35 Classic Cars You Must Drive

A world-class automobile is a combination of tangible and etherial attributes. From the sensuous fender-lines to the memories evoked by leather’s musky scent on a rainy day, these qualities work together to create one’s sense of the car. Wonderful automobiles don’t become revered based solely on their shapes or smells, however; the driving experience is the paramount feature, as it separates a car from a lesser, stationary piece of equipment. A great driving car is able to elevate itself above the sum of its parts, much as a jug-headed Fred Astaire became more handsome and sophisticated as soon as he started dancing.

Few dancers can claim even a speck of Astaire’s genius, though, and the same is true of automobiles. Out of the thousands upon thousands of makes, models and variants produced during the last hundred-plus years, only a fraction provide a truly transformative driving experience. We’re talking about cars that change the way you think about them once you get behind the wheel—and can even change the way you think about driving in general. In fact, we’d say there are 35 cars that every enthusiast must sample. We don’t care if you beg, borrow or steal your way behind the wheel, as each one is all worth the effort to take for even a brief spin.

These machines aren’t on our list due to their looks. It’s not about their values, either. It’s about only one thing: the experience from the most important seat in the house.

The Original Sports Car: Mercer 35R Raceabout, 1910-’15

We start our list with the car that arguably started the sports car craze. Long before MGs, Triumphs and Corvettes were cruising our streets and terrorizing our tracks, the Mercer Raceabout was the supercar of every boy’s dreams. Back in the days when a top speed of 30 or 40 mph was out of sight, the Mercer guaranteed 70 mph.

The Raceabout was small and low-slung in an age of huge, top-heavy, brass-era machines. It was also the first automobile to use handling, not bags of horsepower, to win races. While its 56 horsepower may not sound like much, the Mercer accelerates more like a ’50s-era MG or Triumph than something built before World War I. The transmission is also much better than one would reasonably expect, and the car handles quite well despite its vintage. The biggest letdown is probably the brakes, which unfortunately are next to nonexistent.

Closing comment: Driving the Mercer Raceabout is necessary to understand where the whole concept of the sports car was born.

A Big, Hairy Machine From a Bygone Era: Bentley, 1919-’32

According to Ettore Bugatti, W.O. Bentley built “the world’s fastest lorries.” That statement is as true today as it was then, since Bentleys are big, powerful sporting cars with engines ranging anywhere from 3 to 8 liters, some with superchargers. 

The vintage Bentleys are certainly unlike the low-slung machines produced by Bugatti. The driver sits tall in the saddle. You don’t drive one of these big Bentleys; you make an attempt to tame it.

Going through the gears immediately reveals a fast car, one quite capable of cruising near the 100 mph mark. Unfortunately, a dawning realization comes at the first bend: This is a heavy car. Suddenly, there’s a great respect for those who raced it. It seems unbelievable that these cars won at Le Mans. The Bentley drivers, one realizes, must have been supermen.

Photograph Courtesy Bentley Motors

Closing comment: Driving a vintage Bentley is unlike any other sporting car experience, if for no other reason than it immediately commands respect for those who raced and won in them. 

Pick Your Poison—Gentle or Rough: Alfa Romeo 6C and 8C, 1929-’38

The Alfa Romeo 6C 1750 and its replacement, the 8C 2300, are two of the most famous and most coveted Alfas ever released. Both were developed by Vittorio Jano, but they’re very different cars.

The 6C 1750’s strength lies in the terrific balance of its engine and chassis. It handles extremely well and is capable of 100 mph. The controls are reasonably light, and the rev-happy, six-cylinder engine sounds glorious. The result is a very nice car that’s a joy to drive at the limit, something that feels quite modern for its time. 

Driving the later 8C 2300 is an altogether different kind of experience. The straight-eight engine produces immense amounts of torque, making upshifts with the non-synchro gearbox a bit touchy. More disconcerting is the central throttle pedal: In a car as powerful and as valuable as an 8C, hitting the wrong pedal could be quite bad. Then there’s the total package: The car has much more engine than the chassis can handle, while the nose-heavy layout creates a beast that doesn’t always want to turn. By the late 1930s, displacement was up to 2.9 liters.

Why do we love it? Sometimes a little pain is good for the soul.

