So there I was. It was a cloudy and damp spring day, with grey clouds slowly cycling above, and a humid breeze blowing through a sketchy used car lot in Fredericksburg, Va. I was about an hour away from home, and was really hoping the grey 2002 Porsche 911 Cabriolet I was looking at didn’t need too much mechanical work.
It only took one test drive to figure out the 85,000-mile sports car was a craptastic drop top. This one—with three previous owners and one accident on its Carfax—had numerous signs it had been neglected far too long. The windows didn’t shut correctly. The top didn’t lay flat. The radio didn’t work. A rear tire was slowly leaking.
It was the fifth 996 generation Porsche I had looked at in the past three weeks. My idea of buying a beater Stuttgart car to hold me over until I could afford the one I really wanted (a 2015 Porsche 911 Targa 4S) was quickly fading.
“Ah, what the hell…I’ll ask the shark inside if I can take it for a test drive,” I thought to myself.
One mile outside of Marine Base Quantico—where newly commissioned Devil Dogs become leaders, and the FBI conducts forensic investigations—I mashed the throttle and felt the Tiptronic transmission do its thing.
It pulled hard.
And then I started to turn right at the crest of a wooded two-lane hill.
The steering was completely shot.
At the bottom of the hill, I slammed hard on the brakes. The car emitted a massive screeching sound. The kind of sound that you felt in your lungs. It was metal on metal, and it meant a full rotor, pad and alignment job. The tires needed replacing as well. I’m no Sherlock, but I’m sure Porsche never put Japanese tires on this most unloved generation of 911s.
Then, the v-poly belt started to scream.
“On to the next,” I told myself.
A week later, my wife was running some errands with the kids and I realized I had probably an hour to comb some local used vehicle lots.
I’d given up on the 911 beater idea. My budget for a project car—all in, including purchase and needed repairs—was $16,000. At that price, there weren’t any 996 cars left in the market that required only minor work to make them safe.
With the 996 search off my task list, I’d switched my focus to the fourth-generation BMW E39 5 Series. I’ve always loved the lines of that car. Prices are pretty much at the bottom of the valuation curve for the V8 540i version. I could easily scoop a nice one up for $7,000 to $8,000 and do some tasteful modifications to really make it mine.
So, there I was…again. Another used car lot, same grey circling clouds, and that humid spring breeze. It was a Sunday, and the dealer was closed.
“No sharks to bug me while I shop,” I thought to myself.
I’d come to see a blue BMW E39 that looked promising in the dealer’s web listing. Up close, however, the 540i was a complete rust bucket.
As I walked away, I passed a silver 2005 E55 AMG.
“Wow, that’s clean,” I said under my breath.
I don’t know why I did it, but I pulled the driver’s door handle. The lot was closed and no dealer in their right mind would leave a car unlocked.
But this one did.
I got inside.
Clearly, the car had been fully detailed by a talented technician. Everything was shined, buffed and conditioned. The black AMG leather seats and Alcantara headliner smelled new.
I was liking what I was seeing, so I decided to come back the next day after work to hear the engine and take the car for a test drive. Hopefully, this 469 horsepower Merc would run as good as the car looked.