Dream Machines

We've all fantasized about that one special car. No longer. Mark Healy shows you how to get it.

The precision growl of a Porsche 911, the signature suicide doors of the 1964 Lincoln Continental, the blocky utility of a topless 1969 Ford Bronco. That special car is always there, lurking in the back of your mind, newly waxed and buffed, revving its motor lest you forget it's there. Desire has deep roots and inexplicable whims of its own. One can't exactly explain why it is that the heart beats faster and the neck cranes every time an old Jaguar XKE rumbles into view. But then do you have to explain love? Can you explain love? Should you even try? More importantly, who says that it has to go unrequited?

Your dream car is out there, sitting in a back lot, under a tarp in somebody's garage or on the Internet bazaar of used vehicles collecting dust and appreciating at a rate that beats most mutual funds. If your love still burns and you've got an extra spot in the garage or an empty barn behind the country house, you could drive away with the love of your life for the price of a new Honda Civic—vintage Maserati fans excluded. So what if she's past her prime? You're still dreaming, aren't you? And you don't want to skimp on your dreams. Don't, for example, settle for a hardtop when you have your heart set on a convertible. If there's something you love about the grille on the '67 that made you love it more than other years, then wait for a '67.

A vintage car can be a pampered gem or a work in progress. Most likely, the car you're looking for will fall somewhere in between. We suggest getting a car that's in good shape and structurally sound, albeit leaving room for cosmetic improvements and nonessential upgrades. This way a goal-oriented owner gets a few errands to run and an excuse to talk shop with fellow admirers without getting involved in gargantuan mechanical undertakings. The bucket seats might be in need of new springs and stuffing, but the chassis shouldn't be rotting out. Here are five dream-inspiring classics and everything you need to know about them.

The GTO, GTO Convertible, GTO Judge (1964-74)

The GTO is the first muscle car, an icon of chrome and steel that has retained as much of its masculine mid-sixties mystique as Steve McQueen. In 1964 John DeLorean convinced Pontiac to drop a 389-cubic-inch motor into its two-door Tempest and the muscle car was born. It spawned a slew of imitators, inspired songs, and won the lustful awe of a generation of young men who wanted the most powerful car on the lot.

John Johnson is on the board of the GTO Association of America, is an editor at The Legend, a magazine about GTOs, and has owned an total of eight Goats (as the GTO is affectionately known). He currently has a '69 GTO Judge and a '70 convertible and remembers the car's allure. "They were the muscle car of the day—you bought them to be recognized, to be a hot shoe in town. Everybody wanted a Goat."

EXPECT TO PAY From $8,000 to $22,000.

WISDOM GTOs are plentiful, especially the 1967 through 1970 models, but many of them have been bastardized or abused. Ideally, your future GTO will have spent the majority of its life in a warm climate on salt-free roads. Check out www.gtoaa.org.

BUYER BEWARE People try to pass off an ordinary Pontiac Le Mans or Tempest (with some slight cosmetic upgrades) as a genuine GTO. "Luckily," Johnson says, "there's a Pontiac Historical Service. You send them your VIN (vehicle identification number), and for a fee they'll supply you with the car's invoice, the options and colors it came with, and a press photo of the model at the time.

POTENTIAL PROBLEMS Rear-window glass panels tend to leak water in the trunk, creating rust in the trunk and in the rear quarters. Both areas should be checked thoroughly.

OVERALL ASSESSMENT Last summer's action blockbuster XXX (with its '67 hardtop) may have raised the profile on old Goats, but they're still plentiful, alluring, and powerful as ever.

The 230SL, 250SL, 280SL (1963-71)

Through the years, Mercedes-Benz has consistently invested its roadster with classic grace and beauty, a feat few manufacturers have pulled off. And no Mercedes roadster is more of a classic than the 1960s-era Pagoda, so named because its optional hardtop roof has a concave design for stability that resembles a pagoda-style roof. They are one of the many Mercedes over the years—the Gullwings, the big sedans, the current sports coupes—upon which a heritage has been built. Thankfully they're still out there, rambling down the Maine coastline or shuttling groceries around Palm Springs.

