How to pick your first classic | Buyer's Guide

Photograph Courtesy Porsche

We know: You’re already intimately familiar with the market and have the ideal classic sitting in your garage. But what about your neighbors, your friends or your family members? 

How do you get them involved in the hobby?

No problem: Hook them with a classic that’s easy to enjoy so they stay invested. 

So, what defines an easy classic?

First, it has to be fun to own and drive–and we realize that means different things to different people. Second, it should spark some connection with its owner. “What feeling are you trying to capture in the vehicle and what’s its purpose?” asks noted dealer and collector Bruce Canepa. “Is it an investment, a daily driver? I’ve never bought a car just as an investment as I love them too much. If I don’t love a car, I don’t buy it.”

His take-home point: “There has to be an emotional connection.”

For first-timers, we also recommend a car that’s relatively simple to find. Leave the unicorns for later. (And, should the ownership experience not work out, a common car will be easier to sell.)

Parts and service should be easy to obtain–bonus points if the car can be repaired in the garage using common hand tools. Let’s be honest: It’s easier to keep an MGB or Miata on the road than some wacky one-off. 

Another factor that can significantly help that newcomer stay involved: an active support community. Concerned about a rattle at 2 in the morning? Getting that technical question answered quickly online can make all the difference. (And don’t worry, it’s nothing–probably.)

Perhaps even more important than the year, make and model: the condition. “As a 15-year-old,” notes barn-find expert Tom Cotter, “I made the mistake so many young collectors/restorers make and dragged home a project that I was not prepared to complete; it required too much money, parts, time and talent than I could realistically supply. Never mind that my family did not have a garage. As a result, it was never finished. 

Buy a car that runs and begin having fun with it right away,” he continues. “The cost of entry will probably be more than with a basket case but ultimately much cheaper in the long haul.”

What about that budget? That’s between the buyer and their checking account, but here are some favorites–from both our staff and experts in the field–covering a wide price range.

Porsche 356B and 356C

As Porsche 911 prices climb seemingly daily, 356 values start to look more reasonable. For a first-timer, we’re talking about a standard, later 356B or 356C coupe–no open cars, no quad-cam Carreras, no early split-window models. Likewise, let’s stay away from projects. 

Our ideal example: perhaps an older, documented restoration that’s a known, sorted driver. A trusted Porsche shop should be able to provide a clean bill of health. 

What to expect in return: a fun classic that’s fairly painless to own and just feels solid. (There’s something about how a Porsche’s door latches in place.) Then add in the parts support, including from Porsche itself, and the very active community, including the Porsche Club of America. 

Will a standard 356 stop traffic in Monterey? You know, it just might. It’s a timeless classic. 

The one to get: We’re sticking by our recommendation to go with a later coupe. 

Pictured: 1960 Porsche 356B coupe sold by Fantasy Junction via Bring a Trailer for $81,000

Datsun 240Z

The Datsun 240Z showed the market that Japan could make a reasonably priced performance car for the masses. The Z managed to push aside the traditional European roadsters, both in the showroom and–thanks to Peter Brock’s BRE Enterprises–on the track. 

For those who don’t care about history, how about this: The 240Z offers great lines and performance that was easily on par in its day. Its top isn’t likely to leak, but some would call this one a bit tinny compared to a German machine. 

Ignored by the collector world for years, Z-car prices have been climbing for the original 240Z as well as the follow-up models. 

The one to get: The 1970-’73 Datsun 240Z–the first iteration of the run–will always get the most attention, but that same Z-car goodness can be found up through the 1983 Nissan 280ZX. 

Pictured: 1971 Datsun 240Z sold via Bring a Trailer for $38,240

BMW Z8

The BMW 507 is a True Legend, worthy enough for Elvis. A good one today easily costs $2 million.

How about something with a similar vibe that’s a little easier to feed and care for–like a BMW Z8? It’s way attractive, plenty fast and trimmed to the nines. 

Even though BMW built the Z8 some 20 years ago–technically just for the 2000-’03 model years–parts availability remains good today. And while the V8 engine has exotic-sounding specs–individual throttle bodies and 394 horsepower–it also powered the brand’s M5, meaning it’s not quite that mysterious. 

BMW didn’t build a zillion examples of the Z8, though–not quite 6300 between the standard model and the later, slightly more comfortable Alpina–but the cars show up regularly at specialty dealers and auctions. 

The one to get: The Alpina cars, built only for the 2003 year, trade a little horsepower for a little more comfort–perhaps not bad for just cruising around. 

Pictured: 2001 BMW Z8 sold via RM Sotheby’s for $207,200

Volkswagen Rabbit GTI

Perhaps the quintessential hot hatch of the ’80s, the VW Rabbit GTI is basically a Rabbit with more power, more stick and more details for the discerning driver. It’s practical, it’s fun and it picks on cars from higher performance brackets. 

