Tim Suddard
Tim Suddard Publisher
12/15/08 8:57 a.m.

What is the best classic car? When you’re starting a new magazine called Classic Motorsports, it’s a question that has to be asked to help determine the cars that will receive attention. So as we were developing this first issue, we went to a variety of people who are closely associated with the classic car hobby and asked them to help us answer the question. We started with Jay Leno, one of the most visible enthusiasts in the sports car world, and then queried 10 other well-known and respected industry insiders.

The responses were fascinating in their breadth and variety, indicating the sweep across time, geography and budgets represented by this hobby. Perhaps their choices in each category will give you some ideas.

So Many Cars

Asked simply, “What is the best classic car?” not one of our enthusiasts had a ready answer. In one way or another, everyone said there are just too many to choose from. “Best classic car for what?” was usually the first response, with “What do you mean by ‘classic car’?” coming right on its heels.

Defining some categories helped our friends get their arms around our question, but by refusing to define the term “classic car” we kept responses open-ended. The results were eclectic, to say the least.

Nationalities represented included England, Italy, Germany, Japan and the United States. The years of production ranged from the 1934 Bugatti Type 57 through the 1979 Mazda RX-7, even with the “future classics” excluded. Current value of the picks showed a comparable range, with the least expensive—even outside the “budget” category—worth less than $5000, while the most expensive mentioned were over the million-dollar mark. Horsepower wasn’t a criterion of “best” either, with some of the favorites well under 100 and others over 500.

What Makes a Car Classic?

Talk show host and enthusiast extraordinaire Jay Leno’s collection, in microcosm, represents all the variety that we found in our other interviews. Jay has everything from steamer to gasoline, small to large, slow to fast, and cheap to priceless poised to take him down the road.

As we explored the buildings near Burbank Airport that house Leno’s restoration shop and car collection, we discussed with him the question of what was the common attraction. Each of the cars was beautiful in its own way: some in the sweep of their lines, and some in the craftsmanship inherent in their components. But these were not just static pieces of art.

“It’s the mechanicalness of them that I like,” Jay said several times. “Once you’ve taken them apart and put them back together again, there’s no mystery; nothing’s hidden.” This lever pushes that valve, that spark ignites this mixture of gas and air, which pushes that cylinder to turn this gear to rotate that wheel. Sure, they’re complicated, but they can be pulled apart and understood.

Once they are put back together and driven, Jay noted in several different ways, they almost come alive. Artistry, “mechanicalness,” and motion are the elements that link together the variety of cars selected by our friends as the best classics.

Best All-Around for Fun and Value

The first of the six categories in the survey was perhaps the broadest, yet several criteria had to be met simultaneously. It asked the question, “What do you consider to be the best all-around classic car in terms of fun and value?”

Denise McCluggage, auto columnist and ex-race driver, didn’t hesitate. She selected the original Mini Cooper S. “It cost very little money, then or now. You could haul the groceries home or go out to dinner with friends, and then you could take it racing on the weekend.” You could even dump it on its head, roll it back over, and drive it away, as Denise and other test drivers proved when they barnstormed across the country as part of the original product launch. “What more would you want a car to do?” she asked.

In one of the few instances that two different people mentioned the same car, both Steve Johnson, CEO of the Sports Car Club of America, and Craig Jackson, president of Barrett-Jackson Auctions, picked the ’60s Corvettes as best all-around. This might include both the early chromed models with their coves and double headlights, or the later Sting Ray. Craig says they’re fun and easy to own and enjoy. Aside from the rare high-power Fuelies, they’re not very expensive and can be enjoyed for touring, showing or on the track. Steve describes them in the terms one might use for a lover—“sexy, good performance and low maintenance.”

Two Jaguars make this category. Jay gave his vote to the XK120/140 for its combination of performance and, by today’s standards, traditional sports car good looks. Howard Turner, head of Historic Sports Racing and Sports Vintage Racing Association, opted for the E-Type for its “outstanding performance and unmatched beauty,” but he does acknowledge that, “in the wrong hands, these cars might not be practical as daily drivers.” Nevertheless, he drove one through all of the ’80s and had few problems.

