The top 30 modern classic cars to buy while you can
Ferrari 328 GTB
Icons like the Jaguar E-Type have gone from unwanted to unobtainable. We predict which cars are next
Last year, almost eight million used cars were bought (and sold) in this country, more than three times the number of new cars. There’s more choice out there than ever in the classifieds, from Bangernomics bargains to rarefied supercar royalty.
Sitting somewhere in the middle is an increasingly popular breed of used car: the modern classic. Typically aged between about 10 and 30 years old, these are cars that were good in their day and seem to get better with age. Most are becoming rare, too, given that so many were bought by Joe Public as daily transport and not looked after as a potential future classic. Yet thankfully, they were built to modern standards, so if you can find a decent example, it should keep going for decades to come.
The appeal among enthusiasts for such cars isn’t just one of nostalgia. It’s just as much about the joy of an analogue driving experience as cars become ever more digitised. These cars also help build communities among likeminded owners and provide a great hobby. You’re not just buying a used car. You’re also buying a lifestyle.
There is a plethora of middle-aged motors that only recently were most commonly found languishing in scrapyards or being broken for parts but are now entering the limelight and starting to soar in value. If you’re quick, you could get one on your drive and enjoy it for years to come.
Our top picks, covering the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s, are testament to the huge variety of classics on offer.
*Ferrari 328 GTB 1985-1989*
The term ‘entry level’ means far less for Ferrari than it does for, say, Honda. Even the cheapest model in Maranello’s current line-up costs from £166,000, and it’s hardly the coward’s option.
But back in 1985, the stunning 328 GTB’s modest 270bhp and 153mph top speed left it a world away from the fire-breathing 288 GTO and thumping 512 TR. That doesn’t matter today, of course, because this is a Pininfarina-penned, old-school Ferrari, and who wouldn’t want one of those?
Despite its relatively lazy state of tune, the 328 GTB’s naturally aspirated 3.2-litre V8 emits a throaty growl, and improvements over its 308 GTB forebear – including quicker steering, electronic ignition and a hydraulic clutch – make it one of the most usable classic Ferraris.
Prices are strong, but if the older 246 Dino and BB are any indicator, 328 GTB values will rocket within the next few years, so this could be your last chance to own one of Ferrari’s finest.
*Porsche 944 1982-1991*
It used to vie with the 924 for the ‘poor man’s Porsche’ title, but the 944 is enjoying a renaissance. The top-rung Turbo is the most coveted and still feels quick, with 217bhp from its 2.5-litre four-pot giving it a 0-62mph time of around 6.0sec.
*Nissan 300ZX 1989-2000*
With two massive turbos, four-wheel steering and kit usually reserved for limos, this is an amazing amount of car for the money it today commands. Annoyingly, Nissan’s hard work has usually been undone by ill-advised modifications, rust and hard driving.
*TVR Tuscan Speed Six 1999-2006*
Faultless it won’t be, but this six-cylinder bruiser delivers a blend of snarling pace and usability so addictive that you’ll forgive any foibles. Happily, most cars have been kept in good nick.
*BMW Z4 2009-2016*
Who could dispute the E89’s visual appeal? With a folding hard-top, the fourth Z car replaced both the coupé and roadster, so you can use it all year. Don’t be put off by four-pots; they cost less to run without being asthmatic.
*Ford Sierra RS Cosworth 1986-1992*
Ford’s performance division has produced some truly awesome machines over the years, taking repeated wins on the rally stages, at Le Mans and in Nascar, but say the words ‘fast Ford’ to anyone who grew up in the 1980s and this is what they will picture.
Coveted by boy racers, high-flying accountants and thieves alike, the Sierra RS (a hatchback at launch, before evolving into a saloon) is what happens when you give a family car to a team of F1 engine builders and ask them to homologate it for Group A motorsport.
And so, with a top speed of 149mph, a 0-60mph time of 6.5sec and a bigger spoiler than the iconic Ferrari F40, this is the definitive super-saloon of its era.
Less than 1600 were sold in the UK, and ill-advised handbrake turns, high-speed pursuits and WRC re-enactments have caused more than half of them to vanish from our roads, so prices for the best examples are beginning to nudge £100,000 these days.
*Lancia Delta HF Integrale 1987-1994*
The flame-spitting High Fidelity version of the Delta is already one of the most collectable cars of its time, commanding as much as £150,000 in its most desirable forms. The 16v variant sent around 200bhp from a turbocharged Fiat twin-cam four-pot to all four wheels, did 0-62mph in less than 6.0sec and won six consecutive World Rally Championship titles.
*Volkswagen Golf GTI 1984-1992*
Values for the Giugiaro-designed original Golf GTI are approaching the unfeasible, but the stockier Mk2 is a worthy alternative. Avoid some of the dubious modifications applied during the Max Power era and you can nab a clean 8v or 16v for about £3500. Wolfsburg’s talent for durability means high mileages are common, but rust is a problem.
