The Argument for Classic Cars Or, How Frustration Taught Me To Run From Exotics
I have a confession to make: I am a car guy. I am not your average “I had a cool car before I got married and had kids” car guy. I am not a mid-life-crisis car guy. I am not even the ‘I have a project I have been working on for the last decade-and-a-half’ car guy. I am a lifelong car guy. My first memories are of my father’s 1972 Corvette convertible, and they are among the most lucid. I have been a car guy from the jump, learning as much as I could about automobiles of all types. I shunned sports and other activities in preference of building go-karts and dirt bikes, all in order to get that sensation of speed and excitement. I started reading car magazines and books at 11, years before I could legally drive. I got a vintage Corvette when I graduated high school. True to form as a confessed car guy, I have always wanted an exotic car…Until now.
Exotic cars hold a promise for every kid with a little gasoline in his blood. That low-to-the-ground, fat-tired, often wedge-shaped madness, that rumbling exhaust that speaks of extra-legal speed, the rarity that assures nobody else on your block will have one. So strong is this allure, it stays with many of us well into adulthood. In fact, what was cool when you were in high school, often sees a spike in price when you are in your early to mid-forties. This is because all those kids who had the cool posters on their bedroom walls growing up, have found a way to make a living that will let them finally own a Countach, Testarossa, 911, 308, Diablo, or Pantera. All those poster cars have had their prices driven into the stratosphere. If you doubt me, go see what has happened to the prices of all of the aforementioned cars in the last five years. Every one of them has at least doubled in price, except the Countach; those have tripled and quadrupled.
Exotic cars have done what they are supposed to do; they have remained out of reach for all of those save the highest of income earners. Had you bought while the economy was still low, you could have had yourself the investment of a lifetime. But even with that, you have to maintain these thoroughbreds, and therein lies the rub.
Exotic cars are typically not daily drivers. Sure, there are exceptions. I once dated a girl whose father drove a Ferrari 308 GTS to work every day the weather permitted. He was a dentist, so his job didn’t demand any particular type of car. However, most people who have gotten to that point in life also have kids to cart around, or their job places demands on their transportation, or other obligations don’t allow for such things. If they do have a car like that, it sits most of the time. The worst thing for any piece of machinery is to sit. The seals and gaskets dry out, and they begin to leak. Tires dry rot. Gremlins take up residence, as well as rodents. Batteries go dead. In regular cars, these problems aren’t cheap. In exotics, they are devastatingly expensive.
Why so much more expensive in exotics? In a word, performance. Whether it is exotic because of speed capability, braking and handling prowess, or even supreme luxury, that exotic car has been built to a standard beyond that of your minivan or SUV. They have engines that produce well north of 100bhp/liter. They are often constructed of rare components like carbon fiber. They have parts that rival some race cars. All of that superior technology, that rocket-like acceleration, or that bank-vault quiet comes at a price.
Sometimes, it isn’t the purchase price of the car that kills, it’s what the car was designed to be. I had a 1999 Mercedes S600. It was one of 14 imported to the US that year. It was the final year of the W140 platform, so it was actually a holdover from the 1998 model year. New, the car stickered for over $140,000. It was simply amazing. The development that went into the W140s prior to launch was over $1 billion. Those were 1992 dollars, a staggering amount. By the time I got my S-Class, it was worth around $20k. (A word to the wise: luxury cars depreciate faster than houses after the housing bubble burst.) My S600 had a 6.0 liter V-12 that cranked out 389 peak horsepower, the best factory stereo I’ve ever heard, an unparalleled ride quality, was beyond quiet, and was unquestionably the finest car I’ve ever had….when everything was working. When things did break, as they inevitably do, it required the maintenance and parts expense of a $140,000 car: thousand dollar radio antennas, $200 oil changes, a $220 replacement key and fob, headlight assemblies that were $2,500 per side, and so on. I have heard replacement transmissions are $7,000. Thank God I never had to find out. It was a stunning car. There is nothing better for long road trips. There is nothing less forgiving when it comes time to fix it.
The S600 was not my first European car, nor will it be my last. However, in addition to being a car guy, I have a business degree. I say that only to point out I understand return on investment. You can have a good car, even a spectacular car, that won’t rob you of your retirement or force your children to go to community college. Classic cars can be just as rewarding without making you feel as though you are being robbed blind every time you drive one. Often, Classic cars are simpler, with fewer exotic parts. Many times, the parts were sourced from parts bins, having been common to other, more mundane, models. Corvettes, Camaros, Chevelles, Novas, and El Caminos all shared a number of parts with other everyday Chevys. GTOs, 442s, Mustangs, ‘Cudas, Chargers, Gran Torinos, and Cougars have parts that can be found in any local parts store. Moreover, they are simple enough to work on that most people with a little mechanical aptitude can take care of all but the larger jobs themselves. Try that when you want to change the belts on your Ferrari 355.
Classic cars will often garner you as much respect, if not more, than that shiny new Porsche or Lamborghini. Many people see an exotic, and think the owner is a wealthy show-off. But try gassing up your classic without someone wanting to have a conversation about it. There is a fondness, a nostalgia that goes along with seeing a really well preserved or restored classic. There is also a pride in knowing you have saved a piece of history rather than buying the latest hunk of overpriced alloy.
If you can have an exotic, and you want one, more power to you. But, don’t be too quick to discount the pleasure, and probably the savings, of owning a beautiful Classic car.
By the way, I’m lying…..I still want an exotic car, too.