The best of the vintage crop

Classic car prices went through the roof in 1987. According to car buff, Michael Booth, it could be about to happen all over again
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The Independent Culture
In 1983 I tried to persuade my Dad to buy an Aston Martin DB5 for pounds 5,000. Did he listen? No. Though, to be fair, I was only 12 years old, and few people would take financial advice from a 12-year-old. Then, apparently determined to prove me right, in 1987 the market for old cars went ballistic. DB5 values reached pounds 80,000 and more; pounds 30,000 Ferrari Dinos went for pounds 120,000; E-Type Jags quadrupled in value; and Morris Marina Coupes became collectable as everyone rushed to snap up an investment they could drive. People even glanced admiringly at Triumph Heralds, if only briefly. Happily, it all went hideously wrong for the flashy braces and stripy-shirt brigade who bought old cars as an alternative to BT shares; within two years prices crashed almost to pre-1987 levels.

Now though, there are signs of a permanent, more sober-minded increase in values, a trend which brings with it a new danger - some truly wonderful cars are still affordable, and I want to buy them all. E-Type prices bottomed out months ago, early Porsches and T-Series MGs have already been moving skywards for about a year and the signs are that, with March approaching, when classic prices traditionally wake up, now is the time to buy. Dealers are already reporting record turnovers and auctioneers are doing a roaring trade. I'll let Robert Brooks, of Brooks Auc-tioneers (one of the country's leading classic specialists, based at Clapham Common in London), explain what on earth is going on: "In `87, the stock market began to get weak and everybody got itchy; house prices were going up; interest rates up; inflation knocking on the door. It's starting to happen again and our sales volume has dramatically increased in the last four months, above the levels of `87, `88."

Buyers are snaffling up cars not primarily as investments (lesson learnt), but for the pleasure of driving them. "It is very dangerous to invest, it's that old cliche - invest in the fun of it," advises Brooks. "But, for goodness sake, don't forget that the best excuse you can give your wife for buying a classic car is that it is a good investment!"

The sub-pounds 10,000 market is the most volcanic at present. These tend to be cars that you can use everyday without worrying where you park them, and they are very cheap to insure, often to run, too, and, of course, they offer whole suitcases more style, presence and aesthetic subtlety than any Nissan Tupperware. Auction houses especially are serving up some incredible bargains right now: Parks, at a recent sale, sold a `66 E-Type 2+2 coupe for pounds 8,505 and a Jensen Interceptor for pounds 4,095, both cars were good, usable examples. Brooks` October sale saw a good Aston DBS V8 go for just pounds 8,625. You need to know your onions to buy safely at a car auction, of course, but then how much did you say they're asking for a new mid-range Escort? pounds 13,000.

The tax man is also fond of cars over four years old with a value of less than pounds 15,000, charging business-perks tax only on their original- list price as opposed to their current value.

In 1973, a Porsche 911 was only about pounds 5,000, so you'll pay roughly pounds 200 perks tax on one as a company car today. The tax on a Vauxhall Vectra would be pounds 1,000 pounds more. And, according to Andrew Thorogood of Andrew Thoro-good Restorations in south London, a well-kept 911 or Jaguar MKII, like dozens of other sub-pounds 10k classics, can make sense as an everyday car: "People don't realise that any old car, if it's sorted, is nicer to drive than many new ones," he reckons. "Owners accept faults with old cars - poor idling, or cornering - that they could easily rectify. New springs and dampers, and suspension bushes can really transform an old car. The real questions you must ask yourself before you buy though are: Why do I want this car? Am I going to enjoy driving and owning it? Or will the cost of its upkeep condemn that enjoyment, and my wallet?" For pounds 30-an-hour Andrew will inspect any classic you might be thinking of buying (a typical inspection might take four or five hours). He and the many other specialists who offer this service are definitely worth the expense.

So what does a wallet stuffed with pounds 10,000 buy you at the moment? Armed with pounds 10,000 in Monopoly money, I went in search of a bargain...

The Garage on the Green, in Parson's Green, West London, was my first stop. Dealers make sense in this price bracket, their mark-up won't be too high and you'll have some peace of mind (buy cars under pounds 3,000 privately though - few dealers can be bothered at that end of the market). The Garage is the sort of place that has me simultaneously skipping like a schoolgirl and plotting the murder of a wealthy relative. It is stuffed to the gills (do warehouses have gills?) with fabulous, gleaming motor cars - Astons, Ferraris, Maseratis, Rollers, Jags, Mercs, Alfas and more.

The owner is Tom Hardyment, who kindly lifted my jaw off the floor and showed me round, offering advice as we went. "I have to say that this trade is absolutely full of people who make Arthur Daley seem like a really nice guy, some seriously evil people," he told me. "But an amazing amount of people still go and buy something very old and complicated without having it checked. They'd never do that with a house, but an old car is more complicated potentially. It is very easy to spend pounds 15,000 restoring a classic car."

