Whoppers: The Cars That Got Away

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Aug 23, 2010

The 1960s and 70s were the Golden Age of the weird and wonderful automobile in common usage. My friend, who worked as a waitress and cat shelter volunteer, nonetheless drove a stately 1950s Bentley she just happened to find on a used car lot for a reasonable price. My grandmother piloted a rare Borgward Isabella Combi station wagon, and my hippie cousin kept his stash in the wood-paneled dashboard of a 50s-vintage Mercedes 220S.

My grandmother drove a Borgward! (Flickr/Pat Durkin)
My grandmother drove a Borgward! (Flickr/Pat Durkin)

A classmate who played his guitar for a living (remember Cat Mother and the All-Night Newsboys?) drove a Triumph TR4. I also went to school with Marilyn Chambers, the porn star, and she drove a...well, I think it was a Ford Galaxie convertible, but I wasn't paying all that much attention to her car.

That's what they had. In my wild years I had a weird and wonderful assemblage that included Dodge Darts and Plymouth Valiants, a Chevy Nova convertible, Volvo 122S (several) and 1800S (two), BMW 2002 (several of those too), Jaguar Mark 10, Mercedes 190SL (right-hand drive, and a bondo special), Mercedes 220S (the round one from 1959, just like my cousin's) and an Alfa-Romeo Spyder.

But this story is about the ones that got away, a list that includes an actual Graduate movie car (or so it was claimed), and an original Volvoville Volvo 1800S convertible. I bet Tom and Ray have a list a mile long, though they might have gotten more agita from the junk heaps they actually did buy. It could be worse: I have a 90-year-old car collector friend, and he regales me with stories about derelict Duesenbergs abandoned by the side of the road, and seeing a Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost crushed in a junkyard because nobody would pay $50 for it. He did buy a pair of scruffy Bugattis for $1,500 each in the '50s (which convinced family and friends that he was nuts).

I might regret never asking Marilyn Chambers for a date (especially since our lockers were next to each other), but I also regret not buying the automotive paragons listed below. I don't always remember the year these almost-sales happened, but I remember the precise amounts, a fraction of their current worth. When I die, I'll whisper a word, "Mercedes," and they'll ponder it like Citizen Kane's "rosebud," but it will be a reference to the Benz convertible I could have bought for $500. If you have your own stories like this, by all means send them to me here at jmotavalli@gmail.com.

Car: 1960 Jaguar Mark IX
Asking price: $1,200
Why I didn't buy it: It wasn't running.

The stately Jaguar Mark IX: Often mistaken for a Rolls. (Flickr/Pat Durkin)
The stately Jaguar Mark IX: Often mistaken for a Rolls. (Flickr/Pat Durkin)

Sob story: This was a huge and opulent big cat that resembled a Rolls Royce, complete with fold-down pickup tables in the rear seats. The example I looked at had only 11,000 miles on it, after which the owner had stripped a spark plug hole and parked it. The vendor had fixed that, but the engine required some reassembly. It was otherwise immaculate. The perfect red leather upholstery haunts me to this day. This is how cool they are, with the asking price up to $60,000 or more for nice examples.

Car: 1959 Cadillac convertible
Asking price: $800
Why I didn't buy it: My parents wouldn't let me.

The biggest and brightest American car ever! (Flickr/Chad Howedel photo)
The biggest and brightest American car ever! (Flickr/Chad Howedel photo)

Sob story: I was in high school, working as a go-fer in a Dodge dealership. Part of my job was picking up the Toyotas the dealers had just taken on as an amusing side business. We all knew they'd go nowhere. I was flush with cash, probably had at least $50 in my pocket, and my parents were trading in the family Falcon on a Plymouth Belvedere. At the back of the lot, still shiny (and again with the red leather) was a remarkably well preserved '59 Cadillac convertible, with power everything. I wanted it, but Mom and Dad didn't want me making a foolish investment in an "old clunker." Nice ones are now well over $100,000, and this owner claims his is worth $200,000.

Car: 1965 Sunbeam Tiger
Asking price: $4,200
Why I didn't buy it: Too much money.

The Sunbeam Tiger: A poor man's Cobra? (Flickr/Hugo90)
The Sunbeam Tiger: A poor man's Cobra? (Flickr/Hugo90)

Sob story: This one came along a bit later in life, when I had my own money, though not that much of it. The Sunbeam Tiger was a road rocket, a poor man's Cobra, with the same 289 Ford engine (though my early example had the earlier 260 V-8). There was nothing whatsoever wrong with this car; it was a true unmolested example. Zero rust, ran like a top, good interior. But I couldn't quite justify the price. Well, the owner wants $75,000 for this '67, and will probably get it.

Car: unspecified Mercedes convertible
Asking price: $500
Why I didn't buy it: Already sold.

The 220SE convertible is a styling icon, even when derelict. (Flickr/pilot_micha)
The 220SE convertible is a styling icon, even when derelict. (Flickr/pilot_micha)

Sob story: I saw this advertised in the local bargain shopper, and figured it was a typo. A Mercedes convertible--any model--for $500? I waited almost a week to call, and then connected with a patrician woman who sounded like my conception of Brooke Astor--complete with the summer house, the penthouse apartment, and the millions of dollars. She was ever so nice. "I'm terribly sorry, young man," she said, "but I just sold the Mercedes." And it was a convertible? "Oh yes." And it ran? "Of course it did!" My best guess is that it was a running, driving 220SE or 190SL convertible, and it sold for $500. Sometime after this I came across a relatively shabby '59 220SE convertible for $3,500, and didn't buy that, either. I didn't like the fact that someone had reupholstered it in hideous black and red vinyl. Now they're in the $50k range: Here's one that made $51,000 at a recent auction. Did I mention the immaculate 300SL Roadster for $30,000? When would they ever be worth that? That's like the U.S. getting stuck with "Seward's Folly," Alaska for $7.2 million. Here's a 300SL in Monaco, asking price $543,000. Mine was nicer.

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