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July 24, 2009

News & Features

An impulse buy lets a regular Joe into the secret world of car collectors

Special to NWautos

Jag

The Cream Puff. (Sean O'Connor)

The truth is, I was on the rebound when I fell in love with the Cream Puff -- a butter-yellow 1974 Jaguar XJ6L whose chrome trim sparkled in the sun like diamonds dangling from the ears of an heiress at the polo grounds.

As part of a fiscal downshift, I had gone to Auto Row to divest myself of an expensive splurge and its steep monthly payments. It was a time to simplify.

Later that day, however, I returned home behind the wheel of a nearly vintage, notoriously quirky British touring sedan whose jaunty air horn would never be mistaken for the soundings of the simple life. But the price was right, and under the hood the previous owner had installed a much more reliable American-made V-8. I couldn't resist.

A novice's tips for buying a classic
  • First, accept that this is not a rational purchase. You might need a minivan, but not a 1967 Fiat 850 Coupe.
  • If price matters, focus on classic models produced in larger volume from the '60s and '70s. More inventory typically means lower prices -- and more parts.
  • Know your baby's fair market value. When buying or selling, consult the Hemmings Motor News Collectible Vehicle Value Guide or NADA's Classic, Collectible, Exotic and Muscle Car Appraisal Guide and Directory.
  • Have your mechanic pop the hood to check the major systems so you know what you're getting into.

She was beautiful inside and out. At the touch of a button on the burled wood dash her broad sunroof would retract, revealing a cinematic view of a blue-sky day or starry night. If it is possible to push a button with British-accented swagger, then on those occasions I most certainly did just that.

Her interior had its own ecosystem, fragrant with a mix of wool, leather and wood. The headliner covering the interior roof was fine-gauge, gray felted wool the color of a Westminster-winning Weimaraner. Her upholstery -- in supple black leather -- had acquired the patina of a well-worn men's-club sofa. She whispered "old money" at a time when I had next to none.

It was six weeks before I could approach her without feeling like an imposter. It seemed that each time I parked, a distinguished Robert Redford-type would saunter over, eager to chat me up about my baby's vintage and what she had under the hood.

This car-guy jocularity wasn't a natural part of my personal repertoire. Thanks to the Cream Puff, I had inadvertently stumbled in the back door of an exclusive club and was being buttonholed by its legitimate and genial members. I came to look upon these impromptu curbside car talks as the verbal equivalent of a fraternity's secret handshake.

That club membership -- the camaraderie, the chats, the wistful waves -- comes included with the price you pay for any noteworthy vintage car. Because you're not just tooling around town in any generic car. No sir. You're now the honorary chauffeur for the hopes, dreams and memories of a group of folks who could just as easily be driving that baby around -- if you hadn't been so lucky as to find it first.

The Cream Puff and I had a good run, but the infatuation faded. High maintenance wasn't my forte, then or now, and I couldn't afford the upkeep on the lifestyle to which she aspired. We parted on friendly terms, though, and I still miss her now and again. Especially when I find myself standing on the sidewalk admiring a vintage Jaguar and regaling the owner with my own version of our club's secret handshake.

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