My memories of the '80s are starting to fade a little now. It’s age, I guess. The persistent fogging of the mind is part and parcel of heading north of your mid-40s, just like suddenly becoming interested in lawn care or taking regular Ibuprofen for back ache. I’ve forgotten who Ronald Reagan’s secretary of commerce was, and I’d almost forgotten that it was George Peppard, not Liam Neeson, who played The A-Team’s Col. Hannibal Smith. The cars, though? Oh, I remember the cars alright.
It was a glorious era of post-Malaise brilliance, when engineering and styling brilliance blossomed guilt-free because it was before we knew what planet damage we were wreaking. Just as I am a child of the '80s (and therefore prone to Stranger Things-addled nostalgia) and just as you never forget your first kiss, the cars of the '80s still burn bright amid the middle-aged mists of my thoughts.
I’m not alone, it seems, and nor am I talking rarities such as Ferraris and Lamborghinis here—308 GTBs and Countachs have long since appreciated out of the range of ordinary buyers (OK, so maybe a Mondial is still almost affordable). Rather, I’m speaking of humbler stock such as a 1987 BMW E30 M3, 1986 SA Mazda RX-7, 1982 Porsche 911 SC, and 1992 Volkswagen Golf GTI. These cars, the cars of our collective youths, are suddenly becoming hot investment properties. Their outright values are not yet into lottery-win territories (you’re not going to be paying off your mortgage if you have a barn-find Jetta GLI out the back) but the graph is only going one way. The Radwood effect is clearly spilling out into the wider world.
Can You Make Bank With '80s Cars?
In spite of predictions to the contrary, the classic car market is growing fast. According to Statista, the global value of the classic car market is expected to grow from $33 billion last year to more than $43 billion by 2024. If you ask Hagerty, it’ll tell you that auction prices this January doubled compared to 15 years ago, and worse still, that prices are climbing for so-called “attainable” cars.
Dave Spickett certainly hopes this is a trend that continues. He’s the CEO of UK-based The Car Crowd, a newly established investment house that wants you to stash your money, not in stocks and shares, but in classic cars. In particular, cars of the ‘80s.
“My vision and my passion were always that this wouldn't be reserved for the rich,” Spickett said. “I feel there are too many investment options available for the rich. If you’re a high net-worth investor already, well, you can do whatever you want with your money and that’s fine. If you’re a retail investor, though, with maybe $1,000 to invest, there [are] not that many options out there for you.
“We’re trying to get people who loved these cars when they were kids. Maybe they’re in their 40s now and have some money to invest,” Spickett went on. “They may not have tens of thousands. Maybe they’ve got $200, or $300, or $400, but that’s fine.”
For the moment, The Car Crowd’s plan is to invest in cars built largely in the 1980s and 1990s. These cars are starting to appreciate and be accepted by the broader classic car world as genuinely significant, but their relatively low prices also mean there’s more potential for appreciation, and they’re a more affordable investment than a 1960s Ferrari or similar. So far, cars invested in include a Renault 5 GT Turbo, a Peugeot 205 GTI, a Ford Sierra RS Cosworth, a Vauxhall-Lotus Carlton, and even a more modern Mini Cooper S. Want to buy in? Simple—you just head to The Car Crowd’s website and peruse its current list of vehicles.
Here’s how it works. Each car is issued with 1,000 shares, and the upper limit that anyone can buy is 100 shares. Most of the cars have between 60 and 90 people investing in them. Investors can vary from a couple who bought a single share in the Peugeot 205 GTI because they’d used one as their wedding car to an investor who has bought 10 percent of each car as a sort of spread bet on appreciation. Every six months, The Car Crowd provides a valuation report and market assessment, and investors take a vote on whether to sell each car. As long as a quorum of at least 15 percent of each car’s investors has taken part in the vote, a 51 percent majority will decide whether to stick or twist up to a maximum of five years.
