The Best Budget Classics
Updated: Oct 28, 2020
Getting the classic car experience doesn't have to cost the earth. Obviously, we'd have to endorse Great Driving Days as the cheapest way to get behind the wheel of a classic (from £49 in fact). But if you want a bonafide classic on your driveway for not much money, 24-7, then here are our favourite picks.
1. Triumph TR7
Almost 40 years since the last TR7 rolled out of the factory, spluttering and winking one pop-up eye at a cruel world, the laughter has almost died down. Almost.
Like the Allegro before it, from its launch in 1974 the TR7 became a byword for everything that was terrible about Britain and its car industry. It didn't help that the country was suffering a sort of crisis of confidence, a dawning realisation that with three day weeks, strikes and energy shortages we were no longer Great Britain.
It also didn't help that in many ways the TR7 was actually not that good. It looked a bit odd, it wasn't very sporty, it had an anaemic 4 cylinder engine and of course it broke down. A lot.
History, however, has a way of reworking such things. Consider a TR7 now and you see a distinctive sports car that is one of the better looking products of 1970s Britain. It's comfy, surefooted and easy to drive. And who cares if it's not that quick when you're enjoying the meandering highways and byways of Britain?
TR7 prices have been nudging upwards for the last couple of years as buyers begin to recognise these attributes and seek out the few remaining examples. But the car that is arguably so much better than a MGB is still half the older car's price. Buy now and forget the reputation - any car that's lasted 40 years and been properly maintained is going to be fundamentally Ok.
When it comes to hairy chested GT cars, image sells. Which perhaps explains why Scimitar is on our list. James Bond drove Astons, rock stars got debauched in Jensens. Princess Anne drove a Scimitar.
Shorn of that association you get a stylish GT car variably built alongside Rialtos in Tamworth. There's a lust Ford V6 - the same one under the hoods of Capris - and a comfy interior with space for passengers and a Red Setter. Or shotguns.
There are a lot of Scimitars about, mostly unloved. Which is a real shame because this is a properly useable car that is pretty reliable thanks to those tried and tested mechanicals. And it doesn't rust.
Forget the image, dive into the best value British GT car on the market.
3. Open Manta GTE
In the late 70s and early 80s Opel Mantas were tearing up forest stages across the world rally calendar. Meanwhile its main rival, the Ford Capri, was tail sliding across TV screens.
Having the edge on capability and pedigree didn't serve the Manta well in the showroom. The Manta dribbled out of showrooms, not helped by confusing badging: at the time Opels were sold alongside virtually identical Vauxhalls. And Vauxhall has always been Ford's dowdy cousin.
The Manta's also-ran, 'not a Capri' status continues to this day. You can pick up a GT/E for a fraction of the price of an equivalent Capri. For that you get arguably a better car and, in the case of the 2 door coupe, to my eyes a prettier car.
4. Fiat X1/9
The idea of a rare, complicated, low volume Italian car is enough to close the wallets of car enthusiasts faster than the words 'Austin Ambassador.' That explains why you can pick up a solid Fiat X1/9 for £3,000. Or, to put that in context, you could have three for the price of a MGB and still have spare change.
No doubt some traditional xenophobia plays its part - we tend to view cars built by the Italians as having planned obsolescence built in. They rust, we reliably say. The electrics are entertaining, just not reliably so.
Such clichés, of course, tend to be clichés because they're mostly true. And yes, the X1/9 does rust. It does have some well-known foibles that scare off the risk-averse. And yet, look beyond them and you get a car that is light years more entertaining than a MGB or, in fact, anything else small and compact and not a MX5.
Take as your starting point the car's many strengths - the handling, the looks, the Ferrari door handles - and roll back in the demerits and it becomes harder to write the little Fiat off. Because all you need to do to overcome those problems is buy one that someone else has spent time sorting and look after it.
None of which is likely to nudge Fiat values any time soon. So buy wisely and discover one of the best cars Italy has built in the last 40 years. Which really is saying something.
5. Jaguar XK8
Old Jaguars that aren't E Types suffer identical fates. They get very cheap for a very long time. Then, when they're about 30 years old, we start realising what we've been missing and we all want them.
The XK8 is going through exactly this process right now. A big, once-expensive coupe that doesn't have the best of reputations for reliability has all the ingredients for being pretty much worthless after 20 years. Right now you can pick up a MOT'd XK8 for £2,000. £3,000 will buy you a good one.
That is a bargain. The XK8 is an extremely good GT car, in part because it's a XJS with a prettier body and Jaguar's first - and very good - V8 engine. It's comfortable, it looks exactly like you want a Jaguar to look, which is to say several cows and trees suffered in its making.
Lets tackle the elephant in the room though: running costs. Despite lots of funding from Ford, XK8s do go wrong. Gearboxes, engines, and electrics - of which there are many - all cause problems. They also rust - floors, arches, you name it.
None of which should put you off. That's why they're cheap. This is a car that is infinitely better than its Aston DB7 relative and arguably better looking. Buy carefully, keep a budget in reserve and, because XK8s are cheap, be prepared to walk away when the big bills arrive.
