Before I go to bed at night I sit on the couch and peruse the online classifieds. I look through between 300–700 vehicle listings and take note of everything from values and trends to those random oddballs that I’d one day like to own.
I’ve been doing this since before the internet existed (yes, I’m that old), but back then it would be in the form of a deli-bought Buy & Sell or the New York Newsday classified section. My max budget in those days always seemed to be around $7000, and for that you could actually bring home a pretty sweet ride. However now, more than 25 years later, I began to think about not only what you could get for that amount, but ideally, which vehicles would serve as the gateway drugs for the first-time classic car owner.
Before we jump in, there are few things you need to understand. The first is that $7k is not going to buy you a mint condition anything. Instead you’ll be looking at vehicles that may not be that desirable (yet) and that will most likely need some work. We’re talking about pickup trucks, four-door variants of your favorite muscle cars, overlooked imports, and even a few Grandpa sleds that may have a big-block between the frame rails.
Below are seven vehicles that any backyard mechanic should be able to work on, and they were chosen because of their plentiful and cheap parts availability, as well as the understanding that they are, in fact, wickedly cool. Trust me on this.
1960–75 Volkswagen Beetle
That’s right, a Beetle. The Volkswagen Type 1 has been around since the late 1930s and in total there have been more than 21,000,000 produced. It is arguably the most recognizable car on the planet, and from its inception it was designed to be simple and easy to work on while at the same time delivering reliable (albeit slow) transportation. These little buggers can be picked up all day for between $2000–$7000. The carbureted and air-cooled flat-four engines are light, easy to remove, and (depending on the year) will make between 40–76 horsepower from stock. Are they fast? No, not even close, but what they do have is an enthusiast following that spans the globe, and parts availability is second to none.
My favorite aspect of these cars is the level of customization that owners impart on them. Think of them like the Harley-Davidson of the automotive world and you’ll get my gist. There are Baja bugs, Super Beetles, convertibles, drag racers, and surf buggies, and each and every one has a little bit of the owner’s personality imprinted on it. That aside, it’s also one of the easiest cars to work on, as well as being one of the few cars respected and loved by just about everyone in the automotive community. Nice examples start around $4500.
1966–67 Chevrolet Malibu 4-door
Everyone overlooks them, yet the four-door variant of the 1966–67 Chevrolet Malibu came with some of the most stylish lines ever put on a four-door car from the muscle car era. Equipped with full-coil suspension, no less than three different transmissions, and a variety of engines ranging from a 140-hp straight-six to a tire-shredding 325-hp 327-cubic-inch V-8, these old Malibu’s can be made to look pretty menacing with just a few minor tweaks (think wheels and suspension). The list of aftermarket upgrades is also basically endless for these things.
Want to ditch that old 283 for a late model LS engine? No problem, the local junkyard is full of them. Or maybe you’d like to go full pro-touring when time and money allow. That’s not a problem either as there are loads of websites dedicated to just that. The beauty of any four-door sedan is that they also offer a level of utility that the coupes simply can’t match and they do it for a fraction of the cost (remember, these were family sedans). They’re also much less likely to get stolen and because of their rarity they seem to be coming up in the ranks of the collectible market making them halfway decent investments. Lastly and after attending hundreds of car shows in my life, it’s also nice to pull into a show field with something different. Expect to pay between $5K–$7K for a #3 (Good) condition driver.
1978–79 Ford F-Series
I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but in the last five years or so, early Chevrolet C-10 pickup trucks have been commanding some pretty strong money. And while they are attractive, I’ve got to say that I’m a little more partial to the Ford F-Series trucks that were built in 1978–79. I dig the slightly angled egg-crate grille, the large rectangular headlamps (base models still had round headlamps), and if we’re being honest, I think both the short- and long-bed versions are extremely handsome. The late ’70s were also about the time when truck cabins started to feel a bit more modern with such additions as tilt-steering columns and more luxurious interiors that employed better carpeting and seats. Plus, there’s also no shortage of models to choose from (long bed, short bed, crew cab, flareside, styleside, 2WD, and 4WD).
Another item of note is that you could get them with a choice of five different engines, ranging from a 4.9-liter 300-cu-in straight-six, to the monstrous 7.5-liter 460. Ford F-Series trucks, regardless of the year, have a huge following. They’re easy to work on thanks to a lack of early EFI, have huge aftermarket support, and the 4x4 models are almost unstoppable off-road. These trucks are slowly gaining in popularity, so if you’re interested, start looking now as they’re only going up in value. Long beds are cheaper than short beds and $5K will get you a decent daily.
