Starter classics: 14 great cars for a first-timer

| 27 Jun 2019
Classic & Sports Car – Starter classics: 14 great cars for a first-timer

For young (or even slightly less young) classic car first-timers, the prospect of owning and running an older vehicle can be a bit daunting once the first flush of excitement has faded.

There are, however, plenty of less-demanding classics that can give you a relatively stress-free introduction to the world of classic cars.

We’ve picked out 14 examples, from sports cars to saloons and from hot hatches to family favourites, each of which will feel distinctive and different to own, but without being so rare that you can’t find the parts – or dare not take them out in the rain.

And best of all, many of them still available for £5000 or less. Read on, then get out there and get started.

1. Ford Cortina MkIII

Classic & Sports Car – Starter classics: 14 great cars for a first-timer

The Fords of 40-odd years ago seem to have a momentum of their own in terms of pricing. 

Nobody ever thought an Anglia, Capri or indeed a Cortina would ever have any value, so few were preserved or treated particularly kindly. As a result they’re now relatively rare, given how many were made – and correspondingly pricey.

That said, if you stay away from anything with two doors and any kind of competition pedigree, there are some reasonable buys out there. 

The big lumpy stuff – Zephyrs and Zodiacs and the like – are cheap in metal-for-the-money terms, but they’re also thirsty and unwieldy oddities in the hands of the novice. Instead, we’d look at the Cortina.

There is huge nostalgia associated with the model in all its forms and the Cortina MkIII (pictured) and MkIV are still very drivable, particularly if you’re into a more ‘urban’ style of classic – with the irony factor of the vinyl roof. 

They’re easy enough to own, but parts supply can be patchy for these sort of ‘everyday’ Fords, compared to an MG or a Triumph

ALSO READ: Ford Escort vs the world! 

2. Porsche 924

Classic & Sports Car – Starter classics: 14 great cars for a first-timer

The original affordable Porsche (then and now), the 924 was the firm’s first front-engined, water-cooled sports car.

Produced from 1975-’85, it was originally designed for Volkswagen as a replacement for the odd-looking 914, and has rather an anodyne shape itself, for Porsche at least – and one that incorporates both a hatchback and tiny rear seats.

It has nothing like the macho cachet of the 911, but is instead more of a little sister to the 928, with a rear-mounted gearbox for superbly balanced handling and a rather uninspiring, but effective, four-cylinder engine.

There are still plenty about and prices start at just £3000. Spend £20,000 and you’ll be buying the very best, possibly even a Turbo, the model that gave the 924 some real credibility.

Pre-1980 versions with a four-speed box are probably worth avoiding, but either way these are easy cars to live with, so long as you can keep the rust at bay.

ALSO READ: 20 undervalued classics from the 1970s

3. Triumph Herald and Vitesse 1959-’71

Classic & Sports Car – Starter classics: 14 great cars for a first-timer

One of several Triumph starter classic candidates, the Herald was a light-to-drive four-seater with positive rack and pinion steering; its principle claim to fame was its amazing turning circle.

Styled by Michelotti, they were built in vast numbers, with well over 500,000 produced between 1959 and ’71, and still exist in large quantities today.

They’re particularly attractive and great fun in convertible form, and cheap too: you can pick one up from about three grand.

If you want more power there’s always the sprightly and skittish Vitesse (pictured above), which is rarer, much faster and inevitably more expensive with its six-cylinder engine.

With body-on-frame construction and a front end that hinges forward for superb engine accessibility, all models are a synch to work on – though far from immune from rot. 

4. Volvo Amazon and 140 series

Classic & Sports Car – Starter classics: 14 great cars for a first-timer

Starting at £5-6000 for a running project, these big Volvos make a great first classic, with excellent survival rates and a fine record for reliability and rust resistance.

Four-door Amazons offer top value as estates (pictured above), while two-doors are relatively rare. Leave the early pre-1962 versions with the 6-volt electrics and drum brakes to collectors: you want the bigger 1800 engine, 90mph-plus top speed, disc brakes at the front and overdrive if possible, which means mid-’60s onwards.

Don’t overlook the boxy Volvo 144 (pictured below) which, 50 years on, looks more appealing than it did when new with its six-light styling and thin bumpers.

Both models are solid and safe, of course, but a bit hefty to drive and not particularly light on fuel if you’re used to a 60mpg city car.

On the plus side, this generation of Volvo will go on for ever with basic maintenance and, once again, is easy to work on – so no big bills.

This basic design lived on for years as the 240 series: these seemingly indestructible vehicles are still a regular sight on the road today. 

ALSO READ: Everyday heroes: 20 classics you can commute in

5. MGB

Classic & Sports Car – Starter classics: 14 great cars for a first-timer

The pretty, practical MGB is possibly the ultimate first classic sports car; built ruggedly and in huge numbers they are simple to work on, easy to drive and very usable, with possibly the best parts and club support of any old car. 

