I remember my first car, an old Alfa, I love Italian cars, but she was in a bad way. We enjoyed one glorious summer together, great memories, I’m smiling right now.
So, what’s the best classic car for your first car? This is a list of the five best classic cars makers suitable for a first car.
Buying a classic car is easy, buying a good one at a reasonable price is a lot harder to come by. No point in buying a completely worn-out car that won’t be reliable, affordable, or fun to drive.
In this post, I’ll cover the best models to look for. You know – cars that are actually affordable and practical.
Choosing A Classic Car As Your First Car
Buying your first used car is stressful, there’s a lot of lemons out there. But making your first car a classic is an even riskier proposition.
But I like your style, it’s exactly what I did and if you follow a simple strategy, you’ll have a cool set of wheels that everyone will admire. Only a cute puppy gets more admiring glances than a classic ride.
The strategy I use is simple, limit your risk by first making a list of quality classic cars with great reputations. Spend some time and get to know the cars, the equipment levels, best years of production, known faults, repair prices, and auction values.
If you do the homework, and your patient, you’ll find the right car for your kind of money. Sure you might have to check out a lot of cars, maybe go to some car auctions, but that’s all part of building your bank of knowledge and experience.
Buying a classic car, even as a first car can be a great investment. With the exception of a home, I can’t think of any other investment that brings such joy and at the same time appreciates in value.
What Makes A Practical First Classic Car?
Most people I know like working on their old cars but not by the side of the highway. Using an old car as a daily driver is possible, but it’ll need to be practical and by practical I mean, it needs to have all of the following:
- Modern running gear
- Quality reputation
- Fair to good condition
- Easy to work on
- Spare parts available
What’s Modern Running Gear?
Older cars have a reputation for being hard to drive, and that’s true depending on the decade of the manufacturer. If your classic is going to be usable and fun, it needs to keep pace with modern cars.
A car that’s easy to use will be easy to live with and add pleasure to every journey. The wrong car will wreck your classic car ownership experience and maybe for good.
Modern running gear includes components and features such as:
- Three point seat-belts
- Min 4 speed Auto or 5 speed manual transmission
- Disk brakes
- ABS System
- Independent suspension
- Power steering
- Radial tires
- Auto choke
- Fuel Injection
- Power windows
- Air conditioning
- Cruse control
- Central locking
Your potential first classic car may not have all of these qualities, but the more you have the happier you’ll be.
Cars of the ’70s had some of these features, but the cars of the ’80s had them all and some. By modern standards a 70’s car is hard on the gas and will feel cumbersome to drive, the 80’s classic will ride a lot like a modern car.
What’s A Quality Reputation?
I’m old enough to remember cars from the ’70s, they didn’t have a great reputation. Car’s from the early ’80s suffered from quality issues too but did improve.
When buying an old car that you’re going to use daily, a car from the 70s is going to struggle to meet the grade. It’s not that you won’t find a good one, there are lots of nut and bolt rebuilds out there, but they’ll cost a ton to buy.
A half-assed 70’s car will bore a hole in your pocket on breakdowns, repairs, parts, and labor.
We’re trying to find that sweet spot, a car from the ’80s is going to be a better bet. Car manufacturers of the ’80s had to up their game, by now, Toyota and Honda had established a reputation for reliability and quality.
The Japanese forced all manufacturers to rethink quality. Cars of the mid to late ’80s had a better reputation. Build quality was good, they used better materials, cars were nicer to drive, reliable, practical, economical, and safe. That’s why I think an 80’s motor is perfect for your first car.
The other great thing about 80’s cars is they’re largely ignored by the hardcore car collectors, they’re just not on their radar. But in another 5 to 10 years they will be, and guess what will happen to the price.
What’s Fair To Good Condition?
Old cars are going to need work, that’s a given. So before you look at any potential wheels, you’ll need to temper your expectations. It will likely have a shabby interior, dead paint, and a list of mechanical repairs needed.
I bought my first car, an Alfa Romeo because it suited my pocket and I could take care of the work it needed to keep it mobile. I loved that car, but the chassis was just too badly corroded to repair, and we had to part company.
The Alfa thought me that it’s better to stretch and pay more for a car in fair or good condition.
Condition is everything, your potential ride needs to have some redeemable features. Cars needing lots of bodywork, electrical, interior repairs, and mechanical work will cost a ton to put right unless you can take care of it yourself.
A car that’s good mechanically and structurally but just needs some cosmetic tidying. This type of car at the right price is worth buying.
Easy To Work On
You might think, I won’t be working on it so this doesn’t concern me. Well consider mechanics bill by the hour and old cars need lots of maintenance, and a difficult to work on the old car could clock up twice as many hours.
