Market Spotlight

Fatal Attraction: Three British beauties that are cheap to buy, expensive to own

by Andrew Newton
9 December 2021 6 min read
Image
Photo by Dean Smith

It always looks so tempting in the classifieds. A high-end classic you could only dream of buying when new, now for sale for used VW Jetta money.

Of course, it isn’t that simple, is it? If buying a high-end, sporty status symbol for family sedan money sounds too good to be true, that’s because it is. Some cars are cheap to buy because they’re so darn expensive to own and maintain. That’s especially the case when the car in question is—what’s a nice way to say this?—from a lovely island off the coast of Normandy.

As we’ve been updating the Hagerty Price Guide over the past several weeks, three modern British cars we track in particular stood out as still having surprisingly low values. But even though they might get your heart racing on the computer screen, they will probably break it once that first service bill comes in. To be clear, we’re not advising anybody to avoid these cars. Just know that the budget to own one is about more than what it says on the bill of sale, and don’t think you can get away with just changing the oil and spark plugs.

1976-96 Jaguar XJ-S (12-cylinder)

Tom Wood / Courtesy RM Sotheby’s

Although the XJ-S was never meant as a direct replacement for the E-Type, its place in Jaguar history is as the E’s disappointing follow-up. When the XJ-S coupe was introduced in late 1975, few people fell in love with the oblong headlights or flying buttresses, and a thirsty 5.3-liter V-12 seemed a little out of place when a fuel crisis was still fresh on everybody’s minds. Jaguar nevertheless sold 115,000 XJ-Ss over the course of two decades, and the XJ-S was as much of an ’80s status symbol as a Mercedes 560SL. It’s a fine, comfortable, fast grand tourer when running right, and its looks have arguably aged quite well.

Jaguar made constant updates to the XJ-S to keep it competitive. A revised combustion chamber for the HE (High Efficiency) engine arrived in 1981, resulting in more power and fuel economy. A targa-type convertible arrived in 1983, along with a new 3.6-liter straight-six engine called the AJ6. A full factory convertible arrived in 1989. With Jaguar under full Ford ownership in 1991, the XJS (now without the hyphen) got a major facelift, with the six-cylinder punched out to 4.0 liters and the V-12 to 6.0 liters (in 1992). The inboard rear brakes also moved outboard, a new GM automatic transmission was added, and major body panels were galvanized for better rust protection. There were tons of smaller updates along the way.

Today, despite rust, neglect and the occasional crash having taken many XJ-Ss off the road, the model’s long production run and steady sales mean that there are a lot of them still out there. And, after the Jaguar XJ-12, an XJ-S is the cheapest car with a 12-cylinder engine in the Hagerty Price Guide.

After E-Type values skyrocketed in the mid-2010s, XJ-Ss started to follow suit. Over the last five years condition #2 (Excellent) values are up over 50 or 60 percent for some years, but the median #2 value for a V-12 XJ-S is still $27,600. For #3 (Good) condition cars it’s just $13,600. Some Jaguar experts will advise you to buy a six-cylinder XJ-S because it’s just as stylish, almost as smooth, and plenty quick enough as well as way simpler to keep running. Because of that, six-cylinder values are within 2 to 5 grand of the equivalent 12, depending on year and condition.

That said there’s just something about a V-12 that’s irresistible.

Any XJ-S is rust-prone, and rust repair is never cheap. Jacking points, sills, rear wheelarches and floorpans are trouble spots on early cars, and even though the post-1991 facelifted cars are galvanized, they aren’t immune. Rot around the windscreen scuttles is common on those. Getting at the rear suspension is difficult since it’s housed within a subframe along with the differential, and inboard rear brakes are of course always a headache to work on, in the Jag’s case sometimes requiring the rear of the car to be dropped.

Being an old British car, an XJ-S can also have electrical gremlins living in there full time, with things like power windows or mirrors and air conditioning systems being common failures. The wood veneer trim on the interior can dry out and crack as well.

As for the (usually) silent and silky smooth V-12 under the hood, specialists say it is a perfectly robust and reliable unit if it has been fastidiously maintained. A big if. Very few XJ-Ss have led a pampered life over the past 25-45 years. The top of the engine bay in an XJ-S is a labyrinth of wires and vacuum lines. It doesn’t help that the V-12 tends to run hot, and that leads to drying, cracking, and fraying. Coolant needs to be replaced every two years.

A lot of parts are available, including from Jaguar Classic, but many are tough to find as well as expensive, and plenty of beached XJ-Ss are cannibalized for components. All of the above means that four-figure shop bills for body work and mechanical servicing are common, and that hurts when we’re talking about a $15,000 car.

1994-2004 Aston Martin DB7

The DB7 actually owes part of its existence to the Jaguar XJ-S above. Much of its design dates back to a proposed replacement for the XJ-S that was canceled at the beginning of the ’90s, when both storied brands were owned by the Blue Oval. Aston then repurposed it for its latest model and had Ian Callum and Keith Helfet pen what turned out to be one of the nicest shapes of the decade. In addition to the Jaguar DNA, and thanks to a tight budget at Aston Martin at the time, there were also Citroën mirrors and Ford switchgear. The interior door handles are, believe it or not, from an NA Miata. But despite the parts bin bits and a six-figure price tag, the DB7 was a success. Autocar proclaimed that it was “re-establishing Britain at the cutting edge of specialist car making,” and Aston sold about 7000 DB7s, making it the company’s best seller to date.

