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15 for 5 under 15: 1985 Mazda RX-7 GSL-SE

December 20, 2014

1985 Mazda RX-7 GSL-SE
Average asking price*: $7,000
Collector status: Buy and hold
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While the Mazda RX-7 spanned three generations across three decades, it is the first generation, the SA and FB, that is looked upon as the spark. Even before its introduction, its mere anticipation was injecting a pulse into what had become a barely breathing soul. A worldwide fuel shortage in the early 70s, along with federal emissions and safety mandates had killed off the muscle car and was severely suffocating sports and GT cars that had once painted broad grins across the face of many a weekend motoring enthusiast. Porsche’s offering to this set, the 924, had been initially intended to be a sportier Audi. Datsun had bloated the once-sprite 240Z into a sleekish cruiser. The Italians were struggling to stay relevant. There simply was nothing on the late ‘70s automotive landscape that represented the kind of mass-market exhilaration that cars like Alfa Romeo, MG, Triumph and others gave the common man in the ‘50s and ‘60s. Mazda, up to this point, had been a relatively minor player that showed some innovation in being the first to employ Wankel Rotary power in large-scale production. Such notoriety was mostly in the commuter-car category, though the hand-built Cosmos of the late ‘60s/early ‘70s stands out as one of the most alluring designs to ever come out of Japan. With that under its belt, Mazda drew from the Cosmos as well as queues from the Lotus Elite, TVR Griffin, Porsche 924, and Toyota 2000GT to transform its runabout Savanna RX-3 into the car that would not only save Mazda and the rotary engine, but the affordable sports car as we know it.  Pent up demand had made it an instant success and it delivered on all the anticipated hopes.

It was a car that existed purely for joy. Even today, driving a first-gen RX-7 is so far beyond what it is on paper, where everything comes together into a singular experience that transcends definition. It’s not fun because it’s fast. It’s not really all that fast (albeit an 8-second 0-60 time isn’t sluggish); it’s not fun because it’s lightweight and handles well, although it is light and spirited; it’s not fun because of its size and driving position or ergonomics, although those too are well thought out. It’s simply fun because it’s fun. That essence never really left the RX-7 in future generations, despite getting more refined and upscale, but in the SA/FB it is its most pure.

They were immensely popular. In all, over 470,000 first-generation RX-7s were built and by the time of the RX-7’s introduction in 1979, durability and longevity of the rotary had dramatically improved. Thus a good percentage of those 470,000 are still around, though some have been destroyed or abused beyond saving. Many more have been modified beyond a justifiable restoration. That still leaves hundreds of thousands. That typically doesn’t make for a valuable collector car, but with Japanese Nostalgia poised to be the next wave—or one of them anyway—it’s highly unlikely that a well-bought, well-sorted, well-maintained SA/FB RX-7 will lose any money. From there, it’s deciding which model year best meet your wants and needs. The SA (Series 1) from 1979 and 1980 is the original, the trailblazer, and is probably the most honest expression of what Mazda was aiming to do. The FBs got a facelift, along with some creature comforts like leather and air conditioning, while in the last years of 1984 and 1985, there were additional exterior and exterior tweaks. More significantly, a GSL-SE (or what is often called “five-letter”) model joined the lineup. With it came a larger (1.3  vs 1.1 litre) 135-hp motor, beefed-up suspension, bigger brakes, larger wheels and a more useful lugnut-bolt configuration. For the ideal combination of purity and refinement, the five-letters are the most sought after and given the large production numbers, concentrating on a single year will narrow the hunt. Ultimately, they are all worthy and will evoke a simple, honest pleasure that recalls the purest joy of motoring.

15 for 15 under 15: 1989-1990 Maserati 228

December 19, 2014

1989-1990 Maserati 228
Average asking price*: $6,700
Collector status: Buy and hold
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The idea behind the Maserati Biturbo wasn’t a bad one. It was meant to be an exotic for the masses, with performance rivaling its compatriots from Maranello in an everyday package that could compete with the likes of the BMW 3 Series or Mercedes-Benz 190 Class. Its initial offering of a 185-hp carbureted 2.5 liter twin-turbocharged V6 wasn’t bad. On paper. However it was plagued with build quality and reliability from the time it left the showroom. Sales dropped nearly half from 1984 to 1985 as word spread about the car’s woes. Significant improvements were made, first in 1986 and then again in 1989, but by then its reputation had already written its eulogy and in 1990, Maserati would exit the US until regrouping in 2002. In its wake however, it left what may be the single greatest collector car bargain in the market today: the Maserati 228. The 228 is an evolution of the Biturbo, but it is vastly different. In the years between the US introduction of the Biturbo and the launch of the 228 in 1989, Chrysler had injected some cash into Maserati and build quality was now rivaling that of its competitors from Germany. At its heart was an even more powerful (225 hp) fuel-injected 2.8-litre V6 that was more reliable and easier to maintain. It weighed over 200 lbs. less than a Ferrari Mondial T and was half a second quicker to 60 MPH from a standing start, while costing nearly $25,000 less. Today, finding a 228 coupe will be a proper hunt; finding a well-sorted one with solid service history will be even more so. Nevertheless, the woes of the Biturbo (and its larger, more opulent sibling, the Quattroporte) have so decimated the DeTomaso-era Maserati values, that even an über-rare (240 sold in the US) mass-market exotic like the 228 can be had for a bargain if and when you do.

