Editor’s Note: As Gen X-er Jeff Sabatini confronts his fifth decade on the planet, he’s having something of a minor midlife crisis. What better panacea for age-related angst than compiling a list of the top 40 cars for Generation X collectors from the past 40 years that can be had for less than $40,000? Here's the final installment of this four-part series, in which Sabatini tackles 10 cars from the 1970s.
We’ve reached the nadir of the past 40 years, the decade in which we Gen X’ers lived most of our childhoods, oblivious to the fact that our parents’ cars were mostly piles of rapidly oxidizing junk. While I could easily have stocked this list entirely with cars from the first year or two of the decade, that would have been cheating. After all, those weren’t really 1970s cars; they were products of the ’60s. The automotive 1970s didn’t really start until the 1973 oil embargo, so the cars that made this list were chosen from the mid-to-late part of the decade. If you notice that the cars in this final installment tend to be more expensive than the other three in the series, well, that makes sense given the advanced age of the group. They’re an uneven bunch on the surface, but they share a theme common to the decade: promising more than they ever delivered.
1971-1976 Cadillac Eldorado Convertible
Early ’70s ragtop Eldo’s were absolute behemoths, with 126-inch wheelbases and 8.2-liter V-8’s. That a 500 cubic-inch engine was configured for front-wheel drive makes about as much sense as its meager 190 horsepower output in 1976. But if you’ve never known what it’s like to drive a full-size convertible with comfortable seating for six, you owe it to yourself to seek one of these out. The big Caddy makes for an excellent summer cruiser, so long as you don’t itemize your credit card bills and notice how much you’re spending on gas. Hagerty Price Guide lists Eldorado Convertibles at prices between $25,200 and $45,500 for #1 condition cars.
The classic British roadster was already an endangered species by the time Donald Healey teamed up with Jensen Motors to launch this reinterpretation of the theme. With a twin-cam Lotus four-cylinder making some 144 horsepower, it was quick for the era, boasting a 9-second 0-60 time. You can do that in any modern minivan, but the Jensen-Healey can actually handle, thanks to a curb weight of roughly 2,000 pounds and a double wishbone front suspension. That it was much more expensive than a contemporary MGB helped keep production volumes low, which makes it the more interesting car today. While neither roadster looks quite right wearing Federal bumpers, the Jensen-Healey is unquestionably less unattractive. Hagerty Price Guide lists Jensen-Healey roadsters at $14,600 for #1 condition cars.
1972-1976 Maserati Merak
When you can own a true, limited-production exotic for under $40,000, you tend not to worry about its lesser reputation. In the case of the Merak, its big brother Bora has kept it off the radar of most collectors. But it still looks like a million bucks, with the Giorgetto Giugiaro bodywork having aged particularly well. Its flying buttresses are unique and it even has small rear seats, an oddity in a mid-engine car. That it shares its 3-liter, V-6 engine and its dashboard with the Citroen SM seems like less of a big deal these days, given that time has rendered the SM similarly collectible. Hagerty Price Guide lists Meraks at prices between $30,000 to $32,000 for #1 condition cars.
1974-1977 Chevrolet Corvette Coupe
The C3 Corvette was the most outrageous production car design extant when it hit the streets in 1968. But by 1973, GM’s flagship sports car needed an update as much as it needed bumpers that could conform to new safety regulations. GM killed two birds with one stone when it fitted the C3 with new plastic bumper assemblies. The front one came first in 1973, but from 1974 on, both ends of the ‘Vette had lost their chrome, and to many collectors eyes, their desirability. But with early C3 prices having joined the mid-year Corvettes in the well-over-$40k-range, ’74-’77 Corvettes seem like a bargain way to get the same Stingray look. While these are notoriously poorly assembled cars and slow as dirt, they make great projects and they’re inexpensive to own. And you don’t have to tell anyone your V-8 only makes as much horsepower as a modern four-cylinder with a third the displacement. Hagerty Price Guide lists plastic bumper C3 ‘Vettes at prices between $18,300 and $35,400 for #1 condition cars.
