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Five of the Best British Sports Cars for $20,000 or Less

Do the “bargain” and “British” go hand in hand? Yes, sometimes.

Rory JurneckaWriterRM Sotheby'sPhotographer

The best British sports cars, especially those with just two seats, aren't something people on a budget usually purchase. Think of the gorgeous classic Jaguar E-Type and contemporary 2021 Jaguar F-Type, the excellent 2020 Aston Martin V-8 Vantage, or even a 2000s Lotus Elise: None of these two-seat British sports cars invite even a cursory look from a budget-minded fan with $20,000 or less to spend on bringing home a new four-wheeled toy. Fortunately, we've got five good options if you're looking to drive one of the best two-seat British sports cars on a budget, and you won't even have to call your banker for a loan. Yes, really. One caveat: as with any used car (but especially a classic British sports car model) you'll want to make sure you have a small fund set away beyond the initial purchase price for all of the little things that will invariably need fixing, once you discover what they are.

Best British Sports Cars: 1958-1961 Austin-Healey "Bugeye" Sprite

One of the most memorable, best British sports cars ever built, the classic Austin-Healey Sprite MkI gets its "Bugeye" nickname from the fixed headlights perched atop its curved hood. Combined with a semi-circular chrome grille that seems to smile, the little Bugeye is a genuinely happy-looking car when viewed from the front.

Bugeye Sprites were built as a response to the growing popularity of small, inexpensive British roadsters when such things were fresh and new in the 1950s. The model significantly undercut the price of Donald Healey's "Big Healey" models, like the 100-4, significantly. Evidence of the cost cutting is everywhere—from doors that lack exterior handles to non-carpeted floors to the top which is assembled almost like a pup tent—and even the fixed headlights owe to Austin-Healey not wanting to spend on the retractable units that it planned originally.

These omissions also kept weight at less than 1,600 pounds, making the most of the 43 horsepower on tap from a 0.95-liter four-cylinder engine shared with the original BMC Mini. These original Bugeye models are the most popular of the Sprites and also the most expensive, but a great-driving example is within our budget's grasp, and the car will still draw a crowd everywhere it goes. Bugeye Sprites also make excellent vintage racers; many have been converted for this purpose, while plenty of road-going Bugeyes boast uprated engines for more power.

Best British Sports Cars: 1988-1996 Jaguar XJS Convertible

The antithesis of the Bugeye Sprite, Jaguar's XJS is less of a pure British sports car and more of a sporty luxury coupe, but let's not let that distract us. If some of the other cars on this list are a little too primitive and spartan for your taste, the Jaguar XJS convertible is a British two-seater that still looks expensive and luxurious today, even with prices for very good, low-mileage examples falling easily short of our $20,000 limit.

Virtually all XJS models that came to the U.S. had automatic transmissions, wood-trimmed dashboards, Connolly leather seats, and plenty of chrome touches that really give these cars an elegant feel. Early, pre-facelift models from 1988 are often less expensive, but do yourself a favor and find a 1992-96 example with the improved 4.0-liter AJ6 straight-six. Cars from 1994 and afterward have even more engine revisions that came from Ford's ownership of the marque; you'll enjoy much greater reliability, and also a solid ZF-built four-speed automatic transmission. Tempting as the V-12 models may be, there's a reason they don't carry much of a price premium: you'll spend at least double the cost when it comes to servicing. If an XJS coupe is preferable, the same facts apply, but those cars do have 2+2 seating and aren't strictly two-seat cars.

Best British Sports Cars: 1990-1992 Lotus Elan SE

A classic Lotus Elan for just $20,000? Well, erm, no … not in the conventional sense. Instead, you'll be hunting for the odd little Elan SE "M100" produced from 1990-1992, the only front-wheel-drive car Lotus produced to date.

The Elan SE was a project born out of General Motors' then-ownership of the storied English marque best known for its small, lightweight, and modestly powered lineup of some of the best British sports cars. In the U.S., the Elan SE used a 162-hp, turbocharged 1.6-liter, 16-valve, twin-cam Isuzu engine with extensive modifications by Lotus. The chassis was a version of Lotus' well-known steel backbone design, and the interior was decently trimmed with leather seats and a very '90s-airbag steering wheel. Unfortunately, it cost roughly $40,000 at the time, about the same price as a Chevrolet Corvette convertible, and more than double the cost of a rear-drive Mazda Miata. It's no surprise Lotus sold fewer than 600 Elan SEs in the U.S., with global production totaling fewer than 4,000 cars. As such, the Elan SE is rare, but there always seem to be one or two on the market if you look for them. A low-miles cream puff of a Lotus Elan SE fits well within our $20,000 budget.

Best British Sports Cars: 1968-1976 Triumph TR6

The TR6 is the last of Triumph's traditional front-engine, rear-drive roadsters from the TR line, which began in the early 1950s with the TR2. While those early TRs were crude machines with a live rear axle, drum brakes all around, removable plastic side windows, and fairly agricultural four-cylinder engines, many updates were in place by the time the TR6 hit production in the late 1960s.

Suspension was independent at both ends, the front axle carried disc brakes, and roll-up windows and an improved soft top made the TR6 a daily-drivable car with few compromises. Under the hood is a 2.5-liter straight-six engine making 150 hp, paired to a four-speed manual gearbox with electric overdrive. That's a good amount of power for a 2,500-pound car, and it makes for first-generation Mazda Miata-beating acceleration. As the TR6 aged into the mid-1970s, it began to lose some of its charm to larger-rubber bumpers and padded interiors, but even early TR6 models in good condition fit nicely into our sub-$20,000 price cap for purchasing some of the best British sports cars today.

Best British Sports Cars: 1955-1962 MG MGA

One of the true bargains of the best British sports-car world, MG's MGA replaced the antiquated MG TF for the 1955 model year. In the process, it replaced the TF's mostly pre-war design elements with a curvaceous new body style that echoed the far more expensive Jaguar XK120 and Austin-Healey 100 models of the day.

Still, this was an old-school body-on-frame design, though its suspension was fully independent. The MGA was sold in both roadster and coupe body styles, and today it exudes tons of classic cool in all iterations, though the roadsters tend to be more valuable. Engines grew in size through the years from the early 68-hp, 1.5-liter inline-four to the final 90-hp, 1.6-liter four, with a rare, and rarely reliable, twin-cam version (which is outside of our budget) sold for a brief time in the middle of the run. Perfect, show-condition MGAs are above our price cap, too, but slightly scruffy drivers with minor needs are easily found in the mid- to high-teens. Even today, the MGA remains available for just a fraction of the price commanded by many similar-looking British roadsters with more prestigious badges.

Best British Sports Cars for $20,000 or Less

  • 1958-1961 Austin-Healey "Bugeye" Sprite
  • 1988-1996 Jaguar XJS Convertible
  • 1990-1992 Lotus Elan SE
  • 1968-1976 Triumph TR6
  • 1955-1962 MG MGA