Monday, February 22, 2010

Ten collectible cars (or not)

CNN recently ran a piece on what it called "10 dirt cheap collectible cars." While collectors are unpredictable - almost everybody collects something, and almost everything is collected by somebody - the mind boggles at the idea that more than a few poor beknighted souls would lust after some of these cars...

1. 1985-93 Ford Mustang 5.0 HO

The Fox-body Mustang appeared in 1979. The demise of the Pinto-based Mustang II saddened virtually no one, but the 1979 oil crisis postponed hopes of new high-performance Mustang. The venerable 302 V-8 played a "now you see it, now you don't" game for a few years, and turbocharged four-cylinder engines weren't quite the thing for a Mustang, but in 1985 the 302 (now labeled a 5.0 liter) jumped to 210 horsepower. Fuel injection arrived the next year, and the Fox-body legend began.

Today it's hard to find a 5.0 Mustang that hasn't been modified within a cubic inch of its life. That may make untouched examples all the more valuable to future collectors - and there will be future collectors. I mean, it's a Mustang.

2. 1975-80 AMC Pacer

The American Motors Corporation was perennially undercapitalized, and like many struggling organizations it resorted to major innovations in a desperate search for some advantage - any advantage - in the marketplace. Unfortunately, like many struggling organizations it lacked the resources to properly implement any innovative ideas it might have had and was forced to take half-measures. Thus, the Pacer - the widest small car ever built. AMC even bragged about it in their advertising! But they were making a virtue out of necessity - AMC couldn't afford to invest in new tooling, so the Pacer was in many respects a shortened version of AMC's full-size cars. Even so, AMC managed to sell 280,000 of the things, but half were built in that first model year. The Pacer was dropped after the 1980 model year, and AMC itself would be gone a few years later.

Even CNN admits that the Pacer is "[t]he object of near-universal mockery." It was, and it is, and it should be. Remember those "poor beknighted souls" I mentioned above? This car is for them.

3. 1974-80 Triumph Spitfire 1500

The Triumph Spitfire was your basic British roadster - small, light, crude, great fun to drive, utterly unreliable. The 1500 was the final version of the Spitfire; it was slightly less crude and slightly less reliable (a relative term) than its predecessors.

There are, and hopefully always will be, people who enjoy tinkering with cars more than they enjoy driving them. For those people, there are British roadsters. For the rest of us, there are Miatas. But I wouldn't kick a Triumph out of my garage, either.

4. 1975-78 Datsun 280Z

The 280Z was the last of Datsun's first-generation Z-cars. With its 2.8-liter engine rated at 149 horsepower, it was one of the quicker cars of the smog-choked 1970s. But it was also much more portly and - with the giant bumpers required by new US safety standards - much less attractive than earlier iterations of the car, the 240Z and 260Z. It would be replaced within a few years by the next-generation Z, the 280ZX.

Most Japanese cars of the 1970s have rusted away by now, which makes any Z car in good condition a rare find. But the 280Z will never quite measure up to the 240Z and 260Z.

5. 1989-91 Ford Taurus SHO

It was a jellybean. A very successful jellybean. A front-wheel-drive family sedan that sold by the million. Then they added a high-revving 220-horsepower Yamaha V-6 and a five-speed manual transmission. It was fast. Very fast.

It's quirky. Conan O'Brien owns one. It's hard to find any more. It has a cult following, and if you want one, I won't judge you. (If, however, you want a Pacer, I will judge you. Severely.)

6. 1977-83 BMW 320i

The BMW 3-series has a well-deserved reputation as one of the best sports sedans money (an awful lot of money, these days) can buy. The 320i was a fine car in its day, featuring a 125-horsepower fuel-injected version of BMW's M10 four-cylinder engine - in Europe. In the United States, most 320i cars came with a less powerful 1.8-liter engine, thanks to the introduction of a 2.0-liter six that the US wouldn't get for a few more years.

That's why the choice of the 320i as a collector's E21 is mystifying. E21 BMWs get short shrift next to the legendary 2002 that preceded them and the E30 that succeeded them. But the 320i wasn't even the best American E21. That distinction belongs to the 323i and its 143-horsepower 2.3-liter straight six. The 320i wasn't a bad car, but it's just another old BMW.

7. 1968-76 Volkswagen Beetle

The People's Car. Herbie, the Love Bug. It's a symbol of the Sixties in this country, and with Mexican production only ending in 2003 after more than 21 million had been built, it's ubiquitous in Latin America.

The greatest economy car of all time is a global icon - and that makes it a collector's item. Best of all, you'll never have trouble finding parts.

8. 1986-88 Pontiac Fiero GT

No.

9. 1979-81 Fiat Spider 2000

The Fiat Spider enjoyed a 20-year run in this country as an Italian competitor to the British roadsters. Italian and British sports cars shared many of the same characteristics. They looked good and they were fun to drive - when they ran. The reliability of a Spider was no better than that of a British roadster and possibly a good deal worse, if it can be believed.

Fiats have never seemed to command quite the same level of respect as British sports cars. Maybe it's a cultural thing. Maybe it's the weight of numbers. Maybe it's the depth of feeling British cars evoke. Maybe it's the certainty that the purchase price is but a small fraction of the cost of ownership. Whatever the reason, the Spider doesn't quite measure up.

10. 1956 Buick Roadmaster

"Look where the excitement isn't," the article says. What's the point of that? Isn't the point of having a collector car the excitement that comes with it? This Buick is just another Eisenhower-era barge dripping in chrome, and while I'm sure it excites someone, I'm equally sure I don't know who.

***

Somewhere out there is a car for everybody. No matter what your taste, or lack thereof, go out and enjoy. The car lust touches us all.

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