By: John Osborn
One of the most exciting developments in the automotive hobby of recent, has been the growth of interest in cars from the 1980s and 1990s. Radwood was one of the first, and is now an increasingly popular series of car shows focused on those years. Perhaps you’re thinking of buying one of these cars to take part in the fun, to bring back some memories of your youth, or just because you think they’re cool? Before laying down cash, like many things, it pays to do some research first.
Radwood era cars have the advantage of being, in many cases, far less expensive than traditional collectible cars from the 1950-70s. Lots of these cars are available for just a few thousand dollars because the appeal isn’t universal. That mint early production Oldsmobile Silhouette might be an object of your desire, but to most people it’s still just a tired old minivan. So yes, there are deals to be had on vehicles, but the primary problem is availability of parts.
Traditional hobby cars have an extensive network of enthusiasts and aftermarket suppliers to help keep those old cars on the road, do a full restoration, or even build something custom. Buy an old Bel Air, Mustang, Firebird, or Corvette and you’re pretty much set. You can buy most anything you’ll need, brand new, right from a catalog or website.
I own a 1988 Ford Thunderbird Turbo Coupe, a model that was only sold for two years, which has some special features. The Haynes manual does not include the turbo motor, and does not even officially cover the 1983-88 Thunderbird (though the information in the Mustang or Fairmont manual is useful). Parts availability is very much a mixed bag, in that a lot of core mechanical parts are easy to get, thank to is sharing a platform with the 1978-93 Mustang. Ford sold millions of Fox platform cars and they remain very popular. But some Turbo Coupe specific parts, especially for the adjustable suspension and (advanced for their time) anti-lock brakes, are very hard to acquire.
It’s a different story when you own a less traditional enthusiast car. One that has been out of production for decades, has long been abandoned by the manufacturer, from a manufacturer who has abandoned the American market, and has limited if any aftermarket support. The Isuzu Impulse is a great car, all but guaranteed to attract a crowd at any Radwood event, but it’s a challenging car to own. I asked Francisco Guerrero about his Impulse:
As far as parts, it’s like a reverse `Walking Dead’ situation - the live eat the dead and the sick to survive. At our Facebook group we are constantly monitoring the country for parts cars, and asking each other for parts once we even mention giving up on a car.
In my case, I have two Isuzu Impulses, the 1987 Turbo, all complete, all stock, in perfect order, and a 1988 NA (Naturally Aspirated) that has taken, I kid you not, six months to get `fixed’ - since finding a replacement transmission took three months, and then finding the correct flywheel has taken another three months.
I monitor eBay probably four to six times each week, and do a nationwide Craigslist search fairly often. Most parts are no longer made, and not even Isuzu Japan has them anymore.
Finding mechanics willing to deal with these cars is also very hard. Most mechanics are used to calling for parts and having them the next day - and nobody wants to give up space for months while trying to find parts.
I would recommend that you are somewhat mechanical and have a place to fix the car, because most mechanics will give you a hard pass after the fifth day passes when they cannot get parts. Maintenance stuff is easy to get, but not actual parts.
The lesson here is to do your research before you buy a car. Try to find a club, online forum, mailing list, or anything else that will help you understand the support environment for whatever you’re thinking about buying. Check if the Haynes or Chilton manual is still in print, and if not find an old copy on eBay.
I started shopping for a Turbo Coupe knowing to look for a car with good brakes and suspension because fixing either one could be a challenge. In general, the more obscure and poorly supported the car the more important it is to follow the old advice of buying the best one you can afford. You might be able to keep a good Subaru XT6 or Chevrolet Spectrum Turbo running, but restoring a bad one is going to be very, very difficult. In contrast, you can build a new 1965 Mustang around a VIN plate if your credit card can stand it.
Unlike a 1960s muscle car, the cars from the 1970s to the turn of the 21st-century relied on a lot of plastic parts, and electronics. You can fix metal parts or fabricate new mechanical linkages, but newer cars come with modern challenges. Plastic gets brittle with age, and was used for some critical parts in 1980s fuel and cooling systems. Almost nobody these days remembers how to troubleshoot or repair a Chrysler lean burn "Electronic Spark Control" ignition.
So yes, buy and enjoy something cool from the newest generation of hobby cars, enter in a Radwood show, or just drive to your local Cars and Coffee, but do your homework first. Know what to look for and what it’s going to take to get it running or keep it on the road. The last thing you want is to buy something rare that only needs a few things fixed, only to discover that those parts you need are impossible to get. That’s no bargain and no fun at all.