10 Killer Classics for Under $12,000

Small prices, huge upside.

byKen Gross|
For Sale photo


At the Pebble Beach auctions this past summer, two Ferraris sold for over $15 million each. Meanwhile, mint-condition vintage muscle cars are going for more than most houses these days. Don’t have that kind of kale? You can still own some stylish old machinery. Here are 10 examples, in fact, that you can find for $12,000—some for even less. The years listed are not reflective of the production runs, but rather the model years that’ll maximize your bang-for-buck.

#10: Fiat 124 Sport Spider (1968-1985), Wikimedia Commons

Hold your jokes about “Fix It Again, Tony.” Fiat’s bringing back the 124 designation, this time on a new Mazda Miata platform. So it’s worth looking back at the natty roadster that inspired the modern reprise. The original 124 Spider has quite the pedigree—design by Tom Tjaarda (who penned Ferraris and a little later, the De Tomaso Pantera) and built by Pininfarina. No less than Aurelio Lampredi, who designed engines for Ferrari, was responsible for the 4-cylinder twin-cam that grew to 1,995cc, developed as much as 132 horsepower, with fuel injection in later variations, and was the first production engine to use a toothed belt cam drive. Pre-’73 and post-’77 are the ones to own. Spotty initial Fiat quality aside—most owners have sorted these cars out by now—the 124 Spider is a handsome open-topped alternative to then-contemporary British roadsters, with arguably the easiest-to use convertible top of them all. Look for rust in places you never thought could rust.

#9: Lotus Esprit Series 1 and 2 (1976-1981), Wikimedia Commons

Colin Chapman—Lotus’ founding genius—preached that “weight was the enemy.” His Formula 1 Grand Prix cars were world-beaters; his rear-engine entries from the early Sixties revolutionized the Indy 500; and all of Lotus’ road cars reflected Chapman’s innovative thinking. The first-generation Esprit, with crisp “folded paper” styling by Italdesign’s Giorgetto Giugiaro, had a fiberglass body, a steel backbone chassis, a 142-hp mid-mounted I-4 with a 5-speed transaxle and inboard rear brakes. Esprits weighed a bit over 2,200 lbs. Handling was surprisingly good, and James Bond drove a Hollywood-modified version that converted into a submarine, in The Spy Who Loved Me (1977). Lotus imported 1,763 of these to the U.S.. Other collectible Loti, like the slick Elites from the late Fifties and early Sixties, are 10 times the price of these ones. Be a Lotus owner on the cheap with an early Esprit, if you can find one.

#8: Triumph TR6 (1969-1976), Wikimedia Commons

When Triumph’s brawny TR6 appeared in 1969, it was virtually obsolete, but that’s its charm. The chassis was a hand-me-down from the previous model, as were the front disc and rear drum brakes, as well as its 2.5 liter six-cylinder. But the TR6 got a new front anti-roll bar and wider steel wheels (wires were optional). The car pulled like a train in 2nd and 3rd. It under-steered predictably, scrabbled a bit on rough roads and had a decent top. Lucky Brits got a 150-hp Lucas fuel-injected version; emissions-sensitive Yanks made do with twin Stromberg carburetors and 104 hp. (For 1972-73, it was bumped to 106 hp, then it dropped to 101 until the model’s end.) What else could you find for $12,000 with as much hairy-chested character and sunny-day drivability? Buy the best TR6 you can. Parts are plentiful, but restoration costs for a junkyard dog could exceed what you’ll pay for a well-maintained example.

#7: Maserati Biturbo (1984-1994), Wikimedia Commons

Yes, you can find a real Maserati for under $12 grand. The Biturbo was the brainchild of Argentine ex-racer, bon vivant and all-around scoundrel Alejandro De Tomaso, who acquired Maserati in the early Seventies. The idea was to goose Maserati’s volume—for this prestigious marque to compete head-on with entry-level BMWs. On paper, the Biturbo looked formidable, thanks to its smart styling and twin-turbocharged 2.5-liter V6, developing 190 hp at 6,000 rpm. Zero to 60 sprints flew by in 6.2 seconds, and Maserati claimed a top whack of over 130 mph. The interior was clad in butter-soft leather as only the Italians can manage. Problem was, initial quality was spotty, and although nearly 19,000 were sold here over 10 years, the Biturbo didn’t live up to Maserati’s image. That said, owners have worked the bugs out over the years, and their pain can be your gain. Look carefully for incorrect parts, avoid the automatics and don’t expect big things from the air conditioner. Do, however, expect your neighbors to swoon.

#6: MGB (1968-1980), National Motor Museum/Heritage Images/Getty Images

Thank the Brits for introducing the Americans to the whole idea of a sports car in the years after World War II, notably Jaguar and MG. The cheap and cheerful MGB can still be acquired in the $12 grand ballpark (since over a half-million of these babies were built). You get a 1,798-cc four-cylinder with 110 pound-feet of torque, a crisp four-speed, solid rotor front discs (rear drums), workmanlike independent front suspension and a live rear axle. Overdrive is a desirable option if you can find it. MGBs were popularly raced, so there’s factory and aftermarket hop-up equipment available. While hardly a powerhouse, a well-tuned MGB on a curvy road is a flashback delight. Pre-1974 models are the best, before emission controls, reduced horsepower and rubber “safety” bumpers irreparably spoiled these cars.