Today, a DB7 is the cheapest way to get your Aston Martin wings. Condition #2 values for a DB7 range from $28,000 to $45,000 depending on engine and body style (add 25 percent for a stick shift), and the DB7 market has looked that way for quite some time. The median condition #2 value is within a few hundred dollars of where it was at the end of 2009, which is a bit surprising given what has happened in the market for other sporty 1990s and 2000s cars lately. DB7s arguably have room to grow (we even put them on this year’s Hagerty UK Bull Market list), but the realities of servicing a DB7 start to explain why it can be had at bargain prices.

The first DB7s came with 3.2-liter Eaton supercharged version of Jaguar’s AJ6 straight-six (the one also found in the XJ-S). Leaking oil coolers and failing timing chain tensioners are problem areas on those. The 5.9-liter V-12 that debuted in 1999 has a reputation for overheating, and needs coil packs every three years. Electrical failures are a common and expensive fix, and as DB7s get older, unique parts from a low-volume manufacturer like Aston Martin are going to get tougher to find. Bringing a DB7 to a specialist or dealer (which aren’t on every street corner) can be $1500 just for a routine service, and that’s assuming nothing goes wrong. Needless to say, that’d be an unwise assumption.

1985-97 Bentley Turbo R

Tom Wood / Courtesy RM Sotheby’s

Introduced in 1985 (1988 in the U.S.) as a replacement for the Mulsanne Turbo and available in short or long wheelbase, the Bentley Turbo R mainly differed from its predecessor in its much-improved suspension. The R stands for “roadholding,” not “race,” but the suspension allowed the Turbo R to be a competent performer when it wanted to be and not just a plush cruiser. Being a Bentley, though, it was still plush. Acres of Connolly leather and real wood, plush carpets, the usual stuff.

And with a median condition #2 value of just $22,600 (Turbo Rs were closer to 200k when new) for such a hand-built, V-8, turbocharged, 5400-pound brick of English magnificence, how could you not be at least a little bit tempted? Bentley sold more than 7000 Turbo Rs so they’re relatively common by pre-Volkswagen-era Bentley standards and not that difficult to find, plus low mileage is relatively common.

But as with any Rolls-Royce or Bentley, owning a Turbo R isn’t for the faint of heart or wallet. Cars with ride height control need a specific fluid that runs through both the ride height and braking systems. Curiously, the Turbo R also uses a specific size of Avon tire, the going rate for which is $500 each. As for the tightly-packed engine bay that houses the 6.75-liter turbocharged V-8, head gaskets are becoming a common issue as the cars get older. If a head gasket fails and damages the engine, factor in a five-figure bill just for the labor it will take to fix it. As with the Aston Martin, Rolls-Royce/Bentley specialists can be few and far between, and even just a routine trip to one can be over a grand even if nothing major needs fixing.

Even taking all that into account, it’s still easy to daydream about buying a Bentley (or Jaguar or Aston Martin) for Mustang money, but don’t say we didn’t warn you.

[For the record, Newton owns a Lotus.–Ed]

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Comments

  • Donald Little says:

    I have no worries on these three as they are all beyond my monetary means. LOL

  • Ken Sousa says:

    Mostly that’s all that Hagerty discusses any more. Cars that are foreign in origin and well beyond the average enthusiast’s means.

  • Jim says:

    Refreshingly honest commentary about “ the cars from a lovely Island, etc”. But all of us of a certain age knew these things about the British cars. Thanks for this 🙂

  • KY Colonel says:

    The Aston Martin is a gorgeous car and one of my all-time favorites, aesthetically speaking.
    I used to dream of owning one, but I changed my mind after I became somewhat educated. 👨‍🎓

  • Tim Morgan says:

    Regarding the Aston Martin DB7, there is one major error regarding the origin of AM’s 5.9L V12 – it is NOT two DuraTec V6s stuck together. It’s development was way more complex and subtle than that. Yes, Aston’s now venerable V12 was originally developed by Ford Advanced Powertrain in the late 1990s for the DB7 utilizing some DuraTec V6 and Cosworth F1 racing technologies. According to Anthony Musci, the principal Ford development engineer, the idea it is not much more than two Eco V6s stuck together is completely incorrect. It shares some of the concepts with the DuraTec engines, but the V12 is a completely unique design intended from the start to provide performance growth and racing capabilities. That has proven out with an outstanding race history and naturally aspirated variants that generate over 820 HP. Learn more at: https://www.designjudges.com/articles/the-origins-of-aston-martins-v12

  • Greekster says:

    I have a turbo r from 1991. Amazing beast of a car. You have to have a guy of certain expertise to work on this or any other high performance collector car or forget it. Yes, early days of computers on it and ECM units from Bosch are unobtainium or hella expensive. The coolness of these cars are worth the hassle for you, or not.

