Low cost winners buyers guide: 10 cars under $10k

By: Cliff Chambers

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Classic car ownership doesn’t have to break the bank. Cliff Chambers rustles up some spare change and finds the best bargains

Low cost winners buyers guide: 10 cars under $10k
Low cost winners: 10 cars under $10k

 

LOW COST WINNERS

Buying a brilliant bargain

Several years have flown by since we last looked at the ‘budget’ end of the market and quite a bit has changed. You will notice immediately that the majority of our selections are less than 20 years old. Half of them have come, as new or used cars, from Japan.

The critical factor when considering lower-cost cars is longevity. Models built during the 1980s and ’90s that once were common sights are rapidly disappearing and for that we can blame scarce parts and confronting repair costs.

Fortunately, Australia doesn’t subscribe to the predominantly North American attitude that nothing any good was built after 1973. Whether home-grown or imported, Australia offers a huge variety of interesting, affordable and very usable cars built at any time during the past 60 years. Take a look around, you’re bound to find something here that you’d like to park in your garage.

 

DATSUN 260Z 2+2

Fashion commentators are always keen to describe some trend or other as "the next big thing" but here’s one that’s ready to go.

Two-seat Nissan Z-cars have already zoomed up the value charts and quality examples are now out of reach for many. Not so the four-seat 260Z, but don’t dither if you want one.

The 260Z 2+2, with 300mm extra in its wheelbase, longer doors and a reasonably habitable back seat, ensured sports car enthusiasts weren’t forced to abandon the Nissan/Datsun stable just because a couple of kids had come along.

The front seats are tall and fairly well shaped but the ones behind won’t comfortably accommodate an adult. Finding a car with operating air-conditioning is a bonus as they aren’t especially well ventilated.

As with all early Zs, rust afflicts 2+2s but their values don’t warrant the costly rectification that two-seat cars justify. Look carefully at hatch seals and around the lower panels for rust bubbling. Most came with metallic paint and can be looking a bit daggy by now unless they’ve been treated to a respray.

Engines can be replaced by 2.8-litre versions which provide more torque than the 2.6. Turbocharging is the go if you want a real slap in the chest when accelerating. The five-speed manual transmission is far better at extracting performance than Nissan’s lacklustre three-speed automatic. However, most cars in the sub-$10,000 market will be self shifters.

Mechanical parts aren’t a problem, although finding replacements for rusty panels can be a struggle. Major population centres will have a Datsun specialist and there are several clubs to advise new owners.

 

HSV CLUBSPORT (VR-VS)

Want an Aussie performance car that will cost next to nothing? Hunt down a 1990s Clubsport. Just why people in this country don’t value HSVs in the way they do older and pretty ordinary Holdens is a mystery. It’s easy to spend $10,000 on a 1970s V8 Kingswood with no brakes or cornering prowess, while the same money will buy a nicely-preserved and much more powerful VR-VS Clubsport.

The ‘Clubbie’ was introduced during 1989 by an HSV that was desperate to move some product in a ‘soft’ market. Initial sales were sluggish – only 350 VNs sold – but by the time the VR model had run its course, 1194 – including 77 station wagons – had been made.

VR and VS versions were made with four-speed automatic or five-speed manual transmissions, distinctive body mouldings, 17-inch wheels and independent rear suspension. Output from the 5.0-litre V8 was well short of its potential but this HSV would happily operate on 91 RON fuel. Depending on whose road test you read, 0-400 metre times ranged from 15.3 to 15.9 seconds.

Online forums such as HSV club sites are packed with ads for these competent Aussie sports sedans and very good ones easily fit below the $10,000 spending cap. Some are priced below $5000 but look for previous crash damage, the way body add-ons fit and scuffed alloy wheels. Fixing cosmetic issues can be more expensive than buying a much better car in the first place.

Mechanical parts are reasonably cheap to repair or upgrade. Brakes are an area where a lot of owners have spent extra money and others resort to remaps or further modifications to release extra power from the constrained 185kW engine.

 

MAZDA MX-5

With almost a million made so far, there are more Mazda MX-5s on earth than any other sports car. The closest anything from the ‘old school’ came was the 512,000 recorded by Britain’s MGB, but they sold mostly in North America and a few outposts of the British Empah.

The MX-5 – aka Mazda Miata and Eunos Roadster – can be found almost everywhere and the refusal of early versions to die is keeping a cap on values. Whether you want the design purity of an original 1989 model or the improved safety and equipment found in late-’90s models, $10,000 will buy a very good car.

Given their size and equipment levels, the first MX-5 was a pricey little beast. Basic cost in 1989 for the Roadster was $29,550, with the Hardtop version $2100 more. By 1998, when a 106kW version arrived, the price had increased by $10,000 but features included airbags, ABS brakes and central locking.

The unyielding attraction of MX-5s is their ability to entertain without risking your licence or, in most instances, your life. Find a road with lots of bends and bumps and the dearth of kilowatts won’t make a big difference. You certainly won’t have a problem keeping pace with more powerful but less competent designs.

