Under $15K: 3 classics with wildly different personalities

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No matter how you look at it, the car hobby isn’t a cheap one. There’s buying a car, then there’s registration, insurance, fuel, and storage to consider. And that’s before you even get to parts and maintenance. Luckily, though, there are tons of entry-level vehicles out there that offer the fun and satisfaction of collector car ownership.

There’s no real set definition for what “entry-level,” means, but $15,000 is a reasonable ceiling. With that budget, we focused on three (very) different ways to spend it. Of particular interest were vehicles that have grown in value over the past few years but still fall under our 15-grand price cap in #3 (Good) condition. When we talk about cars in #3 (Good) condition, we’re talking about most collector cars out there: vehicles that run well and look good enough to be proud of but show the light wear, tear, and occasional incorrect parts that come with regular use.

Triumph TR6 Yellow roadster front three-quarter
Flickr/dave_7

1969-76 Triumph TR6

Median Condition #3 value: $13,300

The TR6 came out in 1969, and it was old-fashioned right off the bat. The construction was body-on-frame. The ride was bouncy. The cockpit was narrow and a little cramped. The 2.5-liter straight-six was a cast iron, overhead valve lump based on an old tractor design. Even the styling was a bit dated. The front and rear sections of the TR6 were new (courtesy of Karmann), but the body’s middle section was the same as the old Michelotti-designed TR4 from way back in 1961. When the Datsun 240Z arrived in 1970, the Triumph was already a rolling anachronism.

Fast forward 50 years, though, and that whole “old-fashioned” thing doesn’t really matter as much, does it? When you’re into classic cars, old-fashioned is kind of the point. And despite its primitive layout, the TR6 was a good performer. Any Paul Newman fans out there? He won his first SCCA championship in a TR6.

Now that TR6s are proper classics, the old school touches like the solid wood dash and throaty straight-six are all part of the charm. They also aren’t hard to find and they don’t cost very much. It turns out the last of the classic hairy-chested English roadsters is also one of the most affordable, and for only a few grand more than the equivalent MGB you can have a TR6 with two more cylinders and a bit more cachet. The TR6 is also cheaper than the TR3, TR4, and TR250 that came before it, and it’s tens of thousands cheaper than an Austin-Healey 3000. Parts availability is quite good, and these are relatively easy cars to work on.

Triumph exported the vast majority of the nearly 92,000 TR6s it built, so there are always lots of TR6s on the market, from tattered projects to fresh restorations and pampered originals. They’ve gotten a little pricier over the past few years, but that’s down to a widening gap between the best cars (#1 and #2 condition) and more flawed cars (#3 and #4 condition). While condition #2 values are up $2000 over the past five years, condition #3 values have been mostly flat, up just $600 over the same period. So if you like to tinker, a TR6 with a little patina remains a great-looking, fun-to-drive bargain.

Ford SVT Lightning Red Pickup Truck
Mecum

1993-95 Ford F-150 SVT Lightning

Median Condition #3 value: $10,300

When General Motors introduced the Chevy 454 SS in 1990 and the famous Ferrari-beating GMC Syclone in 1991, Ford just had to respond with a high-performance pickup of its own. Enter the F-150 Lightning.

Along with the Fox-body Mustang-based 1993 Cobra/Cobra R, the Lightning was the first vehicle from Ford’s newly formed Special Vehicle Team, aka SVT. Based on the regular cab, short-bed F-150, the Lightning borrowed a 351-cubic-inch Windsor V-8 from the F-250. SVT worked the engine over with a new intake, tubular exhaust manifolds, and GT40-type cylinder heads for 20 percent more power (240 hp total), then lowered the ride height, beefed up the suspension, and added 4.10 gears. On the outside, the Lightning stood out from the work truck crowd with shiny 17 x 8-inch aluminum wheels, body-colored grille and air dam, and subtle (for the 1990s, anyway) neon “Lightning” decals on the rear flanks. The Lightning’s turn of speed wasn’t quite as electric as the name implied, but a 4400-pound truck hitting 60 in the mid seven second range and the quarter-mile in 15.6 seconds was impressive stuff in 1993.

Sure, the resurrected 1999-04 Lightnings offer more power and modern amenities, but they stretch past our $15,000 budget. So do the original Lightning’s main competitors from the General—the 454 SS and the Syclone. Meanwhile, early Lightnings barely crack five figures in #3 condition, and even a Lightning in #2 (Excellent) condition comes in at just $17,200.

Lightning values have gone up over the past several years, as they have for almost every classic truck, but the growth has been more modest. Condition #3 values are up $1700 over the past five years, compared to a $5800 bump for the 454 SS and a massive $17,750 for the Syclone.

Ford sold 11,563 first gen Lightnings over three years, which isn’t a lot, but even very nice ones aren’t impossible to find. Because of the strong interest in general, along with the fact that the Lightning was SVT’s debut model, longer-term prospects are good for this hi-po hauler.

1983 BMW 633 csi side profile
Mecum

1978-84 BMW 633CSi

Median Condition #3 value: $11,700

The original BMW 6 Series ran all the way from 1976 to 1989. In BMW-speak, this model is known as the E24, while some in the Bimmer faithful call it the “sharknose” car. Designed by Paul Bracq, whose greatest hits also include the Mercedes-Benz 600 and W113-series 230/250/280 SLs, the 6 Series replaced the popular but aging E9 model. It came to America as the 630CSi in 1977 with a monumental price of $23,500 (about $101,500 adjusted for inflation). The next year saw a better-performing 633CSi model with a 3.3-liter version of the M30 straight-six and 1982 saw improvements to the chassis and suspension, but E24 sales were always modest in the U.S. Most Bimmer-buying yuppies in the ‘80s chose an E30 3 Series or an E28 5 Series instead. As is so often the case, the 6 Series that came to us here in the States was a slower version of the one those lucky Europeans got.

The most desirable sharknose 6 Series, the M635CSi/M6, is predictably way past our $15,000 budget, but more pedestrian versions like the 633CSi are surprisingly cheap, especially when you think about the kind of coin it took to buy one new. The median condition #3 value is up $4000 from this time three years ago, but it’s still barely in the five figures at $11,700. A 633 in #2 (Excellent) condition barely breaks 20 grand.

One important thing to remember, though, is that these are sophisticated cars that were not always treated with sophistication in return, so neglect and deferred maintenance is common. Thorough service records are more important than super-low odometers and shiny paint, because your cheap classic European GT can quickly turn into a money pit.

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