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Car Crazies, Part 2

After a Mercedes, Audi, Volvo and BMW - the outcome

by Julian Edgar

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The search for a project car – one to personally drive but also write about in AutoSpeed modification stories – had already run the gamut from diesel 1988 Mercedes 300D to 1995 EF Falcon 5-speed (see Car Crazies, Part 1 ). But after considering such a diversity of cars, things were starting to crystallise.

Or were they?

Benchmarks

The Mercedes and Falcon had provided a fascinating pair of benchmarks. The Falcon, powerful, cheap but relatively crude. The Mercedes, dreadfully slow but sophisticated in its ride and handling. The Falcon had the airbag but I know which car I’d rather have a crash in – and it’s not the Falcon! The Falcon engine and trans in the Merc? Purists might shudder but the result would be interestingl. But that wasn’t the sort of project I wanted to bite off.

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Each night I kept scanning the ads. By now I had added more criteria. So that I could use the Digital Fuel Adjuster kit I’d helped develop with Silicon Chip magazine, it would be best if the car used a voltage-outputting airflow meter. And so I could use the upcoming Digital Ignition Adjuster, it would also be useful if it had a distributor, rather than direct-fire ignition.

And then I found a car. Ironically, after all the web browsing, I actually saw it in a yard. It was after-hours but at least the outside of the 1989 Audi 90 20V quattro looked pretty good. At $7,000 and with about 160,000 kilometres, it was also right in the ballpark. (All dollars in this story are Australian.) Some quick research that night revealed 2.3 litres, 5 cylinders, 125kW, constant all-wheel drive (and with a Torsen centre LSD - not a relatively crude viscous coupling!) and a 0-100 km/h time of about 8.5 seconds. I’ve previously owned an Audi S4 with the same engine and driveline in a larger 100-bodied car - but fitted with a turbo and a six-speed trans – and so I was intensely curious to see how the 90 drove.

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But what a disappointment. The suspension clunked, the gearbox was vague, the five cylinder spent a lot of its time on four cylinders, the stitching was pulling out of the thin-rimmed leather steering wheel, the headlining was falling down, the rear vision mirror flopped about, the doors were hard to shut, the idle was coarse – oh yes, and on the providentially wet road, the grip was excellent! The car yard prop immediately dropped the price to $6,000, but maybe at $3,000 I might have considered it - maybe...

Anything, Anything!

By now my approach was completely scattergun: I was looking at anything and everything.

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So when a Volvo 242 wagon popped up on eBay at a $400 starting price, I went and looked. The reserve was $600 and the car was far better than these figures suggest. I drove it up and down the street and apart from some rear suspension bush noise, it was fine on the road. The instrumentation had gone mad, the paint was faded, some interior trim bits were missing and there were a few other rough edges, but still, six hundred bucks...! Oh yes, and it had the right kind of electronic injection and ignition system, too. And plenty of room to turbo the engine. And the doors still shut like the closing of bank vault doors.

But it had no roadworthy certificate, and experience has shown that it’s not hard to rack-up a few thousand dollars on things like pads and discs, fixing oil leaks and doing other stuff like that. Or of course, alternatively finding that nothing much needs to be fixed... Without a very detailed mechanical inspection, you just don’t know. Because of this uncertainty, I decided to leave it – to see a closing auction price of just $660...

(Incidentally, two or three cars don’t make for an all-encompassing case, but it was fascinating how well the Volvo and Mercedes 300D had stood up to the passage of years, in absolute stark contrast to the Audi.)

Disappointed by the Audi, I spent the rest of that morning circulating the cheapy yards. But there was really very little that matched my criteria, broad as they had now become. I looked at a $9,000 Saab 9000CD – a turbo version that proved to have been imported from Hong Kong. It was low in kilometres but was a bit scrappy, and the wood-grain everywhere and auto trans didn’t do a lot for me (not when manual trans Saab turbos aren’t that rare).

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Another yard had just taken a trade-in BMW 535i and despite the inclined engine (which would make it hard to turbo – another of these ephemeral criteria) and auto trans, I took it for a drive. Lots of German fault codes came up on the dash display and the car had a squeaking brake caliper and rough idle. Despite being of similar size and Germanic origin to the diesel Mercedes I’d driven the week before, the BMW felt more wieldy (with a much quicker steering ratio) and went very hard at the top end, the superb 3.5-litre six revving like a top. But then again, I am not sure that the 0-100 time would be any quicker than the humble 5-speed EF Falcon I’d also sampled... and at $10,000, the BMW was over twice the price.

(Driving these older Euros puts into perspective how the high original price of these cars was often justified by the then-new electronics. The trip computer, climate control and stereo systems in this vintage of Euro cars are often complex and in-your-face – gotta tell the purchaser they’ve bought something sophisticated, y’see. But these days, where even cheap cars have all the same electronics seamlessly integrated, these features are of minor worth. And then you’re left with evaluating the mechanicals alone.)

Back to the Falcon

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As much as I hated it, the EF Falcon was the best bet of all the cars I had driven. It had good performance (factory figures for the manual trans cars are hard to find but even the autos did the sprint to 100 km/h in the mid-Eights – and the manuals are clearly faster); the long-legged relaxed cruise and slippery drag co-efficient that would result in acceptable highway fuel economy; surprisingly good NVH; and a factory driver’s airbag. (Yep, an airbag in all trim levels, even base GLi.)

Of course, it also has MAP-sensed engine management and direct fire ignition, and so that would stop the use of those electronic kits...

