First of all, don’t worry. It’s not like any of these affordable classic cars will increase in value overnight just because we believe they deserve more recognition. The thing is, however, they might just do that in the near future. After all, we’ve all been witnessing a sort of vintage classics renaissance these last few years or so. And while most of us can pretty much chalk off a vintage Ferrari, Lamborghini or even Plymouth ‘Cuda and other muscle car models like the Dodge Charger, Chevrolet Corvette, or Camaro Z28 for that matter, there are certain classics that are still reasonably priced and within the average Joe and plain Jane’s reach. They are harder to find, but they are out there!
Precious few cars are born with that classic car moniker and you know they’ll be as expensive as they come one day. Hell, they’re almost exclusively highly priced from the get-go. Needless to say, we’re not interested in such cars here. What we’ll focus on here are models that have become classics over time. And those that have somehow managed to fly under the radar at the same time. In other words, here are 22 criminally underrated classic cars that won’t break the bank if you decide to pursue them. At least not initially. Don’t forget the maintenance and other issues old timers are plagued with.
So What Makes A Classic Car A Classic Car?
There are a number of formal definitions kicking around as to what makes a ‘classic’ car. Most of these are based around the age of the vehicle; the Classic Car Club of America holds that a car is only ‘classic’ while it’s aged between 20 and 40 years; as soon as it becomes 45 years or older it becomes an ‘antique’. Of course, this definition is far too wide; my mother’s Fiat Uno is between 20 and 40 years old, but I wouldn’t exactly call it a classic. In the UK, the HM Revenue & Customs address this by defining a classic car as one which is over 15 years old and is worth more than £15,000; mom’s Fiat wouldn’t be a classic under this definition by any stretch of the imagination. So, a mixture of American and British logic, we’re defining classics as those of a certain age, with a certain amount of sex appeal.
We’ve used the average prices for these special models, and categorized them into different price brackets.
Affordable Classics Under $30,000
1973 Cadillac Eldorado
The Cadillac Eldorado was one of the most advanced cars in the world when it was launched, and it was only the second model ever produced by GM that was front-wheel drive. Caddy introduced the Eldorado in 1953, but this sixth-generation was a radical redesign to capitalize on the era’s burgeoning personal luxury car market, and it was promoted at the time as a “personal” Cadillac. The Eldorado got you from 0 to 60 mph in less than nine seconds and had a top speed of 120 mph. Its drive and handling were highly praised by contemporary reviewers, and it sold extremely well despite high list prices. Good late models average around $20,000 nowadays, but well cared-for, all-original models with low miles can bring considerably more.
1964 Ford Thunderbird
Stylish and comfortable, the 1964 Ford Thunderbird wasn’t the roadster of the past that inspired a Chuck Berry tune, but Ford manufactured nearly 100,000 of these babies. Standard is a 390-cubic inch V-8 with 300hp .It was good enough for Felix Leiter to drive chasing Bond in “Goldfinger.” Prices range from about $11,000 for a coupe to $26,000 for a convertible.
1969 Pontiac Grand Prix
The Pontiac Grand Prix was redesigned for 1969, featuring the longest hood in production car history. The car offered bucket seats and a wrap-around cockpit inspired by airplanes. Pontiac produced more than 112,000 in 1969 offering 350,400 and 428 engines. The engine options would change over the next few years, but the styling remained so check out models from 1969-1972. They’re plentiful, but one in excellent condition should cost between $20,000 and $22,000.
1963-64 Studebaker Avanti
No classic list should be without a quirky pick and ours is the 1963-64 Studebaker Avanti. Among the most daring of American cars during the decade, the Studebaker Avanti was one of the fastest, reaching 168 mph with the supercharged model. Bond’s creator, Ian Fleming had his Avanti shipped to wherever he was staying. Check out those looks because they will get you noticed driving down the block. Getting noticed, though, will run you from $13,850 to $31,700.
