1986 Mercedes-Benz 300SL R107 vs. 1991 Porsche 911 Carrera 2 964, 1971 Bristol 411 Series 2, 1991 Honda NSX, 1991 Mazda MX-5 and 1965 Volvo 122S Amazon

2019 Jonathan Jacob and Drive-My EN/UK

Warriors weekend. When it comes to buying your next classic, enjoyability and reliability needn’t be considered mutually exclusive. This sporting six are tougher than most – and can be found from £1200-£46,000. Words Andrew Noakes. Photography Jonathan Jacob.

‘They’re terrific fun, in very different ways, and needn’t cost the earth’

Taking a long trip in six great value classics to prove that dependable needn’t mean dull. Weekend Warriors Proof that reliable, well-made cars can make fun classics – we take to the Yorkshire Moors in the Mercedes-Benz ‘R107’ SL, Porsche 911 964, Bristol 411, Honda NSX, Mazda MX5 and Volvo Amazon to test the theory.

PLUS Porsche test-driver Dieter Roscheisen on making great drivers’ cars dependable / Six cars that will take on every adventure you throw at them, and get you home

Dependable so often means dull, but does it have to be that way? Can a classic you can rely on still have the kind of engaging character that makes every mile a pleasure? To find out we’ve brought together six cars from marques that know how to build them strong: Mercedes-Benz, Volvo, Porsche, Honda, Bristol and Mazda. There are saloons, coupés and sports cars, each one of them with a reputation for reliability, and between them they have something to offer for budgets from under £5000 to over £50,000. Which of them can deliver not just a hassle-free ownership experience but also a thrilling drive on some of Yorkshire’s most challenging roads? I can’t wait to get behind the wheel of each one to find out.

Yorkshire Moors in the Mercedes-Benz ‘R107’ SL, Porsche 911 964, Bristol 411, Honda NSX, Mazda MX5 and Volvo Amazon to test the theory

Yorkshire Moors in the Mercedes-Benz ‘R107’ SL, Porsche 911 964, Bristol 411, Honda NSX, Mazda MX5 and Volvo Amazon to test the theory

Yorkshire Moors in the Mercedes-Benz ‘R107’ SL, Porsche 911 964, Bristol 411, Honda NSX, Mazda MX5 and Volvo Amazon to test the theory
Yorkshire Moors in the Mercedes-Benz ‘R107’ SL, Porsche 911 964, Bristol 411, Honda NSX, Mazda MX5 and Volvo Amazon to test the theory

1986 Mercedes-Benz 300SL R107 vs. 1991 Porsche 911 Carrera 2 964, 1971 Bristol 411 Series 2, 1991 Honda NSX, 1991 Mazda MX-5 and 1965 Volvo 122S Amazon
1986 Mercedes-Benz 300SL R107 vs. 1991 Porsche 911 Carrera 2 964, 1971 Bristol 411 Series 2, 1991 Honda NSX, 1991 Mazda MX-5 and 1965 Volvo 122S Amazon


It’s fitting that I start with the R107-series Mercedes-Benz SL because it was a car so strong that its nickname, Der Panzerwagen, likened it to a military tank. I can feel that solidity in the weight of the driver’s door as I swing it open, and in the cabin I’m surrounded by quality materials that feel like they will last forever. Clever design plays a major part in this cockpit, too: the straightforward relationship of seat, wheel and pedals delivers a driving position that couldn’t be better. But there are details that could be improved – in typical Merc style the steering wheel is bigger than I’d like, the seats are comfortable but could offer more lateral support, and the single column stalk is overloaded with functions.

At its launch in 1971 the R107 was exclusively powered by V8 engines, but a twin-cam 2.8-litre six was added in 1974 in response to the oil crisis. Bigger V8s followed in 1980, and there were more revisions in 1982, by which time everyone was expecting the 107 to make way for a new car. But Mercedes was busy with other work, and the 107 was still selling, so there was a stay of execution and another round of improvements in 1985. The old twin-cam six was swapped for a lighter, higher-compression 3.0-litre single-cam for the car here, the 300SL. The smooth six delivers a lusty 185bhp and will keep up with all but the last of the V8s, though it needs to be worked harder than the bigger units with their lazy torque delivery.

1986 Mercedes-Benz 300SL R107

1986 Mercedes-Benz 300SL R107

That’s no hardship because of the responsive automatic transmission, controlled by a classic Mercedes selector with a serpentine gate. There’s a pleasantly cultured snarl that emanates from the tailpipes when the six is wound up to its 6200rpm redline. Push on like that and at first you wonder if the chassis has what it takes to keep up. Accelerate hard and the softly-sprung SL squats down over its rear axle; twirl the big wheel and it leans away from the corner apex. But the Mercedes hangs on, the supple springs soaking up imperfections in the road before they can trouble the SL’s composure. The R107 pulls off the neat trick of being comfy and cossetting when you want it to be, but with plenty of pace and tidy road manners when you want to get a move on. That it can do it all while still offering effortlessly glamorous style that turns heads nearly half a century after it was drawn just adds to its appeal.

