Car buying: the idiot’s guide to browsing the classifieds


Author: Russell CampbellPublished:

I have to put my hands up and say, after four months at C&SC, I’ve yet to buy myself a classic car, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t been looking.

Truth be told, having spent two years freelancing I’ve accrued a tax bill that sadly must take precedent over the four-wheeled money eaters that are the cars I love. At least I’ve got plenty of time to decide exactly what I want. And exactly what I want is something fun, frugal and cool.

There’s the obvious classic choice, of course, and that would appear to be the MGB.

Two of the boxes are well and truly ticked here. A little rear-wheel drive sports car can surely only ever be fun and oily-handed colleagues that know about these things tell me the B is easy to maintain and cheap to run.

Problem is, I’m not too sure it’s cool. This is something that seemed to be confirmed at Le Mans Classic, where there were rather a lot of them.

Next up on the wish list is a Porsche of any (frugal) persuasion, but ideally a 924S. At a glance it’s got everything, it's cool, has handling that makes it so and the much-needed frugality. Well, that’s how it appears, but dig deeper and the Porker starts to look like a pricy cut of meat.

Insurance for one is a nightmare. You can flex the truth as much as you want – not that we’d advocate this of course – but for someone like myself with only three-years no claims and, ahem, ‘a few points’ you’ll be lucky to get fully comp for less than I plan to pay for the car.

Then there’s the fixing. As Elliott kindly explained: “Brits build cars knowing they’ll break; Germans build cars thinking they’ll never break.” The synopsis being: if a Porsche breaks you can forget about the DIY and start thinking about large bills.

Talking of breaking, the next on the list is the 205 GTI. We’ll forgo the 1.6 versus 1.9-litre chat. People that know me know I’m not one for balance, and it is the 1.9 that appeals to me.

It’s got plenty of poke, has lethal – yet ‘fun’ – lift-off oversteer, is practical and cheap to run. But, like many of the best things in life, plenty have been touched by the hand of chav and that’s something I’m not wildly keen on being associated with. Cool could be a stretch…

You may be wondering why the MX5 hasn’t come up yet. It would have been perfect, topless and rear-wheel drive (or fun), cool, pretty damned reliable and cheap to run. But, sadly there’s one more clause that has to be met. If (and I do) want to write about my new steed in the pages of C&SC then it needs to be unique to the fleet and, since a certain deputy editor started, this has not been the case.

So, nothing’s set in stone just yet, and nor should it be. As all of you know, the only thing that comes close to the excitement of driving a car is choosing the car in the first place. This time I want to make sure I choose the right one.

Any suggestions?



Been shopping from the same sort of list for a bit and think I've decided on a TVR 350i.
All the fun, lots of noise, polarised opinions mean that it's always a convo point and keep values charmingly low.
And fuel should never be an issue coz it's a TVR, it's never actually going to work for long, is it?

Sir Driftalot

Hello Russell,

an MGB GT is cool if you don't mind going a bit down the boy racer route. A good friend has a mildly modified black one which started its life just like the one above and is now bumperless, lowered and Weber'ed and enjoyed by the owner. The 205 clearly has its merits but as I have personally buried one nice low-milage XS into the armco as a consequence of the lethal lift-off oversteer you've mentioned, I do not dare to give this recommendation. It was actually our family car back then so this episode is not smiled at in my house today.
Have you ever thought about a classic Alfa Romeo? With decent and not too expensive maintenance they provide incredibly rewarding ownership and for me tick a lot of boxes. Depending on your taste, I'd recommend a Giulia saloon if you want to go 60s or an Alfetta GTV for more 'youngtimer' charm.

"Why doesn't someone tell Pedro it's raining" - Chris Amon, 1000km Brands Hatch 1970

Hi Russell,
Agree with your summation of all the likely candidates. Have you ever considered a Sunbeam Stilletto? Nippy, economical, quite rare and loads of 70's retro cool points. Just a thought.

Chris Martin

FWIW I think the MGB is probably the best bet for many reasons. Plentiful, cheap, easy to maintain and importantly, not too precious to worry about a daily commute in London. That rubber fronted GT at the top looks good, probably a few around on the cheap, and also it would be a very suitable candidate for the 'Our Classics' fleet. Much as I like reading about Simon's Ace or Stovebolt, James's Interceptor, Julian's Lincoln or whatever latest exotic Martin has taken as a trade down at the barn, the magazine also needs a 'B on the fleet at all times as the baseline starter classic.
By the way, I believe the Stiletto (a Hillman Imp Californian with a Zenith carb') was introduced in '67 and dropped in '72 when it was already out of date, surely PaulJ meant to infer cool 60s points? As an alternative to a Mini it would make a groovy Kings Road cruiser if you could find one. I doubt they are very expensive, but it could be a long wait for a good one to turn up.
Chris M.



I agree the Stiletto only just scrapes into the 70's, but the Zenith carb you refer to was twin Stombergs, and the engine had a wilder cam, bigger valves and different pistons.

I've got nothing against MGB's, but aren't a lot of the owners heading towards their 70's these days? No offence intended, but I dare say some might be taken!


