Soft top, hard bargain

Top-down, summertime motoring is back in fashion. Affordable, too, if you go for a used roadster. James Ruppert checks out the best buys

Last year was a great year for drop-tops. Not only did we have a blistering hot summer, but there were also some hot new convertibles. Famous names from the past cooked up some gorgeous cars, including the long-awaited MGB, the sensuous Alfa Romeo Spyder and cute Fiat Barchetta. More recently, there have been some significant German entries such as the American-built BMW Z3 and the Mercedes SLK. It's a golden age as far as open-top cars are concerned. The trouble is, you need at least pounds 20,000 to join the new convertible club and the patience to join the end of some very long queues. However, if you still like the idea of motoring with the wind in your hair, but only have hatchback money to spend, there is an alternative: buy used. The second-hand marketplace is now teeming with some very attractive cars, at realistic prices, which will hold their value and be easy to resell if ever the novelty wears off.

It wasn't always like this. Once upon a time owning a convertible was a decidedly unglamorous business. Open cars were draughty, had leaky hoods, rattled, rolled and were very uncomfortable. Those built in Britain broke down a lot and if they were Italian, rusted to dust. Not surprisingly open-top sport cars went out of favour and out of fashion. It took mainstream manufacturers who lifted the lid off their popular hatchbacks such as the Golf and Escort to prove that hoods really could keep the interior dry, that bodies could be structually stiff and the mechanics utterly reliable. The Japanese went a stage further by reviving the roadster concept with the Mazda MX5, unashamedly inspired by great British sports cars and looking a lot like the Sixties Lotus Elan. It is now one of the most sought-after second-hand cars in Britain.

If you want to join the roadster revival with confidence, you can't go wrong with an MX5, but they are not cheap. Early cars from 1990 are still around pounds 9,000-pounds 10,000 through a dealer or a private sale. Other Japanese alternatives include the Suzuki Cappuccino, very MG Midget, but a million times better. This tiny car has a turbo engine, a clever hardtop system and air-conditioning. Prices now start at around pounds 8,000 privately. The Cappuccino, however, was only imported in small numbers by Suzuki and many of these pocket-sized roadsters never officially made it to the UK.

Simon Lerner, who runs Intercar, admits that the outbreak of new Euro roadsters has cooled demand for cars like the Honda Beat. But at pounds 8,500 second-hand, it undercuts an MGF, which has a similar mid-engined layout, by some margin. "With the annual average mileage at just 5,000 and just one fastidious owner, it is just like buying new," he says. "Until I saw it for myself I did not believe that Japanese drivers left the plastic covers on the seats and door trims, but they do."

Buying Japanese means that all you have to worry about is a full service history. Beware of a car that has been left parked in the street during winter. Brakes seize up and cooling systems get damaged without meticulous servicing.

Lotus Cars also got back into the lucrative roadster market with a revived name, Elan, and an all-new, distinctively styled, front-wheel-drive car. Unlike the MX5, the Elan did not catch on and production finished last year. But demand, especially for the turbo SE has remained strong on the used market and it is now difficult to pay less than pounds 15,000. More successful in this marketplace has been Blackpool-based TVR, whose brutally sensuous cars now cost upwards of pounds 30,000. Rewind to the Eighties, though, when quality was improving and some of their S series cars make very good buys at around pounds 10,000. It is even safe to buy some really old British favourites such as the MGB. The availability of parts and well-restored examples now means that running one is cost-effective and practical.

To see a lot of Mazda MX5s in one place pop into The Chequered Flag in Chiswick, where you can even compare them with some brand-new MGFs. Out in the open, though, was an impressive line-up of models from the latest 1.8iS model built in 1995 with 7,000 miles on the clock at pounds 16, 795 right down to a 1990, 45,000 mile 1.6 at pounds 10.995. The cheapest MX5 I could find was a privately advertised 1993 model for pounds 8,295. Too good to be true. Yes, it was left-hand drive. I had more luck talking to private sellers of Cappuccinos, pounds 8,000 at the moment, but wait until winter and these Suzukis will be an even better bargain.

Next stop was Surrey and Bell & Colvill, a Lotus dealer that still had some of the last brand-new examples of the Lotus Elan in stock. Their used line-up of Elans went back to 1990 and 1991 and an outlay of around pounds 17,995 for SE models that had covered over 40,000 miles. Another contemporary British manufacturer which builds glass-fibre sports cars is TVR, but these are brutally conventional. At the TVR Centre in North London the bulk of their stock are Griffiths and Chimaera models, costing over pounds 20,000. However, they had a 10-year-old red S series car which has a classic shape, reliable Ford V6 engine, cost pounds 8,000 and was sold.

Anyone who suffer a little for their open-air motoring ought to consider a Caterham 7, or something similar but cheaper. At Autocraft, proprietor Terry Nightingale has a warehouse full of Westfield component cars. Anyone familiar with the Prisoner TV series would recognise the yellow and green combination I was attracted to. Built in 1992 with a powerful Ford engine, it came with a year's guarantee and pounds 7,200 price-tag. This is a fairweather car for summer weekend fun at its most basic and exciting - the way it ought to be. If you also want to tackle the mid-week commute and 15,000 miles a year, it is back to the Mazda MX5.

The choice is yours.

Best buys:

Modern: Mazda MX5 1.6, Lotus Elan SE

Component: Caterham 7, Westfield 7

Classic: Triumph TR7, MGB.

Buying tips (what to check):

service history

seized brakes, corroded discs

hood operation and condition

accident damage

rust on classic cars

Contacts:

Intercar 0181-203 3399

The Chequered Flag 0181-995 0022

Bell & Colvill 01483-281000

The TVR Centre 0181-440 6666

Terry Nightingale Autocraft 01799 524380.

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