Reader Question: Buying a Classic Car to Drive Every Day?

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Here’s the latest reader question, along with my reply!

Chance asks: I need a new car. My budget is $50,000. I could buy a new Lexus or Infiniti, but for the reasons described in your article “Why Just Sell You a Car When They Can Sell You?” I do not want a new car. My criteria are: (1) widely available parts and service; (2) not susceptible to being disabled by EMP; and (3) does not stand out in public.

I do not want anything that turns heads or attracts attention. I want a traditional analog car. I would like the car to be reasonably economical and run on unleaded gas. Examples of generic, nondescript cars would be 1990s-era Toyota Corollas or Ford Tauruses; however, I suspect both cars are susceptible to EMP. I am not a car guy and know nothing about the world of custom shops except that I like to watch “Fast N’ Loud.” I have had fantasies of buying something like the Corolla or Taurus, taking it to a place like Gas Monkey Garage, and having the engine and drive train completely made over to meet my criteria. Does anyone do work like that? My concern about using a custom shop would be that service would be unobtainable elsewhere and I would become married to the shop. Am I alone or do others consider a car such as I have described to be worthwhile? How to go about such a project?

My reply: With a budget of $50k, you have many options – ranging from the purchase of a professionally restored classic car to the resto-modding of an older car with the good modern stuff (e.g., a modern drivetrain and brakes, suspension, etc.) but without the creepy tech that comes with a modern car.

If you want a car that is “EMP-proof” you’re looking at cars made before electronic/transistorized ignition systems (i.e., cars with points-type distributors). This would mean – if original – cars made before roughly 1974 or so. After that, practically every car had electronic ignition as factory equipment. However, this is not a much a liability, EMP-wise, as you might think. Just keep a spare ignition module on hand and you’re set. The stand-alone electronic ignition – such as GM’s HEI – is extremely reliable, very low-maintenance and inexpensive.

Same goes for early TBI (throttle body) fuel injection systems, which can be added (using aftermarket systems) to a car engine that originally came with a carburetor, incidentally.

The main thing you will probably want in terms of an upgrade to an older car is a modern overdrive transmission, though even that isn’t necessary if the car was not originally a performance model with an aggressive final drive (rear axle) ratio.

The simplest and most cost-effective thing to do – especially since you like sedans – would be to find and buy an immaculate/original condition large American sedan from the ’70s or early ’80s and have a shop make a few modifications to it (per the above) to improve its drivability. For example, something like a ’70s-era Chevy Caprice or similar. These are very tough/durable cars and no worries at all as far as finding parts and shops willing and able to work on them when the need arises.

You ought to have no difficulty finding one in near-new/restored to as-new shape for well under $20,000 – leaving you a huge sum in the kitty to modify/keep us as necessary.

I’m jealous! You are going to have a lot of fun with this!

. . . 

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5 COMMENTS

  1. There’s a mid-90s Buick I see around town all the time. No rust and doesn’t smoke. Not a head turner by any means but looks like it would fit the bill.

    They’re out there, but probably one of those situations where you might have to approach someone if you see it in a garage or driveway.

    • I’ve seen so many cars like that- often REALLY cherry ones….and grandpa gives it to his 16 year-old grandson when he stops driving/gets a new car/croaks….and then the kid trashes it in short order, ’cause it’s just an uncool old car.

      Seen this with one of my idiot nephews- In the late 80’s his great grandpa gave him his old beautiful ’68 Impala. Kid trashed it in less than 6 months, and just didn’t care because he wanted something “moire modern” (Never mind that he didn’t have any money…there are LOANS ya know!). I didn’t see the car till it was too late, else I would’ve offered to buy it from him…or bought something modern…like a Yugo- and trade him. The Impala went to the scrap yard…. 🙁

      I would kill to have that car today, in the condition it was in when the idjit got it!

  2. There is no such thing as “EMP-proof” electronics, depending on the size of the EMP. For all practical purposes, it’s not an issue.

    But, for those worrying about that: a TPI Chevy small block has some electronics. If those electronics get zapped, restoring it to a simple carbureted SBC is as simple as swapping the intake manifold and fuel pump.

  3. One thing to think about: You put that kind of money into a generic car that isn’t a “collector’s item” (which is exactly what I would do- as I want to pay for “car”, not for a name or popularity), and somebody hits you….the insurance co. (Theirs or yours) is going to pay you a fraction of what the car is worth. Have $50K into a car and get hit and you get $2500 for the car if totale…..not good.
    An old guy I used to know on a car forum had a good idea: He had a collection of old cars that he’d typically pick up for $3K-$5K that were in decent shape when he got ’em- and he’d fix anything necessary when he got ’em, and just keep ’em maintained, and cycle through his collection, driving each car for a month or two and then switching to another. He had less than $50K invested in the collection; he always had cars to fall back on; He didn’t have to worry about the/obsess over them, as they were cheap, and he didn’t have to pay for comp and collision.
    I envied that guy! He had fun with his cars; got to drive not one, but several neat old cars, and they were all just “drivers” in original condition… Seriously, I’d enjoy a scenario like that more than Jay Leno’s collection of pristine museum pieces.
    The cars, while nothing special, were interesting just because they were the once common cars that no one cares about anymore; an early 70’s Ford Country Squire station wagon; an early 60’s 6-cyl. Mercury Comet (My sister had one of those in the 80’s that she got for $200- it was a great daily driver!)….
    Either way though (Recondition or find decent drivers and just maintain) ya have to live in or near a part of the country where rust isn’t too much of an issue- pretty much the South and Southwest, CA. NV. Pacific Northwest, ’cause everything old in the rest of the country is either eaten up by rust, or patched-up (Exceptions…but you’ll PAY. More often, if ya think it ain’t got rust…they just covered it up). If ya live in the rust belt, then it’d be well worth it to get something from across the country- like from Arid Zone A (AZ) or NM. (The guy I spoke of above lived in NM).

    • Might want to look into basic ‘road legal’ insurance and then get Hagerty or some other third party that lets you set ‘declared value’ for total loss.

      Or, get a mid 90’s truck, put tubes on the rockers and add a 3/16″ plate bumpers. Plastic bits and ‘made to crumple’ of today’s cars will likely let you drive home from all but highway speed head-on crashes.

      Even if you rebuild most of it, you will probably have $15-20k left over from your budget.

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