Great Cars Loved and Lost – and others
I’ve been a car and motorcycle enthusiast since I first became aware of such magnificent creations. Recently, while watching an auction on TV, I was amazed at how many of the classics on offer I could relate to in a personal way. There were so many that I’d owned or driven or spent considerable time with in some fashion. Many are now worth a fortune, and our personal assets would be pretty amazing today if we’d kept everything owned in the past. Here are my stories of the ones that got away, and some I was relieved to see go.
1962 or so. 1957 Mercedes-Benz Gullwing Coupe. This car was in a local body shop in the Minneapolis suburb where I grew up. Someone had brought it in for a fender dent repair and a complete windows-out paint job, and then had scuppered out of town. There must be a story there. The body shop had it for sale for $5,000. For a couple of grand more they could have finished the paint job and put the car back together. My Dad thought about it, but declined. Current value: $1,000,000 to $2,000,000.
Early 1960’s. My father made occasional trips to New York City on business, and whenever he did he made time to visit Inskips, the New York Aston Martin dealer. The Aston dealership was on the 14th floor, and an Aston Martin DB 5 cost about $14,000. A good American car was perhaps $4,000. Surveying a curving arc of pristine British glory, my Dad asked the salesman what would happen if he did not like any of the colors they had. The salesman replied, “Mr. Preston, for $14,000 we will paint your Aston any color you like.” My father could have purchased one, and certainly should have. But – that would have meant a loan, and loans were anathema to him. Current value: $700,000 to $1,900,000.
1962 Sunbeam Alpine. My father’s first sports car. The Alpine was a lovely design, and a tad more sophisticated than the MGA it competed with.
It was in most ways a better car than the Sunbeam Tiger, which was an Alpine with the meek 4 cylinder engine replaced by a Ford small block V-8. Yet another Carroll Shelby idea, and he once commented that the Tiger was a better car than the Cobra that made him famous. On the other hand, a friend who owned one found that the V8 engine would torque the chassis so much that at times a door would not open, and at others open as the car went around a corner.
Dad owned the Alpine for about 5 years. He made various improvements, such as removing the cylinder head and drilling new cooling passages on the metal lathe we had in the basement. Didn’t everyone? The wire wheels were painted black, as the stock silver paint chipped off easily. It was always kept spotless, in no small part to my washing and waxing it every other moment.
He sold it for $850 if I recall. I was in agony, as the guy who bought it brought a friend who was an “expert.” The friend had a very tired Porsche 356 he’d paid $3,000 for, and it seemed to me that the Alpine was a far better car. The “expert” drove the Alpine with me as the passenger, and failed to impress me with either his knowledge or driving ability. The Alpine was pretty much perfect, and also underpriced. My father thought that everyone maintained their cars as we did, despite ample evidence to the contrary. The “expert” knew it was a better car, even without the price difference, but could not bear to admit it.
Dad never let me drive the Alpine, feeling I would put it into a ditch within 5 miles, which was a bit harsh. I certainly waxed the red paint a lot, and loved going on occasional rallies as the navigator, where Dad would actually drive the car with brio, as it was designed to do. My Mother, on the other hand, drove it that way all the time, and rides with her were much more fun. On one occasion, I was allowed to start it in the driveway and drive it – 20 feet forward to park it in the garage. That was it.
As life turned out, he should have given me the Alpine instead of the 1963 Mercury he left with me when Boeing, after years of trying, head-hunted him away from Minneapolis. This was in the dirge of life that followed my Mother’s untimely death from cancer at the age of 49.
He felt a bit guilty at “abandoning me” (I was 20), so the Mercury was added to the Yamaha 250 motorcycle I’d just purchased. In truth, the Mercury was far more practical, and the Alpine would not have done well sitting outside in the three Minnesota winters that passed before I moved, but still…
Current value: Maybe $6,000 to $10,000
1969 Camaro Z28. Truly the one that got away. Once I’d been offered a teaching job at Rose Hill Junior High in Kirkland, I spent the last two months of college in Minnesota mooning about the new car I’d buy when the money began to roll in. $7,200 dollars a year! My God, what a munificent sum! My preferences boiled down to a Mustang or a Camaro, and I settled on a Z28 Camaro in yellow with the black stripes, and of course a 4 speed. This would have cost about $3,500, and I was set to take out a loan for 50% of my salary in September. Instead, I crashed my Yamaha three days after arriving, and spent the summer with my arm in a sling with my separated shoulder healing after the surgery. This also cost me a great summer job one of my new colleagues had lined up for me without even meeting me. No money, no Camaro.
