Supercars for a song

You don't have to win the lottery to enjoy the status and thrill of ownership, says James Ruppert
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Indy Lifestyle Online

Supercars are cramped, have minimal luggage space and are bit silly, really. Practicality isn't the point, of course, because they are very fast, very sexy and fabulous to look at. Unfortunately, they can also be fabulously expensive.

Supercars are cramped, have minimal luggage space and are bit silly, really. Practicality isn't the point, of course, because they are very fast, very sexy and fabulous to look at. Unfortunately, they can also be fabulously expensive.

Some might argue that petrol-heads are lucky enough to be in the middle of a supercar golden age. There's the Porsche Carrera GT at just £461,058, but they have all been bought. There is the equally sold out Ferrari Enzo and the utterly over-the-top McLaren Merc SLR, just to mention three.

Never mind the lottery-winnings asking prices or the invitation-only waiting lists, be- cause it doesn't have to be that way. Used supercars can be affordable, fun to own and easier than you ever thought to buy.

Let's take the Ferrari Enzo. It's fast, it's been bought by pop stars and merchant bankers, but it is not a pretty sight. Once upon a time Ferraris really were gorgeous, like the 328. An update of the 308, it was a successful attempt at sharpening up the performance and ramping up the quality.

The 328 was actually slightly longer than the old car as the chassis had been stretched by 10mm. Also stretched was the engine, bored and stroked with a capacity of 3,195cc. Still transversely located behind the two seats it boosted the output to 270bhp. The QV Quattrovalve head was retained from the previous V8 and with a healthy 223lb/ft of torque, Ferrari could claim that their best seller could now exceed 160mph.

A GTB is the 328 in its purist form rather than the poseurs' push-out roofed GTS. The installation of ABS in late '88 was fairly significant as the alloy wheels were redesigned to accommodate the sensors, and it also neatly divides Ferrari drivers. There are those who like the reassurance of ABS and those who prefer the feral pleasure of cadence braking on their own. If the early cars were lightish on creature comforts, the later examples were seriously specced-up by the speculators. They have air conditioning and every conceivable interior surface covered in leather; those are the ones that the serious buyers want, so we can make do with the rest.

For £25,000, you can just about get a 328 - especially if you don't want a left-hand drive model - but realistically you should budget on £30,000. Even a simple oil change is pricey; a 328 takes 10 litres and the good stuff is £10 a litre. The cam belts need to be changed every two years and an independent specialist will do it for £500 to £800. A clutch job is £500 to £1,000, and if the gearbox has to be repaired it is double that. It is imperative that you join the Ferrari Owners Club (01485 544500); £70 gets you access to a network of specialists and lots of things to do with your new toy.

The Porsche Carrera GT hasn't got a roof or a whale tail and is the preserve of the super-rich rather than Porsche's traditional heartland of the nou- veau riche. So reclaim what is rightfully yours with what must rank as the people's supercar in the pumped-up proportions of the Porsche 911 Turbo. In 1989 the 911 was thoroughly revamped but the Turbo version wasn't quite so new. It had to make do with the old 3.3 engine, but that did not matter because the 911 Turbo was now better than ever.

First, the output went up to 320bhp. Then the suspension was reworked to make the handling less treacherous. All the traction went to the rear and this became the most wieldy turbo ever. Some old problems remained, though, as at lower revs (-3000rpm) getting the Turbo to do much within the widely spaced gear ratios was a challenge. At least the quality of the gearshift improved beyond recognition, with less baulk and a more positive snick. Getting to 60mph in under five seconds and on towards 170mph was now a guilty pleasure.

But it was also the small, irritating things that were changed which transformed the 911, like the more efficient computer controlled heating/ventilation system. Also, the handbrake was repositioned, the fascia got a mild makeover while the pedals were conventionally hinged. It still wasn't perfect, but then you would never want it to be. There was still a touch of uncertainty on the limit and the power-steered wheel would jump playfully about to the torque's tough tune. Best of all, instead of the new automatic trick spoiler there was still a great big up-yours fixed tea-tray job.

The Turbo is a very rare model but the going rate in private ads is £24,950 irrespective of year. As for costs, service intervals are 12,000 and 24,000 miles - £450 plus VAT at a specialist. Clutches are £800 and don't last long. On 10-year-old cars they may need a top-end rebuild and that's £2,000 or so. Heat exchangers can crack and cost £500 each, while a non-cat exhaust is more than £1,000. You must join Porsche Club GB ( www.porscheclubgb.com, £49), who have great resources and contacts to specialists.

Mercedes is hardly a latecomer to the supercar club. The supercharged SSK in 1928 was the ultimate vintage sports car, and the 300 SL in the Fifties with its distinctive gullwing doors was a sensation. Now the marque feels the need for some Formula One kudos, courtesy of McLaren - hence the SLR. However, there is a great way to save yourself almost £300,000. If you want a massively engined attention-seeking missile with a three-pointed star at the front, then it has to be an old SL600. Back in 1992 when there was a recession on, the SL600 looked like a stupidly indulgent buy, costing £20,000 more than a 500SL with precious little difference in performance. Even so, there was still a three-year waiting list.

Some might argue that it isn't a proper supercar, just a comfy cruiser, but supercars are all about statistics and the SL600 has a particularly impressive set. That massive V12 up front, with 412lb ft of torque pushing all 4,356lb of it along, is a sledgehammer where a delicate toffee hammer would normally do. Strong, safe, very, very fast and surprisingly tidy through bends, the only downside of driving an SL 600 is that it is just a little detached. That's probably not surprising, but the mere fact that you can bludgeon the horizon so comprehensively with the roof down is reason enough to celebrate the fact that you can buy so much car for so little; £25,000 gets a tidy mid-Nineties example, but prices for this rare model are now falling below £20,000.

When covering 6,000 to 10,000 miles a year, service should be £150 minor and £350 for a major. The complicated power hood needs to raised and lowered at least twice, otherwise there could be a problem with the numerous micro switches and motors. If the material needs replacing, though, that's a reasonable £1,200. The Mercedes Benz Owner's Club ( www.mercedes-benzownersclub.co.uk) is the longest established club and has good contacts for cars and specialist service outlets.

WHY BUY ONE OF THESE...

MERCEDES SLR McLAREN

Rest to 200mph in about 30 seconds. Huge presence and gull wings, but all at the price of a house. Left-hand drive only.

PORSCHE CARRERA GT

A truly great Porsche, but unless you're a very talented driver its amazing abilities may be lost on you. Where can you do 205mph?

FERRARI ENZ0

Even if you could afford one, they might not have let you buy it - sales were by invitation only. A very special car, but not the most gorgeous of the breed.

WHEN YOU CAN BUY ONE OF THESE...

MERCEDES-BENZ 600 SL

Will deliver 0-60mph in 5.9sec and a (governed) top speed of 155mph from its 6.0-litre engine. Power output of 389bhp. Made from 1993 to 2001.

PORSCHE 911 TURBO

From the Eighties, the glory years for Porsche. You should be happy with a top speed of 167mph and a 0-to-60 time of 4.7 seconds. Ageless looks, too.

FERRARI 328

Another Eighties legend. Offers 270bhp at 7,000rpm from its 3-litre V8; 0 to 60 in 6.4 secs. Modest by Enzo standards (660bhp from its V12), but still a classy sports car.

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