Six Classics Under $20k That Won’t Need To Be Daily Driven
Let’s say you already made the prudent decision to find something simple and safe for your daily driving duty. Your economical workhorse fits in most parking spaces (and more importantly you aren’t afraid to park it near others), it accepts and sips on the lowest-grade pump gas you can find, and in the rare occasions when it doesn’t start, the repair costs won’t force you to eat frozen dinners upon receiving the mechanic’s invoice. A reliable everyday car has a lot to offer.
If this is your situation, and if your fiscal and automotive responsibility have left you with some “fun money” to spend on something less pedestrian than your base-model Civic or another Uber ride (where someone else drives you around in their Civic), you have a lot of options to choose from in terms of interesting vintage cars to fill the voids of banal motoring.
Plenty of lists have already been written in the vein of “The X Best Cars You Can Buy Under Y Dollars,” but things change, tastes evolve, and values shift continuously. A few years ago E30 M3s were worth half what they trade for now, 25-year US import laws allow a crop of new-vintage cars into the country every year, trends pull up the values on tag-a-long cars rising with the tides, etc. This collection isn’t by any means exhaustive or meant to be prescriptive, it’s just a snapshot in the moment: these are some of the coolest classics you can buy today for less than the price of a new Camry. There’s a coupe, a GT, a convertible, a wagon, and two saloons in this shortlist, but that’s not to say they are the objective best from the countries they represent—which would you classic would you buy if you had a daily and $20,000?
You might notice our sample is broken up by major auto manufacturing countries—soon we will include a complementary list to today’s, featuring cars that are more likely to be considered modern classics compared to the ones below.
Japan – Datsun 510
Since I mentioned the Civic and Camry already, let’s start with Japan and the Datsun Bluebird 510. If you’re trying to win top honors at a vintage JDM show you’re probably going to want to pony up a bit more for something like a first or second-gen Skyline GT-R, but in terms of quintessential Japanese simplicity, there’s not much to compare with the 510.
Upright and handsome, tightly-packaged, simple to work on and modify, you can enjoy the charms of a stock example in a bright hue of the 1970s and body roll your way around town at 15mph, or you can take it in another direction, like swapping the motor, putting slicks around some four-spoke American Racing Libres, and doing your best impression of Paul Newman in his Trans-Am BRE 510.
United States – Chevrolet Corvair Lakewood/Monza Wagon
Japan is often seen as the originator of oddities, at least when compared to the United States, but the Corvair Lakewood and later Corvair Monza wagons were much farther “out there” than the comparatively simple Datsun above, and it had more in common with a Porsche than a Pontiac. Powered by an air-cooled flat-six mounted underneath the floor in the rear of the wagon (which in top trim was good for just over 100hp), you could get these stylish jet-age slabs with four-speed manuals too. They weren’t fast, but if you look into the second generation Corvair coupes you’ll find almost twice the power, Positraction, etc. Though if you prefer the looks of the originals and can find a turbo’d Spyder version, that’s another option albeit a more expensive one.
The wagon is arguably the most interesting though, though it wasn’t nearly as well-received in the 1960s, and its production lasted for just two model years. It’s a far cry from Chevy’s current lineup of people-movers, and though it was a competitor to Volkswagen’s period offerings, the Corvair is still distinctly American—a gorgeous example of the era’s styling, full of ridges and crests and chrome and a sense of stately length regardless of its true footprint which was rather small in comparison to some other American options at the time.
Germany – BMW E21 3-Series 323i
For obvious reasons, you’d associate air-cooled flat-sixes with Germany rather than America, but aside from those Porsche power plants, the country is renowned for its inline-sixes. Well, more accurately, BMW is. The 3-Series and the inline-six are Bimmer’s bread and butter, but unfortunately for those of us in North America, we never received the brand’s first 3-Series with anything larger than a four-cylinder under its clamshell hood. Typically our emissions in the past would saddle our versions of the cars with catalytic conversion systems and air bypasses and whatnot that robbed some power, but in this case we lost two cylinders.
So if we had $20k to spend on correcting that problem in 2017, we’d go out for the cleanest E21 323i we could find. Starting in Europe in 1977, the E21 would receive two versions of BMW’s “baby-six” M20 for the upcoming model year, with the 323i good for over 140hp—enough to have fun in when you were running around on 185-width tires in a light rear-wheel drive. There was also an optional 5-speed dogleg gearbox as well as a limited-slip diff to make the mechanical aspect more enticing, to say nothing of its good looks supplied by Paul Bracq.
