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Cheap or cheaper – Michael Lamm interviews himself (again) about cars and their fun values

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Can a $70-million Ferrari be approximately 22,000 times more fun than Lamm’s $3,200 Porsche Boxster? Illustration by Steven Cavalieri.

Michael: Hello again, and is it still all right if I call you Mike?

Michael: Why not–it’s still my name.


M: Okay then. Let’s talk about older cars and their prices. In other words, cars and value. Here’s the question: Can you have more fun with an expensive hobby car or a cheap one? Which end of the price spectrum gives you more bang for the buck?

M: People who know me know I’m basically cheap. So there goes any pretense of objectivity. But I realize there are also collectors who aren’t so Jack Benny-ish as I am and who go along with the mantra “Buy the most expensive car you can afford.” Or in some cases, can’t afford.


M: So answer the question: Do you see expensive cars as good or bad?

M: For me, one problem with expensive cars is that they usually don’t need a lot of work. And because I’m a geezery old shade-tree mechanic who’s very much aware of the dangers of my amateur status, and because I want to learn everything I can about the crocks I work on, I wouldn’t want a car that doesn’t need me in return. To me, tinkering is half the fun. Driving is the other half.


Lamm’s first Boxster S blew a head gasket, and water mixed with the oil. A new engine, installed, would cost about $9,000, so Mike sold the blue car for $3,200 and bought his current maroon Boxster for the same amount. Photo by Michael Lamm.


M: So you basically prefer the cheapos, right?

M: Exactly. My latest acquisition is a 2000 Porsche Boxster S that I bought about a year ago for $3,200. It needed a lot of what people call TLC–actually more like AFAC (a fair amount of cussing). I’m constantly amazed by the horrendous difference in collector car prices, especially for cars that pass through auctions. Seventy million bucks for a 1963 Ferrari 250 GTO? And $3,200 for my little Boxster? How incongruous! Do you think the guy who paid $70 million has nearly 22,000 times more fun with his Ferrari than I do with my Boxster?


M: Question is, Did he buy it for fun?

M: I doubt that he’s going to drive it much–surely not to the grocery store to pick up milk. And I’m sure you could buy several Boxsters for the annual cost of the Ferrari’s insurance. The owner might show it at various concours and Ferrari meets, and that could be fun. But I get the feeling this guy bought it as an investment, same as real estate or a work of art, but he might have a little more trouble finding the greater fool. Or maybe not.


M: But I hear this isn’t your first Boxster. What happened?

M: You’re right. This is my second Boxster. What happened is that a head gasket blew, water got in the oil, and basically I needed a new engine. That plus the labor to install it would have come to about $9,000, so I sold that first Boxster for $3,200 and bought the one I’m driving now for the same amount. One of the things I learned from both is that Boxsters aren’t all that well engineered. Yes, I know I’m about to commit heresy here, and I’m going to get all sorts of flak from Porsche people, and yes, Porsche does have a reputation for precision engineering and manufacture. Well, that doesn’t apply to the two Boxsters I’ve owned. Even passing over Porsche’s infamous intermediate shaft (IMS) bearing failures, I’ve been amazed by some of the long-continued engineering goofs that have come to light on these cars: the Mickey Mouse air/oil separator, the inexcusable nylon gears that break in raising and lowering the top, the fragile heads and head gaskets… even the exquisite pain involved in changing the spark plugs. Not saying I haven’t loved my Boxsters–I have–but I’ve loved them partly because they’re such endearing pains in the tush. I guess I’m a masochist at heart. But their saving grace is that Boxsters are really great fun to drive.


M: Have you owned inexpensive cars that are similarly fun but cheap and easy to work on?

M: Oh, yes. A very enjoyable inexpensive car is an older Mazda Miata. I’ve owned several first- and second-generation Miatas (NA and NB), and they’ve all been extremely cooperative and easy to work on. I changed the timing belt and water pump on two of them. Parts are cheap and available everywhere, new and used. Vintage Miatas are wonderful bargains and, again, great fun on the road with the top down. But you’d better grab a good one while you can, because they’re all racking up miles, prices are rising, and too many owners insist on “customizing” them.


