We’ve all been caught in the act at one time or another, haven’t we? No matter how careful you are to check under the car seats, delete the call log on your phone or wipe out the cookies on your computer before the significant other asks, “Why were you at a website called tinyfightingmidgets.com?”, sooner or later we all get busted.
It’s like that for gear heads, too. Some of our tastes and preferences defy description: we know enough to run screaming from a particular make and model, yet we’re strangely compelled to comb eBay in search of pristine examples at fire sale prices. Maybe we’ll find one that’s priced right, or maybe we’ll buy the one example that was mechanically reliable.
It’s said that love is blind, and below is my proof of that. Here are 10 cars that I spend an unhealthy amount of time trolling eBay and Craigslist for. Even my wife doesn’t know, because I’m careful to delete the cookies. Watching fighting midgets is one thing; explaining how one of these misfit toys ended up in the garage is something else entirely.
1975-76 Cosworth Vega
No car in the history of mankind exemplifies the adage “None of us is as dumb as all of us” better than the Cosworth Vega. What began as a great idea in 1970 – take Chevy’s new aluminum block inline four and give it to Cosworth Engineering to work their magic – ended as a smog-control-choked, ungodly expensive example of how not to design, build and market an automobile. Sold (mercifully) for only 2 years, the Cosworth Vega was launched with 110 horsepower (down from pre-production motors that made as much as 180 horsepower), at a sticker price double that of a non-Cosworth Vega. Even Cosworth did what they could to wash their hands of the project; after the production run, they abandoned Chevy’s aluminum block for future projects, as it never met their standards for durability. Production of Cosworth Vegas was eventually snapped up by collectors, certain that the car would appreciate in the coming years. It has, but not nearly as much as owners had hoped for. Clean examples can be had today for about six grand, less than double what the car cost new 35 years ago.
I know they’re not good cars. I know that they’re slow by modern standards (hell, my FJ Cruiser is faster to 60) and that the dash looks like something out of Saturday Night Fever. I know that the out-of-production ECUs have a tendency to defecate the sleeping surface in the middle of nowhere, leaving you stranded until you can track one down on eBay. I don’t care. The handling was as good as anything else back in the day, and I really like the body style and gold on black color scheme. Besides, where else can you get a hand built Cosworth motor, signed by the builder, for under ten large?
1975-77 Toyota Celica GT
There is no good reason for me to like this car. It was built at a low price point to deliver practical transportation and good fuel economy; driver enjoyment was never a design criteria. The top of the line “GT” model was more hype than substance, as it only featured rocker panel striping, a five speed transmission and chrome trim rings for the steel wheels. No engines larger that the 2.2 liter (good for 96 horsepower) were offered, and no suspension tweaks came with the GT trim level. I haven’t even seen one in five or ten years, which should be enough to strike this car from my memory.
It’s not, and I still want to own one. I always loved the lines of the car, and somehow the proportions just looked right. Celicas were lightweight, and were built in the proper front engine rear drive layout. I’m sure there are plenty of other Toyota motors and transmissions that could be made to fit, and I’ll bet there are still aftermarket go-fast parts available. Since there is nothing historically significant about the Celica, there’s less pressure to keep the car stock and unmolested. A car that’s fun to drive, easy to wrench on, cheap to own and good looking – does it get better than that?
2002-04 Ford Focus SVT
I almost bought one of these in 2003, but I just couldn’t see myself driving a Focus and being happy about it. That’s strange, because every time I’ve seen a Focus SVT since, the driver has had a smirk on his face. It’s like they’re on to an inside joke, some bit of knowledge that keeps them happy while the rest of us go about out daily commute in ill humor with the rest of the lemmings.
On paper, it didn’t look all that appealing. The normally aspirated inline four was good for 170 horsepower, which somehow seemed lacking. The layout was front engine, front drive, all wrong for a car with sporting intentions. Handling was universally praised as being exceptional for a front drive car, but didn’t that mean it wasn’t as good as a rear wheel drive or all wheel drive model?
I took a pass on buying one, and I’ve been kicking myself since. When you take a closer look, you realize how much effort Ford put into the Focus SVT: a motor developed with Cosworth, featuring a reworked aluminum head, high compression pistons, forged rods, variable intake cam timing, two stage intake manifold and oil spray to cool the pistons. A transmission from Getrag, as used in the Mini Cooper S. Larger brakes, stiffer struts and larger roll bars. Tasteful body cladding and stylish wheels.
