Motoring: Vroom at the top

For the price of a super mini, you could own a supercar, though keeping it on the road may ask more of your pocket. What's it to be, asks Michael Booth, Metro or Maserati?

With a winter recession biting hard and the classic car boom long forgotten, supercars have never been so cheap. Not just Ferraris, but all manner of genuine, cojones- busting, out-and-out supercars are up for grabs for less than the price of a new Fiat. Flicking through the pages of various car magazines this month it was all I could do to stop myself from picking up the phone, dialling my bank manager and grovelling for an instant loan, so thick on the ground are these fallen angels of the motoring firmament.

Lamborghinis, for example, haven't just caught a cold, they're in bed with a serious case of flu. Jensen Interceptor prices are almost as low as they were before the classic car boom peaked in 1989 (pounds 8,000 will buy you a good one), and favourable exchange rates make Europe a fertile hunting ground for cheap Ferraris. The pounds 10,000 Rolls Royce is as commonplace as a second-hand Golf.

In the past, cheap supercars have often meant ruinous trouble for those foolhardy enough to be tempted. Today, though, there are hundreds of cars that had thousands of pounds (or even tens of thousands) spent on them during the boom, when anything on four wheels became collectible (people were even restoring Austin Allegros, unbelievably). Now you can reap the dividend of those ill-fated investments and pick up anything from a Porsche 928 for pounds 3,885 to a Ferrari 365 GT4 for pounds 8,820 - both of which were genuine sales that took place in the past couple of months. Those were auction prices, admittedly, but it is at auction that you are most likely to chance upon a truly absurd bargain. Last month London auctioneer Coys sold a good, original Aston Martin DBSV8 for pounds 5,951 and a Maserati Merak SS (the most desirable version of this mid-engined four-seater designed in the Seventies) for pounds 4,190 - in other words, the price of a second-hand Fiesta. Alternatively, if you crave the cache of a Ferrari, you could have driven away from Brooks's October sale in a 308 GT4 for pounds 9,775.

There is of course good reason why these cars are so cheap, aside from the general economic malaise. Buying at auction is comparable in risk to placing your head between a lion's jaws while holding its nose. You rarely get a chance to drive the car before bidding and there is little likelihood of a guarantee that it won't disintegrate like Laurel and Hardy's Model T Ford as you drive up the road. I know some otherwise hard-bitten dealers who turn to jelly at the thought of buying at auction, so always take along an expert.

Buying privately is almost as risky and you have even fewer consumer rights. I know of a Lamborghini Urraco for sale privately at a little over pounds 7,000. This, for one of the most exciting, best handling sports cars ever made (with four seats, too). But I wouldn't think for a minute of buying it without a full, professional inspection by a Lamborghini specialist.

Dealers, meanwhile, will obviously need to turn a profit so prices are higher, but they have the expertise to transform a sow's ear into a Hermes handbag so you never quite know what you are getting into. There are still some great buys to be found on the more reputable forecourts though. Hertfordshire dealer John Brown is a good source of reasonably priced classics. He has been trying to shift a spectacular Alfa Romeo Montreal at pounds 9,950 for five months now. "This is an Alfa concept car that made it into production. It's more than special, it's historic. I'll talk to anyone who has a sensible figure in mind," he told Classic and Sportscar magazine recently.

Aside from the risk of buying a heap of ferrous oxide held together by string and a prayer, you should be aware that even a car of this type in the finest of fettle could well prove to be a bottomless pit to maintain. To run a Ferrari for a year will set you back up to pounds 2,000 in routine servicing alone, a Porsche will be less than that, a Lamborghini more, simply because they were never very well made in the first place. But owners' clubs will be able to recommend honest specialists for repairs and servicing, and they can also be invaluable for sourcing cheaper spares and for general advice.

But it's not all doom on the finance front. The insurance for older supercars can come in at less than the premium for a modern saloon (I know a security guard who lives in south London who insures his Lamborghini for pounds 350). When you come to sell, if you have maintained it well, your supercar will repay your costs and perhaps even turn a profit. And you simply can't put a price on the pleasure of bowling into Sainsbury's car park in an Aston Martin or dropping the kids off at school in a Maserati, can you?.

Aston Martin DBS (1)

Ooh, that's nice

Bespoke and brutal. As driven by Roger Moore in The Persuaders.