Unless you’re dead set on a particular engine – some people simply must have a V8 – the best advice is to buy an R107 based on condition and mileage rather than worry too much about the motor. All the SL variants provide performance brisk enough to avoid embarrassment in modern traffic and all the engines are tough, well-engineered units with good availability of parts. The biggest bugbear with SLs is rust: water collects in the heater plenum chamber at the back of the engine bay when the drain tubes get blocked up, rotting the front bulkhead. Wet footwell carpets and steamed-up windows are often the result, but the plenum cover must be removed to inspect underneath for a proper check. Rust can also attack the rear wheelarches, floor and sills, and the tray into which the soft-top folds. Hard tops – supplied with all SLs when new – also rust and can suffer damage during handling because they’re heavy. Leather interiors are the most sought-after but the MB-Tex vinyl wears well and the check Sport Cloth is the most comfortable. With over 237,000 SLs made there’s plenty of choice. Prices range from £5000 or less for high-mileage cars needing work to over £100,000 for exceptional low-mileage 500s.

1986 Mercedes-Benz 300SL R107

1986 Mercedes-Benz 300SL R107

‘It pulls off the neat trick of being comfy and cossetting, but with plenty of pace and tidy road manners’

Owning an R129 Mercedes-Benz SL

Says Mercedes SL owner Sam Bailey, ‘My father worked for Mercedes so I grew up on them, and now run SL Shop (theslshop.com). ‘The SLs are so very usable. Every day – not a problem. Check the fluids and hot foot to Tuscany – easy. They are so well made, dependable and the style is timeless. There is very little difference in servicing costs between the six-cylinder engines and the V8 units – two more spark plugs and a little more oil. ‘Beyond that though, a tired high-mileage V8 will need some attention to the intake and injection system before a straight six will, costing around £400. Rust in the heater plenum/bulkhead is a killer, with restoration costs around £2000 to £5000 dependent on the extent of the rust.

‘Even cars that appear rust-free are likely to be affected. Some items of trim are no longer available and while many parts are available from Mercedes the quality is not always as good as the original parts from back in the day.’

Technical data file 1986 Mercedes-Benz 300SL R107

Engine Iron block/alloy head 2962cc in-line six cylinder, 12-valve, Bosch KE-Jetronic fuel injection

Max Power 185bhp @ 5700rpm

Max Torque 188lb ft @ 4400rpm

Transmission Four-speed automatic, rear-wheel drive

Steering Recirculating ball, power assisted

Suspension Front: independent, double wishbones, coil springs, anti-roll bar. Rear: independent, semi-trailing arms, coil springs, anti-roll bar

Brakes Servo discs, ABS standard from 1986

Weight 1510kg


Top speed: 126mph

0-60mph: 9.5sec

Cost new £24,840

Classic Cars Price Guide £8750-£26,000

{module Mercedes Benz 107}

1986 Mercedes-Benz 300SL R107
1986 Mercedes-Benz 300SL R107 / SL is still turns heads half a century after it was designed – and will no doubt continue to for another 50 years. Seat support doesn’t live up to the SL’s cornering ability. Merc cossets with comfy seats and a comfortingly large steering wheel.


1991 Porsche 911 Carrera 2 964

Like the Mercedes, the Porsche 911 is an instantly recognisable shape, even though the 964 generation introduced in 1989 had brought the widest-ranging changes ever to the Neunelfer. The revised model was said to be 85 per cent new, and though the basic shape was the same as it had been since 1963 there were smoothed-out bumpers, rear lights that were new and bigger, and a pop-up rear spoiler – details that made the 964 look far more modern than its predecessors. The cabin was reworked, though again the innovations were only apparent in the details.

It’s a snug cabin with room enough for two and tiny rear seats that are only capable of accommodating young children or a compressed adult. Subsidiary controls are strewn haphazardly across the dashboard, but the orange-needled instruments are clustered tidily behind the steering wheel with the rev counter replete with its 6750rpm red line in the centre.

I grab the small, vertical wheel – set very close to the dash and the screen – and find my hands obscure the fuel level and oil temperature gauges, as well as the speedo needle beyond 100mph. The floor-hinged pedals are well spaced but squeezed over towards the centre of the car by the wheelarch intrusion, and there’s nowhere to rest my clutch foot when it’s not in use. The whole things is an odd mixture of clarity and chaos.

The same could be said of the 964’s handling. At normal speeds it feels glued to the road, the ride firm enough to keep the car level but with enough suppleness to be unaffected by mid-corner potholes. The 964 responds in a precise, measured way to steering inputs and there’s masses of feedback through the steering wheel rim as the front wheels wriggle over and around asperities in the tarmac, despite this being the first 911 provided with power assistance. Yet there’s always the uneasy feeling that at some point driver ambition might be over-ruled by the laws of physics as that rear-biased weight distribution takes over and swings the tail around. The new suspension – by coil springs rather than the previous torsion bars – means that’s a less likely prospect than in the 911s that preceded it, but even so it makes me drive the 964 with a healthy dose of respect.