If they were rare and foreign they’d be considered beautiful – even in rubber-bumper form as pictured above – but sadly familiarity breeds contempt, and the B has a beards-and-real-ale image today that might make it a turn-off for younger drivers.

All of which is entirely undeserved, particularly when you look at the price. 

The rubber-bumper roadsters produced from 1974 onwards start at £3000 or less, while project MGB GTs (pictured above) are available for under two grand. Spend £10-15k, meanwhile, and you’ll buy yourself a really nice ’60s roadster.

ALSO READ: Cracking 1970s convertibles, from £5k to £35k

6. Austin A40 ‘Farina’ 1959-’67

Classic & Sports Car – Starter classics: 14 great cars for a first-timer

The beginning of BMC’s association with Pininfarina, the Austin A40 was an angular, modernist replacement for the A30/A35. Built for nine years it was also, in Countryman form, the pioneer British hatchback.

Less plentiful – but also less twee – than a Morris Minor, the traditionally engineered A40 doesn’t have the ‘icon’ cachet of a Mini and is thus relatively cheap; prices start at £2500 for a runner.

They’re also bags of fun to drive and very easy to work on, with ‘A’ series mechanicals. And as a further bonus, the well-established A40 Farina Club gives good spares support.

Though not immune to rust, they’re not as rot-prone as the Austin/Morris 1100/1300 and have a much simpler rear-drive design. Other BMC first-classic favourites are the already mentioned MGB and the MG Midget/Austin-Healey Sprite, for all the same reasons.

ALSO READ: Austin A90 Atlantic: unintended British star

7. Volkswagen Golf Mk1 and Mk2

Classic & Sports Car – Starter classics: 14 great cars for a first-timer

The classic ’70s origami hatchback, significant in that it marked the point at which Volkswagen finally got its act together and fully moved on from the Beetle with this class-leading, class-defining, transverse-engined, water-cooled, front-drive car.

It’s much fancied in its original GTI form (pictured above), but you get much better value (and lower insurance costs) if you settle for one of the more pedestrian four-door versions. The Mk2 GTIs, meanwhile, are still affordable hot-rod shopping baskets, and particularly nice if you can find one with power steering.

Capturing a stock Mk1 or Mk2 Golf, particularly one that has not been lowered or otherwise molested, is not as easy as you might think, although the Cabriolets (pictured above) – the automotive equivalent of donning white stilettos – are oddly good value and seemingly in ready supply.

All Golfs are reliable and practical classics that any garage should still be familiar with. 

ALSO READ: Buyer’s guide: Volkswagen Golf GTI Mk2

8. Mercedes-Benz W114 and W123 1968-’76

Classic & Sports Car – Starter classics: 14 great cars for a first-timer

If you have German leanings then the W114 (230/4 pictured above) and W123 Mercs are a good place to start, on account of their classic three-box/chrome bumper look and the solid feel of their superb engineering, which will likely give you a taste for all things Daimler Benz.

The 1968-’76 cars are arguably the most interesting of them, but not so easily found. Whichever model you go for, though, these are pretty bombproof first classics – so long as you avoid the thirst and complication of six-cylinder, twin-cam 280 versions. Oh, and the dog-slow diesels are only for the hair-shirt brigade.

All work best as petrol automatics with power steering (our pick would be an ’80s 230E, as pictured above with others of the W123 range), but these are cars that should be bought on condition rather than getting too hung-up on specification. Note also that parts availability isn’t what it used to be – and what you can get tends to be expensive.

The less exotic species of 190 and W124-series saloons are still in healthy, if diminishing, supply – and are also therefore good value. Next to the horrific styling of most modern cars, they also look better with each passing year.

ALSO READ: Bygone barges: ’80s saloon cars that time forgot

9. Rover P6 2000 1963-’77

Classic & Sports Car – Starter classics: 14 great cars for a first-timer

One of the best British saloons of the ’60s, the 2000, which you might also see listed as the P6, was really our answer to the Citroën DS.

With clean, distinctive and modern styling, a sophisticated chassis and base-frame construction that enabled all the panels to unbolt (thus making them easy to bodge), it was deservedly popular.

These refined, undervalued cars remain in plentiful supply and can be found for about £3000 and upwards today.

That said, the four-pot overhead camshaft engine under the bonnet isn’t the nicest thing about the P6, and they will feel roly-poly on corners to someone who has only driven a modern hatchback.

They’re not entirely without problems in terms of rust, either, but there’s good club and specialist support and they’re more manageable than the earlier (and similarly cheap) Rover P4.

