Rally-Ho: The Perfect Vintage Rally Car at Any Budget

This article dates back to 2011, so don’t be surprised if a few of the prices have gone up. Regardless of their prices, though, these cars are still amazing rally companions. There are some new rallies today, too, including our own Orange Blossom Tour and Smoky Mountain Tour.


This story ran in an old issue of Classic Motorsports. Want to make sure you’re reading all the latest stories? Subscribe now.


Story by Tim Suddard • Photos by Will Brewster unless otherwise credited

It’s a fantasy that’s not uncommon in our world: blasting across the Arizona desert or crossing the Montana high country while taking part in a classic car rally—be it a prestigious national event or a fun local romp. The scene has all the makings of a fantastic getaway, perfectly mixing a wonderful companion, beautiful views and a winding ribbon of asphalt.

Of course, there’s one more thing to consider: Which car do you use for your great escape? Sure, you may dream of bringing a decommissioned racer from the ’60s, but do you really want to deal with a stifling cockpit, practically no luggage space, and a hair-trigger clutch?

While there are lots of great cars out there, some are better suited for rallies and tours than others. Personal preferences are important, but practicality has to come into play, too: consider price, reliability, performance, comfort, curb appeal, trunk space and parts availability.

Event eligibility is another concern. Many classic car rallies, including the biggies like the California Mille and the Colorado Grand, have strict eligibility requirements and don’t take cars from the ’60s onward.

And what about your passengers? As many ardent rallyists have admitted to us, they’d take a different car depending on whether they were heading on a romantic retreat with their spouse or a brash and bold boys’ week away. No matter what your needs, we can help. We have assembled a variety of car choices in several price ranges, factoring in qualities like performance, handling, fun and panache. We’ve sampled the cars, participated in the rallies, and consulted the experts. All you need to do is pick your poison.

Under $25,000 - Triumph TR

Some rallies shy away from allowing low-dollar classics. That’s sad, as nearly everyone loves and recognizes an old Triumph TR as one of the machines that defined the sports car scene in the ’50s and ’60s.

Despite their humble origins, these four-cylinder Triumphs offer a lot to love: 100 mph capability, rugged build quality, decent handling and comfortable cockpits. They even have a real trunk.

Parts are also inexpensive and readily available. While most local auto parts stores don’t serve Triumph owners, nearly every part is an overnight package away from places like Moss Motors and Victoria British.

Shopping Advice: The TR2s and TR3s have much wider eligibility than the later cars. These early models also offer more wind in the face. On the other hand, there are fewer creature comforts.

By 1962, when the squared-off TR4 was on the road, wind-up windows had become a reality, as did rack-and-pinion steering. The model line gained a six-cylinder engine by 1968, giving the car the legs needed to run high-speed rallies and cruise at a much more relaxed pace. Somewhere in there is the right combo for just about any enthusiast.

Final Thoughts: We have run rallies in our early TR6. While the interior is a bit narrow, the seats remain comfortable all day. The car also has plenty of power as well as incredible fuel economy—at least 25 mpg. That helps make it the best rally car we have driven for less than $25,000.

Family Favorite: Datsun 240Z

A Datsun 240Z may not have excessive cachet with the old-guard set, but it is a heck of a car. Between a real heater, modern ergonomics and that lusty overhead-cam six, the Z-car would make a great low-cost rally machine—provided you can get by the eligibility committee.

The Z checks all of the other boxes, too, as it offers good fuel economy, lots of luggage room and plenty of power. The mechanicals are also bulletproof, but parts are easy to find should something break. Then there’s the paltry price tag, as a nice one is still $10,000-$15,000.

Always Welcome: MG T-series

If you need something from postwar times that’s going to cost less than $25,000, there are few low-priced cars cooler than an MG T-series. While they top out at relatively low speeds and offer the absolute minimum in creature comforts, the pre- and postwar MG T-series roadsters put sports cars on the map. Most rally groups will welcome a T with open arms.

"The MG TD and TF offer crisp sports car handling with a good ride. Touring in these cars is a joy since they’re fairly comfortable for ’50s machines. They’re also fairly reliable—when they do break down, they are quite easy to fix and parts are available. Just pack lightly and bring your sunscreen!"

Jeff Lane, 1955 MG TF

$25,000-$50,000 - Porsche 356

With the 356, Porsche showed the world how the Germans can build a sports car. While based on the humble Beetle, the 356 is a different animal: lower, leaner and built to gobble up miles of highway. It even helped pioneer the widespread use of monocoque construction.

