The Fabulous 50


Story By Alan Cesar

Nobody ever said classic cars were a rational obsession, and classics have all kinds of virtues that don’t translate well to cold statistics.

So what? Our hobby isn’t about logical decisions and pragmatic choices. It’s about the indefinable things in life, and how our cars best embody and deliver those things — like pleasure, relaxation and, yes, love. It’s about how much of ourselves we invest in these objects, and how much they tell us about ourselves in return.

In other words, it’s a deeply personal thing. Which is why we turned to you, the Classic Motorsports audience, to determine our list of the 50 favorite classics. Unlike some other magazines, we’re not telling you what’s cool; you’re telling us.

Because rational or not, you know what you like. They may not necessarily be the fastest or best-looking cars ever. They’re certainly not the most reliable, or even the most comfortable. But to you, they’re the best.

Tons of readers voted for their favorite classic via our online poll at classicmotorsports.net. Once the final results were tallied, your choices proved to be interesting, provocative, and often surprising. So, without any further ado, here they are.

1. MGB: MG sold more than a half-million Bs during an 18-year model run that stretched from 1962 through 1980. This makes it far and away the top-selling classic, and as MGB owners remain a dedicated, faithful and energetic group, it’s no real surprise it topped the list of reader favorites.

So what makes the B so popular? In a word: balance. There’s a subtle balance to the external design, for which MG borrowed liberally from everything from 1950s Renaults to Ferraris, but the overall look is unmistakably MGB. There’s rewarding dynamic balance to the B, too, as a bolt-action gearbox under your hand and perfect 50-50 weight distribution make the most of the MG’s modest power. Simply put, the B gives you a nearly unbeatable blend of vintage charm and modern usability, simplicity and robustness, comfort and performance.

Bolstering the B’s numbers were fans of the MGB GT, who were no doubt swayed by the GT’s Pininfarina-penned roof line, which makes the coupe quieter, stiffer, better handling, and more practical than the B roadster, albeit without the wind in the hair.

Even the later, much-maligned rubber bumper models picked up a few votes thanks to their superior comfort, ergonomics and the peace of mind those giant plastic-covered girders bring in modern bump-and-go traffic. The fact that there’s just more of them out there undoubtedly helped the voting as well.

Equally at ease as a Sunday cruiser or as home to a fire-breathing V8 engine transplant, the B is good-looking, good-handling, fun, affordable, and easy to find parts for.

Why wouldn’t it be a favorite?

2. Jaguar E-type: When Jaguar introduced the E-type (XKE for us Americans) in 1961, it just blew everyone’s minds. The E-type was impossibly low, lean and stylish, with impeccable poise and gut-wrenching performance, all for less money than most of the exotic competition.

From the earliest models, with their unerring purity and grace, to the luxury of the final V12 models, the E-type remains one of the most distinctive and beautiful automotive designs ever. It remains an impressive performer as well.

Like any fantasy come to life, the E-type has faults: It’s cramped, likes to overheat, and Lucas made the electrics. It’s all worth it for just one look over that long, louvered hood.

3. Porsche 911: German engineering triumphs over flawed design: That’s the Porsche story. And nowhere is that commitment to long, hard development and attention to detail more obvious than in the 911.

Porsche made the second-cousin-to-a-VW design work through sheer strength of will, and they’ve spent 40 years (and counting) making it work, keeping the 911 at the forefront of automotive design the entire time.

Fast, well-built, and very satisfying to drive: That’s the other side of the Porsche story.

4. AC/Shelby Cobra: Poor AC. They produced decades of well-made sports cars, but they’re best remembered for the handiwork of a big-dreaming Texan. The story of how Carroll Shelby stuffed Ford V8s into tiny AC roadsters is legend by now, since Shelby unleashed the Cobra on the racing world in 1962.

The final 427 version lacked some of the balance and tossability of the early 260 and 289 cars, but with an advertised 425 horsepower tucked away in the lightweight aluminum shell, nobody argued with Cobra for long.

Whether powered by a 289 or 427 V8, each Cobra has fans. All are, in every sense of the word, awesome machines.

5. Chevy Corvette Sting Ray: For a brief, shining period in the mid-’60s, the Corvette was as good as it got. It looked better and went faster than almost anything, parts were as close as the corner Chevy dealer, and it even offered some level of refinement.

The specs were impressive by any standard: 5.6-second acceleration from zero to 60, a fiberglass body, fully independent suspension and — starting in 1965 — four-wheel disc brakes.

