Idol fancy: Autocar writers' dream second-hand cars
These are the motors our testers have been yearning for since lockdown began
If you can say one good thing for lockdowns, it’s that all those extra hours sitting at home give you time to think. And, as Autocar writers are prone to do, we’ve mostly been using that time to think about cars.
In particular, we’ve been thinking about used cars. With all that extra time, we’ve found ourselves trawling used car websites and dreaming about what we might buy when this is finally all over. So for Autocar’s annual Used Car Hero award, we’ve decided to pick our ultimate lockdown dream car.
Each team member has nominated the car they’ve spent the most time dreaming of buying for the past few months. Now the real fun begins: we’ve got to argue among ourselves and pick a winner. There will probably be a vote. You’ll find out which car won as part of this year’s Autocar Awards in June. If you have an ultimate dream car suggestion, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
*BMW Mini R50-R53 - Mark Tisshaw*
For this, I turn to the eBay search history. Not only my most searched-for car but also the only one with a saved search alert is the first-generation BMW Mini from 2001. The sweet spot in the range would be the R50 Cooper, one of the early launch Y-reg cars the holy grail. Still, the extra driver appeal of the R53 Cooper S that followed a year later interests me more than rarity or collectability. Considered enormous at launch compared with the 1959 Issigonis original, the first BMW Mini actually looks tiny now, given the growth of subsequent generations. It’s hard to believe the car is 20 years old when it still looks so modern – and frankly so good. What’s stopping me? Perhaps the thrill of the chase. Or the memory of a costly ECU failure that once hit a friend’s Mini. Although all of this posturing is really only delaying what I hope is inevitable.
*Volkswagen Golf Mk7 - James Ruppert*
The longer my motoring life goes on, the more convinced I am that the Volkswagen Golf Mk7 is quite possibly one of the best iterations of the legendary family hatch. The Golf set the standard way back in 1974 when the competition was negligible. Right now it remains the very best of a sometimes compromised bunch.
I know this Golf is good, because I bought one three years ago. Stick to the prettier, more stylish Mk7, not the Mk7.5, which went a bit too digital and touchscreeny. Petrol makes most sense and the 1.4 TSI offers a strong, almost diesel-like 50mpg-plus. Regular servicing keeps it reliably sweet.
However stunning and brave the purchase of a used EV might seem, a Golf will be around for the long haul. That’s what used car heroes are all about.
*Caterham Superlight R300 - Andrew Frankel*
I spent lockdown as I do most of my downtime: fantasising about owning a Caterham again. I’ve had two, raced a third, built a fourth, run one as a long-termer and decided after she put up with a holiday in France in one that I should ask my girlfriend to become my wife.
But which one? It needs to be slightly nutty but still usable. And my mind keeps coming back to a Superlight R300 from around 2009. That came with a bombproof Ford 2.0-litre motor, 175bhp, wide-track suspension and a close-ratio gearbox, but I’d need one with a limited-slip diff and weather equipment, too. All in, I expect you’d be looking at a £25,000 bill, or the same as you’d pay for a new Mazda MX-5 but with glacial residuals. What a wonderful thing that would be.
*Ford Ranger Raptor - Steve Cropley*
I’m not sure that I should be confessing this. It doesn’t feel entirely respectable, given that the nearly new vehicle I spent most of lockdown lusting after isn’t the kind of thing that Europe’s car makers are very good at building, nor does it suit our advancing age of efficiency and electrification. But as any fool knows, a love of cars is blind. I’m talking about the Ford Ranger Raptor: two tonnes, big diesel, 10-speed auto, as long and wide as a limo and twice as tall. There are plenty of late-model examples on the market right now at low miles and usefully reduced prices, possibly because while they’re instantly desirable (surprising driver appeal, surprising comfort, amazing presence), their first owners soon come to realise they’re not very suitable for traffic, parking or even turning up at a friend’s house.
