Low cost winners buyers guide: 5 cars for $5k

By: Cliff Chambers, Photography by: Marque publishing

Presented by

Ford Falcon ED-EL XR6 Ford Falcon ED-EL XR6 Ford Falcon ED-EL XR6
Holden Statesman VQ-VS Holden Statesman VQ-VS Holden Statesman VQ-VS
Honda Prelude VTi-R Honda Prelude VTi-R Honda Prelude VTi-R
Mercedes-Benz 300E Mercedes-Benz 300E Mercedes-Benz 300E
Volkswagen Beetle: 1600 Superbug Volkswagen Beetle: 1600 Superbug Volkswagen Beetle: 1600 Superbug

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: 5 cars for $5k
Low cost winners: Five for 5k


Five cars for Five Grand

Throughout the ages, enthusiasts have sought inventive ways to find cars that will make them look successful or trendy without spending very much money at all.

In the late 1960s, $5000 was a significant chunk of change and would fund things like an ex-Le Mans D-Type Jaguar or Bugatti. A few years later it would buy a new GT-HO Phase 3 and we all know what tucking one of those away for a few decades would do for the bank balance.

Sadly, $5K no longer packs the buying power it once did and the car it buys today might not be destined for collector-market stardom. But stranger things have happened.

For now, enjoy some interesting transport and think how much money you’re not handing over each month to fund a current version.


Low-cost winners for $5000:

  • Ford ED-EL XR6
  • Holden Statesman VQ-VS
  • Honda Prelude VTi-R
  • Mercedes-Benz 300E
  • Volkswagen 1600 Superbug



A distinctive nose made the XR6 fly, but those tiny lights were fairyl useless...

Slapping a new front on an old house works in the real estate game, and Ford was bright enough to give it a go when launching the ED XR6/8 Falcons.

Previous XR models came with different wheels and a few body embellishments, but the ED’s distinctive nose immediately set them above every other Falcon in the range.

The XR6 and 5.0-litre XR8 were also properly sorted sports sedans, and the 161kW six-cylinder was only 4kW less-powerful than the V8.

With some educated amendments to spring and shock absorber rates, the six-cylinder car turned with more precision than any other model in the ED range. It also delivered a reduction in the roll oversteer that could send other versions scarily sideways should the driver close the throttle mid-bend.

The five-speed XR6 manual was also $2000 cheaper than a V8 and romped from 0-100km/h in a slick 7.5 seconds. But it was the combination of superior power-to-weight, gearing and adhesion that saw the ED XR6 lap Sydney’s Eastern Creek raceway a full two seconds faster than the XR8 during magazine testing.

Inside, it was still a bit of a taxi, with lots of plastic, but a leather-bound steering wheel combined with sufficient seat bolstering helped make distances fly by. Many cars have cruise control and air-conditioning is a must.

It is still easy to find a good XR for not much money. Only 1882 ED XR6s came down the production line, but more than 3000 each of the following EF and EL models. Probably the toughest job when choosing an XR6 is to find a car that hasn’t been thrashed or crashed.

The ED colour range was a bit limited, but EF and EL models came in a range of distinctive shades, including dark metallic blue and the sought-after Highland Green.

Those four tiny headlights are fairly useless at illuminating the road and some owners have fitted supplementary lights below the bumper.




A Statesman with a V8 engine and IRS has plenty of performance and comfort for the money...

When Holden shut down its commercial-vehicle production line in 1985, the WB Statesman built on the same long-wheelbase platform also disappeared. For the next five years, GM could do nothing but watch as Ford captured all the luxury fleet business with the Fairlane.

Eventually that attitude changed and stretching the VP Calais into a luxury-liner Statesman didn’t prove too difficult. The work to introduce independent rear suspension had already been done and, apart from the roof with its distinctive rear pillar, most of the sheetmetal was shared.

The VQ and VQII Statesman came with a 165kW V8 engine and cost almost $41,000 new. Initially you could only have the V8, but for 1992 and the VQ II a V6 was added and the price of the V8 was increased.

VR-VS versions differ only slightly in shape to the original. Different grilles and bigger wheels were the major differences, and a full rear wheelarch exposed more tyre.

As often happens with luxury models in their twilight years, these cars just aren’t worth enough to justify the refurbishing that keep older models from the HQ-WB era coming back for more.

Well-kept VQ-VS cars with less than 250,000km on the odo will still have plenty of mechanical life left, but look for saggy and threadbare cloth trim, and problems with the interior plastics and headlining.

Lots of cars in the current market won’t cost anywhere near our maximum budget. The engine and transmission, if properly serviced, will do big distances, but high kilometres translate into fewer takers and low prices.  Be wary if a car has been modified as it might also have been abused.

If you travel minimal kilometres or occasionally tow a boat or van, one of these well-equipped V8s could be cheaper to own than a 4WD and provide way more style and comfort when not hauling a load.