Most are easy to work on, if you’re even a little handy, you’ll easily take care of the maintenance and even some of the more technical repairs. Older cars unlike modern motors, usually have lots of room to swing wrenches, they’re a mechanics dream.
Some of the higher-end top-of-the-range luxury-type sedans may not fit into the category of being easy to work on, if real estate looks tight under the hood, you can bet it’s difficult to work on.
Are Spare Parts Available?
A good supply of spare parts is extremely important, your classic will need spare parts and when you need them you need them if you know what I mean.
The law of supply and demand works for classic car parts too, if the supply of parts is tight, then the price of the available parts will be more expensive.
A common well knows brand will always have a supply of parts on the shelf at pretty good prices, but stray off the conventional path and you may find the lead time on parts measured in cycles of the moon.
Number One : Mercedes Benz
We own several old Mercedes, “they don’t build them like this anymore” is generally an overused statement, but in the case of Mercedes, it’s true.
My love of Mercedes started when I was a kid, my father bought a black ex-government car that was accidentally damaged. In Europe most government heads like to drive black Mercedes, it’s a perk of the job.
Anyway, I liked them because they were big, had a real sense of quality and when my father told me the three-pointed star at the end of the hood was to aim the secret governmental machine gun, I was sold.
Clearly, it made an impression on me, I bought quite a few old Mercedes over the years. But I have a real affection for the W201 model, known as the 190e or affectionately known as the “Baby Benz”.
I’ve had four 190’s, two of which I still own. They were produced between 1982 and finished in 1993. It was the smallest Benz Mercedes produced, but one of the greatest.
A fortune was spent developing the vehicle, and it shows, these cars feel like they’re carved from rock. They were launched to compete with the three series BMW which at the time was the market leader.
The baby Benz is rear-wheel drive with a very sophisticated rear-wheel independent link suspension system. Traditional live rear-wheel-drive vehicles suffer from axle tramp (Hopping of the drive wheels under load).
Mercedes multi-link system solved these issues and was rolled out to other models. This link suspension is the hallmark of quality and all top-end cars employ this set-up today.
Although the car is over thirty years old, you wouldn’t know it from behind the wheel, it’s smooth, sure-footed, and agile on twisty roads.
By classic car standards it’s safe too, comes with ABS, a driver’s airbag, and pre-tensioner seat belts. The car was designed with crumple zones and was one of the safest cars on sale in its day.
It has all the modern kit, most models had the dual climate, electric sunroof, windows, aerial, central locking, pre-tensioning seat belts, heated electric mirrors, ABS, and air-con.
Engines: The very early 2.0L gas engine models were offered as carburetor or fuel injection. The Bosch fuel injection known as Jetronic was the latest technology. Injection cars were smoother, more powerful, and more fuel-efficient and definitely the model to look for.
The 2.0L, 2.3L gas engines were eight-valve inline four-cylinder, chain-driven engines and were very durable.
North America didn’t get the gas 2.0L engine, instead, they got the same engine but in the guise of a 2.3L fuel injected.
Cosworth tuned models were added, with a 2.3 or 2.5 16v twin cam engine fitted. The American market also got a 2.6L six-cylinder in-line engine, which was a tight fit.
The 190 came in diesel too, engines were available in 2.0L, 2.2L, 2.5L all were 4 cylinders and inline. A 2.5L turbo which was a 5 cylinder engine was also available which had a distinct off-beat sound.
The 2.2L and the 2.5L turbo-diesel engines were sold in North America.
I think the 190e is an excellent choice, it’s easy to drive, has all the comforts of a modern car, it is economical and importantly, it’s reliable.
If you can get your hands on a good 190e, you won’t regret buying it, I’ve owned them for years, they’re built-proof.
Number Two: BMW
BMW makes great driving cars, no doubt about it. If the Mercedes 190 is lacking anywhere, it’s in the feedback you get from driving it.
Compared to a BMW, the Merc will feel disconnected and sterile. I’ve owned BMW’s in the past and I liked them, they’re good cars and while not as reliable as a Merc, they’re still right up there.
The BMW E30, known as the three series, was produced from 1982-1994. Unlike the Mercedes, the three series came in different body styles, four-door, 2 doors, soft top, and estate.
Gas engines ranged from 1.6L, 1.8L, 2.0L, 2.5L, 2.7L, and 2.4 diesel. Engines were a mix of four or six-cylinder, all chain-driven.
The M power engines were a breed apart, they were specially tuned 4 cylinder engines fitted to the much sought-after M3 model.
My choice is the two-door 325i, the silky six-cylinder is smooth and powerful, and propels the car effortlessly. I’ve owned a 316 and a 318i and they’re lacking a few horses, I always felt a little cheated.
The six-cylinder engines are prone to blocks cracking and head gasket failure. Both the four and six-cylinder gas engines are prone to timing chain wear.
