restoration project or in need of rare parts. Though it doesn’t run and comes without a title, it boasts a solid fiberglass body and numerous original components. Location: Rhode Island (RI). Transport: Buyer must arrange own transport after purchase Price: $1,000 or best offer.”

The ad had been up for just 26 minutes, making it possible that I might be the first one to respond. However, although the price was appealing as hell, the poor cell phone photos showed a basket case—the body was rough and the car was sitting outside in the dirt.

The one bad pic of the interior showed a dashboard with much of the wood veneer peeling, wires hanging, and a missing door panel.

Lotus Elan interior damage
Yeah, that’s not good either.Facebook Marketplace

Still, “$1,000 or best offer” is as close to free as you’re going to find an Elan +2. I messaged the seller (well, the seller’s daughter), explaining that I was a vintage Lotus owner up in Boston who could come down immediately, could make decisions quickly, and had cash. She said she’d forward my message to her father, and gave me his cell number. I immediately called and left a message on his voicemail as well as texted him the same info.

While I waited to hear from him, the wheels spun in my mind. Realistically, the car was likely a mildewed, mouse-urine-reeking wreck from sitting outside. The engine was probably seized, and the lack of a title would be problematic in Massachusetts. However, if the seller had an old registration, that would be enough to register the car here. But who knows? If the +2 had all three of those strikes against it, it made no sense, but maybe I’d get lucky and it had only one or two. And maybe I’d open the hood and find not only the “Big Valve” lettering on the valve cover, but Webers and no emission controls, indicating the car was a true European +2S 130. I’ve learned that you never know until you actually lay eyeballs and hands on a car. It may speak to you in surprising ways. Of course, in speaking to you, it may do a Gandalf (“Fly, you fool!”).

I never heard from the owner that night. Or the following morning. A few hours later, the ad was taken down. Shortly after, I received a two-word text from him: “It’s sold.” Sigh. On the one hand, like I say, all is fair in love and vintage cars. But on the other hand, I’d answered the ad when it had been up for 26 minutes. How fast do you need to be? I posted the episode on Facebook, along with the pics of the ratty car. My friends jumped all over me for even considering such a basket-case and universally agreed that I’d dogged a bullet. Even my endlessly supportive wife commented, “Whew!”

Then, just one day later, the car was back up on Facebook Marketplace. I was stunned to see it advertised by a different seller—for eight thousand dollars. The ad showed the freshly washed car outside a repair facility in an industrial park and read: “Storage fresh 1971 Lotus Elan 2s 130-5. Car is complete, motor turns freely. Rare car less than 1000 of these made low production tag number #159. Fiberglass body steel frame dual cam 5spd. Spare and tool kit is complete. Fiberglass is in good shape frame has no rot. Car needs full resto!!!”

Okay. First, “Storage fresh” my butt.

Second, to use my own words, was this “fair?”

I have to say, I was pissed. To be clear, it wasn’t as if the car was sold out from under me. The owner had never contacted me, so I’d made no appointment. And I can’t say I would have even bought it. But I really wanted to go see it and make that judgment for myself. The guy who snagged it was in a town much closer to Rhode Island than I am. He likely responded just before or just after me and probably said “I will be there in 30 minutes with a trailer and cash and will buy it,” which is not something I would have said (too risk-averse) or could have done (no trailer).

But two things really bothered me. The first is that, to me, someone swooping in, buying the car, towing it to his business, washing it, verifying that the engine wasn’t seized, looking up enough information to flag it as an Elan +2s 130, taking 21 admittedly better cellphone pics, and reposting it didn’t come close to being enough work to justify octupling the price, particularly when the car had no title either before or after the flip.

Lotus Elan side profile paint damage
Okay, maybe he inflated the tires too.Facebook Marketplace

The second is that there are thousands of cars out there for flippers to flip. Emotionally, spiritually, big-circle-of-automotive-life-wise, I feel in my bones that a car like this really should have gone directly from the owner to someone who will love it. I posted this second episode with the car to Facebook, and the near-universal outcry was “flippers are scum and are ruining the vintage car world.” The lone dissenter was the guy I nearly bought the TVR 2500M from last summer.

Then again, who knows? Maybe that first seller wasn’t even the car’s real owner. Maybe he bought a house with the car sitting on the property and just wanted to get rid of it. After all, he didn’t know enough to even have his daughter list it as an Elan +2. I do have the owner’s cell number from when he messaged me “it’s sold,” but he wasn’t communicative with me when I was interested. I don’t want to waste his time or mine trying to be a journalist getting to the bottom of something.