The Car Crowd doesn’t make a direct profit from the sale of any of the cars. When they’re sold, the cars are first offered to the shareholders to see if anyone wants to buy the car outright, and if not, it will be sold by a third-party auction house with a reserve price set at the current market valuation. Instead, The Car Crowd charges a fee for the car’s curation and maintenance, which is capped at 10 percent of its value but more likely would work out at around 6 to 7 percent, according to Spickett. At the moment, UK-based investors can just click on the website to invest in a car. For those looking at The Car Crowd from the United States, it’s a bit trickier and involves paperwork, but you can get involved if you want.
There are risks, of course. Investments go down as well as up, and if one of the cars that The Car Crowd has bought should actually depreciate, then you lose the stake you invested. Back in the late ‘80s, there was a massive boom in classic car values, which turned out to be a bubble. That bubble burst, classic car prices were in the doldrums for several years, and resulted in a time when you could have bought, say, a 1960s Aston Martin for the same price as an average family car. That same Aston Martin would now be worth at least $500,000—which is a heck of a return on investment—but only if you bought at the bottom of the market.
Spickett remembers that bubble and said, “With any investment, there is an element of risk. But if you look back to that bubble, when it burst, the cars that suffered were the ones that were of lower quality. The best cars will retain a resistance to any bubble or any crash in values. We call it the ‘podgy middle’ of the classic car world: cars that might be nice enough, but they’re not the best of the best. The best will have a resilience.”
As a final catch: To preserve their value, once you’ve invested in one of Spickett’s cars, you won’t be able to just rock up and drive it. The cars will be going nowhere, at least until they’re sold off to realize that value.
That’s an understandable limitation. “We’re not trying to get people to stop driving classics, far from it,” Spickett told The Irish Times. “I have my own classics which get driven plenty, but what we are doing is trying to preserve these specific cars. Take our Sierra Cosworth—it still has its original bright orange turbo pipe, as fitted from the factory. Most Cosworths have had theirs replaced by now because it’s a perishable part, but ours is all-original. That’s worth preserving.”
It’s still a shame, though—'80s cars are meant to be driven and remembered for why they’re great. Time for a reminder.
1987 BMW E30 M3
The hyperbole alone should have ruined the BMW E30 M3 for me. All the stories and road tests I gobbled up as a teenager should have built up such an expectation in my mind that no real, physical car could possibly live up to it. And yet.
I’m finally, in my 25th year as a motoring writer, sitting behind the wheel of an original BMW M3, with the shifter for the dog-leg (first is left, back, and towards your right hip) gearbox in my right fist. All that hype, all those legends should have conspired to spoil the dish, so to speak, but they haven’t. Instead, they’ve acted as an intensifying aperitif. My father-in-law would always say that “Hunger is the best sauce,” and he was right. My wait for a taste of an M3 has made it more flavorsome by far.
This car belongs to Frank Keane, an Irish BMW collector, dealer, and one-time importer, and it’s perfect. The race-replica paint-job (BMW M stripes on a white background) might look a little incongruous in morning commuter traffic, but as we clear the queues and find some proper back roads, the diminutive M3 truly comes to life. That 197-horsepower four-cylinder might seem underpowered on paper, but the way the M3 copes with corners means that you can extract every last pony almost all of the time. It doesn’t breathe with the road, it positively sings along with the tarmac’s backing track, deftly flitting from one apex to the next. I’m seriously starting to consider that this boxy 1987 BMW might just be the best car I’ve ever driven.
At the time, that 197-hp M3 would have been thought of by some as a motorized hooligan. But today, that power output in a car weighing 2,500 pounds seems … right. By contrast, a drive that same day in a modern M3—all 510 hp and 3,750 pounds of it—showed that there is such thing as too much power. Do anything more than gently flex your ankle in a current M3 and John Q. Law will, in short order, be poking his nose and citation pad in through your window. The ’87 original, though? You can still stretch its legs without awakening legal ire.
OK, so M3s are pretty expensive now. You’re looking at a six-figure price tag for the best ones, and even a crumbly restoration project is likely to top $50,000. How about something a little more attainable?