Peter Speich—a third-generation Mercedes employee who helped construct the Mercedes-Benz Classics center outside Stuttgart and is building a comparable center here in the United States—was happy to discuss the lore and realities of the 1960s SL as it celebrates its 40th anniversary.

NUMBER MADE 230 SL: 20,000; 250 SL: 5,000; 280 SL: 34,000

ORIGINAL STICKER PRICE 1963 230 SL: $6,543; 1967 250 SL: $6,897; 1968 280 SL: $6,897

EXPECT TO PAY From $16,000 to $25,000. Speich says that you can get a nice, driveable car for $10,000-$15,000, but he doesn't recommend it.

WISDOM California is the best place to look, but you have to be very careful. Hemmings Motor News (www.hemmings.com) is an excellent source. The "California" Pagoda was a model the company sold in the state without the soft top and it left drivers defenseless against a surprise rainstorm. Speich says many of the cheaper Pagodas you'll find are California Pagodas. Installing a soft top can cost up to $15,000.

BUYER BEWARE What looks great from the outside could hide corrosion inside. The '60s SL has a partially tubular frame, which means that internal corrosion can be difficult to detect. Says Speich, "I wouldn't buy this car without first consulting a specialist."

OVERALL ASSESSMENT Good bargain. A classic roadster that's always held its value. Starts in the cold, is blessed with a good heating unit, and is more spacious than you'd think; a 1963 advertisement boasts more legroom than a Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud II.

The Super Beetle (1972-79)

People still love "the people's car," as the Volkswagen was first called by Ferdinand Porsche back in 1933; and almost every American born before the first Gulf War has a soft spot for the Beetle in his heart.

Ernie Otter is the founder of the Michigan Vintage VW club. He also met his wife by fixing her '66 convertible in college. "That car," he says, "is the foundation of our marriage." Otter says it's all a matter of personal choice, but he also says the car known as the Super Beetle makes the most sense to own.

From its inception the Beetle was upgraded every year. And so the Beetle's final years, from 1972 to 1979 (that's when it was called the Super Beetle) represented all the safety, structural, and mechanical upgrades Volkswagen would invest in the Bug. It had strut rather than shock suspension; bigger, more comfortable seats; the traditional flat windshield was replaced with a deeper wrap-around version. A more capable fuel-injected four-cylinder engine was added as well. So if you won't be satisfied unless you have a car from the '60s, the later years will give you fewer headaches and a more comfortable ride.

EXPECT TO PAY From $3,000 to $10,000.

BUYER BEWARE Check that the heater channels (right under the door sill) are in good shape and that the running board and support rail are solid.

HOLY GRAIL You can still find a fair number of low-mileage '79s, many of which were bought for their collectibility and all of which were convertibles. But since this was the Bug's last year, they'll be more expensive.

FIND A quick look on www.thesamba.com turned up a 1974 special-edition Sun Bug Convertible for $3,900. It had high miles and some cosmetic "issues" but it claimed to be free of rust and in good running condition. We also found a sporty, rust-free '75 Super Beetle with a rebuilt engine and a VW mechanic owner for around $5,000.

OVERALL ASSESSMENT The myth is that Beetles are cheap and easy to work on. Ten years ago that was true. Now you're not going to find parts on the local shelves or people who really want to work on them. This is a second car. These are no longer daily drivers.

The DB4, DB4 GT, Zagato (1959-63)

Blame it on Bond. This is one of the great two-door road cars of the early sixties and arguably one of England's most glorious contributions to the automobile industry. The DB5 Aston Martin will forever be associated with Goldfinger. The DB4 combined cutting-edge technology—an aluminum 3.7-liter six-cylinder—with peerless styling, courtesy of Milan's House of Touring. It was heart-achingly attractive and its original lines still inform the design of new Aston Martins.