Need a reason to impress the concours set? Styling comes from Giorgetto Giugiaro, the man behind the BMW M1, Maserati Ghibli and Alfa Romeo GTV.

For years, though, the GTI was a throwaway: Find it, modify it, race it until it broke or crashed, then repeat with a new one. Today, it’s recognized as a bona fide milestone in the automotive world. That increased interest has brought along rising prices but also more restoration parts. 

The one to get: The Rabbit GTI came to the U.S. market for the 1983 and 1984 model years, and it remained largely unchanged. Buy the cleanest, most original example. 

Pictured: 1983 VW Rabbit GTI sold via Cars & Bids for $19,250

Shelby GT350

For the person who has the scratch and wants to jump into the hobby with a top-shelf, blue-chip collectible that’s welcome at most any event, check out one of the cornerstones of the pony car market, the Shelby GT350.

We all know the story: A former chicken farmer/racer turned a seemingly boring Mustang into a motorsports champion. That legend lives on today.

Yes, these are just hopped-up Mustangs, easily replicable, but thanks to the Shelby American Automobile Club, each car has been tracked since birth. That right there protects the lineage–and thus value–of each example. 

The one to get: The 1965-’66 Shelby Mustangs collect top dollar, but the ’67 cars are actually a little more comfortable, making them perfectly suited for today’s hobby newcomer. 

Pictured: 1967 Shelby GT350 sold via Mecum for $154,000

Mercedes-Benz SL

How about a Benz you can drive to work, to the beach or on a rally? That’s the R107-chassis Mercedes-Benz SL–you know, the brand’s ubiquitous roadster offered through the ’70s and ’80s. The cars are built like two-seat, open-top tanks–curb weight lands right around 3600 pounds–but should something unfortunate happen, every town has a Benz repair shop. More good news: The factory still offers parts. 

Production ran from 1972 to 1989, with the biggest changes involving displacement; the V8 shrank for a few years before blowing up, and those last cars got the 5.6-liter version. A 560 SL might not do burnouts, but it will easily eat up the miles–and look good doing it. 

The one to get: Definitely buy based on condition. There’s no need to drag home a rat, a potentially very expensive endeavor. 

Pictured: 1987 Mercedes-Benz 560 SL sold via RM Sotheby’s for $24,200

Lexus LFA

Why is there a late-model Lexus on this list? Because the LFA represents Toyota’s take on a modern, usable supercar. Its carbon-composite body and chassis house a V10 engine packing 552 horses. Curb weight sits right around the 3200-pound mark, so it’s lighter than a new Porsche 911. Just before its release, an LFA set the 10th-fastest time for a production car at the Nürburgring. 

Lexus built only 500 copies during the 2010-’12 build run, but they do come up for sale at the major auctions–think Monterey, Scottsdale and the like. While originally offered at nearly $400,000, today’s trading prices are starting to touch the million-dollar mark. 

The one to get: Want the best of the best and have the resources to get it? Lexus offered 64 copies with the Nürburgring Package–more aggressive aero, bigger wheels and a bit more power. One just sold for $1.6 million. 

Pictured: 2012 Lexus LFA sold via RM Sotheby’s for $720,000

Mazda Miata

But Miatas are too new to be a classic, you say. Well, reality check: Production started more than 30 years ago, and the Miata is still one of the best small, open sports cars ever built. It’s fun to drive, reliable to own, and comes with legions of support, from online forums to a robust network of parts houses. 

The Miata seemed so much more advanced than the MGB upon its release for the 1990 season, but the gap has shrunk over the decades. Compared to today’s machines, a Miata now feels simplistic. While it has fuel injection and a fully independent suspension, traction control is modulated by the driver’s right foot. 

The first generation ran through 1997, and the second was built through 2005. The original cars are hot right now–it’s hard not to fall for those barn-door headlights and chrome door handles–but the follow-up ones offer a tick more performance at a lower buy-in. Either way, no wrong answer here. 

The one to get: Avoid the rats and home in on a good example. The first-gen, NA-chassis cars offer the most retro experience. Bonus points for cool, unusual colors and special packages. 

Pictured: 1990 Mazda Miata sold via Bring a Trailer for $16,605

Fox-Body Ford Mustang

It’s the car that brought the Mustang back from the malaise era and ushered in the reign of the 5.0. In short, it defines a period in automotive history. All the traditional Mustang attributes ring loudly in this one: performance, simplicity and healthy production numbers. 

The Fox-body Mustang ran from 1979 through 1993, with the lineup featuring a coupe, hatchback and convertible. Performance ranged from bland to tire-smoking. 

