Cars we wish we'd bought when they were cheap

The Auto Express team rues the cars that were once obtainable, but are now beyond reach

Regret is a dangerous thing. Normally we’re pretty optimistic here, so while a car purchase can go awry, there’s always scope for the next one to be better, especially with so many cars still likely to become future classics.

But everyone has a car that they’ve never quite managed to buy, an itch they haven’t scratched. In many cases, the price has since soared beyond reach, but that doesn’t mean they’re forgotten.

The team at Auto Express are no different, with many of us fondly looking back and wishing we'd have taken the plunge and bought that car we really wanted at the time. Below we've rounded up the cars we really wish we’d bought.

Audi RS 4 B5

My addition to our remorseful list is Audi’s B5-generation RS 4 Avant. This high-performance estate wasn’t the first, most aggressive or most powerful in its lineage, but it might be the most interesting. These are almost non-existent in my native Australia, and not long after arriving in the UK around a decade ago, I found a perfect example hovering around the £8-10k mark.

Back then, I thought it was the sensible part of my brain that kept me from plunging my travel money into a car, blowing it instead on a six-month jaunt around Europe (I know, how original). With the joy of hindsight, however, it’d be much more appreciated in the form of a high-performance modern classic sat on my non-existent driveway, rather than at the bottom of a shot glass.

What makes the B5 so special? Well aside from a bespoke body, it features a twin-turbo 2.7-litre V6. It might be easy to pass it off as a tuned version of the contemporary S4’s motor, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Instead, the V6 engine was re-engineered by British specialist Cosworth.

The chassis and interior were also updated, but after driving Audi UK’s superbly kept example in its heritage fleet for our RS Avant feature in Issue 1,806, I can confidently say it’s the engine that makes the RS 4 a total revelation.

Today, you’ll need to spend around £30,000 to find one in a decent non-modified state, as a few did fall victim to the tuning scene after the Cossie block’s full potential started to be realised.

Renault Clio 172 Cup

I could have easily added a BMW to this list, but in the name of variation I’ve picked the Renault Clio 172 Cup. I can already hear the bewildered hot-hatch purists question why I’ve not chosen the 182 Trophy instead, especially since clean examples of the Trophy have roughly doubled in value over the past six years. The answer is pretty simple – usability.

But why was the 172 Cup on my radar to begin with? Well, the lightest of all the Renaultsport Clios, the 172 Cup weighed just 1,021kg. To achieve this, it disposed of some sound deadening and the air-conditioning, used thinner windows and had a flat rear bench. It also had a healthy 168bhp at its disposal, resulting in a better power-to-weight ratio than the EP3-generation Honda Civic Type R. There were also some chassis tweaks over the regular 172, such as a wider track and firmer springs. Compared with the ‘full-fat’ Clio 172 and 182s, the Cup did feel a bit cheaper inside, but it’s more communicative as a result of the weight-saving measures.

Since a 172 Cup was going to be my only car at the time, I assumed it would be too hard-edged to drive every day and played it safe in the end, going with the more practical and easier-to-live- with Clio 197. I don’t regret buying the newer car, with its cruise control, relatively softer ride and marginally better built and larger cabin all appreciated. I was also more comfortable exploring the depths of the 197’s performance (more than the rarer 172 Cup and certainly the sacred 182 Trophy). The desire to create a Clio 172 Cup-sized space on my drive lingers on, though, and with prices finally rising, it could be now or never.

Lancia Delta Integrale

If money were no object, my dream garage would be filled with eighties performance icons; a Peugeot 205 GTi, BMW E30 M3, Lancia Delta Integrale and Ferrari F40 would make me very happy. I was lucky enough to own a 205 GTi for five years, and the Ferrari will never be remotely anything other than a lottery-win car, but the Lancia and BMW have been attainable in my lifetime. Unfortunately, when they were modestly priced coincided with my time as a student, and therefore much too broke to even consider buying one.

I’m going to focus on the Lancia here, because I’ve had my fair share of BMWs previously (none as special as the M3, mind you), nor have I ever owned anything with a turbo or four-wheel drive, so the Delta is the more exciting choice for me.

For starters, it looks fantastic; the humdrum seventies hatchback body was turned up to 11 to accommodate the wheels, tyres and even extended suspension travel to make it worthy of homologation for Group A rally regulations. Inside, the boxy dash is finished off by the scattering of gauges in the instrument binnacle; the yellow-on-black clocks rank among the best looking ever fitted to a road car.

I’ve only experienced an Integrale Evo from the passenger seat, when it was driven with the enthusiasm a rally icon deserves. Even from the wrong side of the cockpit, its grip, balance and adjustability shone through. No wonder it dominated rallying in the late eighties and early nineties.

