When you consider the list of influential cars that failed to make the cut, you begin to understand the complexities of the subject. Even deciding on the best era is tricky; some enthusiasts refuse to accept that a classic car can stem from the 1990s or the new millennium.
Spoiler alert: we’re not about to name the best classic car, but we have created a list of greats. You’ll almost certainly find one of the following vehicles at a classic car show this summer, and in the majority of cases, they’re still relatively affordable.
If you’re thinking of buying your first classic, here are 10 cars to get you started.
The MGB is the archetypal British sports car and the first car many people think of when they consider dipping their toes into the classic car market. It’s not hard to see why; the MGB is great to drive, easy on the eye and backed by an excellent support network. Parts are in good supply and there’s no shortage of specialist help if things go wrong. The roadster is great if you’re after some fun in the sunshine, but the classic lines of the Pininfarina-designed GT give the look of a baby Aston Martin. The MGB remained in production for nearly two decades.
Over three generations and nearly two decades, the Ford Capri cemented itself as one Britain’s best-loved cars. Launched in 1969, the original Capri was inspired by the Mustang, and like its American cousin, it was based on the platform of a mainstream Ford. In the Capri’s case, it was the Cortina, but a range of engines, from a frugal 1.3-litre to a sonorous 3.0 V6, meant that there was a Capri for everyone. After a period of decline following the end of production in 1986, the Capri’s reputation has been restored and values are on the up. It’s the classic car you always promised yourself.
Citroen’s back catalogue is filled with influential and innovative cars. The list includes the likes of the Traction Avant, DS, SM, GS, CX and BX, each one important or pioneering for different reasons. The 2CV should be held aloft as one of the greats, not least for its role in mobilising an entire nation at the end of World War Two. Launched in 1948, the 2CV won a legion of fans thanks to its simple construction and basic mechanicals, which led to production continuing until 1990. You’re unlikely to reach your destination in record time, but you’ll have fun getting there.
Enzo Ferrari called it ‘the most beautiful car in the world’. Sixty years on, it’s hard to disagree with his assessment of the Jaguar E-type; few cars could stake a stronger claim to the title. Mr Ferrari wouldn’t thank us for asking this, but is the Lamborghini Miura more beautiful than the E-type? One thing’s for sure, the E-type made a big impression when it was unveiled at the 1961 Geneva Motor Show. A glamorous body, wild performance claims and a relatively affordable price made it an instant hit. Later V12 versions remain relatively ‘cheap’ to this day, but you’ll pay handsomely for an early six-cylinder example.
Built in response to the rise of the bubble car, the 1959 Mini was one of the best cars ever built in Britain. Designed by Alec Issigonis, the Mini was originally called the Austin Se7en and Morris Mini-Minor, with the first Cooper arriving in 1961. It was an utterly classless car, loved by everyone from film stars to students, and catwalk models to pensioners. Success on the racetrack and rally stage elevated the Mini to greatness, while the car’s role in The Italian Job film made it a hero of the big screen. Production of the Mini continued until 2000.
The Triumph Stag should have been one of the greatest sports cars of the 1970s. It had everything going for it: gorgeous styling by Giovanni Michelotti, the power of a V8 engine and a badge synonymous with sporting pedigree. Unfortunately, the Triumph-designed 3.0-litre V8 engine was riddled with problems, while the questionable build quality was par for the course for a British car from the 1970s. If only Triumph had fitted the ex-Buick 3.5-litre V8 instead of building its own. On the plus side, most problems will have been ironed out by now and the Stag is backed by an excellent network of enthusiasts and parts suppliers.
The Saab 96 was a development of the 92, a car that dates back to 1949. Credit must go to the Swedish company for unveiling a car that felt all-new when the first right-hand-drive Saabs went on display at the 1960 British Motor Show. Highlights included independent suspension and, from 1962, front seatbelts. Dual-circuit brakes arrived in 1964. The 96 was also a successful rally car, particularly at the hands of Erik ‘on the roof’ Carlsson. The Swedish driver won the RAC Rally in 1960, 1961 and 1962, then the Monte Carlo rally in 1962 and 1963.
The Lotus Elan was so influential, Mazda used it as inspiration for the phenomenally successful MX-5. Launched in 1962, the Elan redefined the sports car, setting a new benchmark for performance and handling. Power was sourced from a Ford-Lotus 1.6-litre twin-cam engine producing around 100hp. A modest output in 2022, but the Elan weighed little more than a bag of flour, so it made full use of the power at its disposal. The Elan evolved over four series until production stopped in 1973. Can’t afford the real thing? The Mazda MX-5 is a great pretender.
First unveiled at the 1963 Frankfurt motor show as the 901, the Porsche was renamed ‘911’ for its market launch in 1964. Few cars truly deserve to be called ‘iconic’, but the 911 is worthy of the status. In its original form, the 2.0-litre flat-six engine produced 130hp, with the four-cylinder 912 arriving in 1965. The 160hp 911 S and 911 Targa arrived in 1966, and the rest is history. The 928 of 1977 was supposed to replace the 911, but that never happened, as the 911 continued to go from strength to strength, taking full advantage of a buoyant market in the 1980s.
This was Britain’s answer to the Citroen DS. Named European Car of the Year in 1964, the Rover P6 boasted the likes of all-round disc brakes, an advanced suspension system and an ergonomically designed interior. These elements, along with its ‘safety frame’ construction, in which outer panels were bolted to a steel monocoque, made it one of the most trailblazing cars of the 1960s. The 2000 and 2200 models are ideal starter classics, but we’d suggest splashing out on a 3500 V8. The ex-Buick engine makes all the right noises and gives the pioneering P6 the power it deserves.
A dedicated classic car policy is the best option. You’ll need access to an everyday car, as a classic can’t be your primary means of transport, but the annual premiums will be significantly lower than a standard policy. Most companies will consider a classic policy when a car hits its 20th birthday, but you should contact a few insurers for more details. Other insurers restrict classic policies to drivers over the age of 21 or 25.
Once upon a time, we wouldn’t have recommended using a classic car for the daily commute, but old cars aren’t as ‘old’ as they used to be. In other words, a car built around the turn of the millennium is likely to be reliable, relatively safe, comfortable and have some of the mod-cons we take for granted today. Rust can be a big problem, even for relatively modern classics, so think about that before driving on salted roads in winter.
Wikipedia says a classic car is ‘an older car, typically 25 years or older’. Does that mean that a car registered in 1997 is a classic? That’s up for debate, but it’s worth remembering that the original Ford Focus arrived in 1998 and is certainly a car worthy of classic status. In general, a classic car should tick one of the following boxes: influential in some way, technologically groundbreaking, a big seller or a success on the track. As the market shows, even the most mundane and forgettable cars are destined to eventually become classics.
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