The ’60s versions with chrome grille and ribbon speedo are the most fancied, but the ’70s ‘chip cutter’ models (latterly renamed as the 2200) are not to be dismissed either.

10. Fiat 500 and 600

Classic & Sports Car – Starter classics: 14 great cars for a first-timer

It’s hard to ignore the appeal of a classic 1957-’65 Fiat 500 (pictured) at £5000, but most of the ones you’ll find are left-hand drive and might scare you off when you get behind the wheel.

Frankly, the driving experience is more akin to that of garden machinery than a motor car as we know it today, with barely noticeable acceleration and lots of noise and vibration from its twin-cylinder engine.

Much more grown up, and almost as cute, is the 600 (pictured above), with its four water-cooled cylinders and a top speed in the 60s.

These are quite a bit less numerous in the UK, of course, but if you follow the rear-engined Fiat line of thought there’s always the notchback 850, which is a significant step up in refinement and probably has the best handling of all the rear-engined ‘people’s cars’. Though harder still to find, they do tend to come cheaper.

Front-drive Fiats of the ’70s generation (127/128) are rarely seen, but you might instead dig out a first-generation Fiat Panda with origami styling and hammock seats, itself now a 40-year-old design. 

ALSO READ: On the road with the microcar rally

11. Triumph Spitfire

Classic & Sports Car – Starter classics: 14 great cars for a first-timer

Triumph made plenty of starter classic candidates, including the aforementioned Herald/Vitesse, but for the maximum price-to-enjoyment ratio look no further than the Spitfire.

Based on a modified Herald chassis and designed by Michelotti, the Spitfire has a breezy, fun feel that still appeals nearly 60 years after its introduction in 1962. No, there’s not much power beneath the bonnet, but it’s light enough to offer sporty performance regardless.

Better still, plenty of them have survived and you can buy one today for as little as £2000, if you go for one of the less collectable 1500 models (pictured); early cars are quite sought after and will you set you back £15-20,000 or even more.

The handling on the original swing-axle rear suspension wasn’t a strong point, but that got better from the 1970 MkIV onwards and as with the Herald, all models are easy to work on, even for a relative novice. One note of caution, though: they rust for fun, so inspect carefully before you buy.

ALSO READ: Buyer’s guide: Triumph Spitfire

12. BMW 3 Series E30

Classic & Sports Car – Starter classics: 14 great cars for a first-timer

With BMWs of earlier generations seemingly either hard to find or commanding the sort of money that hardly squares with the ‘starter classic’ ethos, we have to look to the ’80s models to find good cars in decent supply at sensible prices.

Of these, the ever-popular E30 3 Series seems the best bet, particularly if you restrict yourself to ‘cooking’ 316 and 318 versions that have led gentle lives in the hands of well-heeled, elderly owners: you might even find a convertible, such as the pictured 325i.

BMW got on top of its rust problems for the most part and these were cars that ably perpetuated the German marque’s reputation for producing well-built machines of restrained appearance that were good to drive even in their most ‘poverty’ form.

ALSO READ: Buyer’s guide: BMW E30 3 Series

13. Humber Sceptre 1963-’67

Classic & Sports Car – Starter classics: 14 great cars for a first-timer

Rootes cars tend to be somewhat forgotten now, but they were nicely styled and considered a cut-above your Fords and Austins back in their day.

Of the ’60s four-cylinder cars, the Humber Sceptre (pictured above), based on the much more utilitarian Super Minx, was the most glamorous, with its swept-back roofline, quad headlights and sporty dash. The Sceptre has something of the appeal of a Rover P5B coupé, but they’re cheaper to run and start at only £5000 for a nice one.

If you’re going down the ‘Rootes route’ but aren’t entirely convinced by the Sceptre then there’s plenty of variety elsewhere, and much of it available for sensible prices.

We’d place the Sunbeam Rapier (MkIV pictured above) near the top of the list: whether in hardtop, convertible or the later fastback H120 form, these are fun and affordable classics that hark back to a different era and are all the better for it. 

14. Volkswagen Beetle 1970-’77

Classic & Sports Car – Starter classics: 14 great cars for a first-timer

Though lacking the charm of the 1950s and ’60s cars (which tend to command strong money), the ’70s 1302/1303/1303S Beetles with the wraparound windscreens are faster and easier to live with.

What’s more, they survive in sufficient numbers that they look cheap next to Minis and almost anything with a Ford badge from the same period. They’re also, arguably, preferable to any of the two-cylinder Citroën family.

Though not universally loved, the Beetle is undeniably reliable – as long as you resist the urge to tune them – nicely made and different enough in look, sound and feel to have strong classic appeal.

Braver buyers might also like to look at Hillman Imps and rear-engined Renaults if they really want to be distinctive.

Images: Tony Baker

Additional photos: Julian Mackie, Malcolm Griffiths


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