Fun Stuff

I Bought a 37-Year-Old Car From 3 Provinces Away

Generally speaking, I consider myself decently prudent with my purchases. Still, like anyone, I’ve got my vices, and over the past few years, my kryptonite has been small, sporty cars and motorcycles, usually with some sort of troubled past.

As luck would have it though, each of those procurements have somehow proven to be financially sound decisions, netting me at least as much money as I poured into the car when it came time to sell it. This, of course, has rewarded my bad behaviour, and I’ve continued to tempt fate.

My latest obsession differs from the past few premium-brand German sports cars and is a machine with a decidedly humbler provenance, yet no less glamorous in design. The 1986 Toyota MR2 (or Mister Two, as I’ve unoriginally begun referring to it) is a genuine, two-seat sports car with flashy (if overtly ’80s) styling, and a mid-engine layout.

While it all sounds properly exotic, the MR2 was born out of the fuel crisis of the ’70s with the idea that a sports car can be fun, rewarding, and frugal. And being a Toyota, it could also be incredibly reliable; a concept that would’ve been quite foreign to folks who had previously endured ownership of a classic Fiat, Triumph, or MG.

The Buying Process

My saved searches on the AutoTrader app were a collection of odd ducks scattered across the country that I could ostensibly defend as a “good value” to anyone who would question my motives. They were all interesting toys, still ignored by most collectors, yet well-suited for back-road drives, attending car shows, and generally celebrating the enjoyment of driving for driving’s sake. I had considered everything from a Dodge Stealth R/T to an old Mercedes SL, and actually reached out to sellers of an Audi TT, a couple of Miatas, and a lovely C4 Corvette. Despite the pricing silliness of collector cars during the pandemic, values for many of them have now seen a correction, and sellers are getting more realistic. Even still, the best deals continue to get snatched up in a hurry, and in a few cases, I was regrettably late for a bargain.

At first, it looked like that was the case with Mister Two as well, even though I reached out within hours of the ad being posted. The seller responded politely, but the message was clear that there was enough local Nova Scotia interest that he didn’t need to give it up to some desperate weirdo from Ontario.

Thanking him for his response, I asked him to keep me in mind if he grew tired of tire-kickers and wanted a serious buyer, then I promptly redirected my attention the next shiny automotive find that came up. Oh, look! An old Alfa Romeo, that might be a good choice

A week later, I noticed the ad was still live and began what ended up being the toughest campaign I’ve ever had to give someone my money.

The Seller

Tim Chapman seems to have a pretty good thing going in the small town of Amherst, Nova Scotia. Approaching retirement from a career at the local hospital, he came to the conclusion the MR2 wasn’t being enjoyed as much as it deserved, and made the decision to list it for sale after a dozen years of ownership. He picked a fair price given the increasing appreciation for Toyota’s little midship runabout, and the number of serious (and unserious) inquiries he received suggested he was right. He also understood that he had a pretty special car in its clean, all-original state, and with only two local owners since new, it deserved a worthy next caretaker.

Keeping my messages to Chapman brief, he mistook me for a kid looking for a first car, and advised me that maybe I ought to look at a trustworthy (but still fun) alternative closer to home, perhaps something like the Scion tC he recently bought himself. A credit to Chapman’s character, he seemed genuinely concerned about my well-being when I suggested I wanted to buy and drive his nearly 40-year-old car half-way across the country without a proper mechanical inspection and with my own rather limited technical aptitude.

Striking a Deal

Admittedly in retrospect, it was a significantly risky enterprise for me, and Chapman admitted that at first, he was suspicious of this prospective buyer from another province. After denying my request for a phone call so I could plead my case, I finally resorted to a lengthy email outlining my professional world travels, my dozen-or-so years reviewing cars, plus my genuine interest in his MR2 and the desire to keep it in its original state.

Finally, Chapman relented and agreed to let me buy the car from him at full asking price, minus a bit following the discovery of a recently failed parking brake.