On the upside, I met Susan two years later and learned that she really did not like this car. At all. It made her think of mullet hairdos and disco. I actually liked the mullet, which was not a popular thing to admit even then, and I always liked disco. Oh well. I have yet to drive one!
Current value: $35,000 to $60,000 depending on condition.
1958 Corvette. Actually the first car I purchased for real. My Dad sold me the Mercury shortly after I arrived, because I’d crashed and destroyed my Yamaha and was making noises about purchasing a new bike and a $500 clunker to drive when needed, and he did not want me to die in a death trap car. He sold me the Mercury for $1,500 with low payments (and interest) -much less than what it was worth.
The Corvette was purchased in 1972, a month after we were married, and about two weeks after I learned that Susan loved “old” Corvettes but hated new ones. Knowing that she was an enthusiast, I sold my new Honda 500 4 motorcycle (which was actually such a perfect motorcycle it bored me to tears) and purchased a 1958 Corvette with…“needs.” It had been painted a sickly blue with rattle cans, and white racing stripes applied with – a brush. The interior was in dark gray plastic metal flake material, if you can imagine that, with a tear or two in the seats repaired with bright green tape. The chrome front wheels had been stolen, and narrowed black rims from a Nova were back in there somewhere. I paid $800, and driving home on a warm summer evening listening to the 283 burble through the leaking glass pack mufflers, top down and rowing through the 4 speed transmission – it was love.
Within two months I’d purchased two new chrome front rims, had the car painted a butterscotch color, and had the interior redone in a dark tan with matching carpets. Much better! I removed the spare tire and put a can of Fix-A-Flat into the trunk, which I lined with scraps of tannish orange shag carpet cut and glued into place. Appalling, but it was 1972.
To the dismay of Corvette enthusiasts, a small hood scoop was installed at the time of the paint job, in order to clear the Edelbrock high rise and Holley carburetor, right in the middle of the washboard ripples on the hood that were a 1958 only styling feature of the Corvette.
We used this for our 2nd honeymoon of that year. The first was in March, the week after our wedding, and involved a 5 day ride down the coast of Oregon on the Honda. It did not rain, as I had promised my fiancé it would not. The 2nd was a two week camping trip with the newly fettled and farkled Corvette into Canada, where we parked on the shore of Lake Louise and went for hikes each day. The top stayed down for the entire trip. Bliss.
All of a muddle with excitement, I joined a Corvette club, although Susan warned me it would not turn out well. Sure enough, most of them were into modern Corvettes with panel paint jobs and big stereos. I got my revenge for several social snubs at a Redmond High Homecoming, where the club provided the cars for the parade. All of the students gathered around mine and ignored the new ones.
At a club picnic, I was standing in a group when the topic turned to rain. I exclaimed that I loved driving in the rain, because I could make a turn from a stop sign and go down the road half sideways for 200 yards. Most of them, it turned out, did not drive in the rain.
Someone asked why I did, and I replied “I have to. It’s our only car.” Suddenly I was standing all alone…
At this time I was working Sundays as a drag race announcer at (then) Seattle International Raceway. One day, after the racing was concluded, the crew decided I should race the other announcer, who had a …Pinto wagon. We pulled up to the start area, both in the same lane. I did a burn-out in reverse to switch lanes, which was well received. The “Christmas tree” starting lights had been stored, so the start was an old fashioned wave of an arm. To make it a “fair” race, the Pinto was given about a half track lead. I took off and the car reared up on all four wheels and really got after it. I won.
The next week I found out that the front suspension was about to fall off the car…
A year later the oil began to turn a milky white, the sign of a blown head gasket. After replacing the gaskets, twice, to no avail, an engine strip down was taken on. To the shock of Roy Urban, my friend who ran a repair shop (I was his first customer, and the signed check for the clutch job hung in a frame on the wall), the engine had a porous block. With a flash light and the block on a stand with a hose connected to the water intake, you could state mesmerized as drops appeared as they oozed through what appeared to the naked eye to be a solid cylinder wall! We also discovered a notch in one of the cylinders, the result of a mishap in former days as a drag racer, and forged 12.5 to 1 compression pistons! I did not have the money for a set of headers, which probably would have added 100 horsepower, and ended up with a lot of intake capability, tons of compression, and stock headers which acted as a cork. Oh well.
