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There’s a love affair with the open road that all car aficionados have a deep understanding of. Cars are an extension of our personalities and represent our interests, styles and even a sense of freedom. But for many drivers, cars go beyond an exciting ride or basic transportation. They’re also an art form, and potentially a valuable one, that speaks to the ingenuity and evolution of society — making them perfect collector’s items.

Popular thought is that once you drive a vehicle off the dealership lot, it significantly depreciates and continues to do so over its lifecycle. And while this is true for many vehicles, there are some that have withstood trends and the test of time. While overwhelming at first, car collecting doesn’t have to be for just experts. In fact, it’s pretty easy to start your own collection with unique budget cars. With a little bit of luck and a lot of research and determination, you can build a portfolio of envious cars on the cheap.

To help you navigate the landscape and get an idea for the values of classic cars, we’ve put together this guide that looks at the classifications, history and examples of different classic car values across ranging budgets.

What Makes a Classic Car | Collector Cars by Era | How Classic Cars are Appraised | A New Era of Classic Cars | Budget Classics | Most Expensive Classic Cars

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What Makes a Classic Car?

The “classic car” moniker is a loosely used term when referring to an old car that doesn’t look like it belongs on the road anymore, yet most collector’s clubs and organizations make the distinction between classic, antique and vintage automobiles. While these terms seem interchangeable, classifications matter when it comes to value and separating one category to the next.

classic car definitions

Classifications can vary depending on state DMV, insurance company and collector’s club, but for the most part, car enthusiasts lump vehicles into three categories:

  • Antique cars (1974 or older):  Vehicles that are over 45 years old. These are typically classified by the era in which they were manufactured.
  • Classic cars (1979-1999): Vehicles that are at least 20 years old but no more than 40 years old. For this reason, all classic cars are antique cars, but not all antique cars are classic cars.
  • Vintage cars (1919 and 1930): One thing that most classic car enthusiasts agree on is that vintage vehicles are those built between 1919 and 1930.

While there are various classifications and each affects the value of a car, there’s also a caveat here. Most people wouldn’t refer to a 1997 Ford Taurus as a “classic” vehicle in regular conversation — even if it fits the technical definition. Yet, most people would consider “muscle cars” like a 1983 Ford Mustang to fall in this category.

Other Classifications:

The Classic Car Club of America is considered by many to have the “definitive” criteria of a classic. Yet a CCCA Classic is considered a “fine” or “unusual” motor car either American or foreign built between 1915 and 1948. In most cases, these vehicles were usually quite expensive when new with relatively low production figures. On the other hand, The Antique Automobile Club of America defines classic automobiles as vehicles that are more than 25 years old.

Because each company has its own definition of a “classic car,” it’s also important to know how the term is defined by lenders and insurers. For example, The Hagerty Group, a major insurer and lending agent for classic and antique vehicles, specifies that due to lower production quality standards, some mid-1970s and 1980s vehicles that would normally be categorized as classic are not considered collectible and therefore may not qualify.

Collector Cars By Era

As we mentioned above, antique cars are those that are over 45 years old and often categorized by the era in which they were manufactured. Antique car classifications are also generally set by state laws (i.e., your local DMV). Let’s take a look at some of the most iconic spans of time for collector cars.

classic cars by era timeline

The Veteran Era (1888–1905)

The Veteran Era represents the beginnings of vehicle transportation. The first car ever built was designed by German engineer, Karl Benz, in 1888 and made successful by his wife, Bertha Benz on a 56-mile road trip from Mannheim to Pforzheim. This “horseless carriage” was highly experimental and powered by either steam, electricity or gas.

Because construction was new, slow and costly, cars created during this era were prone to breaking down due to their many mechanical issues. Regardless, the Veteran Era represents an exciting time in history and what was yet to come.

Noteworthy car: In 2016, a 1896 Armstrong Phaeton gasoline electric hybrid sold for $483,400 at Bonhams.

The Brass Era (1905–1914)

Though vehicles of this time are often mistaken as the first cars on the road, this was actually the second major movement in automobile history. The Brass Era, a name that stems from the brass accessories found on the cars during this period, began in 1905, when the developments in Europe made their way to the United States. It was then that ingenuitive minds like Henry Ford took to building their own vehicles and popular interest gained traction.

Car production changed drastically with the Ford Model T. in 1908. It’s inexpensive production and standardized parts created an interest in vehicle ownership that hadn’t existed before. Demand increased and the assembly line led to a manufacturing boom in the United States that lasted until the Great Depression in the 1930s.

Noteworthy car: In 2016, the 1909 Thomas Motor Car Company’s Flyer Model K 6-70 “Flyabout” sold for $825,000 at Bonhams. It was considered a luxury car in its time, originally priced at $6,000.

The Vintage Era (1918–1929)

The Vintage Car Era followed World War I, a time when factories, machinery and men needed work and promises of better times. This era and its cars are largely represented by the glitz and glamor associated with a carefree time known as the “Roaring Twenties,” The laissez-faire approach to life marked the end of the conservative Victorian Era and continued up until the stock market crash that lead to The Great Depression of 1929 — which almost brought the automobile industry to its knees.

Cars from this era had new features like an enclosed area for passengers, more powerful engines and a quest for comfort over style. By 1925, low purchase prices meant that one in six people had cars. The cost of a Ford Model T. decreased from $800 in 1909 to just $290 by 1925.

Noteworthy car: In 2015, a 1924 Chevrolet Superior F Touring sold for $25,850 through Barrett-Jackson.

