How to Choose the Best First Classic Car
Choosing the best first classic car doesn’t have to be difficult. Even if you’re buying the first car you’ve ever owned, you can take steps to avoid getting ripped off. Using resources such as the forums can help equip you with valuable pre-purchase information. Here are a few important things to consider when choosing a classic.
Price is the first factor that comes to mind. After all, you wouldn’t want to pay top dollar for a mid-range car. Before negotiating, check websites like Autotrader Classics and Hemmings and get an idea of what the car is worth.
What kind of car are you looking for? Do you want a restored turn-key daily driver or a project? Be sure to assess the condition of the car before taking it home. Project cars are fun, but they can consume an enormous amount of time and money.
How far are you willing to go for the right car? Expanding your search distance can vastly improve the chances that you’ll find the right fit. Today you can easily search thousands of dealerships and private listings using online resources.
So what first vintage car should you buy? At the end of the day, it’s up to you. But we’ve been though dozens of old and unique cars, and we’ve learned a thing or two about the U.S. market. Here are our picks for the top 15 best first classic cars to buy.
15. Mercury Cougar
It seems like everybody’s uncle had a green Mercury Cougar with a black vinyl top back in the day. It probably had a 302 and an automatic transmission, vinyl seats, and an ‘upgraded’ Radio Shack Realistic cassette radio.
As far as affordable classic cars go, the Cougar does pretty well. You’re not going to pay Camaro or Cuda prices for one. But you can still turn heads and set off car alarms with Flowmaster Super 10s.
The Cougar is a good-looking classic with a popular small block Ford V8, so parts are plentiful. Body parts are available too, and it’s iconic. It’s a great starter classic if you’re new to the community, and a perfectly respectable car if you aren’t.
Price Range: $2,500 to $50,000
14. Pontiac GTO
Some argue that the original Pontiac GTO was the most influential (or first) muscle car ever. They’ve made documentaries about it. You’ve seen them at car shows, and virtually every classic car guy knows what they are. It’s a GM product from before GM became… GM.
The original GTO was produced between 1964 and 1974, but the most desirable years are from the late 1960s. In 1968, the GTO won Motor Trend’s ‘Car of the Year’ award. Well deserved, too—it was a rocket ship.
Why is the Pontiac GTO a good first classic car? It’s highly recognizable, came with a big pre-smog V8, and it’s a perfect representation of what a muscle car is supposed to be. Plus, there’s a huge aftermarket and replacement parts market. You’ll pay thousands of dollars for a nice one, but it’s well worth the price.
Price Range: $10,000 to $110,000
13. Dodge Charger
The Dodge Charger is an American muscle car icon. Few names in the community have more acclaim. You’ll see it in the movies, on TV shows, and at nearly every parking lot where car club members congregate.
The Charger (especially 1969 models) command a hefty price tag. But with the famous Mopar HEMI V8, you’re sure to get your money’s worth. A 1960s Charger is a universally respected vehicle and a hell of a first classic car.
Price Range: $6,500 to $200,000
12. Chevrolet Bel Air
The Chevrolet Bel Air is THE quintessential classic American car. Looking at this vehicle conjures up images of drive-in diners, jukeboxes, and the Red Scare. It doesn’t get more ’50s than this.
The 1955 to 1957 Bel Air is one of the most desirable classics around, and they’re not as affordable as they used to be. However, if you manage to get your hands on one, it’s definitely worth keeping around.
The Chevrolet Bel Air is ideal for people who want an antique car as an investment. The pink 1957 two-door shown above is a pristine example, and it represents what you’re likely to find at a dealership or high-end auction.
Price Range: $2,000 to $250,000
11. Buick Electra
The Buick Electra. Yes, the Buick Electra is a great first classic car. Not because it’s particularly fast or iconic; but because it’s a great all-around classic to own. The 1966 model shown above is precisely what we’re talking about.
It’s probably not a muscle car; at least not the earlier versions. Instead, it’s a nice big car that hearkens back to a time when fuel was cheap and suspension actually absorbed bumps.
Road feedback from the steering wheel? Nope, forget about that. This is an Electra, and it’s designed to be a comfortable and reasonably powerful highway vehicle. It’s affordable, easy to drive, and plenty of fun for cruising on Saturday nights.
Price Range: $7,500 to $60,000
10. Literally Any 1960s Cadillac
Do you want an absurdly long car with an even bigger V8? Do you also want to be the slowest car in the neighborhood? If you answered ‘yes’ to any of these questions, then consider literally any 1960s Cadillac.
Yes, the luxury vehicle market in the 1960s was a hilarious car-measuring contest between Cadillac and Lincoln. But there’s something to be said for these massive cars. They’re genuinely comfortable. And they represent a time in American automobile manufacturing that we’ll never see again.
The 1962 Cadillac SixtyTwo above has the turning radius of an oil tanker. Yet driving it doesn’t suck—in fact, it’s a rare and enjoyable experience. Cadillac is a car for someone who appreciates automobiles for more than speed. It’s elegant and truly owns the road.
Price Range: $3,000 to $115,000
9. Toyota Celica GT
What? An Import? Yes, an import. The late 70s was a rather… beige time in car history. Once mighty V8s like the 302 Windsor and the Chevy 350 were smogged up and bogged down. There was little hope for muscle cars.
Then something interesting happened. An overseas manufacturer took a 2.2-liter four-cylinder engine (the 22R) and dropped it in a familiar body. The 1970-1977 Toyota Celica GT looked like a muscle car, handled like a 1990s Subaru, and saved gas like a Yaris.
