While hype works in fashion, in the world of automobiles new is not always best. Vintage cars often have more style than their modern forebears and make you look thoughtful with your purchases. Old supercars even have a magic combination of being both fast and extremely difficult to control – what better way to make you look like a hero for just arriving at the club in one piece?
The one thing likely stopping you from rolling in a '60s drop instead of your new Honda Civic is cost - of purchase and of running - but what if you could get a bonafide classic for less than $20,000 that is easy to maintain and won't detonate your wallet every few miles?
Years: 1966 - 1977 Price Range: $12,500 - $24,000
Take one look at a '60s BMW 2002, with its shark nose, Hofmeister kink, perfect three-box proportions and you'll realize the significance of this car to the Bavarian car company’s current range. The latest 3-series still has all the same sports saloon ingredients as the 2002 and the 1-series Coupe was marketed in the United States as its modern successor. The 2002 was arguably the car that made BMW what it is today.
With rear drive, a torquey 1,990cc engine and light weight, the original is still a deft and delicate machine today. They’re not the bargains they once were, but there are still a lot of 2002s around and a strong club scene means parts should be easy to get, albeit sometimes expensive.
Watch out for loose timing chains and worn valves, and check for rust especially in the floor and sills which can get out of control, but well-looked after examples will be reliable and solid. The biggest problem is the difference between a cheap four-figure runner and a concours example, with good 2002s selling for $30,000 and $40,000, which means a lot of them can be tarted up and new paint jobs will hide a lot of gremlins.
You’ll need balls as big as your wallet for the heart-attack-inducing Turbo models (complete with mirrored "2002 Turbo" on the front spoiler) with near lethal lag that threatens to put a $100,000 hole in the nearest hedge.
"The 2002 brought BMW ownership to the masses," says Tom Wood, CEO and founder of Cazana.com, a used car database, as well as classic enthusiast. "They are well built and reliable. Finding a good one is worthwhile but can be costly."
Years: 1964 - 1973 Price Range: $9,000 - $20,000
Like Levis 501s and Chuck Taylors, the classic '60s-era Mustang has fought the ravages of aging and has retained an effortless, timeless appeal. That said, you do run the risk of looking like you're on your way to a barn dance. The first-generation Mustang (1965 to 1973) – it's the model from Bullitt – has the best looks of all the models, especially the early versions, and, like jeans, it wears a worn-in look well.
What makes the first-generation Mustang a great classic buy is plentiful supplies, cheap prices that still haven't picked up completely since the economy slump – these tend to be weekend cars remember, and the first things to go when money gets tight – low-cost and easy to find parts, and mods that are only limited by your wallet.
The trouble is, plenty of Mustangs are flipped for a quick buck, meaning poor repairs. Check for accident damage and rust everywhere; as these cars are not exactly rare, it's worth hunting out a good one rather than doing repairs off the bat.
Chevrolet El Camino
Years: 1968 - 1972 Price Range: $6,000 - $20,000
On the face of it, the second-gen Chevrolet El Camino was nothing more than the Chevy Chevelle it was based on, albeit with a loading bay instead of rear seats, making it less practical than both a sedan and a pickup truck in one fell swoop. But over the years, this curious "coupe utility" has gained a huge cult following. The El Camino concept came from the Ford Ranchero, and this is rumored to have come about when an Australian woman wrote to the company to ask for a car that could take her to church on Sunday and her husband’s pigs to market on Monday.
El Caminos still bring home the bacon, especially in the highly desirable 396-cubic-inch Turbo-Jet big-block versions, with 325, 350, and 375hp – this is a car for someone after a muscle car that doesn’t want to take themselves too seriously. As with most U.S. cars for the masses of that era, these are simple cars with a lot of parts, and swapping engines and transmissions is fairly simple.
What to remember is that El Caminos were probably workhorses at some point, so will have taken more hits and smacks than a Cancun bachelor party, and as a result will feature many bodged repairs. Also important to check are window seals which deteriorate and cause floor pans to rust behind the seats. El Caminos have a "smugglers box" at the front of the loading bay, essentially a storage compartment behind the driver's seat, make sure to check this for rust.
Years: 1971 - 1989 Price Range: $11,000 - $24,000
All Mercedes SLs are era-defining cars. From the 150mph '50s Gullwing that was the fastest production car of its day, to the silver R129 that stars in rap videos like Ludacris’s "Rollout," the "Sport Lightweight" has always been the perfect marriage between luxury, technology and spirited driving.
However, despite every model of the SL always achieving near-iconic status, the one that sticks in most people’s minds is the R107 that featured throughout almost all of the '70s and '80s. The reason this model sums up the SL so well, some might guess, was that it was the transition point between the model’s lightweight sporting aspirations and when it became a little too middle-age spread, laden with too many gadgets for its own good – this is Ice Cube, "No Vaseline": stylish and still in its prime, but with experience and maturity to boot.
As with most Mercedes of the era, the R107 has tank-like build quality, at least around the six- and eight-cylinder engines and transmissions, as long as they‘ve been looked after. What to look out for is rust, especially around the edges of the bodywork and bulkhead, faulty and expensive to repair ABS systems, accident repairs (they often fell into the wrong hands before becoming classics) and faulty valve stem seals. As long as rotten panels are not terminal and there is no structural damage, replacement panels are easy to find and if you do get a solid car the Mercedes-Benz R107 is about as usable a classic as you’re likely to find.