Photography Credit: DIrk de Jager

Closing comment: These two Alfas form perfect bookends. One flies like a butterfly, while the other stings like a bee—a bee toting a 5-pound sledgehammer, that is.

Know Your Roots: MG T-series, 1936-’55

Here’s the machine that afflicted Americans with the sports car bug. Most of us know the story: Servicemen stationed in Europe catch the fever and return home with their MGs in tow. Domestic hobby follows.

While it’s not fast by today’s standards, the MG was a revelation at the time because it handled well and had decent brakes. It was also light on its feet. All of this was a huge contrast to just about everything else available in America. Sure, the MG doesn’t sport acres of chrome or cool tail fins, but it follows its master’s every command. Ask it to change direction, and it does so without any hesitation.

The MG also didn’t cost a mint to buy or own. Suddenly, sports car ownership was expanded beyond just the people who could afford summer homes in the Hamptons.

Photography Credit: David S. Wallens

Closing comment: Sure, there are better driving cars out there, but if you really want to experience the genre’s starting point, take an MG T-series for a spin.

The Sports Car That’s Built Like a Vault: Mercedes-Benz 300 SL, 1954-’63

The Mercedes-Benz 300 SL is one of the tightest convertibles ever built.  The build quality is simply stunning, draping the occupants in quality and luxury while cocooning them in comfort. Everything within reach feels and looks so right.

The driving experience follows that same path. This isn’t a light roadster like an MG or Triumph. Instead, the 300 SL feels big and powerful—because it is, thanks to its injected 3.0-liter inline six.

While these cars do handle well, they are more at home on the open road, where they can stretch their legs and gobble up the miles. 

Photography Credit: Will Brewster

Closing comment: The rest of the automotive world took lessons from the good folks in Stuttgart. This one showed that a roadster could bridge the gap between sports car and luxury tourer.

A Sports Car for the Masses: Austin-Healey Sprite, 1958-’61

The Austin-Healey Sprite was another game changer. Where the MG T-series brought the sports car to America, this one expanded the scope. The Sprite’s pricing started near $1200 at a time when a contemporary Triumph or MG cost nearly a third more.

The Sprite was more than just a deal, however. It redefined the sports car scene. Here was a car that could be wound to 6000 rpm and swung into a corner while remaining uncomplicated and fun to own. The ’50s were over and the ’60s had arrived.

Photography Credit: Scott R. Lear

Closing comment: The Sprite was more than just a pretty face. It was a simple, accessible car. Just about any enthusiast had the means and skill required for admission.

Introducing the Pocket Rocket: Austin Mini, 1959-2000

The Mini introduced front-wheel drive to the masses. The hotted-up Mini Cooper introduced front-wheel drive to the sporting world. 

The pocket rocket genre was created with the introduction of the Cooper, which proved that fast cars with room for four didn’t need to boast huge engines, a large footprint or an out-of-sight price tag. The Mini simply showed that less could be more.

Driving a Mini Cooper is an otherworldly experience. It swallows four large adults with ease, yet can hustle with the day’s best true sports cars. The available engines wind freely, while the brakes—especially the 7.5-inch front discs found on the Cooper S—are much better than they should be. The handling? The Mini can change directions in an instant.

Then there’s the charm. The Mini may not have an Ivy League background, but it can easily run with those who spent all day at finishing school.

Photograph Courtesy Mini USA

Closing comment: Minis are popular for a reason. They brought cool looks and small-car packaging to a then-unimagined level. Then there’s the panache of driving something that combines such impressive abilities with such a humble approach.

An American World-Beater: Shelby Cobra, 1962-’68

This story involves another sports car legend: Carroll Shelby, an ex-racer and former chicken farmer, creates a Corvette-beater by combining an old AC chassis and Ford’s then-new, small-block V8 engine. A rough-and-tumble BorgWarner four-speed transmission rounds out the package. Fame and wins soon follow.

The Cobra started winning races nearly instantly, whipping the formerly front-running Corvettes with apparent ease. Although the car was rather impractical and not a great seller when new, the legend began to build—and build and build. Today this is perhaps the most famous sports car of all time. 

