Classic cars are big business these days. Certain models have skyrocketed in price over the past few years to the point that you now need pretty deep pockets if you'd like one parked in your driveway.
But before you rush out and put your hard-earned cash down on an old car, its advanced years don’t necessarily guarantee that it'll become a classic. Some just become rusty old junkers that'll never be worth more than the value of the gas in their tanks. Guessing which ones aren't destined for this fate requires a fair amount of knowledge and analysis of how similar models have done in the past. Not everyone is interested in going to all the trouble, but the lure of an affordable classic, especially one that may appreciate in value over time, is a tempting prospect.
So, to make things a whole lot easier, we've selected 15 of the best classics for motorists on a budget. The criteria for entry was simple. The car had to either already be or have the potential to be a desirable classic, and it couldn't be worth more than $10,000.
Rarity and uniqueness play a big part in determining whether a car will rise above its scrapheap fate, so while predicting the future is never foolproof, the cars we've picked are more likely than most to become collectible in the coming years. Our list covers everything from budget roadsters to luxury GT cars. If they have the potential to put a smile on your face, then they're here.
15 Mazda Miata
The Miata arrived in 1989 and ushered in the modern era of small and affordable roadsters. It didn’t bother with big engines and big horsepower but rather focused on the driving experience. The earliest cars had 1.6-liter four-cylinder engines, lightweight body shells, and the minimum of luxuries to keep the curb weight down.
Your average turbocharged hatchback will easily out-accelerate one away from the lights, but around a challenging mountain pass, it's the Miata driver who'll have the bigger smile. Subsequent generations did gain weight and features, but they all offer a distilled driving experience for the real enthusiasts.
The first-generation cars NA are already going up in value, but you can still find decent ones at well under $10,000. The second- and third-generation cars also fall well within budget, although walk away from early examples that haven’t been cared for, as rusty panels can be expensive to rectify.
14 Mazda RX-8
The RX-8 was a potentially great but flawed sports car. The temperamental and, at times, frail rotary engine was partially to blame, but aside from some mechanical issues, these little Japanese performance cars were great to drive. The unique suicide rear doors worked well and made getting into the back seats far easier than those of most two-door rivals.
Well-looked-after cars can be great, though, although even the best ones will use a fair bit of oil. Avoid the automatics if you can; the pre-2006 models had a four-speed unit and made less power than the manuals did.
The slushbox really takes the edge off an otherwise great little sports car, and this one is all about the way it handles.
The much more expensive RX-7 predecessor had a pair of turbochargers to give it serious performance; however, in the RX-8, you still get 230 hp, and it can still be a lot of fun as long as you keep the revs up high.
13 Honda S2000
The Honda S2000 has no problems with reliability; in fact, its naturally aspirated 2.0-liter inline-four is one of the best engines ever fitted to a production vehicle. No other unboosted 2.0-liter car can hope to match its 240 hp or its manic 9,000 rpm redline, making this little roadster as addictive and as engrossing to drive as it was at its launch back in 1999.
A 0-60 mph time of 6 seconds is still pretty quick, and the gearshift quality is one of the very best around.
Values are already on their way up, so there are far fewer on offer at our budget, but look hard enough, and some great early high-milers are still out there. Post-2005 models received some updates that made them less twitchy at the limit, but a well-set-up early car handles just fine. As long as you see a verifiable service history, it should provide many years of driving enjoyment.
12 VW Golf R32
The latest fast Golfs all feature a version of the firm’s familiar 2.0-liter turbocharged engine. They may offer serious levels of power and torque, but even the most ardent fan will concede that the old V6-powered R32 models had a lot more character.
That addictive exhaust note and lag-free power delivery can be yours for way less than a new model will cost, too.
The 3.2-liter V6 delivered up to 247 hp, depending on whether it was fitted to the Mk4 or 5 Golf, and the now ubiquitous dual-clutch transmission also made its global debut in the Mk4 R32 in 2004. All R32s also came with a Haldex all-wheel-drive system, and most had a full complement of luxury and convenience items.
