We read all over the internet, “kids these days don’t want cars,” but we’re pretty sure it’s not a lack of desire, but simply a lack of cash that keeps the classic car market in a mostly retirement age bracket. It only takes a few minutes of watching televised classic car auctions for anyone to think that a classic car is far beyond financial reach. However, we think that there are a multitude of classic car options if you think a bit outside the 1969 Camaro-shaped box and don’t mind driving your project car around in less-than-pristine condition.
Here are eight relatively obscure but very cool pre-1980 cars that with some summer saving, you could buy and drive to that concert, on that date, or to your office. Then tear ’em down and rebuild ’em over the winter with your Christmas bonus money. We’ve aimed for somewhere between $2,000 and $4,000 based on classified ads for non-basketcase vehicles with a few warts that otherwise (allegedly) run and drive.
1954-1966 Pontiac Star Chief
We’ll start as far as back as we dare go, and while the Star Chief runs toward the high end of our price range, you can find a running car for under $4,000. The full-size Poncho’s entire production run neatly straddles the automotive transition from round, no-frills post-war designs to Jet Age fins and ornamentation before spending its final years with classic early ’60s Pontiac design language. A first-year Star Chief will get you a flathead Straight-8, but the V-8 options are solid for subsequent years with displacement—and horsepower—growing rapidly every year until 1960 when the ubiquitous 389 was available to scoot the big Poncho Sedan at a good clip.
Low end of price range for running car: $3,800
1955-1961 Chrysler Windsor and New Yorker
As with Star Chief, the Chryslers of the late 1950’s crossed the threshold of auto design into the Jet Age. If you’re not picky about looks, you can find a running Windsor or New Yorker for well within a summer-job budget. Later cars have some dang-impressive wings so if that Space Race design trips your trigger, set your search sights on a ’61. The V-8 offerings were bountiful in these cars and they provide a relatively easy way to find an early Hemi or Big Block Mopar.
Low end of price range for running car: $2,500
1963-1966 Dodge Dart
This really could apply to any of a number of early 1960s compact cars since the market has not yet gone completely berserk for the Ford Falcons and Dodge Darts like it has for their later muscle-car cousins. However, those first-generation Darts are fine representatives of that timeless three-box era of American design. If you’re patient, you can find a V-8 car in many parts of the country for under $4,000 and six-cylinder cars typically go for cheaper still.
Low end of price range for running car: $2,400
1959-1964 Studebaker Lark
The Lark is a strange bird, and is typically the long-forgotten also-ran in the same compact market with the Dart, Falcon, and Chevy II/Nova. In the Lark’s short run from 1959 to 1964, Studebaker gave it two makeovers with the first two generations’ styling really standing out in the segment. Interestingly, the Lark was the first of its contemporaries offered with the V-8, which was a 259 cubic-inch engine while the base engine was a flathead 170 cubic-inch straight-six. Either way, it’s a great conversation piece, and there’s basically no market for these cars, meaning you can buy one in remarkably good shape for just a couple thousand dollars. Sure, getting parts might be a bit of a challenge, but that’s part of the fun.
Low end of price range for running car: $3,000
1965-1967 AMC Rambler Marlin
The Plymouth Barracuda gets all the glory for its fastback design, but the Rambler (and later AMC) Marlin hit the market before the ‘Cuda with its enormous fastback glass. A good number of them have had engine swaps from the original ubiquitous AMC straight-six or assorted small-block AMC V-8 engines, but whatever you put under the sprawling hood, we think there’s something cool about the oddball Marlin. Like the cars mentioned above, there just isn’t a huge collector market for them so you won’t find a lot of “I KNO WHUT I HAV!!!11!” in the Marlin classified ads you come across.
Low end of price range for running car: $3,500
1968-1992 Jaguar XJ
If you’re reading this, you’re probably familiar with Roadkill’s Draguar, and you could get your very own plush British luxury car for dirt cheap. If you’re lucky, you might find one that has already had the straight-six or even the complicated V-12 replaced with the commonly swapped Small-Block Chevy V-8. Whatever’s under the hood, expect typical British problems like mystifying electrical gremlins when tinkering with the plethora of Thatcher-era gizmos on the real-wood dash. Some might say that kind of stuff makes this idea silly, but don’t listen because we all know that real character-building comes from lying on your back roadside under the XJ’s sleek lines in a driving rainstorm and whacking the starter solenoid firmly with the Anger Wrench.
Low end of price range for running car: $2,500 almost categorically with a Chevy V8 swap
1975-1978 Datsun 280Z
We’re obviously big fans of the Rotsun—Roadkill’s ratty and unreliable 1971 Datsun 240Z—and Datsun’s curvy Z-cars offer a great chance for some low-dollar fun. The market has recently started to make the 240Z and 260Z harder to obtain for cheap, but the more-abundant and later 280Z can still be found in running shape for a reasonable wad of cash. Many still have the 2.8-liter straight-six. The typical trend among Datsun ownership is that even the slightest bit of involved engine maintenance is cause enough to throw a Small-Block Chevy—or, of course, a 4.3-liter V-6 with a honking-big turbo on it—in the big engine bay.
Low end of price range for running car: $2,500
1968-1973 Opel GT
Opel’s miniscule two-seater really does look like a three-quarter-scale Chevy Corvette, but there’s a lot of cool in these little beasts. While not nearly as refined, the power-to-weight ratio is awfully similar to a first-generation Miata and the mechanically operated roll-over (not truly “pop-up”) headlights are super cool. They’re certainly not roomy, but the GT is an eye-catcher everywhere you go with one. These seldom bring a pile of money, but if you’re going to buy one, give it a thorough look-over for structural rust.
Low end of price range for running car: $2,900
Cheap Classic Cars Under $5,000
- 1954-1966 Pontiac Star Chief
- 1955-1961 Chrysler Windsor and New Yorker
- 1963-1966 Dodge Dart
- 1959-1964 Studebaker Lark
- 1965-1967 AMC Rambler Marlin
- 1968-1992 Jaguar XJ
- 1975-1978 Datsun 280Z
- 1968-1973 Opel GT
This article was originally published on Roadkill.com and has been adapted slightly. Referenced market pricing may have changed since its original publication.