True car enthusiasts have reverence for certain classic models — dream cars so special they deserve periodic online searches for someday. But someday too often comes after the market has priced those classics beyond most budgets. The ebb and flow of the classic car market means that values of many models have dropped in recent years, while others are one exciting televised auction away from climbing slightly out of reach. From luxury rides to muscle cars to sports cars from all over the world, here are dream machines that can be realities for a few thousand dollars more than the average price of a new car.
The best examples of any air-cooled 911 can be found at or over six figures, but many good 911s can still be found for under $40,000 — if you aren’t put off by some mileage on cars from the 1980s and early to mid-1970s. The most bang for your buck might come in the form of the more modern 996 and 997-era cars, which are due for a “water-cooled 911s weren’t so bad after all” resurgence.
BMW M5 (E39)
Any M5 at or under $40,000 is worth consideration, although if you’re looking at “dream cars” and “future classics,” the E39 is the logical way to go since there are still lower-mileage examples out there at the price. Many consider these 1999–2003 models the apex of the M5, with a balance of power and chassis capability placing it among the best sport sedans ever.
Enzo Ferrari was far from alone in proclaiming Jaguar’s E-Type “the most beautiful car ever made.” Beyond beauty, the E-Type delivered high performance for its era that translates even today, especially with the classic Jaguar V12 under its long, sweeping bonnet (hood). Full-restoration candidates are easily found under $40,000, but there are some needing only mild restoration — or none at all, as well.
The wedge is good. The wedge works. The collector market may be starting to catch onto the Esprit, but with five generations ranging from the mid-1970s to the mid-2000s, there are enough out there to find a decent-to-good one under $40,000. Get the best deal possible and save the balance for your local Lotus whisperer; you’ll be glad you did.
Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud
There are a good number of 1980s-era Silver Spurs, Silver Shadows and Corniches to be had under $40,000, but the odd 1950s Silver Cloud pops up as well. The Silver Cloud has old-school charm and class inside and out. Be mindful of rust and live it up a little.
Lancia Delta Integrale
Keep a sharp eye on your favorite online automotive classifieds and you’ll occasionally find a Delta Integrale or two, now that they’re legal for import to the United States. Of course conditions vary, but close to $40,000 could net one needing only loving care, allowing you to live out your Group B rally fantasies.
The “daddy” of American muscle cars, Pontiac’s GTO is among the most beloved and sought-after classic cars on the market. Although the best examples command premium prices, there is good news for dreamers: many GTOs exist at or under $40,000 — ranging from the stacked-headlight early models through the curvy, bubbly late 1960s and ‘70s era.
The American sports car fantasy, Corvette posters adorned the walls of many young enthusiasts. That love often carries into adulthood, pushing the value of rare and classic models out of reach for most. Fortunately, General Motors makes a lot of Corvettes, so there are many to choose from. If you’re looking for a classic, bear in mind $40,000 essentially limits you to C3-era or newer, with the occasional C2 Stingray available.
A classic Mustang is a great choice for enthusiast fulfillment in this price range. You’ll find a lot of them out there — from Fastbacks to Mach 1s to convertibles, with a huge aftermarket for parts as needed. Best of all, you can snag a lovingly restored and kept Mustang with a $40,000 ceiling if you don’t have the time or inclination to build one.
Admittedly, almost every Ferrari is a dream car (with apologies to the poor Mondial, which — were it even a little bit cool — would be the best Ferrari for this list), but the real dream for most is the mythical “cheap” Ferrari. Living in the F355’s shadow and with elevated prices on the 308, 328, and Testarossa, 348s can often be found right at or slightly under $40,000 these days. Keep maintenance costs in mind, of course — major services require removing the 348’s engine.
Much like the Mustang, the Camaro’s beauty is manifest in the sheer number of vehicles produced that still exist today. Our $40,000 cap means anything from a full restoration project to a completely rebuilt car with a few years of maintenance records to boot. There’s also a flavor of Camaro for everyone, including RS, SS, and Z28 variants from a variety of years, which can all be found right now.
BMW M3 (E30)
For a good many BMW fans, the original E30-era M3 is still the one to have. As time goes on, opportunities to buy one become scarcer, and prices are on the rise. The good news is that — for now, at least — E30 M3s with higher mileage are still popping up for prices at or under $40,000. If you’re good with a wrench or have a BMW specialist in your area, snag one of these now while you can.
Land Rover Defender
Modern Range Rovers exemplify the luxury SUV: huge, posh grocery getters with leather and wood trim all around for the 1 percent. The Defender, however, harkened to Rover’s earlier years as the go-to off-road vehicle the world over — and looked cool, to boot. Here in the U.S., gray market Defenders tend to be found from the mid- to late-1980s, and in the $40,000 range expect some serious mileage. In any case, make sure the one you’re looking at has the right importation paperwork and is more than 25 years old — the feds love crushing them. However, for the off-roader with an Anglophilic streak there is no substitute.
Mercedes-Benz 230SL Pagoda
The 230SL isn’t a classic only because it looks really cool and kicks out killer 1960s vibes all day long. Its arrival in the U.S. signaled Mercedes-Benz’s arrival as a producer of cars offering a balance of performance, safety and style. And 230SLs have proven to be survivors; better examples can creep up near $100,000, but there are a surprising number available between $25–40,000.
Italian-designed and German-built, the Karmann-Ghia was Volkswagen’s original halo car. Its classic, distinctive body styling makes new fans even today. And a strong enthusiast community means there are many well-kept, restored, and resto-modded Ghias on the market — a great number of which can be had at or under $40,000. Although you can’t put a hand on a Porsche 356 for anything less than $60,000 these days, you can get awfully close here.
Ford’s response to Chevrolet’s Corvette, the Thunderbird became an American icon in its own right, especially the early models from 1955–59. Thunderbirds can get pricey quickly, but many can be found around $40,000. Most at this range will need some mild restoration, so shop carefully and determine what you’re willing to put into the Thunderbird of your dreams.
The Oldsmobile 442 rose in response to Pontiac’s GTO in a bit of General Motors in-house rivalry, but grew to represent the muscle car era as much as any other model. The muscle car market continues to see high value in 442s, but there are plenty to find at $40,000 and under. As always, numbers-matching cars are going to be more desirable, but again there are a good amount at this range, with many in restored or near-restored condition.
Alfa Romeo GTV
Alfa Romeo’s return to the United States has reignited interest in its past, including the GTV. This sexy 2-door is classic Italian car coolness, and while they don’t flood the market, they can be found regularly. Even better, outside of very well-kept one-owner cars or highest-level restorations, most GTVs come in at or under $40,000 these days.