With more and more advanced technology being packed into cars as standard equipment, and monthly payments falling to new lows, the average retail price of a new car has shot up to new highs, with dirt cheap commuters holding out, but losing favor each passing year. While there are several cheap models on sale today, the cheapest car you can buy new in America is the base trim Chevy Spark at around $13,220.
But when it comes to the history of absolutely dirt-cheap cars in America, a $13,000+ retail price is far from the cheapest things got, especially as the oil crisis forced cheap and efficient imports into the spotlight. Accounting for inflation, and excluding low volume oddities and kit-cars, these 10 production cars are among the cheapest ever sold new in the USA.
10 Crosley Convertible
Founded in 1939 by radio maker Powel Crosley Jr, Crosley Motors was created to bring absolutely dirt cheap small cars to America, with the Convertible being the first of several adorably quirky models to result from his plan.
About as basic as a car could possibly be, the Crosley Convertible weighed less than 1,000 lbs, and was powered by an equally small 2-cylinder motor. Tiny enough to fit into a department store, Crosley sold them alongside his radios and other appliances, finding moderate success and expanding the lineup of dirt cheap micro-cars, including the sporty HotShot and Jeep-like Farm ‘O Road. Sold with a hilariously low price of $300 in 1939, the Crosley Convertible cost the equivalent of just $5,585 in today’s money.
9 Subaru 360
Marketed in America with the tagline “cheap and ugly,” the 360 was the tiny, slow, and rather terrible beginning of Subaru’s North American operations, staying true to that brutally honest slogan, even if it failed to mention “unsafe” as well.
Microscopic in size and power, the 360 took 37 seconds to reach 50 mph, with 60 not being possible, at least though, it offered great fuel economy. While cars from the 1960s weren’t exactly safe, the 360, introduced in 1968, made its contemporaries look like bank vaults in comparison, and its sales were cut short by a well deserved “not acceptable” safety rating by Consumer Reports. Undercutting other cheap cars of the ’60s, Malcolm Bricklin brought the 360 to America with a base price of $1,297 in 1968, which is the equivalent of $9,645 in today’s money.
8 Honda Civic (1st Generation)
When it comes to affordable small cars, few nameplates are as iconic as the long-running Honda Civic. Swooping in during the ’70s Oil Crisis, the Civic offered a cheap and economical, but far more refined experience, helping to bring about import dominance.
Introduced to America in 1973, the Civic was a vast improvement over Honda’s previous offerings in North America. Offering excellent fuel economy and decent power, the Civic was more refined, and more enjoyable than most of the cheap competition, leading to its massive success that continues to this day after a remarkable 48 years in production. Sold with a price of $2,150 in 1973, the first gen Civic cost the equivalent of $12,532 in today’s money.
7 Toyota Corolla (1st Generation)
Much like the Civic, the Corolla is a small and efficient Japanese import still in production fulfilling the same affordable role, and is today among the best selling cars of all time.
Also like the Civic, the Corolla built on Toyota’s previous, less successful cheap cars. Debuting the Corolla in Japan during 1966, and brought to America for 1968, the Corolla went head to head with the most popular cheap and efficient option of the time, the VW Beetle. Beating it in price, the Corolla found initial success with a more comfortable and spacious interior, more modern (for the ’60s) design, and decent performance, thus starting the legacy of perhaps the most iconic nameplate in the affordable compact car segment. Sold with a base price of $1,575 in 1968, a first-gen Corolla cost the equivalent of $11,713 today.
6 AMC Gremlin
A legendary lemon, and semi-ironic classic that’s famous for just how ugly it is, the AMC Gremlin may have been widely mocked, but lived a successful sales life in spite of it.
Hitting the market in 1970 based on the otherwise normal AMC Hornet, and staying on sale until 1978, the Gremlin came before economy-oriented compact cars from the Big Three like the Ford Pinto – a fact AMC advertised by calling the Gremlin “the original American subcompact.” A barebones economy hatchback, the Gremlin’s strong sales were in part thanks to the head turning looks, and a cheap base price of $1,879 in 1970, the equivalent of $12,533 in today’s money.
5 Ford Pinto
A car that will forever live in infamy, the Pinto was among the contemporary competition for the Gremlin and Civic, and while it was indeed competitive, the massive flaming fault its now associated with killed any real hopes the Pinto had.
Ford’s first real venture into the affordable and economical compact segment, the Pinto’s notorious fault was a result of rushing the development, and demanding the car cost no more than $2,000. Aside from the fuel tank issues that turned a rear-end collision into a potential fireball, the Pinto was for a while a sales success thanks to its practicality and a base price of $1,920 on release in 1971, the equivalent of $12,269 today.
4 Chevrolet Chevette
A car remembered by many, but fondly by few, the Chevette was GM’s attempt at catching up to the growing field of cheap, efficient small cars that had taken hold in America after the Oil Crisis.
Initially competing with the Pinto using the less dramatic, but equally fault-riddled Vega, Chevy introduced the Chevette for 1975. A light and barebones compact hatchback, the Chevette was slow, unrefined, and ugly, but at least got some good gas mileage. Sold with a price of $2,899 for the most basic “Scooter” model in 1977, the lowest spec Chevette cost the equivalent of $12,385 in today’s money.
3 Yugo GV
Sharing its North American origins with businessman Malcolm Bricklin, the Yugo served a similar purpose to the 360 – offering the cheapest no-frills car possible in America.
Looking like it came straight out of the ’70s, the Yugo was a Yugoslavian made vehicle based on the Eastern-Bloc classic Fiat 127. While the Yugo received some minor design changes from the 127, it was still about as basic as a car could get, and was sold as such throughout the ’80s and ’90s. A piece of ’80s nostalgia thanks to how hilariously bad it was, the Yugo did see initial sales success thanks to a base price of $3,990 in 1985, the equivalent of just $9,597 today.
2 Hyundai Excel
A prime example of what Hyundai used to be known for, and just how far they’ve come, the Excel when sold new was second only to the Yugo for barebones, dirt cheap cars.
First sold in America during 1987, the Hyundai Excel was a no nonsense sedan and hatchback that was about as basic as it got. Also rather low quality, the Excel sold well, but began vanishing from the roads in just a few years thanks to some questionable quality. Competing with the Yugo when new, the Excel was a relatively “nicer” car, and had a still dirt cheap, but higher base price of $4,995, the equivalent of $11,397 today.
1 Geo Metro
A tiny car mostly remembered as a joke, the Metro was essentially a re-badged Suzuki, sold under GM’s Geo brand created for captive imports, and was a success thanks to a dirt cheap base price.
Derivative of the Suzuki Cultus, and made at GM’s CAMI factory in Canada, the Geo Metro was introduced in 1989, and puttered around through to the mid ’90s before becoming a Chevy model. Dirt cheap, no-frills, slow, but incredibly efficient, the Geo Metro was an iconic little hatchback of the time. Sold with a base price of $5,995 in 1990, a Geo Metro cost the equivalent of $11,871 in today’s money.
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