Tom had little under pounds 10,000 the day I visited - a condition-B Alfa Romeo Spyder 2,000, a superb white Alfa 1600 GTJ with 30,000 miles on the clock (one of my all-time favourite cars, but not in that colour), and a Porsche 914 (one of the great unloved classics, with good reason, the model was originally intended to be a Volkswagen). A restored blue Lancia Fulvia HF, a late-Sixties rally-bred jewel, caught my eye. Tom told me they were asking pounds 12,000, overpriced by my reckoning, especially with its poor respray. He said he'd take nine, but my Monopoly money stayed put.

Instead, I headed out of London, where prices tend to be lower, to meet John Brown, one of the country's most highly regarded dealers in classics under pounds 20,000. His showroom is housed in several restored 17th- and 18th- century barns in the Hertfordshire village of Steeple Morden.

John is a committed enthusiast who has dealt in classic cars since 1963. His varied stock - ranging from one of the world's first V8-engine cars, a stupendous 1913 Vincent-Hollier at pounds 11,000, to a relatively modern Ferrari Mondail - tends to be straight, honest, but often very keenly priced classics. Several cars really stood out for under pounds 10k. An electric-blue 1950 Bristol 401 for pounds 9,950 appealed with its slippery, all-aluminium bodywork, hand-built to Bentley- beating standards. A vast, red 1946 Chevrolet Fleetmaster De Lux, with an interior like the Radio City Music Hall, and recently seen in the film Evita, was good value for just under pounds 8,000. A near-pornographic gold 1970 E-Type 2+2 with 60,000 miles on the clock had me drooling, too, but was just outside of my Monopoly price range at pounds 13k. And a superb, vivid- blue Jensen Interceptor had, frustratingly, already sold for pounds 6,950.

Finally, I plumped for a plum-coloured Jag. A 1954 MKVII saloon, as high as my eyes and as majestic as the Queen Mary, for pounds 8,950. Traded in for a mahogany boat by a Venetian doctor, who bought it in 1987 for big money and drove it just 100 miles, the manual four-speed Jag was as near to perfect as you would want it to be, its rich maroon leather and walnut interior was invitingly worn. You'll get four in the back without grumbles but, don't forget, these stately old Jag saloons with their indomitable straight six XK engines were Stirling Moss's first-choice competition car, too - they can be hustled at reasonable speeds if you're brave enough to brush your shoulders on the Tarmac going around corners. Spares availability is good (though watch the brake servos which can give up unexpectedly), engines simple to repair, structurally excellent. A sale.

Tragically, John seemed unfamiliar with the market value of Monopoly money and was reluctant to hand over the keys to the car...

Two final pieces of advice about buying old cars. Firstly, never pay the asking price, always haggle and offer cash and, secondly, not letting your heart see your bank account details can be fatal. It is easy to lose contact with the rational part of your brain when faced with your dream car. An example: a friend of mine, when very young, fell in love with a cheap Peugeot 304 S Convertible in sky-blue and bought it as his first car without consulting his brain. It was extremely pretty and preferable to a humdrum MG Midget, but it had no roof, no MOT, no log book, no tax, no floor to speak of and no ignition keys. On his first trip out, the brakes failed and he sailed across a roundabout into the back of a Volvo. He still wakes up in a cold sweat at the memory. So does my Dad.

DAIMLER 2.5 LITRE V8 1963-69 (FROM 1967 - V8 250) pounds 8,500

WHY BUY?

Everything a MKII Jag offers, with

a more refined engine, but because Jaguar purists can be such snobs, five grand less.

WHAT TO WATCH

Many have led more sedate lives than MKIIs, but don't think about tackling full restoration. Is interior tip-top? Chassis sound? Bank manager on holiday?

OR YOU COULD TRY...

S-Type 3.8 - longer-tailed MKII (values rising). Citroen DS from pounds 3,000 - if you fall in love, it will be completely.

LOTUS ELAN S3 OR S4 1966-1971 pounds 9,000

WHY BUY?

A seminal motor-sport design. Few cars handle this well or will paint a smile on your face as wide as the Cheddar Gorge. Restoration viable.

WHAT TO WATCH

Many home-built (they were available as kits) so as fragile as the first little pig's straw house. ("Lotus - loads of trouble, usually serious," says Brown.) Don't ever expect it to start when you need it to. Must have new chassis.

OR YOU COULD TRY...

Mini Cooper S - more fun than being in a room full of helium.

Lancia Fulvia HF - ditto, but you're wearing a sharper suit.

ALVIS TE21 SALOON 1962-66 pounds 9,000

WHY BUY?

Exquisite vintage-style yet 90mph easy with 3-litre engine, a hand-built body by Park Ward that's more subtle than a Roller's, perfect for retired fighter pilots (Douglas Bader had one). "You'll get a good one under pounds 10,000," says Brown.

WHAT TO WATCH

Alloy body with ash frame and steel chassis rots faster than week-old bananas (check windscreen surrounds etc) but engine is reliable. Luxurious leather and wood interiors expensive to replace.

OR YOU COULD TRY...

Bristol 401/2/3 or Armstrong Siddeley Star Sapphire.

ROLLS ROYCE SILVER SHADOW/BENTLEY T1/2 1966-81 pounds 9,000

WHY BUY?

Crewe's finest certainly offers a lot of car for your money. John Brown favours Bentleys in general but sells Shadows regularly for pounds 6,000-pounds 7,000: "Providing you keep three or four grand spare you'll have no worries" he says.

WHAT TO WATCH

Getting a history when you buy is essential. They do tend to rust around the wheel arches. Electrics are poor, pistons knock but engines can last forever. Second-hand parts are available.

OR YOU COULD TRY...

Maserati Quattroporte 1964-1971 (the Godfather's Express) - costlier than a stable full of thoroughbreds to run but somewhat better built than contemporary Ferraris.

TRIUMPH TR4 1961-65 pounds 7,000

WHY BUY?

Compromise of TR series - later cars are complicated and earlier ones rather basic. "There are some fabulous restored cars from the late Eighties around," says Brooks. Agricultural compared to contemporary Italians, but dirt cheap to run, buy, insure and fix.

WHAT TO WATCH

Rot appears in chassis welds. Door gaps should be even (ditto all convertibles). Check chassis is straight. But separate chassis and rugged engines make DIY a doddle. "Fours are such simple things and built relatively well," says Thorogood.

OR YOU COULD TRY...

Charles Price, of London's Paradise Garage, picks MGAs, Austin Healey 100/4s are a lot of fun, too.

ALFA ROMEO GUILIA 1600 SPRINT 1962-64 pounds 8,000

WHY BUY?

Value for money, pedigree, dead cute shape courtesy of designer Scaglione, revvy engine makes great music, skinny tyres equal terrific fun. Compact, frugal yet zippy. This one would most definitely be my choice.

WHAT TO WATCH

In case you haven't heard, old Alfas rust a tad, it's part of their charm. All bodywork is prone, only buy rebuilt car with history (ditto all classics where possible). Again, engines very solid.

OR YOU COULD TRY...

Alfa Romeo 2000 GTV (pre-'76) - juicy as a ripe tomato and with the structural integrity to match, but what a gorgeous shape, what a stunning engine, what a peerless gearbox...

JAGUAR E TYPE 2+2 COUPE 1967-71 pounds 10,000 PLUS

WHY BUY?

Left-handed drive, automatic, and yours for less than pounds 10,000 at auction. Then, swap gearbox for manual, move steering wheel. Simple.

WHAT TO WATCH

Reject recent resprays. "Structure is crucial, check sills, floor, rear suspension. Engines are tough, but rebuilding costs up to pounds 4,000," says Thorogood. Insist on an inspection.

OR YOU COULD TRY...

Aston Martin DBS6, if you've got the cojones (taking Fergie shopping could be cheaper option, though). Chevy Corvette. Maserati Mexico.

JENSEN INTERCEPTOR 1967-76 pounds 6,500

WHY BUY?

To cruise Kings Road wearing sideburns and sunglasses. "Bloody good value," says Brown. "All engine problems solvable with off-the-shelf parts," says Brooks. "You'll get a stunning one for under pounds 10,000" says Hardyment.

WHAT TO WATCH

"For goodness sake, look out for structural problems [sills and bulkheads]," says Brooks. 7.2 litres have Oliver Reed thirst (11mpg) and can overheat.

OR YOU COULD TRY...

Mercedes 220S/SE Coupe. Lancia Falminia Coupe - the most beautiful car ever made. Don't argue.

PORSCHE 912 1965-70 912E 1976-77 pounds 5-6,500

WHY BUY?

The 912, with its smaller motor, gives slightly less performance, but handles better than the pendulous 911. Better fuel economy too. Reliable.

WHAT TO WATCH

Jeff Moyes at AFN, Chiswick, London: "Body condition is very important but the post-1976 USA spec cars were galvanised so are the best buy." Beware noisy/smokey motors and rusty heat exchangers.

OR YOU COULD TRY...

Porsche 356 - a purist's choice but prices rising fast. Fiat Dino Coupe has lyrical Ferrari engine.

FIAT 124 SPORT SPYDER 2000 1966-85 pounds 5,000

WHY BUY?

Elegant and eye-catching. Groovy twin cam. Loads of cheap imports around. You don't really want an MGB Roadster do you?

WHAT TO WATCH

Rot to buggery. Watch suspension, mounts and front-wheel arches. Most left-handed drive, though conversions plausible. USA emission controls troublesome - remove and take less deep breaths. "FIAT - Fix It Again, Tony," warns acronym-friendly Brown.

OR YOU COULD TRY...

Alfa Spyder - cliched but fab. And, okay if you insist, MBG Roadsters are very sensible.

FURTHER INFORMATION

Andrew Thorogood Restorations, 0171 720 8616; The Garage On The Green, 0171 384 1100; Brooks Auctioneers, 0171 228 8000 (next sale February 22 at Olympia); John Brown, 01763 852200. (Prices are for sound, usable cars, not show condition. And, no, I don't like MGs).

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