What does $3,000 buy in a classic car?

We love the televised classic car auctions as much as anyone. But they have certainly conditioned most people to think that every old car is worth a bundle and therefore that anything old and inexpensive is automatically suspect.  In 2014, there aren’t any inexpensive cars over 25 years old that are interesting, attractive and ready-to-enjoy, right?

We decided to put that assertion to the test and explore the “extreme entry level” of the collector car hobby by dropping three people into Portland, Ore., with $3,000 to spend and a weekend to find a cool old car that would get an occasional thumbs-up and not leave them stranded on the side of the road impeding the progress of Portland’s famously militant cyclists.

Why Portland? Well, frankly to stack the deck in favor of our three buyers. Portland is eccentric with lots of interesting older cars in daily use and the climate is kind. While it rains a lot in the winter, it doesn’t snow, and road salt is verboten. Cars usually don’t rust and the 100 or so sunny days a year don’t cook interiors. Here’s the video from the adventure, and here’s a summary of we found:

  1. 1975 Chevrolet El Camino: “Goldie Hawn” the El Camino is a two-tone gold and white example with a strong-running 350 cubic-inch V-8 and a brownish interior with a bench seat that looks for all the world like a Denny’s booth. The paint is all original with a decent shine and it has no rust — just a few paint blemishes where there had been a topper installed and a shallow tailgate dent that we’re planning on removing with a paintless dent removal service. It runs perfectly with a surprising amount of power for a Malaise Era, emission-controlled small block. The previous owner could no longer deal with the 14 mpg fuel economy. We paid $2,750 for it, and all of us fell in love with it.

  2. 1985 Mazda RX-7 GSL-SE: Much to the chagrin of most old-schoolers in the collector car world, vintage Japanese cars are getting hot. Nice Datsun 240Zs are now approaching $20,000, and earlier Datsun Fairlady Roadsters have sold for more than $50,000 at auction. First generation Mazda RX-7s remain affordable in spite of the fact that the oldest of them, built in late 1978, are getting close to 40 years old. This one — like the El Camino — sported all of its factory Hiroshima-applied paint and a really nice matching red leather interior and a stereo with graphic equalizer (remember those?), featuring about 35 buttons. It has a little bit of road rash on the nose but it’s a sound, nice driving car with no smoke or funny noises that we’d drive across the country in a heartbeat after adjusting a slightly loose steering box.  We paid $2,800 to its reluctant lady seller.  Every place we drove it, someone offered to buy it from us.

  3. 1972 Volkswagen Beetle: Everyone owes it to themselves to drive one of these at least once, if for no other reason than to realize how far basic transportation has come since 1948. This Beetle was underpowered, lacked any creature comforts and was robin’s egg blue and roughly robin’s egg shaped, but it was oddly charming with an exhaust note that could only be a VW Beetle and really solid construction. Our particular car was an odd mashup of several years (with more attractive bumpers from an earlier car and larger later taillights and after-market wheels), so it wouldn’t appeal to a purist, but it ran like a Swiss watch and got more than its share of thumbs-up, even from the cranky Portland cyclists. With the money we saved on the other two cars, we went slightly over budget and paid $3,200.

To the naysayers, we say the following: Unlike when “Top Gear” does these things, none of our cars had parts fall off of them nor did any catch on fire or evaporate into a cloud of coolant smoke, and we didn’t drop a grand piano on any of them. We did put more than 100 trouble-free miles on each and thoroughly enjoyed finding out what the extreme entry level of the collector car market looks like. They will all be available for sale in Portland, Ore., via Bring-a-Trailer.com.  We just want what we’ve got in them. Three cars for $8,750? How can you beat that?

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