Twenty thousand dollars is an interesting sum. It’s the tipping point for cars that merely cost a lot, and cars that are expensive. Certainly, we’re talking about the real world of collector cars – cars that enthusiasts can drive, enjoy and hope to come out ahead on in a few years, not top-rung muscle cars whose buyers pay more in auction premium fees than other cars are worth. Twenty large is also a financial lynchpin, whereby many enthusiasts can buy into a car for that amount or less without mortgaging the house.
With so many collector vehicles to choose from, you may be surprised what you can buy for less than $20,000. The correction in collector vehicle prices during the last few years has made some previously expensive cars more affordable, while other “sleeper” collector vehicles are starting to come into their own. We have assembled a collection of vehicles to consider. Some are solidly beneath the $20,000 limit, while others may require some careful negotiating to nail down a deal for that price.
As with all such guides we produce, we can’t stress enough the need to do background research on the vehicle you’re interested in. You need to know what’s correct on it, the common problem areas and whether you can find restoration parts. That said, take a look at our list of 19 suggested collector vehicles, which includes a mix of cars and trucks. Nineteen, of course, is less than 20 – and that’s what this story is all about.
1971-72 Chevy Chevelle
When it comes to affordable Chevy A-bodies, those seeking a 1971-72 Chevelle can thank the collectors of 1970 models for making those later cars so affordable. The ’70 LS6-powered Chevelle SS is at the top of the collector food chain, which helps keep prices on the cars below it in check. That’s not to say a big-block-powered 1971 or ’72 Chevelle SS isn’t worth a few bucks. In fact, it is – and that’s not what we’re recommending here. Find yourself a small-block car or even a non-SS Chevelle, and you should be able to park it in your garage for less than $20,000. Of course, it will never be worth as much as a ’70 LS6 car, but it should retain its value nicely. And when it comes to parts availability, you couldn’t ask for more from the restoration market.
1965-66 Ford Mustang
Forty-five years after its introduction, the Mustang remains an icon of American culture and an affordable collector car. Seemingly zillions were built during its first few years of production, and thousands upon thousands remain today. Fastbacks and rare, hi-po V-8 engine options are mostly priced beyond the $20,000 mark, but if you’re looking for a great-condition, V-8-powered driver, you’ve got your pick. Better still, these cars are easy to work on and parts for them are dirt cheap. Your biggest obstacle is rust, especially hidden rust in the cowl area or poor repairs on supposedly restored examples. A great many original six-cylinder cars have been converted to V-8 power, too. Bone up on how to inspect a Mustang before buying, and you’ll make a better deal.
1965-66 Plymouth Barracuda
As Ford’s competitors scrambled to answer the Mustang, Plymouth’s reply was the Barracuda. The company copied Ford’s developmental recipe, too, by basing it on an existing model – in this case, it was the lowly Valiant. And like the Mustang, the initial production model was designed to make more of a styling statement than establish performance street cred. Most came with a slant six engine, with a 273-cid V-8 engine available. Find the most complete example you can, because replacement parts can be difficult to locate, particularly anything associated with that large rear window, its surrounding trim or the cargo area beneath it. And many six-cylinder cars have been changed over to V-8 power. For 1965 cars, check the three-digit body number on the body tag: a “189” code indicates a six and a “V89” code denotes an original V-8 car. On ’66 models, check the VIN’s fifth digit, which indicates the engine. An “A,” “B,” or “C” means a six-cylinder, while a “D” indicates an original 273 V-8.
1973 Buick Gran Sport
The year 1973 was a pivotal one for General Motors. It was the year the General changed over the A-body platform, introduced in 1968, to the new “Colonnade” platform. Designed to incorporate the latest federal mandates for crash protection, they were generally larger and heavier than the cars they replaced, all with less horsepower than offered in the muscle car years. With no hardcore performance models to rival the high-compression era, the Chevy, Buick, Olds and Pontiac models just didn’t set enthusiasts hearts alight. Buick, however, subversively kept the performance flame burning with the Gran Sport. Offered with 350 and 455 engines – the latter producing about 500 lb-ft of torque with the rare Stage 1 option – the Gran Sport made the most of the new platform’s dimensions. These cars are very rare, but collectors are increasingly favoring them, so if you find one, grab it. Be warned: Restoration parts don’t exist, so a car with needs will be a long, expensive adventure.
1974-76 Pontiac Trans Am
As is the case with other vehicle on our list, Trans Am values are skewed by the very high values of the most desirable models. When it comes to Trans Ams from the mid-Seventies, the Super Duty models from 1973-74 and the more common “base” 455 models command the highest prices. So, if you set your sights on 400-powered cars, you should be able snag a good one for less than $20,000 – especially if it has an automatic transmission. No, it’ll never be worth as much as an SD-455, but you’ll always draw attention on cruise night, you’ll have a solid investment that will sell for at least what you paid for it and, if you find an example that was well cared for, you’ll have a reliable car that drives essentially like a modern car. What’s not to like – apart from an additional 55 cubic inches?