Affordable Classics Under $20,000
1979 Pontiac Firebird Formula 400 WS6
Prices for a late 1970s Trans Am have been inflated by a generation of Bandit wannabes, but the less flashy Formula is an inexpensive alternative that has plenty going for it. The Formula was only available in the 1979 model year but had an excellent 6.6-liter, 220 horsepower true Pontiac 400 V-8 under the hood. The addition of the WS6 handling package also gave you four-wheel disc brakes and the fabulous “snowflake” alloy wheels. There were only 24,851 Formulas made during that year, but very few of those had the 400 and WS6. Even so, you should be able to pick a pretty decent one up for around $15,000.
1962-1963 Studebaker Lark Daytona
Pains of owning defunct manufacturer’s model are considerable due to the severe lack of parts, but so are the gains. Only a lucky few (or unlucky, depending on how you look at it) are able to display their extremely rare and seldom-seen possessions across local and national car shows. Studebaker owners are a prime example.
While the Avanti goes for more than $20,000 on average, the independent automaker’s compact Lark costs around $5,000 or $6,000. Thing is, Larks aren’t that scarce and neither are they special. Apart from being endangered like their extinct company was during early sixties, that is. This is where Lark Daytona comes in. A top tier Lark offering which became a nameplate of its own after Studebaker closed their South Bend Assembly in late 1963. Actually, Studebaker started phasing out the Lark name during compact’s second generation years. Apart from Daytona which served as top tier nameplate for 2-door convertibles and hardtops, there was also Cruiser which served as top tier 4-door sedan.
As of 1963, the Lark Daytona lineup included a Wagonaire 2-door station wagon as well. Powertrain options weren’t lacking either. The Lark Daytona could have been ordered with the base 170ci inline-six or no less than four different V8’s. Strongest of these was 4-barrel 289ci making 225 horsepower. Standard 3-speed manual and optional 3-speed automatic were available across the board, while floor-shifted 4-speed manual was reserved as a V8 option. Today, you can have them for $14,000 on average.
1969-1974 Volkswagen Karmann Ghia
Prior to 2014, the VW Karmann Ghia was just another stylish and somewhat oddball car from the bygone era. Then its prices practically doubled overnight. Early models (Karman Ghia was produced between 1955 and 1974) still cost around $20,000 on average. Moreover, the concours models cost double that money. However, later production Karmann Ghia’s are seeing a slow decline in prices – especially when exceptionally preserved specimens are concerned. Late sixties and seventies models cost around $12,000 on average, and that’s probably the best deal available if you’re looking for one.
The Volkswagen Karmann Ghia wasn’t oddball only thanks to its styling which was courtesy of Carrozzeria Ghia’s Luigi Segre, by the way. It also combined VW Beetle’s mechanics with Karmann’s coach-built body. Hence the three-piece name. One of the strong points of Karmann Ghia from classic car buyer’s perspective are its numbers. Long production run spanning over two decades has resulted in around 450,000 of these sports cars being produced.
Do take the words sports car with a grain of salt, though. Karmann Ghia can actually be considered for the unpopular accolade of world’s slowest sports car ever. It was basically a Type 1 VW Beetle through and through when it comes to mechanics and powertrain. Initial output of some 30 horsepower eventually rose to 60 horsepower near the end of production. Apart from the Type 14 Karmann Ghia based on Type 1 Beetle, VW marketed much scarcer Type 34 based on Type 3 Beetle. Only, not in the US which was rather awkward. Still, some 400 or so Type 34’s can be found across America today. After 20 successful years, Volkswagen replaced it with the aforementioned VW-Porsche 914, prolonging their oddball sports cars offering for another few years.
1971-1972 Chevrolet C10 Cheyenne
The Second generation C/K trucks are arguably the most beautiful of them all. They’re stylishly executed, quality built and relatively easy to maintain. All the necessary prerequisites of a sound classic vehicle. Whether C10 Cheyenne is affordable classic, that’s a different matter. With a bit of luck and digging around, you should be able to find specimens in very good shape for between $10,000 and $20,000. Otherwise, low mileage, mint condition pieces have been known to cost as much as $50,000.