Tim Suddard, publisher of this magazine, and Kas Kastner, former competition manager for Triumph and Nissan, still wanted a little more practicality. Tim chose the MGB as best for its “timeless styling, fun, low maintenance and utility.” Kas selected the TR3A, cars he’s been familiar with since they were new, because they’re “neat, easy to work on, built like a tank,” and offer a solid support network of clubs and parts sources.

Rob Myers, CEO of RM Auctions, just has a thing for 289 Cobras. He picks the leaf-sprung, slab-side car as the best all-around classic, though he’s clearly putting fun a bit ahead of practicality. But then, he also chose that car for vintage racing, and it’s his favorite of all the cars he’s ever owned, so he is speaking from emotion as well as experience.

Paul Dean, editor-at-large of the Robb Report, would take a different approach. He’s got his eyes open for a ’50s Bentley Continental. Not the pricey 1952-’55 alloy-paneled R-type, of course, but rather the more reasonable S2 or S3. They offer the same classic fastback styling with sedan practicality as the Mulliner-bodied R-types, but can be found for the price of a good Austin-Healey if one looks carefully.

Barry Meguiar, car care products magnate and TV/radio car show host, also looks beyond the obvious to choose a best all-around classic. For this purpose, Barry would look for a 1946-’48 Ford Woody. They’re useful and funky at the same time. And there’s all that coach-building history and tradition wrapped up in the wood paneling, if you don’t mind the maintenance required when you’re driving a piece of fine furniture around the streets.

Perhaps the most interesting selection in this category came from Jamie Kitman, senior editor of Automobile, who is known in enthusiast circles for displaying a broad appreciation for automobiles in the dozen or so cars he currently owns. Jamie picks the 1966-’74 Alfa Romeo GTV, “the first Alfa that might be considered a practical daily driver, with room for two adults and two children, a large trunk, and pert Italianate looks” that attract him as much now as when he first admired them as a boy.

Best on a Budget

Asking our friends which classic they’d recommend for a novice on a budget made them squirm with indecision more than did any other question. Denise simply laughed and said, “Tell them not to waste their money; there isn’t a good classic for a person on a budget.” She suggested that budget shoppers would just be disappointed and would be better off going to the races, or enjoying cars in other ways. The point of course, echoed by others, is that the less you spend at the outset, the more you’re likely to have to spend later, which is a recipe for being unhappy in the hobby.

Nevertheless, almost everyone else was able to suggest cars that would be fun and still be at the low end of the cost scale. Both Jamie and Paul suggested the MGB, the car that Tim had recommended as best all-around.

Three Triumphs appear on the list. Jay thought his TR3 would be an excellent choice, since it looks and drives like a classic, and “makes all the right sounds” while being as inexpensive to buy as any car on the list, and suitable for even a novice to maintain on his or her own. Howard liked the Triumph TR6, which offers pretty much the same driving experience as the TR3, but will cost even less to buy and about the same to maintain. For all of the same reasons, Kas would recommend the Triumph Spitfire, which “has lots of parts available, fits in any garage and is easy to fix.” Because the whole front end tilts forward, he says, he likes “the idea of sitting on the front tire to adjust the valves. Is that cool, or what?”

Because there are so many British classics available, they’re easy to buy and maintain, Barry notes. He suggestd the Austin-Healey 3000 MkII, the least expensive of the convertible big Healeys. Craig, who has a pretty good idea of prices and which cars are easy to buy and sell, suggests the MGA, which he notes is not expensive now and seems to have a growing following. However, for the person who likes Autolite more than Lucas, he’d recommend an early Mustang for its current reasonable price and growing group of fans.

Applying the same criteria of present and future returns, Steve suggests the first-generation Mazda RX-7. “They’re great low-budget sports cars,” he points out, that “do well on the track and in autocrossing.”

Rob, also a man who knows the value of various cars, sees budgets as relative things. His suggestion is very specific. He recommends the 1960 Ferrari SII PF coupe, which he notes is now selling for $40,000-$50,000 and offers great driving satisfaction and the cachet of the black stallion logo with a better chance of gaining in value than many of the more common cars on this list.

By contrast, Tim, always the “inner-directed” man who doesn’t worry about impressing pedestrians, is enthralled with his original Meyers Manx, which he has just restored to its 1967 condition. “Depending on how you outfit it, you can build the perfect family street roadster, a world-class off-road vehicle, or a top-time-of-day autocross car,” he enthuses, “for less than $5000, some cheap air-cooled VW parts, and a few months’ work.”