The Porsche 356 is also built like a tank and fun to drive. Worried about getting accepted for a top-tier event? Just about everyone loves these cars, meaning a 356 is eligible nearly anywhere. It also probably has the most panache of any car in its price class.

Shopping Advice: Like so many cars on our list, there are three mortal enemies to look for when shopping for a 356: rust, rust and rust. While it’s hard to avoid, there are still enough decent cars out there that we’d have to recommend holding out for a good one with bona fide history. Fortunately, the country is littered with 356 experts ready to provide NOS and reproduction parts plus the expertise to keep the cars on the road.

You probably aren’t going to find an open-top car in this price range, but you can still get a decent coupe for less than $50,000. In reality, expect to find a later model car for that kind of money, either a 1959-’63 356B or 1963-’65 356C. While the ’50s-era cars are eligible for just about any event, these later cars offer increased power and a more refined package. The 356C added disc brakes to the car.

Final Thoughts: While you won’t have the fastest car at the event, there isn’t much that can get around a 356 in the twisties. And at the end of a 300-mile day, you won’t be sore, either.

"The 356 is such a good platform to hotrod into a rally car. I took an old race car and converted it into this rally car. It was cheaper and easier and I didn’t feel like I was cutting up a priceless classic. The 356 is such a good, basic car and they handle great."

Jim Edwards, Outlaw Porsche 356

Family Favorite: Porsche 911

The Porsche 911 offers not only a comfortable cabin, but a lot more power than the earlier Porsche 356. Between its rally history, indestructible nature and complete creature comforts, the 911 is the gold standard of rally cars in this and any other price category. However, there’s one small stumbling block that must be overcome: Will the organizers let it in? Production didn’t start until the 1965 model year, so some groups consider the car to be too new.

"This car has tremendous power, handles great and is bulletproof. Parts are easy to get, and this particular 911 is not all original or super valuable, so I don’t get uptight about the occasional rock chip. I have never been an open-car guy as they are too flexible, so I love the 911. You can also make them go as fast as your wife will let you with 2.0- to 3.8-liter powertrains."

Jeff Dreebin, 1970 Porsche 911T

Always Welcome: Alfa Romeo Giulietta

Everyone loves the Giulietta. These cars are beautiful, nimble and sound so lovely. They are also eligible nearly everywhere, especially if you choose an early one—production started in 1954 and lasted through 1965.

There are many more factors that make the Giulietta such a good choice: effective drum brakes, good fuel economy, four-speed transmission, decent ride quality, and great handling. Despite rumors to the contrary, these Italian cars are relatively robust and quite reliable.

There is one thing that lets this car down, however: Its small 1.3-liter engine will not hang with the big boys out West. No matter, just slow down and enjoy the scenery as it rolls past that wonderful Alfa front end.

$50,000-$75,000 - Chevrolet Corvette

A lot of spindly-wheel sports car-types thumb their noses at the 1963-’67 Corvette, but this one has a lot going for it. It’s an American icon that should definitely be considered.

First, there’s the legendary styling. From any angle, including behind that amazing split dashboard, the C2 Corvette is a beautiful car. The Peter Brock-penned body marries classic Italian lines with the right hint of American muscle. The available V8 engines range from mild to fire-breathing.

It’s also a car that won’t leave you stranded. No matter where you are, should the rare need arise, every auto parts store will have a carburetor, fuel pump and water pump for that famed Chevy V8. In fact, no drivetrain is more common. Corvettes are fast, handle well and feature lots of interior room. They’re mostly watertight, and while they don’t get great gas mileage, they at least have a large fuel tank. Feel free to crack the throttle and stretch those legs. Shopping Advice: The small-block, 327-powered cars may not bring in the big bucks, but they’re better balanced, run cooler, and have lower operating costs.

A myriad of options were available at the dealer: heavy-duty suspensions, fuel-injected engines, automatic transmissions, power steering and extra bits of chrome. The result: From comfortable cruiser to Cobra chaser, there’s a coupe or convertible setup out there to meet most any need.

Final Thoughts: Great lines, great history and great convenience make the C2 Corvette tough to beat for the price. Make ours a triple-black convertible, please.

Family Favorite: “Pagoda Roof” Mercedes-Benz

These W113-chassis convertibles—model designations include the 230 SL, 250 SL and 280 SL—are perhaps the most famous machines to ever carry the three-pointed star. While not true sports cars, these touring machines feature vaultlike build quality, modern-day ergonomics, and a ride that is unparalleled by perhaps any other sports car of the ’60s.

