£10k Convertibles Alfa S4, Porsche 944 Cabrio, Vauxhall VX220, TVR S3, MGB, Sunbeam Alpine, BMW 325i and Morris Minor vie for sunny-weather supremacy
What makes for the best convertible in summer 2017? We test eight convertibles that can be bought for £10k, for now
If you ever needed an illustration of what great value the world of classic cars still has to offer away from the investors’ favourites, check out this tempting array of convertibles, any of which can be bought for £10k or less. That’s base-model Ford Fiesta money, Britain’s best-selling car. The definition of a real-world sum.
It’ll buy you a mint example of the very last of the Alfa Romeo 105-series line. It’s a Nineties car chronologically speaking, with everything that brings including the convenience and efficiency of electronic fuel injection and the peace-of-mind of hot-dip zinc bodyshell galvanising. However, because certain design fundamentals of the Alfa
Romeo Spider S4 remained unchanged ever since Dustin Hoffman stepped over the sill of his Duetto almost 25 years earlier, the driving experience remains joyously lodged in the Sixties.
Thankfully the mid-century driving position was overhauled by the time the Spider’s S4 evolution emerged, with a thoroughly adjustable seat. It works best with the original dished wheel – this car sports a flat-faced aftermarket Nardi item which forces me to stretch a little further than I’d like – but you could still cover much more ground comfortably in this S4 than in any earlier Spider. Nonetheless, the basic elements remain.
The steering is still by unusually sharp recirculating-ball, the rear wheels are still attached to a live axle, and although it’s controlled by German electronics you’ll still find the old chaindriven twin-cam under the bonnet. The view from the driver’s seat is redolent of some of the world’s most desirable classics. You enter past chrome finger-pull doorhandles and settle behind a bulbous pod of big dials, your vision framed by a chrome-edged windscreen. That twin-cam gurgles and rasps, sounding complex and high-pitched. Odd gear lever angle aside, the ambience of this Alfa is far closer to that of a Ferrari 330 GTS than you’d think.
It’s as free-revving as a Ferrari V12 too, spinning up to 4000rpm and beyond with silken ease and feeling far more brisk than its on-paper acceleration figures suggest, helped by the sense of exposure with the roof off. In fifth gear it seems to cruise more comfortably at 80mph than 70, so it manages to feel potent on a motorway drive, with that sense that there’s always more to come. It doesn’t really square with the occasionally voiced opinion that the Spider isn’t a particularly serious sports car.
That criticism is banished altogether when you aim the Spider at a complex of bends at high speed. There’s a bit of body roll but it turns in sharply, and will only wag its tail if you push it. Also, because it was designed from the beginning as a roadster, there’s no untoward scuttle-shake.
Far from it, in fact. You’ll want to drive with the easy-to-use hood down as often as possible in order to hear the glorious noise coming from the exhaust. No matter what you’re doing, it never sounds flat or dull. It burbles expensively at idle, shrieks and crackles under acceleration, and when it’s sustaining 4000rpm it cries out like a Ferrari 308 flat-plane crank V8.
Maybe the shocking Broom Yellow paintwork helps, but the Spider looks, feels and drives like a genuine exotic, albeit in the Sixties dolce vita GT sense.
It makes roofless-roadster motoring easy too. the hood mechanism can be operated with one hand, and the tall windscreen allows you to enjoy the summery sense of exposure without the wind rearranging your face. For someone looking for a classic roadster yet harbouring fears of complex hood frames, flapping leaky vinyl and a nose-height windscreen, the Spider is ideal and the hood design makes it a realistic year-round car with a rapid-response mechanism when caught in sudden downpours.
‘The Alfa never feels like a gutless flamboyance’
That said, it’s not perfect in the GT role. The dated aerodynamics result in wind noise and wander on high-speed straights, and the brakes don’t inspire confidence when slowing sharply from cruising velocities, threatening first to shimmy, then lock and slide. Also, it’s undermined by the too-modern full-width striplight tail, and chunky van-like door mirrors.
But before getting carried away with dreams of twisting B-roads, you’ll need to keep an eye out for footwell corrosion – peel back the floor mats of any prospective purchase – weather-damaged interiors and haywire electrics especially the window switches, but there are few very serious vices to worry about. The Spider S4 is glamorous, iconic, easy to live with and a proper sports car with feet in both the purist Sixties and convenient Nineties camps.
