COAL: My Search for the Next One – Meet the Contenders

As you read in the previous installment, once I sold the E36 the plan really was to be sensible, stick with the everyday cars and cut back spending, since we were hoping to start a family soon. And believe me, I really did try, going all of 6 months  without a “fun” car. But honestly I was pretty miserable, so after some discussion with the better half and adjusting of budgets, approval was obtained to look for a project/fun car. The only caveat was that complete restorations like the Alfa were strictly off the table, which was fine because I had no intention of dealing with another one of those anyway.

The main criteria that I have is that the car be “interesting” to me. This is obviously as vague as it can be so let me clarify it a bit by saying I want  something that I will enjoy seeing, being inside and driving. This does not necessarily mean something sporty and agile, but simply a car that can provide an experience that is different enough from my daily drivers to be interesting, that also looks good to me. That rather broad definition is the only explanation I have for just how eclectic the various contenders for the garage space are, as you’ll see. They each have their strengths and weaknesses, which I’ll be listing out. So, let’s meet them, shall we?

First up, we have the pure nostalgia pick, a Volkswagen Beetle. Ever since selling my Beetle, a little part of me has wanted to get another. The fact that the Beetle owners club here is very active and friendly is an added incentive. In the last couple of years that little voice has gotten louder, so now would be as good a time as any. A very close friend has this rather nice 1970 example that is not exactly for sale, but could be if I really want it. 

Very 60s color, too!

It is a 1970 1300, in extremely original shape as you can see. Needs a bit of work to be properly usable, but presents well. Looking at the pros and cons  in detail reveals the following:

Pros: Few owners (all long term), current owner is a friend, decent paint and interior, solid mechanicals, very original, VW durability

Cons: Has some rust in the floors and spare wheel well, does not get driven much so may have issues

Another car of similar vintage to the Beetle that calls to me  is a Peugeot 404. They have always been quite common in Sri Lanka and are well known for being durable and tough. I became particularly interested in them after reading the various stories about them here on CC. Cars in good shape are getting hard to find, because they have mostly all been used hard and run into the ground. But, after a bit of searching I managed to find this one which had apparently undergone a bare metal bodywork restoration recently.

Very dignified indeed.

The owner is someone who knows a lot about 404s (he has restored 2 or 3) and he claimed the car was quite good because he did a lot of restoration work, but also admitted it needed some detail work to be perfect. Unfortunately I can’t go see it myself as it’s quite far away and travel is currently an issue, so I had a friend in the area look at it for me. According to him it’s quite nice looking, but he feels that the mechanicals were not great based on the test drive. So based on the available information:

Pros: New paint and rust repaired, nice interior, nice to drive, I like how the 404 looks and feels

Cons: Not possible to physically check out the car, mechanical condition suspect, quality of body work uncertain

Of course, nothing beats THIS for dignity!

Contestant number 3 is another car that I credit CC for making me love; the Mercedes Benz W124. Again fairly common here, but we mostly have the base model diesels and petrols, which are err, leisurely to put it mildly. However, bringing over the full components of a higher spec car from the UK for a conversion is still very much a possibility, so I looked for a rough car at a sane price. Unfortunately the asking prices for all 124s these days are so high that there would be no money left over for the conversion, which means I’d be stuck with something very slow indeed. But I still would really love to have a 124 so I found an example that was within my budget and advertised as being mint. Sadly on closer inspection it isn’t quite as nice as advertised.

Pros: I really like how the 124 looks and how it drives

Cons: Asking price is too high, lots of rust, shot interior, underpowered base model engine

And now for something completely different. I really miss the wind in the hair driving experience of the Miata, so a convertible would be great if I can find one. The best would be a NA Miata, but unfortunately they are now really hard to find and the prices are quite a bit above my budget. You’d think roadsters can’t get any smaller than a Miata, but actually they can!

Tiny, but a genuine ball of fun!