One day I’ll find a low mileage example that hasn’t been beaten (or “tuned”) to death by previous owners. I won’t make the same pass-it-by mistake twice.
1982-87 Alfa Romeo GTV-6
Here’s what I know about Alfa Romeo GTV-6s: they’re beautiful, they’re rare, they’re not known for their mechanical reliability and finding a shop that knows Alfas can be a challenge. I had a neighbor in college with one, and I absolutely loved it. So did he, until his pet sheepdog ate the headrests (front and rear, as I remember).
Alfa GTV-6s were the fastback version of the butt-ugly Alfetta sedan. They made about 160 horsepower from a 2.5 liter V6 that drove the rear wheels. Since Alfas have a loyal fan base, I can learn everything else that I need to know quickly when I come across that once in a lifetime deal on eBay. I’ve come to grips with the fact that I’ll probably never own a Ferrari 288 GTO or F40, but I can eventually own a GTV-6. Is it the same thing? No, but at least you can afford to insure and drive the Alfa.
1978 – 80 VW Scirocco
I once owned a 1977 VW Scirocco that was as affordable as a crack habit. Not a week went by that I wasn’t selling something to buy parts for the Scirocco, but it taught me some important lessons. First, always buy good hand tools, as having a socket explode when you’re tightening the alternator bolt (thus driving your hand at maximum velocity into the engine block) is not as glamourous as you’d think. Second, when your water pump is seeping coolant, it’s not the gasket – it’s the water pump. Finally, never opt to change a water pump on the coldest day of the year in Colorado, in an apartment complex parking lot.
Having owned a Scirocco, you’d think that I’ve closed that chapter and moved on. Sadly, you’d be wrong. I still love the body style and interior, even though I’d be the first to admit that the 1.7 liter motor was grossly underpowered. The mechanical fuel injection had its own set of issues, especially as the miles added up. Handling was more akin to a cow on roller skates than a sports car, but I don’t care – the car had its charms.
If I could find a clean example that hasn’t been eaten by tinworm, I imagine that a Mark 1 Scirocco would make a a great restoration project for vintage road rallying and the occasional track day. I’m sure you could tighten up the suspension to improve the handling, and I know you can make a few more more horsepower from the single cam, two valve motor.
Besides, my knuckles have healed, I own good tools and I no longer live in an apartment. Bring on the Scirocco restoration project.
1984-86 Mustang SVO
The sun rises in the east, spring follows winter, there are no honest politicians, Danica Patrick would be unemployed if she had a penis and real Mustangs have V8 engines. In a world with so many constant changes, these are a few absolutes that we can count on. Or can we?
In the early 1980s, Ford was seriously considering phasing out the Mustang, viewing it as a car whose time had come and gone. The Probe was one alternative to replace the Mustang, but common sense won out and the Mustang was saved. Willing to explore as many options as possible for sales growth, Ford challenged the engineers with Special Vehicle Operations to build a version of the Mustang that could compete with entry-level European sports cars. The Mustang SVO was born.
Scrapping the proven but heavy 302 V8, the SVO team took the venerable 2.3 liter four (originally used in the PInto) and threw an intercooled turbo on it. Early models made 175 horsepower, but by 1986 the SVO was making 205 horsepower. Performance was on par with the Mustang GT of the day, with the handling edge going to the lighter SVO. Ford spared no expense with building the Mustang SVO, and used top-shelf components from suppliers such as Koni and Goodyear. The SVO was the first Fox platform Mustang to feature four wheel disc brakes, and the Quadra Shock rear was developed for the SVO before being pressed into service on other Mustangs.
In the end, the V8 Mustang won out. Mustang buyers wanted torque, not just horsepower, and were more likely to spend weekends at a dragstrip than at a road course. After four production years, the Mustang SVO was discontinued, but remains a cult vehicle for those of us who remember its mission.
1981-87 Lotus Turbo Esprit
Maybe it’s James Bond’s fault; he drove one in The Spy Who Loved Me. Maybe it was too many years spent staring at the red Lotus Esprit Turbo I had hanging on my wall in college. Maybe it’s just the Lotus badge or the car’s shape, but for most of my impressionable years I lusted for a Lotus Esprit Turbo.