WPorsche 944 S2 Cabriolet spokes, is easy to grasp at a maximum-control quarter-to-three or ten-to-two, and the slick gearchange on its square tunnel is a second-nature hand-drop from the wheel’s wide rim.
The civility only reaches the base of the windscreen though. The 356 Speedster inspiration seems clear in the low, Allen-key affixed roof and eyebrow-height header rail. Unfastening the roof latches and storing the folded canvas under its poppered-down tonneau isn’t the work of a moment and once it’s off, you’re committed to fresh-air thrills until you can find a layby.
Turn the ignition key and you’re greeted with an underwhelming hiss rather than a sporty bark. However, it doesn’t take a particularly long drive for the 944 to shake away its polite understatement and transform itself into a serious sports car. Plant the throttle, work your way through the smoothly-oiled gears, and hear that big ‘four’ transform into a vocal gymnast, as it urges you to its 5800rpm power peak while shoving you firmly into the seat’s embrace with the wind howling over your head. It’s a similar story with the handling – at low speeds the powerassisted 944 feels so insulated and easy to manoeuvre that it promises little involvement in the bends. But the seat clamps you in and its relationship with the tyres’ solid grip, plus the 50/50 chassis balance, involves you in the car’s abilities intensely.
As a result, the 944 isn’t boringly efficient but rather ultracompliant. Everything about the driving experience, from its power delivery and intuitively faithful steering, to the application of the brakes and the way in which the car seemingly holds the road harder the more you push it, is viceless and linear. hy the isn’t more revered even by Porschephiles has always been a mystery to me. Granted, it shares nothing with the 911 other than the gold enamel shield on its nose, but its transaxle platform was conceived to replace the 911’s frankly odd rearengined chassis, and the 944 with its slant-four in three-litre form represents the zenith of the front-engined Porsche.
Perhaps it’s the way familiarity and imitation has dulled the impact of its lines. The Japanese were arch-pilferers of its torpedo-like form, with the Mazda RX-7, Nissan 200SX and Toyota Celica cribbing its shape to the point where the source material struggled to assert its own identity. The issue wasn’t helped by Porsche’s own double-chinned 1988 restyle, and the convertible’s lines aren’t the most harmonious either, ditching the coupé’s elegant rear glass and pert spoiler in favour of a brutally flat bootlid and awkwardly-stacked hood. Unusually it looks better with the roof up, its hunched profile recalling the 356 Speedster.
Any visual quibbles are quickly forgotten once you’re ensconced inside. The endlessly adjustable driving position can be made to fit just about anyone snugly in a straight-legged, sporty posture. The surprising thing about the 944’s interior is the way that things that don’t look particularly ergonomic turn out to be perfectly judged. The steering wheel, for example, with its four parallel
That said, it’s not perfect, most of its issues stemming from its roofless nature. Held on by simple bolts, the hood doesn’t seem particularly secure at speed and scuttle-shake is pronounced, most alarmingly at high speeds when decelerating sharply from 80mph, when you least want to feel it. However, the impression left most strongly is how far removed from the 911 experience the 944 is, and how much better it is as a result. The whim-obeying handling and screaming twin-cam makes the 944 Cabriolet feel like a grown-up Lotus Elan, not a lower-rung 911. Best Porsche for £10k? It’s one of the best Porsches regardless.
‘It doesn’t take long for the 944 to shake its polite understatement’
But you’ll have to act fast - until fairly recently, ten grand was Turbo-only money so far as 944s were concerned. Now if you want a Turbo you’ll need twice that. The 944 S2 Cabriolet may be an underrated Porsche, and quite possibly closer in spirit to the legendary 356 Speedster than Porsche’s try-hard 911-based Eighties tribute, but it’s also a transaxle Porsche on the move at last. Buy yours before everyone else notices – but first have a thorough look for bashed polyurethane corners, scraped alloys and sloppy handling that might indicate previous track-day use.
