Classic car magazines are dangerous places, particularly after a couple of glasses of wine and with your Ebay browser open. They’ll have you salivating over long-loved icons with their combination of dramatic photography and enthusiastic prose.
The trouble is that owning a classic car isn’t always quite like that. They can break down and deteriorate. The beautiful vision of loveliness in the article can induce Basil Fawlty style tantrums faster than you can say ‘money pit.’
Of course, clever know-it-alls who wouldn’t know fun if it jumped in front of them wearing a clown suit with the word fun on it will tell you that such is the world of classic cars and you only have yourself to blame. No. And maybe. Below is a list of the best and worst classic cars we’ve run. We run our classic hire cars over very high annual mileages so we think this list is a good real world indicator of what to buy and what to avoid. Hopefully it will help you avoid the know-it-all’s pointing finger of blame.
1. Alfa Romeo Spider
If you’re surprised to see an Alfa at the top of our ‘best classics’ list, don’t be. The Spider is a brilliantly engineered, ultra reliable classic convertible that delivers fun by the bucketload. We have owned most variants of this superb car but it is the late Series 4 that we like best for its combination of comfort and sheer usability. In 70,000 kilometres of hire it has only failed once due to a faulty starter motor and even then it chose to do it just 1 mile from our unit on it return with customers. The only downside of the Spider is parts supply – some items are getting scarce and they can be pricey. But if it doesn’t go wrong then that isn’t such a problem. Wax inject the bodywork and it won’t rust either.
There is a good reason why there are so many MGBs on the road – they endure. The very ubiquity of the MGB is exactly why you should buy one. They are very useable, pretty durable and when it goes wrong you can get everything next day. And there isn’t really much to go wrong. MGBs are so simple that they really don’t need specialist knowledge to fix them and if you’re reasonable competent with spanners you can probably do it at home. Of course the old ‘sporting Morris Oxford’ jibes hold some water but spare your opinion until you drive one. There really is something quite special about a B and those looks, withered by familiarity, really are gorgeous if you take time to consider them anew.
3. VW Beetle convertible
For some unknown reason the humble Beetle convertible always tends to get overlooked. Perhaps it’s the suggestion of a moustachioed dictator standing in the back that is implied when the roof is rolled back. Forget that. The hardtop Beetle is a budget 911 that handles neatly so chopping the roof and improving the fit and finish – even more – turns it into a perfect weekend getaway car. It has four full seats, a peppy engine, easy gear change and stylish curvy looks. The doors clunk shut, the roof is a feat of watertight engineering and it is very economical. That’s the practical stuff. It also doesn’t go wrong. Karmann made the Beetle to astonishing levels of quality but the basic mechanical engineering is simple and very, very durable. And with excellent club support this is the hidden gem that every would-be classic car-loving family man should be driving.
4. Jaguar E Type straight six
What it sacrifices in terms of reliability it more than compensates for with sheer verve and beauty. The Series 1 and 2 E Type is utterly gorgeous and, if well sorted, is a very easy and reliable classic to own. The venerable XK engine may have been pulled out to 4.2 litres by the end of its life but it’s solid, simple 1950s engineering makes it a reliable and dependable unit. E Types rot and gearboxes can be fragile but stay on top of both and they are perfectly reliable. They will go wrong but when they do parts are easy to get and not particularly expensive. This is a car to use and enjoy, not stick in a garage and stare at. Our pair of E Type coupes are the busiest cars on our fleet with amongst the best reliability records. The later v12 is also much more reliable than reputation suggests but its generally poor quality and parts complexity mean we favour the straight six models, particularly the coupes.
5. Jaguar XJS
If ever there was a car waiting to be ‘the next big thing’ in classic car circle it is the XJS. Once the ugly duckling of Jaguar’s range the svelte XJS has matured into a highly desirable classic coupe and convertible. The looks that once seemed ungainly and awkward now looks increasingly cohesive and innovative, particularly in full convertible style. We have run a XJS on our fleet for many years and it has been very reliable, despite being the notorious V12 HE fuel injected model. Despite the huge range of electrics and under-bonnet spaghetti the car is mechanically very strong and dependable with just the irritating fly off handbrake causing problems – it is very easy to burn out the pads, which is a complex job to fix. We like the pre-facelift V12 for its hedonism and smoothness but any XJS is worth a punt. Like any classic, just make sure you buy a good one – if you do you’ll enjoy one of the bargains of the classic car world. But not for long we think…
6. Mercedes SL
Sneaking in at 6 is the R107 Mercedes SL. If you like your convertibles smooth, relaxing and oozing quality then the SL is for you. Prices are sneaking up thanks to some judicious pricing by specialists but well priced cars are still out there privately. The SL is stylish, solid and practical – it can seat four, the roof works well and it has conveniences like power steering, electric windows and automatic gearbox. Of course, they rust badly but buy well and you’ll enjoy a very solidly engineered convertible that may be a little costly when parts fail but we don’t expect that very often.
