on the ones that got away – or how I made some of the most regrettable decisions of my automotive life…
As the cars that we admire continue to soar in value, I’m increasingly haunted by all those I once hovered on the brink of buying but then, for whatever reason, backed away from. One of the first to evade the clutches of the Mallett is a car that still haunts me, the AFN-owned, ex-Betty Haig split-window 356, which could easily have become the ‘ex-Delwyn Mallett 356’.
Sometime around 1967, I was looking for a Porsche Speedster as my everyday car. My relative ignorance had not alerted me to the fact that outside California, Speedsters were not that common and a surprising succession of ads in Exchange & Mart had lulled me into believing that I could be choosy. On this particular occasion I had been lured to view a RHD Speedster described as being in ‘excellent condition’ as, indeed, it appeared to be when I eventually tracked it down. I inevitably got lost en route.
Beating aimlessly up and down the streets of some leafy suburb, my eagle eye spotted a 356 projecting from a barn. My girlfriend (and soon to be wife) expressed some scepticism that, traveling at 40mph and at a distance of 100yds, I could have identified the barely visible ‘bit of tin’ as a Porsche. It did indeed turn out to be a 356, but not the Speedster. No, this was in fact what was then the oldest Porsche in England, still with its 1100cc engine – and it was for sale.
Disappointed that it wasn’t the Speedster that I was hunting, I wasted no more than a minute turning down the car on the basis that it was ‘a bit too old for me!’ Oh, the folly of youth. I believe Betty Haig paid around £50 for it – value now? £200,000? I turned the Speedster down too. It did indeed look splendid and sexy, having recently been repainted black. I drove it around and loved it but opted for an ‘AA inspection’ before committing. The report (which I still have) was hedged with caveats which then sounded like disaster but now seem like minor faults, and I walked.
Still on the prowl for that elusive Speedster, I one day arrived at the trendy emporium of used motors for the swingers of London, Portobello Motors. Having established that no Speedsters graced their premises, my attention was grabbed by a swoopy bolide at the back of the showroom which, even in its coat of primer, certainly looked racy. I was informed that it was a 1939 BMW 328 and it could be mine for a mere £350 – exactly what I had earmarked for a Speedster. My response rings in my ears to this day, ‘1939? A bit old for me’ and left. Value now is upwards of £400,000…
After rejecting a further two Speedsters, one of which was eventually sold to Betty Haig, I finally got my dream-car in 1969. My next non-buy was a Gmünd coupé(!). A chap in Sweden had dragged it from a shed and was offering it for £750. He seemed to be having difficulty selling it, perhaps because, in his own words, ‘All the ferrous metal had rusted away.’ I wasn’t prepared to travel to Sweden to check, so he sent me photos of the car and after several lengthy phone calls and pointing out that he was asking twice as much as I had just paid for a roadworthy Speedster, I made an offer that he found easy to refuse. Value now? Don’t ask.
My Porsche owning ambition eventually extended to a 904. Not to race but to use as a road car. Unlike today, in the ’60s and ’70s ex-racing cars plummeted in value, and it was not unusual to see racing exotica on the road. I regularly passed a white 904 parked in London’s Brompton Road but the unknown owner failed to respond to my notes stuck under his windscreen wiper. But then I spotted an ad in the American magazine Road & Track. Although the mag was a month out of date, the fact that the advertised 904 was located in Birmingham, England prompted a phone call. ‘Yes, mate. Yours for £1500, with trailer and a spare set of wheels and racing tyres.’ Tricky. The price was not a major problem but the new wife might be.
Having suffered an uncomfortable couple of years in a leaky, drafty Speedster, the prospect of trading in our newly-acquired BMW to raise cash for a leaky, drafty plastic 904 met with resistance. The opportunity never came my way again. Value now? Must we? I’ll whizz past the Carrera Abarth for £800, far too painful a memory, to the non-purchase that still makes me physically ill when I see it: the 1938 Alfa Romeo 2900 Le Mans Berlinetta.
By the time this long-thought-lost car came on the market my aversion to pre-war cars had been cured. It was 1972 and the car was advertised in Motor Sport for $10,000 at a time when there were roughly four to the Pound Sterling. In other words around £2,500, or approximately what I had paid for my Mercedes 300SL ‘Gullwing’. That acquisition had fulfilled another automotive dream and I agonized over the decision to sell the Merc, which I was using as an everyday commuter, to fund the Alfa.
Several calls to the vendor in Italy finally tipped the balance. His description that the car ‘Eeez justa lika she a feenisha Le Mansa’ was enticing but the follow up, ‘There’sa one leetle problem. The engine, she a leetle seized’ was far less so. Doubting my ability to fix a pre-war Alfa Grand Prix engine, I let it slide. Alfa eventually acquired the car for its museum, but on the open market it would almost certainly fetch in the region of £30,000,000. So, my advice, if you want it, buy it, and worry later. DM