Corrosion over the rear wheel arches and the trunk is also common.
The three series is a good car and while it’s not my number one choice, given the opportunity, I’d still buy one.
Number Three: Volvo
I love Volvo, mostly because they have been in my life since I was a kid. My father ran his own garage and had an agency for Volvo cars.
Back then a Volvo was a fairly sober car, not particularly exciting and in fact, leaned heavily on how safe they were.
The 850 t5 is the pick of the models, produced from 1991 to 1996, it’s available in saloon or estate body style. OK, technically it’s a 90’s car but it’s going to be a collector without a doubt, you’re just getting in ahead of the rush.
The Volvo engine was new, developed especially for the car, it’s an inline five-cylinder turbocharged fitted transversely.
This was the first front-wheel-drive Volvo in North America, three engines were available a gas 2.0L, 2.5L, or 2.5 diesel.
The car also boasted a Delta link rear suspension, basically, an in-house designed bushing set-up that helped steer the car when cornering.
The pick of the line-up is the 850 T5R… Holy S**t this thing was a fire-breathing monster, I didn’t own one but I have driven one.
It’s a 2.3 five-cylinder turbocharged engine but Porsche has worked it over and increased boost pressure and some other witchcraft, 0-60 – 6.9sec and a top speed of 150mph.
But more important than all that, it’s a practical, reliable classic car that would make a fantastic first car. It’s not as durable as the Mercedes, but it is a good car.
I drove a V70 Volvo, the 850’s replacement but fitted with the same engine. I couldn’t fault the car, but I have owned other Volvo’s and their weak spot seems to be the Aisin transmission.
Number Four : Toyota
The Toyota Celica was produced from 1985 to 1989, this is not the only great Celica, but I owned a T160 model, so I can talk about it first hand.
Mine was a 1987 GT lift-back, it had a transversely mounted, fuel-injected, 2.0L normally aspirated engine, mated to a standard 5-speed manual transmission.
I can honestly say you’ll enjoy this car every day, it’s comfortable, economical, reliable, and easy to work on.
These cars came in a few different trim levels, so obviously aim for the all-electric models that are the GT or GTS.
In 88 they launched an AWD model called the GT-Four or All-trac in North America. It was fantastic fun on slippy surfaces, but in the real world of everyday commuting, I’d pass on this model.
An extra differential and transfer box is just adding a lot of extra risk to the purchase for only a few extra smiles.
Corrosion can be an issue, especially if the car has lived in a salt state, but all in all, if you get the chance to buy a good Celica – Go for it!
Number Five : Porsche
The Porsche 924 is called the poor mans Porsche because it was built with lots of VW/Audi parts. But I don’t see it like that, I think it’s an opportunity to buy a Porsche at VW prices.
I’ve never owned a Porsche but I have owned VW’s and Audi’s, so lots of this 924 is familiar to me.
The 924 was built between 1976 and 1988 and initially, it was a VW/Porsche collaboration, but the plan changed and Porsche moved on with the project alone.
The car has always caught my eye, and I’m not the only one as it was a wildly successful seller.
The engine is front-mounted with the transmission and axle combined to power the rear wheels. Moving the transmission to the rear helped balance the weight distribution which is all-important for handling in a sports car.
The car was offered with a manual or auto transmission, the Porsche ever to have an auto box.
Early models were fitted with a 2.0L petrol engine and a four-speed manual transmission loaned from the Audi parts bin, disk brakes at the front, and drums to the rear.
Soon a turbo was strapped on the 2.0L engine and then a 5-speed transmission and disk brakes all around.
The final evolution was the 924s, it got a 2.5L engine from its bigger brother, the 944 which was actually supposed to replace the 924. It also got 5 stud hubs, bigger brakes, and a few other goodies.
The 924s is the nicer car to drive, it’s so close to a 944 in equipment and styling and performance the lines start to blur.
2.0L turbo or 2.5L both are good cars, look for later models with 5-speed manuals and disk brakes all around.
Corrosion and water leaks can be an issue, so out floors including the trunk floor before committing.
Parts aren’t expensive and these cars are easy to work on, you’ll have no problem doing your own light maintenance.
The Porsche 924 is a four-seater and has a lift back, the trunk isn’t big, but it’s big enough. This is currently a collectors car and good ones will only get more expensive. Happy hunting!
When is a classic car a classic? Typically any car over 20 years is considered a classic car.
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- About the Author
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John Cunningham is an Automotive Technician and writer on Rustyautos.com. He’s been a mechanic for over twenty-five years and has worked for GM, Volvo, Volkswagen, Land Rover, and Jaguar dealerships.
John uses his know-how and experience to write fluff-free articles that help fellow gearheads with all aspects of vehicle ownership, including maintenance, repair, and troubleshooting.