26 Feb

Drive time

Whether you want charm and quirky styling or performance and luxury, classic cars offer a driving experience unmatched by new motors. And the good news is there has never been a better time to buy one, writes automobile pundit David McConnell.

One of my prevailing childhood memories is sitting in the vast, black leather front seat of a 1970s Citroen SM. The car belonged to the father of one of my school friends and it looked like a gargantuan four-wheeled space ship – with a dashboard that resembled the bridge of the Starship Enterprise. I guess that’s where my lifelong love affair with the classic automobile began.

If you too hold the candle for classic cars, you’ll be pleased to know that there has never been a better time to buy one. In fact, prices have either risen or remained stable every year since 1998. Fuelled by the now middle-aged folk who were born of the 1960s and 1970s, many of whom now have more disposable income to play with, the market is very buoyant indeed.

But where do you start? As I can testify, a classic car is an emotional purchase. And it’s absolutely right to follow your heart: if you know what you like, and have a few models already in mind, that’s great. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t also do your homework.

In other words, investigate prices online and learn about the car’s strengths and foibles. Some models are complex and expensive to maintain, others more straightforward. Consider it all. It is important, too, to consider the price you want to pay. It hardly needs stating that expensive models will be better maintained and come with extensive paperwork, such as invoices for previous work. Whatever your budget, always look for a full service history.

The 1970s/80s Mercedes SL

The 1970s/80s Mercedes SL

If you fancy something from the 1960s and 1970s, think carefully about how that translates into the mod cons you probably now take for granted. Electric windows? You’ll be lucky. Consider, too, that a classic car won’t be as reliable as a new one, so budget for around £1,000 a year for parts and servicing. On older cars, exhausts rot and buttons will stop working. And rust: that is virtually always an issue in vintage models, even though, you’ll be pleased to know, it’s usually treatable. That said, it’s certainly a good idea to have a garage in which to protect your new gas guzzler from the elements.

If the 1960s and 1970s sounds a bit too vintage, move forward a decade or two. Cars from the 1980s and 1990s are becoming rare and prices are slowly rising. Better built than their predecessors, these modern classics are more likely to offer power steering, electric windows and even heated seats. This was the time when Mercedes, BMW, Porsche and Volkswagen gave us that legendary German- build quality. And by the 1990s even Jaguar had cracked its reliability issues.

So if you’ve got £20,000 or more to spend, check out a 1980s convertible Mercedes SL. With its luxury, performance and timeless styling, prices are strong but it’ll always be desirable, so it’s a sound investment. In 1989, Mercedes introduced a new SL that was better built and equipped – and now yours for less than £10,000. Its muscular 1990s’ looks are ageing well and I’ll wager that its value will have doubled in five year’s time.

For timeless British luxury and performance, a 1990s Jaguar (XJ6 or XK8) offers great value. But prices will rise, so act now or you could miss the boat – and car!

How about a 1990s Porsche Boxster? Maligned by purists for not being a 911 (much like the 1980s 924s/944s which are now, please note, going through the roof) it has looks, fantastic handling and is very affordable. By the end of the decade, you could pay twice as much for one as now.

Classic car dealers will generally have the best cars and with the lowest mileage. You’ll pay more but get greater peace of mind. Be prepared to travel for the car you want but staying local makes sense too as Surrey offers plenty of choice. Hurst Park in East Moseley, family-owned and trading since 1938, has, for example, a marvellous array of Jaguars.

You could also try a classic car auction. You’ll be up against dealers but you’ll have a story to tell and the excitement of bidding is an experience that will live long! Barons are hosting five auctions at Sandown Park this year, with cars fetching between £2,000 and £50,000. Check Barons’ catalogue online to see what’s coming up. (barons-auctions.com)

Publications such as Classic Car Weekly are also a great source of information, and the web has plenty of forums and classifieds to bone up and whet your appetite.

So, plan your budget, choose carefully and with a bit of care and maintenance you’ll fall back in love with driving, bring a smile wherever you go – and have a nice little investment to boot!