Allow me to fire up Mr. Peabody’s Wayback Machine for some personal perspective on a chronic, serious car-collecting habit. Maintaining such a habit for 35 years is certainly (albeit marginally) better than being a fall-down alcoholic, a street-punk heroin addict or a perpetual gambler-loser. The aforementioned addictions are generally shunned by society — and wreak a terrible impact on those who are involved in their terrible wake. Hold on... they leave you chronically broke, looking for the next high and always chasing a powerful adrenaline rush? Draw your own conclusions about the tie-ins with old cars — and how we’ve somehow justified the “just one more, I promise” statement to those who perhaps love us. When asked to write something for this issue that wasn’t an insult to Lagonda owners, third-tier auction companies and their phony barn finds or Donald Osborne, I was immediately flummoxed and thought I was being pranked. The edict from SCM was clear: “List five cars you can buy for under $50k whose upkeep won’t make your wife leave you.” SCM has me led to a melancholy place. Ultimately staggered by my own introspection, I’ve sadly realized I’ve become “that guy” who could pointlessly wax on about the good old days.... Say it isn’t so!

Blasting into the past

Let me set the Wayback Machine to Rochester, NY, in 1981, where a room of fellow collegiate car geeks are mindlessly pontificating on which three dream cars we would buy with a total budget of $25k. We were already attempting to have “something” fun to drive, so we did have our priorities straight. Alas, we were nothing more than lemmings with budgets, and we were all drinking the used VW Rabbit GTI/Audi Fox Kool-Aid. I’m not sure any of those will be ranked as highly desirable collectibles any century soon. As we were all soon to be starving photographers or engineers, this concept of spending $25k on a dream collection was, at best, foolish and grandiose. The dream of “driving and enjoying” these old cars was great fuel for the fire — well, that and an empty case of Rolling Rock ponies. It should be stated that my dream garage consisted of an Aston Martin DB5, Ferrari 246 GT and a Porsche 356A Speedster. In 1981, old sports cars were just that and nothing more. I wouldn’t even say “cool” old sports cars because that fairy-dust moniker simply didn’t apply yet to the general population. Somehow, our slightly bent collective DNA insisted that we cared for junk that 99.99% of the population was ready to discard. Freaks indeed and proud of it, we had each other, but sadly, nary a classic ride to swan around in and drive on road trips.

The first buys

Apropos of nothing outside of this blathering, in 1986 my first Aston Martin DB4 was acquired for $8k (split with a buddy because of my already cumbersome debt on the next car listed), first Dino 246 GT for $24k in 1986, ($20k borrowed) and first Porsche 356B Notchback for $6k (which I briefly considered making into a Cabriolet). I had very little true car servicing knowledge and monetary horsepower to keep these things running, so all of these cars were the start of a never-ending learning curve. The Aston didn’t like winter and New England snow, the Dino was, at best, awfully temperamental, and the Porsche was in many ways just a dull old 60-hp car. The Aston was upgraded to a better DB4 18 months later, the Dino was sent packing for an Aston V8 Vantage in 24 months, and the 356 was upgraded to a 356B Super Roadster 30 months later. Which brings us to today’s challenge and the bow that wraps it all together: I’ve personally owned roughly 75 “Classic” cars. All were purchased to drive and enjoy. I don’t understand the joy in just admiring something with an engine and four wheels. Let me explain how you can successfully obtain a great-driving Classic for far less than $50k.

The criteria

Each of these cars can and should be a five-star example, which means the car won’t leave you penniless and divorced because of the maintenance and running costs. These five cars all have different driving virtues and possess great visual panache. They also have fantastic parts availability, are not high-strung maintenance ogres, were made in decent volume and appeal to lots of folks, so they should maintain their value if purchased wisely and cared for with their use. I have also owned all of them (sometimes to an unhealthy degree) at one time or another. I guess you write about what you know. My criteria were to keep marital bliss and not drain your wallet because, let’s face it, $50k is a luxury that should not be taken likely. Faster, rarer and much more exotic cars exist in this price range, but they carry bigger risks in terms of maintenance costs and domestic happiness. My choices may seem pedestrian compared with a modern Bentley Turbo R, Aston Martin DB7, BMW 850, Porsche 928 or Ferrari 400i, but none of them will cost you more to maintain than to buy. Yesterday’s exotic car on a budget is a different primer.