The heart of the Cobra’s driving experience is that engine. Had Shelby used a six-cylinder, the car would have been nothing but a quiet footnote in sports car history. However, the small-block Ford is arguably one of the sweetest-sounding, hardest-pulling V8s ever made. If the sound of a 289 Cobra at full song doesn’t whet your appetite, well, perhaps you should consider another hobby.

Then there’s the rest of the Cobra experience. The chassis is decent, although the fact that it won so many races may be a testament to the guys who drove them. The brakes are good. The gearbox is nearly flawless as long as you don’t shift like a sissy. The ergonomics are splendid, with a cutback door that makes the perfect arm rest. Together, it all comes alive like Astaire on one of his very best days.

Photograph Courtesy Ford

Closing comment: The Cobra came in both small- and big-block versions. While each has its fans, the wail of the 289 Ford is hard to beat.

Sexy, Secure and Speedy: Jaguar XKE, 1961-’75

The XKE wasn’t Jaguar’s first sporting machine, but it may well be their best driver’s car. While the 3.8-liter engine was a direct descendant of the powerplant found in XKs from the ’50s, pretty much everything else was all new and very, very different.

Let’s start with the looks, which are stunning in coupe or roadster form—so stunning that you could easily argue that this was the prettiest car ever made. Then there’s the mechanical features: four-wheel-disc brakes, independent front and rear suspension, 250-plus horsepower and a perfect interior layout.

The result is more supercar than sports car. The XKE is extremely long-legged and surprisingly quiet. It’s also very comfortable, even at not-quite-legal speeds. It’s equally adept when poking along through town, blasting up a mountain pass, or crisscrossing the continent.

Photography Credit: Will Brewster

Closing comment: The steering is rather light, the controls and gauges look extra cool, and the four-speed transmission works very well. In the bends the E-type is no slouch, either. Overall, this is probably one of the most satisfying cars of this era to drive.

Bond, James Bond: Aston Martin DB5, 1963-’65

The Aston Martin DB5 is not only one of the most famous GT machines in the world, it’s also one of the most famous cars in the world. Period. 

That’s all thanks to secret agent 007. This car defined the character of James Bond even more than his shaken, not stirred, martinis. As a result, the DB5 has been permanently imprinted on the psyches of people around the world as Bond’s car. You could call it the greatest product placement ever done for a car company.

But is the DB5 still a great driver? Absolutely, although it’s best to think of it as a GT and not as a true sports car. This is a car that can be driven flat-out across the country without tiring its occupants one bit. 

The engine is responsive. It’s also one of the best-sounding straight sixes ever produced. The fit and finish perfectly describe the heyday of handmade British automobiles—it’s closer to Rolls-Royce than Jaguar. The steering is light and very responsive for such a large car. The DB5 can corner decently as well, although there is a bit of body lean. It grips nicely and eventually delivers very controllable understeer. 

Photograph Courtesy Aston Martin

Closing comment: Sorry, but we’ll admit it: The best part of driving the DB5 is feeling like you’re James Bond. No other car on the planet delivers that sensation to this degree. 

Perhaps the Last True Ferrari Road Car: Ferrari 275 GTB4, 1964-’68

If there is one 1960s Ferrari road car that personifies the brand, it has to be the 275 GTB. This was the last car Mr. Ferrari built before the merging with Fiat, meaning its design wasn’t influenced by the Fiat marketing department. This one came from the heart.

While the car is beautiful and has an important place in Ferrari lore, the driving experience is what sets it apart. The 275 GTB4 can easily reach a cruising altitude of 150 mph. Devouring highway miles becomes a simple exercise: Choose a route and then head there. 

The car has all of the signature Ferrari characteristics, including a heavy clutch, gated shifter and manual steering. Unlike the Daytona, which appeared later, the 275 GTB4 is much easier to drive. Credit goes to a better layout of the controls plus much lighter steering. 

Sure, the car has plenty of blind spots, and the minimal ventilation doesn’t work so well in the city. That’s not the Ferrari’s forte. Remember, it was built to go fast, not endure the stop-and-go grind. 

Photography Credit: Dirk de Jager

Closing comment: The Ferrari 275 GTB4 may be the perfect tool for an L.A.-to-Phoenix run, especially at right around 130 mph. It also represents the end of an era.