It’s at its best, its most stable, when braked in good time in a straight line and then powered out of the corners. Part of the 964’s newness was a thoroughly revamped engine, expanded to 3.6 litres over the previous 3.2, with new cylinder heads and a heavily modified block. With 250bhp on tap it was the most powerful non-turbo 911 yet made. The motor grumbles away at idle with a seething intent and on the road you’re always aware of its presence. Push it hard and the cabin fills with a gloriously purposeful wail that’s an inextricable part of the 911 appeal.

Though these are robust cars, there are weak points. Externally the body suffers from stone chips at the front and solid paint colours fade. Superficial rust can form around the front and rear screen apertures and more serious rot can attack the rear suspension pick-up points necessitating long and complex repairs. It’s important to look for signs of accident damage repairs such as uneven panel gaps and rippled panels under the front boot carpet.

Check for soggy interior carpets on cabrios and Targas as both can suffer from roof leaks. A cabrio roof can cost £2000 to replace. The engines commonly suffer from oil leaks, but if the leak is bad or accompanied by a misfire a cylinder head stud might have broken. A head rebuild using genuine parts will cost around £7000.

Most cars were manuals, with early ones having dual-mass flywheels which can wear and cost £1000 to replace. Tiptronic automatics are usually trouble-free although the torque converters can fail with noisy consequences. Air conditioning was a rare extra which cost £2000 on a new car and will need £1000 spent on it now unless it has had a recent rebuild. Check windows, mirrors and (if fitted) electric seat adjusters all work, because replacement parts are expensive. Cabrios, Targas and Tiptronics are worth less, starting at around £15,000 for cars that need work. Good coupés start around £50,000 and the best can be over £80,000. Turbos and RS models will be twice as much or more, so the non-turbo Carreras are where the value is.

‘Push it hard and the cabin fills with a gloriously purposeful wail that’s an inextricable part of the 911 appeal’

Owning a Porsche 911 (964)

Porsche 911 owner Philip Hamson says, ‘I wanted a 911 because it’s different – it’s so odd, so weird; it doesn’t suit everybody. I’ve had it seven years. I used to drive it to work every day and eventually it had little bobbles and excrescences all over it, so I restored it. I was quoted £100,000 from one place for the body restoration, but I got away with something like £25,000. Four new wings cost £1000 a pop – although I did get 10 per cent off though Porsche Club GB. One inner rear wing was new and the other was repaired, by Auto Body in Leicester.

‘The engine was rough when I bought it; I ended up having it rebuilt for £12k. You wouldn’t get that now. Gary Hubbard Upholstery let in some new leather to the driver’s seat but the rest of the interior is original.

‘Porsche’s pricing structure is very odd. The bits that everybody makes, it sells at stupid prices – but the bits that only Porsche makes seem to be priced very sensibly.’

Technical data file  1991 Porsche 911 (964) Carrera 2

Engine All-alloy 3600cc flat six cylinder, 12-valve, Bosch DME engine Management

Max Power 250bhp @ 6100rpm

Max Torque 229lb ft @ 4800rpm

Transmission Five-speed manual gearbox, rear-wheel drive

Steering Rack and pinion, power-assisted

Suspension Front: independent, struts, coil springs, anti-roll bar. Rear: semi-trailing arms, coil springs, anti-roll bar

Brakes Discs all round

Weight 1350kg (2976lb)


Top speed: 162mph

0-60mph: 5.7sec

Fuel consumption 20mpg

Cost new £41,504

Classic Cars Price Guide £22,000-£45,000

{module Porsche 964}


Coil springs in the 964’s rear suspension replaced the old 911s’ torsion bars, making snap oversteer less likely. Idiosyncratic interior has random switch placement and no clutch foot resting place At the time, the 964’s 250bhp 3.6-litre flat-six made it the most powerful non-turbo 911 ever.


1971 Bristol 411 Series 2

The Bristol 411 was another product of a company where engineers called the shots. Bristol had its roots in tram cars and then aircraft, and was kept busy with the latter throughout World War Two. As the war drew to a close Bristol looked to diversify, and car making seemed a good option. The company acquired the rights to BMW’s well-regarded pre-war cars and its 2.0-litre six-cylinder engine, together with the services of engineer Fritz Fiedler. The motor was a strange one, with opposed overhead valves operated by pushrods – one set conventionally, and the other set by an arrangement of rockers and short secondary pushrods. It reached its development zenith in 1960, then Bristol adopted a 5.2-litre V8 supplied by Chrysler of Canada, giving the 407 of 1961 substantially improved performance. A restyle for the 408, followed by detail improvements in the 409 and 410, led to the 411 of 1969 with a new 6.2-litre engine and even more power. This car is a 1971 Series 2, the last version before a four-lamp front-end restyle and the introduction of lower-compression engines. Many Bristol buffs see it as the high watermark of the marque.

