The Hidden Costs of Keeping Old Supercars Running

Buying a vintage supercar is only the beginning.

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This is a great time to be a new supercar owner. Much like workaday crossovers and sedans, supercars are more comfortable, reliable, efficient, and service-friendly than ever before. As a result, there's been an uptick in buyers who would usually commute in a Bentley or a top-tier Mercedes-AMG springing instead for a Ferrari or Lamborghini supercar.

The situation has created—at least for wealthy car shoppers in a never-ending game of one-upmanship—one of the most first-world of problems imaginable: In order to stand out at a Beverly Hills valet stand clogged with McLaren 720S coupes and spiders and Lamborghini Aventadors, new money has moved into the classic supercar market, snapping up old Lamborghini Diablos and Ferrari Testarossas. But buyers soon discover this is an entirely different world, both monetarily and logistically. Depending on which 1980s or 1990s supercar you opt for, it can also require a whole lot more time and dedication than your shiny new Aston Martin DB11.

We're not talking about a Ferrari F355 or a 10-year-old Porsche 911 GT3. Instead, think real exotic cars, like a Bugatti EB110 or Jaguar XJR-15. Upkeep on a good number of these aged superstars is more like maintaining a Group C Le Mans racer than a road car. Unlike your brand-new Ferrari, you can't just take your new-to-you F50 to a local dealer.

"Most new Ferrari dealerships have young mechanics who have never worked on a 308 or a 328," says Michael Sheehan, a longtime broker and former restorer who has sold, raced, and worked on significant Ferraris and Lamborghinis for more than 40 years. "They've come from BMW, or they've come from Porsche. You have to be on the wrong side of 50 to have worked on these cars when they were new, and some mechanics are older than 70."

Need service on your XJ220? Forget Jag dealerships; if they don't turn you away outright, they'll likely keep your car for the better part of a year or suggest you ship it overseas to their specialist in the U.K. Local supercar shops are a viable option, but the wait time and costs can be devastating.

"I've come to the realization that when cars from Ferrari or Lamborghini get to a certain age, they just stop the support system," says Craig Calder, head honcho at Fast Cars Ltd. in southern Los Angeles.

Nestled within a quiet middle-class neighborhood near two public schools in Redondo Beach, Fast Cars' industrial complex spans multiple workshops packed to the brim with disassembled engines and assorted exotica. Restoration is its primary focus, but Fast Cars will overhaul anything from a Fiat 124 to a Ferrari Enzo. "We have a saying: We don't turn anything cool away," Calder says. "As a result, we've worked on some pretty amazing products."

Complexity isn't the only factor that runs up the bill. "Those older-generation supercars of the '90s, before they really started to get into the electronics, it's all mechanical," Calder says. "Just because it has a Bugatti or Ferrari badge on the front, you know, from a mechanical standpoint, it's all the same."

Whereas some parts, like turbochargers and ignition systems, were pulled off of the shelf from a mainstream supplier, a good portion of hardware in these cars is proprietary. "An engine part on an EB110, I probably couldn't find it elsewhere," Calder says. "But if it's a more generic component like the Magneti Marelli systems, the Bosch systems, and on the British cars, the Lucas systems—a lot of that you can find."

One-stop shops are convenient, but that doesn't work for everyone. One-person specialists that focus on one or two types of cars are also popular. Gonzalo Mendoza, a former engineer turned wrench, is the de facto resource for the Lotus Esprit V8, additionally specializing in "big" Lamborghini V-12s like the Diablo and Murciélago. Aside from a bright red early Lamborghini Diablo, his two-bay workshop in Ontario, California, overflows with Esprits in various states of disassembly. They're mechanically straightforward, but these older models require a different approach than the semi-mass-produced ones of today.

"You can't take a Countach to someone who has the mentality of working on Camrys all day," Mendoza says, sitting in his nondescript office filled with parts. "You can't remove and replace. These cars are hand-built; you've got that human error built in. Or not every car is the same. You've got huge tolerance differences between most of them.

"The majority of  '80s, '90s, and early 2000s Lamborghinis, if you align [the wheels] to where the alignment machine says it's perfect and then take it out on the road, 99 percent of the time it's going to want to pull in one direction," he says. "It won't track straight. Usually, if you want it to track straight, you need to have unequal camber and caster on each side. They're all a little different."

Even with a dedicated machine shop, some things can't be fabricated. If a part doesn't exist, it doesn't exist, and you're going to have to either network or simply wait for the market to catch up. Older electronics are usually the culprit of a stalled service; replacement ECUs for the Diablo and Esprit are nearly nonexistent.

"Recently, a guy in Germany decided to take apart a few Esprits, and now the market has more ECUs that are available, but that's unusual," Mendoza says. "If your ECU burns out, hopefully you can find a good electrician to repair it. If not, the car just sits."

The original manufacturers aren't much help, either. "If the electronic dash in your F50 blows out, you can send it to Ferrari, and $15,000 and six months later, you'll get it back," Sheehan says. "Or you can take it to the specialist down the street [in Los Angeles], and for $3,500 you can have it back in two days."

Waiting on one stalled car isn't too bad if you have a collection to play with, but problems only compound from there. Thomas Mao manages the AlphaLuxe collection, which includes a sizable selection of supercars from the '80s and '90s. He says there's a lot more to it than simply writing a big check when a car needs service. If left alone, batteries go dead, tires go flat, and fuel systems rot, so regular exercise is key. As fun as it sounds, even that isn't always simple.

"Once you get past seven vehicles—or a car a day—it becomes very difficult to keep up," Mao says. "Forget starting it up and letting it idle for five minutes. We're talking getting it up to temperature, taking it out, and driving it for at least 20 minutes or so."

Even if you think you'd be able to find the time to rip around in your McLaren F1, life tends to get in the way. "Unless you were born with a silver spoon in your mouth, you're still working to support your collection," he says. "As frivolous as it sounds, at some point, you'll need a collection manager."

A proper manager not only makes sure the cars are exercised but also ensures the registration, insurance, and maintenance are up to date. That last part is crucial; the biggest bills usually accrue when cars do nothing but sit.

"We were offered an F50 that was in storage in Italy for 10 years," Sheehan says. "It's at the factory right now, and it has no damage, no major issues. Just for a general refurbishment, it's [almost $150,000.]"

Parts expire on a semi-regular basis. It's in your best interest to fix it ASAP, as rotten parts can lead to further complications. The Jaguar XJ220's fuel cell is particularly problematic, with the industry average sitting at $50,000 for a full refresh of the fuel system. Smart owners practice preventative maintenance, especially during an engine-out service. According to Mendoza, a clutch job on a Diablo runs about $9,000, and while the engine sits on the shop floor, it's smart to replace other parts and fixtures, usually driving the price of the engine-out service up to the $16,000 mark.

Another significant problem is storage. "You will never, ever have too much space to store cars. It's just not part of this insane, irrational world of car collecting," Mao says. "If you're a serious collector, you will never have more spaces than cars."

A portion of the AlphaLuxe collection he manages sits in a private, climate-controlled "car condo" garage, where tenants have access to an outdoor gathering area and a well-appointed clubhouse with snacks, a pool table, lockers, and a meeting space. The rest of the collection remains scattered around the greater L.A. area.

Indeed, between storage woes, parts scarcity, having enough time to drive the cars, and lengthy downtimes during services, the old supercar business can be exhausting. The rational solution for old and new money alike is to stick to the showroom-fresh stuff. Rationality, though, was never part of the supercar equation in the first place.

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