23 second-hand car options that aren’t obvious or expensive
Nothing more than £10,000 or less interesting than juggling chainsaws on a rollercoaster
If the events of 2020 have taught us anything useful (and the jury is still out on that one), it’s that you just don’t know what’s around the corner, so you’d better make the most of what you have while you have it.
So we look to the future with as much optimism as we can muster. It may as well be as interesting as you can make it, right? And no, not interesting as in ‘may you live in interesting times’, just the normal amount, where you can go outside, shake hands and buy toilet paper. And drive a really cool, off-beat car that didn’t cost you too much to buy. Here’s a smattering of the kind of car we’d pick if we didn’t blow all of our money on being millennials and doing millennial things, like going through two catastrophic recessions in 12 years.Advertisement - Page continues below
Toyota Celica GT-Four
The second-hand car market is awash with fun, well-engineered and generally excellent bargains for comfortably less than £10,000. The MX-5, for instance, or the Boxster. A MkV GTI. And none of these are bad choices. But instead, let’s think of our plan as the least logical extrapolation of social distancing – don’t crowd around where everyone else is. Be a man apart. Like, at least six feet apart.
We’re not looking for just anything that’s wilfully different and less than £10,000. That’s a horrible idea, which will culminate in the unmitigated awfulness of a Ford Anglia. Or worse, something from the Soviet Union, where just to have motorised transportation (and not be waist-deep in snow out in a gulag) was a privilege, and cars were generally hideous, badly made and as reliable a workhorse as a dead mule. Worse still, you could end up with a Triumph TR7.
So let’s lay the foundation the right way with the Toyota Celica GT-Four. This exists (until speculators read this article and ruin everything for everyone yet again) in the happiest overlap of Venn diagrams we can think of: Toyota reliability, moderate price, rarity, performance, history and absence of obviousness.
Don’t confuse it with your average Celica – the GT-Four was a proper rally homologation special, with 250bhp, a full-time four-wheel-drive system and a host of tech from Toyota’s (ever so slightly cheating) rally team.
It was also, in case you’re not old enough to remember, a neck-and-neck competitor to the Lancia Delta Integrale in the actual World Rally Championship. And, perhaps more importantly, in Sega Rally, the greatest arcade game ever.
Keeping the rally vibes going is the Lancia Fulvia, which, just like the Celica GT-Four, is an off-road tour de force. Yeah, we know, its demure presence and diminutive proportions don’t exactly scream “KEEP LEFT OVER CREST INTO SIX RIGHT” in an angry Scottish accent, but the little Lancia isn’t worshipped by those in the know for nothing.
For whatever quirk of fate, stroke of luck or confluence of circumstance that prevented the heartless sharks who speculate on cars from smelling blood in the water, the Fulvia managed to remain good value right up until a few years ago. Because nothing lasts forever.
The proper homologation specials, known by Lancisti as ‘Fanalones’, have prices that match their status as bona fide rally champions. Anything that’s not quite a Fanalone but shares the illustrious ‘HF’ designation is similarly pricey, but regular-strength Fulvias are still just within the bounds of affordability. And you’ll still get the mesmerisingly beautiful lines, famed Lancia build quality (no, really; pre-Fiat Lancias were a cornucopia of nerdishly overengineered delights) and a rare-groove V4 engine.
The pre-Fiat S1 Fulvias are the most desirable, but S2 Lancias, even with Agnelli involvement, actually get better disc brakes and a five-speed gearbox as opposed to the original four. And they’re still out there, for less than £10,000. So get to it, before the soulless speculators (y’know, the people who describe anything made before 1995 as ‘an appreciating asset’) get their Palpatine-like palms on them.Advertisement - Page continues below
Yes, you really can get a Jaguar MkII for less than £10,000, and do so without resorting to creative reinterpretations of the phrase ‘personal property’ and ‘lawful possession’.
