12 February 2016

First Rung On The Ladder

“That man is the richest whose pleasures are the cheapest” — Henry David Thoreau

New and classic car markets each have their entry-level segments. While those in the new-car realm are fed by a manufacturer’s desire to recruit fresh motorists into the fold, entry-level segments in the classic car world thrive on a different set of market forces. Whether it be a career change, life change, a not-yet-empty nest, or just being young enough to not have picked up economic steam, many newcomers and veterans in the collector car hobby have a level of enthusiasm that packs way more horsepower than their wallets. Fortunately, the current classic car landscape offers a place in the sun for all of us. When it comes to climbing the classic car ladder, these cars offer buyers a solid footing on the first rung.

Most vintage Porsche fans are well aware that anything with an air-cooled engine mounted behind the rear wheels has experienced a rocket-like shot in the market in the last few years. If you fancy Porsches but are unwilling or unable to write a check for a 356 or a 911, you have another option. The car that started as the Porsche-designed VW project EA425 became the Porsche 924, then morphed into the 944 and finally became the 968 by the time this platform’s 19-year production run ended in 1995.

Whether you spend $3,000 on a 1977 924 with its 110-horsepower Audi-sourced motor or $20,000-plus on a 1995 968 with more than twice that power, you’re getting real Porsche DNA that translates into a driving experience that is every bit as true to the marque as one of its rear-engine, radiator-deprived siblings. The bolt-action M1 Garand metalon-metal feel of an air-cooled 911 may not be quite as prominent in the 924/944/968 platform, but upon entering a 944 cockpit, you immediately notice the muted door thud and wonderful interior smell that reveal a build quality expected from the marque. Once out on the road there is forgiving, confidence-inspiring handling, with great steering feel and feedback, not to mention that some variants can outperform their more expensive 911 stablemates. All of which makes these front-engine Porsches that much more compelling.

Of course, any discussion of affordable Porsches should also include the 914. Good four-cylinder examples are still very affordable, and if you want a street Porsche that was developed concurrently with the legendary 917 race car while sharing its mid-engine, air-cooled layout, your choices number a grand total of one. This connection alone makes the 914 an appealing choice. Those who question the 914’s VW-infused DNA are advised to familiarize themselves with the intertwined history both marques share. Any 914 devoid of rust can be a good choice, though the later two-liter cars are especially desirable.

If the 924 in your garage is a good, clean example and well cared for, when the time comes to take another step up the Porsche ladder, you could stay in the front-engine realm, with a nice 944 or 968 — or even a 928. But if an engine out back is what you desire, then the 1978–81 911 SC or later Carreras might be the way to go.

The Corvette’s long-awaited awakening from the 1970s finally came at the end of 1983, when the fourth generation C4 arrived as a 1984 model. A completely new car emerged from Bowling Green, and it was state-of-the-art in design, handling, and performance. Although some people dismiss the Cross-Fire-injected opening volley in that series, it was a groundbreaking car at the time. The Corvette community is well aware of the C4’s performance and appeal, yet the collector community has not yet driven these cars’ prices into the same thin air as some of its C2 and early C3 predecessors.

Opportunity therefore beckons for the Corvette enthusiast on a budget; more than 366,000 C4s were built from 1984 to 1996, and few cars currently offer a better performance-to-price ratio. The C4's introduction left auto journalists waxing poetic about its performance, roadholding and value, if not its ride and build quality.

A quick look at one of the popular online market websites often reveals literally hundreds of fourth-generation Corvettes with sub-50,000 mileage at what appear to be bargain prices, with those friendliest to your bank account being the first-year models. As the C4’s 13-year production run unfolded, power increases followed, with the Cross-Fire V-8 giving way to a Tuned Port 5.7-liter V-8 in 1985 and such curiosities as the 4+3 manual+automatic overdrive gearbox being replaced by a proper ZF-sourced 6-speed manual in 1989. An attractive convertible was available from 1986, as well as Limited and Indy Pace Car editions. The final pushrod C4 Corvettes sported 330 horsepower when equipped with manual gearboxes, a far cry from the original 205 horses in the 1984 car.

Regardless of which Corvette you choose from this generation, you get a certifiably ’80s-attractive everyman’s exotic that not only looks and performs well on the road, but entertains at rest, too; with its exposed suspension and fat unidirectional tires, the open-hood view here could pass for something you would have seen in a contemporary IMSA paddock amongst big hair and GTP prototypes.

As a footnote, if your birthday falls within three years or so on either side of the Gen-X/Baby Boomer dividing line, you might also consider a late C3 Corvette, specifically a 1978–82 example with its greenhouse rear window. All from this era fall within our scope of entry-level excitement and good looks, and this period yielded three limited editions, multiple engines and a few different gearboxes.