The engine’s creamy smoothness is apparent as soon as you pull away, and all it takes to unleash the V8’s potential is a firm push on the accelerator pedal. The white needle on the Smiths rev counter flicks upwards as the Torqueflite transmission slurs down to intermediate, then the nose lifts and the Bristol surges forwards, but still with barely a murmur from the big-block motor up ahead. It’s as quiet as a contemporary Rolls-Royce, but far more composed and capable when the road turns twisty. Roll is well controlled for a big machine of this era, and there’s useful feedback at the compact, narrow-rimmed wheel to give you confidence to push harder. The twin-servo brakes feel strong and tireless. Thanks to the power of the engine and the fine chassis, the Bristol hustles along give-and-take roads far faster than its statuesque appearance suggests it should, though its sheer size means it ultimately feels more at home on gently sweeping A-roads which it can eat up with ease.

The Bristol’s performance and the manner in which it’s delivered would be enticing enough, but it’s a car that has plenty more to offer. The cabin has acres of supple, gently patinated black leather, complemented by a dashboard faced in honey-coloured walnut veneer. There’s a logical layout – as you would expect from a company with its roots in aircraft engineering – with the heater controls in the centre and seven gauges grouped into a pod and carefully arranged so that none is obscured by the wheel rim. The airy cabin has plenty of space up front and while rear passengers have a job to get aboard past the folded-forward front seats, once ensconced in the rear they find there’s plenty of room for them too.

Bristols were built to the highest standards but there is potential for trouble – and especially for hidden hazards – in the chassis and body. The steel box-section chassis can rust in the sills, outriggers and suspension mounting points. The body panels are aluminium but mounted on a steel frame, and if water becomes trapped between the two, galvanic corrosion is likely. This won’t be visible until the outer panels are removed, and restoration will be as eye-wateringly expensive as any other hand-built body, so when buying, inspection by an expert is essential to avoid nasty surprises. Interior work is also likely to be expensive because the materials are all top-notch, but virtually everything is hand-made so at least individual parts can be removed and restored relatively simply.

Make sure that the interior is complete – sourcing replacement parts is likely to be difficult and costly. The fusebox and battery are in the front-wing compartment on the right (driver’s) side, so if the water seal fails electrical problems can result. Brakes and suspension rarely give trouble, but these are heavy cars so wear is inevitable. The Chrysler engines are long-lasting, good for 200,000 miles or more between rebuilds, and they are largely trouble-free if well maintained, as are the Torqueflite transmissions. Despite the rarity of these cars there is an enthusiastic club and there is plenty of support from the manufacturer itself for its older cars. Running cars are rarely seen below £50,000 and concours examples sell for £100,000 or more. Even at that price, it’s a lot of class for the money.

‘Roll is well controlled for a big machine of this era, and there’s useful feedback to give you confidence to push harder’

Owning a Bristol 411

David Billington explains why he became the owner of a Bristol 411, ‘My father worked for the Bristol Aeroplane company at Accrington in the war and worked on the early Bristol cars, so I was brainwashed into Bristols – I always wanted one.

‘I like 403s, but I decided I wanted a V8 engine. This car had done 80,000 miles when I got it and the odometer currently reads 137,000. I built a garage and put a full pit in it, so that I could scrape every bit of underseal off the car. It took months – I’m very patient. My uncle’s a coachpainter and he taught me how to paint properly.

‘The only rot on it was in the wheelarches, which I repaired. I’ve never had the heads off. I’ve recored the radiator, changed the timing gears, and I change the oil and plugs myself. Some paint has flaked at times and I’ve had bits patched. I think I’ve spent £10,000 on it since I got it 30 years ago. It’s been relatively trouble free.’

1971 Bristol 411 Series 2

Engine All-iron 6277cc V8, 16-valve, Carter four-barrel carburettor

Max Power 335bhp @ 5200rpm

Max Torque 425lb ft @ 3400rpm

Transmission Three-speed automatic gearbox, rear-wheel drive

Steering Recirculating ball, power assisted

Suspension Front: independent, double wishbones, coil springs, anti-roll bar. Rear: live axle, torsion bars, Watt link, torque reaction rod, self-levelling

Brakes Servo discs all round

Weight 1676kg (3695lb)


Top speed: 143mph

0-60mph: 7sec

Fuel consumption 15mpg

Cost new £6997

Classic Cars Price Guide £16,000-£46,000

The 411 Series 2 is the high-water mark of a company renowned for top-notch engineering.

Dash is designed with aero-engineering logic; leather and walnut are sumptuous.

The 6.2-litre Chrysler V8 is effortlessly powerful and whisper-quiet.