Was the Fox-body perfect? Well, it had a few issues, particularly involving the rear suspension geometry. Fortunately, a thriving aftermarket offers easy fixes.

The one to get: The turbocharged SVO models are cool, but for simplicity we recommend a V8-powered Mustang GT for a first-timer–and, along those lines, one of the injected cars built after 1985.

Pictured: 1990 Ford Mustang GT sold via Mecum for $31,900

Honda S2000

It’s new enough to not need a restoration yet old enough that you don’t see one every day of the week. And then there’s the engine: The 2.0-liter inline-four found in the original S2000 could rev all the way to 8900 rpm. Ferrari who?

The power top folds down easily, the body feel solid, and the shifter is one of the world’s best. While it seems a little like a Miata on paper, the S2000 delivers a different experience–a bit tighter and refined yet, thanks to that engine, raw at the same time. 

The one to get: The 2000-’03 cars have the higher-revving 2.0-liter engine, while the 2004-’09 models received a slightly torquier 2.2. Either way, it’s a terrific performer. 

Pictured: 2002 Honda S2000 sold via RM Sotheby’s for $18,000

Chevrolet C5 Corvette

The Corvette entered the modern age with the fifth-generation cars: hydroformed frame rails, rear-mounted transmissions and powerful, tractable engines. The result: a more put-together car that, let’s be honest, still has some character. Call it a good mix. 

The C5 Corvette debuted for the 1997 model year, meaning some will soon be eligible for collector tags–yet they’re not old enough to need a restoration. That’s a sweet spot for a first-time owner. 

The “fast” model is the Z06, which comes with more power, a sportier suspension and the unique, stiffer Fixed Roof Coupe body. A few years ago, you’d pay a premium for a Z06. Today, not so much. Still, don’t expect them to depreciate any more. 

[Project Car: 2004 Chevrolet Corvette Z06]

The one to get: Assuming you’re okay with a closed car, a Z06.

Pictured: 2003 Chevy Corvette Z06 sold via Bring a Trailer for $27,750

MGB

Out of all the traditional European roadsters, why this one? Because it’s the easy button: easy to find, easy to fix and, should you tire of it, easy to sell. 

Call this one the Goldilocks of the genre. It’s bigger than a Bugeye Sprite, less expensive than a “big” Healey, more plentiful than an Alfa, and faster than an MG T-series. Plus, you have the choice of a closed GT, an open-top roadster, or a roadster fitted with a removable hardtop. 

The club and parts support is strong, too. Need a widget? You’ll likely have multiple sources. 

MGB prices have been flat forever, and that’s both good and bad news. The model’s gateway status should endure for years, but a restoration can easily run into the red, stressing the importance of buying a good, honest car. Fortunately, they’re still out there. 

The one to get:  The chrome-bumper cars, built through 1974, see more demand, but the later cars drive nicely, too, especially once upgraded to earlier mechanical specs. 

Pictured: 1973 MGB Roadster sold via RM Sotheby’s for $16,500.

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Comments
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alfadriver
alfadriver MegaDork
11/4/21 12:25 p.m.

So, uh, no Italian cars?  

 

wspohn
wspohn SuperDork
11/5/21 10:46 a.m.

Hmm - wonder how many first time classic car shoppers are up for a $200K+ BMW.....?

Amd I agree - why omit real classics like Giuliettas, MGAs, T series MGs etc. in favour of almost current stuff like LFAs and (heaven help us) Fox bodied Mustangs?  Seems like a quick space filler article using a scatter gun.

RichardSIA
RichardSIA Dork
11/5/21 9:53 p.m.

I only see two classics in the article, one is $$$ Porsche, with only the MGB relatively inexpensive and simple to do your own work on.

For "Entry level classic" there should be Spridgets and Bugeys, Morris Minors, 70's Alfa-Romeo, Sunbeam Alpine and Rapier, Karman Ghia, Lotus Europa, Hillman Minx, Ford Anglia/Cortina, lots of Jags  Mk. 7/8/9/10 Mk. II, 3.8S......

All available under $10K if you are willing to do some work and several of my list are still only around $10K restored!
Sure, avoid the total basket cases but most of the true classics are very simple to work on.

sfisher71
sfisher71 New Reader
7/5/22 5:53 p.m.

"The rich are different from you and me." --F. Scott Fitzgerald

"Yes, they have better first classic cars." --Stroker Ace

MyMiatas
MyMiatas Reader
7/9/22 12:09 a.m.

Would anyone rather go this way to purchase a classic ??

https://grassrootsmotorsports.com/forum/cars-sale/mercedes-willys-jeep-land-rover-up-for-auction-nmna/196431/page1/#post3503889

Sweet deals are out there if you look.

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