Sports cars are an indulgence. Comfort, space and even reliability are all sacrificed on the altar of Handling and Speed. And if that altar is busy, then all that can be offered up to the God of Beauty and Allure instead. In most ways, sports cars are just like other cars.
But it’s the ways in which they’re no like other cars that matter most.
Sure, there are a few of us who hit it big when they’re young and can afford to buy a brand-new Ferrari. After all, when your initial NHL contract includes an $4 million signing bonus, the $350,050 price of 488 Pista seems almost inconsequential. And all the guys who graduated from high school with you last year, will be envious when you drive it through downtown Saskatoon.
But a first sports car for most of us will be a used sports car. And two sports cars stand out as the greatest used sports cars of all time. One of those is better than the other, but the other one is radically more affordable.
So it’s a tie.
As long as there have been cars, some cars have been used in sports. Cars like the 1912 Mercer Type 35R Raceabout and the 1912 Stutz Bearcat were two early cars built to be savored for their beauty and praised for their speed. Ford was selling millions of Model Ts, but the rich playboys were driving Bearcats and Raceabouts.
But Model Ts became sports cars once in the hands of early hot rodders. Stripped to almost nothing more frame rails, and equipped with speed parts like the Frontenac cylinder heads that converted the Model T’s four-cylinder flathead engine to an overhead valve configuration, they could be surprisingly swift and capable cars. At least in the context of their time.
And that’s always been the great battle for the sports car soul. Great and expensive, or cheap and flimsy. In the 1950s it was spectacular machines like the Mercedes-Benz 300SL Gullwing and the spindly MG-TC. In the 1960s Ferrari came into its own with beasts like the 1966 275 GTB/4 while at the same time Triumph was selling the barely-there Spitfire.
Runner Up: Chevrolet Corvette
One perennial entry point into the sports car market has been the Chevrolet Corvette. Relative to other sports cars, GM builds a lot of Corvettes and sells almost all of them in North America. Even Corvettes that are today considered classics – like the 1963 to 1967 “C2” models – were once merely used cars available to mere mortals at a keen price.
If you want a bargain Corvette today, you can snap up a 1984-1996 “C4” model for under $5,000. It will be pretty rough with plenty of miles on it, but it’s a genuine two-seat sports car for less than the price of a used Honda Civic.
The problem with old Corvettes – particularly a cheap C4 – is that they aren’t built all that well. Paint peels off, upholstery turns to dust, and the digital instrumentation on early C4’s becomes a black hole. An old and affordable Corvette may be fast, but it can also be kind of a nightmare.
Better to spend your money on one of Klipnik’s two winners.
Winner One: Mazda MX-5 Miata
There are plenty of cheap two-seaters out there. Old Toyota MR2s, ancient MGs and even the occasional Porsche Boxster. But the king of all affordable sports cars is, no doubt, the Mazda MX-5 Miata.
The general wisdom is that there’s no such thing as a “bad” Miata. Introduced way back in 1989 as a 1990 model – that’s right, the Miata has been around for three decades – the MX-5 took the proportions of the British 1960s sports cars but was built with Japanese quality and dependability. It was an instant hit.
“There’s no use trying to hide our enthusiasm for this car,” wrote Car and Driver in its first test of a Miata. “No way we can keep the envelope sealed until the end of this critique. You see, the Miata fairly glows with the automotive ideals that this magazine holds dear—exciting looks, fun to drive, sensible ergonomics, quality construction, fun to drive, refined mechanicals, affordable price, and—did we forget to mention?—fun to drive. We feel like cheering.”
There have been four generations of Miata starting with the original “NA” and proceeding through “NB,” “NC” and the current car, the “ND.” All have their charms. But the NA, produced from model years 1990 and 1997, with its pop-up headlights and by virtue of being the first, is slowly developing some collecting street cred. The NA models are still cheap, but clean ones with low miles are getting pricier.
