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.

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Workshop Deputy & Production Manager

    Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A rare and exciting role has arisen within thi...

    Recruitment Genius: HR Assistant

    £14000 - £16000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A vacancy has arisen for a keen...

    Recruitment Genius: Finance Assistant

    £14000 - £16000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Due to expansion, this multi-ac...

    Recruitment Genius: SEO Specialist

    £21000 - £34000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity for an e...

    Day In a Page

    General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

    The masterminds behind the election

    How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
    Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

    Machine Gun America

    The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
    The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

    The ethics of pet food

    Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?
    How Tansy Davies turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

    How a composer turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

    Tansy Davies makes her operatic debut with a work about the attack on the Twin Towers. Despite the topic, she says it is a life-affirming piece
    11 best bedside tables

    11 best bedside tables

    It could be the first thing you see in the morning, so make it work for you. We find night stands, tables and cabinets to wake up to
    Italy vs England player ratings: Did Andros Townsend's goal see him beat Harry Kane and Wayne Rooney to top marks?

    Italy vs England player ratings

    Did Townsend's goal see him beat Kane and Rooney to top marks?
    Danny Higginbotham: An underdog's tale of making the most of it

    An underdog's tale of making the most of it

    Danny Higginbotham on being let go by Manchester United, annoying Gordon Strachan, utilising his talents to the full at Stoke and plunging into the world of analysis
    Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police

    Steve Bunce: Inside Boxing

    Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police
    No postcode? No vote

    Floating voters

    How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

    By Reason of Insanity

    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
    Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

    Power dressing is back

    But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
    Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

    Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

    Caves were re-opened to the public
    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

    Vince Cable interview

    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat