5 stick-shift classics for sub-$25K fun

Marketplace/Brian Middleton

Whether it’s a fun weekend cruiser or back-road runner, a manual transmission adds a whole lot to the driving experience. More direct engagement between driver and machine goes a long way. That’s especially true when our beloved collector cars are a tonic for the more clinical, modern daily driver.

In many cases, the personality of a car can shift considerably without a sluggish torque converter in the mix. A clutch and a third pedal don’t have to cost big bucks, either. No matter the number of speeds, we bet there’s something you can find out there that would make a fine next addition to your collection.

1997 BMW Z3

Asking Price: $8300

Whether you want to go top-town, top-up, or hardtop, this low-mileage Z3 has you covered (or uncovered)! The 1.9-liter roadster is finished in Boston Green with a well-kept beige leather interior and shows fewer than 100,000 miles on the odometer. Its flywheel, clutch, and pressure plate were apparently replaced about five years ago, and its slave cylinder was replaced about a year after, so it should have plenty of more miles of happy shifting yet to give. In this lightweight, four-cylinder roadster, the engagement from a manual is a key ingredient.

1974 VW/Corsair Stripper

Asking price: $11,000

According to the seller, this early ‘80s dune buggy is one of about 150 built by Corsair during the ‘80s. Those numbers make it rare, but the fact that it’s a VW-based dune buggy that isn’t trying to copy a Meyers Manx puts it in a completely different category. The unique concept behind the Stripper was that it used a steel tube chassis rather than lots of buggies that used a shortened VW Beetle floor pan as the chassis. The idea was that the car could be run on the dunes without the body as a sand rail, and the body could be installed for use on the street. We just like the way the swoopy creation looks, with its louvered rear hatch making a perfect late-‘70s and early-‘80s styling statement.

1988 Chevrolet Corvette

Asking Price: $11,500

C4 Corvettes are a bit underrated. They have clean styling, a competent chassis, pop-up headlights, and, most important, a digital dashboard. Who needs a mid-engine platform when you’ve got a digital tachometer that looks like it came from an arcade game? This 1988 Corvette has had significant maintenance, including a new clutch, pressure plate, and flywheel so that the next owner can enjoy shifting the 4+3 Doug Nash transmission for many miles to come. Most of the accessories and the serpentine belt is new, along with a new Magnaflow cat-back exhaust to help that Tuned Port Induction 350 sing. You could certainly spend a lot more money on a car that’s nowhere near as rewarding to drive.

1978 Chevrolet Camaro

Asking Price: $13,900

By 1978, the Camaro’s factory engine offerings weren’t much to write home about, with the top offering sputtering out just 170 hp. The body style was still quite sleek, however, making them just as good a project car as earlier second-generation Camaros. Luckily this car up for offer in Homestead, Florida, has a fresh 350 under the hood that replaced its 145-hp 305. Now with over twice the power, rowing the gears is even more fun.

Of course, we also have to mention the blue-on-blue, Canadian tuxedo look. We love it, and not just because Jay Leno is one of our writers. The paint has been refreshed, but that interior is original. We dare you to fight the urge to suit up in jeans and a chambray shirt when getting behind the wheel of this classic.

1989 Ford Mustang GT

Asking Price: $22,500

The lightweight Fox-body platform is like a Swiss Army knife and can be put into a variety of roles depending on the driver’s need. Their massive popularity and vast aftermarket of parts to choose from meant that they became the go-to chassis to build into a drag car, track toy, and everything in between. That also means that it has become increasingly more difficult to find clean examples of Mustangs from the ‘80s that didn’t turn into highly modified hot rods. Even this seemingly pristine example has been modified, in this case from automatic to manual transmission. However, if the right factory parts were used, and proper care was taken, this conversion could be seamless. We especially like this Cabernet Red over Titanium two-tone convertible because it does look like a well-maintained original as the interior as well as under the hood has aged quite nicely.

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    Finding either of the vette or the camaro in the three-pedal variety is a bit of a rare find and if i had the room I would probably take a hard look at both of them… but I don’t

    2002 – 2006 Mini Cooper S. Better power-to-weight ratio than just about anything on the list, a blast to drive, and supercharger whine to boot. Plus you can buy a good example for $10K under the budget.

    Pretty easy to keep a Chevy running. You can find enough parts laying along side the road to keep em going. I drive a C2 and parts are plentiful and not expensive. Every part is still made for them.

    You will be working on that Mini more that driving it I’m afraid. That era wasnt known for good design, parts durability or ease of repair.

    I hate to be a grinch, but nothing lightweight about a fox body GT convertible. At least someone swapped out the AOD. Those cars are heavy and they lost a ton of structural rigidity.

    I have been enjoying a recently purchased C5 Corvette Convertible with a 6 speed this fall. It is a great cruiser Vette and I love the sound of the Borla exhaust with the top down.