Let’s Go Vintage Racing

Nearly every one of our friends has raced these cars during their lives. Denise and Paul both said, “We raced when they didn’t call it vintage racing; we just called it ‘racing.’”

For their choices, both Denise and Paul reached back to their own driving experiences. Denise remembers with fondness the Osca she drove at Sebring, equipped with a miniscule 750cc engine, which she later had upgraded to a whopping 950cc. We asked what it was like to contend with the ground-pounders that shared the track. “No problem,” she said. “I was following the line appropriate for my car, and none of the bigger cars wanted that line. People who say there is only one right line on a track have never raced a small car.”

Paul would go a bit bigger, opting for the graceful lines and handling of the iconic Porsche RS 60, or its predecessor, the 550S. There’s no puzzle why the Boxster design is so lovely, when you see the car that inspired it. While he was waiting for the right one, he said, he’d buy a Lotus 7, “the most exciting car to drive on the track.”

Tim likes the idea of racing Porsches as well, even though he’s currently racing his TR3. If he were building another race car, however, he’d opt for an early Porsche 911 because they were strong to begin with, and almost a race car in street form. Further, he notes, “Unlike other race cars, you can usually get back what you’ve invested,” since even 911s with no history but good preparation can sell for $50,000 or more.

Several British cars made the list, explaining why so many are found on the vintage tracks. Jay, who picked the Jaguar XK120 as best all-around, patted the one in his collection when we asked about vintage racing. “I don’t race,” he said, “for several different reasons, but if I were going racing, this is the one I’d pick. It looks great, and was always very competitive.” Jamie would go for a Lotus 26R, the lightened and tuned racing Elan. No problem figuring out why: When you see one of those lovely little cars slicing through the Mustangs and Corvettes in their group, they become an obvious racing choice. Kas would like the lithe Lotus 23 sports racer, but since he would never fit in one, he’d take a Triumph TR250, another car from the teams he once managed. Never really fast in original condition, it still has the “TR4 looks and handling, but the engine can produce as much power as you want.” Steve would choose “any MG, especially for a first-timer.”

Rob and Howard are in the “more power” side of the pit. They both would choose the Cobra 289 as their race car. Howard does, in fact, currently race a 289, which he says is “a hoot. Gobs of torque, and a suspension that is, shall we say, somewhat eccentric, making life in the fast lane truly exciting. And you will be in the fast lane in a 289.” Agreeing with Rob on the builder, Craig would take a Shelby, but his would be the GT350, though he would also enjoy racing a Mercedes 300SL gullwing. Barry likes the Ford idea, too, but he’d take a 1969 Mustang Boss 302.

Best Future Classic Car

A theme that often came up in our conversations was “Gee, I wish I had kept (bought) that car when I had the chance in the ’50s (’60s, ’70s).” In each period, it seems, there have been cars that were underappreciated, and could have been bought for very little money compared to what they are worth today. That led to the question for our enthusiasts, “What car produced in the last 10 or 15 years would you guess is going to inspire that same kind of regret 10 or 15 years from now?”

Craig, one person we would have thought would have had a ready answer, said just, “If we only knew….” However, most of the others had some ideas to offer.

Jay, Denise and Tim all suggested the same car, the Mazda Miata. Lest this seem surprising—after all, rarity is supposed to determine value, and there are zillions on the road—they all independently offered the same defense. “Who would have thought that early Mustangs would now be going up in value?” Denise asked rhetorically. Maybe the appreciation isn’t going to put a grade-school child through college, but all three agreed that these cars would hold their value and begin to appreciate as soon as they are eventually taken out of production.

Rob would poke around the Ferrari stable, and see if he could find a 512 Boxer or a 288 GTO, since he thinks their prices can’t go anywhere but up. Paul wouldn’t even be picky; he’d take “any recent Ferrari” as a great choice for future appreciation.

Other choices were quite specific, and all are available at the used-car lot. Jamie would be looking for a Porsche 911 RS. He says, with regret, that “every time I think I might have enough money to buy one, the prices have gone up again. The 911 is an enduring classic, and the cognoscenti all say the RS is the very best.”