15 for 15 under 15: 1991 Lotus Elan M100

December 18, 2014

1991 Lotus Elan M100
Average asking price*: $13,900
Collector status: Buy and hold
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Toward the end of the ‘80s, there was a renewed longing for the kind of lasseiz-fare, wind-in-your-hair open motoring that was popularized in the ‘50s and ‘60s. That type of small, affordable roadster had been, for the most part, missing from the automotive landscape for most of the decade (the Alfa Romeo Spider the only notable exception). Mazda took note of this and, with the success of the retro-inspired RX-7 in 1979, was set to recall that essence with the MX-5 Miata in 1989. Around the same time Mazda was taking its inspiration from ‘60s roadsters—chief among them the Lotus Elan—Lotus was developing a new Elan, the M100 (or 1990s Elan). With a healthy cash infusion from its sale to General Motors in 1986, the M100 went from concept to production in just three years. Under the guiding principle of founder Colin Chapman, who died suddenly in 1982, “simplify and add lightness,” the new Elan uses a fiberglass body over a Lotus-tuned Isuzu drivetrain. The result is a 1000 kg roadster with a 16-valve DOHC 1.6 litre motor putting out a respectable 155 hp and capable of a 7.5-second 0-60 time. Styling was decidedly forward looking, with queues of it still present in the current Evora. It’s finest quality, however, is its handling. Because of the limitations of GM four-cylinder drivetrains, Lotus was forced to use front wheel drive. However, despite—or perhaps because it—the Elan offers excellent grip with minimal understeer and steering thanks to what Lotus called “interactive wishbones.” This, combined with its light weight, makes for a very tossable, balanced package. What may be most impressive about the Lotus Elan M100 is that despite being a mass-market roadster developed with the US in mind, only 559 were sold here. A high price vis à vis the MX5, during a recession at its introduction, along with a limited dealer network simply could not provide enough return. It does however make for an interesting choice for both collectors and those who desire a unique, honest sports car that draws directly from its heritage with sensible, modern looks, performance and reliability.

15 for 15 under 15: 1985 Ford Mustang SVO

December 17, 2014

1985 Ford Mustang SVO
Average asking price*: $10,000
Collector status: Buy and hold
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After creating the Pony Car and later taking it to the track to dominate in Trans Am racing, the factory exited motorsport in 1970, just ahead of the emissions-, economy-, and safety-burdened demise of the American muscle car. Any factory involvement in motorsport would lay dormant for a decade. Then, shortly after the Fox-bodied Mustangs replaced the inglorious Mustang II, a group of engineers assembled to dip their toes back into competition. This was Ford’s Special Vehicle Operations, or what we now know as SVO (or SVT today). Similar to BMW’s M division, its primary task was to have a team inside the factory dedicated to winning races, which by 1982 Ford was doing regularly. Up to this point, however the team was being funded by production car sales and the racing effort simply didn’t provide enough return. Again borrowing a page from BMW M, production performance cars had to be developed to generate their own profit to supplement Ford Racing.

