If you love cars, you’ll probably want to own and drive a hot hatch, fast coupé or performance saloon from the 1970s or 1980s. Except you can’t. Well, if money is no object, you can, but if you have any remnants of common sense, you’ll pass.
Those old cars are wonderfully analogue and visceral, but there is no way they’re worth tens of thousands of pounds. We live in an era when Ford Sierra Cosworths fetch £100k and a Mk3 Ford Escort with a turbo attached is auctioned for £60k.
Fortunately, it doesn’t have to be like this. The recently ‘classicised’ used car market may have gone mad, but you can still buy brilliantly affordable, characterful and automotively important cars really easily.
Models from the 1990s onwards are currently overlooked and under-appreciated and just waiting for people like us to buy them. Cars from this era remain relatively fixable (such as 3 Series BMWs), but you’d buy them because they look striking (Fiat Coupé), are fun to drive (early BMW Minis) or are weirdly practical (Fiat Multipla).
Right now, many of these cars may be regarded as fairly recent rubbish and simple forecourt fodder. But there’s a chance that, given a bit more time, they will have stopped depreciating and, once taken seriously, prices will be on the rise. Moving on to 2010s cars may not be an easy option as built-in obsolescence becomes a real issue.
So you don’t have to go that far back in time to bag an interesting set of wheels instead of a modern dullard with an easy-payment PCP attached. That’s why we popped to see a dealer who buys these sorts of cars because he likes them and rightly guesses that others will, too. Indeed, we also think that 1990s and early 2000s motors are the new rock and classic roll. Here’s the proof.
Model to buy - 2005 4.2 S
Price new: £62,645
Model to avoid - Pre-2000 with no history
Price range: £7000 (2000 XKR) to £15,995 (2005 XKR 4.2)
Lurking among dealer Bradley Mitchell’s stock of cars is a rather lovely Jaguar XK Convertible. It is easy to see why he couldn’t turn down this example. It looks gorgeous in silver with anthracite wheels and black leather upholstery, which may well get a bit sticky in summer.
Never mind; this is the supercharged XKR, which makes it even more enticing. Like all of Mitchell’s wheels, it has service records that tell a reassuringly expensive story.
Its last service was in the middle of last year, just a thousand miles ago, and added up to £1800. Both the hood and gearbox have received attention. All this is exactly what you want to hear with a 2001 Jaguar that has 139,000 miles on the clock and is up for £7495. Mitchell says it has been maintained regardless of cost, and that seems to be case. I also believe him when he says the drive back from the home counties was a hoot.
What a difference a little bit of mesh and a few bonnet louvres make. These are tiny styling cues that hint at what spun underneath the bonnet of the new XKR back in the 1990s: a supercharger.
The relatively simple act of blowing some extra air into that already excellent V8 engine raised power from 290bhp to 363bhp. With it came a smooth delivery of power across the whole rev range from below 1000rpm to 6000rpm and beyond. The standard automatic gearbox even helped rapid progress and came courtesy of the enemy: Mercedes-Benz. Of course, you could play with the gearbox in manual mode, but the truth was and still is that the clever device can do the changes better than you can.
Don’t panic: the running expenses are containable, with service costs on a par with an XK8’s. The extra supercharger belt is the only additional item. The average cost for a visit to a specialist Jaguar spannerman will be around £400. The dearest service cost will be £700 at the 70,000-mile interval.
The biggest worry was cylinder bore wear on all engines up to 2000. An XK with a proper Jaguar service history will have been sorted out. However, the timing chain and tensioners can fail once the miles build up. This is given away by a metallic rattle from the top of the engine, but make sure you start from cold. If you need four new tensioners and a new timing chain, that will cost around £1000 to sort out.
The running gear on these heavy cars takes a bashing, so a knocking noise from the suspension usually indicates that a rear shock absorber (and possibly the differential oil seals) need replacing, at a cost of more than £500. Window seals aren’t always perfect, and that means water leaks into the cabin; replacements cost about £150 per seal.
This XKR Convertible is a supreme grand tourer that has looks, equipment, performance and value on its side. Why waste money on an Aston Martin?
Model to buy - Cooper S with Chili Pack
Price new: £14,395
Model to avoid - Mini One with no options
Price range: £990 (2002 Mini One) to £8179 (2011 Cooper S Chili)
Things move swiftly in the motor trade, and if we had delayed photography for a day, the car you see here would have been sold and a cheaper example would have taken its place. As it happens, this immaculate Convertible is the cheerleader for what is the most successful automotive brand relaunch ever.
Let’s take a closer look at what we have here. It’s a Mk1 R52 for the anoraks, a Cooper Convertible that has covered just 24,000 miles, all backed up by a comprehensive history. The specification has all the usuals in place, so air-con, park distance control (rear only) and very nice 15in five-hole alloy wheels.