Ah, but what about ...

Over-bodied for six cylinders so performance hardly electrifying. They rust badly and restoration costs roughly three times the value of the finished car.

How much, then?

Buy a duff one and you'll be broke within a week. Spend pounds 18,000 on a documented Eighties' restoration.

Feasibility rating ***

Jaguar XJS V12 (2)

Ooh, that's nice

Comfier than a marshmallow settee, smoother than Baileys Haagen-Dazs. As driven by men with mock-Tudor underpants.

Ah, but what about ...

Unless you've pioneered a tap-water petrol substitute, fuel bills will be crippling.

How much, then?

Rust and reliability problems almost killed the company in the Eighties and there's plenty to go wrong on old ones. But pounds 3,000 will have the neighbours' curtains twitching.

Feasibility rating ****

Lotus Esprit (3)

Ooh, that's nice

Unparalleled driving dynamics thanks to mid-engine and legendary Lotus chassis, and they still make them so spares aren't a problem. As driven by Richard Gere in Pretty Woman.

Ah, but what about ...

Iffy build quality means they hold together as well as a sandcastle at high tide.

How much, then?

Four cylinder engines are comparatively frugal with petrol, parts reasonable, DIY friendly. New ones cost pounds 60,000 but you can find a good early car from pounds 5,000.

Feasibility rating *****

Maserati Biturbo (4)

Ooh, that's nice

V6 engines sound wonderful, interiors by Gucci-meets-World Of Leather. Admirably discreet BMW-esque styling. As driven by masochists.

Ah, but what about ...

Where to begin ... they are unreliable, rusty, underdeveloped and have dodgy electrics. And they're notoriously hard to sell.

How much, then?

Heaps to run and repair, but you could have that magical trident badge sitting in your drive for as little as pounds 4,000.

Feasibility rating ***

Ferrari Mondial (5)

Ooh, that's nice

It's a Ferrari, it seats four and it handles better than many of Enzo's two-seaters. As driven by men with go-faster toddlers.

Ah, but what about ...

Engines more complex than a conversation between two quantum physicists. Not the prettiest prancing horse.

How much, then?

Probably the cheapest Ferrari around - prices from pounds 11,000 - but be warned: it costs just as much as all the others to run and repair.

Feasibility rating **

Ferrari 400i (6)

Ooh, that's nice

A proper V12 luxury Ferrari four-seater, not too flash but still supremely elegant, for the price of a second-hand Vauxhall Vectra. As driven by past-their-prime playboys and obscure European royalty.

Ah, but what about ...

Servicing costs are horrendous (pounds 3,000 a year is not unusual) and the QE2 uses less fuel.

How much, then?

Only buy one with a full service history and bills detailing an extensive and recent restoration otherwise you'll be footing the bill shortly. Safe ones from pounds 15,000.

Feasibility rating ***

Alfa Romeo Montreal (7)

Ooh, that's nice

Fabulous engine, cool Seventies interior, charismatic presence, rare as hens' dentists. As driven by, well, they're usually in the garage.

Ah, but what about ...

None too quick; desperately poor build quality; all left-hand drive.

How much, then?

Around pounds 9,000 to start with ... your sanity comes next.

Feasibility rating ***

Maserati Merak (8)

Ooh, that's nice

Delightful mid-engined classic. Underrated, so bargains abound. As driven by wannabe Mafiosi.

Ah, but what about ...

Citroen hydraulics put many off; styling is slightly clumsy; not much rear leg room.

How much, then?

Parts horrendous, repairs and servicing worse. Spend pounds 20,000.

Feasibility rating ***

Porsche 911 (9)

Ooh, that's nice

Dependable yet inspiring. As driven by ... well, there's the problem.

Ah, but what about ...

You'll look a complete merchant banker.

How much, then?

Repairs affordable but vandals love them. Pay pounds 15,000 for a 911S 3.0.

Feasibility rating *****

Lamborghini Urraco (10)

Ooh, that's nice

Sensational and very rare. Four seats. As driven by ageing Fl racers.

Ah, but what about ...

Will never cease rusting, parts availability poor.

How much, then?

Crippling to run. But an excellent P250 can be yours for pounds 17,000.

Feasibility rating **

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