The 2.8-liter 280 SL is the most popular model from this run; it also fetches the highest prices. That said, a lot of enthusiasts counter that the 2.3-liter cars—introduced in 1963—are the sleepers of the group, especially when equipped with the rare manual transmission.

Always Welcome: Austin-Healey 100 and 100/6

An early “big” Healey in either 100 or 100/6 form will be welcome at just about any vintage sports car rally, as production started in 1953. Rugged, handsome and still relatively inexpensive, these cars are a very good choice.

With big four- and six-cylinder engines—displacement reaches 2639cc—these Healeys are torquey enough to keep up with most anything from this decade.

They are also reliable enough that a sorted one shouldn’t deliver any problems on the road. Parts availability is also very good through the usual British parts suppliers. The trunk offers adequate space, if not as much as some of the other cars on our list. Fuel mileage should not be a major issue, either.

"My Healey 100M with overdrive is much more tiring than my Jaguar XK, but it looks good, makes the right sounds, climbs passes well, and is fun to drive."

Phil Shires, 1956 Austin Healey 100M

$75,000-$100,000 - Jaguar E-type

In this price range, it’s hard to beat an E-type. Beautiful, fast, comfortable and reliable, the E-type combines everything you would want in a rally car. You can even choose a coupe, roadster or even 2+2 model, the latter offering a back seat for very small passengers or more luggage.

When introduced in 1961, the E-type arguably became the world’s first supercar. The driving experience, especially in coupe form, is closer to later exotics than the day’s simpler sports cars. This is a true 150 mph machine that features an air of sophistication that’s hard to quantify. The gauges, toggle switches and driving position produce a nearly perfect sensory experience. Oh, and it looks great, too.

Then there’s the rest of the mechanical package: a silky-smooth inline six, excellent four-wheel-independent suspension, and brakes that are more than up to the task of twisty rally roads.

Shopping Advice: The 1961-’68 Series I cars enjoy the most demand; they’re the original model and easily identified by their small mouths and glass-covered headlights. To keep pace with tastes and the day’s regulations, changes did come, including larger bumpers and turn signals, followed by a move to V12 power for the 1971-’75 model years.

Final Thoughts: Its combination of practicality, performance and style, along with tons of parts support and relatively straightforward service, make the E-type Jaguar our top choice for a rally car in this price range.

"I also own a 1963 E-type coupe; the open XKE is more of a sports car, and the coupe is more elegant and comfortable. Besides being beautiful, the E-type offers the perfect balance between comfort and performance."

Gary Harzberg, 1966 Jaguar XKE

Family Favorite: Sunbeam Tiger

You can currently buy an early Tiger for less than $75,000, but word has gotten out and prices for this Ford V8-powered roadster are starting to rise. True, there’s been some negative press about handling and overheating issues, but once these problems are sorted a Tiger is a very, very nice rally car.

What makes the Tiger a comfortable tourer? Its build quality and attention to detail come closer to Aston Martin than MG. Plus, a removable hardtop turns the Tiger into a closed-top coupe. There’s also a lot of room behind the seats, and the Tiger has one of the largest trunks in its class.

Always Welcome: Jaguar XK

The Jaguar XK120 dates back to 1948, and between its age and stature no rally committee would turn it away. The same pretty much holds true for the later XK140 and XK150 models.

Once you’re behind that huge steering wheel, the Jaguar XK is pretty comfortable, and the view over the long hood and flowing fenders will remind you of what driving a true classic car is all about. Thanks to its legendary inline-six engine, a Jaguar XK can also cruise with the best of them.

"If you drive it a lot, it stays reliable. The XK has long legs, which are great for fast Montana roads. It handles well enough, and while not very weathertight, it is pretty comfortable and you can fit some luggage in one."

Jim Sitton, 1956 Jaguar XK140

$100,000-$250,000 - Shelby Mustang

If you have the scratch, the Shelby Mustang is hard to beat as a rally car. It marries that classic Mustang package with an extra helping of performance and panache. It’s a hairy-chested, big ball of fun on a long-distance rally.

Powered by the same HiPo 289 Ford V8 drivetrain that made the Cobra so famous, the 1965-’67 Shelby Mustang offers tremendous performance and reliability. Parts are also easy to find, either locally or via your favorite specialty supplier.

While a bit Spartan and sporting controls that are on the stiff side, the Shelby is still relatively comfortable. It’s also watertight, and the heater works well.

