ONES THAT GOT AWAY by bill orth
As an exotic car buff since I was a teenager, numerous times over the years I have come across neat cars that I would have liked to own, but common sense and/or a flat wallet usually precluded the purchase after a few flirtatious moments of consideration. From today’s perspective, a couple would have been terrific investments, but some remain screwy oddballs only I appreciate. Let’s take a stroll down memory lane:
MG TD: When I was an early teenager I had a Triumph motorcycle, but when I hit sixteen a car seemed more appropriate. Already of an import mindset, I wasn’t much interested in the ‘55 & ‘56 Chevys all the other guys had. I found a fellow who had a ‘51 TD that he was willing to trade even for the motorcycle....except it needed a clutch. I knew my dad wouldn’t be impressed by something that had to come home on the end of a rope, so we cooked up a symbiotic arrangement where the owner bought the clutch and I invested the dirty work to install it, gambling I could then get the go-ahead for the swap. After a long, hot afternoon crawling around in the dirt under that TD the clutch was in (and three fingernails would be black for a month, after dropping the transmission on them). But my dad didn’t bite; he pronounced the car a “never-ending nest of trouble” that would distract me from my schoolwork, my grades would plummet, my future would be doomed and I would only be able to find work as a shill for a car lot. He did, however, agree that he would rather have me driving a car than the motorcycle, so he gave me his run-around car, a 1958 Opel. That was something of a disappointment then, but from today’s vantage point of 40-plus years of additional automotive experience, I now know that a seven-year-newer German sedan was a far superior choice than a creaky old cantankerous beater of a British sports car—where the “sport” involved keeping its 1930s technology running.
Cunningham C4: I once wrote about literally stumbling over one of these very rare roadsters in a junkyard in Orlo Vista, Florida, not long after the MG debacle. I knew what it was, but there was so little left of it, not even teenage enthusiasm allowed any thoughts of fixing ‘er up. (Relax; I drove past where that yard was when in Florida last March. Now it’s a shopping center)
Lotus Elite: While still in high school, I took a wrong turn one day and wound up in a nice neighborhood near the Orlando Country Club. Parked at the curb in front of a big home was an original 1960-ish Elite coupe. Its maroon fiberglass body was faded and surface-cracked in places, but its wire wheels and interior still looked pretty good. However, from the amount of trash washed against the wheels in the gutter, it didn’t look like it had moved recently. My knock at the door brought out a friendly maid who confided that the car belonged to the “Mr.” and the “Mrs.” wanted it gone. When I called that evening, the gent told me that a connecting rod, all the noise and most of the oil had escaped from the block in grand fashion during his last spirited ride. It had been towed home and then ignored for months. His wife indeed wanted the eyesore removed and he started at $500. The Voice Of Reason, aka my father, pointed out that the Opel ran, the Lotus didn’t and wasn’t going to until many expensive parts were located and someone installed them. Yes, I could do clutches, but not an engine rebuild. And the obligatory lecture about school, grades, college, career, future, etc. put the last nail in that idea.
Original AC Cobra: In 1966 I was a struggling Junior at the University of South Florida and a new husband. Every Tuesday and Thursday when I walked to the fine arts building for a class, I passed a white Cobra parked in the faculty lot. It was a very early 260 small-block version with no body flares and spindly 16" wire wheels. While eye-balling it one afternoon, the professor who owned it walked up. He was pleased to see I knew what it was and graciously let me look at it. He then mentioned that his wife was pregnant and that they now needed a “real” car, so the Cobra was for sale. I think he wanted three or four thousand dollars for it. Might as well have been a million.
Maserati 3500 Vignale Spyder: Another previously-reported heartbreaker. This black beauty had holed some pistons, but none were available closer than Modena, so the owner lost interest, leaving the car abandoned at a repair shop. I had heretical thoughts about a Chevrolet V8 transfusion, which would have been cheaper than a telegram to Italy at that time, but this was a mistress a married first-year teacher could ill-afford, even though it was dirt cheap. A couple of years later it was outdoors being eaten by the elements.
Arnolt MG: A colorful character named Wacky Arnolt imported several different cars during the 1950s & early ‘60s. He made deals with manufactures to supply standard chassis & drivetrain combos on which he had more sporty bodywork installed. The best-known and most valuable today was a roadster based on a Bristol chassis, but the one I liked was based on the MG TD. Wacky sent a few MG rolling chassis to Italy where Vignale, I believe, installed a beautiful little coupe body on them. It retained the upright MG radiator shell, had wire wheels and just darling proportions. It also couldn’t get out of its own way, since the new body was heavier than the original. But at least it cost nearly twice as much. Due to those realities it was doomed, but I was smitten. About fifteen years ago, I was idly looking at the car ads in the Rocky Mountain News one snowy day and saw one advertised by a junkyard in East Aurora. Appreciating the irony, I nonetheless rode over there to have a look. It was an unfinished restoration project someone had gotten sick of; it didn’t run and was in pieces, but I was saved by the fact that some greater fool had already placed a deposit on it.