When fortune and opportunity allow, there are several other achievable models just a step or two up the Corvette ladder, including early small-block C3s, with drivers still available at decent prices.

Entry-level for one marque may be relatively expensive when compared to another, but gaining access to Ferrari’s hallowed Prancing Horse emblem can still be accomplished by signing a check for a figure barely into the five-digit range.

The mid-engine Mondial 8 replaced the 308 GT4 in Europe in 1980 and debuted in America for the 1982 model year, with Pininfarina styling on a lengthened 308 chassis. The stretch made room for 2+2 seating, which allowed for the whole family to enjoy the three-liter flat-plane V-8 shriek emanating from right behind the cabin. The Mondial 8’s somewhat unremarkable styling, coupled with a modest 10-second 0–60 mph dash, have conspired to keep values low in the marketplace.

Potential owners should be aware that maintenance costs on the entry-level Ferrari can be huge if your search leads to the wrong car. The potential for rust and costly timing belt changes will be a part of the Mondial ownership experience every bit as much as they are for a 308 GTB or GTS owner. But a well-chosen Mondial will provide a ride that overloads the senses in all the right ways, with a 7,000 rpm soundtrack so pleasing that it may forever eliminate your need for a therapist.

In 1983, the Mondial’s three-liter V-8 gained four-valve heads with a resultant 30-horsepower boost and appropriate name change, to Mondial Quattrovalvole. The updated car not only exhibited greater performance, but it was also available as a convertible in the form of the Mondial Cabriolet. Any well-maintained Mondial Coupe or Cabriolet through 1985 can be considered a good first-rung V-8 Ferrari.

Before departing the topic of Ferrari, we should at least mention the 400, which is the only true entry-level V-12 Ferrari remaining. The front-engine, four-seat coupe could be had with a five-speed manual gearbox or a three-speed automatic. As successor to the 365 GT 2+2, the 400 was available from 1976 through 1984, gaining fuel injection and becoming the 400i in 1979. It was superseded by the 4.9-liter 412i in 1984. A well-maintained 400 or 412 is a rapid gentleman’s express that seems to have an almost endless supply of turbine-like power thanks to its big four-cam V-12, though all the caveats regarding Mondial maintenance apply here as well.

Ferrari’s ladder is a steeper, exponentially more expensive climb, so your best bets for moving up likely fall in the 1974–77 Dino 308 GT4 realm. If you want something a bit newer, consider the 1989–93 348.

Aston Martin evokes thoughts of hand-tucked, aromatic leather, personalized build plates and Her Majesty’s operatives. Entry to this legacy rests in the Ian Callum-designed DB7, which debuted in Europe in 1994 and in the U.S. for 1997, in coupe and convertible form. A supercharged 335-horsepower 3.2-liter straight-six provided motivation, and as Aston faithful expected, an enhanced DB7 in the form of the 420-horsepower 5.9-liter V-12 Vantage appeared in 1999. Production continued until 2004, and while the DB7 relied on a healthy dose of Jaguar and Ford DNA, it is nonetheless a fantastic and (relatively) economical entry into the Aston Martin world.

Curvaceous coachwork, a bespoke leather, wood and Wilton wool cockpit, and the 180-mph top speed ensure the DB7 ticks all the right boxes for a fan of the marque. That said, it owes much to the Jaguar XJS, and a mention of that car is fitting here. Accessible at a much lower price point than the DB7, the XJS was available from 1976 to 1996, and in those two decades Jaguar offered the XJS as a coupe or convertible with straight-six and V-12 powerplants. Any XJS is a great choice for newcomers to the marque, and any version is a fraction of the cost of the E-Type it replaced.

Like Ferrari, Aston Martin’s ladder is a harder climb, but models like the 1968–72 DBS, ’73 Vantage and 1973–78 AMV8 offer vintage Aston appeal without breaking the bank to the degree of any earlier DB Astons.

Though price of admission can vary greatly from marque to marque, all of these cars share the bloodline, authenticity and feel of their more elite stablemates. A carefully considered purchase won’t even require you to rob your 401K or home equity line of credit to acquire one. Act now and you will find a good example of your favorite entry-level classic before their numbers dry up and their prices climb. Even better, you may just love your newly purchased car enough to realize what many enthusiasts discovered long ago: Your “entry-level” classic really isn’t entry-level in any aspect other than price.

1 Reader Comment

  • 1
    peter snell Biloxi, MS March 10, 2016 at 19:22
    "The bolt-action M1 Garand metal-on-metal feel .." The US Army 'bolt-action' you're searching for is probably the M1903 Springfield. The M-1 Garand rifle is a semi-auto .. and a smoothly operating one at that.

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