Its fuel mileage is not great, but the fuel capacity will allow you to run at least a couple hundred miles on a tank. The curb appeal is also hard to beat.

Shopping Advice: The 1965 models were the closest to true race cars, featuring noisy Detroit locker differentials, side-exiting exhaust and suspension modifications aimed at lower lap times, not improved passenger comfort.

While the Shelby had been softened by 1967, it was still made by the same company and retained that wonderful HiPo 289. The car had put on some weight, though. The 1966 model may be the best compromise of the group, offering classic Shelby styling and a more comfortable experience.

Final Thoughts: Even though Ford made a million Mustangs, those few extra tweaks added by Shelby American really did the trick. While a winner on track, the Shelby is also a natural on winding mountain roads. These cars are rock-solid investments as well.

Family Favorite: Ferrari Dino 246

It’s hard to argue with the slick looks and relative practicality of the 1969-’74 Ferrari Dino. While not amazingly fast—its 2.4-liter engine offers just 175 horsepower—the Dino’s slippery shape allows it to cruise at triple-digit speeds all day long. Added benefit: The Dino will not beat up its occupants during such journeys.

The fuel mileage on a Dino is decent, and a five-speed transaxle makes for reasonable revs out on the highway. The ride quality is good, and real seats and roll-up windows make for a comfortable rally car. As an added bonus, the Dino came in both open and closed versions; the removable roof panel found on the GTS may be the best of both worlds.

"I have rallied a bunch of different cars, and I like the Dino quite well. Once you get used to the seating position, it is quite comfortable. It gets 16-17 mpg and can go a couple of hundred miles on a tank of gas."

Randy Stenson, 1972 Ferrari Dino

Always Welcome: Aston Martin DB4

While these cars are quickly passing the quarter-million-dollar mark, we had to work them in somewhere. Long-legged, comfortable and as beautiful as any Ferrari, DB4s have skyrocketed in price—and for good reason.

Despite their 1958 introduction, they are great long-distance cars by today’s standards. They’re fast, durable, comfortable and they surround their occupants in burled walnut, Connolly hide and Wilton wool. This is the way to enjoy a long-distance event.

Over $250,000 - Cobra

What more can be said about the Cobra, the object of desire for nearly every school-aged kid? Well, for one, it makes an excellent rally car.

The Cobra is welcome at almost any event, durable nearly to a fault, and offers performance that will embarrass its contemporaries. This one may be the ultimate classic rally car.

You want more? Cobras have great brakes as well as the power to run with anything else in your event. By ’60s standards, the chassis is pretty well balanced. Oh, and the thing looks like sex on wheels.

Shopping Advice: Choosing between big-block and small-block iterations is a matter of budget and desire. Many have said that the big-block cars are heavy up front and evil handlers. This is absolutely not true, as we have rallied big-block Cobras and found them easy to steer. As a bonus, they’re fast enough to scare a driver into the next time zone. Fortunately the brakes work well, too.

Wondering about a particular car’s provenance? The SAAC’s World Registry details the history of every Cobra—plus other cars built by Shelby American. The 1618-page tome is $245 well spent.

Final Thoughts: Except for the warm interiors and fairly measly tops, Cobras are relatively comfortable cars. The ergonomics aren’t bad, and the way the driver’s arm rests on the doorsill is just wonderful. The controls are straightforward, and the interior is also big enough for passengers of the 21st century.

"The Cobra is such a good handler. The engine is behind the centerline of the wheels. While it has poor fuel economy, it has great brakes and is pretty comfortable as well."

Phillipe Reyns, 1965 Shelby Cobra

Family Favorite: Mercedes-Benz 300 SL

There are few cars even today that offer more than a 300 SL. From its fuel-injected, 3.0-liter straight-six engine to its timeless styling, the 300 SL is simply a great rally car: fast, superbly comfortable and incredibly reliable.

The car feels like it has been chiseled from a chunk of granite.

The 300 SL also offers good trunk space and decent fuel economy. If there’s anything to knock, the coupes can get a little warm inside.

"I made sure I got an early one because it’s eligible for everything. This car is comfortable inside and drives like a modern car. The top goes down in 10 seconds and is watertight."

John Breslow, 1957 Mercedes 300 SL

Always Welcome: Any ’50s Ferrari

From the Barchetta to the California Spider, a vintage Ferrari is tough to beat for a classic car tour—if you have the dough. Sure, they can be a bit rough and tumble, but they were designed for eating up miles. Most everything else sold during the ’50s is better suited for a run to the corner grocery store.