Some say the glory days only lasted from 1963 through 1967, before the Vette became its own parody. But for a few short years, the Corvette was the one to beat.

6. Datsun 240Z: Datsun showed everyone in 1969 that the Japanese could build cars as well as anyone. The 240Z was superior to any other low-priced sports car on the market, and could embarrass some that cost thousands more. Plus, it was reliable, comfortable and well-made. For the first time, buyers flocked to Datsun showrooms.

If the Z wasn’t Japanese, it would have been widely recognized as a classic from day one. Because it is Japanese, far too many have been left to rot away due to rust and neglect.

7. Jaguar XK120: If the MG TC introduced America to the sports car after World War II, the Jaguar XK120 showed what a sports car could truly be. At its 1948 introduction, the 120-mph Jaguar was the fastest car in the world, and arguably the most beautiful.

The XK120 introduced the world to Jaguar’s famed XK straight six. But more than that, it was like nothing else on the road. A dream to look at, a dream to drive, this more than any other car defined what “sports cars” were all about. A true classic in every sense.

8. Triumph TR2, TR3: Crude, runty and rough — these are not usually virtues, but in the case of the TR2 and TR3, they are precisely the qualities that make the cars so endearing, helping them attract legions of fans during their 1953-’62 model run.

These cars were never sophisticated, never elegant, and certainly never soft. But they were tough, rugged, and had enough torque coming out of their engine to pull a house off the foundations, or at least come close. The TR2 and TR3 were, and remain, quintessentially British bulldogs of cars.

9. Austin-Healey Sprite/MG Midget: No sports car has ever epitomized the British ideal of “cheap and cheerful” as well as the original 1958 “Bugeye” Austin-Healey Sprite, whose happy countenance was almost an accident — the Sprite was originally intended to have pop-up headlights, but they were dropped for cost reasons.

As the Sprite matured and spun off the MG Midget twin (“Spridgets,” to the in-crowd) it kept its capable and entertaining handling, lost its smiling face after 1961, and gained an opening trunk and the bare minimum of creature comforts. Spridgets have always been the leanest corner-carvers this side of Lotus, and are loved by everyone from sports car novices to hardcore racing types. No wonder production of the Midget lasted until 1979.

10. Austin/Morris Mini: More than any car on this list, it could be argued that the Mini changed everything. BMC’s diminutive wonder showed the world the way to the transverse-engine/front-wheel-drive layout that’s become so common now, it’s hard to believe just how revolutionary the Mini truly was in 1959.

And while the Mini had many cars follow its path, none have succeeded with the swinging ’60s charm and verve found in the original, and none have been successful in so many arenas: racing, rallying, and on the road. The car was also a success on the sales floor, as the original body style lasted until 2000.

11. Alfa Romeo Giulietta: In 1955, Alfa Romeo did something no other sports car maker had managed to do: build a thoroughly modern sports car. While MG, Triumph and Austin-Healey had not yet mastered wind-up windows, Alfa offered real side glass that actually rolled up, a well-designed top that normal humans could expect to work and much more.

The jewel-like twin-cam 1290cc engine was good for almost 110 mph, and a fully independent suspension brought levels of handling few cars of the 1950s (or 1960s) could match.

12. BMW 2002: BMW’s little giant killer not only saved the company from bankruptcy, it showed the world how a car could combine great performance and practicality.

The 2002 followed the time-tested “put a bigger engine in there” formula, mating the 2-liter engine from the 2000 sedan into the little 1600 two-door. But unlike so many shoehorn jobs, BMW actually came up with something special, and ended up pretty much defining the sports sedan in America back in the early 1970s.

13. Austin-Healey 3000: Where the Bugeye Sprite was cheap and cheerful, the 3000 was big, brutish, and beautiful. The final culmination of Big Healeys, the 3000 was the perfect midlevel sports car: muscular, fast and capable.

Despite the delicate lines, the Big Healey was a manly car, requiring a firm hand and stout disposition. Ground clearance was nonexistent, the driving position was abysmal, and no one cared. With its classic lines and stout 3-liter straight six, the 3000 won races and hearts through the ‘60s and beyond.

14. Porsche 356: The one that started it all. Born in war-torn Austria, the 356 began life in 1950 as little more than a hot-rodded Beetle, with an air-cooled flat four, sketchy swing-axle rear suspension and all.

Each year feverish development and Germanic attention to detail brought revisions and improvements, so by the close of the decade virtually no VW parts were left, only pure sports car. And as a Porsche, it was reliable, surprisingly economical, and exquisitely built.