The first of these was the Mustang SVO. Under the theory that lighter, more nimble cars that use less fuel will ultimately win over the “no replacement for displacement” approach, the SVO team opted not to base the Mustang SVO on the existing 5.0-liter V8 used in the Mustang GT. Instead, they opted for a new 2.3-liter turbocharged intercooled inline 4. At its mid-year introduction in 1984, the Mustang SVO offered decent straight-line performance with a 0-60 time of 7.5 seconds and covering the quarter mile in 15.5. Respectable, but a second down on the base 5.0 V8 GT, which cost over $6,000 less. The SVO, however, was never intended to be a straight-line drag car and its lap times around the Dearborn test track were significantly better. That said, the Mustang—to this day—has always carried with it an attitude that, as an American icon, it should have a proper V8. Sales were sluggish at best, even after a lowered price and significant horsepower increase (now 205 hp) in 1985 (along with some features that were intended for the SVO since inception such as flush headlamps and model-specific Goodyear Gatorback tires). With the delta to a v8 GT now just over $3,000, it still struggled to attract buyers, with just under 2,000 units sold in 1985, increasing somewhat to just over 3,000 units in 1986 before its cancellation. The cancellation, however had more to do with Ford’s plans to cancel the Mustang altogether in lieu of what became the Ford Probe. That obviously never happened, but by then the SVO team had focused their development efforts on the Thunderbird TurboCoupe and now had their attention looking forward to the Mustang SVT and Cobra. An argument can be made that without the SVO,  neither of those would have come to be. The same could be said of later SVT projects like the Ford GT and Shelby GT500s. In any case, the SVO holds a significant place in Mustang history. That, combined with what some would say is one of the best looking Mustangs ever built, with its subtle ground effects, unique double rear spoiler and slotted flat disc wheels that recall a Porsche 928, and the SVO certainly deserves the attention it never received when new. Add to that its very low production numbers and it can’t help but be a solid, entertaining investment.

IN THE NEWS: 2015 Volkswagen GTI named Best of the Best by Autoweek

December 17, 2014

2015 Golf GTI 2-door 4

Herndon, VA — Volkswagen of America, Inc. is proud to announce today that the 2015 Golf GTI has won Autoweek’s annual “Best of the Best”/Car award. The all-new Golf GTI was evaluated against every new or significantly updated model throughout the year, prior to competing against three other finalists for the overall honor. In winning, judges praised the “hot-hatch” for its thoughtful design, superb handling, quality and value.

“Featuring Volkswagen’s improved 2.0-liter turbo four-cylinder engine and a choice of two great gearboxes, the Golf GTI is an approachable, practical performance car,” said Dutch Mandel, Publisher, Autoweek. “The car satisfies on every level and the new chassis makes it a blast to drive on the track or the street. It’s a car any driver can have fun with.”

“Our team is very excited to be named the Autoweek “Best of the Best”/Car for 2015,” said Michael Horn, president and CEO, Volkswagen Group of America, Inc. “It’s an honor to receive this award from a publication whose readership has the same kind of passion about driving and performance as we have at Volkswagen.”

Autoweek selects its annual “Best of the Best” based on performance, economy, fit and finish, design, value, and personal taste as well as statistical data and consumer conversation. Alongside the Golf GTI, finalists for the 2015 Car award included the Alfa Romeo 4C, Mercedes-Benz C-Class and Ford Mustang.

Equipped with a sophisticated EA888 2.0-liter turbocharged and direct-injection TSI® engine, the 2015 Golf GTI delivers 210 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque—an increase of 10 hp and 51 lb-ft from the previous generation. The optional Performance Package ups the ante with 220 horsepower, a torque-sensing electronically-controlled limited-slip differential and larger brakes.

Despite increased horsepower and torque, the new Golf GTI is also more fuel efficient than its predecessor. When equipped with the six-speed manual transmission, the Golf GTI records an EPA estimated fuel economy rating of 25 mpg in the city and 34 mpg on the highway—a 4 mpg city and 3 mpg highway improvement from the previous-generation GTI.

Thanks to Volkswagen’s versatile modular transverse matrix (MQB) vehicle platform, the 2015 Golf GTI retains the classic design cues of the Mk1 and Mk4 models, while gaining a more upscale appearance and added utility, including increased cabin and trunk space. Pricing for the all-new Golf GTI starts at $24,395 for the entry-level S trim in two-door form with the six-speed manual transmission.

Full coverage of Autoweek’s 2015 “Best of the Best” awards can be found at http://www.autoweek.com/best, the December 22 issue of the magazine or #autoweekbest.

IN THE NEWS: 20th Annual Amelia Island Concours Set to Reunite Sir Stirling Moss and Mercedes-Benz

December 17, 2014

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Since 1996 the Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance has grown from a regional concours to an international award winning event on a global scale and is ranked at the top of the worldwide concours constellation.

To celebrate two decades of automotive design and competition excellence the 20th Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance will reprise the founding Concours of 1996 with our original honoree Sir Stirling Moss. This year marks the 60th anniversary of his record setting victory in the Mille Miglia, his first World Championship Formula 1 victory and the dual World Championships of Mercedes-Benz in the World Sports Car and Formula 1 drivers championships.