This is a Suzuki Cappuccino, probably the coolest thing that Suzuki has ever made. It takes the same basic concept as the Miata and shrinks it by about 20%, which is either insane or brilliant, depending on how you feel about it. This tiny wonder is under ten feet long, just four and a half feet wide and is powered by a 660cc three cylinder turbo engine. It’s probably closest to an original Austin Healey Sprite in size and feel, pretty much nothing else on the road comes close. This example is one of 2 or 3 here and has been in the same family since being imported to the country in the early 2000s. 

Pros: Its a roadster, lots of fun to drive, fairly straightforward mechanicals, its just really cool

Cons: Tiny and cramped, “safety” doesn’t really apply here, parts can be hard to find even in Japan, strictly a two seater

I also checked out the Cappuccino’s only real rival, a Honda Beat, which is the same but Mid-engined and non turbo. It somehow doesn’t appeal as much as the “Cap”, and basically the same negatives apply so it doesn’t make the grade.

Moving on, The appeal of an Alfa Romeo is still VERY strong and there are a few options that are within budget. A 156 is just about manageable at the upper end, but that would leave no funds to deal with the repairs that are an inevitability with Alfas, so the next best thing is a 155. Sure, it’s nowhere near as pretty to look at but it has loads of old school Alfa charm, despite having lots of Fiat bits underneath. The most desirable would be the later “wide body” cars but they number in the single digits so the more plentiful early model will do. 

Maybe not the prettiest Alfa, but somehow it still has presence.

This one is owned by a guy I know and has had a history of being in the hands of Alfa enthusiasts, so it has mostly been looked after well and driven as intended. It has the 1.8 litre 8 Valve Twin Spark engine, the final evolution of the classic Alfa Twin Cam design, replaced in the facelift cars by Fiat derived 16V engines. 

Pros: Good fun to drive, still has old school Alfa charm, racing heritage, well priced, modern enough to be somewhat safe

Cons: Still going to break, looks are not to everyone’s taste, driving position is awkward

The 155 got me thinking about other similar aged cars that combined a practical body with a driver-friendly chassis and of course the very top of that list has to be a BMW 3 Series. We’ve already established that the E36 didn’t work for me but what about the older E30? Hundreds of thousands of enthusiasts, racers, drifters and more the world over are already big fans, so they must be on to something right? The E30 was actually a car I’d dreamed about owning when I was 16 or 17, but I didn’t have the money then, and since that time it had sort of faded into the background. Perhaps it is time to revisit it? Four or five years ago, decent E30s were common finds and were quite cheap too, but nowadays they’ve suddenly gotten very rare indeed. There used to be 2 or 3 examples for sale every week, now you’d be lucky to come across one in a month, and the great majority are very tired. In fact, it was the following car popping up for sale on Facebook Marketplace that made me actually think about an E30 as a contender.

Other than the hideous wheels and missing front lip, it seems quite tidy.

Like the vast majority of Sri Lankan E30s, it is a 4 door 316i, so not very exciting to begin with. A 1990 example, it’s from near the end of E30 production and apart from rather hideous wheels, it looks to be in quite ok shape. The present owner has had it for over 5 years and appears to have maintained it well, but it has a barely believable FOURTEEN owners before him! Test drive showed that it drives really well, with no odd noises or strange behavior, but the owner didn’t have much in the way of service history to provide.

Pros: Lovely chassis, quite practical, seems well looked after, easy enough to fix, lots of information available, parts are fairly plentiful

Cons: No service history, these can rust badly, has had a LOT of owners, terrible wheels/tires 

So there you have it, fellow Curbsiders, the six cars above with their wildly varying characteristics are my finalists for my next COAL. Each of them has a lot going for them and they also have quite a bit going against them too. What I want to end up with is a usable but above all fun car that can be kept running without too much time, effort and resources expended, because all of those are going to be in shorter supply than they used to be. Considering all this, I want to know, which one would you pick? 

Come back next week to find out which one made the cut!