Serio’s Gang of Five

So, finally, in no particular order, I present to you the simple/stupid/fun old-car list: 1972–74 BMW 2002 tii. A total of 7,449 were produced for the USA. I prefer the 1972–73 round-taillight version, but a very clean 1974 square-taillight/big-bumper car should not be overlooked if it is über-clean with super history. Along with the original Mini Cooper, this has to be the most significant shoebox-looking sports coupe ever produced. There would be no BMW today without the success of this car. We are now just seeing these cars get over-restored, which is where asking prices can be found above $50k. A very rare European 2002 ti was just advertised for 85k euro — a rather eye-watering price. Drive a well-cared-for, slightly tweaked example on a two-lane road and you’ll fall in love. I drove one across the country in 1991, and it was effortless. I own two of them today. They are the single-best fun, usable daily drivers ever. Find the Car and Driver review written by David E. Davis Jr. from April 1968. Finer words have never been written about a car — let alone a BMW. 1965–67 Porsche 912. A total of 20,263 were produced worldwide. I like the proportion of the early short-chassis cars. The 1965 three-gauge dash is cooler looking, but the 1966–67 five-gauge dash is more helpful. This car was maligned for years and largely ignored by the true Porsche lover/snob. Four cylinders versus six? Why bother? I’ll tell you why: I’ve always considered the 912 the smart man’s 356 instead of the poor man’s 911. If a 356 is appealing to you, but the price isn’t, consider the 912 as a 356 with a better back seat. Most examples have suffered because they were truly worthless for decades, but great ones exist and can be found with a few weeks of digging. Porsche enthusiast Jerry Seinfeld summed it up recently in five words: “Lighter, more agile, cooler image.” I’m not the only one singing praises here, it seems. If you’re wringing out a 912, you are having a great interactive auto moment hustling through the exit ramps. You can actually drive this car at eight- or nine-tenths of its ability on daily roads. Do that in any modern Porsche, and you’ll beg the officer not to lock you up. There’s something rather satisfying about driving something near its limit — even if that limit has just under 100 horsepower. P.S.: Please remember the 912 outsold the 911 when introduced. 1964-Buick-Riviera 1963–65 Buick Riviera, which is one of Bill Mitchell’s favorite designs and rightfully so. Okay, calling it “a cross between a Ferrari and a Rolls-Royce” might seem like a stretch, but if you took a Ferrari 250 GTE, a Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud II and a Super Wildcat Riviera on a tear around the mountains, you may feel that Buick was onto something. There are few things as spectacular as a well-turned-out black Riv with a red leather interior. If you like style and power, this is your ride. With 340 to 360 horsepower offered, it gets going, and it’s full of 1960s American bravado and opulence. You can buy two great Rivieras for under $50k. Beware of eight mpg mileage and the over-complicated “power everything.” There are about 150,000 original units to pick from, so choose one that still might be with its careful original owner and you’re properly road-tripping with family and friends. Big pimpin’, if you will. Fake knock-offs have never been cooler, and the 1965 clamshell lights are a one-of-a-kind thing. 40 1961–73 Volvo 1800/1800ES. Volvo churned out 39,407 coupes and 8,077 ES sport wagons. For 50 large you buy the pair! Squint at the early coupe, and you will see styling cues from the Fiat 8V Supersonic. The coolest car to ever come out of Sweden was this steed used by Roger Moore as Simon Templar in “The Saint.” Focus on the early “long-horn” split-bumper early coupe and the 1972–73 P1800ES “sport wagon,” and you’ll possess the coolest dual-car garage this side of Stockholm. Your friends might think you’ve lost the plot, but who cares? A fellow by the name of Irv Gordon has driven one over 3 million miles, and that in itself makes the car for me. Get a manual transmission for both, and avoid the ES automatic — but do get a/c in the later car. The egg-crate grille, the mod dash, and the chrome strip down the side have this car reeking of style. (As an aside, the brain-damage-auction-result award of the year so far involved a $92k 1800ES at Greenwich/Bonhams. Hopefully the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse were out in Cancun on holiday because that was certainly an opportunity for them to start setting things on fire.) Europeans have a better appreciation for these and tend to use these cars on the track and rallying more than we do here. I like their style, and that tells you something about how they drive. 505 1965–68 Alfa Romeo Giulia Sprint GT/GT Veloce, with a heavy preference given to the step-nose cars. Worldwide production of approximately 14,240 units would prove this to be a very successful coupe for Alfa Romeo. Lots of focus has been paid recently to the rise in value of the same-era Alfa Spider, but I actually prefer the closed car. Non-red exterior and black-dash examples are my favorite, but they are somewhat difficult to find fully restored. You’ll have to live with fake wood-grain dash. With 110-ish horsepower, the car measures well against the 2002tii, but sex appeal goes to the Alfa. You have to love any car that is as comfortable on the highway as it is on the twisty bits. Slight GTA improvements are always a plus, whether they are just wheels or brake and suspension upgrades. Throw your wallet at this one and buy the best of the best. Thank me with a bottle of Vermentino. An honorable mention has to go to the 2005–11 Lotus Elise/Exige — if you don’t like oil spots on your garage floor and the occasional dead battery. Email me for details.

Buy it and drive it

When that college-aged group of “American Graffiti”/“Animal House” car geeks were pondering cars and lusting after them like they were Playboy centerfolds — and I’m talking the proper, three-page-foldout version — we never imagined our fantasy cars would one day become a tradable currency and an asset class. The true sadness for me within that new reality is that those cheap old rides of yesterday will rarely be measured on how they drive today with their new owners. Go drive one of my “affordable” choices, bring friends and go somewhere that involves a multi-day trip. Oh damn.... I just waxed on, didn’t I? ♦

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