Lamm bought a 1998 BMW Z3 M in mint condition for $6,500, but driving it wasn’t nearly so much fun as his Boxsters–and it didn’t need any work–so he sold it again within a few months. Photo by Michael Lamm.


M: Any other inexpensive roadsters come to mind?

M: I’m also impressed with the bang-for-buck ratio of BMW Z3s. I recently bought a very nice 1998 Z3 M, top of the line, for $6,500. It needed nothing, but  frankly it wasn’t nearly so much fun to drive as a Boxster or Miata. And it didn’t need me, so I soon sold it again. In that same vein and price category, I’ve looked at early Audi TTs and SLK230/320 Mercedes. The TT doesn’t appeal to me–too ugly–and driving the SLK feels like I’m sitting in a foxhole: too low. I can’t rest my elbow on the doorsill. On the other hand, I really like my son’s first-generation Mercedes SL500, a series that includes the SL320 and SL600. Those are extremely sophisticated, superbly engineered, comfortable cars, and except for the SL600 V-12, they’re still quite inexpensive.


M: Those are all imports. Any cheap, fun domestic cars come to mind?

M: Well, there’s the Chrysler Crossfire, if you can call that domestic. It’s based on the Mercedes SLK. And then there’s the Pontiac Solstice and Saturn Sky; the GXP and Redline versions are good fun. C4 Corvettes are pretty inexpensive, too, right now. Others that appeal to me are the early 21st century Mustang GT, Trans Am, and Camaro Z28 convertibles. I’ve never owned one, but I bet you could get a lot of pleasure tinkering with and driving them.


M: So, you’re not really looking for anything above about $10,000?

M: Not at the moment. The fact remains that you can find a lot of really wonderful cars nowadays for amazingly little. Of course, “inexpensive” is a relative word, as is “fun.” If you’re willing to go up a notch to, say, collectible cars that sell for $10,000 to $15,000, that opens up a whole different range of possibilities. I’ve never owned a Ford Model T, but I understand that $10K will buy a very nice one. I do want to own a T someday.


M: So, where do you find these bargains?

M: Mostly online, sometimes in Hemmings, but I also keep my eyes peeled for interesting cars in people’s driveways. I’m not at all shy about walking up to a house, ringing the doorbell, and asking the owner if he or she wants to sell whatever’s sitting outside. I’ve picked up some really nice cars that way. And if I see something special parked on the street, I usually leave my business card on the windshield, with a note asking the owner to give me first dibs when he or she is ready to sell.


M: So, from what you mentioned before, I take it you’re not a great fan of car auctions.

M: ‘Fraid not. I realize this is again heresy, but I’m constantly amazed by how much people are willing to pay for a car they’ve never driven and that they know was prepped specifically to look good. I love to go to auctions at Scottsdale and Pebble and simply check out the cars. These might be great places to sell, but I’d never buy a car at auction.


M: I get the impression that maybe you’re in the car-flipping business.

M: Not really. Here’s my philosophy: I like to learn from cars. Cars can provide a wonderful education. So for the past 18 years or so, I’ve bought cars with the intention of working on them, learning what I can about how they’re put together, how they work, how they drive, the quality of their construction and, indirectly, I also learn something about the people who were involved in their planning, design, engineering, and marketing–like my Boxsters, but that applies just as much to the Hudsons and other cars I’ve owned.


M: So you’re not in the flipping business?

M: I’ll keep a car maybe six months to a year and then sell it so I can buy and learn from something else. I almost never own more than two hobby cars at a time, and lately they’ve all been fairly inexpensive. I don’t like to lose money on them, but as often as not I do. It’s a hobby, though, and most hobbies cost money. Golfing isn’t free, nor is bird watching, or collecting stamps, or art. So that’s my excuse. And as hobbies go, tinkering with older cars is a good one. I can lose myself in an old hooptie for weeks at a time. In bed, as I’m falling asleep, I’m usually thinking about what I’ll try to fix the next day and how I’ll do it… the challenges. Every hobby seems silly to everyone who’s not involved in it, and even my wife, who’s known me and my nuttiness for 60 years, can’t really understand why I put so much of my soul and our money into these goofy projects. Well, thank goodness she’s gotten used to it–another educational process. The idea in both our situations seems to be to keep on learning.