Kas would be looking for a Nissan 300ZX turbo, a car he remembers from his racing days. It’s got all the attributes, he says: “easy on the eye, spectacular engine, and lots made so they’re really cheap right now.” Howard says one can always count on a good exotic, like Ferraris or Astons, but for much less money, using the same criteria as Kas, he’d buy a Volkswagen Corrado V6. “It handles remarkably like a race car and has excellent everyday performance.”

Tim says pretty much the same thing about the BMW E30 M3, of which the last were built in 1991; only 5500 were imported into the States. “This car screams ’80s boy-racer, with its wings and box flares. The barely-disguised, no-compromise F1 engine makes this car one-of-a-kind. The price was as low as $10,000 and has now started to go up fast.” Tim thinks these will be $50,000 cars in the not too distant future. But would he be willing to sell it then, even to pay the kids’ tuition?

Steve and Barry wouldn’t even bother to look at import cars. Steve still likes the ’60s Vettes as best all-around classic cars, and notes where their prices have gone. He thinks the new cars have the same charisma, and exceptional performance, so he’d be storing a new Z06 in his time vault.

Barry likes the same idea of performance, but in his time vault, he’d be polishing any Dodge Viper to keep its finish looking new.

If Cost Were Not a Constraint

The topic that can be counted on to generate mega amounts of words on any gearhead bulletin board is the choice of ultimate classic car: Cost is no object, but you can only pick one, and you can’t sell it, that sort of thing.

While this question was certain to produce a far-away look in the eyes and a small upward curl on the edges of the lips for an instant, none of our enthusiasts had trouble making a choice.

Jay had only to walk a few feet away from the TR3 and MG Midget in his garage to show us his choice, the McLaren F1. In his view, this is the best car that has ever been built, and perhaps the best that ever will be. Under the panels, we could see materials and craftsmanship that would only be used in a space capsule—or a Formula 1 car. Of course, that’s not surprising since this car is an F1, with vestigial seats hung on either side of the driver’s central seat, and the whole thing cloaked in fenders and a top.

Reaching back into the classic past, Jaguars got the votes of Craig and Howard, as both chose the chassis that won twice at Le Mans. Howard would take the D-type version, while Craig likes the XK-SS version, with its sort-of-soft top and windshield, red leather interior, and just-for-decoration luggage rack screwed to the aluminum rear shroud. The cars certainly are as attractive as any that ever rushed the Mulsanne Straight at close to 200 mph, but those who have had the chance to drive them talk just as glowingly about their impeccable street manners. Kas likes the idea of Le Mans winners, but he prefers the earlier C-type, with its alloy panels and tube chassis clothing an XK120 drive train, offering similarly pleasant use as a street car when it isn’t being raced with passion.

Denise likes the idea of a British car, too, but her choice would be a Bentley R-type Continental, “just like the one that Briggs [Cunningham] owned.”

Ferraris appeared on the lists of several members of the group. If Craig couldn’t find one of the 16 XK-SSs produced, he’d settle for a Ferrari GTO or Alfa Romeo 2.9. Howard agrees on the GTO, which would be his ultimate choice, though he’d settle for the D-type. Rob dreams of a Ferrari Testarossa, the older the better. Steve isn’t quite as particular; he would take “any Ferrari if the SCCA budget would stretch far enough” to buy one for him as a company car.

Paul would have the 427 Shelby Cobra as his ultimate car, remembering his experience testing Carroll Shelby’s personal 427 on the track and being impressed by its sheer power but manageable handling. Tim Suddard likes the Cobra, but he prefers the more conservative body style and AC suspension of the 289. Reflecting the vast numbers of lesser-known cars that might have been picked, Jamie would select a Lancia Aurelia coupe from the early ’50s with its V6 engine, fastback coupe styling, and exceptional handling. He describes these cars as built to a standard, not to a price. “I’ll always line up for the products of a company that went broke building cars that were too good.”

Barry would reach even further back, to the glorious teardrop-styled Talbot-Lago coupe, one example of which took Best of Show at Pebble Beach a few years ago.

Your Favorite?

After allowing the group to indulge their tastes to the ultimate, we brought them back to reality when we asked them to tell us about their favorite car from among all of those they’d ever owned. At this point, the look in the eye became even farther away. They weren’t just dreaming about what it might be like to own and drive any car in the world, they were remembering one specific car, with all the personal memories that car evoked for them.

