We all search for them...the cars that no one wants but us, the unicorns. Usually they fall into some combination of manual, diesel, and wagon. But how do we find one? Jon Miller breaks it down.
Every so often, I get a wild hair up my ass and set out to find the impossible: The car that isn't supposed to exist, the variant that they were never supposed to make, in the rarest color, owned by a grandmother who only drove it to church: A Unicorn. Mercifully, my friends (and now my wife, hi honey!) tolerate these wild goose chases.
Everyone's Unicorn is different. But for me, growing up and falling into car culture, I was always drawn to wagons. Turbocharged, European, manual transmission wagons. Even in high school, my friends were doing burnouts in their Mustangs and Trans-Ams, I was lusting over the B5 Audi RS4 Avant. I cursed Audi for never selling that car to the US market and years later, when Audi announced the B7 RS4 Avant as a Europe-only model, my wagon envy burned even brighter. I sent emails pleading with Audi of America to import a few, in hopes of one day owning a secondhand version of the only car I would ever want. To this day, that car is still my answer to the ridiculous question: "If you could only have one car for the rest of your life, what would it be?"
Then I got real. The B5 S4 Avant is a rare and beautiful creature in its own right and Audi did sell them in the US. I used to own a B5 S4 sedan, so I understood the platform and most of it's strengths, weaknesses and idiosyncrasies. Still, I lusted after the bi-turbo, all-wheel drive Avant. I had to have one, but I had stipulations. It had to be Nogaro Blue with a 6-speed manual. Between 2000 and 2002, Audi sold 1,540 S4 Avants in the US and according to the best information that the internet forums can provide, as few as 82 of those were Nogaro Blue. I think that estimate is too low, so let's double it to 160. Of those, just over half featured three pedals. I was looking for a car that had been out of production for over a decade, and (not taking into account cars that had been crashed, stolen or egregiously modified) only ninety total examples ever existed on these shores. Ninety special, pretty little unicorns.
And I found one. It was easy. Here's how you do it.
Step 1: Know exactly what you want:
There is a responsibility that you inherit when you find your Unicorn. That means you're not just an owner, you're a caretaker. Before you start your search, you need to clearly define what she looks like. For me, it was the color and the manual transmission that mattered most. I wanted a car that had the sport seats, with Alcantara inserts, but I knew that I would have to be flexible about that.
It needed to be well cared for, without excessive mileage. A 10-year-old car could reasonably have 150,000 miles on the clock, but I was looking for one with under 100,000. Given the laundry list of potential maladies associated with the B5, I needed a meticulously documented maintenance history.
Step 2: Know where to look and be patient:
The internet is a wonderful thing. It makes the world a smaller place and allows you to search at work, at the dinner table, in bed - anywhere you can carry your laptop or smartphone. Your friends and family will understand that you can't afford any distractions when it comes to tracking your Unicorn.
Craigslist will become your best friend. Don't get distracted by that Chump Car that seems like a good buy. Focus! You'll need to stalk and scour the depths of every brand-specific internet forum that you can find. Their classified section will become your browser homepage, but you should also be proactive. Befriend the current owner of your Unicorn. Praise their brilliance and get them to lower their guard, then make one unsolicited offer after another. "But it's not for sale!" You say? Pro tip: Everything is for sale. You're trying to catch a Unicorn, not a cold!
Ideally patience will be rewarded. Your Unicorn is out there and you will eventually find it. I found my Avant through a friend, who I met on a pre-Internet Brands Audi forum. My buddy knew about my obsession and finally admitted that his friend had what I was looking for: a 2001, Nogaro Blue, 6-speed S4 Avant, with 90k miles and all service records (but no sport seats). It took years of casually looking and months of serious searching, but I found it.
Step 3: When your Unicorn appears, don't hesitate:
If you've been looking for your Unicorn long enough, you understand the market better than anyone. You know what's out there, you know what similar cars are selling for and you have to be ready to pounce when the right car finally presents itself. You'll know as soon as you see it.
Except in my case, it really wasn't for sale. We emailed back and forth about the details, but when he sent the photos, I knew in my heart this this was my Unicorn and I made an offer. He thought it was a fair price, but he wasn't ready to let it go. So I waited. Six months went by. I kept looking, but I knew where my Unicorn lived. One morning I saw his name in bold letters at the top of my unread emails, I knew the day had come.
Step 4: Be willing to travel far and wide:
I was in Orlando and the Audi was in Minneapolis. I wasn't about to let 1,500 miles separate me from my Unicorn. Without hesitation, I booked a one-way ticket and picked up the car on a frigid Saturday morning. That afternoon I had lunch with my grandparents who live in town, then pointed my Smurf-colored station wagon south. I carved out a few extra days to enjoy the scenic route down the Mississippi, through Madison, Nashville, Asheville and the Tail of the Dragon. A road trip is an awesome way to bond with a new car. For example, I learned a fantastic lesson in the fuel economy of two turbos connected to my heavy foot through a plastic lever on the floor when I ran out of gas on I-24 in Tennessee.
This was not the first wagon that I travelled cross-country for, and it likely won't be the last. In 2007, I found a black B6 Ultra Sport A4 Avant in Portland, Oregon and drove it back to Florida. More recently, after moving to California, I trekked to Boston and back for an E91 BMW 328i Sport Wagon. That car is current daily driver, a 6-speed, RWD, one-owner, custom-ordered Unicorn.
Step 5: Once you have it, never let it go:
I regret it to this day, so I can say this with authority: Don't ever sell your Unicorn. I had big plans, this was my "forever car," after all. It was going to get a Tial 770R turbo kit, an RS4 wide-body conversion and I tracked down the Alcantara sport seats and OEM Audi RSN-E touchscreen navigation unit. I set out to create the greatest B5 S4 Avant of all time. I was going to keep it forever.
Weeks turned into months and after a full year, my grand plans were having trouble getting off the ground. The budget for this project went from "I'll figure it out" to "LOL!" Life was getting in the way, with work and travel taking priority over my MonsterWagen dreams. I moved out of my garage apartment and it left me stressed about where I was going to keep the Avant. I put less than 5,000 miles on it (including the 1,500 mile road trip to get it home) when I got an email from someone who sounded familiar. He was looking for his Unicorn. It was a friend-of-a-friend of the guy that I bought it from. He knew that the car wasn't for sale, but wanted to reach out and see if I was interested in selling it anyway. I knew right away that I had to let it go.
I still daydream about that car: the scream of the turbos spooling over the throaty rasp of the exhaust, the instant torque in any gear, the gorgeous color; deep purple when parked under a shade tree but electric blue in the Florida sun. I'm comforted knowing that my Unicorn is well-cared for by someone who knows what they have. That, and the fact that I have first right-of-refusal to buy it back. That reminds me, I have an email to send.
About @JonLeeMiller (not the Jonny Lee Miller who was married to Angelina Jolie): Jon is a racing driver and coach who has competed in the Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge since 2006. He collects Hot Wheels and action figures and hopes to race at LeMans or appear as an extra in the new JJ Abrams Star Wars films. A University of Central Florida graduate, he now lives in California with his wife, Denise and their future pet dogs, Mr. Pickles and Bob Barker.