Second generation C/K trucks debuted in 1967 and became instantly popular among truck aficionados. When Chevy introduced upscale Cheyenne trim level in 1971 and even flashier Cheyenne Super the following spring, things became even more interesting. By then, all Chevy trucks came with standard front disc brakes and optional power assist steering (standard on heavy duty trucks). Cheyenne package added plushier interior, carpeted floor, factory installed AM/FM radio, side molding, and tailgate trim. 1972 models would remain practically intact. The only difference were glued side mirrors instead of ones bolted to top of the cab.
Engine options were, as always, colorful. Chevy added the prominent 350ci V8 back in 1969, while 300-horsepower 402ci big-block V8 (marketed 400ci for initial year) debuted in 1970. Other than that, 1971 and 1972 models had 250ci and 292ci six-cylinders, and 307ci V8 to choose from. Final year even introduced the 396ci V8 with 310 horsepower since 402ci V8’s output was downgraded to 210 ponies. Both stepside and fleetside options were available throughout the run.
1969-1976 Triumph TR6
Let’s face it: the US market exclusive TR250 (otherwise known as TR5) is far from affordable at $35,000 on average. But that isn’t the case with TR6 which succeeded it in 1969. The TR6 was the first Triumph car in the US to feature direct fuel injection. TR5 also sported Lucas mechanical fuel-injection, but only overseas. US-designated TR250’s came with twin Zenith-Stromberg carburetors instead. TR6’s are scarce these days, but they can be obtained for around $12,000 on average.
Apart from already mentioned Lucas injection, the Triumph TR6 sported 2.5L straight-six engine capable of making 150 horsepower. It also had front disc brakes, independent rear suspension, and rack and pinion steering. But TR6’s most appealing asset was its body. Not just any body, but one made by Karmann.
Below that masterfully chiseled shell, however, beat the heart of a spartan. Like most British cars from back in the day, Triumph TR6 too suffered from lack of contemporary solutions. Cabin was small, ride was hectic, and chassis was based on 20 year old technology. In fact, TR6 wasn’t much more advanced than its distant predecessor the TR2 introduced back in 1953. Still, there isn’t a car enthusiast that wouldn’t enjoy this sports car’s open top, imposing exhaust notes and overall feeling of being alone on the road when in one.
1973-75 Pontiac Grand Am
With its hood scoops and louvered rear quarter windows, the Pontiac Grand Am of 1973 through 1975 matched style with performance, evidenced by the 455-cubic-inch, 250 hp engine options. Nabbing one will run you between $11,350 and $16,600.
Affordable Classic Cars Under $10,000
1958-1959 Ford Fairlane
When it comes to classic cars from the fifties, the Chevrolet Bel Air is often the way to go. It’s one of the most beloved American classic cars, however, it has a steep price tag – even if it isn’t in mint condition. The alternative is the equally astonishing 1955-1957 Ford Fairlane which goes for half as much than Bel Air on average. But if you’re really trying to hit that sweet affordable classic car spot, you should go with second generation Fairlane. 1958 and 1959 models cost around $9,500 on average with concours pieces reaching $18,000 and fair running condition models being available for less than $6,000.
Although second generation Ford Fairlanes sport more contemporary design than much beloved mid-fifties cars, they’re still vintage design classics in every sense of the word. In fact, people loved the new low-finned tail-lights and quad headlights so much that Ford managed to outsell Chevrolet for the first time since 1935. Powertrain lineup consisted of standard 223ci 6-cylinder, 292ci V8, new 332ci V8 in two different tunes (2-barrel with 240 hp and 4-barrel with 265 hp), and new 352ci V8 making 300 horsepower. 1959 models even received the 350-horsepower 430ci V8.
Of all the second generation Fairlanes, the Ford Fairlane 500 Skyliner has to be considered the most stylish offering. Also called Skyliner Retractable Convertible, it featured self-storing metal top which attracted crowds whenever it roamed back in the day. These were also the most expensive models, not only in Fairlane’s lineup, but offered by the Blue Oval overall. Sadly, they’re also rather scarce today.
