The vintage car market right now is booming, and though recent dips in value have suggested it’s a bubble waiting to pop, its hard not to argue that classic car prices are getting somewhat out of hand. (Just look at the current values for vintage Porsche 911s). The allure of owning a classic car is strong; the proposition of making money on a classic car can be even stronger. And so often rare cars are locked up in garages, only to be taken out for special events, if at all. Collecting and preserving special cars is understandable, but it’s also a shame. Vintage cars should be driven and enjoyed as much as possible.
Luckily there are some classics — be they oddballs from automotive history or just mass-produced wonders — that have somehow slipped under the radar, remaining relatively affordable. What’s more, they’re simple and reliable: reminders that in some cases they really don’t build ’em like they used to. But in any case, these six reliable classics prove that driving a handsome vintage car every day need not be an automotive fantasy.
The Executive: Available as a sedan, coupe or wagon, the Mercedes-Benz W123 was the precursor to the E-Class and built from the mid-’70s to the mid-’80s, an era in which Mercedes notoriously over-engineered their cars. As such, W123s are still used in parts of Africa and the Middle East because of their reliability — James May drove one in Top Gear‘s Botswana special for this reason. In any body style, the Mercedes W123 has clean, angular looks and quad round headlights. Most W123s imported to the USA were sold with diesel engines, so the gasoline option is more of a rarity, but no matter the engine you’re getting a reliable, handsome and efficient German classic for around $5,000 to $15,000.
The Sports Saloon: The E30 BMW 3-Series has become a bit of an icon: a representation of a simple, everyday car with excellent handing and performance. Today it’s become incredibly cheap, making the E30 a common sight at track days and Autocrosses, and a gateway drug for those new to performance cars. The BMW has proven to be an easy car to live with, owing to its considerable reliability. More importantly, these models are relatively cheap and easy to fix in the event that something does go wrong, thanks to an overall simple build and the large community of parts suppliers and knowledgable enthusiasts. As such, it’s common to see E30s with over 300,000 miles on the odometer. Want one? Prices vary, usually going for around $7,000 to $15,000 for most versions, save for the incredibly sought-after M3s, which are exponentially more expensive.
The Tourer: There’s no greater testament to a car’s durability than driving it for over 3 million miles on the same engine — that’s what Long Islander Irv Gordon accomplished in his 1966 Volvo P1800S, driving it to every state in the US (well, except for Hawaii). The Volvo’s four-cylinder engine isn’t exactly a speed demon, since it produces only 100 horsepower (later versions had up to 130 horsepower), but as a dead-reliable power plant it gets the job done. Besides, the real draw with the Volvo, aside from its durability, is its classy GT looks at a relatively low price point — good running examples go for around $15,000, though expect to pay more for the more desirable ES “shooting brake” variant.
Mazda MX-5 NA Miata
The Roadster: Its original design was modeled after the Lotus Elan and other classically styled British roadsters of the ’60s and ’70s, which is a huge bonus. But what makes the MX-5 fantastic is that it combined the well-balanced and lightweight driving characteristics of a classic British roadster with the unmistakable reliability of a Japanese car. Even today, the MX-5 remains a reliable choice (and one that’s easy and affordable to fix) that sells for around $5,000 to $10,000.
Volkswagen Karmann Ghia
The Design Icon: Underneath, it’s essentially a Type 1 Volkswagen Beetle, a vehicle that’s still used as a taxicab in Mexico due to its uber-simple construction that remains cheap to keep running. But whereas the Beetle’s design was a result of efficient packaging, the Karmann Ghia is an elegant two-door designed by famed Italian design house Ghia. Admittedly, its paltry 37 horsepower doesn’t make it an ideal highway cruiser but as an urban runabout it should do nicely. The best part? Pristine examples regularly go for under $15,000.
Toyota Land Cruiser FJ80
The Off-Roader: One generation prior to this particular pick, Toyota had already turned the Land Cruiser into a machine that was equal parts off-road prowess and comfort. As such, the simpler FJ60 has already had its turn as the collectable, dependable everyday off-roader — but its increasing rarity (due to its collector status and rust issues) has made it an expensive proposition. But the FJ80 retains its bulky, squared-off looks and off-road capability, but comes in a more refined, reliable package. The FJ80 also avoids the FJ60’s aforementioned rust problems, has all-time AWD, a more reliable 1FZ engine and a leather-clad interior. Prices are already starting to jump, but you can still find decent runners under $10,000, with more pristine versions hitting the $15,000 to $20,000 range.