Volkswagen Karmman Ghia Convertible
Years: 1955 - 1974 Price Range: $5,000 - $15,000
The main thing you need to know about this pretty VW coupe is that it is pretty much a Volkswagen Beetle underneath. See this as a good and bad thing, depending on your viewpoint. German coach builder Karmann took care of manufacturing, including hand-finished panels with English pewter worthy of a Porsche 356, and Italian firm Ghia provided the styling, with the Beetle floorpan widened 12 inches to accommodate the svelte body.
Think of this as the '60s TT, with exotic styling bolted onto Volkswagen Golf oily bits. The Karmann Ghia wasn’t that quick in its day, and it’s going to feel even slower now, with wheezy air-cooled engines that don’t so much accelerate as just make more noise, pushing out barely more than 50hp. It’s fun in its own, idiosyncratic way, however, and the big selling point, aside from the sultry looks, is that it's one of the simplest and cheapest classics to work on – the engine can be taken out in minutes by experienced mechanics. A new door will cost $300 and a new engine less than $2,000.
Years: 1968 - 1976 Price Range: $7,000 - $15,000
If your new look is "'60s TV detective" then the TR6 is a solid choice. As macho as kicking a door down and surprisingly easy to live with, there is good reason why the TR6 is a popular first-time classic choice. A squared-off and futuristic update of the prettier TR5, with help from Karmann, the TR6 was perhaps the pinnacle of British motoring – exotic, muscular looks, brawny straight six performance and affordable prices. No wonder they were a huge hit Stateside.
With a reported 90 percent making their way to America, it's no wonder they are still plentiful and a great choice for the budding vintage owner. That said, there is plenty to look out for, particularly rust everywhere and shoddy electrical. Pay the extra cash and get a good one with the right history though and you’ll have the experience of running an Austin Healey for a fraction of the money.
Years: 1969 - 1978 Price Range: $16,000 - $25,000
As with Korean manufacturers such as Hyundai and Kia, the Japanese in the '60s and '70s were ruthless when it came to making you buy their cars. Whole teams of experts would reverse engineer the competition and then offer the same thing, with similar styling, better features, more extras, better build quality, more power (the list goes on) for the same or less than you were paying for your car. It was an offer that was very hard to refuse. As it was with the Datsun 240Z.
MG and Triumph had been flogging cars on nostalgia, image and looks for far too long; and then came along the 240Z, a car that shamelessly pinched the styling of a Ferrari GTO, added a 150hp single-overhead-cam six, disc brakes and independent suspension, and a price tag 50 percent lower than a Corvette. You may wonder the profit margin for Datsun but this was a company vying for market share and customer loyalty rather than making a fast buck.
Datsun 240Zs have not lost any of their sheen over the years – not just because they were offered in metallic avocado and bronze – and remain a popular choice as a classic. Perhaps unsurprisingly the biggest thing to watch out for is rust pretty much everywhere on 240Zs, as well as problems with tune (ask the seller if you can start it from cold) and electrical issues.
Years: 1962 - 1980 Price Range: $4,000 - $10,000
While it might not excite quite as much as an Alfa Spider, especially in black rubber fender form, when a classic British sports car can be had for $2,000 as a runner, up to $20,000 for the absolute concours best you can lay your hands on, the appeal for a first-time buyer is obvious.
With half a million made, they are everywhere and simple engines are hardy and uncomplicated to fix. If something goes wrong, you can replace it easily, even whole new bodies are available fairly easily. It may be sacrilege but even if you have a major issue, you still have the option to throw the whole car away and get another one – this is hassle-free motoring at its most simple – and thrashing one down the road is still a hoot, especially if you don’t need to worry about eye-watering bills when something goes wrong.
Years: 1969 - 1976 Price Range: $8,000 - $18,000
Porsche 914s have always been unloved – there’s an orange one in a parking garage near me that hasn’t moved for at least five years – which makes them a great choice. Put it this way, you’re not going to get anything newer than a 996 for $10,000 if you’re looking for a 911, so you may as well get a weird love-child of that on/off odd couple Porsche and Volkswagen, with a mid-mounted boxer four independent suspension, a low weight, targa top and styling that made it hard to tell which direction you were traveling. Handling was delicate and predictable, the gearbox was according to one reviewer "like stirring a box of rocks," and the 80hp VW engine meant you should think twice about drag racing a Segway.
That said, this is a relatively cheap way to enter classic Porsche ownership and the styling has aged well in the new era of downsizing. Parts supply is excellent but panels can be expensive – buy a good rust-free example though and you will be sitting on a near-guaranteed good investment. When the majority rust away or are put in private collections, the 914 will invariably go up in value.
Years: 1955 - 1969 Price Range: $9,000 - $25,000
You won’t find many rootin’ tootin’ rednecks rolling in a Fiat 600, but for many that’s part of the appeal. The slightly larger brother to the chic Fiat 500 doesn’t have quite the cutesy appeal, but you’ll get more for your money in more ways than one.
The water-cooled fours are rattly and the performance bicycle-like, but around town they have more style than a pair of Gucci loafers and you can say "mama mia" with a straight face as you climb out the suicide door and get away with it.
They are pricey in the U.S. but surprisingly cheap in Europe – as little as $5,000 – so importing one could be a great investment. Like a lot of Italian cars they will rot so check for this but thanks to growing popularity almost all parts are available from a specialist.