1954-1983 Jeep CJ-5
Being around for nearly three decades, the civilian Jeep has gone through numerous revisions and upgrades. However, it never strayed away from its initial path. And that was delivering military-grade ruggedness and off-road capability to the general public. Classics in every sense of word, civilian Jeeps are available in every state imaginable. A CJ-5 in good condition requires around $8k to $9k on average, but that really depends on many factors. Low mileage units can be less expensive than extremely high mileage options that have already been moderately restored. Not to mention extensive restorations and limited models which are often way beyond average buyer’s reach.
1986-1992 Toyota Supra Mk III
The A70 (Mk III) Toyota Supra was the first independent model carrying now-iconic Supra name. Ties with the Celica were finally cut, and while the Celica switched to front-wheel drive, the Supra maintained its rear-wheel drive layout. Most popular Supras among car enthusiasts are Mk IV models, and rightly so. Their curvaceous bodies, superior driving dynamics and famous 2JZ inline-six engines are unparalleled. Of course, their price reflects their capabilities and average A80 Supra is anything but affordable these days. Mk III models, on the other hand, go for $6,000 to $7,000. Even mint condition units are selling for between $15,000 and $20,000 on average.
Moreover, the Mk III Supra had its own inline-six engine. Japanese versions were limited to 2.0L and 2.5L displacement, while European and American models came with 3.0L units straight from the get-go. At first naturally aspirated for 1986, 3.0L 7M-GE with 200 horsepower was soon transformed into 7M-GTE turbocharged version with 230 ponies in 1987. Still, Japanese 2.5L 1GZ-GTE engine available between 1990 and 1992 delivered 276 horsepower and would have been a prized possession had it been imported in the US. Instead, US import numbers dwindled with each passing year. First Toyota imported around 30,000 Supras, then the number dwindled to 15,000 units in 1989, then to 6,000 in 1990, and finally to little over 1,000 models for the last year. Although rarer than older models, newer Mk III Supras feature the same, if not even slightly lower price.
1970-1976 Porsche 914
No matter which year you’re going for, most Porsche 914’s are usually available for around $10,000 on average. Cheaper and more contemporary Porsche than that can be acquired, but you’ll be hard-pressed to find a cheaper classic Porsche than the 914. Although the Porsche 914 was built to be affordable (distant predecessor of Boxters and Caymans), it still baffles me they’re available that cheap. Especially since they’re rather scarce these days.
Porsche 914 was a result of Porsche/Volkswagen collaboration which had a goal of producing lightweight, affordable and nimble mid-engined sports car. 2,000-pounder even came with independent suspension, targa roof, fuel injection and two trunks. Quite a feat for early seventies. Especially since basic package cost around $3,500 which is around $22,000 in 2017 dollars. Imagine a brand new Porsche sports car with that kind of sticker today!
Thing is, however, Porsche 914 was anything but successful back then. Maybe that’s the reason Germans waited so long before finally introducing affordable versions of 911 (e.g. Boxter and Cayman). The reason for it being less than successful, however, was mediocre performance which was courtesy of VW 1.7L 4-cylinder engine with only 80 horsepower. 13 seconds 0 to 60 time isn’t exactly sports car range, is it? Even 1.8L and 2.0L Volkswagen 4-cylinder versions didn’t have much success, and Porsche really messed things up by introducing 2.0L flat-six in 914/6 models. Performance issues were remedied all right, but price tag came dangerously close to that of much more superior Porsche 911. At least they’re still cheap today, but for how long?
1985-1991 Mercedes-Benz W126 500 SEL, SEC
W126 chassis cars were ones that have put the Mercedes-Benz S class to the map. Although the W116 series debuted the S class moniker, it wasn’t until 1979 and W126’s arrival that the S class received its status as one of the most luxurious car lineups in the world. Over the years, Mercedes offered a plethora of different W126 options – some available in the US, some not. The 500 SE, SEL and SEC were one of those that weren’t available here, so the German automaker resorted to a grey market.