Previously in this blog I’ve listed the worst cars I’ve ever owned. Generally these are cars I’ve put on hire and had to remove because, frankly, they’re awful for a variety of reasons. This list of the worst cars to own is a little different, but will perhaps contain some familiar candidates.
Never let it be said that the DeLorean DMC-12 is badly built. It is very badly built. I can’t recall another car I’ve ever hired out that was so fundamentally flawed in terms of design and execution. I am a child of the 80s and while I was never a big Back to the Future fan I always wanted a DeLorean. They just look so incredibly cool. But that is where it ends. Familiarity doesn’t dull the sheer gobsmacking style of the DMC-12 but the driving and owning experience certainly tarnish the shine of those glossy aluminium looks. The DeLorean handles and accelerates surprisingly well but the car is just so impractical. It is too low, the doors feel like a cruel joke after a day or so, the visibility is woeful and the turning circle rivals that of the Oriana. The interior is very much an afterthought with sub-Porsche 928 dashboard and fit and finish that makes an Austin Metro feel like a byword for quality. The gearchange is horrible, with more connections than a redundant executive on Linkedin. All of that I could just about live with if it wasn’t actually fundamentally unsafe. In the 18 months we had it on hire the front suspension failed twice due to poor quality parts and shoddy design. The gear lever also fell of twice. These are not amusing faults or cuddly quirks, they are shortcomings. I may be alone here but 100% confidence that the wheels and gearstick won’t fall off the car I’m driving is, I’m sorry to say John DeLorean, quite important to me. So, DeLorean – admire it, sit in it, have a short drive in it at under 20 mph on a private road with a full complement of emergency services immediately on hand. Then never do it again.
2. Rover SD1 Vitesse
Oh dear. Just like the DeLorean here is a great looking car, an icon of my youth, but just so incredibly disappointing. The Vitesse has the ingredients of greatness – lovely burbly V8, Daytona-esque looks, luxury fittings and four seater hatchback practicality. But then there is driving it and keeping it going. Boy did I want to like it. But eventually I had to admit that it probably has the worst driving position of any car I’ve ever driven – imagine driving whilst attempting to roll into a foetal position – and it even made the DeLorean feel well built. Once upon a time the people at Rover made excellent, solid high quality cars for customers who were doctors and lawyers. Then along came some other people who said ‘I see what you’re doing there with the quality thing but lets absolutely, categorically and definitively not do that any more.’ And the other people did just that. Because the Vitesse is very, very badly built. The dashboard top is more wavy than a day at Royal Ascot and the doors have panel gaps bigger than the Suez Canal. Very few replacement parts are easily available and you’ll need them – only the V8 engine is dependable, everything else disintegrates around it.
3. Triumph Stag
As we still have a Stag on the fleet I should say at the outset that they are excellent cars. Just don’t buy one. We persevere with ours because it is popular, but it has been a constant source of stress and frustration for me. Put simply, not a lot on the Stag was fully thought through before it was thrown into production. That it took a very long time to go into production may give you an indication of quite how bad it must have been at the outset. This, after all, is a car where you have to remove the power steering pump and belts just to change the battery. On the plus side, the Stag is a lovely car to hire – it burbles, it steers neatly, it is comfortable and relaxing. To own is a different matter. The V8 engine genuinely is unreliable – forget all the stories about upgrades and fixes, the engine is fundamentally flawed. It can be made fairly reliable but it will never be completely reliable. We have suffered two head gasket failures in 2 years, despite careful and regular maintenance. The roof is a travesty – a poor copy of the design used on the Mercedes R107 SL it fits when it wants to, folds flat when it can be bothered and snaps release cables on a very regular basis. Stag parts are easy to get hold of, the car is practical for a family but please, whatever you do, leave the ownership experience to people who enjoy self-flagellation. Like classic car hire companies.
4. Bentley T1 & Rolls Royce Silver Shadow
Here is another car that looks great. It also drives beautifully too. It is well built as well. But don’t buy one. There is no such thing as a cheap Rolls, just a Rolls waiting to bankrupt you. These cars are very expensive to own and while no more unreliable than other classic cars of similar age they are catastrophically expensive to repair when they go wrong. The carburettor cars of the 1970s are also wallet-meltingly costly to run with single figure mpg. You may be reading this thinking – sure, I know that, but I still want one. You don’t. If you want the Crewe battleship experience get a blown Bentley R from the late 1980s or early 1990s – they are robust, well built and pretty cool too.
So there you have it. An Alfa is the best classic car to own, a DeLorean isn’t. Of course, buying a classic car is as much about emotion as practical level-headed decision making. In the process of building Great Escape I’ve experienced exactly that balancing act, but ultimately the cars I’ve loved the most have been the ones I have been able to enjoy the most and a big part of that enjoyment is knowing it will get me where I’m going pretty much every time.
To find out more about our classic car hire fleet and our maintenance regime call 01527 893733 or visit http://www.greatescapecars.co.uk.