Mornings can be very hectic around the Karpinski household. With two working parents and three third-graders, I drew the short straw when it came to driving the school bus in the morning. OK, so my work commute is about ten minutes on a bad day, versus Suzanne’s daily hour-plus trek up 78 East to New York, but there are days where I would gladly swap our commutes in exchange for a little peace. The school bus is my Cayenne S, and suffice it to say, a third row of seats would be welcome at this age.
The harsh winter that we have just had and all of its accompanying school delayed openings and cancellations has been especially trying on the soul. So, on this April morning – a beauty of a day with blue skies, warm morning breezes and birds chirping – nothing was going to break my stride. “Wow, what’s that big yellow thing in the sky?” I asked the captive audience behind me. With that the three of them started craning their necks, fighting for any view through the windows or sunroof.
“Is there an orange airplane?” Alex asked first.
Tim excitedly interrupted, “Oh-Oh! It’s a UFO! Do you see a UFO?”
Julia decided to stay more terrestrial. “It’s probably a goldfinch. That’s the state bird.”
I was dumbfounded. Had it been that long? “It’s the sun, guys,” I finally offered. A moment of silence followed. “The big yellow thing in the sky is the sun.” The collective groan from the back seat was about the only thing that they agreed on that whole morning. “You gotta work on your jokes there, dad,” Julia deadpans as she exits in the drop off lane.
Snarky nine-year-olds be damned, I was going to enjoy my day, starting with this commute. The Cayenne is nice and all, but I need something more sun to start my say. I looped back home to drop off the truck and went to grab the keys to my M3.
Around this time of every year, I start to get an itch to try something different. Don’t get me wrong – I love my 911SC and my M3 – but it is fun to think about buying a new car once in a while. And by new, I usually mean something actually on the older side, but new to me. There is just something exciting about having new sheet metal to learn about as you wash it for the first time. There are the little features and details of a car that you do not notice until you own one. There is the view of your new ride as you walk up to it in a parking lot or the longing glance as you lock it and walk away. Life is short after all. There are so many cars and there is so little time.
There are a handful of cars that for whatever reason tend to always pop up in my search box in eBay whenever the mood to surf strikes me. Most of them are not what you would call rare or unobtainable, but as my generation continues to age and buy up good examples of the late 1970’s and 1980’s dream cars, availability and pricing seem become precious as well.
One such car is the venerable Mercedes-Benz 450SL. It was a design that debuted in 1971 (introduced as the 350SL before changing to the 450SL a year later) and that lasted all the way to the end of 1989 basically unchanged, save for motor updates. Put another way, I was three years old when my father brought home his first 450SL (a silver over navy blue beauty) and I was driving his last SL, a graphite black 560SL in 1987. It was a lifestyle car – a car that said that its owner would be hard at work at the office in the morning and playing 18 holes in the afternoon. Even Bobby Ewing drove one. What always amazed me about this car was how beautiful it looked in all of its configurations. As a hardtop, it was a handsome coupe. When the weather turned and the hardtop was stored in the garage, up popped its sporty replacement in cloth. The top-down view, however, is by far its best look. It had a classic Mercedes interior and a generous trunk – almost like a small sedan minus a back seat. When you search these cars on eBay, there are plenty of them around, in just about any color and year you could ask for. While some of the very nicest ones command over $25,000 these days, they can be had anywhere from $5,000 to $15,000. Like any vintage German car, it is best to know exactly what you are buying before you pull the trigger, as parts and repairs can add up quickly. More than that for me, though, is that every time I get close to this dream car, I realize why I have never bought one. The interior is indeed generous for a “sports car,” as I said before, but the proportions are slightly odd. For whatever reason, my 6’3” frame has more room in a generation 1 Mazda Miata than in a vintage SL. Go figure. Then there is the actual driving experience. Jerry Seinfeld had remarked about this car’s predecessor, the 1960’s 280SL, that it was a beautiful car for people that do not like driving cars. The same kind goes for this SL. From the steering feel, to the way it tracks down the road – this does not feel like a sporting car. I think it is the reason why my dad only kept that last 560SL for one year, before buying his first Porsche 944 Turbo. It is like Don Henley said in The Boys of Summer: “Don’t look back, you can never look back.”