What Americans did get after the ’85 facelift, are the V8-powered 560 SEL (long-wheelbase sedan) and SEC (coupe) models. These 5.5L V8-powered flagship luxury cars developed close to 300 horsepower, but ran through gasoline reserves with devastating quickness. Still, they’re the most desirable of all W126 models in the US market. Even this, however, doesn’t impact their prices in any major way. As far as cheap classic cars go, these are among the best offerings. Sedan will cost you around $6,000 on average, while coupe warrants $2,000 atop of that. Although parts don’t come cheap, 80’s Mercedes-Benz’s are considered to be the last true quality cars German automaker has produced. That said, their engines are impeccable for at least 200,000 miles and have, on more than one occasion, passed the 500,000 mile mark.
1974 Datsun 260Z and 1975-1978 Datsun 280Z
Although having different names, the 260Z and 280Z are part of the same Fairlady family and mostly differ in powertrain department. Neither of them is as sought after as their predecessor, the original 240Z, but then again, neither is as expensive as the 240Z. They’re available for between $8,000 and $9,000 on average while 240Z warrants much higher price tag of at least $20,000 on average. Not to mention the mint condition models which often go over $50,000.
Datsun’s 240Z was already half the car it initially was in 1973 when new emissions regulations choked the crap out of it. Japanese figured out direct fuel injection would do the trick of bumping performance, but they weren’t ready to offer it just yet. Enter the Datsun 260Z: available only for 1974 (until 1978 overseas). This in-betweener still featured carburetor induction, but came with 2.6L displacement straight-six engine. 0.2L bump in displacement still wasn’t enough as 260Z only developed 140 horsepower initially and 165 hp from mid-year thanks to the new safety bumpers.
The 280Z which debuted in 1975 and remained active until 1978 finally switched to direct fuel injection. License-built Bosch L-Jetronic injection paired with 2.8L straight-six mill bumped the power to 170 ponies. Still, however, 280Z failed to perform like the iconic 240Z. Due to more strict safety regulations, 280Z packed quite a few pounds more than its predecessor. Needless to say, impact bumpers and other optional equipment slowed it down quite a bit. Still, both 260Z and 280Z are great affordable classic cars and more than satisfying alternatives to the iconic Fairlady. After all, they’re practically the same cars.
Affordable Classic Cars Under $5,000
1974-1987 Fiat Bertone X1/9
Even today, 45 years after its introduction and 30 years after discontinuation, the Fiat Bertone X1/9 remains one of the most appealing classic cars that everyone can afford. $5,000 on average is all you need in order to get yourself one of these incredibly fun, nimble and extremely lightweight targa top sports cars.
The Fiat X1/9 designed by Bertone’s Marcello Gandini debuted in 1972, and came to the US two years later. Initial year models were rated at 63 horsepower and were almost completely intact compared to their overseas counterparts. They only sported small federal mandated bumpers. Between 1975 and 1978, X1/9’s received larger ladder style bumpers, while their 1.3L in-line four, now rated at 61 horsepower, got tied to more restrictive exhaust system. Finally, 1979 saw the introduction of larger displacement 1.5L engine with Bosch L-Jetronic fuel injection and 5-speed manual trans (improvement over former 4-speed trans). This setup was rated at 74 horsepower.
Fiat left the US market in 1982 and Malcolm Bricklin’s International Automobile Importers, Inc. took over the job of importing X1/9. Only this time, it wasn’t under Fiat’s badge. X1/9 received new Bertone badging alongside amenities such as air conditioning and power windows. Other than that, 1,940 pound sports car remained mostly intact. It might be far from quick, but Fiat Bertone X1/9 compensates with slim frame and extremely fun driving dynamics. It’s a holy grail of affordable classic cars, and will remain one for unforeseeable future.