15. Triumph Spitfire: Triumph’s Midget-beater offered more room, more features, fine styling by Michelotti, an independent rear suspension, and that cool clamshell hood, leaving the Midget looking pretty pale in comparison.

From its 1962 introduction until its final curtain call in 1980, the Spitfire displacement rise from 1147cc to almost 1500, creature comforts improved, and Triumph even tamed the notoriously way-too-independent rear suspension. No wonder it always outsold the Midget.

16. Datsun Roadster: The Datsun roadsters sold from 1962 until the end of that decade share so many of the MGB’s virtues (and styling cues) that it’s no surprise they have often been called an MGB copycats — even though the Datsun came first. But while the two may have been similar in looks and concept, in execution they’re quite different.

Nestled between the rails of an old-fashioned ladder frame, Datsun placed a modern overhead cam engine and five-speed gearbox, which meant the best 2000s had 150-horsepower and could reach speeds MGB owners only dream of. Prior to the 1982cc engine, the cars made do with 1488cc and 1595cc engines.

17. Triumph TR4, 250, 6: Marry the stout heart of the TR3 with smooth looks courtesy of a designer for hire, add a dash of comfort and you’ve got the TR4. It was a winning formula, so Triumph stuck with it from 1961 through 1976.

The TR4A brought an independent rear suspension to the party, the TR250 added inline-six power and smoothness, and the whole line culminated in the TR6, which featured new styling by Karmann instead of Triumph’s usual go-to guy, Michelotti.

18. Shelby GT-350/GT500: Master Chili Chef Carroll Shelby makes his second appearance on the list with his GT350/500. The recipe this time? Take a Ford Mustang, add plenty of spice, and bring to a boil. The first bowl was served in 1965.

Shelby raided the Ford parts bin for his version, added on a few of his own tricks, and threw out the back seat so he could race two-seaters. Extra bonus cool points must go to the GT350H, the rare Hertz rental version. Race on Sunday, Drive on Monday, turn it back in on Tuesday.

19. MGA: The A was long overdue, and would have hit the streets several years earlier if it weren’t for internal squabbling among BMC executives. The first modern MG did away with the classic “square-rigged” look and offered levels of comfort and performance never previously found in mass-produced MGs.

Combine the typically predictable and fun MG handling with beautiful, flowing lines, and you’ve got a winner. When it finally saw light for 1955, the A quickly became the best-selling sports car in MG history up to that point.

20. Lotus 7: The Lotus 7 isn’t so much a car as a cottage industry. Colin Chapman was just after a cheap sports car he could sell in kit form to make some quick money as he geared up for the Elan. The result was the Seven, the most Spartan excuse for a car ever to hit the streets in 1957 or since.

Fifty years later, the basic Seven design is still in production (by Caterham), dozens of companies produce variations on the Seven’s four-wheeled motorcycle theme, and the “Locost” — a home-built Lotus 7 built for pennies on the pound — has become a grassroots phenomenon.

21. De Tomaso Pantera: Where the Lotus 7 is a Spartan lightweight, the Pantera is obviously sparring in the heavyweight class. Amply powered by a mid-mounted Ford 351 Cleveland engine and wrapped in fancy Italian duds, the Pantera has mounted a serious challenge to the European thoroughbreds since its 1971 introduction.

22. Alfa Romeo GTV: Alfa’s little Giulia coupes of the 1960s and ’70s were sold under a lot of different names and forms around the world — 115, 105, GTV, Sprint GT Veloce, 1750 — but one thing holds true: They were smooth, sophisticated, very, very pretty and had excellent road manners. With Alfa’s famed twin-cam under the hood they were lovely to drive, and very practical, too.

23. Lotus Europa: The first mid-engined Lotus, the 1967-’75 “breadvan” Europa, handled even better than the Elan — if such a thing were possible. Like the Elan, the Europa was lightweight fiberglass over a steel backbone frame. Unlike the Elan, power was from Renault engines of dubious reliability. Later models were fitted with better Ford engines (and lower side panels), improving both looks and performance.

24. Sunbeam Tiger: Once again, the Big American V8/Little British Car formula produces a winner. It doesn’t hurt that the Tiger, based on the popular and stylish Sunbeam Alpine and sold from 1965 through 1967, was actually a bit bigger and more comfortable than most British cars.

25. Austin-Healey 100/4: Sometimes less is more. In the Big Healey’s case, two fewer cylinders and a lot less luxury weight equaled more performance and a lighter, more tossable roadster than the later 100/6.