Pre-World War II Era (1929–1948)

The pre-World War II era introduced more modern technology to vehicles. Features like integrated fenders, enclosed bodies, trunks, radiators and unified lights were new and sought-after. Despite the many car companies that went out of business during the Great Depression, the American automotive industry was at the beginning of a styling renaissance in the late 1930s.

Creative thinking and innovative designs of General Motors drove the company’s success as over 750,000 cars were sold in 1933. During this time period, cars were designed with progressive and graceful new body styles.

Noteworthy car: In 2017, a 1948 Cadillac Series 62 Cabriolet by Saoutchik sold for $847,500 at RM Sotheby’s.

Post War Era (1948–1972)

It took a few years for the car industry — which had been using its assembly lines to produce tanks and planes — to get back to the business of wowing the public with new cars. When it finally did, longer, lower and wider cars ruled the American road up until the mid-1970s.

After General Motors unveiled its high-compression V8 engine in its Oldsmobile model, there was an instant shift in creating affordable versions of larger, more powerful cars that middle-class families and troops could afford. And in 1964, Ford Motors introduced its Mustang at the World’s Fair, launching a wave of more performance-oriented cars that led to today’s “muscle cars.”

Noteworthy car: In January 2019, a 1964 Ford Mustang Hardtop sold for $192,500 at the Barrett-Jackson collector car auction.

How Classic Cars Are Appraised

how classic cars are appraised

There are many factors that go into determining the value of a classic car including scarcity, condition, restoration quality and market demand. These key elements combined with the classifications below are used to determine the fair market value of a vehicle.

  • Parts car: No value beyond harvesting parts to restore other cars
  • Restorable: Deteriorated but can be restored to some degree
  • Good: Needs minor work to rebuild, has low-quality restoration, and its value can increase if it runs well
  • Very good: Restoration is acceptable and in good condition
  • Fine: Car has been carefully restored and most original components work well
  • Excellent: Perfectly restored or in original mint condition

The New Era of Classic Cars

Every year, the values rise on special cars that were once thought commonplace. But in 2019, the classic car story is a little different — the rise of millennials in the market has changed things significantly. Cars that generations past may not have glanced at seem to be on the upswing. Young buyers are forgoing traditional collector’s favorites and opting for vehicles with a bit more familiarity. Of course, it’s not all millennial-driven, but as the era of classic cars keeps shifting forward, some of the cars on this list might surprise you.

1973 BMW 3.0CSL

  • Original price: $10,214
  • Today’s value: $218,500–$264,700

1989 Saleen Mustang

  • Original price: $14,300
  • Today’s value: $26,400–$32,500

1988 TOYOTA MR2 S/C

  • Original price: $10,999
  • Today’s value: $8,200 –$11,500

1983 Ford Bronco

  • Original price: $10,858
  • Today’s value: $13,400–$18,100

Classic Cars You Can Buy for $5,000

At a glance, the collector market may seem impenetrable to new buyers, but collector cars fall into just about every budget. Some of the best models are frequently affordable and often overlooked gems. If you’re looking to test the waters as a new auto collector, there are some awesome classics out there that won’t break the bank.

1975–81 Triumph TR7

As Hemming’s Daily put it, coming of age in the mid-1970s was a tough time for anyone, but for a sports car (particularly a British one), it couldn’t have been much worse. The Triumph TR7 struggled in the midst of skyrocketing fuel prices and tough emissions laws. Fast forward 44 years and this wedge-shaped vehicle has started to gain popularity among affordable classic sports cars.

  • Average condition: $4,200

1987 Bertone X1/9

Fiat left the US market 37 years ago, making the Bertone X1/9 the holy grail of affordable classic cars. On average, it will run you about $5,000 to get yourself one of these incredibly fun, nimble and extremely lightweight targa top sports cars.

  • Average condition: $5,300

1979–85 Mazda RX-7

There aren’t many unique engine designs on the market anymore, as just about every car has a V6, V8 or a four-cylinder. However, Mazda once offered a motor that didn’t have any cylinders at all. These engines were hugely popular for their incredible rev range, smoothness and high-power output.

  • Average condition: $4,100

1983–86 Ford Mustang 5.0

The Fox-body Ford Mustang is one of the most enduring muscle car icons. While most models have appreciated recently, earlier 5.0-liter LXs have remained remarkably cheap even though they have the same engine as the GT, making them an ideal budget collector’s car.

  • Average condition: $3,500

1990 Volkswagen Corrado

The Volkswagen Corrado is largely forgotten about here in the U.S., although some Volkswagen enthusiasts might still remember them. While it was marketed as a sports car, Volkswagen only sold about 17,000 of them in the U.S. and they were fairly expensive compared to the similarly fun Golf GTI. Fast forward nearly three decades later and you can enjoy this fun ride from the 90s for a fraction of the cost. That is, if you can find one.

  • Average condition: $3,700

Most Expensive Cars Sold at Auction

Automotive aficionados know that there are cars, and then there are cars. Some of the rarest and most exotic of which have come across the auction block in recent years, fetching outrageous prices. These vehicles are far more than transportation — in fact, some might say they’re works of art (on wheels). This list includes the top 10 most expensive cars ever sold at auction — a total price tag amounting to over $293 million dollars. Of course, this list doesn’t represent the average collector’s car, but it’s certainly worth dreaming of.

list of most expensive classic cars

From budget cars to exotics leave the auction block for millions, there are all kinds of vehicles for car aficionados to start building their collector’s portfolio. Many of these cars have gone from a garage project to a special occasion vehicle that turns heads on the open road.

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Sources:
Hagerty 1,2,3 | AutoWise | Ford Authority | Jalopnik | Hemming’s Daily | Invaluable