There is a Thatcham alarm, computer, electric windows front and rear, a run-flat indicator, tints and cloth/leather upholstery. Most of all, though, it is fashionably white and enjoyed a clichéd ‘one lady owner’ back story. Not only that, but it had lived in a heated and carpeted garage, too. And there is more, because it also sits on a set of brand-new Firestone tyres.
Outside of a Mini franchise, I have never seen a better example, and for a 2007 car in this condition, £6495 is not unreasonable. As I am playing with the electric roof, the phone is already ringing and a Mercedes-Benz CLK is being offered as a part-exchange.
A Mini, as we have often written, is a fairly remarkable used car proposition for the simple reason that it hardly seems to depreciate. Indeed, owners of the right spec of early S have seen the value plateau and start to increase. These cars are characterful on the outside and the inside features lots of period details, such as toggle switches and that big speedometer.
The clever thing is that Mini owner BMW came up with the TLC service package, which explains the early resistance to falling values. After that, well, it has been sheer strength of character and spec.
It is all too easy to get completely lost in the minutiae of Mini option packs. The truth is that very low and very high-specification Minis can both struggle to sell. Just because a Mini is over-equipped, that is no reason to pay so much over the guide price. In fact, it is a great opportunity to take advantage of the only element of real depreciation, which is on the extras.
So what are the milestone dates? From 2002, the John Cooper Works kit will make a Mini more desirable. The 2003 upgrade meant better quality and components that lasted longer. Then 2005 was when the S got serious, with a modified supercharger, more power and an optional limited-slip differential.
That was also the year of the Convertible, before the more significant upgrade in 2007, with the bigger, restyled R56 and the marginally more practical Clubman. Then in 2011, the frankly odd Roadster and Coupé came along, but all any enthusiast would ever want is John Cooper Works GP from 2006.
As for the 2007 Convertible we saw, that’s already with its new owner.
Model to buy - S320 V6
Price new: £47,000
Model to avoid - V12
Price range: £1190 (1999 S430) to £6995 (2005 S320L CDI SE)
What’s not to love about a great big car at a used supermini price? Well, the fuel consumption isn’t as good, but otherwise this is an exercise in getting the most amount of motor for minimal money. Here it is represented in the metal as a 2000, X-plate Mercedes-Benz S320 CDI priced at just £2795.
Mileage, as we have clearly established, is not relevant, except that over the past 15 and a bit years, this car has managed to rack up only 72,000 miles. Flicking back through the service history, it is easy enough to verify all of that on this family-owned vehicle. In all, there are nine stamps – six from a main dealer and three more from an independent specialist. That’s complete reassurance in a book, which makes the best sort of bedtime reading.
The spec isn’t impressive by modern standards. However, the lack of over-complication is always going to be a good thing, because there is far less to go wrong. Besides, old-fashioned sat-nav, sunroof, cruise control, climate control and the usual electric extras, which all work, make you realise that it has everything you’ll ever need.
The S-Class has always been the first choice of plutocrats, dictators and corporate fat cats across the planet, which is actually a good thing when you think about it. Such people know quality, style and luxury when they sit in the back of it. Refinement levels are very high and comfort is not at issue. This is a quiet and sophisticated large car that is hard to fault.
Except that when it was launched in 1999, it wasn’t quite as rock solid as the old-school S-Class. The example we are taking a close look at on the forecourt seems pretty fit and there is almost a new-car smell about it, even if the interior feels clinical rather than opulent.
Actually, the W220 S-Class was more compact and nimbler (but no less opulent) than it should have been. Mercedes responded to criticism and there was a revamp in 2005, but these new-generation models are great, provided you take your time and ensure three important ingredients are in place: history, history and, of course, history.
It all comes down to spec and which powerplant you want. The smaller engines are great value. If you aren’t in a hurry, the 2.8-litre V6 is fine and 3.2-litre V6 even better. In fact, the petrol engines are the safer buys when it comes to old-age purchases. The V8s and the AMG badge are long-shot investments and the V12 has to be a curiosity, as is the longer-wheelbase model. Otherwise, if you plan on using your S-Class pretty normally, the CDI is the answer, as long as it has a cast-iron history like the mint one in this feature.
Indeed, the bloke who bought this car did not see dictators, bankers and fat cats, just a brilliant-value buy. Which explains why he didn’t buy the less ostentatious Smart.
Model to buy - Passion
Price new: £7865
Model to avoid - Brabus
Price range: £850 (left-hand drive 2001 Pure) to £7995 (2014 Pulse)
If any car was designed to be enjoyed as a used buy, the Smart is it. It is often criticised for being a lot of money to pay for a couple of seats and not much boot but, at just £3295, this is a bright little thing to use and enjoy.
