The collector car market is a strange beast. Some cars are classics the instant they roll of the assembly line, while others languish for decades before they can be appreciated. A Ferrari 250, Mercedes 300SL, or Jaguar E-Type have always been coveted. But did anyone really revere the Volkswagen Beetle, Toyota FJ40 Land Cruiser, or even the early Porsche 911 as they passed from new car to beater status? Not so much.
With classic car prices spiraling ever upward, people love to speculate on the next big thing; the next car where a few years from now people are going to say, “I could’ve bought one of those things for $500 bucks in high school, and I’m still kicking myself for not doing it!” And with European exotics, 60s-era muscle cars, and even classic Japanese and SUV models already all but out of reach for most gearheads, the next “it” classics are likely to come from the late-’80s and early ’90s, because as Jalopnik’s Patrick George recently pointed out:
The cars of the late 1980s and 1990s are quickly emerging as “sweet spot” cars for drivers. For the most part, you get a car that is easy to understand and straightforward to operate by modern standards, but without the complications of carburetors or infotainment systems that came before and after, respectively.
And as America’s foremost expert on classic car prices, Hagerty tends to agree. The insurance and valuation company has released a list of 10 soon-to-be classics to watch, and nine of them were in production during that 1985-2000 sweet spot.
Some cars on this list might surprise you, others may seem like sure things. Either way, these are all still models you can still find on Craigslist for under the $30k mark – with most selling for about a third of that. So if you’re interested in any of these cars, snap one up now. In five years, it might not be so easy.
1. 1984-’89 Toyota 4Runner
Over the past few years, the only Toyota truck to really get love in the collector market has been the Land Cruiser. But that may be changing soon, because people are rediscovering the joys of a first-generation 4Runner. Hagerty points out that “the quirky 4Runner seems to be the off-road Toyota of choice for entry-level collectors now that they’re priced out of the FJ40 Land Cruiser market,” but we love it for its bulletproof Toyota Hilux mechanicals, perfectly understated ’80s styling, natural off-roading ability, and (theoretically) removable rear cap. If you can find an unmolested rust free one – no easy task in most parts of the country – hold onto it for dear life.
2. 1990-’96 Nissan 300ZX
The fourth-generation Nissan Z-Car may be polarizing for Japanese car fans who crave pure performance, but 26 years on, its rounded wedge styling makes it a perfect slice of ’90s zeitgeist and its well-appointed interior makes for a comfortable ride even by today’s standards. The 300 horsepower twin-turbo model is the best of the breed (and already climbing in value), and the 2+2 isn’t as well proportioned as the two-seaters, but overall, the 300ZX is one of the best driver’s cars of the early ’90s, and you really can’t go wrong with any well-sorted example.
3. 1992-’95 Porsche 968
The 968 was less a standalone model for Porsche and more of a greatest hits package. Built for just three years during a financially lean stretch for the company, it took the best elements of the aging 924, 944, and 928, and cobbled them together to create a new model, representing the best front-engined four-cylinder car it had built to date. The turbocharged S and RS models and track-day Clubsport will be the ones fetching big bucks in a few years, but for fans of the 900-Series cars, the 968 is the last – and best – of the breed.
4. 1992-’01 Mercedes-Benz 600SL
After the iconic W121, Pagoda-roof W113 SL, and timeless R107 SL, the 1989-2001 R129 SL tends to be thought of as the first polarizing SL-Class. But its upright, ’80s holdover styling has aged surprisingly well, and in SL600 trim, its 389 horsepower 6.0 liter V12 made it one of the most powerful grand tourers of the era. This SL-Class is largely still languishing in the used car-beater doldrums, but it won’t be for much longer, and these V12-powered beasts will be the first ones to rocket into the stratosphere.
