So out of all the cars they test all year round, which models are the ones that Autocar staffers are willing to spend their own money on?
The results are varied, ranging from a 1990 Volkswagen T3 Syncro, through a 1974 Ford Escort Mexico and even including a 1965 Chevrolet Corvair. All have come forward to be assessed on their coolness, dynamics and ability to paint a broad smile on their driver’s face. There’s only one judge: Colin Goodwin. And his decision is final.
John Simister – 1961 Saab 96 (owned since 2001)
I came up behind John Simister’s Saab 96 on the way to our gathering in Bicester. Knew it was him because there was a little cloud of two-stroke oil smoke hanging in the air over the last roundabout he’d negotiated.
“I’ve always been intrigued by Saabs and I fell in love with the 96 after driving one for Practical Classics magazine,” Simister says. “I bought mine from a mechanic from the Saab museum in Trollhättan and drove it home from there to the UK.”
You can’t just jump in a car like this and drive it, so John is in the passenger seat, giving instruction. “Three on the tree for gears,” he explains, “and because there’s a freewheeling system, you can change down gears without using the clutch. Just give it a little blip of throttle to help. You’ll get the hang of it quickly.”
The water-cooled, three-cylinder 841cc engine is incredibly smooth. If you’d owned cars like Morris Minors and Ford Populars, stepping up to the Saab would feel like a tremendous leap forwards. It’s a torquey engine, too, with 59lb ft (against an 850 Mini’s 44lb ft) and it feels perfectly set up.
“I do about 3000 miles a year in the car,” Simister says. “It’s probably the nicest car that I’ve ever owned. It’s eccentric and interesting and I doubt I’ll ever sell it.”
Without doubt, Simister’s 96 is so nice to drive because he uses it regularly. Idleness is a killer for classic cars and it's asking for trouble in a machine that uses a petrol mix.
Ben Summerell-Youde – 1990 Volkswagen T3 Syncro (owned since 2009)
I’ve owned three Volkswagen Type 2 vans, all with the split screen. The most I ever paid for one was £250. Today, they’re north of £20k, and I reckon you’d be crackers to buy one for that. I’d much rather have Ben Summerell-Youde’s T3 Syncro.
“I bought it in Germany for £2100. It’d have been double that in the UK,” Ben says. “It had a blown head gasket and shot CV joint, so we towed it back on an A-frame. My dad is a mechanic and used to convert T3s into campers, so he knows them really well.”
So what on earth does a four-wheel-drive VW van feel like to drive? It’s a question that I’ve asked since I first saw this Syncro in the Autocar car park. “I wanted a Syncro because they’re rare and I wanted to go off-roading,” he says.
There’s a familiar VW flat four rumble from the back, slightly raspier than normal because there’s a hole in the exhaust. “It’s 2.1 litres and injected, with 95bhp,” he says. “They’re amazing off road because they’ve got a central viscous coupling and have front and rear diff locks. In the US, they didn’t have the front lock because Americans left it on and then crashed when they were back on a grippy surface.”
Summerell-Youde says his Syncro is now worth far more than he paid for it but that he’d never sell it. And so he shouldn’t. I can’t get over how well this 24-year-old VW rides and how tight it feels mechanically. I also love the way it looks.