The 2008 top-spec Passion here has what every buyer wants, and that’s a full Smart service history with five official stamps. The panoramic roof is a nice touch and there is air-con, a CD player, 15in alloy wheels and rain-sensor wipers. Most impressive of all, it’s bright yellow. This is what every funky urban assault vehicle ought to be.
If the new and used car marketplace has proved anything in recent years, it is that there is no simple tick box when it comes to buying a car. It is an emotional process. The cute Smart taps right into all that, as a surf of any of the owner websites proves. They swap stories, pet names and even body panels with like-minded Smarties.
The Smart, though, isn’t just a social club with a groovy mascot. It really does deliver as a small car. And as a used small car, it is well built and now very affordable. Not only that, but find yourself an early left-hand-drive model and then when you pull up next to the kerb, it’s easy to step out safely onto the pavement.
The Smart is always the fashionable rather than practical choice, and many find the semi-automatic gearbox just a bit jerky. Also, if you don’t get power steering, it won’t feel like the titchy car it is, and refinement is not a strong point at all. A Smart is meant for buzzing around town, so you have to make a few compromises. Most of all, it isn’t a dull-as-ditchwater Chevrolet Kalos.
Model to buy 3.0 petrol (yes, honestly)
Price new: £44,020
Model to avoid LPG conversion
Price range: £2500 (2001 3.0) to £6990 (2006 3.0d Sport)
Having bought two in quick succession, I think I know these footballers’ favourites pretty well, and I like this 4.4-litre V8 one a lot. Unlike many I’ve seen, it is described honestly as being tatty. Except that compared with the V8 X5 I bought a while back, it really isn’t. There is no warranty and it is a straight trade sale with no comeback at £3295. The catch for some might be a recent replacement engine. But hey, it has just been replaced, so what could go wrong?
It drives fantastically well, with no unwelcome knocks, crashes or bangs. It is only the cosmetics, if you’re a nit-picker, that would mark this old bus down. You might want to refurbish the 19in alloy wheels, but otherwise I can find nothing inside or outside to suggest that this is anything other than a 13-year-old 4x4. Like any other decent purchase, there is an absolute wad of history to back up the 150k mileage. Also, the gearbox has been serviced and the belts have been done, as you should expect with a recent engine swap.
I think the V8s are great if mileage isn’t a huge issue. The 3.0-litre petrol isn’t much more frugal, but it is marginally cheaper to service and you trade a V8 rumble for a turbine whine at speed.
Most money goes on the 3.0-litre diesel, which is smooth and has just the right low-rev punch that a car like this needs.
Equipment is comprehensive, from electronic self-levelling suspension, alloy wheels, park distance control and cruise control, to remote central locking and electrically operated, heated door mirrors. There are countless options on this example, too, which would easily add up to more than its asking price. Unsurprisingly, this car finds a buyer before I leave the forecourt.
Model to buy 2.0 GT
Price new £24,200
Model to avoid 2.3 T5
Price range £795 (2001 2.5) to £2500 (2005 2.0T)
Personally, I’m a big fan of these Volvos and ideally I’d prefer one with a solid tin roof. At the very least, that stops the infamous Swedish scuttle shake. However, on a bitterly cold but bright day, this C70 convertible looks like the perfect cheapie buy as a prelude to spring.
I know this is getting boring, but when I pop open the glovebox, out comes a booklet full of main dealer and garage stamps, which confirm the 119k mileage. For many, this 2.0-litre model is the least interesting of the entire line-up. The engine options range from sluggish (2.0) to sensationally quick (T4), and buyers would be better off with a middle-order 2.4. On the other hand, the 2.0-litre version will stop you from becoming too car sick.
It seems like the C70 has been around for a long time now, and if buyers are aware of its limitations, they will get a good-value, spacious and comfortable convertible. What is not old-fashioned is the safety angle, because this was one of the safest open cars on the market in its day.
Standard equipment levels are good, but probably the best thing about the C70 is that it can genuinely accommodate four adults without them feeling the pinch, although the folding roof takes up boot space. It has soft suspension, which keeps everyone comfortable, and will corner quite fast, but this car is happiest just cruising.
At £1495, this 2002 model is a trade sale with no comeback. After we’ve taken our photos, it is buffed up for a customer’s imminent arrival – and it looks like splendid value to me.
And here’s 20 more to consider…
1 - Renault Clio 172 - Buy while they are still relatively cheap. These are going to be the next big hot hatch thing as drivers realise what they’ve been missing.
2 - Volkswagen Golf VR6 - Arguably, the original premium hatch, with a smooth V6 engine. A grown-up GTI for the masses, but many have been destroyed by boy racers.
