{vsig}2010-9_2530{/vsig}There are two new members of the SCM menagerie, aka collection, representing opposite ends of the car world. The first is a 2006 Lotus Elise, the best new vintage car you can buy. The second is a 1958 Mercedes 220S, the beginning of the fabled S-class model that continues today.

Each of these cars has taught us something unexpected, and each has changed our perspective of collecting.

The Lotus is the newest car we own; we have been looking for one since we had a chance to drive Legal Files author John Draneas’ 2005 model a couple of years ago. Good friend Todd Fitz Gerald of Portland-based Moto Corsa became our Lotus guru—he insisted we look for a 2006 model, with its improved seating and drive-by-wire throttle system.

For the past year, we have watched Craigslist and eBay, waiting for the right car in the right color. About a month ago, a likely suspect appeared on a Craigslist posting from the Greenville, Michigan area. Yellow, touring package, star shield, both tops, 11,000 documented miles, as new. Asking $30,000.

After an inspection, we settled on $29,000. Two weeks later, the Elise arrived in Portland—just in time for us to head off on the 1,000-mile Porsche club Northwest Passages tour, which is one of our favorite driving events.

Luxury by Comparison

My wife Wendie and I bonded with the Lotus during the next four days. We’d read the complaints about the Lotus’ harsh ride and lack of creature comforts. Compared to our Boxster S, yes. But compared to any number of our cranky old cars, which leak oil and water—and whose tops are actually rain funnels— the Elise is a luxobarge.

In the Lotus tradition, it has only what it needs and nothing more. I’ve owned Europas, Elans and M-100s, and the Elise carries the same DNA. The slightly-warmed, 189 hp Toyota-sourced engine scoots the 1,900-pound Elise along like a scared jackrabbit, and we surprised any number of late-model, high-horsepower 911s as we passed them.

True, having a background as a contortionist can help when getting in and out of the car when you have the top up. But, once you’re settled inside, there’s no reason to worry about anything but just how deep you can go into a corner before you have to tap the brakes.

An unexpected bonus occurred when I took the car to the service department of Ron Tonkin Grand Turismo, and entrusted it to service manager Kelly Brown. At 12,000 miles, we decided to have the 15,000-mile “major service” performed. The cost? $305, which is an amount that is usually a rounding error on major service bills for most exotic cars.

The Elise is not for everyone. But if you can fit into one, and are looking for a 1960s bare-bones sports car experience wrapped in 21st century technology, this is a $30,000 car that is hard to beat.

Shiny Trumps Scruffy

The 220S has taught us different lessons. Astute readers may recall that late in 2009, we bought an unrestored 219 that had been upgraded with a dual-carbureted 220S engine. The car carried mostly original paint (black) and an original interior (red leather). It was straight enough, and complete. We paid $6,500 on it on eBay.

After $3,000 of work both large and small by our friends at MBI (even the clock works now), the 219 drove brilliantly. We had the suspension completely redone, and drove the car to visit our daughter, Alex, in Corvallis, Oregon, which is a nearly 200-mile round trip.

But although Wendie liked the shape of the car, and the spaciousness of the interior, she couldn’t get past its unrestored nature. The stained headliner, the flaws in the paint (some not so minor) and the poor chrome kept her reaching for the phone number of the local Mercedes restorer.

Of course, you can’t restore a $10,000 car (on the best day of its life) without going further underwater than the Mullin Bugatti. And she wasn’t interested in explaining to everyone who saw the car why it was “better” funky and unrestored than it would have been shiny and nice.

You already know the perfect SCM solution – buy another ponton, but this time a restored one. A quick search of Craigslist turned up our 1958 220S. It had been restored about 15 years ago to a good standard, and it was holding up well except for some minor cracking in the trunk lid paint. For $8,000 it was mine, surely making me the only collector in Portland with two pontons. (We’ll be putting the 219 onto eBay in the near future; it will make a perfect buy-it-and-drive-it-home adventure for someone who appreciates original cars.)

We’ve spent another $3,000 or so on this one, and it is just coming back into service. The AM/FM/shortwave Becker radio pulls in the Netherlands, all the gauges and warning lights work, and best of all, Wendie has pronounced it a car she would “be glad to go to the opera in.” Success.

Buying, living and learning

Collecting of any kind is a series of learning experiences, and you can’t get to step two without going through step one. And each step has a price tag attached to it. Yes, I wish I’d known that a restored 220 was going to work better for my family than a sketchy original, but I was more focused on the actual ownership experience—the driving, braking, steering and cruising—than the shine of the paint. But once I had the car sorted out, I too began to think about fixing the headliner or redoing the seats or…

We’re asked many times for our opinion on “What’s the best first collector car” or, “I’ve been looking at a Healey 3000, what do you think of them.” Our answer is always, “You won’t know what you like or don’t like until you own one.” We wish we could send you to a cyber-reality experience where you could try out different old cars, so that you could know whether you’ll like living with a Ferrari 246 GTS, but we can’t. We can’t put you into a 1974 TR6 to discover whether you find it comfortable for long trips, nor can we help you decide if the brute appeal of an Allard J2X makes you crazy, either deliriously so or maniacally aggravated.

We’ve had to own two pontons to figure out that first, we liked the car, and second, we liked it enough to want to own a good one. Without owning and living with the Lotus, we would never have had the chance to find out just how satisfying an English-built plastic car with a Japanese engine could be.

In essence, we are repeating to you the maxim that the longest journey starts with the first step. Whatever type of vintage car you are interested in, you won’t learn a thing until you buy one and make it a part of your life. You’ll be surprised just how much these cars can teach you, and how much richer your life will be as you bring them, and the people that accompany them, into yours.

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