When it comes to collector automobiles, it can seem like your money doesn’t go as far as it once did. We dug into the data to see what affordable vehicles can be had for a reasonable budget of $15,000 in #3 (Good) condition. Why #3 condition? Our research has found that, time after time, the condition of the average collector automobile falls right within this classification. A #3 car is ready for a long drive without making excuses, but it may have some flaws and/or incorrect parts.
Here are 8 cars and 2 trucks we found that fit the bill. While this is not a comprehensive list of vehicles that fall within a $15,000 budget, these are some well-known and emerging collectors to consider if you’re in the market. We also posted a livestream on this subject, which you can find here.
1984–1996 Chevrolet Corvette
Average value in #3 (Good) condition: $6500
When it comes to bang for your buck, it is hard to beat a Corvette. In the case of the C4 Corvette, that saying is as true today as it was back in the day. The C4 offers a wide variety of options that fits within most price ranges. While the ZR-1 and Grand Sport are beyond the scope of this list’s budget, you are still spoiled for a sub-$15K choice when it comes to the C4.
You can find a near-perfect 1984 model for $15,000, but if you desire performance, the LT1- and LT4-powered cars of the 1990s are well within reach. Perhaps the ideal choice for this budget would be a 1996 C4 equipped with the 330-hp LT4 engine, which required the inclusion of the six-speed transmission when ordered new. Never fear the dreaded Optispark system on the LT1/LT4 cars either—by now most issues with the ignition on individual cars have been fixed or were never a problem in the first place.
2004–05 Mazdaspeed Miata
Average value in #3 (Good) condition: $10,400
Of course Miata is the answer to the question at hand, and internet meme lords would not let us get away with a list of affordable cars that didn’t include a Miata.
Adding some grunt to an already nimble and zippy little roadster, the Mazdaspeed Miata made waves in 2004 and 2005 with a turbo engine that yielded an extra 36 hp over the standard NB-series Miata. Not enough of a boost to set the world on fire, but more than enough to shave more than a second off of the standard Miata’s 7.9-second 0–60 time. A factory-installed turbo means that it was engineered for the application and built with quality parts.
Driver-quality cars average $10,400, but #2-condition (Excellent) examples are still sub-$15,000. That’s not as cheap as many people expect when buying a Miata, but the price is well worth it if you desire a little extra punch. The added exclusivity of a two-year-only model is worth mentioning, too.
1979–93 Ford Mustang
Average value in #3 (Good) condition: $7700
Few cars epitomize the 1980s like Fox-body Mustangs. They look great and offer very good performance from an era in which auto manufacturers were starting to gain back some of the horsepower lost in the mid-1970s. Much like the third-generation Camaros and Firebirds, Fox-body Mustangs offer a lot of car for the money and have only recently started to experience notable gains in value.
The more popular 5.0 GT hatchbacks from the late ’80s can be had in Good condition for under $8000, but truly pristine examples can also fall under our $15,000 budget. If you are willing to sacrifice some of the ground effects for the 5.0 LX “notchback” coupes, a perfect example can usually be had for just over $15,000. Watch out for cheaper examples though; as with any unibody car, undercarriage and strut tower rust can be a problem and although these are resilient cars, no vehicle can sustain infinite abuse. Be wary of cars that have been driven hard and show obvious signs of neglect.
These are great machines for anyone on a budget desiring a rear-wheel-drive, V-8 car. They perform well in stock form, but an abundance of aftermarket upgrades means that Fox-bodies can be a blank slate for anyone who wants to create something unique down the road.
1989–91 Porsche 944 S2
Average value in #3 (Good) condition: $15,000
Porsche is not the first make that comes to mind when you brainstorm affordable vehicles. Over the past several years, values for just about every Porsche model have experienced a hefty bump, and the few that have settled have done so at levels nowhere near where they started. Even the previously snubbed transaxle Porsches have flipped the script. That said, a few good models can still be picked up at a reasonable price.
The 944 S2 is a great option for the budget-minded buyer who wants a great grand tourer. Power output for the S2 got a much-appreciated 43-hp gain with its larger 3.0-liter four-cylinder engine. Still not quite as powerful as the Turbo, but enough to satisfy. This is a slam dunk of a car from a time period that is becoming increasingly desirable, and by virtue of it being a Porsche, you are joining a fraternity of hardcore fans who deeply love their cars. At a price tag of $15,000 for a Good example that’s been well cared for, it’s hard to go wrong.
1983–89 Mitsubishi Starion, Dodge/Chrysler Conquest
Average value in #3 (Good) condition: $8000
The Mitsubishi Starion and Dodge/Chrysler Conquest (aka Starquest) is not an obvious choice for an affordable collector car, and for good reason. They’re fairly obscure cars these days; finding a choice example is a challenge. These vehicles were used hard.
Assuming you do find a quality example, Starquests represent great value for a rear-wheel-drive, turbocharged enthusiast car. Very few cars have sold publicly above our $15,000 budget and the average-condition Starquest is usually well under $10,000. Of course, these figures can fluctuate depending on options and make. Starions command a premium over Conquests, and 1986-and-later cars are in higher demand due to the intercooled G54B four-cylinder engine, which is good for 188 hp. The top models are the Starion ESI-R and Conquest TSi, packing all the available performance improvements plus the added benefit of a wide-body kit.