The trick is to look under the bonnet. If there’s a 3.8-litre straight six lurking under there and a sub-£10,000 price tag on the windscreen, at least one crime has already happened because of this car. But if there’s the unloved 2.4 sitting meekly, trying to blend into the firewall so you don’t notice it, you can scoop up the proper Inspector Morse model at something approaching reasonable money. This is also the same engine and spec (if not the... er, rustic condition) of the MkII from Withnail and I. That will either mean everything or nothing to you.
With a cheap 2.4, because you don’t have an absurdly expensive classic to worry about, you can do what people used to when they had an underpowered car: tinkering, tuning, fitting upgraded parts or completely new engines. See this one above? Ian Callum himself isn’t above lavishing a MkII with a bit of aftermarket attention.
To hell with provenance and future value. And to Dante's ninth circle with buying cars as investments. This is your car; if you want to swap out any of the famously flaky or old-hat Jag bits – say, for instance, Jag's straight six with a 2JZ, or even creating a modern version of the Daimler V8 with an LS – it's your life. Go live it your way.
But what if the machinery is more important to you than the scenery? Well, we can help there, too. Because no one in anything approaching a sane frame of mind will ever call a Vauxhall beautiful.
And, while we're leaning back and opening fire on Vauxhall, let's go ahead and flick to full auto: no one in a sane frame of mind will look to Vauxhall for machinery, either. Hell, not even Vauxhall did; when the bosses wanted a performance car with a Vauxhall badge, they immediately picked up the phone and called Lotus. Or Holden.
And while the most famous Lotus-Vauxhall mashup is well beyond our reasonable budget – and still has a special place in our heart, mostly for working Britain's fun-sponges into a lather about the Lotus Carlton’s turn of speed – we're talking about the other excellent Vauxhall-badged but definitely not Vauxhall-ish artifacts of motoring brilliance.
The first is, as you'd expect, another Lotus. This time it’s an Elise (Vauxhall dubbed it the VX220), just one with a 2.0-litre turbo engine and much uglier bodywork. But did you not get the earlier bit, where we said a turbocharged Elise? And for less than £10,000.
You're right. This is all far too technical and serious. If we’re to keep trying to purloin meaning and lessons from an entirely random catastrophe (and you’d better believe we’re going to see more of that as time marches ever onwards), surely the biggest takeaway is to get your kicks where you can find them. And we find them in the Monaro, Australia’s greatest gift to the world after Nick Cave, Tame Impala and the Minogue family.
The Monaro isn't just a heroically entertaining V8 coupe for next to no money; it’s also a rare dose of optimism in some admittedly pessimism-inducing times. This was a car made for the car mad, a simple formula of big, easy power, rear-drive and a limited-slip diff that yielded Formula D-worthy slides right out of the box. It’s also cheaper here than it is over in Australia, where the damn things were made. So take the wins while you can. Hey, that could be something else we learn from this...
MG ZT 260
But what if you want your muscle car to be a bit more English? Well, you could stand still for a second while the rest of the world laughs deliriously.
OK, they seem to be about done. An English muscle car, though – that was a good one. Whichever one of you said ‘The MG ZT 260 was actually pretty muscular’ – ah, you with the elbow patches – you may have had a point. OK, the point is about as blunt and broad as the American who built the ZT’s 4.6-litre V8, but there is an argument that the 260 was about as close as England ever came to a muscle car – democratic pricing, V8 up front, drive out the back.
Yeah, the idea of MG making a muscle car is kind of like hosting a death metal concert in a thatched-roof pub, but the notion of powersliding in an episode of Antiques Roadshow has its own contrary charm. The ZT also handled a little too well to really be considered a pure muscle car in the same ilk as a Camaro or Mustang, but it gets a pass because the Vauxhall (nee: Holden) Monaro pulled the same trick. And it’s the friendliest muscle car in existence.
