In the September 1991 issue of Roundel, I had a piece titled “Roadsters For 2002 Prices.” In it, I stepped through what two-seater convertibles were available in the “blow-able” $2,500-to-$5,000 range (man, 2002s were cheap back then), concluding that unless you found a Datsun 1600/2000, you basically had to choose between British crap and Italian crap.
Some of my interest in writing that piece was triggered by the fact that the Mazda Miata had recently been released, and I’d driven that car and a fully-restored MGB back-to-back at an IMPA Test Day. I wrote in Roundel, “A company called British Motor Heritage, who makes entire MG body shells from original molds they bought off British Leyland, was showing off a 1973 MGB that they’d built with a new body, new panels, and all new parts. 1989 was also the year Mazda came out with the Miata, and since it and the MG were both available to take onto the track, it was impossible not to make the comparison. The amazing thing was not that the Miata was clearly superior in every category except the very ephemeral subjects of soul, breeding, and heritage. You’d expect that. No, the amazing thing was that any Geo Metro-type subcompact blew the MGB into the weeds in any objective assessment of braking, ride, stability, etc.”
I concluded the Miata-related musings with, “Perhaps in another eight years, Miatas will fall into our price range.”
Fast-forward to the present, where, of course, if you want to buy a budget roadster, you now need to make a lawyer’s case not to buy a Miata. They’re ubiquitous and inexpensive. (I mentioned this to my wife. She said, “I think they’re cute.” I said, “That is why I don’t want one.”)
As I wrote last week, having Zelda (the 1999 Z3 that I owned for five years before I sold it eighteen months ago to my neighbor Kim) in my garage while I was doing some work on it for her rekindled my roadster lust. I’d sold Zelda to Kim because I no longer had the garage space (and still don’t, at least not over-winter space), but there is nothing to center the soul like dropping the top and zipping around in a roadster on a cool summer evening.
And so, to reference an old Yellow Pages ad, the fingers began doing the walking—on the keyboard, that is.
The thing about Miatas is that although they totally make sense on paper and are a blast to drive, every time I look at one, either online or in the flesh, they just don’t light my fire. That’s all the lawyer’s case I need to look elsewhere.
Thirty years ago, what I wound up buying was a 1984 Alfa Spider (which I misspelled as “Alpha.” The mistake made it past both Joe Chamberlain and Yale Rachlin, was printed in the magazine that way, and I didn’t hear the end of it for decades). The car in question had been cracked on the nose and had a chocolate milkshake in the radiator due to a blown head gasket, but it was cheap. I pulled the head, replaced the head gasket, had the dent repaired, and drove it for about a year before we moved from Boston into Newton and I didn’t have the garage space.
I really enjoyed the Alfa while I had it. I liked the odd but quintessentially Italian driving position of knees bent and arms locked, and I loved the snotty timing-chain snarl. These 1982–1989 Series III cars with Bosch L-Jetronic injection can still be had pretty cheaply, and can’t be mistaken for anything else on the road. I’d probably buy another if I found a solid one for short money near home.
I wondered what had happened to that demon spawn “Locost” (a home-built Lotus Seven-inspired creation with an M10 engine from a 320i) I wrote about in February before life got crazy, and was surprised to find that the car was back on Facebook Marketplace. The idea of buying a cheap roadster that marries my BMW and my Lotus passions is irresistible, but first, it would require borrowing a truck, renting a trailer, and driving from sunrise to after dark to New Jersey and back; second, the build-it-yourself parts list was probably written on the back of a napkin somewhere and obliterated by spilled beer; and third, after the laugh had worn off driving it onto the field at the Vintage (if the Vintage isn’t cancelled), what would I do with it?
And that assumes that I’d complete the 2,000-mile round trip in a car with no top, no windshield, no hood, Adirondack lawn chairs for seating, and all the safety features of a can of tuna fish.
At least the tuna fish are packed in oil or water. My left brain mercifully overruled my right one and made me realize that despite my desire to do something profoundly stupid for my followers here and on social media, my time, dollars, and precious storage space is better allocated elsewhere.
I nearly drove down to Connecticut to look at a promising-looking small-bumper early ’74 MGB with a rebuilt engine and a beautiful-looking interior for $1,500 that was advertised as needing light reassembly and a careful restart after years of sitting. But the more I thought about it, what I’d have at the end is, well, an MGB—and its novelty would likely wear off quickly, without justifying the expense of garage space I don’t even have for it. Plus, something that old doesn’t have air-conditioning, and if you’ve ever owned a roadster, you know that wind in the hair and sun in the face is great until you’re in traffic at the wrong time of the day and the top has to come up before you turn into a lobster. I’m certainly not hard against a primitive roadster without a/c, but I don’t think I’d use that free-spin card on a B.
If you slide the requirement away from “roadster” and begin to include either drop-top convertibles with more than two seats or two-seaters with T-tops or targa tops, you find yourself in places that just aren’t right. This is how I wound up spending a few evenings obsessed with, of all things, a well-priced ($7,500) gold 1973 C3 Corvette with brown stripes painted on it. There was something about how this particular car was striped that accentuated the car’s hips and shoulders in a way that I found downright seductive, like a girl from the wrong side of the tracks with too much mascara and a tramp stamp you just can’t take your eyes off, even though it’s wrong in eighteen different ways and you know it’s going to ruin your life. If the car were a four-speed instead of an auto, I might have had to go see it, and then who knows what might have happened?
And so, with that brief dalliance with the above insane set of candidates, I returned to the fact that I still had my friend Kim’s Z3 with the loud clutch, likely due to a bad throwout bearing, sitting in my garage. While I tried to get it inspected for her, I ran into trouble, first due to the airbag light being on, then due to missing registration.
At the end of last week’s post, I said, “I love that I can help keep [Zelda] running and drive it once in a while, but the last thing I’d want is to wind up getting it back because it was unsellable due to the cost of a needed clutch job. That would not keep my small corner of the universe in balance.”
While I would never twist a situation like this to my advantage, the more I think about it, if I want another budget roadster, the more the idea of Zelda returning to the nest makes sense. A Z3 that’s a good deal because it needs a clutch is the kind of thing I would look at if I saw it advertised; there’s an advantage to me in knowing about a car that isn’t advertised anywhere, and there’s an advantage to Kim in not having to receive strangers, particularly during this pandemic.
We shall see what happens. But if you see a decapitated Locost or a ‘Vette with a tramp stamp in my driveway, you’ll know something went horribly wrong.—Rob Siegel
Rob’s most recent book, Resurrecting Bertha: Buying Back Our Wedding Car After 26 Years In Storage, is available here. on Amazon. His other books, including Just Needs a Recharge: The Hack MechanicTM Guide to Vintage Air Conditioning, are available here on Amazon. Or you can order personally inscribed copies of all of his books through Rob’s website: www.robsiegel.com. His new book, The Lotus Chronicles, will be available in the fall.