Italy – Lancia Fulvia Series I
Bracq is known for his neat, crisp designs for BMW’s second generation of shark-nosed styling, but the Lancia was right there with them in the 1960s, and arguably achieved the look with more elegance in its front-wheel drive Fulvia Coupé. Thin pillars outline its airy greenhouse of a cabin, and its creased flanks give it a simple, straight silhouette. It’s a sharp and angular car from some views, but then walk to the front and find yourself greeted by gorgeous ovoid face both friendly and aggressive it its forward lean.
For twenty thousand, you won’t likely come across any of the Series I Rallye 1.6 HF Fanalone models, the most desirable of the bunch, but you can certainly find some solid Series 1s like the Rallye 1.3 S in driver condition or better, depending on how long you wait. These cars defied the stereotype of Italians, offering build quality in addition to the beauty this time, and the Piero Castagnero design is still one of the prettiest to ever sling rocks. It has a ton of pedigree as a rally car, the Fulvia having dominated the Italian Rally Championship for nearly a decade, winning such international events as the Rallye Monte Carlo, as well as giving Lancia the championship in the 1972 IMC, the rally series that would a year later become the WRC. If you’re looking for more in-depth history of the Fulvia, see our past article on the little Lancia here.
France – Peugeot 504 Cabriolet
If you’re looking for a bit more space and an experience more in line with vintage European GT road trips however, the Pininfarina-penned Peugeot 504 Cabriolet is something to take a look at. They arguably present better in coupe form, but the droptop retains the most salient styling cues that the two-doors had over the sedans, and then it sheds just a bit more practicality by ditching the roof. The car has a unique presence with its wide-set and slightly grumpy looking front end, and though it won’t stand out like a Fly Yellow Daytona Spyder from the era, it’s likely you won’t see another 504 at Cars & Coffee, at least in the United States.
You could get the 504 with a 2.7-liter V6 later into its long lifespan, but don’t have any illusions about this being a sports car, as 135hp isn’t all that much for something weighing more than 2,700lbs. It’s going to be more softly sprung than anything falling under the modern umbrella of European GTs, but the sweet spot of a car like this is a 45mph road with a lot to look at, and it’s hard to think of something that can do it better for the relatively cheap cost of entry provided by the 504. The early quad-headlight models are more valuable, but the single rectangular units from facelift cars don’t detract from the package.
England – Jaguar XJ6C/XJ12C
Jaguar made hundreds of thousands of XJ6s and XJ12s over the first three generations of the XJ (in which a slow evolution occurred over almost 25 years of production), but these were largely accounted for by the factory’s output of sedans. The pillarless hardtop XJ Coupé was a significantly more limited offering, as well as much better looker. Retaining the lengthy elegance of the XJ series even though it was built on the shorter chassis from the range, the two-door Jag was a blend of stately sedan styling and low-slung coupe menace, and since they all came fitted with vinyl roof covering—the paint would crack due to the lack of rigidity normally provided by a B-pillar—they had an air of yesteryear regality to them even in the midst of its twelve-cylinder vocal exercises.
You could have the XJ Coupé with the reliable 4.2-liter inline-six or the more powerful 5.3-liter V12, and the later European-market V12s produced 285 fuel-injected ponies to push you past the Rovers in the slow lane. They were pretty quick cars in street form if not in the nimble sense of the word, and soon after the Coupé was released after its initial delay, Jaguar approached Broadspeed in 1975 to turn the cars into something to go racing with in the European Touring Car Championship. They turned out a few (four in all) fearsome V12 competition cars that ran a few races in 1976 and 1977—and they even put Derek Bell in one of them—but they weren’t competitive against the quicker Ford Capris and BMW CSLs, but that was due to reliability rather than pace, as they consistently clocked faster lap times. And also, those other cars didn’t have 600 horsepower and quad-side-exit exhaust. You can channel at least some of this British bravado in the street car, and inline-six models are still very much affordable.
These are just a sample size of the vast amount of affordable classics out there of course, so check out the cars listed in the Petrolicious Marketplace, or just tell us what you would add to the list. Stay tuned for the modern classics edition later this week.