3 Reasons Why Owning A Sleeper Car Sucks

Everyone loves sleepers, but for people like me who own one, it's not as awesome as it seems. Here's why owning a sleeper can really suck...

Remind me later
Mercury - 3 Reasons Why Owning A Sleeper Car Sucks - Tuning

Think about the first time you ever saw a ridiculously large turbo crammed into the engine bay of an unassuming hatchback, or a bonkers V8 powered van. Did it make you smile? I bet you talked about how much fun it would be to drive, and how cool it would be to own, right?

I’ve always had a thing for sleepers, especially estate cars. Actually, I’ve always had a thing for non-descript machines in general, from misunderstood and rare factory-built gems, to unique, one-off creations that were better in theory than application.

Mercury - 3 Reasons Why Owning A Sleeper Car Sucks - Tuning

Here in the States we have our fair share of interesting used machines to choose from, and of the 30-plus cars I’ve owned in the last 15 years, most qualify for interesting sleeper status on some level. That definitely includes my current ride - a 1987 Mercury Sable LS Estate wagon with a not-quite-stock powertrain. "Wait, did he just say Mercury Sable Estate?" Yes I did.

Keep in mind that, back in the mid-1980s in the U.S., all cars were square boxes. Then in 1986 here comes the Ford Taurus and Mercury Sable, where everything was rounded and futuristic, at least for an impressionable 11-year old kid from Detroit.

The Sable had lights all the way across the front (that was cool back in the day), so last year when I found a first-generation Sable wagon with a 220hp, 3.0-litre DOHC Yamaha V6 from a Taurus SHO, it was tough to resist. Then I learned that it also had a five-speed manual gearbox, upgraded suspension and bigger brakes. It wasn’t just tough to resist, it was impossible!

Mercury - 3 Reasons Why Owning A Sleeper Car Sucks - Tuning

I promptly bought it in Michigan for the cost of a Big Mac meal, then drove it 1200 miles to my home in the Black Hills of South Dakota. On the way I had plenty of opportunity to explore the aforementioned upgrades, and they were, in a word, brilliant. Not only did the wagon have enough punch to surprise dedicated performance cars, but it could dance in the corners too. The air conditioning even worked well, which certainly would have pleased James May.

But, that road trip home also reminded me of the reasons why owning sleepers can be a love/hate relationship. Anyone who’s owned a legitimate sleeper will be able to relate to three frustrations.

1. Nobody notices you

Mercury - 3 Reasons Why Owning A Sleeper Car Sucks - Tuning

Admittedly this is a bigger deal for some than others, but at the core of every car enthusiast is a desire to be noticed, or at the very least, get respect for your ride.

It’s a catch-22 for sleeper fans, because the very definition of sleeper is pretty much the exact opposite of that. At most, you can get away with some minor exterior enhancements to add a bit of bling - nice wheels, tint, maybe a badge or two - but even then you’ll only be grabbing the eyes of fellow enthusiasts who recognize details.

Of course, you can always bolt on a body kit, toss in some custom paint and a big wing, but that will almost certainly bring the type of attention you don’t want, never mind completely negating the whole idea of driving a sleeper in the first place. Even worse, going crazy on the outside absolutely forces you into the second biggest downer of owning a sleeper.

2. You always have to explain it

Mercury - 3 Reasons Why Owning A Sleeper Car Sucks - Tuning

Go to a car meet with an Evo or a Corvette, and there’s really nothing else you need to say to be part of the crowd. Pulling into the monthly Cars and Coffee meet driving a Sable wagon isn’t quite as dramatic, and then you have to try and explain why you parked your family car between the Ferrari 360 and the Shelby Mustang. And it’s one thing to talk about the mods you’ve done on a proper enthusiast car.

Convincing people you’re not mad because you invested $4000 into a pale white wagon somehow comes across as a bit more desperate.

3. Nobody will work on it

Mercury - 3 Reasons Why Owning A Sleeper Car Sucks - Tuning

Even if you have Jedi-level skills in the shop, eventually you’ll need some outside help. When that happens, the goal with a custom sleeper isn’t necessarily to find a good mechanic to handle the work, but finding a mechanic willing to do the work.

In the age of step-by-step procedures and computer diagnostics, it seems many shops have lost the ability to use their eyes and experience to figure things out on their own. My conversations with transmission shops last winter generally involved me trying to sell them on the swap, with promises that it wasn’t a cobbled-up mess. For shops that will do the work, expect them to charge triple the normal rate. Why? Because custom racecar, that’s why.

That said, there are certainly some awesome experiences that can only happen when you own a sleeper, and I’ve certainly had a few.

This article was written by freelance car journalist Christopher Smith.