11 Nissan 350Z
The 350Z is a proper old-school sports car that sends the power from its 3.5-liter V6 to the rear wheels and has very little in the way of advanced electronic systems to help you out if you get it wrong. The basic design stayed in production for seven years between 2002 and 2009, although numerous detail improvements saw power levels increase from 287 to 306 hp, and handling was better resolved in later models, too.
For our budget, you really are spoilt for choice, as even late model convertibles can be had for under $10,000.
There are plenty of automatics about, and they're fine for cruising, but it if you intend to attend track days, then the manuals are definitely the ones to go for. Many 350Zs have been modified, so watch out for abused examples.
10 BMW 8-Series
The 8-Series was launched in 1989, but look at one today, and you'd hardly believe it. Those lines have aged surprisingly well, and the values for mint examples have been on an upward trajectory for years. The first models were the 5.0-liter V12s.
While they're smooth and great on longer trips, it's the later V8 840ci that's the more rounded offering.
Manual transmission models are extremely rare, but the automatic gearbox suits the nature of these GTs rather well. It's unlikely that you'll find low-mileage examples for our budget, but these cars can go forever if they've been cared for. Post-1995 V8s got the uprated 4.4-liter engine, so keep an eye out for those.
9 Porsche 944
In today’s world of overpriced 911s, few people mention the Porsche 944, but at our $10,000 price point, we sure need to. The 944 was a development of the earlier 924 and featured a number of improvements, not least to its performance, that made it a rather accomplished if somewhat overlooked sports car. It may lack the cache of those rear-engined alternatives, but you can find a very neat 143 hp 2.5-liter version or even the rarer 217 bhp Turbo at our price. These cars have been relatively cheap for some time now, so previous owners may have neglected servicing and maintenance in the past. For this reason, don’t buy the lowest-priced one you can find.
They were built from 1982 all the way up to 1991, and eventually, 2.7-liter and even 3.0-liter models were added to the range, although finding decent examples of these will require some patience if they're to fit our budget. A 3-speed automatic was offered on certain models, and if you find one of these for sale, it's best to keep looking. They really dumbed down the performance and totally detracted from the driving experience.
8 Porsche 968
The 968 was the final iteration of the 924/944 range. It shared the transversely mounted four-cylinder engine and the rear-wheel-drive layout of its forebears but featured numerous upgrades and tweaks from years of development that made them the most desirable of the lot.
All 968s came with a 3.0-liter engine, and some had turbochargers, but these are way out of our budget, as are the scarce Clubsport models. No matter, the base 3.0-liter made 240 hp, which is more than enough for most and works best when paired with the 6-speed manual transmission. Take your time when searching for a 968, as they're rare. Both coupe and convertible models can be had at our price, but don’t expect a mint-condition example, as those tend to retail for a fair bit more.
7 Porsche 986
The first-generation Boxster wasn't quite the unequivocal success at its launch that Porsche might've liked it to be. Its 200 hp 2.5-liter engine and awkward looks were the main reason. Things started improving when the more powerful 2.7-liter engine was introduced for the base model, and fans really started taking notice with the introduction of the 255 hp 3.2-liter S models.
Further good news came in the way of a mid-life facelift that improved those weird front headlights and added a bit more power to both models. The Boxster and the water-cooled 996 that was sold alongside it eventually helped Porsche emerge from the late ‘90s with its reputation and finances intact. Today, these first-gen Boxsters are of fantastic value. Our money would go on a post-facelift S model. These are rare at this price, but the additional power over the 2.7-liter models is well worth it.
6 Pontiac GTO
The modern-day GTO may just be a rebadged Holden Monaro from Australia, but take a closer look, and this two-door V8 shares more than just its name with that iconic American classic. Initially introduced in 2004 with a 350-hp LS1 V8, the GTO definitely had the kind of performance that you'd associate with the name. 2005-on models got an even more potent 6.0-liter LS2 V8 with 400 hp on tap.
Unlimited, the top speed of the 6.0-liter models was claimed to be 178 mph, and the quarter-mile could be dispatched in 13.3 seconds.
