Should you listen to the "what if" fear that can accompany classics?

by Rob Sass
5 September 2023 3 min read
The sign Mr. Sass dreads seeing affixed to his garage. Photo by (Getty Images)

I have to confess that my car collecting hasn’t always been free of neuroses. The dominant one is what I like to call “The Nuclear Winter Scenario.” You won’t find it in The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, which is the gold standard of North American psychiatry, but it’s characterized by a fear of having the economic equivalent of a dirty bomb go off in your garage. As a result of this “what if” fear, I’ve sold a number of cars that I really enjoyed and should probably still be enjoying. 

I take pride in my bottom-feeder status. I’ve spent a lifetime picking up some really interesting cars at the bottom of their value curves—some actual A-listers have been among them, too, like a 1967 Maserati Mistral, a 1984 Ferrari 308 GTS QV, and a 1965 Jaguar E-Type coupe. Inevitably, when I buy something like this, I’m met with taunts from my bottom-feeder posse, comparing me to Icarus, the character in Greek mythology who ignored his father’s instructions not to fly too high, lest he have his wax wings melt. 

The thought that I might be flying too close to the sun owning vintage Ferraris and Maseratis was reinforced by the modern-day equivalent of Icarus’ father, Daedelus—the infamous internet forums and the “experts” who opine therein. I loved my Maserati Mistral. It was posh, pretty, and looked expensive with its Borrani wire wheels. The fuel-injected, twin-plug, 4.0-liter straight-six was right out of a 1950s grand prix car. I happily paid the $2500 freight to upgrade the finicky Lucas mechanical fuel-injection system, and I enjoyed the hell out of the car. But my mood shifted after a conversation at Pebble Beach with a marque expert who regaled me with a story about a Mistral owner whose car had a timing chain break. “He’s still waiting for a set of pistons and his shop bill is over $30,000,” I was told.

Dark thoughts of expensive repairs forced your author to sell his lovely Mistral… for a loss.

Paranoia was my co-pilot with every subsequent Maserati drive. I sold the car at a loss in 2009, and I’ve seen it twice since—once on a multiplex screen (it’s the car parked outside the villa of René Mathis, James Bond’s doomed fellow spy in A Quantum of Solace), and then last year at Rétromobile, where it sold at an auction for about three times what I got for it. I’ll never own a car like that again, and that realization makes me more than a bit sad. 

The Mistral, looking like a million bucks in A Quantum of Solace. (MGM)

Oddly enough, I never really had such fears with my Ferrari 308. I had the good sense to listen to my friend Art Mason, who was a multiple 308 owner and a Ferrari Club of America judge. He was fond of reminding me that the bottom ends of 3.0-liter Ferrari V-8s are pretty much bullet-proof, and top-ends are generally good for at least 75,000 miles (my car was about 50K shy of that at the time). Gearboxes rarely fail, and if you are diligent with timing belt changes, there’s no real nuclear winter scenario with a 308. I had it for an angst-free four years, did a belt change, and replaced a few power window switches, and that was it. 

The Porsche world that I mostly inhabit now is far from free of “what-if” angst. Not long ago, I daily drove what was probably the best car I’ve ever owned, a 2002 Porsche 996 Twin Turbo. It was brilliant at everything, in all weather. Maintenance expenses were, however, exotic-Italian-car level. To accomplish nearly anything, the engine had to come out. After being told that the coolant system refresh the car was due for could total almost nine grand (after all of the “while we’re in there, let’s do this stuff”), the anxiety of having that big of a mouth to feed became crippling, and the 996 TT was no more.

Also crippling was the naturally aspirated 996 that followed, a Guards Red car with a factory aero kit. It was a concours-quality GT3 look-alike, but the bore-score and cylinder failure issues that affect a tiny minority of these cars took up space in my head, and eventually I rationalized selling it for a far less exciting gen-2 997 cabriolet.

The point is, in 30 years of playing with cars, despite my fears, I’ve actually never had a nuclear winter event occur. Not even close. It’s all been unproductive worrying about what-ifs. The silver lining, I suppose, is that such worrying has forced me from car to car to car, which is the best kind of musical chairs there is.


  • Gary Bechtold says:

    911 Turbo maintenance costs are quite crazy. I love the cars but I’m too scared to own one due to them.

  • Ken Randall says:

    A doctor friend of mine bought a brand new 911 in and around 2016. He had ceramic brakes and told me a complete ‘brake job’ back in the day would set him back close to $24k. I can’t get my head around that number and have to question whether or not he had misquoted on that repair number. Comes with the territory I suppose owning what I believe is one of the most cherished classics that hasn’t been bastardized in form or function.