The car was a heater and radio delete car, another hint as to its drag racing original intent. I purchased a heater from a wrecking yard, and it sat on the shelf for a year while I mustered the courage to attempt what I thought would be a mammoth job. During that time we drove to Vancouver for my father’s 3rd (of 5!) wedding, with Susan wrapped in a blanket against the cold and clearing the mist from the inside of the windshield with a towel.
In the end, installing the heater required removing and replacing 4 bolts and hooking up the linkage. Took about an hour.
We also used this car for our first attempts at sports car rallies. This was a bit of a challenge, as the speedometer did not work, but I could usually guess our speed pretty well. We gave up after an event where one of us (our versions differ) was so mad at the other that he (or she) was pounding on the dashboard. We returned to rallying 20 years later and began winning almost immediately, mostly because the driver (that would be me) had learned to just shut up and do what she told me to do!
When Dorine was born in 1975 the Corvette had to go. It was our only car, and you cannot put a child safety seat (then the new hot thing) in a Corvette. By that time the flaws of the car were beginning to get to me. It was not really all that fast, did not corner well, had mediocre drum brakes, and ate premium fuel at about 12 mpg. An enjoyable 12 miles, but still. It looked and sounded gorgeous, but it needed to go. We sold it for $2,700, close to what we had in it, and I watched the new Canadian owner drive away with his 9 year old son. I was actually relieved to see the car go.
On the wall of my classroom for decades was a 3’ x 2’ foot black and white blown up picture of the Corvette, which students always marveled at. They would ask whose car it was, and were gob smacked when I told them it had been mine. Their amazement deepened when I told them I had sold it when our daughter was born – teen age boys could not imagine such a sacrifice.
Current value: $35,000 – 75,000 depending on condition
1967 Fiat 124 Sport Coupe. This was a brilliant car. An airy cabin offered great vision out; although I’m sure the roof would collapse if you were so crass as to roll it. A willing 4 cylinder engine, four wheel disc brakes, and a perfect 5 speed manual transmission. The most fun car to drive I’ve ever owned, and that includes the Corvette and the Porsche 911. The only thing it lacked was about 70 more horsepower, which the chassis could have handled. Ours was perfectly reliable, except for the fan switch, which failed every two years. Fortunate, as this was one of the very few repairs I could make myself – in about two minutes. I do not know what I paid for ours, or what I sold it for, or when, but it was a treasure.
Current value: First, you’d have to find one!
We also had a Fiat 124 Spider from about 1984 to 1992. It was, I think, a 1968, purchased from a friend who’d purchased a 2nd one that was newer, and then a 3rd to be used as a parts car. Ours was a bit of a George Washington’s axe, and had well trundled over 200,000 miles when we bought it. It also had Fiat mags, a roll bar, and the preferred red paint. Our kids loved the car, until they grew taller and began to bonk their heads on the roll bar over every bump. We went on a couple of rallies in this car and did very well.
One of the last adventures with that car was when it got shot. A miscreant student, who later died after committing a dozen or more felonies in his short life, brought a stolen high-powered BB pistol to school. To show off to his friends, he went out to the parking lot and shot my car several times. Ironically, I parked my car away from all the others to keep it from getting parking lot dings.
At that time the state had a victim’s compensation fund, so I put in for a replacement driver’s side window, outside mirror and convertible top. I had to stay on top of the case and write several letters, but 9 months later I got a check for the damages. The repairs themselves were made the weekend after the assault with pieces taken from my friend’s parts car.
Current value: These are actually pretty common, and the ones on the west coast have not rusted to dust. They make up a healthy percentage of the Fiat club I belong to, in states of condition from perilous to perfect. $3,000 to $8,000 depending on condition, and a great way to get in to classic sports cars. We sold ours to make way for a 1975 Porsche 911 S Targa – the worst mistake of my car ownership life.