Take the plunge and you get a very, very good GT car that still impresses the uninitiated.
6. Alfa 916 Spider & GTV
In the mid 90s Alfa rediscovered its mojo, helped in part by Fiat cash. One of the fruits was this, the 916 Spider and GTV. From the clever clamshell bonnet to the cut off 'kamm' tail, the 916 looked great and, thanks to Alfa engineers fettling the Fiat underpinnings, it handled well too. Britain got a choice of 2 litre 'Twin Spark' or 3 litre 'Busso' engines, both excellent, in the case of the latter, legendary.
So its an Alfa, It's dynamically good. It looks amazing. And the V6 is astonishing. But you can pick up big engined ones for under £5k, a 4 pot for less than half that. Why?
The answer lies in the usual aversion to Alfas by classic car buyers. They're unreliable. They're expensive to fix. The electrics work, just not always all the time. In the case of the 916, most of that is nonsense. There are many decent, competitively priced specialists. They are as reliable as any 90s car.
Find a decent V6 GTV or Spider and buy it. You won't spend the same money on a classic in a better way. And you won't regret it.
7. Lotus Elan M100
In the late 80s Lotus decided the time was ripe to revisit the spirit of the original Lotus Elan, a car that absolutely nailed the concept of a small, light, nippy, low cost open top sports car. That car ran absolute rings around anything from MG, Triumph and Healey.
And the time was right. By the mid 80s what was once British Leyland had entirely vacated the market for small, light, nippy low cost open top sports car.
Unfortunately Lotus wasn't alone in recognising the opportunity. Over in California some Mazda engineers were quietly working on their own Elan update - the MX5.
Of course, as history has shown, Mazda out-Lotus'd Lotus with the MX5. The resulting Elan S2 was bigger, heavier and much more expensive than it needed to be. And not very reliable.
The MX5 so eclipsed the new car from Norfolk that we barely noticed how brilliantly the Lotus handled and how quick the turbocharged versions were. In typical Lotus fashion, Elan production sputtered, restarted and sputtered again. There was even a Kia version.
Nowadays the Elan is an interesting but oft-overlooked footnote in the firm's history. Its rarity, minimal market impact and dodgy reputation for the job of starting and running reliably have kept prices low. But for those prepared to dive in you get a car that is infinitely better than a MGB for half the price of a MGB. Surely that makes it a bargain?
8. Peugeot 309 GTI
For every world-dominating sibling there is a less successful brother or sister waiting somewhere in the wings. Think Peter McCartney to brother Paul.
The Peugeot 309 GTI is Peter to the 205's Paul. Which is ironic since beneath the skin the two are identical. In a manner British Leyland would be immensely proud of, they even share doors.
Of course, the 205 is nimbler, lighter and more pointable than the 309. And if those things really matter to you then that's the car for you. For those who prefer all the attributes of a 205 but dialled down a little to make a more relaxing, less energetic car that can be driven comfortably for hundreds of miles then the 309 exists for you.
9. Mazda MX5 Mk2
For quite a long time the original MX5 with pop-up headlamps was an unrivalled motoring bargain. There were a lot about and they cost buttons.
No longer. Now the MX5-shaped bargain is the virtually identical Mk2, which loses the purity of the original's lines - and those pop-up lamps - but retains pretty much everything else. They're plentiful and they rust so they really are extremely cheap - £1,500 gets you a fairly solid example. For that money you get still one of the sweetest-handling two seaters this side of the original Elan, matched to Mazda reliability.
10. Audi TT
Some cars are overlooked through rarity, like the Elan M100. Others suffer from sheer ubiquity. Like the Audi TT.
It does also need mentioning that the TT has something of an image problem. Firstly, it's an Audi, and nowadays that doesn't mean automatic love and affection. Secondly, on launch it quickly gained a reputation for being a bit of a hairdresser's car. I have nothing against follickle fiddlers - to be honest, we rarely cross each others paths these days - but they have a reputation for preferring style over substance.
The TT became known as a car that was great to look at but not quite the real sporting deal. Which is odd since it most definitely is. Yes, there were anaemic front wheel drive 150 bhp versions, but the 4WD four cylinder 225 bhp and the V6 versions are proper barn stormers. The performance is genuinely Porsche-bothering. The Quattro system may do most of the handling hard graft, but then the same applies to 4WD 911s. The steering is direct and communicative, the chassis nicely balanced and the 1.8 engine is a peach. All wrapped in a body that, in Mk1 guise, is genuinely beguiling.
So its time to re-evaluate the TT. Particularly when you can pick up a good one for £1,500. Or spend twice that on one of the rare V6s. But be quick, because prices won't stay this low forever.
At Great Driving Days we love cars. We're always looking for new cars to add to our fleet. So you can now hire a MX5 Mk2 and Fiat X1/9 by the hour, day or weekend. Or as part of our classic road trips. Find out more here or call 01527 893733.
Graham Eason, Great Driving Days.