Another favorite – perhaps a little more obscure – is the Fiat 124 Spider convertible. My memories of this car go back to Martha’s Vineyard. As you probably know, the Vineyard is an island, and you can only bring your car there via a ferry service called the Steamship Authority. Reservations to and from the island were (and still are) few and far between in the busy summer months. Back in the early 80’s, they used to allow people without ferry reservations to wait along with their cars in a “stand-by” line, filling up whatever available space was left on each boat. In retrospect, I think it would have been easier to return from Cuba. My parents tried this approach once when we were leaving in the height of August. It was around 14 hours of waiting, until finally at around 2am, they ran one final boat to get the last of us back to the mainland. During that memorable afternoon, there were two men waiting with us, each driving a sports car. The first one was a dark blue Porsche 911. It was the long hood style and I believe it was a 911T. As I recall, I did not like it much. However, the other car was a convertible that I have never seen before. “It’s a Fiat Spider” my dad informed me. Having nothing better to do from the back of our Caprice Wagon, I observed these two throughout the afternoon. It began with a polite exchange of “nice car.” After a few hours, they had both hoods open and they were admiring the motors on their machines. By the evening, they were driving each other’s cars – twenty feet at a time, that is with each successive ferry that arrived and departed. Anyway, the lines of that little Fiat stayed in my mind. I thought the shape was nicer than any of the peer age MGBs, or its fellow Italian, the Alfa Spider. Like the Mercedes SL, the Fiat enjoyed a long model run spanning from 1966 to 1982. After Fiat’s demise in the US, the little roadster was offered for a few more years sold as a Pininfarina Spider Azzura. By any name, though, this was a nice little car. As time rolls on, however, examples of this car continue to dwindle, probably more a result of rust and neglect than enthusiasts buying them up. I had a chance to drive one for sale about twelve years ago. The shape was as lovely as ever and the color was my favorite, too – a nice medium blue metallic with a greyish hue to it. Like the SL, it was not the best driving experience. Interior pieces did not fit well, even after a partial restoration. There is something extra sad about a little sports car that feels old, kind of like an old small dog with a grey muzzle that will not fetch the ball any more. The experience left me disappointed.
There are a bunch of others that I look for from time to time. There is my first car – a second-generation Volkswagen GTI. Hard to find and gaining value as a cult classic – it is hard to see how I would use a car like this in my daily life. But how about a Jeep CJ-7? Or an Alfa GTV-6? Or a first-gen Mazda RX-7? Or maybe a Jaguar XJ-6? I have come close to some and drifted apart from others. One of my most recent “bucket list” cars that I finally got the opportunity to try is the Ferrari 308 GTSi. The version I drove was actually the later generation higher powered 328 GTS, but the feel is pretty much the same. This ride was courtesy of Rally Chair, John Vogt, who happened to have one for sale at his store, High Marques. “We’re going to look like a couple of gorillas in this thing, Drew,” John warned as we strapped into the car. Actually, strapping in took a while, due to the temperamental nature of those fine Italian seat belt pre-tensioners. As we drove around Jockey Hollow, I realized that John was right. We actually looked more like a couple of those old Fisher-Price figures, sitting more on top of a car rather than “in” it. The steering was breathtakingly honest and the sounds from that Italian eight were glorious – but the driving position and ergonomics were tragic. Every time I went to push the clutch pedal to change gears, my knee would activate the turn signal. And for as fast as the 328 looks standing still, a modern Honda minivan could probably take it in the quarter mile.
I was speaking with our former concours chair, Craig Ploetner, not too long ago about the used car market. Craig has a knack for finding great cars to buy and sell. “What’s the next big thing in auction cars?” I had asked. Without pause he answered, “Anything aircooled is just exploding in value right now.” When I asked why this might be, his response made a lot of sense: “The 911SC is a car from the eighties that you actually still want to drive.”
Washing my 911SC last weekend, I thought about what Craig had said. The lines of the car are still as fresh as they were for the past five decades or so. More importantly, maybe, is that no matter how much I may think about driving something different, those thoughts seem to disappear by the end of my road.
I press the odd little button on the bottom of the dash to open the narrow sunroof of the car and press the turn signal left to head towards work. I love looking out over those two headlight tunnels, the trademark look of the original 911s. With each delicate shift and the accompanying cacophonous roar from the flat six, I realize that I am already driving my springtime fantasy car. Suzanne will have to pick the kids up this afternoon. It is, after all, a beautiful day and I am enjoying the ride.