Oh, and just so you know, we are recommending a ZT 260, and then the immediate fitment of a supercharger. Or, if you’re anything like us, you’ll find the supercharged estate version currently for sale for just shy of £10,000 and start making high-pitched whimpering noises.Advertisement - Page continues below
There are, in our experience, two main reactions to dangerous situations: those who recoil from it and those who relish it. What about the interesting kind of danger, like buying complicated continental limousines without financial backing from some sort of hedge fund?
Look no further than the Citroen C6, then. Its wilfully different styling (which must always be referred to as avant-garde, as per the motoring writers’ handbook) is just the tip of the iceberg, really – this is the last of the proper, all-out French executive cars, crammed full of tech and riding on suspension that yields more than a learner driver. Things you take for granted today, like a head-up display and lane departure warning, and things you expect to see on supercars, like a motorised rear spoiler that adjusts for speed and braking, are all found on a 15-year-old French four-door.
And because it is both old and French, expect for fancy-pants tech bits (like... ooh, we'd say the spoiler) deciding that 15 years is long enough for a part or electrical relay to last and lunching the least accessible part, leaving the spoiler in the least usable position, at the least appropriate moment.
But think of it like a grand old house – they need time, effort and money invested to not crumble into ruins. The grander the house, the greater the investment. And cruising along in a vehicle that’s as comfortable as trackpants and stylish as a suit is worth forking out for.
But how can we talk about dangerously interesting without mentioning Maserati? These days, there’s roughly nothing in Maser’s new-car catalogue that’s either dangerous or interesting, but a little more than 15 years ago, it was a very different story. Happily nested with Ferrari, Maserati brought out one of the best-sounding V8s of all time, fitting it to the GranTurismo (instantly becoming a future TG writer’s first smartphone background pic) and the Quattroporte. And yes, while the later 4.7-litre versions with a regular ZF automatic are better, the fact that you can buy a Quattroporte for less than £10,000 is perhaps the epitome of ‘there can be no great reward without great risk’.Advertisement - Page continues below
Of course, we’re not completely mad. Well, not always, at least. We know that, for a great many of you, happiness will not be found in caprice and creative mental gymnastic routines. While we’d happily park a Quattroporte or C6 outside our houses, we have to admit that there’s an increasing comfort in choosing a counterpoint to the vicissitudes of the world at large. Or, to wax a little less lyrically, choosing a properly reliable car.
And in the W123 generation Mercedes, you’ve found it. Yes, we know we’re scraping dangerously close to ‘obvious’ with the W123, but you can retrieve a little off-piste cred by buying the estate version, which came with a pair of jump seats in the rear to make a 40-year-old estate a bona fide seven-seater. If you try really, really hard, you can find one with a manual gearbox as well, for the ultimate dad wagon. Or, y’know, it would be, if it came with ISOFIX. No new dad has the time (or, indeed, the patience) to muck with seatbelt-anchored kid seats.
OK, enough sense and sensibility. And cribbing other people’s book titles. Let's get straight back in the deep end of potential problems.
In fact, let’s make sure that our problems will be manifold. And possibly something to do with the manifold (we’ll be here all week; be sure to tip your waitress). Because we‘re going all out – it's V12 time, and there’s no shortage of contenders that’ll offer you all the joy that a sub-£10,000 price can present. All with the tacit understanding that if, say, a timing chain goes, you’re up for 12 cylinders’ worth of valves, rings and pistons. Then have a small mental walk through your engine – if you can manage a physical walk through, something is very, very wrong with either you or your engine – and tot up all the things that’ll multiply your woes should something break. Coil packs, spark plugs, lifters... you see where we're going with this: bang = you no longer have money. The other side of this solid silver coin is what you stand to gain by taking a punt.
Thanks to the modern car lover’s one saving grace, depreciation, there’s a bevy of 12-cylinder cars ready to make your next car trip... oooh, probably at least 12 times as smooth as the last one.