5. 1995-’99 BMW M3
The E36 M3’s biggest problem is that it’s sandwiched between the iconic original E30 M3, and the instant-classic E46 M3. After the shock to the system that was the E30, BMW seemed intent on making an M3 for the masses. So it detuned the car for the American market, gave it a more luxurious interior, made it available as a sedan, and offered it with an automatic transmission. It worked; BMW ended up selling nearly five times as many E36s as it had E30s, but due to its high availability and low demand on the second-hand market, most cars were rode hard and put away wet. While basket cases can still be had for peanuts, prices for well-preserved examples are already on the rise. It may not be as pretty as the E30, or as powerful as the E46, but the E36 is one of the best driver’s cars of the ’90s. It’s about time it gets its due.
6. 1981-’93 Ferrari Mondial
For 35 years now, the Mondial has been the butt of every non-fire-related Ferrari joke. Despite a $75K-plus price tag (around $195K today), early cars suffered from atrocious build quality and its V8 engine was so choked with emissions equipment that it could only muster 180 horsepower. The Mondial was all but dead on arrival, infamously wheezing from zero to 60 in 9.4 seconds in initial road tests – making it slower than a contemporary Volkswagen GTI. But while its credibility may have been shot, Ferrari kept improving the car throughout its 12-year run, and by 1989, the mid-mounted V8 was pumping out 300 horsepower and taking the four-seater to 60 in 5.6 seconds. With the price of anything with a Prancing Horse badge on it going through the roof, the days of the $15,000 Mondial are officially over.
7. 1992-’95 Volkswagen Corrado VR6
In the early ’90s, Volkswagen of America was in such bad financial shape that it was seriously considering leaving the U.S. market altogether. As a result, some of the greatest cars to ever wear a VW badge were criminally ignored. The Corrado began life as a joint project between Volkswagen and Porsche to replace the 944 sports car, and with Volkswagen’s compact VR6 engine, it packed 179 horsepower into a compact, corner-carving GT car. But to early ’90s buyers, the Corrado was too expensive for its Volkswagen badge, and as a result, the car was loved by the auto press, and ignored by everyone else. Nevertheless, Hagerty aren’t the only ones who think the Corrado is on its way to classic status, Top Gear thought so too.
8. 1998-2006 Audi TT
It seems like ancient history now, but in America, Audi was a virtual also-ran in the early ’90s. That all began to change at mid-decade, and best be summed up with the 1995 TT concept (above). When the production model launched in 1998, its nods to classic German industrial design and tech-heavy interior would soon become hallmarks of the entire Audi lineup, and the company found itself competing with the BMW Z3/Mercedes SLK/Porsche Boxster crowd. Contemporary detractors blasted the first-generation TT for its humble Volkswagen underpinnings, underwhelming power, and unpredictable handling, but by the end of its production run, Audi had given the car the performance and handling to match its show-stopping looks. Nearly 20 years after it was pegged with the “hairdresser’s car” epithet, the TT is rightfully remembered as a ’90s-era icon. Pick one up for cheap while you still can.
9. 1971-’76 Cadillac De Ville
Big and baroque, the ’71-’76 full-size Cadillacs were the arguably the company’s last models that represented contemporary tastes in luxury cars. But within a decade, used models seemed to embody the bloated, wide-lapeled excess of the Nixon era, and as a result, most examples have spent the last 30 years or so selling in the four-figure range. But that’s starting to change; Hagerty says Gen X collectors channeling their inner Henry Hill or Super Fly have been driving the prices up on these behemoths. Interestingly enough, there’s also a strong demand for them in Sweden…
10. 1982-’92 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am
Blame Knight Rider. According to Hagerty, ’70s kids who loved Smokey and the Bandit have driven the value of late second-generation Firebirds through the roof, and now their younger siblings are doing the same with the plastic-fantastic third-gen cars. The ’81s Firebird was the most aerodynamic car GM ever built, but with emissions requirements, range-topping Trans Ams got a 305 cubic inch V8 that mustered a paltry 145 horsepower. But things got better, and by ’89, Trans Am GTAs were cranking out 235. regardless of the year, the ’80s Trans Am combined the hairy-chested machismo of the earlier cars with Tron-obsessed tech better than maybe any other American car (except the C4 Corvette). Now 35 years on, it’s looking pretty good to us too.
Follow Derek on Twitter @CS_DerekS