I have to admit that the flipper’s photos did show a few new things, so he did add some value there. Not seven grand worth of value, but some value. Crucially, his ad had underhood pics. The engine photos showed a ribbed valve cover with the “Big Valve” lettering visible, so it was an S130 car. However, it also clearly showed Stromberg carburetors, not Webers, and it had the pair of metal “crossover tubes” connecting the exhaust and intake manifolds, all of which indicated that this was a Federal-spec +2S 130, not a true 126-hp Euro car. Since my understanding is that all of the rare five-speed 130/5 cars were non-Federal-spec right-hand-drive vehicles, I think it’s likely the flipper is mistaken about the five-speed part. And the radiator is missing, lending credence to the tie-in between the Lotus acronym and water pump failure.

Lotus Elan engine wear
Yup, Federal-spec Big Valve engine like in my Europa.Facebook Marketplace

Oh, the car also had a smashed front windshield, and the interior was even worse than I thought.

Lotus Elan interior damage
Yeah, it’s a mess. But if you look closely, you can see two air-conditioning control knobs behind the gearshift lever. So, as Bill Murray’s Carl Spackler would say, it’s got that goin’ for it.Rob Siegel

As annoyed as I was that the buy/no-buy decision had been taken away from me and that this guy was trying to make windfall money from a bag-and-drag, I had to admit that the evidence was tipping in the direction that, had I seen the car, I would’ve been sane and walked away from it. And that let me think about the whole thing in a different way.

I became curious enough about the flipper that I looked at the other ads he was running on his Marketplace profile. I saw several with titles like “Muscle cars wanted dead or alive” and “I buy muscle cars and unwanted classics.” One of them read “Muscle cars and classic WANTED ANY CONDITION Barn Shed Garage Woods finds. Buy a piece of property? Inheritance? Storage unit? CASH Paid hassle free sale.” So there’s no question he’s doing this as a business. He had a bit of a mixed reputation in the Marketplace ratings, with some folks complaining about curt language and cars being sold before they came (his reply to one was simply “first come first serve”), but others said they thought he was a straight-up guy.

The more I thought about it, the less annoyed I was. I’m a car person, he’s a car person. We do different things. I don’t flip cars. If a car lives with me for a while and I can make it a better version of what it is, write about it in the process, and then sell it at some point down the road, great, but purchase-and-sale itself isn’t a source of income for me—writing is. Vive le différence. Hate the flip, hate the flipper, but he’s a car person. It’s still difficult for me to see what value someone like him brings to the vintage car community, but I can definitely see how some sellers simply want a car gone, without the thousand questions and no-shows that accompany the process.

So, other than wondering how I’m ever going to beat everyone to a deal again if a 26-minute-from-posting response time isn’t fast enough, I’m good.

But “storage fresh?” Give me a break.

***

Rob’s latest book, The Best Of The Hack Mechanic™: 35 years of hacks, kluges, and assorted automotive mayhem, is available on Amazon here. His other seven books are available here on Amazon, or you can order personally inscribed copies from Rob’s website, www.robsiegel.com.

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Comments

    Interesting story and a good read. And I think Rob came to the correct conclusions. Aside from that, (and as he alluded to) the +2 was an unknown to me, so I appreciated the opportunity to learn a little something. Finally, in looking at the initial set of photos, I second the “oh, that dash” caption!

    I don’t agree with it being represented as storage fresh. That’s intentionally misleading as it makes it sound like it’s been in a storage building. But I don’t have a problem with a person buying a car and flipping it as long as they didn’t misrepresent themselves. Not to say that they have to be upfront about it being a flip, but they shouldn’t lie about intentions to pull at a seller’s heartstrings.

    Well sitting under a field under a cover is “storage”, poor storage is still storage, and hey maybe the mildew is fresh, but I am of the flippers are garbage opinion. I do see the utility of a hassle free sale though

    Maybe the owner should have pushed it into a barn instead of leaving it outside before the sale – then he could have said “BARN FIND!” and everyone would go wild. Or maybe “Recent* Barn Find”, the “*recent” meaning they recently pushed it into a barn.

    The rules are there are no rules when selling a Lotus.

    #1 if you think it to be a great deal you drop all including heart surgery to go look.

    #2 If you are selling a Lotus you take the money from the first person to show the cash. No matter what.

    #3 a lose like this should be God saved me from a mess I would have had. It was meant not to be.

    As for flippers. They play by the same rules but they stick to them that is how they make money. If you want a car you must be a predator, make the time, have the drive hold the money. Waffle and you will lose the purchase every time. This is not like buying a new car. You are dealing with one car.