1991 Honda NSX

Although the Honda NSX is a very different car, from a different era, it shares a good deal of the Bristol’s ethos. Like the older car it was designed to offer plenty of pace, it is packed with quality engineering and its intelligent design makes it no more difficult to drive or own than a Civic. The aluminium alloy structure was a first on a volume-production car and it’s clothed in a dramatic, cab-forward shape with a long rear deck and huge wing which make a compelling statement of Honda’s intent. This was the Japanese company’s answer to exotica like the Ferrari 328 and Lamborghini Jalpa. Honda aimed to beat the Italians at their own game, offering all the thrills of the established junior supercars but with a painless ownership experience thrown in for good measure.

Hidden in the black pillar at the back of the door, just above the waistline, is a fingertip-operated latch for the wide, frameless door. It opens onto a black interior which has grippy-looking sports seats, but nothing much else of note. It’s all nicely put together but the materials don’t look very special, and the steering wheel could have come from the Accord my dad ran in the Eighties. But the driving position is good and the view out is superb, framed at the front by the humps of the wings and with plenty of vision to the rear, which is unusual for a mid-engined car. The clutch is light and the alloyknobbed gearlever slots easily into first. At sensible speeds the NSX turns out to be as easy to drive as that Accord.

Yet there are signs that it has more to come. The 8000rpm redline on the tacho is one indication, the ominous burble from the non-standard straight-through exhaust on this car another. The steering is unassisted, and as the speed builds it faithfully transmits messages back from the front tyres. The NSX is easy to place on the road and it corners flat and fast; as the road opens out, the V6’s mid-range snarl turns into an F1-style wail that builds and builds as the revs climb. The 3.0-litre V6 pulls strongly all the way, the torque curve bolstered by variable valve timing and lift electronic control (VTEC) and a variable-volume intake (VVIS) and not reaching peak torque until 6500rpm with peak power just 800rpm further on.

It’s then that the NSX starts to make sense. Thoughts of the cabin being humdrum and the engine having two cylinders too few evaporate as I start to understand what an effective driving tool this is. Famously Ayrton Senna contributed to its development, and Honda also called upon the services of Japan’s first full-time F1 driver Satoru Nakajima and multiple IndyCar champion Bobby Rahal. It worked; the steering is precise and communicative, and the NSX feels compact and balanced. The engine is responsive and flexible without being so strong that it becomes an embarrassment, though the open exhaust on this car certainly attracts plenty of attention. The NSX is a modern classic that would work as everyday transport, but point it at these empty and enticingly twisty Yorkshire moors roads and it delivers driving thrills aplenty.

Suspension bushes and ball joints can suffer from hard use, and to replace the lower front ball joint you need an entire upright at a cost in excess of £1000. The engines can sometimes suffer from top-end oil leaks and should have the timing belt, camshaft pulley and water pump changed every seven years or 70,000 miles – a £2000 job. Check the coolant expansion tank and hoses for cracks and wear. Noise from the gearbox when in neutral with the clutch engaged can be a failing input shaft bearing. Early gearboxes can fail because of a broken countershaft bearing snap ring, but most will have been sorted by now. A clutch change is an engine-out job costing around £2000. Check for signs of accident repair and evidence that any work has been done by an expert, because refinishing the aluminium body has to be done properly to avoid future problems. Headlights are expensive on both the early cars with pop-up units and December 2001-on examples with fixed lights. High-mileage cars and the less-fancied autos and targas start around £30,000, with good manual cars around £50,000. NSXs from 1997 with the 3.2-litre engine and six-speed gearbox can go for £100,000 or more. The prices of all cars, particularly low-mileage manuals, have increased rapidly in recent years.

Owning a Honda NSX

Owner Tom Haywood desribes why he loves owning his Honda NSX, ‘I’m a massive Honda fan. I bought it in July 2018 after I’d been looking for about eight months, trying to find one. This car is a high miler and it was at a realistic price, so I went for it. It had an ABS fault which turned out to be just a sensor.

‘Oil filters are shared with other Hondas, and the wheels aren’t too big so a mid-range tyre is only £50. It had a crack in the expansion tank, a common problem, but Honda still make those – they’re about £120. It’s really simple to drop the engine on these, then you can change the clutch or completely strip the engine. Honda really did think ahead to the mechanics working on the car.

‘The quality of the drive in the NSX is on another level – you can tell that Honda decided to build something special when they created it. The quality of the build is amazing – they’ve gone that extra mile with everything.’

1991 Honda NSX

Engine All-alloy 2977cc V6, 24-valve, Honda PGM-Fi engine Management system

Max Power 270bhp @ 7300rpm

Max Torque 210lb ft @ 6300rpm

Transmission Five-speed manual gearbox, rear-wheel Drive

Steering Rack and pinion

Suspension Front: independent, double wishbones, coil springs, anti-roll bar. Rear: independent,

double wishbones, coil springs, anti-roll bar

Brakes Discs all round

Weight 1365kg (3009lb)


Top speed: 168mph;

0-60mph: 5.7sec

Fuel consumption 20mpg

Cost new £52,000

Classic Cars Price Guide £21,000-£40,000

The aluminium-bodied, mid-engined NSX is a much less highly-strung than the Italian exotica it was built to rival.