  • Don Homuth says:

    As the bumper snicker reads: “The parts that fall off this car are of the finest British manufacture.”

  • George Costello says:

    Please do a similar article on the Bentley Continental GT to help me shake off my urge to own one. I should know better just because they’re British, but they are SO gorgeous. I need a reality check ASAP. Thank you.

  • Doc says:

    I’ve been fixing and paying MY bills on these cars for 50 years now. If you want a blonde wife with big-tits, well it’s going to cost you and you better pay up and shut-up about it too

  • Dwayne Wertman says:

    I had a Jaguar XKE and on the wall over the car was a poster. A picture of the Lucas electric plant at night LUCAS three of the letters in the sign were burnt out.

  • Jerry Bresee says:

    I owned a 2012 Bentley Continental GT it was the most beautiful car I ever owned until I needed a small pollution part needed to be replaced…about $100. The dealer in Seattle would not sell my repair shop the part. We tried Hollywood and San Diego also. Seems they want me to bring the car to them… about a 5 hour drive for me. I found the used part in Canada and had it installed. Check engine light stayed off, so I traded it for a Mercedes a year ago. My wife is still pissed at me.

  • Mike Deni says:

    Ditto!

  • Maestro1 says:

    Andrew, good article.
    I’ve had two Jaguars, but not 12s, 6 cylinder cars after being scared off the 12 cylinder cars for the reasons you mention. I don’t know anything about the other two. My only experience with Bentley was a lovely ’65, which I enjoyed a great deal. I was near a British Motor Car Dealer at the time, but found little reason to be there.
    I briefly drove a Rolls in California, with much pleasure. Stay well.

  • Robert Lattanzio says:

    I have a 86 XJ-SC. Yes the targa model. Biggest trouble that I had with the car is that someone did not know how to work on it in the past. When I opened the hood for the first time it was very intimidating, but if you just take your time it’s not so bad. The biggest thing is trying to understand how the British mind works and why they did the things like they did when there may have been a simpler approach.

    Once everything was put back in proper order the V-12 is amazing. Very smooth with enough power to haul all that weight around. So say what you will, but if you’re willing to learn and dive into repairs yourself ownership might not be too bad. Shop around for parts to find the best deals.

  • Ezskankin says:

    What confounds me is why, after all these years most British built cars are still unreliable–especially when cars from just about anywhere else have achieve remarkable reliability. Look how quickly companies like KIA and Hyundai went from unreliable to the very reliable cars they are today. Even American high performance cars today are quite reliable. I think the “Prince of Darkness” (Lucas) still haunts all of the British Auto Industry

  • Irwin Trester says:

    I just took “Ben” my Turbo R for a “walk” this morning and my entire life was lifted as I wafted down the 405 with E. Power Biggs blazing on the organ through my new speakers, Bach Fugue in D minor.This was a natural high, for a price, unobtainable any other way.
    Yes, I have the best Bentley mechanic engineer. Yes, he does proudly fly the Jolly Roger flag at his entrance, but wtf, what a high when Ben and me are styling down the road.

  • xbioman says:

    I had an 87 XJS-HE V12. Bought it for $4,500 and sold it 5 years later for $5,500. Put about $3K into it in the interim. Had to replace the air conditioning and had to fix as many of the oil leaks as I felt like spending money on. It still leaked from the rear main seal when I sold it. But driving the V12 was amazing. I took it up to 165MPH once and it was still pulling when I lifted my foot. The key to owning it was knowing an excellent Jaguar mechanic. When I first brought it in to him to check out before I bought it, he put it on his dyno and told me he had never seen one put out as much power as that one did. I don’t miss owning the car because it was in the shop for one thing or another all the time and it leaked oil all over the driveway, but I am really glad I got to experience it for a while.

  • Wigwam says:

    The DB7 commentary seems to paint something of a worst case scenario. They aren’t cheap to run, and you shouldn’t get one if you actually can’t afford the financial shocks, but those shocks are by no means guaranteed. For instance, my DB7V managed 9 years and 32,000 miles on its first set of coils (not in my ownership, but it has an excellent service record). 11 years and 8,000 miles later, the second set is still going strong – the previous owner to me didn’t use it enough, in fact I’m not even sure why he bought it. Anyway, it’s not all doom and gloom, more the sort of gamble where sometimes you win. And as a long distance cruiser, it is perfection…go on, I dare you. We only live once, and this isn’t a trial run: surprise yourself.

  • TERRY says:

    I’ve had 3 Turbo R’s since 2006 & can honestly say they are worth the potentially high maintenance & parts costs.
    Buy a 1989 or older 20000 series to avoid active suspension issues & expensive shock absorbers, no DIP display issues & alarm system problems & no driver’s air bag that will have clock spring &/or Air Bag Light on. Good example is the wiring diagram on a 1990 or newer model is 3 times the size of the 1989 model.Later after 1993 models have Zytec Fuel Injection which is subject to fuel rail O ring failure & head gasket issues instead of Bosch CIS which is well supported as is basically same as used on W126 MBs. Buy the right car & you will be a happy owner.The issues I mentioned are the main reason Utube’s & Hoovie’s Garage technician ” The Car Wizard” doesn’t like these cars.

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