#5: Volvo P1800 (1961-1972), Volvo

Although Volvo tried to build sports cars in the Fifties, the Swedes didn’t seriously get going until the P1800 bowed, circa 1961. Long nose, egg-crate grille, chopped top and short deck—you’ll either love the idiosyncratic looks or hate ‘em. Either way, the 1.8-liter twin-carb four is about as bulletproof as any engine from that period. It’s easy to tune and a nice match for the 4-speed manual. Output eventually reached 118 hp, which was enough to propel the P1800 to 115 mph. Roger Moore drove a P1800 in The Saint TV series, so that added cachet. Toward the end of the model run, after the P1800S and P1800E variants, Volvo introduced the P1800 ES, a slick two-door sport wagon that makes for a cool surf mobile. Think of it as a Chevy Nomad with a Swedish accent. Very collectible 1800 ESs are priced just above our budget—and sometimes far above—unless you’re lucky enough to find a steal.

#4: Mazda RX-7 (1978-1985), Hugh Jane Jr./The Denver Post via Getty Images

Mazda’s RX-7 was revolutionary when it appeared in America—the first twin-rotor, rotary engine-powered sports coupe ever sold in this country. It was a genius move by Mazda chief engineer (and later president) Kenichi Yamamoto. “I can assure you,” he told the American press at the time, “that drivers of the Mazda RX-7 will top out at a speed of 120 miles per hour.” The best thing about this car? It was hot-looking and affordable—and it’s still both. The 100-hp twister (upped to 135 hp for 1984-85) was mounted almost mid-chassis for optimal weight distribution, and it was complemented by front MacPherson struts, decent disc front brakes and overall chassis competence. RX-7s were a hit from the get-go, and Mazda continually improved them over the years. On track, they starred in IMSA and SCCA events, adding to the car’s credibility and sales appeal. Mazda sold over a half-million RX-7s in this time period, so with our budget, you can hold out for a really good one.

#3: Datsun 240Z (1970-1973), Nissan

Considered the Mazda Miata of its era, the 240Z raced out of showrooms (usually for more than its low $3,526 sticker) onto the roads and racetracks of America, launching the whole Z-car phenomenon. It was a hot little package with a 2.4-liter straight six, front discs and fully independent suspension. Datsun (prior to a name change to Nissan in 1981 as part of a an ill-advised global initiative) sold 148,151 Zs in the first four years. Later came the 260, the 280, all the way up to today’s 370Z. But there’s nothing like the original. Expect to pay $2,000 more for earlier 240Zs. John Matras, author of the Datsun/Nissan Sports Car Buyers Guide, wrote: “Regarding rust, the 240Z has been called ‘second only to Fiat.’” Try to find a California car if you can. Paul Newman raced Zs, and speed parts are still easy to find. But we’d recommend you keep your 240Z stock and simple.

#2: Porsche 928/928 S4 (1978-1988), Wikimedia Commons

Porsche 356 and 911 prices are skyrocketing. The 924s and 944s are considered throwaways. The 928, however, is a somewhat overlooked Porsche that makes for a smart bargain. These daring ‘Bahn-burners were originally built because Porsche management thought that they’d eventually replace the 911. It was the first “clean-sheet-of-paper” all-Porsche model since the 911 (914s, 916s, 924s and 944s had VW and Audi components). With a front-mounted, large-displacement, water-cooled V8 and a rear transaxle, it was completely different from earlier models. Although Porsche dropped the 928 in 1995 to concentrate on the 911, Mercedes-Benz’s new AMG GT S feels like a 928 reincarnate, proving the basic soundness of Porsche’s design. Later 928S examples are out of our range, but you can find a nice 928 for $10 grand or less. (Just put aside some funds for repairs, as 928s can be expensive to maintain.) As a future collectable, a 928 has real potential.

#1: BMW 2002 (1969-1971), Tim Graham/Getty Images

Not only did this little sports sedan put BMW on the map in the U.S., it is responsible—many auto historians claim—for the very term “sports sedan.” It’s the great-grandfather for every hot Bimmer coupe for nearly 50 years. When the 2002 came out in 1968, it took America by storm. The first two numbers stood for 2.0 liter, the second two for two doors. Car and Driver’s outspoken editor, the late David E. Davis, Jr., wrote that a 2002 would run circles around contemporary MGs and Triumphs, with four passengers and the radio on. It had “all the cojones and brio and élan of cars twice its size and four times its price.” BMW sold 339,084 units in the first four years in North America, so they are eminently findable. Avoid the cheaper ‘74s with strangling emissions controls and clunky “crash-proof” bumpers. Parts are still available through BMW dealers and specialists. The BMW magazines Roundel and Bimmer can help you find one and keep it running.

*Note: Prices come from Keith Martin’s Sports Car Market Insider’s Guide, cross-referenced with the latest Hagerty Price Guide for post-war collectible cars. For the record, we’re talking about good, clean examples, not concours winners. Tips for buyers: Examine every car rationally, don’t ever buy a car unseen, look everywhere for rust and bring along a magnet to test body panels for plastic filler. If you’re new in the game, hire a mechanic you trust to look at a potential buy and insist on a written report; you could save a lot of money down the line. Some places to hunt: barnfinds.com, bringatrailer.com, hemmings.com, Ebay.com, craigslist.org, oldcarsweekly.com.

In addition to being an author and curator, Ken Gross is the former features editor of Special Interest Autos and winner of the prestigious Ken Purdy Award.

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