Hit the classifieds today and three letters often appear: POA. That’s admittedly for an Evo – I’ll settle for a Giallo Ginestra edition, please – but the earlier eight and 16-valve models start off at around £30,000. Rewind 20 years, and Evos could be found for less than that.

Porsche 911 (993)

I’d love to see a Porsche 911 on my driveway (note: must buy a house with driveway first). For me, it’s the quintessential sports car – perfect for any occasion, whether that’s running errands, tackling a track day, or crossing entire countries without stopping.

And while the latest 992-generation car will do everything that’s asked of it, and the previous version is as usable now as it was at launch, it’s the older 993 from the early nineties that tickles my fancy. It’s widely regarded as the prettiest of all the 911s, which to my eyes, only strengthens its appeal.

I’ve never actually driven one, but historical and contemporary tests suggest the last air-cooled 993 is super-sweet to drive – feeling suitably analogue to the experienced driver, but without the widow-maker stigma that plagued the fastest of its predecessors.

As with all classic Porsches, values have shot up. I’ve no doubt it was once possible to purchase a well cared-for example for under £20k. About seven or eight years ago, I remember a friend picked one up for just £30,000 – only to be offered 50 per cent more for it 18 months later.

Now, you’re looking at upwards of £60k for a tidy Carrera with the essential manual gearbox. Yet 993s of all types are getting rarer – they were only built for a comparatively short period between 1994 and 1998, when it was superseded by the water-cooled 996.

Lotus Carlton

I had a big thing for Lotuses back in the day. It all started with the Esprit S1 in the James Bond movie The Spy Who Loved Me back in 1977 – not that I wanted one that turned into a submarine, but it got me hooked on the Lotus brand.

As an eight year-old I had a jar with a label on it proclaiming my desire to stash away any spare coins to put towards my first Lotus. That Lotus arrived in 1990 in the shape of a steel-blue Elan SE, registration H3 LAN.

If this feature was entitled cars you never wish you’d sold, my Elan would be top of the list (followed by a Citroen AX GT). But another fascination I have, and one that I share with my father, is for the good old Vauxhall Carlton. This was a car that proved to me that Vauxhall (and Opel) could build a car every bit as good as the premium German marques in terms of quality and dynamics.

And then Lotus got hold of it, gave it the type designation of Lotus 104, and my heart skipped a beat. Back in the early nineties when recession was biting, the sub-£50,000 377bhp Carlton wasn’t the hit Vauxhall thought it would be – only 320 were made. Prices dropped on the used market, but now sit way above that original list price – a mint Carlton could well top six figures these days.

This supercar slayer with four doors and a decent boot seemed to be a relative bargain – but I couldn’t persuade my dad to chop in his ex-company car Carlton along with my Elan for Lotus’s last four-door before this year’s new Eletre.

The classifieds reveal a handful of apparently well cared-for examples – all in glorious Imperial Green – and it now sits alongside a long list of cars I will own one day. Perhaps. If I win the lottery.

Nissan 200SX

While most car nuts pass their driving test as soon after their 17th birthday as possible, I didn’t pass mine until I was 21 – the promise of sex, drugs and rock’n’roll meant chasing a career in the music industry was more attractive than having to mirror, signal and manoeuvre. Once I did pass, it was around the time that Sony launched Gran Turismo on the PlayStation, a game that hooked me in with its realism and long list of cars, including plenty of Japanese exotics.

When it came time to buy a car of my own, GT shaped the shortlist. A Skyline, Supra or NSX was beyond my £10k budget, but the Nissan S14 Silvia was an option. This rear-wheel-drive coupé was sold as the 200SX in the UK, and the idea of a turbocharged two-door sports car appealed.

While 197bhp is modest these days, it was good enough to give the 200SX a 0-62mph time of 6.6 seconds, plus its SR20DET powerplant was ripe for tuning. Unfortunately, picking a car wasn’t a solo decision, and while I was all for owning an entertaining rear-drive coupé, the two-door layout and tiny back seats meant it was never going to pass the practicality tests necessitated by a new family.

Today, every generation of Nissan Silvia has largely been sacrificed at the altar of the drifting scene, so finding an unmodified example is proving ever harder. And when they do come up, you can expect to pay three times what they were going for at the turn of the century.

Gran Turismo still had an influence on what I finally bought. While a 200SX didn’t fit, a 2.0-litre V6-powered Mazda 323F – a frequent backmarker in the endurance races – satisfied my practical yet quirky requirements.

BMW 8 Series E31

Others may hanker after sports cars, but I’m more of a leisurely GT kind of guy – and the wedge-shaped luxo-barge that is the original BMW 8 Series has been an itch I’ve been dying to scratch for as long as I can remember.

Squared-off arches, a bonnet so big it has its own postcode, pop-up headlights – glorious. And that’s before you get to the button-heavy dashboard, complete with cassette deck, or the V8 or V12 engines that sat beneath the bonnet.

