While getting ready to take our Healey to the frame shop (more on that later), I thought back on the collector cars Ms. Banzer and I have owned over the past few years.
A few, like the '72 Datsun 240Z, were painless experiences. Others, including our '59 Isetta and '72 Chevy Impala convertible, involved minor automotive bumps and bruises, while bringing our '62 Ferrari 330 America back to life was like being caught in an endless loop of "Night of the Living Dead."
Despite all appearances to the contrary, there really has been a method to our serial collecting. Our plan has been to buy decent machines of various marques that were new to us and reasonably priced for condition. By owning them, we would be able to experience first-hand those things that made them both special and/or horrible. Each purchase has been preceded by conversations with various SCM specialists.
Alas, even with all of our careful planning, buying old, used sports cars has been like walking through a minefield of brake jobs, clutch replacements and tune-ups. Invariably, caught up in the romantic red mist of a new acquisition, we have not looked closely enough to spot obvious problems. Or, in a throwback to my Reed College student days of poverty, we have tried to get the model we wanted for the least amount of money (bottom feeding, in other words), rather than getting the best car within our budget. There's a difference.
For instance, the first car in our program of marque exploration was a 1968 Porsche 911L for which we paid $6,200. A bargain, proclaimed the specialists who performed the pre-purchase inspection, given its 97,000 documented miles, five-speed transmission, S gauge package, perfect silver exterior and nicely patinated black leather interior.
But the car had been improperly stored for some time. During the first week of use, the clutch and brakes went out. Despite repeated tunings, the car never pulled smoothly through the rev ranges, suggesting a distributor rebuild was in order. Then the chain tensioners collapsed in our driveway, and when our mechanic, Nasko, replaced them, he mentioned ominous bearing noises in the tranny.
Exhausted by the continuing problems, it was time to get out. SCM'er Jurgen End, of Saarbrucken, Germany, took the car with all its problems disclosed, and set about performing the full restoration the car deserved.
In retrospect, if we had budgeted $12,000 for a very nice, early 911, we would have been far ahead-certainly in terms of time spent shuttling the car from shop to shop and the emotionally draining experience of dealing with things that were constantly breaking.
Proving that we hadn't learned a thing, we then pulled our 1962 Ferrari 330 America out of long-term storage in a Missoula, Montana, barn. The price, at $22,000 was an irresistible bargain-our chance to own a V12 for cheap! We then began a two-year decimation of our finances as we attempted to make it roadworthy and reliable.
The $20,000 we spent on repairs got us a complete braking system, reupholstered front seats and carpets, remanufactured carburetors by Pierce Manifolds, a rebuilt front suspension, a new clutch assembly, a new exhaust system, a re-cored radiator, rebuilt shocks and sorted-out electricals. All that it then needed was a $20,000 motor overhaul, which would have resulted in a total investment of $62,000 in a $40,000 car. So off it went as well, to a subscriber in the Midwest who was "looking for a V12 with a smoking engine so he could rebuild it himself." Perfect.
The $10,000 we lost on the car was very cheap tuition for our course in Ferrari V12 Ownership 101. But if I were to do it again, I'd find a way to beg, borrow or steal the $50,000 or so necessary to have a finished
250/330. I've learned my lesson.
Which brings us back to the Healey.
A red with cream 1963 BJ7, we bought it sight-unseen from a Healey specialist who was doing some work on it for the seller. Restored more than 20 years ago to hobbyist standards, it had a completely rebuilt front end including brakes, new painted wires and exhaust system, and an overdrive overhaul. A done car for $17,000-a fair enough price, in the estimation of SCM Healey specialist Rocky Santiago. In a hurry to get the car home, we passed on the offer to have it put up on a rack for an inspection. What could it need? That was a mistake.
The car performed well, getting us to Tahoe in June for the Healey convention. But once there, an Oregon Healey club member asked if we knew that the frame on our car had been welded in front of the driver's side A-arm. An unwelcomed surprise.
It's not a big deal-a local shop estimates about $250 to set the frame right. Yes, it would have been nice if we had taken a few moments to inspect it on a lift; it would have been nicer if those who knew about the problem had pointed it out to us before we made the purchase. Would we have bought it anyway? The car already drives well; the frame correction will simply allow us to set the front-end alignment properly. But now we have a car with a story, and you only have to read our very own auction reports to see that stories aren't always good things when it comes to value. Ultimately, we chalk it up as another lesson learned the hard way.
Our "investment" in the Healey now hovers at the $20,000 mark, which seems about right, and given that we've already driven it 1,500 miles, perhaps a small bargain.
We won't have the Healey forever, but we've enjoyed the automotive experience of the throaty, torquey straight-six. It's not as sophisticated as the 911L, but has more soul than the 240Z, while being infinitely more kind to our pocket book than the 330 America.
What we've learned so far on this expedition through the world of vintage sports cars is that buying a 30- or 40-year-old machine will always be an adventure, and being possessed of a good sense of humor is a prerequisite before putting one in your garage.
In life, we seek out and pay for unique moments. Each of these old, imperfect cars allows us to enter a time warp, and experience driving as defined by the engineers and stylists of a long-ago era.
All things considered, given the distinctive qualities we've enjoyed from each car we have owned, from the raucous thundering of the 300-horsepower V12 to the petite chug-a-lugging of the Isetta, the price we have paid so far doesn't seem very high at all.


The evocative work of Italian artist Enzo Naso has long been an especial favorite of SCM. His painting of a Ferrari TdF was the first full-color image used on a cover of SCM in 1995; the original oil hangs in my office.
Depicted on this month's cover is a 1931 Mercedes-Benz SSK, a six-cylinder, 7-liter car similar to the one that won the MM in 1931, driven by Rudolf Caracciola and Wilhelm Sebastian. The car depicted here is owned by a gentleman in Berlin who drives it in the Mille Miglia today.
Naso was trained as a mechanical engineer before beginning his career as an automotive artist in 1987. He has created many of the official posters for the Mille Miglia retrospective. For Ferrari North America, he realized the posters of the 355 and 360 Challenge in 1998 and 2000. At the Meadow Brook Hall Concours d'Elegance, in 2000, he was awarded the prestigious "Strother MacMinn Art Award" for the artist who best depicts the automobile as art.
A member of the AIAP, the Italian association of graphic designers, Naso is married with two children and lives in Naples where his studio is located. For information about ordering prints of his work and purchasing original art, visit his Web site, www.enzonaso.com.

Comments are closed.