26. Fiat 124, 2000: Pininfarina styling, twin-cam engine, five-speed transmission, four-wheel disc brakes, a top that was easy to put up and that actually kept rain out, and some level of comfort — all in an affordable sports car? That was the lovely Fiat 124. First introduced for 1968, the model line continued into the ’80s as the 2000.

27. Lotus Elan: After a couple of ambitious false starts like the ill-fated, overpriced, fiberglass-monocoque Elite, Colin Chapman nailed it with the 1962-’73 Elan, which had capabilities that were all out of whack with its size, horsepower or price. Simplify and add lightness, Chapman said. The Elan is convincing proof it works.

28. MG T-Series: Without the MG TC, this whole sports car thing may never have taken off in the U.S. Sure, to modern eyes it’s ridiculously old-fashioned and slow, but immediately after World War II nothing else was even close. Servicemen brought them home, wowed the women, and taught America about sports cars. The TD and TF just cemented the love affair.

29. Ford Mustang: The Mustang just had to turn up as a favorite, didn’t it? From day one back in April 1964, the Mustang was a part of Americana. It offered trim packages for everyone from meek housewives to fire-spitting drag racers, and gave birth to the whole pony car phenomenon. Who cares if the stuff underneath the Mustang was awfully similar to a Falcon, it was just cool.

30. Volkswagen Beetle: The Beetle had no status associated with it. The engine was at the wrong end. Both performance and comfort were meager at best. By Detroit standards, it really had no virtues. But it was inexpensive and very well made when few cars could seriously claim to be both. And it never went out of style — or production — lasting from just after World War II up until a year ago.

31. Volvo 1800: The 1800 was about as close as Volvo has ever gotten to a mass-produced sports car, and while it was never particularly fast, it added distinctive looks and decent handling to the typical Volvo virtues of durability and safety. Starting in 1971, Volvo extended the roof line to offer wagon versatility in a still-sporting package with the 1800ES.

32. Alfa Romeo GTV6: The GTV coupe dated back to 1975 (and traced its roots back even further), when Alfa Romeo added its aluminum V6 and suddenly created a great driving car. Sure, the styling screams of the days of disco, but the V6 screams Alfisti! while the unusual rear transaxle/de Dion rear keeps the handling balanced. Bonus points go to the rare Callaway twin-turbo conversions.

33. Chevrolet Camaro Z28: The original Camaro Z28 was created specifically to tame Mustangs in Trans-Am racing, and that’s precisely what it did, in both 1968 and 1969. The cool part was that any buyer could have the goodies — which included a hotter engine, Corvette wheels, close-ratio gearbox and more — just by checking the right option box. Styling was cleaned up for 1969, and the Camaro hit its all-time peak before a redo for the following year.

34. AMC AMX: These days, AMC is mostly remembered — when it’s remembered at all — as purveyors of such fine machinery as the Gremlin and Pacer, so it’s easy to forget they came up with a couple of gems through the years, like the AMX. AMC chopped about a foot out of the 1968-’70 Javelin’s wheelbase, tightened up the suspension and fitted their 390 V8 to produce a big, mean American answer to import two-seaters.

35. Yenko Stinger Corvair: Road racer Don Yenko built quite a few hot Chevys in the late 1960s, but of them all his first attempt, the Stinger Corvair, stands out. Yenko built 185 of them, in four stages of tune, with up to 240 horsepower. Fast and nimble, the Stingers quickly made a name for themselves — and Yenko.

36. Datsun 510: After earning their stripes building a variety of British Motor Company knock-offs, Datsun was ready to prove themselves by the late 1960s. In just a few short years, they released the 2000 roadster, the 240Z, and their BMW 2002-killer, the 510. With a well-developed, all-independent suspension and strong overhead-cam engine, the 510 quickly proved its worth on both the street and track — and it was worth far more than the bargain-basement purchase price.

37. Reliant Scimitar: Banish all thoughts of K-cars. England’s Reliant Scimitar is a different beast altogether. Although they’re rare in the U.S.(much less so in England), Reliant built coupe, convertible and sport-wagon versions of the Scimitar over almost 20 years, starting in 1965. Powered by a 3-liter Ford V6, the fiberglass Scimitar was fast, comfortable and innovative: They lay claim to being the first with the Sport-wagon concept, and the first to offer a split-fold rear seat.

38. Ferrari 250 GT: Best Ferrari ever. Classic beauty, excellent handling, a 3-liter V12 engine: The 250s had it all. They were the first mass-produced Ferraris (if you call a few thousand “mass produced”), and they spun off everything from four-seater variants, the mid-engined LM, to the almighty GTO.

