Scan the latest collector-car auction results and you may conclude that owning any of the best classic European cars to drive is simply out of your price range. Or, you may think the only classic European cars you can afford won’t drive very well. Nonsense! While the rising tide of collector-car values has certainly lifted many vehicles to price tags few people could imagine a decade or two ago, there are still plenty of affordable classic European cars that are fun to drive, and that will fit even a modest $10,000 budget. Here are five of our picks for the best budget classic European cars for $10,000 or less, so open your wallet and get driving.
1970-1979 Volkswagen Beetle
It doesn’t seem all too long ago that Volkswagen’s ubiquitous Beetle was still used in large numbers as an inexpensive means of daily transportation. While you’ll still see the occasional Bug that gets used every day as a real car, by now many of the Bugs left that are worth saving have been treated to mechanical and cosmetic refurbishing that relegates them to fair-weather weekend play things.
Because seeing a VW Beetle isn’t a daily occurrence for most people, the German People’s Car is now considered more of a recreational classic. Still, the vast amount of parts, service, and club support for these air-cooled, flat-four-powered coupes and convertibles is still as strong as ever. Best of all, they’re great, affordable classic European cars to drive.
The early Beetles from the 1950s have become extremely collectible and, as a result, their price has increased beyond our $10,000 limit, unless you’re looking at a rusty and incomplete restoration project. Examples from the 1960s are still quite desirable and often exceed our price as well, so to get the most bang for your buck, choose from the final series of Beetles sold from 1970-79 in the U.S.
These cars have larger safety bumpers, refreshed interiors, and larger exterior lighting that collectors find less desirable, but frankly they make the Beetle better-suited to today’s roads for people who actually want to drive their cars, rather than just look at them. The Beetle’s air-cooled engine also went up in size and power as the model progressed, and today you’ll find many Beetles for sale have had rebuilt engines with some performance modifications. Another advantage to later cars is that both manual and automatic transmissions are available, so knowing how to drive a conventional stick-shift isn’t essential. For our $10,000 budget, even a late-model Beetle cabriolet shouldn’t be out of the picture, and it will give plenty of top-down miles and smiles.
1975-1994 Alfa Romeo Spider (115 Series)
Alfa Romeo has produced various post-war Spider models for decades, from the early Giulietta Spiders which are now fantastically out of our price limit, up to the Kamm-tail Spiders of the 1970s through the early 1990s. It’s these later cars (115-series in Alfa speak) that you’ll want to seek out, starting with examples from about 1975. Late series-2 Spiders had larger rubber bumpers and Alfa’s sometimes-finicky Spica mechanically fuel-injected 2.0-liter inline-four engine, but were somewhat strangled for power after being detuned for U.S. emissions regulations.
Starting in 1983 with series-3 Spiders, more-advanced Bosch electronic fuel injection began to return power and drivability to the model, and in 1986 interiors were modernized significantly. It’s these cars, with their rubber ducktail spoilers and trim levels of Graduate and Spider Veloce that you’ll most often see in our price range; you should be able to bag a good example with reasonable miles that’s been lovingly kept for less than our price cap.
Series-4 cars from 1992 were treated to an even more modern refresh inside and out, with better-integrated plastic bumpers; with patience and a bit of luck, you can find one of these for 10 grand or less too. With Italian style and sounds plus top-down driving fun, an Alfa Spider is an excellent pick. Parts are still available through a variety of U.S. vendors (and even Alfa Romeo itself, in some cases), and prices aren’t outrageous, making them an excellent choice as one of the best classic European cars to drive.
Imported to the U.S. in large numbers from around 1962-1980, nearly two decades of MGB production are still available today for bargain-hunting classic car lovers. These cheap and cheerful MGs are small, rear-drive two-seaters with 1.8-liter, four-cylinder engines and four-speed manual transmissions. Parts and service availability in the U.S. remain strong; service costs are quite affordable, with relatively inexpensive parts and an easy-to-work-on design. Think of the MGB as a fantastic entry point to the budget European classic car hobby.