Triumph Italia: Similar to Arnolt’s brainstorm, someone at Triumph sports cars decided that people would like to have a snug closed coupe instead of the drafty, flexy, leak-prone convertible TR-3 model of the late ‘50s. Rolling chassis were shipped to Italy where a nifty Giugiaro-designed body was installed on standard TR-3 frames. They had wire wheels, nice leather bucket seats and a wooden-rimmed steering wheel with aluminum spokes.....and cost a lot more than a standard TR-3. These, too, were an answer to a question no one had asked and the Italia quickly became an orphan. However, I have always been a sucker for Triumphs in general and coupes in particular, so I wanted one. Twenty-odd years ago, through the Ferrari grapevine, I heard about a pretty nice one in Macon, Georgia. Guess where? In a junkyard! The guy said it had been there about five years and was really quite nice—in fact, he even had it stored indoors. The only reason it wound up there was because the radiator (unique to the Italia, naturally) was missing and no one could find a replacement. I think he wanted $1500 for it. I agreed to buy it, lined up a trailer and just before leaving town on Friday afternoon to go get it, called for exact directions. The proprietor informed me that someone (the other guy on the planet who wanted one) had come in that morning and bought it. He had been prepared, however, to let me drive all the way to Macon from Orlando hoping I might buy something else.
Austin Mini Moke: Same thing as the original Mini, but even more minimalist and built for export to the British Caribbean islands. They were fitted with a jeep-like body with no doors and a canvas top. Nearly all were right-hand drive and being steel, rapidly dissolved into iron oxide on the ocean beaches. I came across one advertised in the Daytona Beach newspaper around 1978: “needs work, make offer.” My friend Tim and I were always on the lookout for interesting cars that needed some fixing-up and could be turned into a modest profit after we were tired of them. Mokes had a following and there weren’t many on the mainland, so I called about it. The fellow said they had brought it back from the Bahamas years ago, but it had been in the backyard now for quite some time. They now wanted to sell the house, so the Moke had to go. I smelled a buyer’s market! My questions all received what sounded like honest answers, and he thought that someone handy could get it running, which it presently was not. However, when he found out I wanted to come look at it from eighty miles away, he fidgeted a bit and finally said there was something I needed to know about it before driving all that way. His son had whacked a curb and broken the steering rack a few years ago. They had looked everywhere for a right-hand-drive rack, but couldn’t find one. In desperation, he bought a left-hand-drive rack from a US Mini in some junkyard and managed to install it upside down, which put the steering shaft on the correct side. The only problem was that now when you turned the steering wheel to the right, the car’s wheels went left! They quickly considered that too dangerous, forbade the son to drive it and it was pushed into the back yard. He was sorry now that he had advertised it and not just hauled it to the dump, because he knew no one would want it for the same reason. Yeah, right! I had to have it. Think how much fun that would be! Especially when you let someone else drive! Tim and I hooked up the trailer and drove over that very evening, after assuring the old gent we only wanted it for parts, and would never drive it. But it turned out to be so completely rotten and rusty, that even when he offered to give it to us, we couldn’t see ever getting it operational and left it there.
The Lamborghinis: An auto broker that I occasionally bought cars from for our dealership in Orlando called one day because he remembered I fooled around with Ferraris. He had a Lambo he was trying to sell for someone and hoped I might want it, even though he had no idea what model it was. All he knew was that it had twelve cylinders and was black. Recognizing that some of those things had a following, like Miuras, I said, c’mon over. But it turned out to be an early series Espada, for which there never has been a demand, then or now. Now I was saying, “No, thanks,” but Dan insisted I take it for a drive and make him offer, hinting that the owner was hot to get rid of it. I don’t doubt he was hot, since the A/C didn’t work (In Florida; in July) and waves of heat and oily smells wafted up through the floor and center console as I drove along. It smoked a bit, the synchros were a little weak, it was running at about 210 degrees on an open road suggesting head gasket problems and the hotter it got, the lower the oil pressure went. I began to worry about getting back from my ten-mile ride and turned around. Dan was trying to get $7500 for it as I recall, and I said I didn’t want it for half that. He took off with it and two hours later called and said that if I could go to $4000, it was mine. I’ve never regretted passing on that one.
