Old-car values have skyrocketed in recent years, and once again, too many of us now get another chance to feel like sorry losers who've missed the last boat to fun and prosperity. Forget about the $27 million Ferraris at Pebble Beach. Be gone, noble but second-tier 1930s Alfa Romeos selling for $9 million plus. I'm talking about the bottom end of the spectrum, where forgettable $2500 '60s and '70s cars that we couldn't afford are now $12,500 cars we can't afford. I'm talking about the whole rest of the brave new world of $15,000 slant-six Dodge Darts, $25,000 Triumph TR6s, $35,000 Citroëns, and $45,000 BMW 2002tii's.
For gearheads, this moment is quite unlike some of the other boom opportunities we've failed to capitalize on in the past. How could we be expected to know that Apple stock was coming back from the dead? But that pretty, clean, granddad-issue 1962 Pontiac Tempest sitting in the neighbor's garage, the one that could've been yours for practically free for most any of the last twenty years? Maybe you should've busted a move.
Those who pass time with the great Internet Satan, search engine humming in the Cars for Sale corner, will know the self-recrimination to which I refer. And, yeah, you probably were an idiot, but I'm here to make you feel better, not worse. For, even against a rising tide, there remain cheap cars for, say, less than $10,000, with plausible upsides. Or at least good undervalued ones that are done depreciating. Which, after all, is where upsides begin. So here are some suggestions.
This list is not remotely exhaustive, because, well, that would be exhausting. But here's an initial handful of cars about which you can say you won't be throwing your money away. Rest assured, none of these machines will ever head to the lawn at Pebble Beach -- unless it's with some unauthorized drunk guy ripping donuts in the middle of the night. But don't worry. Inflation, which will inevitably return, is going to be your friend. Even after the old-car bubble bursts, all old cars, even the lowliest of the low, will climb in value as money's value decreases. Put another way, the more worthless your money is, the more money your worthless car is worth. Watch out for rust and you can't lose. Unless, of course, you do. In which case, any one of these would make an excellent pizza-delivery vehicle in the event you're looking for supplemental income.
Acura Integra (1994-2001) The unique genius of Honda's high-tech engineering for the impecunious was never in starker relief than with this sharp-handling variant of the Civic platform. It would, in preferred Type R spec, rev to an unheard of 8500 rpm. Honda reportedly lost money on every adrenalized, hand-fettled Type R, but you likely won't because they're undervalued.
AMC Hornet Sportabout/Concord/Eagle wagon (1971-1988) Laugh if you must, but there's no cheaper entrée into old-car ownership and the world of hip vintage wagons than one of these reliable and strangely handsome AMC warhorses. Think of the Sportabout as an American BMW 3-series wagon that doesn't like to rev and barely handles. But it goes and it still doesn't cost very much, while influential styling from the pen of AMC whiz Dick Teague has aged nicely.
Alfa Romeo 164 (1991-1995) The Milanese firm's reputation for fragility might be ruined if only people knew that these safe, sporty (DOHC V-6), and supersolid front-wheel-drive four-doors will run to absurdly high mileages if decently maintained -- try 250,000 miles plus. My own, purchased with 174,000 miles for $1000, has no rot, looks Pininfarina good, and runs like a train. Some mistake, surely?
Saab 99, 900 (1969-1994) Head turners that still make fine daily drivers, these are the cars that blazed a successful seam of Swedish style and earned the company its reputation for greatness. Of the two, the less plentiful 99 is the superior car, the one that had to better BMW for Saab to grow, and it did.
BMW 5-series (1989-2003), 7-series (1988-2001) Looking back at any artistic life, there is a moment of peak relevance, relative to the competition, and these successive generations of BMW 5- and 7-series cars (E34/E39 and E32/E38, respectively) hit the nail on the head. Solid and sporty yet not unsubtle -- if only BMW had kept it this real.
Old-school sport-utility vehicles (1946-1991) They all work, but now that Ford Broncos and Toyota FJ40s are new-car expensive, try early Jeep Wagoneers, Willys wagons, and International Travelalls, or choose among the many decades of Chevy Suburban. Their simplicity and honesty bespeak the utility of these trucks. And they are often capable of towing your house. Ditto old-school pickups. Prices are moving up, but stick with oddball brands and there'll be a little way to go before you need to walk away from the category, shaking your head and muttering.
Ford Thunderbird (2002-2005) Sharing a platform with Jaguar's S-type and the not-horrible-at-all Lincoln LS, here was, at long last, a handsome and fine-handling personal T-Bird that suffered in its too-short life from extreme failure to market and/or develop. Stylish and plausible yet cheap, the way we like it.
Mercedes-Benz E-class (1986-1995) The taxicab W123s that came before them are already fully priced and, for better or worse, less car. The W124 E-class was a prime representative of the modern era of Mercedes brick-house construction. Which is why I also recommend . . .
Mercedes-Benz S-class (1981-1999) Built to a standard, not a price, the S-class of the 1980s -- the W126 -- was impossibly good. The car that followed in 1992 -- the upright, mean, and nasty W140 Benz of the '90s -- was also a slab-sided bank vault of a ride that often cost more than $100K new. Not cheap to run or repair, but so fine and so very cheap to buy today.
Jaguar XJS (1976-1996) The XJS ran forever (that is, it was sold for twenty years basically unchanged), but its charms appear larger in life's great rearview mirror than they may actually have been. Economics and chronic frustration dictated that these big coupes be junked with extreme prejudice, so those making it to the present day deserve to be brought along for the future.
Volvo 140 series/164 (1967-1975) Hurry while they last. The first of the boxy Volvos, survivors that haven't returned to meet their maker -- rust was a ruthless killer -- are suddenly starting to get their due, and prices are heading north. Coupe versions of the earlier 122S are approaching $20,000, and wagons are worth even more; these won't be far behind, especially the very hip 145 wagon.