So, which one to choose when it comes to looking for the best classic European cars to drive? Here are the basics.
From the MGB’s inception until about 1967, these models are the earliest, purest MGBs … and they make collectors go nuts. Their metal dashboards, center-lock hubs with wire-spoke wheels, and slender chrome bumpers did much for their style—but virtually nothing for crash safety. These are the most expensive MGBs today, but from time to time a car still pops up in decent condition for $10,000 or less.
A padded dashboard appeared in 1968; in 1974, new, larger-rubber 5-mph impact bumpers were added to the lineup.
Collectors generally aren’t interested in cars coming after these years, which means you can score a nice example for about half of our $10,000 limit. Don’t like convertibles? Check out the pretty Pininfarina-designed MGB GT coupes with a practical hatchback body style that allows easier road trips and grocery-getting drives.
1983-1988 Porsche 944
You’ve been reading Automobile for years and consequently know all about the run-up in Porsche values, especially for early air-cooled models. Think you’ll never be able to afford a P-car? Think again.
The 944 isn’t Porsche’s sexiest or most collectible model, but it’s an honest-to-goodness Porsche-engineered grand tourer. It’s comfortable, easy to drive, and has great handling due to a front-engine, rear-transaxle design that results in near 50/50 weight distribution. With a rear lift-up glass hatch, spacious cargo area, and two small rear seats, the 944 is even practical enough to be driven daily or taken on longer road trips.
All 944s came with four-cylinder engines under their hoods, but realistically, the later and more powerful 16-valve and turbocharged models are out of our $10,000 price range, unless you’re looking for a project car. Opt instead for a 1983-1988 2.5- or 2.7-liter naturally aspirated example that’s been well maintained with lots of service receipts to prove it.
Specifically, make sure the car’s rubber drive belts are within replacement intervals; when the timing-belt breaks, engine damage is virtually guaranteed. Halfway through 1985, 944s received a significant 928-esque interior refresh, which ditched the 1970s-tastic, 924-style cabin for an “oval dash” design that is far more modern and luxurious feeling, with improved ventilation to boot. And join the Porsche Club of America when you buy a 944, as the wealth of support, member perks and activities, and knowledge is well worth the modest membership fee for what is probably the best classic European car to drive
1976-1985 Mercedes-Benz W123 Sedan
“Gee,” you say, “all these cheap European sports cars sound like a ton of fun, but I’m old, and I have kids and/or dogs. A two-seat car just doesn’t cut it any longer. What should I buy?”
Mercedes sold W123s as coupes and wagons, making these models quite desirable. Consequently finding a good one can take healthy amounts of both effort and luck in the $10,000-or-less price range.
Instead, as you search for one of the best classic European cars to drive, opt for the sedan which represents 88 percent of W123 production volume, and try to find a five-cylinder diesel model for maximum reliability. The oil-burners are known to shrug-off huge mileage like nothing else, routinely going 500,000 miles between rebuilds—though you’ll probably replace a transmission or two, as well as a good number of other parts along the way.
Fortunately, when it comes to this example of the best classic European cars to drive, parts supply is still very good. Additionally, knowledgeable mechanics are plentiful. The cars are large, heavy, and still impressive, but they were built to a quality standard, not a price. As a result, they’re tough as nails and luxurious to drive, but 280 D models are as slow as your old Commodore 64 computer; these are cruisers, not performance cars. The later 300 Turbodiesel models are the ones to pick, and if you get lucky, you can even find one with a rare manual transmission.
Best Classic European Cars to Drive
- 1970-1979 Volkswagen Beetle
- 1975-1994 Alfa Romeo Spider (115 Series)
- 1962-1980 MGB
- 1983-1988 Porsche 944
- 1976-1985 Mercedes-Benz W123 Sedan