Still, away from work, and in the privacy of my own search engine, I seem to have an affinity with big cars or small ones. Nothing much in the middle. The big ones are the most beguiling, especially if they can do surprising things. The Ford can: I think that’s the basis of this weird, year-long desire for this ultimate in pricey pick-ups.
*Porsche Boxster - Matt Prior*
I’ve dreamed about a different car every day for the past 12 months, but I keep coming back to an early, undoubtedly leggy, Porsche Boxster. These are nudging into classic status now but are around in sufficient numbers that they’re relatively affordable still, and not so rare that I’d feel bad about making subtle changes to stiffen an ageing shell and ideally de-egg the headlight shape. With six cylinders in the optimum place, the Boxster is the right size, is the right speed, handles terrifically and makes the right open-air noise to be the ideal summer 2021 sports car.
*BMW M5 (E39) - Matt Saunders*
The used car I’ve been dreaming of through lockdown is same one I’ve been dreaming of since first driving it nearly 20 years ago: the brilliant third-generation E39 BMW M5.
This was one of the last really great, truly analogue super-saloons. It was the last M5 with a manual gearbox. It had the M division’s wonderful, sonorous S62 4.9-litre atmo V8 engine; just the right amount of power; sensible proportions; those superbly refined, classic BMW E39 looks. It was, and is, perfect. It’s also not the reliability basket case that its successor, the memorably mental E60 V10, was. Cars are for driving, after all; and for me, a dream car isn’t nearly so appealing if I can’t imagine getting much use out of it.
With the M5, I could bundle the family along for the ride; and I know I’d enjoy just tooling around in no particular hurry almost as much as driving it any other way going. I’d want a nice one – and I can’t imagine ever trying to part with it.
*Chevrolet Corvette ZE1 - Colin Goodwin*
I think everybody should own a Corvette once in their life. While I have been doing a lot of dreaming during lockdown, I haven’t suddenly become a millionaire, so my Corvette shopping has to be done on a tight budget. With that restraint, there’s only one sensible option: a 1990-95 ZR1 powered by the LT5 engine. This is the small-block engine that Lotus developed for GM and which was built by Mercury Marine.
Although the engine produced what today seems ‘only’ 375bhp, it was enough to propel the ZR1 to more than 180mph. It was also extremely strong and reliable and capable of producing much more power. Americans seem to be wary of the DOHC four-valve witchcraft, so you can pick up a ZR1 for very reasonable money. When they come up in the UK, they’re usually not much more than £25,000. I’d buy one in a dry state and drive it across to the east coast and ship it home. I’ve already found one with only 2500 miles on the clock, and it’s like new.
*Porsche 968 Club Sport - Piers Ward*
Back when I dreamed of working at Autocar, I hero-worshipped the journalists on the magazine. So naturally the car they used to idolise is the same one I’ve had a hankering for for more than 20 years: the Porsche 968 Club Sport. I can picture the magazine now: compact yellow sports car (it always seemed to be yellow), a price of £15,000, the iconic decals and the likes of Steve Cropley and Andrew Frankel extolling the virtues of the stripped-out CS. It missed out on the flat six and any creature comforts, but there are few purer ways to enjoy driving. Crucially, it also felt attainable-ish back then. Now it’s much pricier, but the car’s rarity and my imagined shared history with it have kept me looking.
*Citroen 2CV - Richard Lane*
It was all very strange. Most of my life, daydreams concerning what cars I would love to own have tended towards products from Germany, built from 1990-2005, and basically anything angular and Italian. But lockdown affected all of us in ways we might never fully understand, which is the only explanation I have for my unrelenting lust for a car that hails from France in the immediate post-war period. I am, of course, talking about the Citroën 2CV.
Honestly, I don’t know where this idea came from, but during the claustrophobia of lockdown, my brain riffed daily on the same scene: driving one of these 9bhp wonders through sunny Provence. I just found the purity of the 2CV’s mechanicals and the expressiveness of the design totally irresistible, to the extent that when I actually saw what I now know to be a ‘Charleston’ trundling up the inside lane of the M40, such was the wave of envy that hit me that you’d have thought an immaculate 996 Porsche 911 GT3 RS had just screamed by. As for actually getting down to Provence to drive my imaginary escargot, I’ll have a Mercedes SLS, please, in Sepang Brown.