Uninspiring cabin belies the thrills to be had behind the wheel The 3.0-litre V6 thrives on revs – it flies when you push it past 7000rpm


1991 Honda NSX

The Mazda MX-5 is a perennial bargain. It revitalised the market for affordable sports cars which had been in limbo for years following proposals to ban open roadsters from the US market. Thankfully, that never happened, and the MX-5 arrived in 1989 after being conceived by Mazda’s Bob Hall in the US in the early Eighties, when rear-drive two-seat roadsters were thin on the ground. Design teams in Tokyo and Irvine, California, produced competing concepts with the American design making it to production. Inspired by the Lotus Elan it was in truth a quite different kind of car – bigger and heavier, much more robustly constructed, safer and easier to live with. But it was also great fun to drive, and so it remains 30 years on.

Settling into David Gange’s 1991 car, I notice that the shapely seats have been retrimmed in leather, which some dealers did in period in response to customer demand to add a touch of class to the cabin. It looks good, though I think there’s something to be said for the warmth of the original cloth. But the cockpit remains a snug place with just enough space for two and no more, and it’s all the better for being beautifully simple. Clear white-on-black instruments sit in a binnacle on top of the facia behind a leather-rimmed Momo three-spoke steering wheel. Little force is required at the wheel rim and that’s matched by the rest of the controls, making the MX-5 as easy to drive as any Japanese supermini. Power-assisted steering was common, but not universal on the MX-5 MkI, and it helps when parking while doing little to hinder the flow of feedback on the move. The helm is precise and direct, and I can flick the little Mazda into bends with barely any effort. Tiny tyres – 185/60 x 14s on 5.5in rims – mean grip levels are never very high, so the MX-5 can be steered on the throttle where the situation allows. Weight distribution is virtually 50:50 with driver aboard, contributing to the innate balance that makes the Mazda such a joy to drive. It doesn’t have the scalpel-like sharpness to its handling that characterises an Elan or a Toyota MR2, say, but it has a poise that makes tackling a switchback both simple and rewarding.

Extracting the most from the engine takes a bit more work, using the five-speed gearbox with its light, short-throw lever to keep it spinning hard. With 114bhp propelling just over a tonne, the MX-5 is never going to be lightning quick in a straight line – but it’s fast enough to be fun. More power was available through Brodie Brittain Racing, which offered a turbo kit, and from 1994 the MX-5 gained a more powerful (128bhp) 1.8-litre engine, a longer final drive, bigger front discs and additional body stiffening, but some enthusiasts prefer the earlier cars. Many ex-Japanese market Eunos Roadsters have been imported – they are virtually identical to MX-5s, but often have air con and a metric odometer. Automatic transmission was a rare option in Japan and the US but not available in the UK. The engines are reliable and will usually last beyond 100,000 miles if well maintained, though the earliest cars are known for crankshaft wear. Minor oil leaks from the cam cover are common.

Clutches last well unless abused and gearchanging problems are usually down to a failing slave cylinder which is easily fixed. Springs can corrode and crack, but generally the light overall weight of the MX-5 gives the running gear little trouble. Only the last MkI cars were offered with ABS. Windows can stick in their runners, but cleaning and lubrication are all the remedy that is required. The convertible roof lasts well, though seals can deteriorate over time and the windscreen header rail clips can wear. It’s important to raise and lower the roof when checking a potential purchase to ensure all the parts are present and work correctly. Rust can attack the wheelarches, sills, floor and A-pillar bases. It’s important to ensure drain holes in the body and doors are kept clear to avoid rot.

Project cars can be had for £1000 and even the best MkI MX-5s rarely sell for much beyond £5000, so they’re still very affordable. Though 400,000 of the first generation were built before it was replaced by the MkII in 1998, completely standard cars are becoming scarce. Owner David Gange says the lively MX-5 community is one of the highlights of owning the car, with a thriving owner’s club and Facebook groups like the ‘Bunch of Fives’.

‘Weight distribution is virtually 50:50, contributing to the innate balance that makes the Mazda such a joy to drive’

Owning a Mazda MX-5

David Gange, owner of a Mazda MX-5, explains why he wouldn’t be without it, ‘It’s a lifeboat car – if my main car is in for servicing and I need something to go to work I can jump in the garage and I know it’ll always start on a turn of the key. It never lets me down. The previous owner spent £4000 on it, but it’s not cost me a lot. I’ve never had a problem with it – all I’ve done is basic, routine servicing in four years.

‘I don’t do a lot of work on it myself, but there’s a lot of help available online, like the Mazdamenders (mazdamenders.net) all round the country and you can nip round for advice or they’ll help you get it sorted out. Mazda dealers are too expensive.

