It's the classic dilemma this week; a car that's cheap, different and won't turn into a money pit. Over to James Ruppert

Steve Smallwood is changing from being a London Transport commuter to having a 14-mile drive to work, mostly motorway. He would be doing about 7,000 miles a year and has a budget of £2,500 to £3,000. Steve knows he could get a five-year-old small/medium car with about 50,000 miles on the clock. His brilliant – or, in his own words, "mad" – idea is to spend a small amount of money, maybe £500 to £1,500, on a classic or near-classic and the rest of his budget on "improving" it to get it closer to its original state and ensure reliability.

Steve told me that this is really a twist on "bangernomics", and I completely approve. He gets a distinctive car that won't depreciate much. At 6ft 2in tall, he needs to be comfortable and to get a vehicle that handles motorways well. Ideally, he wants to go pre-1972 to avoid road tax.

Unfortunately, Steve has a thing about Triumph Dolomites and Humber Sceptres, because he sent me some links to examples for sale. I speak from experience here, after owning several Dolomites and the cheaper Hillman Minx version of the Humber. Steve needs to be careful; rust was endemic to cars from that era, and you also need to stay on top of the maintenance issues.

Steve needs to think and behave like an enthusiast. Start treating an old car like we do modern ones, regarding the bonnet as a sealed unit, and you start storing up trouble. If he puts in the effort, the vehicles will be more reliable, although using an old car all year round risks rampant rust, which has almost been eliminated from modern cars.

Trying to think of a pre-1972 vehicle that fits the bill is certainly difficult, and perhaps Steve should think about stumping up the tax for something just a little more contemporary.

A car for the head

With contemporary in mind, I think Steve should consider a Volkswagen Golf GTI. It's one of the best cars ever built, new or used. It has a brilliant combination of durability, driving pleasure and economy.

The 1.8-litre engine of the later examples could deliver almost 40mpg, but also responsiveness and refinement that would make it the perfect motorway companion. The hatchback layout is practical, and running costs will be containable. A major service every 10,000 miles is all it needs, plus Steve could do an interim oil-change every six months.

Rust is an issue, although the Mark 2 examples from 1984 are much more resistant to serious rot. Regular cleaning, dealing with any minor bubbles and investing a few hundred pounds in a proper Waxoyl or similar treatment will help.

Mechanically, these are very tough cars. Again I speak from experience, having covered many thousands of miles in them with no major dramas.

I think the later Mark 2 would be better because it is larger and a bit more refined. Being a GTI it will hold its value, but optional power steering is essential if Steve is used to it. A good, solid example would cost £1,000 to £2,000.

A car for the heart

Difficult one, this, as for me the GTI fits both the head and heart bill perfectly. But here are some suggestions for Steve to consider. One of my personal favourites from the 1960s and 1970s is the Reliant Scimitar. Not only is it superbly stylish, being ahead of its time as a sporting estate with a glass hatchback, but it has a fibreglass body. So, no rot.

The key is finding one that has been upgraded with a galvanised chassis and improvements to the cooling and ignition system that help with day-to-day running. Motorways present no problems, although the Ford V6 engine may be a bit more thirsty than Steve is used to.

There's a fair number of these cars in circulation, and prices for runners with MOTs start at about £1,000. I found a £2,500-or-near-offer 1972 example with a retrimmed interior that cost more than the asking price. It had been off the road since 2004, so I'd insist on an MOT. That's the problem with classic cars; you feel as though you never stop spending money on them.

Car choice

Please write to Car Choice, Features, Independent House, 191 Marsh Wall, London E14 9RS, or email James Ruppert at, giving your age, address and phone number, details of the type of vehicle you are interested in, and your budget.

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