Mercedes did a great trade in V12-powered cruisers just after the turn of the millennium, so you can take your pick of S600L limousine or CL600 coupe within our buying budget. Two bits of advice: get the best, most stringently maintained version you can get your hands on. And then set aside about as much as you paid for it for the first big repair bill. See? You can be both quixotic and prudent, with enough mental triple salchows.
Surely the better idea, then, would be to go Japanese? They seem to have had this whole ‘reliability’ thing downpat for a while now. And the Toyota Century V12 is arguably the apotheosis of the Japanese luxury car, from its staunchly conservative exterior to its borderline obsessive interior, with wool seats (leather is too loud to sit on) and electrically activated door latches – mechanical ones are too loud in the cabin when the door is opened from the outside by a chauffeur, valet or doorman.
Daimler Double Six
But if reliability and exceptionally strong grievances against noise aren't really your thing, if you just want something V12-powered, wafty and cosseting, you could always look closer to home with the Daimler Double Six. Don’t confuse the name with anything German; this one’s basically a Jag XJ with a V12, named to hark back to some long-forgotten high point in Daimler’s past, before it was bought out by Jaguar. The engine’s a familiar one – Jag’s own V12, just with Daimler written on the valve cover. But do you want to argue with the syrupy smoothness of the 6.0-litre version, as found in the last of the Double Sixes, and the swan song for Jag’s only home-grown V12?
Right, enough of this wafting nonsense. What we want, what our hearts, souls and even bones are crying out for is some gleeful abandon. And if there's one type of car to best deliver, it’s the hot hatch. But a hot hatch is a tricky thing to go off-brand in; pretty much all of them are vaunted by their own support group and, because of their ‘(horse)power to the people’ mantra, everyone has a favourite hot hatch.
So let’s get as weird as we can. This, coincidentally, is the title of our upcoming book on how to throw a really great house party.
The best way to throw the obviousness police off the scent is to not pick a hatch at all. Genius, right? But the Honda CR-X coupe and Del Sol targa are based on the same basic platform as the Honda Civic, an answer so obvious that you’d be kicked off the writing staff of Jeopardy! for suggesting it. If you’re still not getting what we’re putting down, a CR-X to a Civic is like a Scirocco to a Golf. Just cooler, in that deep niche way. And one of the best-handling cars we ever got our hands on as teenagers. Admittedly, the field was as narrow as our parents’ land barges and anything cheap, but even the professional road testers of the day were impressed. And as road testers ourselves, we can say with a clear conscience that we are the hardest people to impress in the entire universe. So, in short, CR-X be good. Get one.
Saab 99 Turbo
Also, if you’re still OK with the generous interpretation of the phrase ‘hatch’, we should also point out that you could very possibly, with a good deal of hunting, find a Saab 99 Turbo, the original turbocharged car for the masses. OK, by modern standards, it has the lag of dial-up internet and a garish colour scheme, but this was a turbocharged Saab from the 1970s, and therefore impossible to drive without wearing a turtleneck – and a smile that starts at the throat and ends at the eyebrows.
Mazda 323 GT-R
But what if you want an actual, y’know, hot hatch? Fine, let’s see what we can drum up that’s a) offbeat, b) affordable, c) available, d) not actively crap and e) worth recommending to other human beings. Yeah, no worries, let us just pull that out of thin... oh, well there’s always the Mazda 323 GT-R – the overlooked turbo nutter hot hatch from Japan’s 1990s heyday – or the Renault Clio Williams, possibly the most sensible bit of advice you’re likely to find in this article. Small, cheap to buy, cheap to run, not viciously expensive to maintain, and fun enough to drive that at least one Top Gear staffer has one. We think it’s mouldering in a garage at the moment, but he still has one. Maybe offer to buy it?
