Journal: Ask Petrolicious: How Can I Drive A Classic Car On A Budget?

Ask Petrolicious: How Can I Drive A Classic Car On A Budget?

By Andrew Golseth
September 13, 2016

Many of your “Ask Petrolicious” submissions have something to do with purchasing a classic…on a budget. I’m sure you don’t need us to remind you that many classics aren’t nearly as affordable as they once were, but that’s not to say they’re all out of reach. Despite the market’s current upwards trend, there are an ample number of desirable classics readily available for nearly every budget.

Now, I could list a number of inexpensive cars as recommendations, but considering our international readership, that’d be a bit pointless, wouldn’t it? After all, an enthusiast in Japan will have significantly different options than someone in the United Kingdom, Germany, or the United States. Just think, America is so vast that classic car options change drastically from state to state, region to region—I’m looking at you, rust belt.

So, instead of telling you to go buy _______ classic car, let’s talk about what you should be considering before you set your sights on a target car—namely, how to go about finding the right classic for you.

What’s your budget?

One thing to remember, for every budget, is to do just that: budget. Now, there isn’t some magical formula or percentage you should have in reserve, but if you’ve got $5,000 saved up for a classic, expending every George Washington on the initial purchase cost might not be the best move because classics tend to need more than oil changes and petrol top-offs—not to mention insurance, registration, etc.

For example, my first classic was a 1973 Datsun 620—if you can consider that a classic. I had $5,000 saved up for a secondary car—note: I wasn’t relying on the pickup to get to-and-from work. With that $5,000, I searched for a couple months (note: don’t be in a rush) to find a bondo-filled mess of a 40-year-old work-truck that leaked all the fluids but, and here’s the selling point: it ran beautifully. Ok, perhaps it didn’t run beautifully, but it ran well enough that I could actually enjoy driving it while fixing little things along the way.

I took that glorious J-tin hauler home for just $2,600! Which meant, I had $2,400 in reserve specifically set aside for the truck—and, boy, am I glad I had that extra cash! New gaskets, installed a radio and speakers (got to have some tunes), new tires and wheels…all new fluids that found their way onto the parking lot surface overnight, new alternator, new water pump, and a new radiator and cooling fan within the first couple months of blissful wrench-spinning ownership.

Can you plan your purchase?

There are a few routes I commonly see with budget classic car buys. The first: Buy the nicest example you can afford. This, however, either might not be possible on your budget or mean spending your entire budget up front and, as previously mentioned, could quickly turn your newly beloved classic from a dream come true into an expensive garage ornament. That said, the more you spend up front, the better the car, right? That’s the way we all hope it works out, anyway.

The second: Buy something with “good bones”. This is for the foolish brave enthusiast who wants to tackle an entire ground-up restoration. Oftentimes, this is the most expensive route in the long haul. Yet, if you’re on a budget, this could be the least amount of money up front. For example, I couldn’t afford to buy a fully restored Alfa Romeo Stepnose and the examples listed as “good drivers” were far rougher than its Craigslist ad confessed. So, I went about searching for a clean and (mostly) complete rolling shell.

The initial cost was very inexpensive and it’ll allow me to slowly put money into the car over time. The downside: I can’t enjoy the car now. Right now it’s on the back burner due the Datsun project, and even when I start funneling cash towards the Alfa, it’ll be years before I’ll drive it. For someone eager to enjoy the vintage driving experience, this route probably isn’t right for you.

The last option, and honestly best overall move, is to buy something inexpensive that runs well but perhaps has everything else wrong with it. This is the route I took with my first classic—the aforementioned Datsun. The body was complete with no major rust. The interior was cheaply reupholstered but looked decent enough. The frame and underpinnings were straight and clean. So, I bought the truck because it was reliable enough to drive around town, inexpensive and cheap to maintain, and was well within my budget—it just wasn’t the prettiest thing to gaze upon.

The expensive, nicest one you can afford commands the most up front. The rolling shell restoration candidate is initially inexpensive, but takes time and relies on lots of money to complete. The decent driver (mechanically sound) but beat up body allows you to enjoy the project, sort of the “fixer-upper” option.

Choosing which route is entirely up to you and your budget.

Photography by,,, and

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Jose Delgadillo
Jose Delgadillo

Many times “on a budget” means that you want to buy a car that is practical enough to drive as transportation. A better term than “classic car” is “special interest” as in a car that you are especially interested in owning. Something that is different from the typical VW or small Toyota. The simplest, most basic car is the best choice, something with good enthusiast and parts support. Also, learn how to work on your own car. If you have to run to a mechanic for every little problem, the cost will break your bank account quite soon. If you… Read more »


I went with option 3.

I think it’s also important to consider what kind of driving you want to do; Wind in your hair; leisurely cruise; or grand touring.


What is the red car in the last photo? Number 11 on the slide

Joe Barthlow

BMW E3s are under $10K. great M30 motor and BMW suspension. Fine looking, fast classics

Darel Matthews
Darel Matthews

Do. Your. Own. Work.

Classic cars are going to break. Often. If you have to run crying to a specialist mechanic every time your turn signal just stays on, this isn’t the hobby for you.


Agreed on the Miata MX-5 idea; I’ve owned 3, two of them first generation (NA). If you search on “vintage Miata” you’ll see where folks are outfitting their cars with vintage looking steering wheels, seat upholstery, etc. So you can basically have a reliable roadster that’s incredibly easy to work on…

Drew Schumann
Drew Schumann

A Ford Mustang is probably the most affordable classic car out there. Both they and repair parts are relatively cheap and available.

They are also very reliable cars that are easy to maintain.


Other factors to consider:

– Cost of maintenance for that model of vehicle
– Cost and availability of parts
– Known pending repairs
– Reliability of that model of vehicle
– Maintenance history of the vehicle


Buy a MX-5. Old enough to be a classic. Young enough to be trouble free as a modern car.

Buy the best you can. Is the best bet to spend less money in the future.

Evan Bedford
Evan Bedford

Amen! I have an 1991 NA Miata, and it’s the best vehicle I’ve ever owned (driving since ’74). And I’ve driven it daily for more than 8 years, year-round in Alberta winters.


Uh, you have to define what “on a budget” means. When I was in college and rather care-free, I went through pile of cars mostly because 1) I didn’t have a huge stake in getting somewhere, and 2) nobody wanted those cars back then (a rusty Alfa Spider that I paid $1500, 2 Porsche 914s that I was given, many VW Bugs that we put together from parts, and VW Bus that I traded a good tripod for, on and on). Now I’m adult, and getting to work is huge because I have to pay bills, and considering how stupid… Read more »