Buying an early MX-5 in the hope that it will become collectable during your lifetime – unless you’re still in primary school – is probably futile. A lot were bought originally as second or third cars, treated like child substitutes and driven minimal kilometres so well-kept, low-kay cars aren’t scarce.

 

TOYOTA MR2

Where Mazda’s MX-5 effectively channelled the original Lotus Elan, Toyota had trouble convincing punters that its MR2 fell somewhere between a Fiat X1/9 and Ferrari 328GTS. The SW20 version that came here from 1990 certainly owed inspiration for its shape to Pininfarina and yes, they do look best when painted red, but there the similarities end.

Like the V8-powered Italians, MR2s had their engine mounted immediately behind the relatively roomy cabin and planting its weight directly over the rear wheels. Yes, they were prone to oversteer but providing the driver wasn’t a total mug, easy to drive and good fun. Those comments apply to the normally-aspirated Aussie version with a demure 117kW 2.0-litre.

Heading further into the MR2 market you discover that lots of the SW20s didn’t come to Australia as new cars and go like fire-bombed fowls. Low-volume import rules during the late-1990s allowed limit-free sourcing of used MR2 Turbos from Japan and they arrived in droves.

Those cars use the same basic engine as the local product but the addition of a turbocharger and intercooler sent output surging to 167kW. Using 95 Octane Premium fuel and perhaps a little engine management tweaking, these cars were good for 14.5-second dashes down the 0-400 metre track and 0-100km/h in 6.6 seconds.

Finding a good MR2T in the sub-$10,000 price bracket is easy but caution is needed. Choosing a car that has been kept close to standard is sensible because those running wild levels of boost and home-made engine management settings are prone to costly repair bills.


SUBARU B4

When asked what kind of all-wheel drive turbocar they might buy for $10,000, most people will nominate an early WRX. Not here, folks. Following the lemmings to Rex-Land would by-pass a car with more interior and luggage space, higher-quality fittings, equal performance and two turbochargers. Given their scarcity, Subaru’s Liberty B4 might also have the edge in collector appeal.

The B4 was introduced towards the end of the Gen. 3 Liberty’s life-span and seven years after the disappearance of Subaru’s original Liberty RS Turbo. Boost in the B4 became apparent from below 3000rpm, ensuring that the new car got cracking more quickly than the old one. At around 4500rpm the second ‘snail’ kicked in and sent the tacho bolting towards the redline.

It took a full-blown WRX rally car to produce the same guttural throb and off-boost reverberation as a B4. Fuel economy figures probably suffered due to owners flooring the pedal for a few seconds then backing off just to enjoy the engine note.

A subtle rear wing, five-spoke alloys and a discreet bonnet scoop allowed the B4 to be business-like without attracting unwanted attraction. The interior was more extroverted, with duo-tone leather and a stack of gear in keeping with a car priced when new at $55,000.

Local B4s came with five-speed manual or four-speed ‘sports shift’ automatic transmissions and only as sedans. Wagon fanciers might consider a recently-imported Legacy GT-B.

How well B4s have aged and been treated by former owners is problematic. Brakes were an issue even when the cars were new and replacement using original or superior-quality rotors and calipers isn’t cheap. Buying a pair of new turbos and rebuilding the engine is too costly to contemplate.

 

FORD FAIRLANE ZH 5.8

ZH versions were the last Fairlane not to share their basic design with a contemporary Falcon. These were massive cars too; 50mm wider and 140mm longer than the ZG version they replaced. However, its square-jawed shape is less attractive than the ZG and values haven’t increased at the same rate as previous Fairlanes.

By 1976, when these cars appeared, the big V8 was being strangled by inefficient emission controls. The standard 351 would by this time produce only 162kW – down 32kW on the ‘dirty’ motor – but minimal modifications can unleash 30 percent more power.

Power steering was standard and most ZHs had air-conditioning, but make sure it has been re-gassed with environmentally-friendly refrigerant.

Check when considering one of these cars that the suspension and steering are in good shape. Worn shock absorbers and sad steering have a huge effect on how a ZH drives. Good ones feel smaller and more responsive than a car of this size should. One that’s been neglected will be a handful and a half, especially on a slippery road.

With their abundance of sheet metal and vinyl roof covering, ZHs couldn’t help but serve as a nesting box for rust bugs. Doors, wheel-arches, the boot floor, rear quarters and turret all bubbled dramatically and it wasn’t difficult during the 1980s to find otherwise excellent cars being scrapped because the back end was threatening to fall off.

 

MERCEDES-BENZ 380SEC

Thirty years ago these high-tech hardtops were owned only by well-off people or businesses that didn’t think twice about service costs. As the big Benzes aged so did their electronics and a high proportion disappeared due to prohibitive maintenance costs.

As symbols of conspicuous consumption you would expect the big Benz to be laden with gear intended to cosset Sir or Madam en route to the opera. However, for a car with a new price above $80,000, the SEC wasn’t staggering under the weight of gadgets.

