A Car of One’s Own

Here, a practical guide to the most impractical purchase you’ll ever make.

In my family, there was an annual rite – each spring, my father would float the idea of buying a roadster: a car that only he would be allowed to drive. His musings inspired hours of perfervid speculation on my part and sent me on excited after-school forays to “foreign car” dealers. I helpfully collected brochures, making and revising lists of preferred options, longing for that time he would finally take the plunge. He never did.

Like my old man, I’ve just assumed that I would some day get a sports car to call my own. Recently, I’ve been thinking that if I do it right, “someday” could occur in the near future.

So, for those of you like me who would enjoy the DIY of it – the reading and the research, the chatting with enthusiasts and mechanics, the tire-kicking and the door-slamming, maybe even working with the minor oily bits, here is the practical way to make one of the most impractical purchases you’ll ever make. (For those readers less keen on the grease-stained aspect of sports-car ownership, I refer you to a new or used Mazda Miata – it boasts the driving experience of a true roadster with the affordability and reliability of a Japanese econobox. It is brilliant! Look, too, at the Honda S5000.)

The best time to buy the perfect summer car is autumn or winter when current owners have enjoyed their summer fling and now, practicality requires they sell – usually reluctantly. Any mechanical or bodywork can be done over the winter to bring it to optimal condition. It will be in your driveway and ready to roll as our salt-encrusted streets are rinsed clean by April showers.

Start with a shortlist of models from which to choose. What is the little sportster that has always turned your crank? Maybe something you dreamed of as a kid or that you once drove and never forgot. Perhaps an MGB, or a Triumph TR6, a Fiat 124 Spider, an Alfa Romeo Spider, or a Nissan Z-car, even a Corvette if you prefer driving fast in a straight line. Chances are you can find one for less than 10 grand.

Having settled on a model, the key is to learn as much as possible about it. Do a basic Google search for cars for sale in your area: listings from Kijiji, Craigslist and Autotrader will appear first, and you can get a good sense of what is available and for how much. It looks like I’ll be able to find a well-maintained, operational MGB for around $6,000.

Far and away the best resource for learning about your future runabout is the accumulated wisdom of current owners. A passionate lot, they know their car’s weaknesses, foibles and flaws better than anyone. They know where to check for rust, and how to deal with the usual oil leaks.

They also love to swap stories and share remedies. And it’s all online. Keep in mind too that some of these cars are dead simple mechanically and even the neophyte with a little guidance can do some basic maintenance.

Of course, there are larger issues that require a mechanic’s practiced hand and dispassionate eye (crucial when deciding to buy). In any city it should be easy to locate a garage that can work on your baby. Word of mouth is your best guide, followed by a visit and chat with the mechanic. This is crucial. If yes, once you have your sights set on a particular vehicle for sale, “your” mechanic can give it a thorough going-over.

Finally, know what you are willing to spend (on the purchase and any repairs), before you start shopping. And stick to the price. There’s no rush this time of year so be patient: take your time and you will land a good solid car at the right price.

That way, come spring, as the sun emerges and the summer stretches out before you, you can drop the top, pop the clutch and feel the road come alive, the wind in your hair.

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