39. Jaguar XJS: As a successor to the E-type back in 1976, the XJS was seen as a disappointment to some — too much of British Leyland (mis)management showed through, they said. But as a sleek, fast, exclusive, V12-powered, sumptuous interstate cruiser, the XJS always shined.

40. Mazda Miata: What may be the all-around best classic on the list is available today, brand-new, with a warranty, from your local Mazda dealer. Sure, it’s hard for most folks to look at a new car and see a classic, but give the Miata another 10 or 20 years. It’s good looking, great handling, quick enough to be fun, and rock-solid reliable. Best of all, these days you can buy a good Miata for less than the cost of a rough MGB.

41. Opel GT: The first prototypes of the Opel GT turned up in 1965, so the “Mini-Vette” may have actually preceded its big brother on the drawing boards. Regardless, the Opel GT was sweet looking and offered a lot of fun for low price. The engines were never much to write home about, but simple engine swaps and other mods can quickly turn this style-leader into a leader of the pack.

42. Saab 96: Back when Saab was Saab, and not just another GM division, they didn’t just march to the beat of a different drummer, they knocked over the bass like the Velvet Underground’s Maureen Tucker and made all sorts of odd noises. Since its 1960 debut, the 96 was the pinnacle of odd. Oddly styled and powered by either a two-stroke three cylinder or a V4, the whole thing was as foreign as foreign cars ever got. Only a few Americans realized the 96 for the well-engineered, well-built and capable car it really was.

43. TVR Griffith, Tuscan: Unlike Saab, well-built and well-engineered are phrases rarely associated with the TVR Griffith and Tuscan. Unholy acceleration, on the other hand, sums up the cars pretty well. Construction was similar to Lotus, with a fiberglass body over a backbone chassis (tubular in the TVR’s case, instead of Lotus’s pressed-steel). The difference was under the hood. TVR stuffed Ford small-blocks into the Griffith to become Lotus’s evil twin. It just needed an eye patch and goatee. The 1964-‘67 Griffith eventually gave way to the 1967-‘71 Tuscan.

44. Fiat 850: Fiat’s lightweight, rear-engined little 850 Coupe and Spider sold from 1965 through 1974 and offered a delicate beauty and air of sophistication its rivals couldn’t hope to match. Where most entry level sports cars were crude as stumps (Midget, we’re looking your way), the Fiat owner could almost convince himself he had a little piece of Ferrari.

45. Morgan Plus 8: The Morgan Plus 8 breathed new life into the circa-1936 design with the addition of Rover V8 power. Suddenly, the old thing became a supercar — ash frame, sliding pillar suspension and all. Acceleration this fierce is a threat to tweed caps everywhere.

46. MGC: The MGC was supposed to be the MG’s big-engined car and a successor to the Big Healeys. It failed: reviewers of the time hated it’s slow-revving (and slower-turning) nature. But modern owners have discovered the C — sold only from 1967 until 1969 — is a comfortable, long-legged tourer, and both the suspension and engine are relatively easy to rouse.

47. Turner 950: Imagine a Spridget, only with a fiberglass body riding on a tube chassis, a well-located multilink rear suspension, and better performance. That’s the Turner 950, and Turner did it first.

48. Lancia Fulvia: Lancia’s combination of small, narrow-angle V4 engines and front-wheel drive never should have produced a performance car, but it did, as the Fulvia proved its worth in international rallies for almost a decade — production ran from 1965 until 1976. Never underestimate the Italian ability to build ’em con brio.

49. Opel Manta: The Manta offered Americans a clean, stylish, European design, German build quality and great handling in the mid-1970s, when we needed it most. Unfortunately, GM was relying on Buick dealers to sell it, and both customers and dealers seemed more interested in Regals and Rivieras.

50. Singer Le Mans: While Singers were little known in the U.S.(and likely to be subject to sewing machine jokes), overseas they built a long-standing reputation for strong, yet inexpensive sports cars. None were as revered as the Le Mans, which was a fierce competitor in mid-’30s racing, including class wins at — of course — Le Mans. To many eyes it was the pinnacle of prewar small British sports cars.

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Comments
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justjon
justjon New Reader
6/16/09 7:50 p.m.

The sports car voted one of the Ten Best cars several years running during the 70's and 80's (that would be the Fiat/Bertone X1/9) doesn't even get a mention?

Time to hang up those moth-eaten tweed jackets and check what you've been smoking in those briar pipes, you old sods.

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