The Alfa Spider may be a design icon and the Porsche 944 one of the all-time great-handling classic sports cars, but what about owning an icon
of handling for under £10k – the price of a tired or thrashed Lotus Elise? Thankfully there’s a solution – the Vauxhall VX220. Its low residual value might be to do with Vauxhall’s lack of sports-car heritage. But if you ignore the badge on the nose it’s no less a Lotus, built at Hethel on the same aluminium chassis as the Elise, with looks that bypass the 23-tribute Elise S1’s retro and aim for radical modern supercar territory instead. Perhaps it’s the angularity of its body, from the triangular headlights to the shoulder-padded rear via insectoid wheels, but it looks more like a Lamborghini Gallardo than a typical British sports car. Open the door, and you must avoid putting any weight on the wide plastic sill cover as you step into the bare aluminium cockpit. Vauxhall should have covered it in black-and-yellow warning tape and topped it off with ‘No Step’. The driving position is well-devised yet unadjustable, which isn’t as big a problem as you might think given that the monastically minimalist interior frees up space around the key controls, so sitting with your knees bent if you’re tall won’t mean you end up grazing the centre console. Because there isn’t one.
The only real problem is the hood. It’s not that it’s difficult to put on – just click the end-rods into the holes in the header rail and the roll bar and stretch the fabric across – but the roof is so low, and the sills so high, that tall drivers will find boarding with the top in place near-impossible. But after amply contorting yourself, hit the starter button and you’re treated to a potent crackle fired out by the double-stacked field-mortars that pass for exhaust pipes.
It barely takes more than a couple of corners and a few twitches of the tiny arcade-game steering wheel to realise just quite how connected and special this car feels. The unassisted steering tugs at your fingers as the front tyres negotiate individual pebbles, and yet there’s no sense of the car being hyperactively nervous.
One of the many subtle changes to the VX220’S setup compared to the Elise’s gave it fatter tyres and a 33mm-longer wheelbase, all measures aimed at flattering drivers who’d come to it straight from an Astra rather than customers steeped in Lotus lore. The rear end feels unstickable, with overly hard cornering resulting in a hint of easily-corrected understeer rather than snap-oversteer.
The Vectra-sourced drivetrain actually makes for a better ownership experience than the concurrent Rover-engined Elise S1’s. The 2.2-litre four is torquey and understressed and features a much nicer gearbox with a pleasantly mechanical-feeling flickwrist action. Roof off, revs wound up past 4000rpm in fourth gear and accompanied by a muscular mid-range roar, the VX220 not only makes 120mph shockingly easy, it also manages to feel even faster. I last felt this bare cockpit, concentrated mid-engined minimalism and warping scenery in an F40. You can get even closer to supercardom with the two-litre turbocharged VXR version, but this brings extra weaknesses and complexities, and crucially you won’t find one within our £10,000 budget.
Ultimately the normally-aspirated Vauxhall runs out of heave just as a Ferrari F40’s turbochargers would come online, but the VX220 offers all the attributes of a supercar you’d actually be able to use on the road. Interestingly, because of the roll-bar and glass screen nestling up behind your head, it’s actually quite wellinsulated from the wind even at high speeds, feeling more like an open sunroof than a missing upper structure. You get the sense that the roof comes off primarily to aid entry and exit, rather than enhance driving thrills. When you have a chassis so interactive and an interior as focused as this, the fact the roof comes off feels like an afterthought that could easily be forgotten completely.
You’d have to think hard before deciding whether its supercarstyle impracticalities really do have a place in your life. If they do, you’d then need to check for damaged bodywork, listen for engine rattles suggesting it’s been run low on oil, and ensure early recalls to fix crack-prone rear wheelhubs were adhered to. But with good cars from as little as £6k, if it does suit you then it must be one of the most beguiling bargains ever to appear in these pages.
‘The VX220 was set up to flatter drivers who’d come straight from an Astra’
MGB, TVR S3, Porsche 944 S2, Alfa Spider S4, Sunbeam Alpine, Morris Minor, BMW 325i and Vauxhall VX220 – let battle commence!
Unlike forebears, the S4 integrated the Alfa grille into the nosecone smoothly Exotic interior includes strangely angled gear lever Despite Nineties build date the engine was designed in the Sixties
Occupants should ensure their golf sweaters are tied tightly around their shoulders Four-pot sounds underwhelming, but comes alive with revs
Prodigious handling makes the 944 feel like a scaled-up Elan
Styling for Astra graduates with Gallardo aspirations Spartan cockpit has a whiff of Ferrari F40 Never has something from a Vectra been so exciting