The World’s Greatest Endurance Racer: Porsche 911, 1965-’98

Sure, the early Porsche 911 makes a few demands. The shifter isn’t always the smoothest device on the planet, the ignition key isn’t where you’d first guess, and the cars have a tendency to swap ends when the throttle is lifted mid-corner. Oh, and the aerodynamic profile has a lot in common with an airplane wing, which invites some issues at higher speeds.

That’s all balanced, however, by the car’s unmatched competition record. Vic Elford turned the 911 into a rally legend. Name a famous racer, and odds are strong that a Porsche carried them around Daytona, Sebring or Le Mans. Obviously Porsche got something right.

The air-cooled, flat-six engine was a 911 staple for decades. It’s flexible and willing to play while emitting that incomparable sound. The seats are a bit upright, but the view over the fenders is amazing—perhaps only the Mini Cooper offers such great outward visibility. A bank of VDO gauges reminds the driver that this car is about the business of driving.

Then there’s the steering. It’s simply telepathic, perfectly weighted no matter what number is showing on the speedometer. The 911 may be a difficult car to master, but sometimes the rewards are worth the effort.

Photograph Courtesy Porsche

Closing comment: We dare you to drive a Porsche 911 and not imagine yourself at Spa, Le Mans or Daytona. It simply can’t be done.

A Supercar for the Street: Lamborghini Miura, 1966-’73

Looking to experience the machine that inspired the whole supercar genre? Then bum a ride in a Lamborghini Miura. While mid-engined cars existed before this time, they were pretty much limited to track-only machines. The Miura brought that experience to the public.

Sure, the Miura was a tad uncomfortable, but it was crazy fast as well. It also offered one of the lowest seat heights ever recorded in a closed-top car. The Miura offered one more treat: At full song, a fleet of four Webers sang their intoxicating tune.

Photograph Courtesy Automobili Lamborghini Holding S.p.A.

Closing comment: The Miura changed everything. Without the Miura, there would be no 512 BB, no Testarossa, no 930, no McLaren F1 and no Veyron.

Japan Nails the Sports Car Formula: Datsun 240Z, 1970-’73

The Datsun 240Z almost single-handedly proved three important facts. One, Japanese cars could be awesome and sexy. Two, sports cars could be completely practical. Three, the English sports car builders were doomed to fail as they had too much baggage and not enough resources to keep up with the changing game. 

Thanks to its smooth inline six and razor-sharp handling, the 240Z simply blew every other low-priced sports car into the weeds. That engine was coupled with a nice four-speed box, and the chassis featured decent if not exceptional brakes, rack-and-pinion steering, and four-wheel independent suspension. 

The interior was also a totally modern step up from the British sports cars of the day. The features, ergonomics and gauge package didn’t ask for any excuses. In short, the Datsun Z was a dream to drive. 

Photography Credit: David S. Wallens

Closing comment: The Z pulls like a Triumph, redlines like a Jag, and looks like a Ferrari. It has the total package.

10 Cylinders, No Waiting: Dodge Viper, 1992-2010

The Dodge Viper is the spiritual successor to the 427 Cobra. Loud, fast and crude, this car lived up to the Shelby ideal in every way. The Viper doesn’t pop like a firecracker; rather, it unleashes its fury in slow motion, like an arriving thunderstorm.

While you’d expect the Viper to be fast, the surprise is the car’s balance. Turn-in and steady-state cornering are world class. Despite a 3300-pound curb weight, this car can autocross like a Miata. 

The Viper doesn’t bathe its occupants in Mercedes-Benz-like plushness, but ride comfort is acceptable and egress and ingress are not too bad. It’s that hulking V10, however, that makes this one so special.

Photograph Courtesy Dodge

Closing comment: Ever wish you could borrow Thor’s mighty hammer? That’s where the Viper comes in.

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Panamericano New Reader
7/18/22 12:10 p.m.

Darn.  I've only driven 4 from your list.  Mini, Cobra, 911 avtually a 930, 300SL Gullwing.  I better get busy.


One not on the list that I would really like to learn how to drive - Ford model T.

Tim Suddard
Tim Suddard Publisher
7/21/22 1:04 p.m.

Driving a Model T is a bit harder than it looks. The Model A is much more conventional

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