    But still buy with your head. Even that $1000 Lotus may be nothing but a pure money pit that will break you. Be prepared but educated.

    Yeah, I agree with all that, but I still wanted to see it and make that decision for myself. A huge part of what we love about cars is the exercise of choice. We all might as well swagger Sinatra-like about doing it Myyyyyyyy Waaaaaaaay. I certainly do.

    I don’t agree with #1. It’s a car, darn it. Versus your heart? C’mon, man.

    Anyway, as I’ve thought more about it, and having re-read that original ad, I’m not sure there wasn’t some sort of potential scam brewing here anyway. First off, the ad was a phony-sounding as they come. Then the “owner” didn’t respond to your (three ways!) attempts at contact. I can’t figure out what the angle might have been, but I’m smelling more fishy aroma than mouse pee here. I think the esteemed Mrs. Siegel had the appropriate response: “whew”!

    I certainly don’t blame you for your heartache, but please consider, and correct me if I’m wrong, since I am no expert, but, any long-term, field-parked vehicle, up to its rockers in dirt, over time, would likely extract years of moisture from the ground, to at least rust the steel frame? The fact that it survived extrication, doesn’t necessarily imply all is well, either. You could be fortunate to have avoided a severe case of buyer’s remorse, if that’s any consolation.

    Rob you stated it in the story title. All is fair in love and vintage cars.

    Like they say about Fight Club.
    #1 rule in fight club is there are no rules. In buying vintage cars there are no rules.

    Before any buying opportunities come up you need to be informed, this way it will help in snap decisions.

    Once you get an opportunity you must act now. If not be willing to risk the loss.

    If something is too good to be true still check it out but if still unsure walk away.

    In buying rare or hard to find cars there is always a risk because if it is advertised. As for buyers there is too few people with cash vs tire kickers to wait on you. First cash wins.

    I truly hate buying a car on impulse but sometimes you have to. I try not to do it and have lost some good deals due to it. But I don’t complain if they did not wait on my way. In fact I have been glad I failed to make a few deals.

    My Corvette was a recent quick buy. I really wanted to look more as the hunt is fun. In this case I knew it was a good car. I had two Corvette buddies tell me not to miss it. The service manage at the dealer was a long time buddy car guy and he did the service and said it was a good car.

    So I pulled the trigger after one day of trying yo find a reason not to buy. To this day I have only found one car in the same condition and color at the same price and it even lacked a $1500 new roof. I can say this time I chose wisely. Being prepared helped.

    It was not my normal way but sometime you have to change the tune.

    Note my way was Elvis last live concert song he sang.

    2 years ago, a 65 vette convertible, apart but all there. Seller wanted 20K. I talked to him on the phone, he was not available the next day to show it. Made an appointment for 2 days later. Got a phone message a day later that it was leaving on a trailer. That one still hurts!

    I found myself in a similar situation a few years ago, but I was the “swooper”. I’ll explain.

    An ad popped up on Craigslist for a Mustang. 4 pictures of an early Mustang buried under boxes and such, short description, “needs work, condition unknown”. One picture was a partial shot of the engine and I could see a generator, another showed a luggage rack on the trunk. Car showed on the map as being very close to my home so I called even though I’m not a Mustang guy. Youngish guy answered the phone, turned out it was located less 10 minutes away. I headed out immediately. Guy was in his 30’s and he was helping his family clean out his deceased grandfathers house to be able to sell the property. He was from another state, hadn’t seen his grandfather in several years, and wasn’t a “car guy” I looked at the car, after moving some of the junk off of it, and found an early “64 1/2” coupe. 260 V-8, automatic. Car was solid, had been in the same general area, east central Ga, its whole life from what I could tell. I didn’t even argue on the price and paid the $2500 asking price. Called a buddy that owned a towing service and had him send a roll back, just so I didn’t leave the car, as the seller had 3 more calls while I was there. While I was waiting I moved stuff off the car and also found some new parts on some shelving. Seller said I could have them if I wanted. There wasn’t any paperwork in the car, and the seller wasn’t real interested in hunting for any in the house, but given the age of the car it wasn’t a real issue in Ga.

    Got the car home and started going over it. Most recent sticker on the tag was from 1988, some 30 years previous. Engine turned over after soaking the cylinders with ATF/acetone, there was zero rot underneath just surface rust and the interior was in fairly good shape. Odometer showed 26K miles, which I believe was 126K. Only problem I found was the rear end making a lot of noise, probably the reason the car was parked.