1980s Chevrolet Camaro IROC-Z
Bruce Springsteen sang about the T-top in “Darlington County” and the mid to late 1980s Camaro IROC-Z remains an affordable example of the third generation Camaros. Get a port-injected 5.0-liter V-8 with 215 hp for somewhere between $4,500 and $9,000
5. 1975-1981 Triumph TR7
In its era, several ads extolled the “brash, slashing wedge” body shape of the Triumph TR7 as an example of greater things that were to hit the market. Whatever these ads were talking about, clearly never happened as the TR7 represented the last sports car to come from Triumph. This machine made some headlines during its time, straight from its tartan seats and stylish doorstop-like wedge to the bin engineering parts and British Leyland’s bristling quality control in the 1970s. With years of getting featured in the “bad joke” car list and making its way into many not-so-good lists, the TR7 has stayed cheap and neglected. However, people are still not doing away with the “great things to come” edge as it still wears this title to some point. The recent years have seen the prices slightly increase but it still remains one of the most pocket-friendly sports cars to have ever come from Britain with the now price not being that far off from the original pricing of $4,995 forty years ago. You can pick one of these up for around $4200.
1990-1994 Volkswagen Corrado
Even with a sports car marketing tag on it in the early ‘90s, the front-drive vehicle has since faded away from the minds of many in America. The hardcore Volkswagen fans seem to be the only lot that keeps track of them. In its era, Volkswagen Corrado did 17,000 in sales in the US with it being relatively expensive compared to its fun sibling, the Golf GTI. By the time the production was coming to a halt, price tags on some of these models had reached $20,000 and given it was the early ‘90s; they offered tremendous speed performance. Fitted with a supercharged 1.8-liter engine, they packed up to 158 horsepower with 166 lb-ft of torque which enabled them to make a 0 to 60 mph sprint in under 7.5 seconds and achieve a top speed of 140 mph. For those who needed more power, they could get the VR6-powered option (2.8-liter) that would crank up to 178 horsepower with 177 lb-ft and an even lower 0 to 60 sprint time of 6.5 seconds. If that’s not enough, it also offered all sorts of top-notch tech goodies, the likes of an electronic traction control and rear power spoiler.
The pricing on this classic according to Hagerty Price Guide has slightly increased recently. Creeping over our $5,000 price range are the VR6 models which made a late entrance, but the Corrados are still good for our budget range. One of the pitfalls to acquiring this classic is that getting the parts can be a hard nut to crack with power features such as the sunroof and rear spoiler being prone to failure. Also, 1.8-liter cars with superchargers have a thing for breaking prematurely. In average condition, one of these can fetch $4,500 ish.
1979-1985 Mazda RX-7
Between the 1960s and 1970s, Mazda invested a huge sum of money, energy and time for the Wankel rotary technology. This technology came with models ranging from the impressive and merely luxurious Cosmo coupe to the brilliant RX-series sedans with also a B-series truck getting a rotary treatment. Among these creatures, the RX-7 carried the rotary association the most. And despite its novelty in terms of the powertrain, the first gen RX-7 was more of a reliable and simple car excluding the common rotary problems like burning oil and apex seal failure. These machines were quick, well-built in a new form and handsome and they still maintain that same appeal to date. Collector examples nowadays aren’t friendly to the pocket, but the RX-7 knows well to stay within our price limit, with average prices hovering around $4,100.
1984-1993 Mercedes-Benz 190
Even before Germans came up with the build quality marketing slogan, Mercedes was long before then practicing this slogan, and many of the drivers seemed to love the longevity their cars wore. Being an entry-level Benz during its era, the 190 still stood as a rock-solid vehicle to many, especially the diesel models which seemed to last a lifetime. Putting the coveted 16-valve designs aside, the Mercedes 190 can be very affordable. With a budget under the $5,000, you can acquire the European exotic sedan for around $3,900 and let people know that you’re driving a Mercedes if that’s your kind of thrill.
1983-1986 Ford Mustang 5.0
The more crafted body Ford Mustangs have been having much heavier price tags on them, especially the special models as well the late example like SVO and GT attracting higher prices. However, the memorable 5.0-liter LX has remained relatively cheap regardless of the engine resemblance with that of the GT. The price of this machine can go higher as the demand for the foxy body grows, but for now, they’re within reach, making it one of the most attractive old muscle cars for sale under $5000…just. The average price is roughly around $4,500…for now.