*Mercedes-Benz S123 - Felix Page*
In this new electric era, when even the most nondescript family runaround has a sub-6.0sec 0-62mph time and charm plays second fiddle to charging speed, there’s a lot to be said for indulging in a spot of proper old-school smokiness.
Enter the Mercedes-Benz S123 estate. Titanic in both its physical stature and global sales charts domination, it’s one of those rare classic cars that, with minimal concern, can still do what it set out to do at launch: carry seven passengers in class-leading comfort over hundreds of thousands of miles and in all conditions imaginable.
Fast? No. Frugal? Absolutely not. But that you could pick up a lightly used E-Class for the price of a clean S123 is testament to its longevity and usability, even at 45 years old. I’d have a straight-six-powered 280TE in Cypress Green over Tobacco, and I’d drive it absolutely everywhere. Oh, and I’d have shares in British Petroleum.
*BMW i8 - Tom Morgan*
A plug-in hybrid grand tourer that will do 0-60mph in 4.5sec for the same price as a new Volkswagen Golf GTI? Yes, the BMW i8 really is now that affordable. It’s shocking quite how badly BMW’s vision of the future has depreciated (if you bought one new, that is), but it’s fantastic news for the rest of us, with several sub-40k-mile models up for £35,000.
Seven years after it arrived, the i8 still looks like it comes from the future, with those impractical yet grin-inducing doors and carbonfibre construction. The mid-engined 2+2 has more boot space than the contemporary Porsche 911, it will do 40mpg even when you’re thrashing the Mini-derived three-pot petrol engine and there’s no need to worry about low-emissions zones. Plus, seeing how BMW never really updated the styling at any point, a personalised numberplate is all you need to make an early 2014 car look as fresh as the last i8 to leave the production line.
*Volkswagen Golf GTI Mk5 - James Disdale*
The phrase ‘dream car’ brings to mind all sorts of exotica. The thing is, a low-slung and highly strung supercar simply wouldn’t fit into my life: I’ve nowhere to keep it, I don’t have the finances to run it and in reality I’d never use it. So what I dreamed about was the ‘ultimate’ used car. I wanted something that can do the family thing, doesn’t cost the earth to buy (like, a few thousand pounds), is hassle-free to run and can keep me entertained. I scanned the classifieds top to bottom and left to right, yet I kept coming back to one car: the Mk5 Golf GTI. Fast, fun, family-friendly and unfailingly reliable, it does the lot. Better still, while most used hot hatches are abused by the McDonald’s car park cruise brigade, the VW tends to be pampered by solicitors and retired bank managers, making clean ones a doddle to find. A decade or so ago, we declared the S124 Mercedes E-Class the best used car in the world. Today, I’d argue that this go-faster Golf holds that accolade.
*Maserati Granturismo - Richard Bremner*
They’re drifting, and I don’t mean sideways. Although that is an option if you buy. I mean drifting towards affordability: the price of an early Maserati Granturismo, the one with the smaller 4.2-litre V8, is now dropping below £20k for those closing on 100,000 miles and a 14th birthday. And that is a lot of very beautiful car for the money. Beautiful, tuneful and fast, the sonorous V8 flies past 62mph in 4.8sec on to its ultimate velocity of 180mph – although this big car is more grand tourer than back-roads blitzer.
You will enjoy all this in an elegant, sumptuous cockpit that can comfortably accommodate four – this being the only truly practical feature of the Granturismo as a used car. A deep thirst, loan-worthy servicing bills and double-take insurance premiums require a fairly hefty financial commitment, but this is a great way to enjoy an exotic pedigree Italian coupé for a temptingly low initial outlay. Enjoy this kind of car while you can.
*Mercedes A-Class named Used Car Hero at 2020 Autocar Awards *
*Second-hand heroes - the best used car-buying guides *
*James Ruppert: Dream bangers for dream prices*