‘Parts are not a problem to get hold of, in fact they’re in

abundance. I like it as it left the factory, or close to it – I was

even toying with the idea of removing the leather seats. It’s

good, affordable fun.’

1991 Mazda MX-5

Engine All-alloy 1598cc in-line four cylinder, 16-valve, dohc, Bosch L-Jetronic fuel injection

Max Power 114bhp @ 6500rpm

Max Torque 100lb ft @ 5500rpm

Transmission Five-speed manual gearbox, rear-wheel drive

Steering Rack and pinion, power-assisted

Suspension Front: independent, double wishbones, coil springs, anti-roll bar. Rear: independent, double wishbones, coil springs, antiroll bar

Brakes Discs all round

Weight 970kg (2138lb)


Top speed: 117mph

0-60mph: 8.5sec

Fuel consumption 31mpg

Cost new £14,249

Classic Cars Price Guide £1200-£4000

The 1.6-litre engine is no fireball but in such a light car it’s fast enough to be fun.

No luxuries here, just a basic cabin – but this car’s all about fun, not frills. The MX-5’s design reflects the kind of driving sensations it provides – they’re both pure and simple


1965 Volvo 122S Amazon

Our last car, the Volvo 122S Amazon, might look the most staid of the bunch, but it offers wonderfully evocative styling by Volvo’s long-serving chief designer Jan Wilsgaard. A step on from the upright PV series, it took its inspiration from the American cars of the early Fifties. Inside there’s more American influence, with chrome details on the facia and a fantastic strip speedo with a bright red ‘worm’ that grows from left to right to indicate speed. The gearlever is a long, chrome wand which disappears into the floor near the bulkhead, so gearchanges are best made in a deliberate, unhurried fashion.

Despite that, the Amazon has a fair turn of speed for a saloon car of its day. It’s not as heavy as you might imagine – of these six cars only the little Mazda is lighter – so it gathers speed at a reasonable rate, with a willing thrum emanating from the four-pot motor under the bonnet. Acceleration is aided by short gearing, which results in fussy cruising. Owner Malcolm Crosher, like many other Amazon drivers, has swapped in an overdrive gearbox to reduce engine revs on motorway trips. He’s also added electric power steering which kicks in at low speed to reduce parking effort, making it easy to take advantage of the Amazon’s excellent steering lock.

Most cars of the period made do with drum front brakes, but the Amazon has discs, and where rivals had live axles and leaf springs for their rear suspension, the Volvo has a much more modern arrangement of coil springs, radius arms and a transverse Panhard rod to give very positive location. As a result it tackles these twisty Yorkshire lanes with aplomb, always feeling like it’s in control and never worried too much by the odd bump or pothole in the middle of a bend. It’s easy to see why these cars earned a reputation as good rally cars, in an era when solidity, stability and crew comfort were more important than outright speed.

Amazons resist rust better than many contemporaries. Bonnet and boot lids are rarely affected and rotting outer front wings or front panel can easily be replaced. At the front rust can attack the inner front wings, battery box, radiator crossmember and engine cradle. The front chassis rails are susceptible, as are the sills and the crossmember between the two. The main chassis rail from the front bulkhead backwards can be subject to significant corrosion, as can the rear end of the chassis, rear wheelarches, spare wheel well and boot floor. Doors rust at the bottom but repair panels can be welded in. On estates the tailgate can rust, with no repair panels available, and rust can also affect the bottom edge of the rear side window. Brightwork is no longer available for early cars. Bumpers can be expensive so replating the originals is a good option.

Interiors last well, but trim can be hard to source secondhand. Watch for problems with the window winders caused by corrosion or breakage. Engines are good for 150,000 miles or more but worn camshafts can cause tapping noises and valve guide wear leads to oil consumption and smoke. Spares for the early B16 engine can be hard to find but later B18 and B20 engines are better served.

Gearboxes rarely give trouble. Cars in good condition start around £2500 and the best can reach £5000 or more. The rare 123GT, with the two-door body and 1800S-spec twin-carb engine, is the most sought-after and most valuable – but fairly easy to fake, so beware. Picking a winner is difficult because these are such different cars with a wide range of values. The Volvo and Mazda are terrific fun, in very different ways, and won’t cost the earth. The Bristol has effortless class, the Honda and Mercedes feel special yet are practical enough to use most of the year. If I were going to take one home it would be the Porsche: it has faults and idiosyncrasies, but so much character. Whichever you choose it’ll be anything but dull.

Thanks to: Dylan Paddison, Sam Bailey at SL Shop (theslshop.com), David Taylor of the Bristol Owners Club (boc.net), Michael Barton, Chris Simpson, Iain Fleming and Keith Coutts at the Mazda MX-5 Owners Club (mx5oc.co.uk), Graham Horgan at Plans Performance (plansperformance.com), Amazon Cars (amazoncars.co.uk), Robert Whitton at Phoenix Classic Restorations (phoenix-classic-restorations. co.uk), Graham Ford, Porsche Club GB (porscheclubgb.com), Giles Brown at the Mercedes-Benz Club (mercedes-benz-club.co.uk)

‘It tackles these twisty Yorkshire lanes with aplomb, always feeling like it’s in control’

Owning a Volvo Amazon

Malcolm Crosher is a long-term Volvo Amazon owner, ‘I’ve had it 35 years. When I got it there were holes in the front wings you could put your fist through, the back wings were starting to go and there was half an inch of mud in the driver’s footwell. Apart from that, the rest of it was pretty solid.