1974-1977 Porsche 911
There are so many series of 911’s to choose from, with production now in its sixth decade, that sorting through all the intricacies can seem overwhelming to the newcomer. Figuring out just which series of 911 you can actually afford is yet another challenge. So let me help you: The 2.7-liter Porsche 911’s of 1974-1977 are perhaps the worst. Plagued by engine problems from day one, these are the cars that everyone in the know has avoided like a Teutonic plague. Yet they’re still tempting. They have the classic 911 body, with narrow haunches and all those great period colors and interiors. And for some reason, they’re not even ultra-cheap cars anymore, likely because most of them that are still in service have been fixed. If you find the right car, it’s a great way to score a vintage 911 at a discount. Hagerty Price Guide lists 2.7-liter 911’s at prices between $30,300 and $40,900 for #1 condition cars.
1976-1979 Jeep CJ7 Renegade and Golden Eagle
The CJ-7 was introduced in 1976, featuring a longer wheelbase that improved its handling and made it a more practical daily driver. Amenities in the new, bigger Jeep were improved too, with the first fiberglass hardtop and full steel doors, an available automatic transmission, and the new, full-time all-wheel-drive system, dubbed “Quadra-Trac.” AMC’s big 304-cid V-8 made only 150 horsepower, but produced 245 lb-ft of torque. Most classic Jeeps led pretty rough lives and few outside the Jeep community have had much interest in collecting them. But the special edition Renegades and Golden Eagles should hold promise given their unique equipment. Renegades could be had with denim Levi’s seats, while the Golden Eagle’s period graphics and trim package are every bit as cool as anything else from the era. While preparing this list, we saw a 1979 V-8 Golden Eagle selling for $29,900 from a private seller.
1977-1982 Ferrari 308
There are many better Ferraris, almost all are faster, but certainly none are more recognizable. Few are more affordable, either, thanks to the ridiculous numbers of 308’s Ferrari built over the model’s long production life. While the cognoscenti may scoff at the lack of a 12-cylinder engine, the sounds made by the 3-liter V-8 in the 308 are enough to forgive its lack of cylinders. The 6-plus-second 0-60 time is a different story. But given Ferrari’s reputation for building fragile cars that are expensive to repair, the 308 has proven to be a mostly durable, entry-level collectible. While the early fiberglass cars are entirely out of reach given our $40,000 budget, nice GTB coupes and even GTS Spiders with removable roof panels can be had at that price point. Hagerty Price Guide lists 308's at prices between $25,500 and $41,500 for #1 condition cars.
1977-1979 Mercedes-Benz 450SEL 6.9
When people talk about Mercedes’ reputation for cars being engineered for the apocalypse and just generally overbuilt, they are speaking about the 6.9. When Mercedes mentions that it invented anti-lock brakes, it is this car that was first fitted with them. The 6.9 also featured a hydraulic, self-leveling suspension and numerous other high-tech features. Powered by a dry-sump, 250-horsepower, 6.9-liter V-8, this special version of Mercedes’ flagship 450SEL could do 140 miles per hour with ease. It cost $40,000, more than twice what a top-of-the-line Cadillac was fetching at the time. That you can still buy one for that price today seems like a bargain. Hagerty Price Guide lists the Mercedes 450SEL 6.9 at $40,200 for
#1 condition cars.
1978-1979 Dodge L'il Red Express
As emissions regulations strangled the performance of cars during the ’70s, there was one giant loophole: trucks. As a harbinger of things to come two decades later, a few manufacturers tried creating performance pickups, none more exciting than this Dodge. With a four-barrel-equipped, cop-spec 360-cid V-8 and those crazy vertical exhaust pipes, the L'il Red Express was every bit as hot as it looked. Retailing for $7,400, it was a pretty expensive truck for its time. The engine got detuned and catalytic converters were added for the second model year, and then the second gas crisis of the decade gave Chrysler reason to cancel it altogether. Hagerty Price Guide lists the Dodge L'il Red Express at prices between $27,900 and $35,000 for #1 condition cars.
Pontiac Trans Am “Bandit”
If you want to drive a “Bandit” — and let’s be honest, if you were a kid during the era in which Burt Reynolds was the biggest star in Hollywood, you do — you might be shocked to find that these are now $40,000-plus cars. Your best bet to find a nice one under that price is to look for a later car, but beware of clones being passed off as the real deal. The difference in value between a standard Trans-Am and a real Special Edition “Bandit” car can be more than $10,000. Hagerty Price Guide lists the 1980 “Bandit” T/A’s at prices between $36,700 and $39,000 for #1 condition cars.