6 February 2015

As Seen on TV

One man’s quest to buy his first classic, with Project Portland as his guide

I was only supposed to be the sound guy. That’s what Hagerty’s crack Media Team said when they pitched Project Portland, an Internet show where three guys buy three classic cars for three grand apiece in an attempt to illustrate where the real entry point of the classic car market lies. “Just stand there and hold a boom mic,” they said.

As is often the case in shady backroom Internet video dealings, what they really needed was a host. So I became one of the “three guys,” and suddenly, I had a week to find a car.

About me Some background is important here. I’m 39 years old, a child of the ’80s, and I’ve loved cars of all types since I was conscious enough to know what a car was. But my parents never owned cool cars, because cars, they maintained, were for A to B. None of my neighbors owned cool cars, nor did anyone else in my family, and I simply wasn’t exposed to them in any capacity other than Hot Wheels, Cannonball Run and multiple magazine subscriptions. Sadly, I inherited the “automotively fiscal” gene and had long been hung up on crossing over to the dark side. Look but don’t touch, Stefan.

But a man can only take so much! Especially when all he wants — all he has ever wanted — is a fun car with a third pedal, if only to give him some relief from the minivan (I know, I know) and station wagon (yes, I know) that his upbringing and his two young daughters have foisted upon his driveway.

Back to Our Show I set my Craigslist parameters to “$3,000 max price,” “for sale by owner” and “max year 1989” — that magic 25-year-old status that defines the broadest idea of a classic.

Sifting through the 1,500 results, I considered what I might want if I were to buy a car for myself, not simply for the glamour of Internet video. Because I have kids, I have nothing of my own anymore, so I was torn. I wanted to be a good dad and share the experience with them by getting something with four doors and a back seat. Sedans are bargains, after all. But then there was selfish me, two-door coupe me, sports car me...

Over the course of a week, I crisscrossed Portland to look at a 1980 Toyota Supra (automatic and moldy); a 1978 Chrysler Cordoba (large dent cleverly obscured by shadow in the photos); a 1980 Mercedes 280SE ($3,000 is just the start); a 1984 Corvette (tattered interior); a 1973 Ford Gran Torino (“needs work, don’t ask me what’s wrong”); and a 1977 Porsche 924 (awful everywhere). Then I found an all-original 1985 Mazda RX-7 GLS-SE — the loaded, most powerful and final year of the first generation. At $3,000 asking, the price was right. One drive revealed a tired steering box — not ideal in a nimble sports car but not a deal-breaker, either. It revved high, shifted well, and didn’t smoke. The seller agreed on $2,800, and I had the car.

Through other channels, my cohosts, Hagerty Classic Cars Publisher Rob Sass and Nick Jaynes of Digital Trends, found themselves a 1973 VW Beetle and 1975 Chevy El Camino, respectively. And like that, we three guys had our three cars.

It was great to poke around such different machines and evaluate them from my own perspective and really take them for what they were: fun, affordable alternatives to any number of econoboxes people only drive because they think they have to. The Beetle was poky and loud, of course, but it never felt cheap. It’s a simple, well-made car that’s perfect for getting around town — just as it was intended decades ago. The El Camino, meanwhile, was a joy to drive. Smooth power delivery, plush suspension and one-finger steering made it the best cruiser of the bunch. No rust, just 94,000 miles and not a single saggy door also made it a deal-and-a-half. And the RX-7 was just plain fun — small, agile, quick, everything you want from a sports car.

But all of this was just playing at classic car ownership. This wasn’t my money. And these weren’t my cars. And that was a problem.

Boxy but good About this time, I sold a house and was lucky to have it pay me back. Bolstered by my experience with the show and with a fat wallet, I decided the house owed me a car. Car logic!

I considered buying the Mazda, but with little history except 162,000 miles to go by on the semi-exotic rotary power plant, I passed. It took me decades to get to this point, so I wanted something I could live with.

In the end, it came back to my kids. I really do want to be able to cart them around in a fun car — one that doesn’t sound like Mommy’s car (which sounds like nothing) and makes them feel like they, too, are part of something special.

I’ve long been a lover of boxy, boring Volvos. My first car — at age 24 — was a stock 242. I also think Volvos perfectly embody the automotive conservatism ingrained in my soul from such a tender age. But I’m also well aware of their rally history and their Group A touring car successes, which is really just me saying, “Seriously guys, they’re awesome! You gotta believe me.” With the premise of Project Portland as my guide, I turned my attentions to finding the “boy racer” Volvo of my $3,000 dreams. I wanted a clean example with two doors, three pedals and a great suspension.

That very car soon turned up on Craigslist only a few miles away. I also found the Scotia Blue 1984 242 all over the web on blogs, in photo galleries and, most importantly, in a build thread on turbobricks.com, where the seller laid out exactly what he’d done — adjustable coilover suspension, mild performance cam, free-flow exhaust; new wiring harness, obsessive detailing, etc. You’ve never seen a 222,000-mile car so immaculate.

I went to my bank and withdrew the money, which made me real blinky, which is a thing that happens when I’m nervous. But in doing so, I’d crossed a threshold: I was now a serious buyer with my own cash in hand.

The Volvo sat low on 14-inch wheels and mismatched tires, so I made a note that I’d have to raise it and find some Virgos — the pretty alloys that adorned 240 Turbos of the era.

I turned the key and it sounded great — strong and burbly and nothing like that first Volvo I’d owned. A newer clutch and rebuilt transmission meant precise shifts, and that cam meant I could feel all 110 of its horses come on from about 2,500 rpm. There really is something to be said for driving a slow car fast.

Then I bought it. Just like that. Blinking like crazy the whole time.

It’s not perfect. What $3,000 car is? But its minor flaws are now part of my ownership experience. And here is where I invite you all to scoff. “An ’84 Volvo? C’mon, fella!” To which I can say only this: It suits my goals and my present station perfectly, and every time I park it and walk away, I turn to look at it one more time. Even better, my kids love it, and my wife won’t touch it.

If that’s not the ideal car, I don’t know what is.

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