3 - Fiat Multipla - The ugliest multi-purpose vehicle on the planet is wilfully oddball yet reassuringly practical and the Mk1s are now a rare sight.
4 - Jaguar XJ8 - They may have made them for old blokes with cravats, but actually these are now super-cooland more reliable than you might imagine.
5 - BMW 3 series (E46) - Was this the last time that the 3 Series looked right? Well, all of them from the convertible to the coupé to the Touring are perfect.
6 - Peugeot 306 GTi-6 - Here is the 1990s hot hatch that almost everyone forgot about. In many ways, it is a pumped-up 205 and not half bad at all.
7 - Vauxhall Omega - Many believe these were the best cop cars ever. Enjoy a big slab of V6 up front driving the rear wheels and with CD spec for true comfort.
8 - TVR Tuscan Speed Six - While we wait for TVR to return, there are old, bonkers ones out there shooting up in value, and the Speed Six is proper stuff.
9 - Toyota RAV4 3Dr - This was the funky SUV future back then and, in three-door stylie, it looks like fun and ought to be in a Gorillaz video.
10 - Fiat coupé - Before designer Chris Bangle shook up BMW, he created the most astounding Fiat for a generation. It’s a hoot to drive and still costs buttons.
11 - Subaru Impreza - A rally car that everyone could drive like a rally car, if they wanted to. The Impreza is a legend and still truly affordable.
12 - Rover 75 - It’s a good job that Rover’s last was also its best. It still looks classy after all these years and is comfy and not at all BL-like.
13 - Saab 9-5 - From a marque that never deserved to die, the 9-5, especially as a wagon, remains the smartest way to shift people and stuff.
14 - Rolls-Royce Silver Seraph - Rolls bling with 7 Series tech is a dream combo, and this is what Rolls owner BMW delivered: a reliable, decent-handling Rolls for the first time.
15 - Renault Kangoo - We all need a van sometimes and the Kangoo delivers (pun intended) a Gallic MPV that has space and style by the cubic metre.
16 - Nissan Patrol - The big 4x4 that everyone forgets. It is extremely slow, but it is cheaper than a Toyota Land Cruiser and as tough as old boots.
17 - Daihatsu Copen - We should be looking at an Audi TT but, hey, the Daihatsu Copen is such a cutie and it has an electric roof that works.
18 - Maserati Quattroporte - There was a 1990s one that you will struggle to get parts for and it will break down, but just look at the right-angle wonderfulness of it.
19 - Lexus IS200 - The pretend BMW 3 Series was a pretty good Far Eastern knock-off of the greatest 1990s saloon (320i), and these are still very cheap.
20 - Honda HR-V - Coupé-like 4x4s were certainly not the norm back in the 1990s, but this is actually a pretty decent soft-roader.
Just outside of Birmingham, in the middle of pretty much nowhere, is a farm where Bradley Mitchell lives, along with his family, dogs, chickens, horses and an awful lot of cars for sale. With his old friend David Jones, they run Hunters Lodge Cars and buy motors they actually like.
“The secret for us has been interesting cars,” says Mitchell. “For a while, we did do the boring stuff. It was very dependent on the marketplace. I love the Ford Focus and Vauxhall Astra as day-to-day workhorses and they are fine for traders with a car lot that has passing trade. But we have found that people will travel here to see our quirky stock.”
Mitchell is a proper ball of energy, continually on and off the phone. Although he is from the Midlands, he spent time in the City of London doing the banking thing. After that, it was buying and selling supercars until the crash in 2008.
“Now I’m happier than ever and specialise in cars I love,” he says. “My advice is quite simple: buy carefully and only go for cars with a full history. Completely ignore the mileage, because once you get over that hurdle, you can buy some brilliant cars for peanuts.”
At the moment, he is very happy with our sister website Pistonheads, “because that is where enthusiasts go to look for something different”.
So what are his recommendations? “Jaguars,” he says. “I will buy any Jag at all. From the mid-1990s, the quality shot up, and if there is a file full of history, you just can’t go wrong. The XKR we have for sale is truly lovely.
“Mercedes are always good, but you have to pick the models very carefully as there can be problems with injectors
“As a general principle, we don’t sell French or Italian cars. They are boring and poorly built.” However, the Fiat Coupé he owned recently is an exception. “It cost £300 and I loved it. Fantastic handling. It wasn’t even a turbo. Sold it for £900.”
Another favourite with Mitchell is Lexus. “I bought a Lexus GS300 for £1200, covered 15,000 miles in it and, after minimal expenses, sold it for £300 more than I paid,” he says.
“Otherwise, I like Minis. I ran a Cooper S that had no issues at all. I find cars from this period are very reliable. It is hard to buy a bad car any more.”
Website: hunterslodgecars.co.ukBradley: 07414 123 623. David: 07989 768 935