    Mark, I admit I loved my 99 C5 hardtop. You could mash the throttle and go like hell. Or cruise and get 25 mpg. It was also comfortable. I do like the 350Z’s, Honda V tech cars in general, and Fox body Mustangs. Sorry guys the BMW Z3s, Miata’s, and C4 Corvettes ride like bricks. They hurt me 20 years ago so you young guys can have them. I almost bought a 2019 Mini Clubman? around a year ago. It was fun, not a stick however but the great or junk reviews scared me off. I don’t like cars with bus schedules in the glove box.

    First and some second gen Porsche Boxsters should be on this list IMHO. Easily attainable under $25k, many under $15k. Mid engine, near perfect handling, adequate power, great brakes and a convertible to boot. Majority were manual transmission. Arguably top of the list.

    I am always surprised that I rarely see my Audi TT Mk 1 being considered as a very affordable and great fun to drive vehicle. Mine is a 2001, 6 speed, 225 hp Quattro. Wonderful acceleration and handling and with the coupe model, bags of rear space. All for significantly less than $15,000

    I’m in agreement with you on the TT it’s almost always ignored. My car on the other hand is ALWAYS ignored, a MK4 VW R32. Same drive train as TT except the VR 3.2 with minor mapping changes and sone coil overs and sway bars make the R32 one of the best most fun drives on the road or track.

    Mk4 R32s are not ignored. Look and see what low mileage R32s get on BaT.

    I test-drove the TT 3.2 quattro and the R32 back-to-back. The TT had some squirrely behavior in the back around tight turns that the R32 didn’t.

    I have owned two Mk4 R32s and would buy another one if I had room and they were affordable.

    I concur – I had a 2002 convertible with the same configuration – great car for the reasons you laid out plus a timeless design.

    A stick always makes a car more fun unless u live in a city with horrible traffic. I have 11 cars and only 3 r automatics and there where good reasons for the 3 autos, for example u don’t pass on a mint 70 Challenger convertible with A/C and power windows!

    Ever top whatever list will have its dissenters. But the principle is sound, enthusiasts cars should have manuals. Every SUV and pick up on every car lot across the country is populated with auto boxes. There’s is absolutely nothing special about them. I’d even wager most people on this forum have a slush box in their daily driver. The hobby or collector car should be unique, it should provide a special experience outside of commuting duties. To me, a huge part of that experience is manual shifting. Many times I have passed on dream cars because they had the auto trans birth defect and I have never regretted it.

    You’d lose that wager with me, MarveH- until the Fargo ND Arctic sets in, I drive my aftermarket 6.2 LS/Tremec 6spd/B&M Ripshifter equipped ’04 Holden GTO every day. It’s almost Hallowe’en and I drove it to work & ran errands today. The GTO is the worst winter car ever; they don’t “do” winter in Oz, so I get it, it’s why I have a Tahoe up on 20″s. I really need to address the interior and do a paint correction, but the Goat gives me so much pleasure to drive I can’t yet stomach driving the Tahoe year ’round. Sigh. First World problems.

    I agree that the ZF 6 speed is a better choice but a lot has to do if the Doug Nash has had the proper services. Most owners didn’t realize that the OD part has it’s own lube system and it uses different oil that the main box. The lube in the OD needs to be changed out about every 30K. If you find a car with records of that service and hasn’t been abused you can get a lot more years of enjoyment for less money than a 6 speed car car in like condition will bring. 1989 was the last year for the all digital dash and the 1st year for the 6 speed. The L98 engine was used through 1991. I own a 1992 6 speed convertible and really enjoy it. The LT1 that came in that year performs well and the car handles quite well for something from that era. The great thing about C4’s is there are a lot to chose from so you can find one that fits your color and powertrain desires fairly easily.

    All look pretty fun to me. Although if I was going C4, I’d go with an 89-last year of cool fighter jet digital dash, and first year of 6 speed manual. As for the Fox, a hatchback GT with t-tops of the four-eyed variety would be my pick. Don’t be afraid to throw a comparably equipped thirdgen Trans AM/Formula in there too.

    “Don’t be afraid to throw a comparably equipped thirdgen Trans AM/Formula in there too.”

    Good point but have you shopped for one of those lately? I have. IROC-Z included. Those are getting harder and harder to find for under $25K in very good condition. Especially the more sought after 1 and 2 car owner sellers who didn’t abuse them (or gimp them up with aftermarket cheap New Jersey-esque street crap). Third-gens starting rising in demand and hence value several years ago, specifically the Zs and TAs (including GTA) and Formula. I wish I never had gotten rid of my 1987 Trans Am with the LB9 5.0L and 5-speed manual ordered new (WS6 with the diamond spoke wheels, T-tops, metallic flame red on silver trim). T-Tops were not available then with the L98 5.7L Corvette engine. I traded that car in on a new 1993 4th-gen Formula with a 6-speed. It was a sleeper that to most people looked like a base V6 Firebird. The only difference was the rear end with quad exhausts and the “Formula V8” script on the lower right rear of the bumper. And that’s what every 3rd and 4th-gen Mustang GT owner saw when they wanted to play at a stop light back in the 1990s!

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