You may struggle to find the larger-engined derivates for less than $10,000, but there are plenty of the earlier 5.7-liter models out there. Transmission options were either a 6-speed manual or a 4-speed automatic, and either will do just fine. Sold for only three years, the GTO is a relatively scarce model, and while they may have received a lukewarm reception in their day, as a used buy, these Australian GTOs make a lot of sense.
5 Mercedes-Benz SL 500
Each succeeding generation of SL models that Mercedes builds goes through a phase when they become affordable for a short while. The good ones then continue to appreciate to levels that mere mortals cannot afford. The fifth-generation Mercedes-Benz SL is currently occupying that small window of opportunity, and car enthusiasts on a budget can now find them for less than $10,000. Don’t expect a showroom condition example, though. Some may need a bit of TLC to look their best again, but there are some good cars out there.
The SL from this era featured a folding hardtop roof and came with a number of class-leading safety and luxury features. The base 228 hp V6 300 SL is a great cruiser, but you'll want the 322 hp V8 500 SL for its stronger performance and smooth V8 soundtrack. If you prefer a more classic shape, then there are some decent fourth-generation models that are well worth a look, too.
4 Chevrolet Corvette
The venerable Corvette has been rumbling around the U.S. since 1953, and while not all have been hits, the majority are great fun to drive. There have been some real performers along the way, too. Don’t get your hopes too high, though—for our $10,000, we won’t be driving away in a classic ’63 Stingray Coupe or a modern mega-horsepower ZR-1, but there are some great ‘vettes out there for our budget.
One such example is the C5 generation. Built between 1996 and 2004, the standard cars came fitted with a 5.7-liter LS1, which made around 350 hp. They handled pretty well for their time, and that torquey V8 gave the C5 enough performance to match just about any contemporary European performance car.
Mileages on some cars may be high, but these big V8s can give trouble-free service for years as long as they're given the occasional service. There are some decent C4s available for our budget, too, but the more modern C5 offers a much-improved interior and is the better daily driver.
3 Audi TT
Audi’s TT was released in response to the new premium roadsters that were proving very popular for BMW and Porsche. The first cars in 1998 featured a bodyshell that differed little from the concept car shown three years earlier at the Frankfurt Motor Show. The 1.8-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine was lacking in character compared to the six-cylinder units found in rivals’ offerings, but with up to 225-hp on offer, performance levels were right up there.
There are plenty of good examples out there to choose from. The facelifted models arrived in 2003, and both roadsters and coupes can be found for well below our budget.
Look hard enough, and you may even find a few second-generation models, too. These took on a more angular exterior look that still looks fresh today. Avoid modified examples, though, as you may end up having to spend a lot more than you bargained for.
2 Audi RS6
The RS6 has been around for almost two decades now, and each successive generation has brought with it more horsepower and performance. Until today, you can get an RS6 wagon with up to over 600 bhp. Whether the new version reaches the U.S. is still uncertain, but one thing you can still get is the 2003 original. That car had a ‘mere’ 450 bhp under its hood but was still good for a sub-5-second 0-60mph time and came with adaptive dampers and all-wheel drive, so you could use the power even when the road conditions weren’t ideal.
A little more than 1,000 made their way over here, and if you look hard enough, you can find one or two that fit our $10,000 budget. Be prepared for a high-mileage example, though, as mint ones are often double this figure.
1 Jaguar XK8
The XK8 was an important new model for Jaguar when it was launched in 1996. Following on from the sporty but unreliable XJ-S, this new car had to be both fast and untemperamental. Early cars came fitted with a 4.0-liter V8 that gained a supercharger in XKR trim, and it was undoubtedly quick. Reliability, too, was much improved, and these beautiful sports cars now make for a reasonably priced classic that exudes traditional British charm without having to make owners worry about traditional British unreliability.
XK8s built from 2003 onwards were fitted with uprated 4.2-liter engines, and all models got an improved 6-speed automatic transmission after 2002. Finding one of these facelifted cars at our budget isn't that difficult, but it's more important to find a car that's in good condition than worrying too much about specifications.
Sources: manufacturer sites, newspress.co.uk, newspress.com
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