    As I said earlier, I’m not a Mustang guy. I ended up taking the car a couple month later to a show in south Ga and offering it for sale. I had cleaned it up some and listed it for a fair price, albeit a good bit more than I paid for it. I went home with a deposit on it and the buyer was at my place the following weekend with the balance.

    Did I buy it to flip? Definitely. Did I make a good profit? Yes. However I could have made probably 2-3K more if I wanted to push it. I was more interested in the car being put back on the road and enjoyed than the extra 2K.

    I recall an ad in the classifieds that amuses me to this day. “‘62 Dodge that runs. Asking $1Million but will accept less”.

    Car Person? Disagree. These typically sell for what, $26? 30k? How is $8K rational other than someone just trying to exploit an enthusiast? No different than individuals who buy NOS parts to mark them up higher than the value of the car. I understand it’s a way to make money, but I have no sympathy for a 700% profit margin advertised under shady pretense. This is the toxic side of the hobby.

    Totally agree. He’s definitely not a car guy. Sounds more like someone who will buy anything if he thinks he can make a quick buck.

    My issue with folks like this with arguably insane asking prices for what is mostly junk, is that they raise the perceived value of similar vehicles to other people. “I know what it’s worth” is something you see in ads all the time. No you don’t. You know what the FB overlords are showing you. It’s only worth what someone is willing to pay you for it. So if you have been turning down multiple offers over multiple weeks and still think you are being lowballed, maybe your estimation of value is the problem.

    And as often as I have been “swooped” out of a deal, I also see the ad removed and find the vehicle or parts in the scrap yard within a month. Scrap a vehicle and you are doing good to make $250-$300 around here, so why be firm on selling for a $1000 a rusted carcass of a car that has a tree growing out of the hood?

    My experience with my GTO addiction is a seller will say: “I saw a car JUST LIKE THIS sell on Mecum/BarrettJackson for $12 million- I know what I’ve got.”
    Um, no. Your rusted, Power glide 2bbl/326 Tempest faked into a ’66 GTO isn’t.
    Your “knower” is broken, please come to Earth. My favorite scam involves the taillights. ’66 GTOs had specific louvered lamps, y’all know this; but I keep having people trying to sell me “GTOs” that all the Tempest/LeMans stuff was changed… except the large, rectangular unlouvered taillights. God I hate these idiots that waste our time.🤬

    Wasn’t aware of this model, a great-looking car.

    Title issues should scare most away, unless the price for a pile of parts justifies the risk and hassle this can ensue.

    Money talks and we know what runs a marathon. Just because the guy is asking 8K doesn’t mean that’s what it will sell for, and I would bet the first person with 3K in green paper will end up with that instrument of masochism in their driveway. Flipper took the risk and put a little sweat equity into getting it into more sellable condition. His buyer will determine how much that is worth.

    Marketplace and Craigslist car ads are almost always fishy. Tried numerous times to see cars posted. Like 13 cars. Never worked out. Ignored or treated like crap. I no longer even open those sites

    We looked for 2 years for the right C2 Corvette and was getting ready to fly to Texas to look at one. On a lark I checked craigslist and lo and behold was a C2 coupe for sale. It was the right color, right interior, right price. I was on the phone Immediately and agreed to pay the asking price, and told him we were on the way. The car was about 30 minutes away. When we arrived he was talking to someone on the phone who he said was offering him more money. I said look, we had an agreement. He reluctantly said o.k. and I handed him the money and we drove home in our new old 64 Corvette coupe. That was 11 years ago and we still love this car. Not everything works out, but sometimes it does.

    I see flippers as people who discover cars make a buck and get them to people who normally will get them on the road.

    The real crime often are people who sit on them and refuse to sell saying I plan to restore it and you know they never will. That killed the car and often it will be too far gone later.

    He’s asking 8 but it’s only worth what someone will pay. It seems to have a lot of strikes against it and it’s likely to go from dreamer to dreamer into the unknown future. In this hobby we have to take risks, be aggressive and stay prepared to get what we want.
    It’s gone. You probably did dodge a bullet. It may show up later for sale.

    You know, five speeds, 1, 2, 3, 4, and R.

    This story confirms what’s been suspected seeing ads for old cars on FaceBook Marketplace.

    Freshly put in storage after outside storage is more accurate. I still think you dodged a bullet.

    Oh come on, Rob. You’re mad that somebody swooped in and bought the car, no questions asked, before you could drive over and ‘decide whether you wanted it or not’? You got beat out, that’s all. The seller wasn’t a car guy and didn’t care who got it; money talks.

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