Fourth-generation Prelude in VTi-R form was sold here from 1994 to 1996...

The Gen 3 Prelude that bowed out in early 1991 was a car that many bought in preference to a low-end BMW. It was impressive and comfortable, and most owners weren’t especially fussed about performance. Early Gen 4 versions with 118kW didn’t alter that view, but in 1994 along came the Prelude VTi-R with a stonking 142kW.

Honda’s Variable Valve Timing system had first appeared in 1989 and incorporated a separate set of camshaft lobes that kicked in at higher engine speeds. Response as the tacho needle surged past 5000rpm was as if the engine had grown an extra pair of pistons or a turbocharger.

Where the previous Prelude was a boxy luxo-barge with lots of glass, the VTi-R was a snarling sports car hidden inside a curvy coupe body.

It was something you could take for a work-day dawdle or loan to nan without a qualm, but find a stretch of road where the engine could be wrung all the way to its 7400rpm redline and the Prelude’s character completely changed.

Of course, cars that have been enjoyed in this way by former owners can come with a litany of problems and going broke before the car runs properly is a distinct possibility.
They’re low-slung as well, so clearance over speed humps can crunch expensive underbody bits.  Some people amplify the issue with ridiculously low-profile rubber and suspension stiffened to the point where it causes kidney damage.

Best choice is one that hasn’t been through a few sets of ownership hands and comes with receipts confirming that expensive maintenance jobs like timing belts, clutch and brake replacement have been recently completed.

Good news for bargain hunters is that there are still plenty of Gen 4 Preludes around and failing to negotiate a price on one won’t mean waiting months for another candidate to emerge.



The W124 series Mercedes-Benz is a product of the '80s, but the styling is classically timeless...

YES MY dears, it is absolutely possible to drive one of the most popular Mercedes-Benz models ever made while on a pauper’s budget. Granted, you might need to haunt M-B chatrooms and become mates with the local Euro-wrecker, but a 300E will be nice to drive and, providing you’re not paying dealer service charges, relatively cheap to own.

The boxy 300 grew from a generation of compact-bodied cars sold in Europe and other countries as taxis and fleet hacks. Australia was one of the few places where punitive taxes pushed it into the ‘prestige’ category.

That said, a lot of four-door 300s were sold here and significant quantities of well-kept cars survive.  Built as they were for utilitarian purposes, the quantity of gear they came with wasn’t extensive, but from 1987 did include leather trim, ABS, air-conditioning, power windows and central locking.

You should try to buy a car with few owners and lots of service history. When considering a Mercedes-Benz, those attributes are absolutely essential.

Tight and tidy 300Es pop up regularly with asking prices between $4500 and $6000, so it’s not hard to negotiate your way into a bargain-priced Benz.

Given its valve-train complexity, steering clear of cars with the later 24-valve engine is probably wise. Performance from the standard 135kW engine is okay and cruising ability magnificent. Most 300Es had ABS, so ensure it still works with a couple of rapid stops on the test drive.

With a solid 1470kg to carry around and a standard automatic transmission, fuel consumption in the suburbs will peak at around 14L/100km. If a 300E blows black exhaust smoke, you have an injector problem, so don’t buy it.




More than 21 million Beetles were produced in an amazing 65-year run to 2003...

The oldest, slowest and most rudimentary car in this selection could also be the most expensive to buy.

You can certainly find a decent and very usable Superbug for less than our $5000 limit, but one in mint condition will likely cost more than an equivalent-quality 300E.

The reason Beetle values continue to climb is an intangible quality known as ‘nostalgia’. That shape is still recognised anywhere in the world by people who weren’t a twinkle when the last Aussie-spec Bug was built.

There are two types of Superbug: the 1600S that arrived in 1971, and the 1600L that in 1973 debuted the Beetle’s first curved windscreen. It survived here until 1976 when it was replaced by the Golf.

Under the familiar VW shape, huge change occurred with the Superbug, including replacement of the traditional torsion-bar front suspension with MacPherson struts.

Further tweaking at the rear did a great job of keeping the rubber firmly in contact with the road, even when the Bug was provoked into screeching oversteer.

Where the original Beetle would fling you backwards and possibly upside down into the scenery as punishment for getting a bend wrong, the Superbug shifts its weight gently and predictably. Even jamming on the brakes is unlikely to produce an adverse reaction.

For a design that dates back to the 1930s, the Beetle copes well with 21st century driving. It thrives on urban commuting and will achieve average speeds your mates won’t believe over loose and rutted rural roads.

Be aware that these cars have none of the safety features commonly found in our other ‘$5K’ selections.

During the 80s, when Superbugs were cheap and engineering approvals easy to arrange, a trend emerged to replace the steel turret with an ill-fitting convertible top. A big roll bar was all that held most together and values are usually below those of an intact version.



More reviews:

> Low cost winners: 10 cars under $10k

> Cheap and cheerful classics

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>> Search cars up to $5000 for sale



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