Hillman(s). I actually had the pleasure of driving two of them. In high school my parents owned a 1959 Hillman four door sedan that was available to me if I needed a car, but not for riding to school every day on a perfectly good bus. My first experience with a four speed shift on the floor, and I learned that you could not simply downshift into 3rd entering a corner at 50mph. Good thing, as the engine would have over-revved and blown up if I had succeeded. My favorite summer was when the exhaust pipe rusted through, and I begged my father not to repair it as it sounded so marvelous. I had a street drag race with a Triumph TR3, where the extremely low first gear shot me ahead, and then it was over.
While we owned the Corvette I found a 1959 Hillman “Husky,” a 2 door station wagon. Ours was in a parlous state. There was no headliner, so you could bang your head on the roof and make a sound like a wrench in a metal sewer pipe. The seats were not attached at the back, so hard braking would see you tilting forward. Susan drove this everywhere at about 70mph, despite my warnings that the brakes were not that great. On one occasion there was a wiring fire behind the dash. I ripped apart the dashboard, which was cardboard with a plastic “wood” surface, and put out the fire with a rag. Some duct tape and it was repaired.
We sold it for not very much to a young man as his first car, despite his older brother arguing against it. They were back in 30 minutes, as the car had died and “failed to proceed.” A friend and I grabbed a tool box and went to investigate. The lead from the coil had fallen out. My friend found a small twig on the ground and put the coil wire back in with the twig as a shim. Success! The new owner drove off with pride.
Current value: Not much, but good luck finding one.
1975 Porsche 911S Targa. Better known as the disaster. The short version: Purchased for $10,500, put another $20,000 into it over the next eight years, and sold for $7,500. That, my friends, is ugly. When shopping I ignored all of the advice I’d been giving others for years. It was red, it was magic, and we agreed to buy it in ten minutes. On the way home I found that the master cylinder was peeing brake fluid all over the floor. I knew the tires needed to be replaced. Did not bother to check that the Guards Red paint was not the original color. It was wonderful when it was well, but when anything went wrong it ranged from expensive to you have got to be kidding. I did a lot of rallies in it, with Susan or Will or Dorine as navigator, and we had a lot of fun and did very well.
Will was a fantastic navigator, capable of doing complex feats of math and timing calculations in his head. On the occasion when we got off course, which became more and more seldom over time, he would figure out how to get back on course and calculate how much time we needed to make up before the next check point. In a rally you do not know where the next check point is, so he would say “balls to the wall – have fun.” After a few minutes of excitement he’d decide we were back on time and tell me to back off. I was worried for years that he would become a mad hatter of a teen age driver, but he did not.
Showing my flat learning curve, I joined the Porsche club. Other members were not impressed with my car (again!), and expressed horror at the small bubbles of rust at the base of the hood. On one occasion I drove it to a club concours. I did not want to enter; just to park in an obvious spot and enjoy all the anal retentives having the fantods as they looked at my car.
Susan has pointed out that we owned this car while our kids were in their teen age years, and once in a while we would sneak away for a romantic weekend at a B&B on Whidbey Island or some such. She points out that those were terrific times. Since the car cost us about $3000 a year to own, I should hope so!
Overall, the experience left me not wanting to own a Porsche ever again, whereas I would love to own a Corvette again. Not the car’s fault, but mine for being the idiot who purchased the wrong one.
Current value: Has gone up since I started typing this. With all of its many needs attended to, a 1975 Porsche 911S Targa is now $35,000 – $50,000.
From the mid-1990s on I’ve been fortunate enough to have purchased only new cars, with the exception of an ancient Mazda pick-up purchased for very seldom use. None of them are likely to become classics in the future, although I suppose our 2012 Fiat 500 Sport will be valuable about 20 years after my death, if I live a long time.
Do I regret not keeping all of these cars, even if I could have? Not really. One of life’s cruel ironies is that when you get into an older classic car you realize in short order how good the new ones are. No creature comforts, little power, iffy brakes, suspect handling, and frequent needed maintenance are all facts of life we do not deal with today.
Besides, there is my friend Mary McGee. Mary raced sports cars and motorcycles for about 50 years, and may not be done yet. She raced a Mercedes Benz 300 SL as her first race car (!), (see above), and also XKE Jags and several race Porsches, including an RS 500. She did not own any of them, but if she had they would be worth several million today. Doesn’t bother her much, so why should I besmear these fine memories with regret?
Of course, when I win a big lottery…
Copyright 2014 David Preston