Most significant was the 380 model’s introduction of anti-lock brakes – a first for volume-produced passenger cars. Coupes were air-conditioned with an electric sunroof and gratuitous use of timer cabin trim.

Standard seat covering was rough but durable MB-Tex cloth, with leather available. The individual rear seats are comfortable with decent leg and head-room.

A smallish V8 pushing a large and heavy car might seem at odds with fuel economy but the Benz, with its slick four-speed auto transmission, would achieve 12L/100km on the highway. Beware, though, they do get seriously thirsty if pushed hard.

Staying well clear of low-priced, high-km cars is a good idea. Replacing a dud transmission can easily exceed the value of a cheaper SEC and adding an engine rebuild will take the cost way past the price of a very good one.

Items like damaged interior plastics, dented bumpers and cracked headlights that might represent minor concerns for owners of ordinary cars are a big deal for Benz buyers. Replacing both bars and the lights can exceed $5000.

 

TOYOTA SOARER (Z30)

Although the Soarers you will find in Australia are almost always badged as Toyotas, these impressive coupes are in every respect a Lexus. Most popular among the cars that flooded into dealer yards during the 1990s was the SC400 V8, which used the same quad-cam motor as the LS400 sedan.

Four-speed automatic transmission was mandatory for V8 buyers but not the case if you choose a 2.5-litre Twin-Turbo. These are an unlikely high-performance car, with looks so bland you will probably be ignored by ‘random’ police checks that have pulled over every R33 Skyline and turbo Supra in town.

The six develops a notional 206kW of power – in reality probably 220-230kW. Those tweaked with bigger turbochargers and intercoolers, massive exhausts and altered engine electronics can make more than 300kW. Manual 2.5TTs are scarce and usually more expensive than autos but charge from 0-100km/h in a tad over six seconds.

Basic GTs with V8 or turbo engines come with cloth trim, power windows and integrated air. Very good cars sell for less than $7500. To get leather, a computer touch screen (make sure it works) and electronic air-bag suspension you need to pick a scarce and more costly UZZ-32 Limited.

Despite having never been sold new in this country, Soarers are well-served by parts suppliers and repair specialists. Rust is rarely an issue but crumbling interior plastics (due to sun exposure) and electrical failures are.

They sit low as a matter of course and some owners exacerbate clearance issues by replacing the standard wheels with rims that are 18 inch or larger and ultra-low-profile rubber.

 

CHRYLSER CM VALIANT

When Chrysler closed the doors on Valiant production in 1981 it finally conceded that the battle to beat Holden and Ford at the ‘family’ car game couldn’t be won. The CM model was undoubtedly the best Valiant ever made and that’s despite it being only two updates removed from the appalling VH.

We can only wonder why significant improvements to the chassis and engine weren’t introduced in time to save the model from an inglorious demise.

Late in the reign of its CL model, Chrysler smartened grip and steering response via a ‘Handling Package’ that beefed the springs and shocks and altered geometry. Then with the CM came ‘ELB’ – Electronic Lean Burn – technology that used electronics to extract 9.5L/100km economy from an automatic 4.0-litre six.

Only 16,000 CMs were built during three years of existence, but surviving cars in decent order aren’t hard to find. It seems that many owners recognised the CM as significant and did their best to ensure that a lot avoided the scrap metal merchant.

Currently you can pay $2500-3000 for a roadworthy car and around $8000 for one in excellent order. Wagons are scarce as they suffered more often than sedans from rear-end rust and those that needed money spent have disappeared.

If you’re happy to go a little beyond our $10,000 limit, the possibilities include excellent Regals or perhaps one of the very rare GLX sedans. These came with the 4.3-litre motor, auto or a four-speed manual gearbox, steel sports rims and special seat trim.

 

MORRIS MINOR 1000

People who grew up with airbags, ABS braking and seat belts in the back will be horrified that this car with its tiny engine and bare-metal dash was once the most popular transport for expanding Australian families.

The vinyl-trimmed rear seat doesn’t look large but you could get four moderately sized kids – or three plus nanna – in there without too many squarks. Even though most of Australia’s Minor 1000s only had 948cc (later ones went to 1098) second gear was perfectly suited to chugging up steepish hills at a decent 40-50km/h.

Plenty of Minors were sold here and a lot have survived. Even better news is that our allotted $10,000 will buy a really good sedan and perhaps even a decent soft-top Tourer.

Despite being more than 50 years old, Minors are a fun thing to drive. The pedals are tiny, gear-shift notchy and power almost non-existent. However, once you get a Minor up to its comfortable 90-95km/h cruising pace it will plug on without complaint or costing much at all when tank-filling time comes.

Other benefits of Minor ownership include easy and low-cost repairs and maintenance. Very little that’s fitted to one of these cars can’t be replaced with a new or reconditioned part or even improved upon. Frequently you’re going to find Minors with later-model Japanese motors in place of the original. Some will even come with automatic transmission and disc brakes.



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