1986 SA Mazda RX-7
Whenever anyone asks me the standard you’ve-just-met-a-motoring-journalist question of “What should I buy?” my stock answer is just to buy something Japanese. And while a rotary engine is generally not the last word in solid reliability, the one in the original Mazda RX-7 is arguably more likely to last a while yet.
The magic triangles in the RX-7 I’m driving unquestionably have lots of life left in them, simply because when Mazda re-registered it for road use, it had a mere 50 miles on the odo. How? It had been put away. A dealer in Scotland had lost his Mazda franchise but still had this gray-blue Mk1 RX-7 in the showroom. Reluctant to part with such a gorgeous car, he instead put it in a shed, and simply drove it up and down his driveway on the regular to ensure that the car still worked.
It’s a common cliché to say that driving any old car is like being in a time warp, but in this RX-7 it’s the truth—it even still has that new-car smell, in spite of having rolled out of the factory in Hiroshima in 1985.
It is also, like that BMW E30 M3, an object lesson in how a lighter, simpler car can be far more fun than its over-powered modern-day equivalents. The RX-7’s 12-A twin-rotor engine displaces just 1146cc and has a mere 108 hp. So is it slow? Yes, by modern standards, but you simply won’t care. It keeps effortlessly up with a modern-day CX-5 that’s leading me along some spectacularly curved and flowing country roads, and the power delivery of the rotary—no torque, so you’ve got to rev it hard and high, totally counterintuitive when you’re strapped into someone else’s classic car—means that it feels fast, it sounds fast, and when you flip the switch to unleash those gorgeous pop-up headlights, it damn well looks fast, too.
It’s a gorgeous car, the RX-7, designed by Matasaburo Maeda (whose son Ikuo would go on to design its eventual successor, the RX-8), and looks almost like a 3/4 scale model of a Porsche 924. You’ll probably pay around $20,000 for a solid original, or well-restored, Mk1 RX-7. Frankly, I can’t think of much I’d rather spend the cash on.
1982 Porsche 911 SC
Well, maybe a Porsche 911. The 964s are already becoming too expensive to buy, really; not because so many are being snapped up for resto-mods (curse you Singer!) but because the earlier 911 SC is still almost on the right side of affordable. Shop around and you might get one for under $50,000. That’s not the case for this one, though.
This one, painted in a daring “Chiffon White” color is an all-original car, originally bought in 1982 by Irish property developer Harry Crosbie. Forty years later, both man and machine are still in fine fettle, even if Crosbie himself has moved on.
“Porsches are for young [people],” Crosbie told me down the phone between business meetings. “These days, I don’t drive expensive cars anymore, I drive pretty simple cars. Back then, though, I was young and I had no sense. I liked cars and I just thought that was an extremely cool car. I’m not a fast driver—then or now—but I just like a properly made car, and I just loved the quality of it. It was a beautiful car. All I can say is whoever buys it now is a lucky [person]. It enhanced my life then and it’ll enhance [their] life now.”
Boy, won’t it just? Wayne McCarthy of Edgewood Automotive throws me the keys, warning me to go gently with the car’s old “915” gearbox—it can balk and grind at the best of times, so long dips and slow shifts are the order of the day.
Older than either the BMW or the Mazda, the Porsche at first feels a little grumbly and delicate—or maybe I’ve just heeded McCarthy’s warnings too keenly and am being too standoffish with the gearbox. Maybe it is time to try giving it a little more welly, just to see what would happen.
What happens is that the 911 SC comes alive. Once again, here is a car not replete with power—just 204 hp in period—but which weighs about the same as the door from a Ford F-150: just 2,700 pounds. Get the air-cooled flat-six on cam, and that familiar, metallic growl starts to rise, eventually howling like Van Halen has caught his poodle perm in the door. Easy on the ‘box—dip, one-Mississippi, shift, two-Mississippi—and start again. Now the 911 is getting into its flow, and all the '80s horror stories of over-confident executives disappearing backward through hedges dissipate, wafted away by the six’s cooling fan. The SC feels sure-footed, accurate, stable, and just plain fun. I could have driven it all day.