Mister Two Heads Home

With a tentative deal struck, I needed to redirect my attention to a plan to get my new prize back to Ontario without breaking the bank. My previous BMW M Roadster was bought from a gentleman in New Brunswick and while the shipping proved successful, it was a slow and stressful experience, especially having never laid eyes on the car I had spent many thousands of dollars purchasing.

This time, I was determined to actually see and drive the car before sealing a deal, and then bring the car home with me. The original, half-baked plan was to fly to Moncton with a buddy, rent a car and drive to Chapman’s house, fall in love with Mister Two and drive it 1,800 km home.

The smarter solution proved to be a whirlwind drive in my old Lexus SUV from southern Ontario to Nova Scotia, pick up a U-Haul trailer down there, and tow the new purchase back. The rub was that it all needed to be done in less than three days. My drive partner is one of my oldest, dearest friends, and not once did he flinch at the prospect that we might get all the way there just to find out that the car wasn’t worth bringing home.

Arriving in the early evening, I caught first sight of the little red cutie parked in the seller’s driveway. Its original finish revealed almost four decades of love with scuffs, scratches, and a few panels where the paint has worn away to the naked plastic below, but crucially, no rust. Chapman came out to greet us in the driveway offering a smile, a handshake, and a drink before showing us the car. He scurried around opening doors, engine cover, and both trunk lids before rushing off to get a flashlight, some blankets to lay on while I poked around beneath the car, and some rags to wipe my hands. A car this old always has the potential to hide countless dirty secrets, but Chapman’s eagerness to share the car, and his maritime friendliness did plenty to allay most of my fears about making a deal from three provinces away.

Whatever remaining apprehension I had vanished within minutes of the test drive, the grin plastered to my face preventing any hope of further last-minute negotiation. The car is far from perfect, yet exactly right. I paid Chapman and we loaded the car on to the trailer as quickly and carefully as we could before setting off at dusk for the journey home.

An hour or so later, I became keenly aware of the sheer remoteness and density of New Brunswick’s forests, especially after Google Maps directed us down a secondary road meant to shave a few kilometres from our trip. We also began paying more attention to our tow vehicle’s dramatically increased thirst for fuel after at least 30 minutes had gone by without any sign of civilization. With the trip computer showing a remaining range declining at a precipitous rate, the hunt for a gas station became all-encompassing, until, as the range dropped to zero, we rolled into the only 24-hour station within 30 kilometres. Except, it was closed for the night, giving us an opportunity for a nap during the four-hour wait for roadside assistance to bring us ten bucks’ worth of gas just before dawn.

Was It Worth It?

Mercifully, the rest of the trip home was tiring but uneventful, and with the car dropped off at a friend’s service shop for a safety inspection and a few repairs, a sense of relief came over me. I had a great time catching up with an old buddy, and picked up a new mechanical companion to enjoy for future adventures for as long as it’s in my care. We survived sleep deprivation, too much junk food, and the Lexus’s devastating fuel consumption to get an old, funky, under-powered sports car halfway across the country, and managed to do it within my self-imposed budget.

The MR2 collects smiles from everyone who sees it, and it’s exactly the sort of fun, engaging little plaything I was looking for. It’s the polar opposite of the anonymous, self-driving, overweight, overwrought electrified crossovers that are so popular these days. It requires its driver to be an active participant thanks to skinny econo-box tires and a rear-biased weight distribution that can result in surprising oversteer. There’s no ABS, no stability control, no traction control, no airbags, and the pop-up headlights were outlawed for the dangers they posed to pedestrians. The A-pillars are as thick as drinking straws, and offer a similar amount of crush protection. It’s noisy, has manual door locks, manual windows, manual steering, and a manual transmission. There’s a cassette deck, and no air conditioning. And I love it even more because of all of that.

By modern standards, it’s a ridiculous car and yet when I’m not driving it, I can’t wait to hit the road again. As far as foolish purchases are concerned, I could’ve done a heck of a lot worse.