  • Rusty Bentley says:

    I’ve had a few “nuclear events” in my 35 years of collecting odd stuff. Thirty years ago I was driving my 1938 Rolls-Royce from Salem, Oregon to Seattle for a club meet. At about Tacoma I lost significant oil pressure combined with a loud death rattle under the hood. Had the car flat bedded back to Salem, drained the oil and big chunks of babbit bearing metal came out with the oil. The rods on these are babbited, Rolls-Royce having not discovered insert rod bearings yet. I despaired that I could ill afford the probably $35,000 repair bill on a $30,000 car so I sold it. I advertised it and fully disclosed it had a bad engine. Buyer from New York called and asked if his local friend, an “expert” could come inspect. Of course I said yes. The “expert” arrives, I start the engine, knock knock knock at idle, worse when slowly revved. I declined his request for an actual drive as I feared a rod exiting the block or something like that. “Expert” stated he needed to call his friend, I overhear the conversation: “This Rolls owner has no idea what’s wrong – it’s just a tappet noise, all it needs is a valve adjustment – buy this car!” Now, he’s the “expert” sent by the buyer so I’m not going to argue or intercede. Buyer gets me on the phone, a price is negotiated and car is sold. When all was said and done, I asked the “Expert” where he got his Rolls-Royce experience. Answer – “I restore John Deere farm tractors, they sound just like this too.”

    Second nuclear event – by this time I was living in Hood River, Oregon and I had a very nice 1953 Bentley R Type. The oil filter is very hard to change on these cars and a member of the RROC had developed and was selling an adaptor to put a modern spin-on oil filter on so I bought one. It installed easily, didn’t leak and appeared to be the right choice. One morning I was leaving Hood River, accelerating down the on-ramp to the freeway west and as I reached about 70 mph I was watching for merging traffic so did not have my eyes on the oil pressure gauge. I was alerted to the problem by an instantaneous loud clatter which immediately brought my eyes to the gauge – ZERO – oil pressure. Immediately shutting off the engine, I coasted to the side of the road and called AAA. The oil filter adapter had fractured and literally fell off the motor and I suspect the entire 10 quarts of the Bentley oil pan were pumped out onto the freeway onramp within 3 seconds! I later retraced my tracks and could clearly see where the oil had dumped all over the asphalt. This engine wa toast too! Fortunately the seller of the part had insurance that eventually paid the $35,000 repair cost but that is another long story for another time.

    That first 1938 Rolls-Royce, it turns out the “expert” was wrong, I was right and the new buyer gave up and sold it to a wholesaler who returned it to England where it was repaired and is apparently still running around today.

  • Danny Tuel says:

    Was selling a 1958 Metropolitan. A man that was interested in it was 200 Miles away. He called me and we set up a meeting. He said he had a friend who was a foreign car expert and he was bringing him with him. I said , That’s good, He will be able to assure you all of the mechanical is good.
    They show up and the expert starts doing his inspection. I pop the hood and he says thats a 1600 Austin engine !! I said yes it is an Austin but it’s a 1500 and that’s what Nash Metropolitan put in them. He said he was an expert foreign car mechanic and he was familiar with that engine and it was a 1600. I grinned and said I guess you know more than me then. So much for the expert 🙂 I had the car priced as low as I was willing to go and the guy offered me $200 less. I said no, I’m going to stick at my original price. He said , Do you mean you would lose this sale over $200 !! I said, You drove 200 miles to get here, Do you mean you would go home empty handed over $200 🙂 He bought the car at my original price 🙂

    • Iso_Grifo says:

      That Mistral. It’s not a complicated modern car. You could have had the chain cam refreshed if you were so scared. Ideally you’d have a garage, yank it yourself, and replace it for a tiny fraction of the horror stories. Yeah, rhose cars have increased DRAMATICALLY since you sold yours. The modern botton feeder has youtube and websites. They just have to plan, get videos from people doing it, and take their time, redoing anything as reauired. You can fix any car from the 1960’s now. Just takes the will. That Mistral is worth 3 times what you sold ir for, I’m sure.

  • paul s murray says:

    You’ll always find those nay sayers who tell you to ‘look out for this!’ . Nine times out of ten it’s just what happened to their car for whatever reason and not a factory defect that you need to sweat. You’ve already done the research and are keeping up, looking out for those problems. If you think about any internal combustion engine, running at this many r.p.m. , with the pistons going up and down this many times, and the valves opening and closing, and the crank and cam(s) spinning at and … then do the math, it’s amazing a lawn mower engine doesn’t explode in less than thirty seconds. But it doesn’t . You know how your car sounds and how it feels and when it seems off kilter you investigate. Baby it till you find what’s wrong. Think it through. The best you can do is the best you can do. Cars are like people and-” one day we are all going to have a really really bad day” no matter what . Keeping that in mind is the only way to stay Buddha Yes and stop “what if ing” instead of being in the moment and enjoying the ride. But that is all too easy to say and much harder to get in that lane of the highway. So just watch your gauges and your top knot.

  • paul s murray says:

    (ps) but I do understand. Working on old Maserati isn’t a matter of just going to the local parts store,ordering what you’ll need and grabbing the Haynes Manual ( which, even when, are all too frequently less than the complete teardown that they claim. ) and watching a few videos from guys you wouldn’t trust to change your front brake pads. One missed step one false move and ‘Oh shit!’ Check lists and old cupcake tins to keep those parts in order. ” Crank it over just once.” Worse I’ve got a small but ‘new car ‘ electric gremlin that popped up. I hate those.

  • Doug says:

    I ignored the IMS boogey men because my ’99 996 with the double row bearings had plenty of miles on it. I had the oil sump inspected, and no bits were in it. I checked the filters with each change, and it was always clean. Then one day, kapow. I was lucky to have purchase it before prices increased, and I sold it as a roller for $1k less than my purchase price.

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