Yes, I know the early four banger turbos never made more than 215 horsepower from the factory, but that was good enough for a sub-six second jog to sixty miles per hour. Sure, I know that Esprit Turbos make Yugo GVs look like the paragon of mechanical reliability. Yes, I know that the early Esprits have a driving position better suited for napping than strafing apexes. I understand that a submarine has better outward visibility, but I just don’t care. If you came of age in the Reagan era, your choices were to fixate on the Porsche 959, the Ferrari Testarossa or the Lotus Esprit Turbo. I simply chose the lesser of three evils.
I know the 1987 to 1995 Esprit Tubos were better cars in every sense of the word, but they lost some soul with the ’87 redesign. Besides, no one ever said that love was supposed to make sense.
1983 – 86 Audi Quattro Coupe
What applies to boats also applies to owning an Audi from the mid-1980s: the two happiest days are the day you buy it and the day you sell it. It’s the in-between part that can be as unpleasant as a bamboo skewer beneath the fingernails.
I know that the 2.1 liter motor only made 160 horsepower in stock trim, and that it had to drive four wheels. I know that the North American cars were aimed at the luxury market, not the sports car market. I know that Audi electronics have a worse reputation than Lucas electronics. In the rain. On a car that was under the North Sea for six months. Parts for a 27 year old Audi? Good luck finding them, and if you do, good luck paying for them.
Still, there’s something about the fastback coupe body style that makes me want to throw common sense out the window. I can live with a few quirks. I can find spare parts at swap meets. I can learn how to rebuild brake servos and turbos. If Paul McCartney could marry a woman with one leg, surely I can look past the shortcomings of the early Quattro Coupes to find automotive bliss.
I’ll never own Porsche 550 Spyder, and even if I did it couldn’t be driven on the street. At best, it would see the occasional track day or vintage festival; the rest of the time it would be locked up in a climate controlled garage, too valuable to drive on the weekends.
A Porsche 550 Spyder replica, on the other hand, is a very obtainable goal. Kits are available from a wide variety of manufacturers, but Chuck Beck always seemed to produce the best of the bunch. I’m not sure if he’s still building kits, but there are plenty of completed cars or basket case projects already on the market.
So what’s the appeal of buying a tube-framed, fiberglass replica of a classic sports car that relies on VW Beetle suspension and brake components? Can you really have any fun with a motor that only makes 120 horsepower?
Yes you can, in a car that only weighs 1,300 pounds. Sure, it’s not a real Porsche, but you can drive a Beck (almost) anywhere and park it without fear. You’re not buying the car as an investment, you’re buying it as a plaything. It’s going to leak oil, it’s going to require constant tweaking and you wouldn’t drive across town without a complete set of tools and a fully charged cell phone. Even an immaculately prepared Beck will have bad brakes, a vague shifter and handling that borders on terrifying at the limit.
Yet that’s the appeal of the car. If you don’t like spending late nights in a cold garage rebuilding a carb, this isn’t the car for you. If you insist on creature comforts like a heater, radio, or semi-weatherproof top, this isn’t the car for you. On the other hand, if you’re a gear head who remembers the way things used to be, who’d rather tune a car with a screwdriver than a laptop; then you’ll understand the attraction.
2003-06 Brabus Smart Roadster
One of the disadvantages of being a world traveller is the tendency to develop a liking for things you can’t have. Take the Ford Focus RS, for example, or the Audi A3 with Quattro and a turbo diesel. Or the Brabus tuned Smart Roadster; I can’t even drive one on U.S. roads, yet I’m strangely compelled to shop for them.
For a guy raised on V8 musclecars, there is absolutely no reason why I should lust for a car that’s the size of a shoebox, powered by a turbocharged three cylinder engine better suited for a lawn mower. It doesn’t even make 100 horsepower, and the only gearbox available is the universally panned Smart automatic.
But look at it: it looks like a go-kart on steroids. It weighs less than 1,750 pounds and makes my third generation Miata look like a bloated luxo-barge. It’s got a motor, a steering wheel and wide, sticky tires; everything you need and nothing you don’t. It wouldn’t be much fun to take cross country, but I’m guessing it would be incredibly entertaining for strafing canyon roads. It may not go fast in a straight line, but the good news is you’re not braking much for corners.
So there’s my list of automotive shame. We all have ‘em, so let’s hear yours.