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A supercar for a snip (pounds 19,000)

Most of us have not got the cash to match our driving dreams. Supercars are indulgent, impractical and above all expensive. Even a millionaire might think twice at stumping up the pounds 635,000 plus VAT required to put a brand new McLaren F1 on the road. However, by rummaging around the used car market, thinking laterally and buying wisely it is still possible to join the supercar club for less than pounds 20,000.

To qualify as a supercar, a vehicle must be hand built and have a name to conjure with, so romantic monickers with a sporting pedigree such as Ferrari, Lotus, Maserati and Porsche all help. Styling will be sleek and sexy, which means a low body profile combined with an attention-grabbing profile. The engine is likely to be where the luggage and rear passengers are usually kept, so you won't have much room for the shopping. And, of course, the performance (that you will never be able to use) on the right side of 150mph.

If we feel nervous buying a modest used hatchback, then we should be utterly terrified of the prospect of a supercar. Not only is there plenty that can go wrong, it will also go wrong in the most expensive way possible. Open the bonnet and stare in awe at the V12 quad camshaft heart of the monster, could you tell if it was firing on only 11 cylinders? That Rosso Red paintwork may look gorgeous, but are there any indications that underneath lurks some equally red rot?

Either buy from a respected specialist in the marque, or use one to check the supercar over. It takes years of experience to spot a secondhand supercar that won't bite back in terms of repairs or dangerous mechanical disintegration.

Research your marque: buy the expensive coffee table books, join the owners club and become a supercar bore. Then you will know roughly what you are looking at, and what you should find is three things: history, history, and history. If there isn't plenty of evidence that previous owners have lavished a fortune on the thing and have the bills, service records and receipts to prove it, don't bother. The real secret to paying so little for the privilege of owning a supercar, is to choose the right model.

No one thinks they could afford a Ferrari, but there are two Ferraris, in particular, which commit the supercar sin of being vaguely practical. Both the 308 GT4 and its successor, the Modial, have a 2+2 configuration that does not please the purists. To everyone else these cars just look like slightly longer Ferraris. And there are plenty around, too. Pullicino Classics in Wandsworth, London, has a large selection of exotics. When I visited, a blue 1979 308 was retailing for pounds 18,995. Further afield at Edmond Harris in Oxfordshire was a pair of Mondials - an early 1982 "8" model at pounds 15,000 and a later 1985 QV for pounds 18,950.

When it came to seeking out equally charismatic Italian machinery I did not have to stray from Pullicino's premises. Among their Maseratis was a temptingly cheap 1978 Kyalami at pounds 8,950. Looking more the supercar part was a 1960 Maserati 3,500 GT for pounds 19,000 and a pair of Lamborghinis - a left hand drive Urraco P250 for pounds 17,000 and a flashy Eighties Jalpa for pounds 2,000 more.

But there is no reason to shop exclusively for Italian cars. Britain builds supercars, too. The Lotus Esprit Turbo is cheap enough when new and almost a giveaway when used. A reputation for poor build quality and a dated design has not helped values, but canny buyers get one of the best handling and fastest supercars ever. At Barry Ely's small east London premises there were two immaculate examples, a 1989 Turbo in white with red leather selling for pounds l6,495 and another finished in red that was two years older and pounds 2,000 cheaper.

France's only supercar is the Alpine V6 Turbo and everything about it is right, except the parent company's name, Renault. What supercar snobs are missing is 150mph performance, the classic rear engine layout, and the distinctive looks that keep everyone guessing as to what exotic model it is. Eurotec Classic cars, in Wareham, Dorset, had a 1989 model for just pounds 10,950. Purchased new it would have cost close to the pounds 30,000.

By contrast, everything about a Porsche is right, from the heraldic bonnet badge to the purposeful styling and supreme build quality. It is the 911 which turns all the heads, and many models from the mid Eighties can be bought for less than pounds 20,000, although the top-of-the-range Turbo is a borderline case at our hypothetical budget. However, why choose the obvious when Porsche's forgotten supercar, in the shape of the 928, is so very cheap. Its conventional V8 water cooled engine, radically (for Porsche) mounted at the front of the car, did not convince many buyers. Yet it is a stunningly competent car and even main dealers such as Dick Lovett in Swindon price the cars realistically. A 1988 Sport was going for pounds 16,500 and a 1990 S4 was priced at a smidgen over pounds 20,000 (pounds 61,000 new). It is fast, reliable and utterly intoxicating.

Best of all though, a 928 is a supercar that you can use every day. The trouble is: would you be able to afford the running costs?

Dick Lovett 01793 615888

Pullicino Classics 0181 877 0157

Edmond Harris 01993 778423

Barry Ely Sports Cars 0181 558 3221

Eurotec Classic Cars 01929 400711