As this is written, there’s a 1991 MX-5 Miata on AutoTrader showing only 16,000 miles on its odometer available at Miami dealer for $19,900. The bargain basement days for prime early Miatas has passed. You’ll pay at least $12,000 for a true cream puff. And NA Miatas are only likely to get pricier.
That doesn’t mean NA models aren’t still available cheap – well under $5,000 for a solid car – but the pristine stuff has been recognized by the collector market. And the sweet spot for used Miatas has moved on to the 1999 to 2005 NB and 2006 to 2015 NC models. They have exposed headlights and aren’t as culturally resonant as the NA, but they’re actually better than the NA.
If you want an NA to actually drive, look for a 1994 or later model which use a 1.8-liter engine rather than the original 1.6. It’s an easier going, more flexible powerplant and the later cars are generally better built.
Parts are cheap and plentiful for all generations of Miatas. Rust doesn’t seem to be a major problem since many of the cars aren’t driven during wintertime. Still, look for a car with a known service history, owned by an adult, that doesn’t show any signs of abuse.
Also, avoid the automatic transmission. Not because automatic Miatas are bad, but because… okay, they’re no fun. Get a manual.
Second Winner: Porsche 911
Look for a used Ferrari from the 1960s or 1970s and they’ll have maybe 30,000 or 40,000 miles on their odometer. Lamborghinis will have even less. But shop for a similar vintage Porsche 911 and they’ll have 100,000 or 200,000 or more miles on their clocks. Ferraris and Lambos are exotics; the 911 is a sports car built to be used every day. And use them their owners did.
Here’s a personal story. In the mid-Eighties I was working as a cashier at the Santa Barbara Airport’s parking lot while finishing up my degree at UCSB. A low stress job in a high-profile city, it wasn’t rare for celebrities to drive through the lot. So, seeing actor Robert Mitchum come through was no big deal. He was driving a late-1970s 911SC Targa (at least that’s how I remember it).
“Nice car,” I said to him. “I’ve had it a while,” he replied. “It’s all the car I need.”
That’s the thing about the 911 – one can last you a lifetime. Since the first 911 was introduced back in 1964, it’s a car that’s practically been around for a lifetime itself. And the number of 911 variations is dizzying.
The prices for air-cooled 911s have recently risen to utterly stupid levels. Produced from 1964 into 1998, these are the purist cars. They’re built like tanks, with flat-six engines ranging from 2.0-liters and 130-horsepower, to turbocharged 3.6-liter units making 430-horsepower in the all-wheel drive 1998 911 Turbo S.
There are dozens of examples of limited production 911s selling for more than $1 million. But be patient, and look for cars that have been well tended. They may be “ordinary” 911s, but they’re still enormous fun to drive and some are out there for less than $50,000. Not cheap, but solid value.
The water-cooled 911s, starting with the “996” generation in 1999 can be more affordable. Particularly for the somewhat unloved 996s with their notorious IMS bearing failures. That’s IMS as in intermediate shaft bearing. That’s the bearing that supports the shaft the drives the camshafts which operate the engine’s valves. But if the bearing hasn’t failed yet, there’s still time to fix it. And there are plenty of 996s out there that have already had their IMS bearings fixed.
The days of “affordable” 911s may have already passed. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a lifetime of value to found in the right 911.
The Future of the 911 and Miata
The future may be all autonomous cars, car sharing and electric drivetrains. That doesn’t mean there won’t be plenty of people still attracted to the spirt and quality of these two great sports cars. Their appeal is dang near eternal.
Early examples of both 911 and Miata are already fully depreciated and aren’t likely to go lower. Likely isn’t a word of guarantee, but one of confidence. And if you want a used sports car, the 911 and Miata are the two to be most confident about.
As always, if you’re in the market for a great used car, be sure to enlist the help of the Klipnik community, where fellow enthusiasts are happy to help you scout the best listings, evaluate your picks, and coach you throughout the buying process.
Photos courtesy Chevrolet, Mazda, Porsche, and Wikimedia Commons.