*Renault Clio Williams 1993-1998*
The Williams team actually had no input with this Clio, although it was used as an F1 safety car in 1996. Despite the tenuousness of the link, the Williams was more than just a styling upgrade for the Clio 16v. With an extra 200cc and power boosted to 145bhp, this 918kg pocket rocket was a riot on the straights, while beefier suspension helped it in the twisties.
*Honda Civic Type R 2001-2006*
Based on the seventh-generation Civic, the EP3 was the first Type R officially sold here. This is a three-door hatchback that packs 197bhp, can crack 147mph and can now be bought for less than £4000. Go for a post-2003 example if you can, because the facelift brought tighter steering that many feel improved the Civic’s dynamic behaviour.
*Bentley Turbo R 1985-1997*
Even if the new Flying Spur is the most impressive Bentley in recent memory, it remains largely unattainable for most, courtesy of its £170,000 price. So let’s set our sights on the straight-edged Turbo R, produced from 1985 to 1999 and available today from just £10,000.
That’s right: you can bag this 2.5-tonne luxury behemoth for the price of a used Ford Fiesta, and the acres of sumptuous leather and burbling 6.75-litre V8 are unlikely to leave you feeling short-changed. Too good to be true? Not quite, but abandon all hope of bargain motoring, all ye who enter here.
Find a well-maintained Turbo R with blemish-free bodywork and a rebuilt engine and you could be quids in, but you’ll still have to stomach astronomical servicing and repair bills in future. Get on first-name terms with the staff at your local petrol station, too, because you’ll spend lots of time on their forecourts.
But if you have the means, few cars exude such effortless style.
*Citroen CX 1985-1991*
Embodying Citroën’s commitment to cushioning, the radically styled CX saloon is best in Series 2 form, thanks to sharper looks, a revamped interior and improved rustproofing. Engines are durable and the 25 GTi Turbo 2 is pleasingly punchy, but keep your eye on the tricky hydraulic suspension.
*Lexus LS 400 1989-1994*
For how much longer will you be able to buy an LS for £1500? Act quickly before the hordes catch on. Its draws include a tough and torquey V8, tech still found only on premium cars and a lush ride. You could spend your next million miles in the lap of luxury, then sell it on in the same condition.
*BMW 7 Series 1994-2001*
James Bond’s radio-controlled version was sadly fantastical, but the E38 is so surprisingly engaging you’ll want to stay in the driving seat. The V8s are plentiful; the V12 offers a lot of bang for your buck and the 728i uses one of BMW’s creamiest-ever straight-sixes.
*Alfa Romeo 66 1996-2007*
The 166 was named Britain’s worst depreciator in 2009, falling to 14.4% of its price after just three years. It’s a shame it wasn’t popular, because it had refinement and character on its side. Lusso models with the 237bhp V6 now command upwards of £6000.
*Range Rover 1969-1996*
How better to celebrate the recent 50th anniversary of one of Britain’s best-loved automotive exports than by getting behind the wheel of it?
The brief for the original Range Rover was about as clear-cut as any car that has ever been built: inject some luxury flair into Land Rover’s go-anywhere reputation with the aim of creating “a car for all seasons”. Did it work? Did it heck. When Autocar first drove Spen King’s two-door creation, we reckoned it was “even more deserving of success” than the revered Land Rover, and it has now come to be seen as a turning point in Britain’s storied motoring past.
Originally powered by a lightweight yet sturdy Buick-derived 3.5-litre V8 and packing modern chassis hardware, including disc brakes and coil-sprung suspension, the Mk1 Range Rover impressed us not just with its rugged dependability on the rough stuff but also for its uniqueness in offering equal capability on the asphalt. Today’s Mk4 Range Rover is similarly dual-natured, although you’re unlikely to find a 2020 Vogue atop Scafell Pike.
*Suzuki SJ410 1986-1995*
Avoiding modifications is a good rule of thumb when buying any used car, but unmolested examples of Suzuki’s oh-so-1980s baby off-roader are rare. Don’t baulk at winches, lift kits and chunky tyres, but huge roll cages and crudely made rear beds aren’t so easily removable. You’ll have to be patient, but you could bag a gem.
*Volkswagen Type 2 Sychro Doka 1984-1992*
This 4x4 crew-cab pick-up was rare when it was new and is now on a par with hen’s teeth. Most have had their 78bhp water-cooled boxer engines swapped out for a Passat diesel or a Subaru flat four. But irrespective of motive power, the T3 seems to be the next VW in line to surge in value, so grab the rarer variants while you can.
*Fiat Panda 4x4 1983-2003*
Is there any stronger proof of ‘bigger isn’t always better’? The Panda’s tiny 965cc engine puffs out just 48bhp, but its Steyr-Puch 4x4 system makes it unstoppable off road. It has become one of the most fashionable modern classics going, but rust has plagued it here, so consider looking in Italy.