But anyway, the only EF 5-speed manual going was the eEbay one that was listed with a starting price of $3,500. That was the car that I’d driven (see Car Crazies, Part 1) but had proved to in fact have a “private reserve” of $4,500. If it didn’t reach $4,500, the venders were going to withdraw it – whatever eBay rules said about that approach. And even by this stage, with only two days to go before the auction ended, there were still no bids.

I rang the venders and asked what they intended doing: were they still going to withdraw it if the bidding didn’t reach $4,500; were they now interested in a reiterated offer from me of $4,200? I was, I said, looking at several other vehicles that also matched my criteria. The response wasn’t favourable: don’t let us stop you buying another car, they said.

Hmmm.

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I went back to the PC’s keys and started very industriously trying to find another EF Falcon 5-speed six cylinder. I’d looked before, but this was now serious. Complicating things was that after further thought, I’d decided I wanted one with ABS. There were two reasons for that: firstly the undoubted safety aspects, and secondly, having wheel speed signals available from the sensors would be very useful in developing a project traction control system. But finding a base model GLi with ABS would be near impossible: the most likely scenario would be the next-model-upmarket Futura model, which added ABS, electric front windows and cruise control to the GLi. (Amazingly, air con was still optional on the Futura, although you’d be hard-pressed to find one without air.)

So, a Futura with low kilometres and a 5-speed manual trans. A very hard ask.

But much to my surprise, my web searching found one located about 150 kilometres away. And it was red too – and red is always faster, no? But the fly in the ointment was that it was advertised at $6,500 – a helluva long way north of the $4,500 eEbay-one-with-the-funny-reserve-GLi. Was my desire for ABS really worth a 44 per cent price premium? Obviously, not.

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However, since $6,500 was awfully high for an EF Futura – above Redbook price and in fact, higher than I’d seen any of these cars advertised – perhaps some negotiation might be in order? Sure, it might have a “5-Speed Manual, Serived Reguarly with all receipts. Clean tidy car, Excellent Condition” and “Hasn't Missed a service, New clutch, radiator, new brake pads and discs, Clean interior, just shampooed, Good Paint, Never been in an accident” but those dollars were just too high.

The next morning I rang the number and was blunt. “How negotiable is the price?” I asked.

There was a surprised silence and then a young man’s voice hesitantly said: “Which ad are you reading?”

Now there was only one reason for that question – the car had been advertised multiple times and the price had been falling. No-one would increase the asking price over time, but a car that wasn’t selling would be dropping in price... I told him and after a long pause, he said the lowest he’d be prepared to go was $5,600. That put it into the acceptable area – the extra $1100 over the eEbay-one-with-the-funny-reserve-GLi would buy me ABS, front electric windows, cruise control and from the pics on the ad, factory alloy wheels. At 150,000, the kilometres of both cars were much the same and while the eBay car had had a few spots of rust inside the rear door arches, I’d thought its body was pretty good.

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But the red one was better.

The body was flawless – well, flawless for a 10-year-old car that hadn’t been repainted, anyway. It also drove very well, but perhaps not quite as well as the eBay car. I though the gearbox in this car a fraction noisier and the idle a little less smooth – although since I was so surprised with how well the eBay car had driven, I might now have been applying higher standards. This car also rode higher – and I was told the original country owner had specified the ‘country suspension pack’ which gave greater ground clearance. Clearly, that wouldn’t be optimal for handling but that aspect didn’t overly worry me: it would make for a good AutoSpeed series to revise the suspension, and the fact the suspension hadn’t been changed was another plus for the car’s originality. (Much better than buying an EF dumped to the ground with bodgy springs and an even bodgier owner!)

In fact, the car was jointly owned by the young university student and his father. It was the father who came with me on the test drive and entertained me with a stories of how his son had wanted to lower the car (“What would that do to his insurance?” asked the father rhetorically, shaking his head), had wanted to fit different alloys (“Why? I told him. The car already has alloys”), and had been forced to drive an ancient Volvo for the first few years of his license until he had gained some sense. Listening to this I soon realised why the car had a spotless service record: it was Just How Things Were Done in this household.

But you can buy a used car from a lot worse owners...

So, what to offer? I told the father and son about the eBay car: it had similar kilometres, was in similar condition – and was $4,500. But, being fair, I also said I wanted a car with ABS (and by now they knew about AutoSpeed and the fact I wanted it as a project car) but wasn’t prepared to pay $2,000 for the privilege of non-locking brakes.

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I offered $5,000, and pointed out that I had this amount immediately available in cash if they accepted. The lure of cash is very strong, and after all, I had travelled a fair way to look at the car. Having a beard going grey is also an advantage in this situation (as I also found in the test driving of the cars I covered last week: it was amazing how easily the yards granted me test drives... after all those years of fighting tooth and nail for the privilege of taking a car out through a caryard’s front gates...!).

They thought and whispered – just as I’d done with my partner Georgina while considering my offer – and then came back with a counter-offer: $5250. By this stage I’d learned that the father, despite his dictatorial approach to his son’s automotive interests, was actually a car enthusiast. Over there was his current HSV Clubsport, and inside the same warehouse that the Falcon sat was a beautifully restored Mustang. So we talked about old cars for a while before I came back to the negotiating table: $5200.

This time my offer was accepted, and suddenly I became the owner of a 1995 EF Falcon Futura 5-speed with optional air con and alloy wheels...

Where was the Mercedes, the Audi, the Saab? What on earth had I done?

Next week: living with a Falcon

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