1969–72 Chrysler, Dodge, Plymouth C-bodies
I love these things. So much so that back in 2013 I went out and bought a 1970 Chrysler Newport with a 383 big-block, air conditioning, and power windows. It was in mint condition and I paid a total of around $7k for it. C-Bodies are some of the biggest land yachts that Ma’ Mopar ever made, and I’d be lying if I said I won’t be buying another one soon (I sold mine to buy an ’81 Turbo Trans Am—stupid move). They’re amazing open road cars with the ability to cruise at 80 mph all day long with the A/C on kill when big-block equipped. Find a 383 car and you’ll be looking at 330 hp and 425 lb-ft of torque. Find one with the big dog TNT 440 and you’ll be seeing 375 hp and a stump pulling 480 lb-ft of torque.
These are big, heavy cruisers that weigh north of 4400-pounds, but on the open road there’s nothing like them. Some folks hate the fuselage styling, but to me it’s just about perfect. These are an easy way to get big-block Mopar power with all the amenities for a fraction of what it would cost for a comparable B or E Mopar (think Charger, ’Cuda, Road Runner, Challenger). Maintenance is also easy as many mechanical parts are shared throughout the B- and E-body platforms from Chrysler, Plymouth, and Dodge. You can get a good quality driver for $5K–$7K. Just make sure to look out for rust if you decide on a vinyl top car.
1976–85 Mercedes-Benz W123 Series
Keep in mind that in this article we're not necessarily talking about vehicles with power and prestige, but instead we’re looking at wonderful choices for that first-time buyer that won’t break the bank. That sentiment brings us here, to the Mercedes-Benz W123 series built from 1976–85. These are “forever cars,” meaning that if properly maintained they will run indefinitely. Combine that with an interior that wears like iron and you’ve got what just might be the best series of cars the companies ever built. The W123 series was built at a time Mercedes-Benz over engineered everything. They have tank-like construction, they’re classically elegant, and whether you opt for a four-door, estate, or coupe, you simply can’t lose.
Many of the W123s, especially those sold in the U.S., were turbo diesels and that meant speed was in short supply. In 1985, power was just over 120 hp with just under 200 lb-ft of torque. The shining light was that you could option one with a manual transmission, thus making them a bit more fun.
For such a well-built machine, the old W123s are on top of that actually quite easy to maintain and parts are readily available. They’re also beautiful to look at, and when you throw on a nice set of wheels and perhaps drop them a few inches, then you’ve got something that people will take notice of. Oh, and they’ll also run for around half-a-million miles without really breaking a sweat. These can be picked up all day long for between $4K–$7K. Make sure to find one with a documented service history before you buy, as not only will that educate you on what’s been done to the vehicle, but it will also add to the vehicle’s overall value.
1984–88 Toyota SR5 Pickup
It was an all-black 1985 Toyota SR5 XtraCab with black mag wheels, 31x10.5-inch Goodyears and a string of KC Daylighters on the roof. For those of us who loved cars and trucks as kids, it was the real hero car of 1985’s Back to the Future. The SR5 pickup trucks built from 1984–88 helped to cement Toyota here in the United States. Out of the gate they were great looking, and 35 years after their introduction they still look fantastic.
Early models employed solid live axles front and rear along with a carbureted 2.4-liter 22R inline four-cylinder engine that was mated to a five-speed manual transmission. Later models received electronic fuel injection, automatic-locking hubs, and independent front suspension with power ranging from between 105 hp and 136 lb-ft of torque to 135 hp and 173 lb-ft of torque.
The SR5 is thought to be one of the best light-duty trucks ever produced. It could be had in either two- or four-wheel drive, with a single or extended cab and with bulletproof reliability and an ease-of-use factor that’s off the charts. Perfect examples will fetch big dollars, but there are still plenty out there that can be picked up for a reasonable price. Maintenance is as simple as buying yourself a decent mechanics tool kit and a shop manual. These are simple trucks to work on, but just look out for rust along the bedsides, because once that cancer starts, it’s game over.
1978–83 Datsun 280ZX
This is going to be a mixed one for some people, but hear me out. Back in the late 1970s when Datsun released the 280ZX, fans of the Z-cars were pissed. This was a far cry from the sporty 240Z and subsequent 260Z that Americans had become accustomed to. Times were changing, however, and back then Datsun had essentially transformed its Z car into one that was now more of a grand touring machine. This wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, as they offered a great combination of sport, luxury, technology, and style in a package that was actually more refined than others in the segment.
The 280ZX could be optioned in a host of ways. You could get a turbocharged (in 1981) or naturally-aspirated inline-six, an automatic or five-speed manual transmission, T-tops, and there was even a 2+2 option for those who wanted to shove their kids in the back. As someone who has driven a lot of miles in these cars, I can tell you that they are wonderful grand touring cars that still offer a hint of sporty goodness.
They drive well, are all-day comfortable, and the turbo versions are still pretty quick even by today’s standards. The best part is that they’re still a cheap and fun way to enter the collector car market since good versions can be had for between $4K–$7K without having to hunt too hard.