Don’t think that these cars are delicate. They were made for these types of events: built tough and designed to hang at triple-digit speeds. Some argue that service in the field can be tricky, and luggage space is limited.

However, the sound of that V12 engine can make any risks worth the hassle.

Insuring Your Rally Car

While our classics may be valuable, insuring them can actually be quite inexpensive. Quite frankly, anyone who isn’t using collector car insurance on their classics is throwing away money.

Like the rest of our collection, our rally Tiger is covered by Hagerty. We’ve only made one claim with Hagerty—we broke a windshield on another car—and found the claim service to be a simple, no-negotiation experience handled by people who really know and understand our hobby.

The Events:

California Mille
1000 miles
Open to pre-1958 cars
San Francisco to Sonoma
californiamille.com

Copperstate 1000
1000 miles
Open to pre-1974 cars
Based in Phoenix
copperstate1000.com

Mountain Mille
1250 miles
Pre-1976 sports cars, exotics of any year
Travels through Virginia and West Virginia
vintagerallies.com

Going to the Sun Rally
1200 miles
Open to pre-1973 cars
Based in Bozeman, Montana
goingtothesunrally.org

Colorado Grand
More than 1000 miles
Open to pre-1961 cars
Travels through Colorado
coloradogrand.org

Bluegrass 1000 Road Tour
1000 miles
Open to classics of any year
Travels through Kentucky
bluegrass1000.com

Vintage Rallies
Various events based everywhere from New England to the Northwest
vintagerallies.com
 

5 More Great Choices:

BMW CS

Pluses: Drop-dead gorgeous, six-cylinder power, good driver.
Minuses: Hardly any out there, and may be considered too new at a lot of rallies.

MGA

Pluses: Sexy body, eligible for most events.
Minuses: Not as fast as a Triumph TR.

BMW 2002

Pluses: Great ergonomics, important piece of history.
Minuses: Four-cylinder engine can run out of legs, considered too common for many events.

Morgan Plus 4 or 8

Pluses: Rare and distinctive.
Minuses: Light on creature comforts.

Allard J2X

Pluses: Super-cool and powerful as hell.
Minuses: Not the most practical car.

Be Prepared: 10 Tips For A Great Event

1. Sort, Sort and Then Re-sort: It will ruin your trip if you’re sorting a newly restored car during that big rally. Sure, the rally organizers have people there ready to help those with mechanical problems, but you don’t want to be that guy. Put at least a couple of thousand miles on your car before you enter one of these events.

2. Fix the Quirks: Before heading out, make a list of the things on the car that need attention and fix them. Little problems get annoying on a long trip. Don’t let a carb issue, misbehaving gauge or wobbly side mirror constantly irk you.

3. Protect Your Car: When it comes to damage on the road, your car’s main nemeses are pebbles and bugs. The nose of your car plus the wheel arches are most susceptible. Clear plastic film can fend off most impacts.

4. Bring Spares: You should compile a spares kit. Things like fuses, alternators, fuel pumps, starters and relays can be easily replaced if you have the correct spares. Instead of waiting 24 hours for the parts to be overnighted, you may lose only half an hour.

5. Leaks Are Bad: This sounds so obvious, but your oil, cooling and fuel systems shouldn’t leak. A cooling system that pukes at every rest stop and a smelly fuel system are both annoying. What doesn’t really bother you on a half-hour run to a car show will drive you nuts after five days on the road.

6. Alignment Is Critical: When is the last time you had your suspension aligned? And has it ever really been aligned for performance—maybe a little more negative camber, perhaps? Car show alignment and rally alignment can be quite different, as toe and camber are crucial for high-speed and mountain driving.

7. Wear Layers: Don’t be surprised when it’s cold in the morning and warm by midday. Dress in layers, especially if you’re running an open car. You may want to bring hats, gloves and even goggles.

8. Bring Detailing Supplies: Expect that the cars on your rally will be displayed somewhere public. You won’t be required to completely detail your car every night, but bring enough supplies to do a cleanup: Quick detail spray and some microfiber towels can go a long way.

9. Pack Lightly: Even if the rally offers luggage transport, don’t be that guy or girl with seven suitcases. You should be able to get what you need into an overnight bag. And remember, most decent hotels offer laundry facilities. Our advice: Pack for just three to five days.

10. Meet and Greet: These events are about the people—they’re social happenings. Prepare to meet and enjoy new folks. There are different socioeconomic groups present at these events, but they aren’t about the money—they’re about having fun with fellow car nuts. Mercedes people gladly hang out with MG people, for example.


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