For Denise, the choice was a car she had owned in the ’60s when she summered in the mountains of New England. She laughed as she remembered tooling down the roads to pick up groceries or whatever in the village in her Mini Moke, which she could “just jump into… and go anywhere.” During a time when English cars were an unusual sight, she was having fun driving a minimalist jeep-like vehicle without even any doors, built around Austin running gear.

For anyone with first-hand experience of them, there certainly is a charm in those early minimal utility vehicles. Paul has recently restored a 1942 Ford GPW, which he calls “Willy.” It’s the Ford version of the car that several companies built during World War II, which from its initials became known as the “Jeep.” Paul remembers driving one out on the tarmac to his plane when he flew for the Royal Air Force, and now enjoys driving his restored version around Scottsdale, Ariz., where he lives. He even crashed a recent Veteran’s Day parade of military vehicles in Scottsdale, taking one of the trophies home with him.

Jamie blends memory and pleasure in his selection, picking his Lotus Elan as the top of his list for its brilliant handling and performance. He mentions the light and minimal, yet comfortable, body and interior trim, and notes its pleasant but responsive ride. “I’ve had one since 1982,” he says, “and nothing gets my motor running like a blast down a country lane in it.”

Rob can’t limit himself to one country or style. His favorites from among the cars he’s owned are the prewar open touring-bodied Bugatti 57 and the 289 Cobra. Both get down the road with style, but produce very different types of satisfaction once one learns to drive them well.

Craig, successor to his father and his father’s partner in the classic car auction business, remembers the 1938 Delahaye Figoni e Falaschi Cabriolet that he bought and restored to a quality that won a class award at Pebble Beach. Of all the cars he’s owned, this is the one that he would buy immediately if it ever became available again.

Kas fondly remembers a pretty yellow Iso Grifo coupe with a Chevy 400 engine. “I drove it 135,000 miles and treated it like a pick-up truck. The only other one I ever saw like it was one that Sonny Bono owned, but mine had wire wheels and better paint.”

Somehow, when Barry moderates one of his classic car shows on the Speed Channel, especially one focusing on hot rods or muscle cars, it isn’t hard to picture him around a similar car when he was young. Thus we weren’t too surprised that he would identify as his favorite from among all the cars he’s owned a 1957 Chevrolet Bel Air. Top down perhaps on a warm summer evening, AM radio playing a top-40 rock-and-roll song, just the sort of memories that have made the Chevy Bel Air a valuable and collectible icon.

Howard opts for an icon of the ’60s, the Jaguar E-Type, but not for top-down cruising. Instead, he picks the coupe he’s been racing for nearly two decades. He has it painted in Cunningham white and blue, and says it’s always been fun to drive in competition. He describes it as “aerodynamic, with excellent handling …truly an advanced, milestone design for its time.”

Jay showed us a number of cars in his collection that, from his descriptions, could have been his favorite car, since many of them were the same models he had owned at various times in his life. But for Jay, driving is a pleasure all its own, so when he finally chose his favorite from among the cars he owns, he selected a little barely-two-seat car with fenders and lights that would meet the bare minimum to make the car street-legal. Called a Rocket, it’s actually a component-assembled car, with the chassis and fibreglass body purchased and a motorcycle engine installed. With its unbelieveable power-to-weight ratio, he says it’s the most fun to drive of any car he owns, making him grin every time he blasts down a deserted road.

For Tim, memory and driving satisfaction are also wrapped up in his favorite car from among the 50 or so he’s owned. With a growing number of cars collecting in his driveway and outbuildings, he shares a view that Jay espoused. “The secret of happiness,” Jay said, “is to never sell anything. That way you’ll never regret a bad decision.” For Tim, the ones he can’t envision selling include his ’57 Triumph TR3 race car, the MINI project car that he’s planning to hide when BMW comes to take it back, and the Manx, which has been fun for the whole family and in which his son learned to drive. However, after growing up in a Ford dealership,Tim managed to acquire a 1966 Shelby GT350H, which he had dreamed about when they were new and on the showroom floor. He sold the car to get the seed money for AutoX, the predecessor to Grassroots Motorsports. “I guess that was a good move, but even though the Shelby is certainly not the most driveable car on the list, it’s the one I miss the most.”

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