Not long after that, another of Ferruccio’s creations popped up, and this time it was a Miura. An S?, an SV?, an XYZ?; I don’t remember. It was faded silver with red leather and had been dropped off with my friend Tim by an acquaintance of his who had bought it sight unseen. Ron lived in Oklahoma, had bought the car in Georgia and had it trucked to Tim, to “tune it up,” before he flew in to drive it home to OK City. Tim and I were looking it over one evening and discovered that my 6’ didn’t fit inside, and we knew Ron was bigger than I am and in every direction. We called him up and he admitted he had never thought of that and was having second thoughts about the car anyway; he had only bought it because it sounded like a bargain. Thinking we might have a profitable project in our laps, we looked it over. It obviously needed paint and some rust repair, but not too much. The interior had lots of small problems like all older Italian cars: binding windows, inoperative instruments and wiring that was full of butt connectors and black tape. The chrome was peeling from the Ben-Hur knock-offs and the exhaust was full of rusty holes. After getting it running, we were wondering what all the strange noises were, as it sounded like the cam chains were sawing their way through the block. Sure, it smoked (“They all do that, Sir.”) a carburetor fire seemed imminent and the clutch felt weak, too, but the kiss of death was the oil. The 20W-50 in the sump looked like a slimy beige milkshake; a sure sign that the head gaskets, or the internal water pump, (or both!) were leaking coolant into the oil. We spent an hour trying to figure out how you’d get the engine out of it before giving up the idea. I think $5000 would have bought it, but we passed on that one, too.
The Ferraris: Oh, yes, the Ferraris. First there was the deep blue 330GT with maroon leather and glistening chrome Boranni wheels. It was five years old and sitting on the Cadillac dealers’ used car lot, advertised for $5900. I had just bought a used BMW motorcycle as our second “car” for $750. Nope. Two years later it was parked behind the local Italian car repair shop with the engine half apart after swallowing a valve seat. The owner couldn’t afford to fix it and it sat outside awaiting his approval. Three years after that, I brought my first Ferrari—a 330 America I had paid $3600 for—in for some work I couldn’t do myself and it was still there. The paint had faded to purple, the leather was brown and as hard as this desktop. The glass was delaminating and fogged from the Florida heat and the now-rusty Borannis with their cracked, flat Pirellis were sunken into the dirt and weeds. The shop had claimed it for storage and was slowly selling parts off of it. It still makes me sad to remember how it was wasted..
A silver 365GT 2+2 was sitting (embarrassed, I’m sure) on a used car lot on Hillsboro Ave. in Tampa around 1970. It was absolutely beautiful, sitting under the rows of bare 100-watt light bulbs and plastic pennants. The salesman said it was the owner’s personal car and that he was very motivated to turn it into cash. $10,000 cash, to be exact. I had a ’68 Cougar XR-7 we had paid $2200 for. Nope.
Not too long after that one, we had ridden up to Jacksonville for some reason and when passing the Pontiac dealer on Beach Blvd., saw a yellow 275GTB longnose sitting prominently on the front grass! The car was only a few years old and like new; I think they wanted less than $10K for it. The nearest Ferrari dealers were in Atlanta or Miami and the Pontiac guys were motivated to get rid of the expensive oddball….but even after trading our car, the payments would have been $200 a month—half of a secondary school teacher’s take-home at the time. Nope.
In 1984, I found out about a 250 pininfarina coupe rat-holed away in a garage in rural North Florida through some word-of-mouth daisychain. The owner said he wanted to clear out the garage and invited me to make an offer. I took a Saturday off and drove two hundred miles to a sleepy little town where I found a late disc-braked coupe that had come from South Africa, of all places. It had been put in storage there for some reason when only a few years old, but apparently in a closed, unventilated building. Although it was completely undamaged, rust-free and totally original, it looked like a mummy. The silver paint had turned white from twenty years of oven-like storage. The leather was so shrunken every seam was pulled apart and the material was rock-hard. And the engine was seized. The owner had come across it while doing business in Rhodesia and brought it home—where he had stuck it in his garage for another five years. It was probably the lowest-mileage, most original p-f coupe anywhere, but it needed everything. More mice had spent time in that car than people had ever ridden in it. I loved the fact that the books and tool roll were still in the trunk and the Capetown license plates were cool, but I wasn’t sure I wanted another major restoration project and just made a half-hearted offer. The owner thought it over and said, “OK.” We shook on it and he went into the house to dig up the title papers. He was gone quite a while, and I was starting to wish I had backed off a bit as I looked it over further, but a deal had been made. He finally reappeared and told me he had been reconsidering and wanted another thousand dollars! Having determined who was the gentleman, I made my exit, but I sometimes wonder whatever became of that poor old car.
Oh, sure, from today’s perspective I certainly should have bought the Miura and found some way to beg, borrow or steal the money for the 275GTB—assuming I could have held on to them until their values bloomed, which wouldn’t have happened. But the kids came along about then and they’re much more important to me than some old Italian cars, so I’ve never looked back. Except…..I really wish that Moke hadn’t been so rough; that would have really been fun!
-- Bill Orth --