While at the Scottsdale Auctions a few weeks ago I was pretty amazed at the amounts of money that was being thrown at the cars on stage. Fifteen years ago when I first got into cars, there was a lot of opportunity for a young guy who was short on cash to acquire a classic import for little money. Before my obsession with BMWs began, I picked up a 1974 VW Westfalia camper bus for about $800 and it actually drove under it’s own power and had a great interior. Sure, the paint was bad, it leaked oil, and the rear brakes needed to be gone through, but I was into a classic ride for $800 that I could actually use. Feeling reminisant, I looked for a similar one to mine on eBay to see what’s out there. Well, here’s what’s out there . . .
After my bus experience I got heavily into BMW 2002s which have also gone through the roof, commanding well over $10k for a decent early example. I used to buy 2002’s for $1000-1500 that were pretty good cars. I stayed away from the famed 2002tii because I didn’t see the need to pay double as they were going for over $3k. A decent amount of my friends were in the car game and I can confidently say that we all had really cool cars that needed some work. I don’t think anyone had spent more than $2,500 to acquire their ride. Things have certainly changed in the last ten years. These days kids can’t buy an old classic with the money they made as a lifeguard over the summer and have slim pickings if they want a cool ride. I went out on a hunt to find some classic imports that can be had for under $5k, and it wasn’t easy. If you want a Classic European car and you’re on a budget, here’s my top 5 cars to be had in today’s market:
#5. Volkswagon Beetle – up to 1974
This is still one of the cheapest and easiest classics to get into. You can get a pretty decent one for about $2,500 and the parts are super cheap and readily available. Due to the fact that VW made about a million of these, don’t expect values to do anything spectacular over the next 10 years. Buy one for fun and drive it. After The Love Bug hit the screens in 1968 everyone fell for this car, so you’ll get plenty of smiles, waves and thumbs-up gestures from folks while putting around in one of these. Youtube will also have every DIY you can think of to get you through repairs at home. Also, it gets the award for easiest belt to change, ever.
#4. Mercedes-Benz 450sl
Mercedes-Benz made this chassis from 1972 until 1989. The 450sl is your cheapest way into this iconic Mercedes as they were primarily built during the late 70s and early 80s in what was a dark time for emissions standards. If you travel outside of the 450sl you’ll find higher prices as the very early cars have better bumpers and less emissions equipment while the later cars were equipped with a better transmission and a more powerful engine. That being said, the 4.5l V8 is pretty reliable and easy to work on. Get a set of euro headlights and it transforms the look. I partially restored one of these about 8 years ago for my in-laws and they loved it. Get lucky, be handy, and you can find one for under $4k that just needs some love.
#3. MG MGB Roadster 1962-1980
The cheap ole British car. Stick to 1972 and later models as the upgrades to the drive-train are significant. My neighbor had one of these when I was a kid and I was always fascinated with it for some reason. They are small, simple, and good looking for the price. I see these cars all over the map ranging from $800 up to $8000, but you can probably get a good starting point of a car for about $2-3k. Moss Motors up in Orange County pretty much has any part you might need which makes restorations of these cars a breeze. If you are vigilant, you can hold out for the rarer hardtop GT model which makes for a great handling road car. Everyone looks good in a MGB so you can’t go wrong.
#2. Fiat 124 Spider 1966-1985
If you haven’t driven one, you should. I’ve driven a lot of old cars and in many cases they never quite drive as good as they look. This car drives twice as good as it looks, especially if you can get your hands on a 2000cc model. Fiat made a ton of these cars with over 150,000 of them landing in the US. At any given time on Craigslist I see them going for as cheap as $1,200 and if you’re missing a turn signal or a piece of trim there are a ton of parts for sale on eBay. I’m not sure you can get into a car any cheaper than one of these and they are a blast to drive. Plus it’s Italian!
#1. Mercedes-Benz 250/280c 1968-1976 (w114)
I love this car and it is severely under-valued right now. I’m slightly afraid to state that as I’m looking for one currently as they are such incredible cars to drive. The car drips with class when you see one in person and the more you look it over the more you want one. The engines are pretty reliable and Mercedes does a good job keeping parts available. Once mechanically sorted, they are a real treat to drive and remarkably quiet inside the cabin. The huge front grill and the retro headlights scream sophistication and the build quality of this chassis is phenomenal. Dollar for dollar, it really doesn’t get any better than this.
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