Sir Stirling scored each Mercedes-Benz victory in the six-race World Sports Car Championship of 1955. It started in May with his legendary triumph in the epic 1000 mile lap of Italy, the Mille Miglia. Sixty years later that record still stands. Moss’ victory for Mercedes in the Targa Florio, the final round of the World Championship, clinched the world title for Mercedes-Benz. It was the perfect complement to their second Formula 1 World Drivers Championship in 1955.

In each World Sports Car Championship race he won in 1955 Sir Stirling raced chassis number “0004”, his famous number “722” from the Mille Miglia. That same summer Moss won his first Formula 1 World Championship race, his home Grand Prix at Aintree, England, with Mercedes’ W196 Grand Prix car, the stable-mate of his triumphant 300SLR.

Sir Stirling’s final Formula 1 race for Mercedes-Benz came in the1955 Italian Grand Prix racing the elegant W196 streamliner. After leading several laps on the fast, steeply banked Monza circuit a stone shattered the streamliner’s windscreen forcing Stirling to pit. He set a Monza lap record in his pursuit of the leaders but ended his Mercedes-Benz Formula 1 career when a drive shaft bent on the notorious Monza banking. Moss’ Monza streamliner was donated to the Indianapolis Speedway Hall of Fame Museum and will, for the first time, join “722” and the open-wheel W196 “slipper” Formula 1 car in the Cars of Stirling Moss class on Sunday March 15, 2015.

“With Sir Stirling and this extraordinary collection from Mercedes’ 1955 championship-season, the 20th anniversary Amelia Concours will be an historic and memorable event,” said Bill Warner, Founder and Chairman of the Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance. “Sir Stirling set us on our course in 1996 and he’ll launch us to more successful decades with the reunion of this unprecedented and historically significant trio of his victorious Grand Prix and sports cars.”

15 for 15 under 15: 1991 BMW 318is

December 16, 2014

1991 BMW 318is
Average asking price*: $7,000
Collector status: Buy and hold
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The BMW E30 3 Series is one of those automotive achievements that transcends metal, glass and rubber into a cultural icon. From its introduction in 1984, it was an instant classic that fit in perfectly as an amulet of affluence. It was the perfect car for the ‘80s, combining performance, comfort, quality and caché into a fun-to-drive status symbol. It’s no surprise that it is somewhat of a cult car today.

To many, its ultimate expression is in the first-generation M3, which in turn is reflected in current values reaching $60K or more. While some say that those prices are being fueled by overhype, it can’t help but float all E30 boats. We don’t have too look too far down the line for second best with the 325is and 318is. Where the M3 was developed with motorsport in mind and in actuality shares very little with the base 3 series, the 325is and 318is are “sport” versions of the E30, in both 6-cylinder (325is) and 4-cylinder (318is) variants. Both had the M3’s stiffer springs, Boge shocks, larger anti-roll bars, BBS wheels, sports seats, and spoilers to differentiate them from their more basic siblings.

The 325is was powered by a 168-hp jewel of a motor, while the 318is used BMW’s new 16-valve 1.8-litre that was, in its day, the world’s most powerful production 4-cylinder (at 134-hp, which seems pedestrian these days). Despite the 325is being more powerful and refined, it is the 318is that might be considered more classic. For a couple of reasons: 1.) in it, there was then and is now an unmistakable summoning of its progenitor, the infectious 2002. Perhaps its the additional 100 kg; perhaps it’s that it’s too refined, but the 325is lacks that quality; 2.) the 325is was produced over five years in relatively large numbers, whereas the 318is was only imported to the US in a single model year, 1991. Worldwide, there were over 26,000 units produced in 1991, with most of that destined for the States. The nature of these fun-to-drive cars, however, invited flogging and abuse, so there has been quite a high attrition rate. That plus time and the actual number left is likely well below 20,000. That’s still not exactly “rare,” but it is roughly the same as the highly coveted M3. In addition, while the E30 M3 was a prized possession from the get-go and most were squirreled away in garages, left mostly unmolested, the fate of the 318is hasn’t been so fortunate. A disproportionate number have fallen into the hands of DIY tuners and can often be seen lowered, stanced, bagged, or slammed, with any number of bolt-on bits, coffee-can exhausts, etc. Returning these furious “whips” to their native state may be cost-prohibitive. Furthermore, much like the 2002, the 318is was positioned to be within reach from its inception, thus a great many more have been delegated to first-car and commuter duty, racking up the kind of miles that can never be recovered through any degree of restoration. In the end, there are very few good examples of the 318is left and the numbers will continue to dwindle. Now “is” the time.

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