Not even five years ago, you could bag local drug dealer-spec examples of the E31 840i for less than 10 grand – but I was put off pressing the button by the potential costs of restoring said vehicles to original spec (getting rid of black alloys and illegal tints, for starters, not to mention a thorough clean-up of the glovebox).

The moment has clearly passed, though, for a quick look at the classifieds reveals that only the foolhardy would consider buying an 8 Series for under £10k these days. Supplies at those numbers have all but dried up, and really tidy examples now sit north of £20,000. It still looks like a bargain to me, and I recently bumped into an owner who told me he’d kept his on the road for around £1,000 per year; that’s likely still less than you’d pay to keep an early Porsche Cayman running.

With that in mind, I was encouraged to find a tidy 81,500-mile 840Ci for £15,495 recently, so perhaps there is still hope.

Ford Focus RS Mk1

Who doesn’t love a hot hatch? A perfect blend of performance and usability, without the need to trade-in the family home in order to afford one. My first experience as a bit of a novice was a Mazda 323 GTX Turbo; it was bonkers, but I loved the way it handled, and it taught me a lot about the nuances of good driving.

I’ve always held a soft spot for a great hot hatchback, and Ford has a solid pedigree for delivering just that. My first encounter with the Mk1 Focus RS was in early 2003; I remember a colleague parking a brand-new model right outside the office and, to me at least, it looked stunning.

The Imperial Blue paintwork, muscular arches, wider track and five-spoke OZ alloys worked in a subtly purposeful stance. But ultimately, it’s all about the driving, and 20 years ago I’d not experienced anything like it; the car’s grip and turn-in ability were phenomenal, and its 212bhp offered more than enough go. The trick was to avoid giving it the beans on rougher tarmac, otherwise you’d feel the full force of the constant torque steer.

The Mk1 RS was just under £20k when new, and I’ll always regret not taking the plunge then and bagging one of the 4,501 examples made. There was a second window of opportunity that came seven or eight years ago, when values were down to around £12k. Right now, you can expect to pay nearer £25k, while some optimists want £5k to £10k more than that for the best cars.

Wiser folk than me are often asked what advice they would give to their younger selves if they could travel back in time. Me? I’d say: “The wedding can wait, just buy the RS.”

Jaguar XJ-SC

Most of the cars I wish I’d bought predate the current century by a substantial margin, but the Jaguar XJ-S was knocking on long enough to be relevant in this round-up of ‘cars that got away’ in the last couple of decades. Less-than-pristine examples were still cheap in the noughties, and prices for desirable versions have only really taken off in the past few years.

This grand-tourer with V12 or straight-six power was designed to pick up the mantle from the iconic E-Type, and while the early coupé looks more attractive with every passing year, my favourite is the XJ-SC that came with fixed side windows, roll-over bar and folding hood. The roof was stashed where a regular XJ-S had its (generally useless) rear seat, and while the model only lasted a handful of years before a full convertible arrived, it has a special place in my heart as one of the stars of the 1982 Birmingham Motor Show – my first ever (Other cars vying for headlines at the show included the radical new Ford Sierra, Rover Vitesse, MG Metro Turbo, Audi 100 and Quattro. I also vividly recall falling madly in love with a Panther Kallista prototype, but I digress!).

Jaguar ‘purists’ were (and are?) sniffy about the XJ-S’s styling and its heavy ‘flying buttresses’, saying it looked clunky and crass next to their beloved E-Types. But the years have been kind to the design, I reckon, and the £10,000-£15,000 you’ll need for a well kept XJ-SC V12 would be money well spent.

Peugeot 306 GTi-6

As with many of my colleagues, The One That Got Away from me is something with performance. But I dream on a modest scale; hot hatches are my weakness, and my fantasy is a car that I’ve never been able to call my own: the Peugeot 306 GTi-6.

When this hot hatch was launched in 1996, I was a road tester for this very magazine, and I remember being blown away by it. Good as the basic 306 was, the GTi-6 took it to a new level.

Part of the reason was that it had a six-speed gearbox – a rarity then – but what elevated it above contemporary rivals was its chassis, which blended a wonderfully engaging character, sharp handling and a surprisingly supple ride.

In the nineties I lived in Cambridge, and the B-roads south of the city are some of my favourites in the UK. It’s hot-hatch heaven, and while the 167bhp GTi-6 wasn’t quick, it was in its element.

Trouble is, I fear my dream of owning one may never be realised. Not because it’s expensive, but because there are so few; less than 250 in the UK, according to the How Many Left website.

Thinking of buying that car you always wanted? Click here for our list ot the best future classics....

Web producer

Pete has over 20 years journalistic experience. Having previously worked for Ladbrokes and the Racing Post, he switched from sports writing to automotive journalism when joining Auto Express in 2015.

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