A mere 95 horsepower propelled this minuscule 2500lb car along surprisingly well, and it handled better than almost anything on the road at the time. If you want fuel economy and modern driving experience, the Toyota Celica GT may be the right first classic car for you.
Price Range: $1,500 to $18,000
8. AMC Gremlin
This is the car for the eccentrics amongst us. It’s weird. Or, ‘bold,’ if you prefer to look at it that way. Nonetheless, there’s no denying the critical role that the 1970-1978 AMC Gremlin played in classic car culture.
The Gremlin used to be dirt cheap. These days, that’s not the case. Why? Because (as with most strange but loveable cars), the Gremlin has a considerable cult following. If you’re into the unconventional, then the straight-six AMC Gremlin may be the ideal first classic car for you.
Price Range: $4,500 to $62,000
7. Chevrolet Camaro
What can I say about the Camaro that hasn’t already been said? Guys go nuts for these things. Every car show has a row of SS-clone Camaros with crate 383 strokers and little white Hurst shifters. But there’s a good reason for that.
The 1968 Camaro shown above is one of the most iconic muscle cars available. They’re not cheap, but building one is. So why choose a Camaro as your first classic car? For one, they came with small-block Chevy motors, which are the most popular V8s ever. Buy one, daily-drive it, and build it as you please.
Price Range: $8,500 to $400,000
6. Dodge Polara
What the hell is a Polara? Back in the day, you could pick up a used police Polara at auction for a thousand dollars or less. Today, these cars occupy the top spots at classic auto dealers. Why? Because the only thing a Polara couldn’t pass was a gas station.
Specifically, we’re talking about the 1969 Dodge Polara 440. It’s the holy grail of Mopar squad cars and possibly the fastest police car of the time. If you have some extra cash to spend, it’s worth considering the Polara as a first muscle car. It’s crazy fast with its 440 HEMI, but it’ll cost you.
Price Range: $4,000 to $150,000
5. Pontiac Firebird
The Pontiac Firebird is one of the more recognizable GM muscle cars of the 1960s and 1970s. The 1969 Firebird Trans Am shown above is a favorite amongst muscle car enthusiasts. It looks real mean from the front.
So why the Pontiac Firebird? For one, it’s a badass example from the height of the muscle car era. Like the Camaro, you’ll find lots of them with the ubiquitous small-block Chevy V8. All around, it’s a great car to buy (and keep) if you’re into classics.
Price Range: $5,000 to $155,000
4. Chevrolet Nova
The Chevy Nova is perhaps the best entry-level muscle car available. Back in the 70s, nobody ‘dreamed’ of having a Nova. Car guys saw them how we see Volkswagen Tiguans today. A decent car, gets people places, not really a head-turner.
But today, the Nova has that muscle car look that many people seek, and at an affordable price. The Nova is quite popular with hot-rodders. A decent Nova costs half of what you’d pay for a 67 Camaro, and you can hot-rod or engine swap it to your heart’s content.
Early-to-mid 1960s Novas are the most desirable, especially in coupe configuration. For the more ‘muscle’ look, consider a 1968-1974 Nova. After 1974, the Nova got smogged-out and ’70s-ified’ though some people still like the look of the later models.
Price Range: $4,000 to $145,000
3. Plymouth Duster
The Plymouth Duster 340 is my favorite classic car. Back in the mid-1970s, my dad’s high school buddies drove these. It was A LOT of car for very little money. This lightweight muscle car came with a 340 V8, which was plenty of power.
You can find a Duster pretty cheap these days, and it’s a great first car for Mopar fans. But if you look for Duster, make sure you find one with an actual 340. Some people swapped 318s and 360s into these cars, which is fine, but the original 340 was a true pre-smog motor.
Also, don’t buy a slant-six Duster and assume you can just ‘drop in a V8’ with ease. I almost made that mistake. I can hear the Mopar guys laughing at me already.
Price Range: $6,500 to $70,000
2. Ford Mustang
The Ford Mustang earns a high spot on this list. I shouldn’t have to explain why. The Mustang was one of the first muscle cars to reach the American public en masse. It changed car styling and marketing forever. Ford sold insane quantities of these things, so they’re likely the most affordable (and probably most recognizable) muscle car available today.
The Ford Mustang came most often with a straight-six or one of several Windsor V8s. And why argue? The 1964-1973 Ford Mustang is the most recognizable American muscle car ever, no contest.
The Mustang community is enormous, and there’s a limitless supply of reproduction aftermarket parts available for this car. In many places, you can still find roller Mustangs for $3,000 or less.
Price Range: $3,500 to $375,000
1. Volkswagen Beetle
The Volkswagen Beetle earns the top spot on this list for several reasons. As far as classic cars go, bugs are DIRT CHEAP. You can find running and driving VW Beetles almost anywhere for less than $2,000. I saw one on Craigslist last year for $350; just needed a battery. Parts cost nothing—you can almost build a brand new bug from the JBugs catalog.
Everybody loves the Beetle, despite its… questionable origins. You can drop the engine in your garage and repair just about anything with minimal experience. There’s no better entry-level classic car anywhere. With a production run of over 30 million cars, you’ll be able to keep your bug on the road forever. And for some reason, they’re a blast to drive.
Price Range: $1,500 to $40,000
So that’s our list of the 15 best classic cars for beginners. If you’ve got a comment or suggestion, leave a comment on social media. Buying (and driving) your first classic car is an unforgettable experience, and we hope you enjoy it as much as we did. Let’s keep the culture alive.
About THE AUTHOR
I rebuild & restore classic cars and trucks when I'm not researching and writing about all things automotive. My current project is a 1978 Ford.Read more about Joshua Weinstein