‘The first time I drained the oil, only two and half pints came out – there was an inch of crud in the sump and I ended up rebuilding the engine. I added an overdrive gearbox and Amazon Cars’ fast road suspension – slightly lowered, Bilstein dampers and negative camber on the front end. The only time it went wrong, it turned out to be a fuel pump valve. I rebuilt it and it’s run ever since.

‘It had a bare-metal respray and repairs four years ago which cost just shy of £7000. I change the oil and adjust the brakes myself. It’s just so simple to work on – you can almost climb in to do work on the engine.’

1965 Volvo 122S Amazon

Engine All-iron 1782cc in-line four cylinder, ohv, eight-valve, two SU HIF carburettors

Max Power 96bhp @ 5600rpm

Max Torque 106lbft @ 3500rpm

Transmission Four-speed manual gearbox, rear-wheel drive

Steering Recirculating ball

Suspension Front: independent, double wishbones, coil springs, anti-roll bar. Rear: live axle, coil springs, radius arms and Panhard rod

Brakes Servo discs front, drums rear

Weight 1090kg (2403lb)


Top speed: 92mph

0-60mph: 14sec

Fuel consumption 28mpg

Cost new £1214

Classic Cars Price Guide £800-£11,250

Amazon’s style was influenced by Fifties American excess, but it doesn’t have the excessive weight. Only the MX-5 is lighter.

Handy tacho under dash is a period accessory; cool strip speedo is standard Short gearing gives lively acceleration.


Dieter Roscheisen 

‘Parts that could not stand the extreme loads were re-made’

Engineering-in reliability requires an intense testing regime, as veteran Porsche test driver Dieter Röscheisen explains Dieter Röscheisen was a Porsche engineer and test driver for more than 40 years, beginning in 1976. ‘From the very beginning, our goal at Porsche was to build great and reliable cars that thrilled the customer,’ he says. ‘It has always been like this. Compared to other automobile companies, we were a small family company, with short decision-making paths. We had excellent and decisive bosses, so we could quickly implement everything.’

Engineering that reliability into the cars began before they were ever built. ‘All new components were tested on different test rigs,’ says Röscheisen. ‘Then the parts were installed in various prototypes and tested in the vehicle. Very important for us were two endurance tests, which each new development had to go through and survive without damage.’ The first, carried out at Porsche’s own Weissach test track, was 3750 miles (6000km) on a washboard surface which could quickly simulate 75,000 miles (120,000km) of real-world driving.

‘It’s extremely hard not only for the vehicles but also for the drivers,’ Röscheisen says. ‘The drivers changed every hour and every 1000km there was a general check, where the body and all other components were inspected for damage and cracks. Parts that could not stand the extreme load were reworked, re-made and re-tested in the next endurance test.’

If a prototype survived that it would go on to an 80,000km (50,000 mile) test on public roads around Stuttgart. ‘We worked three shifts – the morning on country roads, the afternoon in city traffic and the night shift on fast roads. For chassis and tyre tests we went to the Nürburgring Nordschleife, while high-speed testing, lane change tests and brake tests were done at Nardo in Italy or Ehra-Lessien in Germany. For wet-road handling tests we went to Continental’s Contidrom track near Hanover, Dunlop’s track at Wittlich near the Luxembourg border or Goodyear’s at Mireval in France. Steep hills were needed for brake tests, so we took prototypes to the Grossglockner in Austria, the Stelvio pass in Italy and Mont Ventoux in France. We carried out heat and dust testing in Algeria, the USA and Canada, while control systems and ABS were tested in sub-zero temperatures at Arjeplog in Sweden. We tested snow tyres at Turrach in Austria.

‘In the case of a good test driver, driving on the limit must be absolutely secondary, so that he can concentrate fully on the driving behaviour and the various components,’ says Röscheisen. ‘A technical education is also very important. Only if one understands the technology, can one give the constructors the correct feedback.’

Despite their miraculous car control abilities, racing drivers often don’t make great test drivers, he says. ‘They are used to always looking at the stopwatch, so anything that is fast, they will find it good. It does not matter if breakaway is abrupt – a good racer gets along with it. The main thing is the lap time is fast. For a road car, lap times matter less than progressive handling. Here it is important that breakaway must be gentle and announced to the driver in good time. Only then will the normal driver cope and enjoy driving. The car has to be easy for every driver to drive and control.’


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Additional Info
  • Type: Petrol
  • Drive: RWD
  • Type: Petrol