Old executives don't die, they just fade away, turning into slightly embarrassing but lovable white elephants. Geriatric motor cars and retiring management both follow a similar downward path.

After two years as the pride of the company car park, an executive vehicle will be sold, usually at auction, with a 50,000 mileage and full service history. It will then be resold by a dealer to a small businessman, or to a private buyer for family duties.

A few years later the car will change hands again, possibly seeing service as a minicab before ending up in the banger category. At this point, clever buyers can pick up large, comfortable cars with some life, and kudos, still left in them.

The most common bargain barges are made by Ford, Vauxhall and Rover. Jaguar, Audi, BMW, Volvo and Saab offer interesting alternatives. The problem is that clapped-out examples vastly outnumber the comfortable and reliable old armchairs. Most executive cars are sold at the twilight end of the motor trade by desperate private sellers.

The only way to find a good one is to wade in deep and look at as many a possible; this isn't as difficult or time-consuming as it sounds, since these white elephants seem to congregate before expiring.

As if to prove my point, Arnem Motors in Leytonstone, east London, had a couple of Ford Granadas, a tatty pounds 500 1977 GL and a 1983 Ghia, which was better appointed. All the electric toys on the Ghia worked; it sounded healthy and drove well. The only problem was the pounds 1,495 asking price. I told the salesman, Mark, that I only had pounds 1,000 in cash. After an 'umm' and an 'aahh', the Granada could have been mine, which proves the point that you can drive a hard bargain at the bottom of the market.

But if pounds 1,000 represents your life savings, don't blow it all at once: the morning after, the clutch or gearbox could well need replacing. So keep some money in reserve, or stick to cars within your means.

On the Arnem forecourt that would have meant an X-registered Rover 2300S, just in and about to be touched up before being sold for pounds 600. Rust had already bitten into the sills, and the previous owner had filled the holes. These huge, fast, good-looking hatchbacks rust, break down and generally disintegrate. The 2.3-litre and 2.6-litre models are the worst, but the 3.5-litre V8 is at least mechanically sound.

I found a tired but tidy example in a corner of the Trade Centre in White City, west London. It had faded blue metallic paintwork and was on offer at pounds 699. This SE model is only bettered for equipment by the Vanden Plas version, which rarely dips below the pounds 1,000 mark.

If you are prepared to do a little work, it is possible to pick up a less rusty and more modern executive from your local salvage yard. At Essex Auto Salvage, a 1988 Rover 820 was described as 'stolen/recovered', which meant that thieves had taken the wheels, front seats and door trim. Otherwise, a slightly grubby Rover was mine for pounds 850. I managed to find some wheels for pounds 150, but failed to make contact with the party who had the seats and door trim, which shows why this may not be such a good idea.

A C-plated Renault 25 GTX, which was slightly damaged but drivable, had been broken up by Euro Salvage in Benfleet, Essex, because 'it's worth more in bits, mate'. In an effort to find a largely intact Renault 25, I contacted a private seller called Steven in Surrey.

These large hatchbacks hover around the pounds 1,295 mark if they are old and have high mileage. The problem with Renaults is that they show their age, and Steven's was no exception: it was a bit rattly on the move and tatty around the edges.

He hit the sunroof when I suggested pounds 900 and then turned red as the paintwork when I hinted that a new MOT ought to accompany the vehicle. As a GTS, the 25 was fitted with carburettors. A large engine without fuel injection can have a problem passing the emissions test on the MOT if it is not up to scratch.

Not all private sellers wanted to wring my neck. A nice man in Farnborough, south-west London, had a 100,000-mile, 1983 Saab 900 Turbo at a tempting pounds 900. The great thing about Saabs is that although they look odd, they have looked that way for the past 14 years.

This car was well looked after and could have been mistaken for a three-year-old. The red paint was bright, there was hardly a spot of rot and a full service history was available - a rarity with a bargain banger but essential if you are going to buy a turbo with confidence. I could not find a single mechanical fault. It needed a service, but provided this Saab was looked after properly, which would mean paying for expensive parts, this was the bargain of them all.

I saw dozens more cars suffering from executive stress; each came with its own important lesson. An pounds 850 1984 Vauxhall Carlton, a spacious rival to the Ford Granada, had a badly worn driver's seat and new rear seat squab - the only thing missing was the meter, although the trader swore on his life that the car had never been used as a minicab.

A 1982 Audi 100 looked as though it had been kept and used down a coal mine, but at pounds 500 it was cheap and sound. A valet can work miracles, especially on a solid, quality car like this.

At Wembley Car Auctions, one of many clearing houses for tired old cars, the only vehicle worth getting excited about was a tidy 1980 Daimler Sovereign with leather and trimmings that was bid up to a dizzy pounds 960.

The message is that there are plenty of retired executives about, but shop carefully.

(Photograph omitted)

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