Citroen BX GTI 16v
But, for ultimate, deep-groove hot hatch weirdness, Renault has to concede defeat to the impresarios of individuality, Citroen. Because, when the rest of the world thinks ‘hot hatch’, they tend not to think ‘the perfect place to put heavy, complicated hydraulic suspension for the most pliant ride known to man’. But, to their credit, Citroen also used a free-revving four-cylinder with a head derived from the Peugeot 205 GTI rally car. Oh, and styling genius Marcello Gandini. Need we say more? We do? Oh. Well, they’re still pretty cheap, considering – you can pick one up for half of our budget. Or get two for the whole budget, then use the first to fix the second one! Now that’s consumer advice.
Alfa Romeo 147 GTA
“Hang on,” you might be thinking, “aren’t they done with hot hatches? That seemed like a pretty full dance card.”
And yes, we absolutely should be. But we have to single out the Alfa Romeo 147 GTA. It is the single most captivating, most frustrating, most irritating car we can think of. It is both exceptional and exceptionally prone to failing in a way that’ll make you want to throw a wheel brace through a window, chuck a match in and walk away. But then you’ll look at its gorgeous flanks, its purposeful yet sinuous wheel arches and just perfect teledial wheels and forgive it again and again. We know. We did.
Sure, we could wax on about 3.2-litre V6 this and 250bhp that, and you absolutely would buy one just for the engine. We know. We did.
But, after we’d spent money on the upgraded 330mm Brembos, Koni shocks and Q2 diff, then splashed on a set of properly good tyres, it was a handling revelation in a way that actually overshadowed that engine. We had it running through a full Supersprint exhaust too, which didn’t make a sound to fall in love with so much as actually making the sound of falling in love. And yet, even with all of that power and torque and tempest of rasping V6 fury, the way we could fling in into corners and never feel either end go light or wash out was transcendent. If you get the right one, with the right upgrades – and you can, even within budget – you’ll have an astounding car to drive.
Oh, and before you think we’re just trying to bump up the value of our car – it’s the black one, in the middle, in case you were curious – we should let you know we sold it in 2016. And yeah, life is much less stressful now. But better? Not even close.
Alfa Romeo Brera V6
Fact: the coolest type of car is a coupe. It’s the difference between loafers and gumboots – the former means the only practicalities you’ve planned for are a short sojourn along the jetty. Gumboots are for the forward thinker.
And somehow practicality and planning is so... boring. It suggests not living in the moment, not having the conviction or courage to stop hedging your bets and just lay it all out on what your heart desires. As much as we love estates – and you bet your top, middle and bottom dollar that we’re wagon-mad to the end – even we have to concede that choosing style over space is a shortcut to any cool car. Why else would Mercedes, BMW and their ilk mangle an SUV and try to pass it off as a coupe?
But let’s put aside those horror shows for another day, and take our eyewash in the form of something European, gorgeous and vaguely histrionic. By which, of course, we mean the Alfa Romeo Brera V6. Let’s not kid ourselves or anyone else - this is not a car for helmsmiths, those who measure their driving effort in tenths or use the word ’chassis’ interchangeably with ’suspension’ and proceed to talk your ear off about either one’s balance. Truth be told, it’s not actually that fantastic to drive at all; it’s fine, but it’s about as fat and soft as we were after our first month in corona-isolation. What it does have, however, is a gorgeous interior, a sonorous V6 and exterior lines that border on pornographic.
Fiat Coupe Turbo
But you can’t discuss risque bodywork without including the Fiat Coupe Turbo. It was designed by none other that Chris Bangle – yep, of ’Good grief, what is BMW’s design department doing? – Part One’. But with the Fiat Coupe, at least, we think Bangle was... er, bang on.
Also, let’s not forget that the Coupe was made by 1990s Fiat, which had money to burn – and, crucially, access to the full toolkit of both Lancia and Alfa Romeo. But, even though you could get a version of the Delta Integrale’s four-cylinder, our choice is the idiosyncratic transversely mounted inline five, which, thanks to four valves per cylinder and turbocharging, was good for 220bhp and about the same in torque. And, in a featherweight like the Coupe, that meant 0-60 in about six seconds. And we got through this entire description without mentioning rust once. Ah, damnit.
