Enthusiasts are constantly on the hunt for the best classic rides you can get your hands on for a reasonable price. And who can blame us, as the classic car market continues to suggest that some bubbles may never actually burst? Of course, classic car investing isn’t an exact science, or else everyone would be doing it. But if you’re looking for the best combination of affordability, performance and personality without sacrificing modern tech comforts and old-school simplicity, the cars of the ‘80s and ‘90s are calling, grasshopper.
Specifically, the period from roughly 1985 to 1995. Horsepower figures from the era won’t blow anyone’s socks off these days — but that’s never really been the point, has it? During that era, American automakers were busy making up for the shortcomings (or trying to) of the Malaise era, Japanese brands were riding a wave of cash towards their peak years and the Germans were doing what they always do: making great cars. The Italians, Swedes and Brits were also getting in on the fun, churning out some of the best-loved models these companies ever produced.
Don’t get me wrong: there was a lot of crap produced in this era, especially here in America. But the highlights are impossible to ignore, so let’s take a trip down memory lane.
The ’80s and ’90s saw traditional muscle cars take new forms, an unexpected contender become king of the quarter-mile overnight, and some sought-after SUVs take on new identities and capabilities.
Ford’s underpowered “Fox Body” Mustang has been a favorite of tuners and drag strip amateurs for decades, and they’re still pretty darn cheap. The 1987-1993 version, also the last of its kind, featured the venerable 5.0-liter (really 4.9-liter) V8 which made 225 horsepower and 300 pound-feet of torque — small numbers these days but easily pushed higher with some simple modifications. Here’s a Mustang GT convertible for just $8,995. Cheap drop-top speed, thy name is Fox Body.
1987 Buick GNX
Want the true ’80s muscle car king of the hill? You won’t find it from Ford, Chevy, Dodge or Pontiac. Nope, the decade’s most powerful, most kickass drag strip monster was a Buick. Specifically, the 1987 Buick GNX, which came in any color you wanted, so long as it was black. Nicknamed “Darth Vader” by die-hard enthusiasts, 547 examples of this blacked-out, turbocharged 1987 Regal Grand National were sent off to McLaren — yes, that McLaren — for some serious tuning, and returned with 300 horsepower and 420 lb-ft of torque from the boosted 3.8-liter V6.
That was good for a 0-60 mph time of 4.6 seconds, almost half a second faster than the Ferrari F40 and Porsche 911 Turbo of its day. It also boasted a faster quarter-mile time than those two European legends, setting it in 12.7 seconds at 113.1 mph. That’s seriously fast, even by today’s standards, and was only bested by Chevy’s own Corvette ZR1 on its own soil. The cheapest GNX available to buy on Hemmings is sitting at a cool $75,000 — but you can have a similarly badass, albeit less powerful, Grand National from the same year like this one for a fraction of the cost.
Jeep Cherokee, Grand Wagoneer and Wrangler
Boxy muscle cars not your style? How about some of the most beloved Jeep models ever made? Both the Jeep Cherokee XJ and Grand Wagoneer were either born or totally revamped in the mid-1980s, and remain some of the most sought-after SUVs amongst both classic car fans and serious off-roaders. The fan-favorite CJ7 (later dubbed Wrangler) also reached its last and best year in 1985, with 80s-tacular variants like this one before going all square-headlight with the YJ model in 1986 until 1995.
Supra. RX-7. NSX. Samurai. 4Runner. These were all born or heavily improved from 1985 to 1995. Need I say more? Japan was riding an economic boom in the 1980s, boasting four percent average annual GDP growth. Without boring you with an economics lesson, that means that Japanese companies were exporting more than ever, and had lots of cash to play around with. So, thankfully for us all, they decided to have some fun with it. And all of these are U.S.-market examples. There’s a whole new world of Japanese performance now opening up thanks to cars from the era becoming eligible for import to the U.S., as we’ve covered extensively.
The rear-wheel-drive Toyota Celica gained a Supra variant, then the Supra spun off on its own, got two turbochargers to play with, and had a final act as the legendary Mark IV in 1994. That’s why “Supra” is often the first and last name in Japanese performance, and why so many people are so excited that a new one is finally coming around. While Mark IV prices are skyrocketing, you can have a clean Mark II or Mark III example for less than $20,000.