1960-65 Ford Falcon
If you thought Mustangs were reasonably priced, give the Falcon a look. Ford based the Mustang on the Falcon’s compact, unitized chassis, but the more formal-looking car offers more rear seat room. Apart from a couple of Sprint models, Falcons don’t offer much in the way of collector value, so you won’t double your money in a couple of years on a low-mile original. Buy a Falcon because you want an affordable classic to cruise, and one that’s easy to work on. Buy one, too, because you want to experiment with modifications without the worry of affecting the car’s value. You can bolt on lots of Mustang parts, and many “pro touring” artists have used these compact classics as their automotive canvasses.
1975-77 Chevy Corvette
You can’t have highs, like the L-88 engine and the ZR1, without some lows for contrast. For the Corvette, the lows were essentially all of the mid-Seventies, when smog-choked small-blocks replaced high-compression big-blocks. Curiously, the dearth of performance didn’t affect sales too much, as Corvettes continued to sell well enough during the era of macramé pot holders and brown leather jackets. These cars are not popular with collectors, which makes them extremely affordable for the enthusiast who wants to have a true Corvette experience. Plus, the lack of value makes it easy to correct the performance deficiency without worry. Swap the wheezy 350 with even the cheapest GM Performance Parts crate engine and you’ll nearly double the horsepower.
1973-74 Dodge Challenger
This one is at the upper end of our “up to $20,000” target, but with diligence, patience and a good instinct for haggling, you should find a good 1973-74 Challenger for the money. Better yet, it’s one of the few cars on our list that is poised to keep appreciating, as long as you’ve got one with matching numbers. That means you’re probably looking at a car with a 318 engine, or maybe a 340 car that needs a bit more work. Long ago shunned for being not as good looking as the early E-bodies, these cars have benefitted from the general E-body rub-off in the market and have become quite desirable. Good cars for less than $20,000 won’t be around much longer.
1961-63 Ford F-100 Unicab
From the “Dare to be Different” file comes our suggestion for the 1961-63 Ford F-100 “unicab” trucks, which featured integrated cabs and cargo boxes. These vehicles had a custom appearance, because there was no conventional break between the cab and box, although that proved ultimately to not be the best idea when it came to hauling because of a relative lack of flexibility. Few remain, too, because they rusted fiercely beneath the surface, around the area where the cab/box break should have been. Even examples from the dry Southwest are prone to this, so beware. The unicab trucks were produced in long- and short-bed lengths and offered in a variety of trims, just like the conventional versions. A Custom Cab model and its big rear window and stainless trim, paired with the short-box body, is the most desirable.
1969-72 Pontiac Grand Prix
Underrated as both performance cars and collector cars, attitudes toward the 1969-72 Pontiac Grand Prix range is starting to show signs of appreciation – and for good reason. They are great-looking examples of GM styling, offer respectable performance and deliver a comfortable driving experience. Prior to 1969, the Grand Prix had been another model on the full-size Pontiac platform, but the new model was its own creation. It was the dawn of the full-size personal coupe that would be very popular through the late Seventies. Because they weren’t bought by kids intent on drag-racing them, most examples survive today in comparatively great condition – which is good, because resto parts are virtually unavailable. The best example you can find is worth the few extra dollars over a so-so cheapie, because you won’t nickel-and-dime yourself trying to find parts.
1966-70 Olds Toronado
A car ahead of its time is the best way to describe the 1966-70 Olds Toronado. Its sleek styling, which looked like nothing else on the road, harbored a big surprise under the hood: A 425 engine hooked to the front wheels. The transmission was a heavy-duty piece, too, with a chain drive. The car also featured a torsion-bar front suspension. On the inside was a speedometer, whereby the needle remained stationary and a drum with numbers rotated past it. They don’t make ’em like that anymore! The best examples bring more than $20,000, but you can find great, driver examples for less. Drivetrain parts are relatively easy to locate, but interior parts can be difficult to find; a full restoration on a project car, however, won’t return the investment.
1972-74 Plymouth Duster
Plymouth’s compact car for the Seventies was long and lean looking, although plagued by a reputation as an immediate rust bucket. Despite its engineers living and driving in Michigan, Chrysler just couldn’t seem to grasp the concept of inner fenders that deflected grime and salt away from core parts of the chassis and body. Nevertheless, the cars looked good, offered reasonable performance and, with the benefit of several decades of evolving attitudes, has garnered a respectable following – although that may also have something to do with the fact that E-bodies and other muscle-era Mopars are still priced much higher. Find yourself a Duster with a 340 and no rust issues and you’ll be cruising happily for cheap!