Mercedes-Benz 560 SEC
That’s about enough on moderately flimsy Italian coupes and exceptionally flimsy suggestions about buying them. Let’s check back in with the Germans and see what they can drum up.
Of course, there’s the Volkswagen Corrado VR6, which is pretty much your first stop on the 10:50 Express from Mainstream to Offbeat. Yes, the idea of a narrow-angle V engine sharing a single cylinder head is cool (even if Lancia had the idea decades earlier) and the styling is Radwood-ready out of the box. And we’d happily leave it at that in most cases – if the Mercedes 560 SEC didn’t exist.
The 560 SEC is an S-Class coupe from the 1980s – with the overengineering and build quality that this entails – with pillarless windows and a 5.6-litre V8. If that’s not enough to sell you on the concept, then its thuggish imperiousness has to seal the deal. One of these things, in black, gives an air that it’s being driven by someone who A) knows exactly how to throw a punch for maximum damage and B) isn’t a professional boxer, which makes point A even scarier.
What if you want your high-end Mercedes to look like a modern-day Kray isn’t about to emerge and enquire after certain gambling debts by dangling someone off a high-rise balcony? Well, without even leaving the Mercedes stables, you’re still in luck.
The first – and most obvious – thought is to pick up an AMG-powered SL from the turn of the millennium. And with a supercharged 5.4-litre V8 and enough torque to start its own chat show (dear god, the dad joke apocalypse has arrived), its siren song is calling.
But the song is a little too obvious, too radio-friendly, for our tastes. Time to change the channel from Broadly Enjoyable FM to Overlooked Nineties Gems. Or, to stop torturing our metaphors for a second, the R129 Mercedes SL.
Bruno Sacco’s styling is somehow timeless and inimitably Nineties at the same time. But, being a product of late Eighties Mercedes (it debuted in Geneva in 1989), it’s engineered to last until we’re in our nineties. The more we look at it, read about its pioneering safety mechanisms (like a pop-out rollover bar) and sheer engineering pornography (the seats alone have 20 patented parts), the more we’re talking ourselves into this one. Our budget stops you at the SL500, but that’s no great problem – you still have 315bhp on tap and you won’t have to suffer the slings and arrows of the V12’s servicing costs. Hang on. Did we just do practical advice by mistake?
Jeep Cherokee XJ
Given what we’ve been through since 2006, which is the last year any of us can remember being even vaguely normal and not terrifying, it’s natural for thoughts to turn to (or keep returning to) escaping humanity entirely. Yup, right about now feels like a good time to pack up and wave goodbye to humanity. Clearly, you’ll need appropriate wheels to convey you there.
And even here, choosing your car (and packing it) like a doomsday prepper, you still don’t have to be entirely obvious. While we’re not going to argue that the XJ Cherokee or G-Wagen, two of the most popular off-roaders of all time, are even approaching niche (you want niche? Go find a Rayton-Fissore Magnum or Bertone Freeclimber), at least they’re not the same old Land Rover/Cruiser dyad.
The Jeep also has a 4.0-litre straight six, which basically makes it an off-road Jaguar. It’s even called an XJ! Surely imperious comfort awaits... or at least 20 square feet of ruched leather, which is 1990s-speak for ‘You're minted, me old mate’.
But what if you actually wanted to embrace some asceticism? An early G-Wagen would fit that bill pretty well, with an interior best described as ‘utilitarian’ and an exterior best described as ‘a brutalist block of flats with wheels’. And, at least in the early diesel versions that our budget extends to, your abstemiousness can extend to driving performance – 0-60 can take anything up to 32 seconds, depending on spec. Yes, that’s 32 seconds, as in more than half a minute.