Mazda Miata and RX-7
Mazda was hitting its stride in the late ’80s and early ’90s, which led to the debut of the world’s favorite roadster, the MX-5 Miata. How about a clean example of one of the most famously fun-to-drive cars of all time with a heaping helping of Japanese reliability for less than $7,000? No problem.
The little Japanese brand that could was also at peak crazy at the turn of the decade, replacing the forgettable (but still fun) second-generation rotary-powered RX-7 with the legendary third-generation from 1993 onwards. The latter RX-7 (FD, as it’s known by enthusiasts) is riding the same ’90s Japanese performance car wave as the Supra, but clean, second-gen examples can be had for chump change — and come in a convertible, to boot.
Toyota 4Runner and Tacoma
The ’80s and ’90s also saw the introduction of some fun off-roaders from the Far East, namely the Toyota 4Runner and Toyota Pickup. The 4Runner merged off-roading fun with a removable hard-top and room for five, now both available for less than $13,000 easily. Even Toyota’s humble Pickup, which morphed into the best-selling Tacoma, can be found for a similar price. And if you get one in black, you can live out all your Back to the Future fantasies — minus the DeLorean and Christopher Lloyd.
Honda CRX and Acura NSX
How could we forget to mention Honda? The little moped maker that could put out such fan favorites as the frugal-but-fun CRX Si and the world-beating NSX (under the new Acura marque) within a few years of each other, proving there was almost no car they couldn’t make. This CRX Si is currently selling for $7,350, and while original, unmolested NSXs can push six figures, you can still find a solid early example for a decent price.
While America was busy finding itself and Japan was in the midst of a coke-fueled performance fever dream, Europe was doing what they’ve damn near always done: building solid, well-engineered cars with an established pedigree.
Porsche 944 and 928
Don’t want to chase after insanely high-priced examples of the last air-cooled 911 ever made? That’s fine — have a front-engined Porsche instead and you’ll have 90 percent of the driving fun for a fraction of the price. Porsche took all the cash it had made from the popular 911 over the years and spun off a series of sports cars, none of which lasted beyond the 1990s. Clean examples of the ‘80s-tastic 944 can be had for less than $10,000 (though Turbo models are spiking in price). And if you’re lucky, the opulent, V8-powered 928 Grand Tourer can be yours for less than $15K. Not a bad entry point to one of the world’s most storied sports car brands.
BMW 325i and Mercedes-Benz S-Class
If a Bimmer or Benz is more your speed, how about the E30 3 Series, the most celebrated affordable enthusiast car in the world behind only the Miata? Forget the over-valued original M3 and opt for the inline-6-powered 325i (now legal to import from Europe in wagon form!) or all-wheel drive 325ix, a perfect starter rally car. If a three-pointed star has always guided your dream car inclinations, give the S-Class, still the large luxury sedan king, a spin for cheap.
There are still awesome, unique cars to be had from elsewhere in Europe beyond Germany. If you really, really need to have a Ferrari, you can have the Mondial for less than $50,000. Sure, it’s easily the worst Ferrari ever, but that’s like being the worst player on Real Madrid. You’re still up there, baby.
Sweden was also tinkering with and perfecting two of its most iconic nameplates, though neither is likely to set your hair on fire with outright speed straight out of the box. The charmingly honest and unbeatably reliable Volvo 240 was reaching its twilight (and best) years by the turn of the decade, and if you’re looking for something old, slow, and filled with personality, there’s hardly a better car for pennies on the dollar, like this super clean 1991 sedan for $6,800.
Saab 900 Convertible
The same period also saw the twilight years of Saab’s best model ever. The 900 Turbo was the first mass-produced turbocharged car — a format that many modern vehicles have adopted — and remains one of the quirkiest, most beloved cars of all time by its many devoted fans. Late models like this 1993 convertible provide the best combination of Saab weirdness and modern performance and amenities, making up to 185 horsepower by the time it was retired in 1994 and replaced with a new model.