1971-73 Mercury Cougar
The Mustang’s corporate cousin continued its more formal design language with new styling, marking the last three model years it would share a platform with the Mustang. After that, the Mustang would shrink and the Cougar would grow. The unique styling introduced in 1971 didn’t share the available fastback model of the Mustang, but its proportions were much more pleasing to the eye than the Mustang’s notchback models of the same years. The Cougar was especially fetching in convertible form; and with a healthy 351C under the hood, it offered good performance. When seeking out one of these cars, find the nicest, lowest-mileage example you can find. Build quality wasn’t stellar and higher-mile cars tend to have clanky doors and loose interior trim.
1955-59 Chevy Pickup
Introduced as the Series II trucks in 1955, Chevrolet’s redesigned trucks ushered in a new era in pickups. They introduced the small-block Chevy engine, and the limited-edition Cameo Carrier models brought smooth, “fleetside” cargo box styling to the mainstream. Those unique trucks bring more than our $20,000 budget, but other examples are readily available and very affordable. There is a wide range of features and models to pick from, with most you’ll find on the market incorporating some sort of performance or appearance modification. That’s just fine, because trucks are built for personalization and these Chevys are among the most popular, affordable and good-looking vintage trucks ever built. The 1955-57 models are the most desirable, with the quad-headlamp 1958-59 models a little less so – with prices to match.
1971-74 AMC Javelin
AMC’s pony car was the Javelin – it represents one of the few instances where the second generation was arguably better than the original. When introduced in 1968, the Javelin was a fine-looking car and offered with an adequate range of powerplants, including Kenosha’s very good 390. It was the dramatic redesign for 1971, however, that gave the Javelin distinction. A stronger long-nose/short deck proportion and pronounced fender blisters gave the car a more dramatic look. And while all of Detroit was suffering under new, low-compression/high-smog-equipment realities, the Javelin soldiered on with 360- and 401-inch engines. Some of the most collectable examples exceed the $20,000 target budget, but excellent drivers are out there for less. Just don’t expect their values to increase significantly in the near term.
1964-67 Pontiac Tempest/Lemans
With GTOs commanding the big collector dollars, the lower-rung Tempest and Lemans models offer the same classic styling, if not quite commensurate performance. That’s great for the enthusiast who wants to build a resto-mod car without worrying about the impact on resale value. Take a Tempest, sprinkle on a few GTO interior pieces, add a hood tach, a set of American Torq-Thrusts and a healthy 421 engine, and you’ve got yourself a great period street machine. Try that with a true Goat and the purists will furrow their brows. Perhaps the biggest challenge is finding a good-quality Tempest or Lemans that hasn’t been sacrificed to restore a GTO, but they’re out there!
1968-69 Ford Torino Sportsroof
The Torino was introduced in 1968 as an upscale model of the longstanding Fairlane line. They were basically the same car, but the Torino was more lavishly appointed, relatively speaking, and it was offered in two-door hardtop, a four-door sedan, a wagon and the new fastback “Sportsroof” body styles. The Sportsroof models were long and low in style, but despite a GT model and the availability of Ford’s top muscle car engines, the Torino just didn’t tug at the heartstrings of muscle car enthusiasts. Interestingly, that indifferent attitude has carried through the following decades. Some enthusiasts, however, find the styling striking and if that happens to include you, you’ll be surprised at the number of great-condition Torino Sportsroof examples you can find for less than $20,000. The cars continue to look better with time, and the mechanical parts are plentiful and cheap. Interior parts, particularly for the fastback area, are tougher to locate, so try to find one that doesn’t need anything inside.
1966-67 Chevy II
The original Chevy II has long been a staple of the enthusiast world, serving as the foundation for countless hot rods, drag racers and restorations. The 1966 and ’67 models brought the compact Chevy to the edge of the muscle car phenomenon, although its top engine – a 275-horsepower 327 small-block – fell shy of the mark. The Nova SS models have become popular collector cars, but there were countless six-cylinder models and 283-powered cars produced and many remain. Non-numbers examples with higher-output replacement engines and other mods are the norm, but if that doesn’t bother you, they’re readily available in our established price range. And because these cars are true classics, it won’t be hard to sell in a few years when you want to move on to your next vintage car experience.
1971-80 International Harvester Scout II
Looking like little more than a pair of stacked boxes on wheels, International Harvester’s unique and pioneering SUV was a no-compromises truck for those who needed an off-road vehicle without frills. The Scout II was launched in 1971 and was larger and – if you can believe it – a more stylish update of the original Scout that was introduced in 1961. We’ve watched in recent years as collectors have shown greater interest in these long-defunct 4x4s and examples in mostly original condition (it’s almost impossible to find a completely stock Scout) are commanding more money. Parts are pretty easy to locate, too, although the biggest challenge is body rust. Try to find one with a Southwest pedigree, because Midwestern and Eastern trucks will likely have overt rusting problems or hidden corrosion. The range of engines is pretty reliable, though, with International’s 345-inch V-8 and a 304-inch V-8 the most common. Get one now before the rest of the market wakes up to these plain yet oddly charismatic off-roaders.