It’s time for a good old-fashioned Shitbox Showdown. This will be a recurring segment where we pit two dirt-cheap project car candidates against each other and ask you to choose which one you’d drag home. While we will have a brilliant writer dedicated to these pieces shortly, the first edition of Shitbox Showdown falls squarely on my shoulders and I couldn’t be more stoked. Today’s two candidates are cheap coachbuilt cars as lovable as they are ill-advised.
From Milan With Love
Today’s first challenger is none other than a 1990 Chrysler TC by Maserati. Designed to take on the Mercedes SL, it never quite lived up to Lee Iaccoca’s grand expectations. Chrysler and Maserati only built 7,300 units of this zooted-up K-car variant (a nice Reliant automobile), the absolute bare minimum required under contract. That’s what we call assured rarity – nobody wanted them when they were new.
Did the TC by Maserati have problems? Fuck yeah it did. The fancy-ass beveled porthole windows in the hardtop would intensify the sun’s rays, scorching the bejeezus out of the parcel shelf carpet. While models with the manual gearbox got an awesome version of the 2.2-litre Chrysler turbo engine with a Cosworth-built, Maserati-finished head, this TC by Maserati is equipped with the three-liter Mitsubishi V6 and the infamous A604 Ultradrive automatic gearbox. This problem-prone gearbox was part of a massive service campaign that included a buyback option.
Still, this expensive Mopar isn’t without redeeming features. Forget rich Corinthian leather, this thing has supple Italian leather that could be in good shape under those cloth slip covers. All carpeting looks properly plush and how about that unequivocally elegant wood trim? The TC by Maserati isn’t an ugly car either. While it was derided when new for looking like a LeBaron, the LeBaron’s pretty damn handsome. Chuck in a low hoodline with slim composite headlamps, a distinct two-seater form, a detachable hardtop and one of the best heckblenden ever put on an American car, and you have a classy cruiser for fair or foul weather. A fine luxury automobile on a Daewoo Leganza budget, now that’s the American dream if ever I’ve seen it.
This particular example is located in sunny Sonoma, California. While its odometer ceased rotation at around 99,000 miles, the seller estimates this TC by Maserati to have travelled around 115,000 miles. That’s really not bad for a bonafide classic, particularly when you factor in mild west coast weather. Not only does the body look to be in good shape, the interior doesn’t look bad either. Sure, the leather on the armrest is more cracked than the surface of El Mirage, but the dashboard doesn’t look saggy and at least one door card is in positively stellar shape. While the air-conditioning compressor has been removed and the seller states that the soft top needs replacing, this thing runs and drives! It doesn’t run well and the brakes are reportedly no bueno, but those issues should be easy to sort. It’s a project after all.
Any way you slice it, 700 bucks is an absolute bargain for this distinct blend of American styling and Italian build quality. While the Chrysler TC by Maserati certainly has a controversial history, it’s still a luxury cabriolet for the brave and discerning few. Who wouldn’t want to be brave and discerning?
A Distinctive Deutschländer
Keeping with the theme of vehicles assembled by an outside firm, let’s turn our attention to a devilishly handsome collaboration between Volkswagen and Karmann. The Mk2 Volkswagen Scirocco may not get as much love as its predecessor, but it’s still a really neat little car with proper coachbuilt credentials.
This particular Scirocco is a 1985 model located in Washougal, Washington with 137,438 miles on the clock. While Sciroccos are generally regarded as good cars, this one could be better. Let’s start with the paint. A long, long time ago, perhaps when smoking was still allowed inside Burger King, this Scirocco wore a lovely shade of red. Then, someone saw a red car and they wanted to paint it black. Mick Jagger, is that you? Honestly, I’m astonished by the objective shittiness of this paint job. It’s patchy, it’s got heaps of overspray, I can’t tell if it was always flat black or if it’s just faded into absolute oblivion. Still, paint is just there to protect the metal and the trunk floor in this thing looks pretty good. The strut towers look solid too, important stuff on a unibody project car. What isn’t so solid is the driver’s window – some thieves allegedly busted it, so it’s been replaced with plexiglass. Hey, it keeps the rain out.