The first thing you need to sort out, Russell, is a robust tax avoidance scheme...

Back on the politically correct straight and narrow, the good old MGB does have a lot going for it.

It looks, though, as if you're favouring the youngtimer route. How about one of the models featured in the July comparison? Alfasud Sprint (or maybe a TI) / Scirocco? They tick your boxes, although running the VW should prove less 'eventful' than the Alfa if it's to be your daily driver.

Enjoy the quest.

Chris Leopold


The question I would ask first is, 'Do you have a garage?' If the object of your search has to live outside, then it will have to be relatively modern (and therefore less prone to rust).

With my classics, I've always been more interested in how they drive. The MGB's steering, mid range torque and exhaust note are all powerful temptations. However, I'm surprised no one has mentioned the much cheaper late MGTF which is also a pleasure to drive.

I must also admit to a childish attachment to cars which look attractive: I know it's shallow but I'm not happy with cars that look like... well, ugly. That lets out quite a few popular classics.

So by this argument, I come to; if not an MX-5, why not a Toyota MR2 or Honda 2000?

Chris Martin

Sorry for any Stiletto confusion there, a bit of dodgy self-editing, but they were officially offered with Zenith OR stromberg 125CD carbs, further info on specs at;
which also lists tech specs, production numbers, model differences, numbers of know survivors and general tips should Russell be tempted in that direction.
The subject of Imp variants always reminds me of the time Larry's sister's Singer Chamois broke down in Dalston one night, and we towed it back to Southgate behind a Pontiac Firebird on a short six feet of rope at ridiculous speeds, and laughing at Larry's look of terror every time I checked behind.That, briefly was probably the fastest Imp in the world (ok, not including those silly silhouette racers in the 70s).
As for your other comment, if I was to be pedantic I could say we are all 'heading towards our 70s' just that some are nearer than others. Hopefully if I am still around then I would hope for some slightly more exciting wheels than an MGB, and true, on a typical Sunday club run here in Australia ther are many Bs being driven by elderly types who, one suspects, like the majority of Harley Davidson riders are desperately trying to recapture some imagined lost youth. These are not the same grey-haired oldies as those out in their Holden FJs or Morris Minors, these folks are still driving the only car they ever bought new and see no reason to change now.
But apart from trying to categorise the average MGB driver too much, and not having much use for one myself, I was merely suggesting they are probably still the best all round compromise of all things C&SC stands for that is both affordable on a tight budget and capable of handling the daily commute.
Another suggestion for a good practical daily car, AND an interesting addition to the Our Classics fleet, how about a MkIII Cortina? Should be a few more of those than Stilettos to choose from, and in the right spec, still a nice car to drive.
Chris M.


Russell Campbell

Hi Folks,

Thanks for all your thoughts.

I must say I love the idea of a TVR or even a classic Lotus – anything really that is a genuine sports car and better still – British Built. TVRs are one of my favorites. Obviously ridiculously fast, often ridiculous sounding, and I like the story that surrounds it.

The Sunbeam Stilletto would be an interesting first foray into the world of rear-engined cars and I like its rarity, but it looks like I might be lucky to pick one up for less than £2k?

The Alfetta GTV has always been a favourite of mine, not just because of the way it looks, but also because its an Alfa Romeo and I feel like must own at least one at some point.

The MGF wasn’t on my radar until Clements recommended it. I remember road tests from the era when it used to get regular beatings handed out to it by the Mazda MX5 and Toyota MR2, but it is still a small mid-engined sports car so, in a relative sense, it must still be fun to drive. And when you start looking at price/condition it looks like an absolute bargain, for what is still a really nice looking car!

Anyway, better get back to the work before the Elliott spots my lack of activity.

Here’s a few links to other cars that have caught my eye!


I was really pleased to see that the good old 924 got a mention in your blog, and in particular the 924S. The front engined Porsches are all seriously underrated cars and none more so than the 924S.

I would take a little exception over the means of describing the build quality, yes, its true that Germans build a car to last and Porsche reliability is legendary, however, I would say that they are quite within the scope a competent DIYer, and providing you can read a circuit diagram, operate a multimeter and keep the grounding points clean, the electronics are not too difficult to cope with either.

The big difference is when you try to undo a nut on the Porsche suspension that has not been moved since the cart was built, it may need a little persuasion, but it will come and there will still be evidence of the lubricant that the German technician applied to the thread some 20 odd years before, whereas if you try this with a British car of the same age, the Likelihood of removing the nut are almost zero, even with the judicious application of considerable heat. Having restored a mini of a similar age to my Porsche for my daughter, I know which I would rather work on, and while the prices difference was big when they were new, now the values ore very much of a similar order.

I would also say that providing you shop around the specialist insurers and the ads in C&SC are a good place to start, then that needn't be a deal breaker either.

Add your comment

  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Allowed HTML tags: <a> <em> <strong> <cite> <code> <ul> <ol> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd> <p> <br> <img>
  • You may quote other posts using [quote] tags.

More information about formatting options

You must be logged in to comment
Type the characters you see in this picture. (verify using audio)
Type the characters you see in the picture above; if you can't read them, submit the form and a new image will be generated. Not case sensitive.