*Jeep Wrangler 1996-2006*
Squint enough and the TJ could be the current Wrangler, such is Jeep’s commitment to its round lights and seven-vent grille. It’s much cheaper, though; while the hordes are swarming the Land Rover Defender, you can pick up a mint TJ with the coveted 4.0 straight six for £8000.
*Lotus Esprit 1993-2004*
You would be wise to approach any ageing Lotus with trepidation. After all, this is a brand historically not associated with rigid quality control or bulletproof engineering.
But you would need to swallow only a fairly small brave pill before buying a Series 4 Esprit. Better to drive than past iterations, thanks to power steering, anti-lock brakes and a reconfigured cabin, it’s still a supercar that you can use daily.
Build quality was improved vastly, too, and the turbocharged 2.2-litre four-cylinder motor was reliable without any compromise, pumping out 264bhp and 290lb ft.
If that doesn’t quite satisfy you, there’s the 350bhp V8 Turbo, but beware: this is fragile and highly strung, so it helps to be handy with the spanners as well as the wheel.
*Audi R8 2006-2015*
It seems like yesterday when Audi launched its first supercar, making it all the more astonishing that you can today buy an R8 for less than £30,000. It’ll be a V8 and probably have more than its fair share of scuffs and peeling tint, but still: buy cheap, fix properly and enjoy.
*Nissan Skyline GT-R 1995-1998*
With its rev-hungry twin-turbo six, five-speed manual gearbox and trick four-wheel drive system, the R33 is a kind of car that no longer gets made. It rather pales in comparison with its formidable successors but is now seen as a turning point for modern supercars, and prices are on the up.
*Maserati Bora 1971-1978*
Volkswagen’s Bora is an anonymous saloon of the 2000s; Maserati’s is a Giugiaro-penned masterpiece of a supercar that offers a choice of two sonorous V8s and competitive handling. It’s cheaper than its contemporary Italian rivals, too; £140,000 buys you a clean 1973 car, compared with £340,000 for a Ferrari 246 Dino of the same vintage.
*Porsche 911 Turbo 2001-2005*
Arguably the best-loved version of the least-loved 911, the first water-cooled 911 Turbo is a cost-effective canyon carver. Popular condemnation of the 996 centres on its flat six’s fragility, but the Turbo’s 408bhp Mezger motor is much more solid – and potent.
*Volvo 850 R 1995-1997*
Can you imagine a car like the 850 R estate making production today? Here was a conservatively styled, front-wheel-drive, two-box wagon wielding nearly 250bhp from a turbocharged 2.3-litre straight five and capable of a 0-62mph time of 6.7sec. And, perhaps most strangely, it wore a Volvo badge.
Such lunacy seems surreal these days, but that only serves to heighten the appeal of this brickish brute. Perhaps as a result of the standard 850’s hilarious but surprisingly impressive performance in the British Touring Car Championship, the estate has built a sizeable and loyal fanbase that covets the hot R variant particularly.
A resemblance to Volvo’s more staid models gives it a certain Q-car appeal, its performance potential given away only by a subtle rear spoiler, lowered suspension, front sports seats and liberal use of Alcantara throughout the cabin. Also, it’s a Volvo, so it’s more solid than the bulk of its 1990s performance rivals, and because it should stand the test of time so well, your investment will be as safe as your passengers.
*Toyota Hiace 1982-1989*
Before the SUV came the MPV, and before that we had ‘cars’ like this. Essentially a panel van with benches welded into the rear and windows added, the Hiace is a quirky, likeable people carrier that has more cachet than most and avoids the ‘scene tax’ of Volkswagen vans. It’s rare, though, so consider an imported left-hooker.
*Renault Espace 1984-1991*
If you had bet 30 years ago on the Espace becoming an appreciating asset, you would be laughing now. This pointy MPV set the benchmark for affordable family transport with a light fibreglass body mounted on a stiff monocoque and has truly come of age. Expect to pay at least £2000 for a runner – if you can find one.
*Mercedes-Benz E-Class Estate 1985-1996*
We named the W124 the best used car in the world in 2008, and that would still be true today if values hadn’t risen substantially in the 12 intervening years. A starting price of around £3500 means this swank tank is nudging true classic status, but its characteristic indestructibility sets it up for continued daily service.
*Saab 9-5 Estate 1998-2010*
Get past the ‘tarted-up Vauxhall Vectra’ jibes and the original 9-5 is an affordable and appealing route into Saab ownership. Spacious, good looking and available with a storming 247bhp 2.3-litre engine, its continued popularity serves as a reminder of why the Swedish brand is so sorely missed in enthusiast circles.
*Driving the secret cars of Toyota's heritage collection *
*BMW E39 5 Series: Autocar buys a modern classic *
*James Ruppert: How to net a modern classic*