According to the seller, “The seats aren’t original and if you go to [sic] far back you get astro ride.” I have absolutely no idea what astro ride is but it sounds fucking awesome. In all seriousness, these stripey sports seats don’t look that bad. Okay, a stegosaurus may have sat shotgun at some point, but passenger comfort isn’t a driver’s concern. More good news is the fact that this Scirocco runs. The seller claims they’ve replaced the voltage regulator, distributor, wires, plugs, fuel filter, and belts, among other items, so it seems like they know what they’re doing. The seller also states that it just needs some fresh gas and re-timing to run smoothly, so this thing shouldn’t be a hard project to get back on the road. After all, this Scirocco’s 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine is a doddle to work on. Also, can we talk about how fan-freaking-tastic those BMW bottlecap alloys look?
In all honesty, this thing looks ugly but it seems solid. Considering its $500 asking price, that’s a hell of a bargain right there. To sweeten the deal, the seller’s throwing in a metric buttload of spare parts from trim bits to tail lights. A bit of wrenching, a trip to Earl Scheib, and hey presto – you’d have a running, driving, three-pedal German project coupe for dirt cheap. Best of all, it isn’t anything common like a 3-Series or Mercedes-Benz CLK. This is one for the connoisseurs.
So then, which of these two project cars would you drag home? The Mopar Maserati and shifty Scirocco both have their upsides and their drawbacks, cosmetic cleanliness versus Autobahn pedigree. More importantly, the owner of either car could turn to a vintage Bugatti owner and say, “My car’s coachbuilt too.” Can you really put a price on that?
I think someone should buy both cars and race them at the local oval (or Walmart parking lot) without any repairs at all. Just get them running and then fender-to-fender on a Friday night.
Rallycross the Scirocco. Find a driver’s seat. Fix what breaks.
For $700 you can technically own a Maserati. You can confidently wear T-shirts and bomber jackets with the Maserati logo. Flashing that title will get you into clubs, better tables at restaurants, maybe even a free shoe shine. Even if you never drive the car, I think the fringe benefits tip the scale.
Perhaps just to go against the flow, I would vote for the TC. When it first came out, I thought “What a clever idea!” Using newly acquired Maserati to upgrade a car that fit well in the Chrysler universe was a good idea at the time. The problem was one of name and market placement. Better to have just called it a Maserati TC and be done with it.
There’s a lot of justified hate for the TC but I have a soft spot for that weirdo. For 700 bucks that’s low enough to justify it for an unusual project car that would be a fun oddity all fixed up with some peppier internals. The Scirocco is neat too but a cheap weird “Maserati” is more my speed.
The Scirocco. I’d much prefer the Giugiaro designed first gen, but that’s not on offer here. The VW might cost more to put right, or at least acceptable, but in the end it is more likely to provide an entertaining driver.
Besides, if the choice is “1990s Chrysler” or “almost anything else” – take the something else.
What’s up with the steering column on the VW? If I was going to get something rusty and/or unreliable, I’d want my TR6 back. Come to think of it, I very much want my TR6 back…
No contest, the Scirocco. That sad TC abomination has no right to be called a Maserati.
BTW If David Tracy (or DT-adjacent) wants a real project, I have a ’75 Scirocco out in the back 40 he can have for free 🙂
Scirocco all the way
I used to know where there was a TC sitting out in a field slowly succumbing to rot. Or in the TC’s case, thankfully succumbing. Regardless, I’d take the VW. Gives me memories of trying to teach a friend of mine how to drive a manual transmission in a VW Dasher.
So glad this isn’t Bring a Trailer. This is bring a trailer, lots of tools, a buddy with a winch and/or ratchet straps. Much more realistic.