We live in a Golden Age of classic cars. There are so many choices that selecting your first or next classic car has probably never presented as many good options as it does now.
While prices of the blue-chip cars continue to climb to infinity and beyond, we’re also blessed with many good choices at the “affordable” end of the spectrum — what we might call the “white-chip cars.” These are cars that enthusiasts can love, but they won’t make you rich flipping them at the next auction. For those with champagne taste but a beer budget, here are five standouts that deserve your consideration — all in the $10k–$20k range. I’ve selected one from each of the big five car-producing countries — just to be fair.

1958–61 Austin-Healey Sprite

The Bugeye. Is there a more iconic, endearing, smile-producing, historically significant car on the planet? And talk about an absolute hoot to drive! At the upper end of our target price range, you should find a stellar example, and very good examples can be had near the lower end. Opt for one with a 1,098-cc or 1,275-cc engine transplant. It’s a common mod, and they look the same as the 948-cc original — but they have enough added power to make a real difference.

The idea of matching-numbers has not caught on with the Sprite-owning crowd. There were almost 49,000 of the cars made, and the good news is that it seems like only about 100,000 of them have survived. Parts availability is great, and a dedicated — if slightly offbeat — community of owners provides excellent support.

They also make a terrific first-time do-it-yourself restoration project. They don’t take up much garage space, they don’t burn much fuel, they’re simple to maintain and repair, and with 43 to 65 horsepower (depending on the engine), you’ll be almost speeding-ticket proof. What’s not to like? Well, they might be too quirky for some, but if you’re adequately self-assured to rock a Bugeye, you’ll likely find one to be tremendous fun with a reasonable prospect of modest appreciation in the mid-to-long term.

1966–68 Alfa Romeo Duetto Spider

Immortalized by Dustin Hoffman driving one in the lead role of Benjamin Braddock in the 1967 movie “The Graduate,” the Duetto is prized for its pleasingly symmetrical round-tail design, its precision handling and its free-revving 1,570-cc twin overhead cam engine with dual Weber two-barrel, side-draft carburetors.

The surprisingly spacious interior accommodates just about anyone smaller than your typical NFL linebacker, and under that signature clamshell trunk lid is enough space to carry Imelda Marcos’ entire collection of driving shoes.

Some have opted to replace the original mill with Alfa’s later 2-liter engine, but the change in appearance and weight is barely noticeable, so just enjoy the additional power. And the sound. It’s pure Alfa once you get it wound up to 3,500-plus rpm, and that’s where you’ll want to drive it anyway. Just rev it.

Very decent Duettos are available at the upper end of our target price range, but that may not last long, as prices for the predecessor models, the Giulia and Giulietta Spiders, are two to three times that of a Duetto. It was a short-lived model that was not even imported to the United States in its last year of production, but there is a reasonable supply of good cars available if you look hard enough. Buy now.

1968–82 Corvette

Love ’em, hate ’em, or just don’t care about ’em — either way, these C3 Corvettes are icons among icons and they aren’t going anywhere. Although their prices might. Just look at the prices of C1 (1953–62) and C2 (1963–67) Corvettes, and you might ask yourself, where will C3 Corvette prices probably go?

Meantime, you can easily own one of these powerful symbols of American car culture within our target price range. Compared with our other selections here, the C3 Corvette is a blunt instrument, but there’s a time and a place for that. Some roads just have to be beaten into submission. And face it, a little of the juvenile delinquent lurks in many of us car lovers, and nothing quite screams “JD!” like a C3 ’Vette. We both know that you’ve already thought about owning one. Man up and get your first Corvette now while the getting is good.

1970–73 Datsun 240Z

datsun-240z 01

I still laugh about a classified ad I once read for a used 240Z. It said: “This is not your typical hammered, white-trash-owned 240Z.” In its day, the 240Z was inexpensive performance, so they tended to be treated like inexpensive things and not, ahem, meticulously maintained. As a result, you may have to really search to find one that wasn’t routinely driven like a stolen car. However, some have likened them to a successor to the Big Healey (did I really repeat that in my out-loud voice?), but even if that image leaves you shuddering, recall that the Z has a straight six and SU carbs. Coincidence?

Recall that you can barely buy a Big Healey resto project in our target price range, and the passage of time has given the 240Z a new respect. It was groundbreaking. It was snazzy. It was affordable, and you’ll find some of the best ones within our target price range. So scan the ads for that exceptional 240Z that wasn’t hammered too much or stolen too often. It’s probably not a great “investment,” but at their price point, you can’t go far wrong, so just buy it because it’s fun to drive.

1969–76 Porsche 914

porsche-914 01

I agree, the style of the 914 is an acquired taste, but this car is a taste worth acquiring — and driving. You won’t have to work hard on the driving bit, as it is fabulous right from the start.
Get over the “VW-Porsche” label they gave these cars in Europe. Get over the outcast status in (some) Porsche circles. Get into the go-kart handling with its point-and-squirt steering, those wonderfully garish 1970s colors, and if cargo capacity is important to you, you’ll find a trunk at both the front and the rear.

The targa top panel even stows nicely in the rear trunk without hogging all the luggage space. The mid-engine design is great for near-neutral handling, although engine access is only through a narrow panel immediately behind the rear windshield. No matter. Expect VW-grade reliability and economy. Some have been predicting that 914 prices are poised to rise significantly, but so far it hasn’t happened. However, sooner or later it may come true, so shop now while you can get a very good example even at the lower end of our price range. They may or may not be poised to double in value, but either way there is no better way to let your freak flag fly than driving a 914.

So there are five recommendations for white-chip investments. Maybe “white-chip bets” would be more apt. Remember that you don’t win every bet, and even if you double your money, you still gain only another white chip. While these cars aren’t ever likely to be big money-makers, they’re important in their own way, fun, have bags of character, and will definitely return many smiles on investment. ?

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