When it comes to Starquests, you should buy the best example you can afford. Since parts are far less plentiful than those for a comparable Honda or Toyota, previous owners and their level of care matter just as much as the overall condition of the car.
1981–87 Alfa Romeo GTV-6
Average value in #3 (Good) condition: $14,600
An Italian sports car for under $15,000? The GTV-6 is a beautifully designed ’80s Alfa Romeo, and the V-6 engine has a shriek as intoxicating as any Italian exotic from the era. These cars are known to be great fun to drive. The downsides aren’t many, assuming that the car was well cared for throughout its life. The synchros are a known weak point and build quality is typical of any 1980s Italian sports cars.
Best practice with a GTV-6 is to buy the best car you can afford with as complete of a service history as possible; it may save you a massive headache down the road. Expect to max out our $15,000 budget to ensure the car you are buying is in good running order. Pristine examples can be had for more, of course.
1992–99 Chevrolet Blazer/Tahoe and GMC Yukon
Average value in #3 (Good) condition: $14,000
After an 18-year run, General Motors finally updated the Chevrolet Blazer and GMC Jimmy for 1992. The Chevy kept the Blazer name, but GMC adopted the Yukon moniker. As with 1988 GM pickups, the Blazer and Yukon traded the solid front axle for independent front suspension, in turn picking up many standard creature comforts: better sound deadening, improved ride quality, and more amenities. The basic formula would remain the same, albeit with a shortened half-ton chassis and driveline on the two-door utility vehicle. The Blazer name would be dropped in 1995 and Tahoe swapped in, but the biggest change to the lineup would be the change from throttle-body injection to multi-port fuel injection in 1996. GM thus introduced the Vortec engine, boosting power an additional 45 horses in its 350 V-8.
Like the prior square-body Blazers and Jimmys, the Blazer/Tahoe/Yukon have remained quite affordable, and two-door models still command a niche following. Good specimens with the Silverado and SLT trim packages can be had for about $12,000, but expect to pay a premium for the rarer Blazer Sport and Yukon GT. With the rates for earlier Blazers spiking and 1990s Ford Broncos rising quickly, don’t expect these trucks to remain a good buy forever.
1965-1980 Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow Sedan
Average value in #3 (Good) condition: $8,700
Usually the terms “budget” and “Rolls-Royce” uttered in the same sentence is cause for great concern. It’s a widely accepted truth that the cheapest Rolls-Royce will cost you the most in repairs down the road. While that is certainly something to keep in mind when looking at a Silver Shadow, a $15,000 Rolls-Royce isn’t necessarily cause for panic.
For starters, by Rolls-Royce standards the Silver Shadow was a mass-produced model: The firm built 16,717 of these sedans. They are not over-the-top complicated cars, but like with any Rolls-Royce, regular documented service is crucial. Be especially wary of problems with the braking system and suspension; they are especially costly to fix. The budget-conscious might be tempted to go for an imported right-hand-drive model, but approach with caution: Many have been exported from their native U.K because they’ll no longer pass MOT inspection.
If you know what you’re getting into, you can enjoy the Rolls-Royce brand for what it is: a titan of the British luxury industry. Very good cars are affordable and within reach of a $15,000 budget, but you’ll look and feel like you are driving around in something worth substantially more.
1997–2006 Jeep Wrangler
Average value in #3 (Good) condition: $12,400
TJ Wranglers are rightfully regarded as peak Wrangler among the Jeep faithful. Wranglers have a lot to offer; they are very capable off-road, but take the top and the doors off and you have the perfect weekend cruiser. As far as Wranglers go, the TJ has some special sauce.
The obvious perk is that the looks were greatly improved over the previous YJ, but the major attraction is that it retains Jeep’s venerable 4.0-liter inline-six, and it was the first Wrangler to sport a more capable four-link rear suspension. The TJ also introduced the Rubicon variant, which added heavier duty Dana 44 axles with locking differentials, noticeably improving off-road capability and toughness. Mechanically, these are bulletproof vehicles. However, like all Jeeps that came before it, rust is a pain point. Frames are especially susceptible to rot, so be sure to get underneath any TJ you are considering and inspect it carefully. Rust issues are fixable by a competent welder, but it is best not have to deal with the issue at all.
Values for TJs in #2 (Excellent) condition have begun to creep up across the board, but depending on where you live, values can vary widely in regions with a strong Jeep following. $15,000 can net you a very solid Rubicon. For less money you can snag a standard model and have cash left over for a bunch of upgrades. Like the Fox-body Mustang, the TJ is a canvas for the imagination.
1962–1970 Datsun 1500/1600/2000 Roadster
Average value in #3 (Good) condition: $9700
Datsun Roadsters should not be overlooked. They’ve been long overshadowed by the MGB, which came out at about the same time and were built in larger quantities. Japan’s take on a small, sporty roadster was equally capable and creatively designed. Throughout the years, the engine size grew from a 1500- to 1600-cc four-cylinder, finally settling on a very peppy 135-hp 2000 cc.
More powerful models, such as the 2000, will max out a $15,000 budget for a good-quality car, but 1500 and 1600s allow for better selection under the price cap. The only downside is that the comparable MG will have better parts availability, so while Datsun has a good reputation for reliability, finding a part when something does break will be more difficult. Overall, the Datsun Roadster is a great alternative for the enthusiast who wants to stand out among the more numerous British roadsters out there.
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