Whether it’s a cheap car or a million-dollar one, some elements of the buying decision are the same. And sometimes, even though a car is priced right and is in excellent condition — in fact, it is just what you have been looking for — saying no and walking away is the absolute right decision.

Being in the hunt for a car is like having an itch that needs to be scratched. Some cars pop onto my radar because I used to own one. Some because friends owned them. Others because I recall reading reviews about them in Road & Track in the days before I was old enough to have a driver’s license. And then there are those that seem like they offer a great experience for little money — in other words, they offer cheap fun. I refer to those as Craigslist specials.

My wife, Wendie, calls this whole tracking down and bringing home process “man knitting” — a not-too-dangerous way to while away some time.

The Jaguar XJ6 falls into the cheap fun category. Just think — the same basic engine that propelled the C- and D-types to victory at Le Mans and that powered all the XK types — wrapped in European styling with a forest of wood, a herd’s worth of leather and enough wool to represent a month’s output of the Pendleton mills. According to the ads on Craigslist, I could have all of this for $3,000 — less than the cost of a belt job on a 308. I’d found the perfect affordable classic.

Aim before you fire

I began to do some research before I bought one, unusual for me. A guru at a Jaguar specialist shop in Portland pointed me in the right direction.

“Look for a Series III, preferably 1985–1987. They still have English flavor and are the most reliable of that vintage,” he said.

I began to read the classifieds more carefully. With distressing regularity, the descriptions included phrases such as “selling it for a friend,” or “runs great except for a few minor things like heater fan, power windows and sunroof not working.” When I contacted sellers asking who had serviced their cars — and what kinds of receipts they had — without exception the responses were vague and noncommittal. “I don’t have any paperwork, but the guy I bought it from said it had always been well taken care of.”

A fool and his money

I had made up my mind that I would only buy a car that was known and recommended by a specialist shop. With once-expensive-but-now-cheap cars, today’s purchase price reflects the market value of the car — not the cost of parts and service. Those are still determined by the original value. So paying for a $3,000 service on a $3,000 car is not unusual. Been there, done that, don’t want to do it again.

From the beginning, Wendie was not interested in an XJ6. I made the usual noises about a “practical four-door family car” with English luxury and plenty of space in the back for our 5-year-old son. She wasn’t swayed.
“They look like giant Buicks,” Wendie said. “And we already have a practical English four-door — with wood and leather — that is all sorted out and takes us neat places. It’s called a 1989 Range Rover Classic. Remember? It’s in the driveway.”

Undeterred, I pressed on. I posted a query on Facebook asking for opinions about XJ6s, and got more than 50 responses, ranging from “Series IIIs are great cars” to “Are you nuts?”

Is this the one?

Then came the promising phone call from a shop. A customer had decided to part with his 1986 SIII, 44,000 original miles, purchased new, wire wheels, burgundy metallic with cream. All books and records. Price was just $5,000. More than a $3,000 beater, but less than the $8,000 retail the car could bring. I could already see the car in our driveway, and thought about buying a tweed jacket with leather elbow patches and learning to smoke a pipe.

I hustled across town for a test drive. The car was handsome but not perfect. There was some rust bubbling around the windshield in a couple of places, and the headliner was beginning to come loose in the rear. Both common issues, I was told, and it would cost about $1,500 to put them right. So now I’m looking at $6,500, still reasonable for a classic English cruiser.

“You’re really buying an English sitting room on wheels,” I murmured to myself. How could I go wrong?

I went on the test drive, and that’s where my fantasy began to unravel. In short, the XJ6 was profoundly unremarkable going down the road. It was not powerful, the suspension was soft and the steering wasn’t crisp. The Mulsanne Straight seemed very far away.

The specialist said that he had improved the performance of his personal SIII XJ6 by replacing the shocks, all six of them, with Bilsteins — at around $200 each — and removing a coil from the suspension to both lower and stiffen the car. Another $2,000. I’m now at $8,500, and my wife still doesn’t want the car.

I finally had to stop and admit to myself that this XJ6 — or any XJ6 — wasn’t for me. By the 1980s, the intrusion of pollution and safety standards had caused Jaguar to lose nearly all of its connections with its sporting past. The XJ6 was no Mk 2 S-Type saloon in disguise. The giant rubber bumpers didn’t help, either.

There was no question that the burgundy car was a good buy — in fact, it was sold the next day. Luckily, not to me.

Why we buy

In the end, owning old cars is about having interesting experiences — and learning how the voice of each car speaks of the driving experience in its own language, with its own inflection. Sitting behind the wheel of an old car should be like taking a trip back through time and visiting with the engineers, the designers, the stylists and the customers of the era. It should be about experiencing a manufacturer’s definition of “sporting car” from the time it was built.

I’m not good at walking away from cars I’ve been after. I get myself worked up, I go for the kill, and have a smile on my face when I pull into the driveway behind the wheel of my newest trophy.
What I’ve learned this time around is that a cheap price doesn’t make up for an uninspired driving experience. If you just buy the price, you’ll get exactly what you are paying for. And who wants a driveway full of wannabe 1980s Buicks — all babbling in a language I have no interest in learning? ?

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