1992 Volkswagen Golf GTI
It wasn’t the only '80s classic in Edgewood’s stable that day—there was also an immaculate Volkswagen Golf GTI MkII, or Rabbit if you must call it that. Again, we’re back into the realm of puny power outputs here—the eight-valve 1.8-liter engine has just 112 hp to call on, but again, it’s also not shifting much bulk. At 920 kg (or 2,028 pounds), the MkII GTI might have been chunkier than its Giugiaro-designed predecessor, but nothing short of a Caterham is as light on its tires these days.
Once again, the Golf proves that the '80s really was the motorized golden era. This 1992 model—the last of the MkII line—may have a cheap-o plastic cabin, but it also gets groovy Recaro bucket seats (with electric adjustment, no less), air conditioning, and a five-speed stick shift. Sub-10 seconds to 60 mph might not sound much, but with that tactile steering and biddable chassis, you’ll be loving every second of it. Just mind the brakes, as there really aren’t any. How much? It’ll be hard to track down an original Stateside, but European cars start at under $10,000. So even with shipping costs, you’re looking at an utter bargain.
What Did We Lose?
All of this awakens an awkward question. If a 35-year-old M3 (itself based on a design that, like me, dates back to 1976, which is when BMW started working on it) is the best thing I’ve ever driven, then what the ever-loving-heck happened in the intervening years? If Stranger Things has taught us anything, it’s that what was big in the ‘80s can be big again in 2022. (Hello Matthew Modine, hi there Kate Bush.) But if that was the apogee, has it all been downhill since?
Yeah, it kind of has. It’s easy—way too easy, as Netflix and the Duffer Brothers have proven—to look back with rose-tinted spectacles, but as the M3’s steering wheel fidgeted beneath my palms, it was impossible not to think that we’ve lost something. It’s true that cars now are incomparably safer than they were (check out Euro NCAP’s comparative crash test of a Honda Jazz with a 1990s Rover Metro if you really want to feel a bit sick right now), and they are (hopefully) retreating from their position as one of the top planet-killers.
Weight is probably the biggest problem. Weight means that you need more power, more power means you need bulkier cooling systems and bigger brakes (among other things), and that adds more weight which means you need more power. It’s the infernal equation of weight gain, and it blunts fun in a big way. That Golf GTI is fun with 110 hp because it effectively weighs nothing in modern terms. By contrast, a BMW i4 M50—which, with more than 500 hp really ought to be a blast—feels leaden and dead because it’s crushing the curb at 4,850 pounds. Safety improvements have, of course, also dramatically added to all that extra weight.
Complication also reduces fun. Sure, a jazzy touchscreen looks impressive and it’s apparently what most car buyers really care about now but the endless stabbing at pixels isn’t much of a substitute for actual steering feel and chassis balance. It’s not that modern cars don’t handle and steer well—many do, but they’re having to push those sensations through a fug of in-cabin complexity and that dreaded weight gain. By contrast, the stark simplicity of the E30 M3’s cabin means that you just focus on the driving (and, incidentally, it’s no less comfortable).
Of course, these could just be the fusty ramblings of an old man whose dad jeans are cutting off the blood flow to his brain. And in one sense, they probably are. After all, the '80s were as replete with clunkers as with classics. Cadillac Cimarron, anyone? The past is gone and it’s not coming back, and I guess focusing on the here, the now, and the future is possibly a better job for my brain.
But that E30 M3 is still playing tunes with my memory. The way the leather bucket seat just perfectly wrapped around my back. The way the dog-leg transmission meant that the second-to-third-and-back-to-second shift was just a simple fore-aft motion, meaning you can keep that four-cylinder fizzing away perfectly where it’s happiest. The way the slim-rimmed, three-spoke steering wheel was gently, but insistently, twitching and thrumming, telling me everything I needed to know about what the front Pirellis were doing. Honestly, this was as close to motoring perfection as I’ve ever come.
I want to go back to the '80s and stay there.
Neil Briscoe is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The Irish Times and CompleteCar. He is based out of Belfast.
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