Steve Serio, who runs Aston Martin of New England, got his first Aston the way most of us did: in the form of a toy. His dealership now has a hand in most of the vintage DB4 transactions in the U.S. Of course, there have only been 1,113 sold worldwide, and he estimates only a couple hundred of those were sold in this country.

EXPECT TO PAY From $30,000 to $3.5 million. DB4s came in three main variations—standard DB4, DB4 GT, and Zagato. The Zagato, a racier, lighter-weight version of the GT, had bespoke details (its door handles, bonnets, fender lines, and grilles are all unique) and it was a complete flop. Only 19 were made. They are now among the rarest high-priced cars on the market. Serio sold one last year for $2.5 million.

The DB4 GT has a shortened chassis and a twin-plug version of the standard six-cylinder. Only 75 of these two-seaters were made and are now worth between $450,000 and $700,000.

The standard DB4 has most of the appeal and all of the understated Aston charm. Today, a put-the-gas-in-and-go DB4 will run you between $85,000 and $140,000.

BUYER BEWARE Keep in mind you're purchasing 1960s technology. "They get hot, are poorly ventilated, and they're not always comfortable."

FIND Classicdriver.com/uk, "the European car webzine," turned up more than 20 DB4s and GTs, including a regular '61 coupe for $98,000.

The 911 (1963-present)

Anyone fortunate enough to spend any amount of time in the driver's seat of a Porsche understands the company's boastful slogan, "There is no substitute." Driving a Porsche is an uncommon experience—even if the Porsche you're driving is 20 years old. The 911, the timeless two-seater designed by F.A. "Butzi" Porsche in the early sixties, is the model that typifies that experience. Chris Gilman spent eight years as a Porsche mechanic before he joined the company in 1985, later becoming a product manager—which means he's seen the 911s from the bottom up. There have been plenty of variations over the years, from the plain, slim-bodied version to the flare-fendered shell to the 911 Carrera, which Porsche unveiled in 1985. "There's nothing else quite like it," he says of all the coupe's incarnations, "its rear engine and the fact that it is air-cooled make it a light car with really responsive steering." Its signature styling (the soft arc of its roof and its low, wide stance) defined an era of Porsche design and was always at the head of the class technologically. It is already an automotive icon of the highest order.

EXPECT TO PAY From $7,000 to $40,000. You can pay $7,000 for a 1971 in good condition or $22,000 for a top-notch '89.

WISDOM "There's a difference between owning a 911 to collect versus one to drive. If you're owning one to drive," Gilman says, "buy the newest one you can afford. The bodies changed only slightly over the years, but there have been hundreds of technological advances." As a rule, an '86 will run better than an '85, Gilman notes. He also says '87 was a very good year for the 911. "The air conditioning had improved and we introduced a new transmission that made it shift better and gave it more longevity."

BUYER BEWARE All new Porsches have a ten-year anti-corrosion warranty and a fully galvanized steel body, but that wasn't always true. Porsches from the sixties and early seventies often suffered corrosion around the battery. Gilman suggests a careful look around the trunk pan as well because it could have suffered from standing water.

HOLY GRAIL The 1973 Carrera RS. "The closest thing to a street-legal race car that we built," says Gilman. "There were very few of them made and now they go for $75,000 and up." He also points out the 1973 911S (which sells for around $25,000). "This is the last of the cars before the 'five-mph bumper' and is considered the last of the original styling. It's significantly lighter than the newer ones because of the safety additions and the engine was emission-control-free, which gave it great throttle response."

FIND A flawless 1987 911 Carrera coupe with 22,000 miles for $33,000, and a 1972 911 Targa with 80,000 miles for $15,000 on www.edmunds.com.

OVERALL ASSESSMENT If you can own a Porsche for the price of a Saturn, wouldn't you make room in the garage?