Allow us to set the scene for you: on a winding country backroad surrounded by trees, your leather-gloved hands crank the wood-rimmed steering wheel. You then reach for the gear lever and step on the gas. Unimpeded by a roof, you can clearly hear the throaty warble of the engine turn to a scream. Are you in a Jaguar? A Ferrari? No, you’re in a Datsun.
Its a cliché, sure, but there are few driving experiences as pure and as therapeutic as driving a classic roadster on a beautiful road. Generally, these classic open-top fantasies are accompanied by an equally fantastical car — a Ferrari California, a Jaguar E-Type, an AC Cobra, etc. But returning to reality, there are any number of vintage cars made during the ’60s, ’70s and even the ’80s that are just as attractive, just as viscerally thrilling. And because they were mass produced, they’re incredibly accessible to purchase even today — for less than $15,000 you too can live out one of the world’s favorite motoring tropes.
Alfa Romeo Spider
The Battista Pininfarina-designed sports car that quickly became word famous after its iconic role in The Graduate. Throughout its lifetime, the Alfa Romeo Spider was powered by a twin-cam inline-four engine in varying displacements. While it wasn’t particularly fast — nor did it even handle that great — the Alfa Spider more importantly had style and has remained an icon since its silver screen debut. The Spider was built until 1993 with relatively few changes to its overall design, and though the early models have $40,000+ price tags, the later models can regularly be found at low, low prices.
Engine: Alfa Romeo Twin Cam inline-four
Production: 1966 to 1993
Expect to Pay: $5,000+
Mercedes-Benz SL-Class (R107)
The third generation of the Mercedes-Benz SL was built from 1971 to 1989, making it the second-longest car series from the brand, apart from the military-truck-turned-pimpmobile Gelandewagen. While most other roadsters from the time were lightweight drivers’ cars, the Mercedes SL was more of a grand tourer, available with a variety of V8 engines, an automatic transmission and a well-appointed interior. The ’70s and ’80s were a heyday of build quality from Mercedes-Benz, and as such, an SL of this vintage should prove to be a relatively reliable machine.
Engine: SOHC V8
Production: 1971 to 1989
Expect to Pay: $8,000+
Fiat 124 Sport Spider
Born from the Fiat 124 saloon — which in 1967 was already advanced for its time, using coil-sprung rear suspension and four-wheel disc brakes — the 124 Sport Spidertook the sporty family car’s underpinnings and added a gorgeous Pininfarina body. The car was powered by various versions of Fiat’s Twin Cam four-cylinder engine, which was not only used in a variety of cars from Fiat and Lancia, but also became the most successful engine in the history of WRC, powering rally icons like the Lancia Delta, Lancia 037, the Fiat 131 Abarth and, of course, the rally variant of the Sport Spider that ran in WRC in the early ’70s.
Engine: Fiat Twin Cam inline-four
Production: 1966 to 1985
Expect to Pay: $5,000+
Known as the Fairlady in its native Japan, the Datsun Roadster was one of the very first sports cars to come from the Land of the Rising Sun when it originally launched in 1959. The Datsun didn’t really catch on in the US until 1963 with the introduction of the 1500 model (and eventually the larger displacement 1600 and 2000), but even then, Japanese cars from the ’50s and ’60s were new to the US market and considered low quality. Thus, compared to its Italian and British competition, the Datsun didn’t sell as well (though the irony is not lost on us). Still, the Datsun was found to be an agile track weapon and went on to win 10 National SCCA Championships over the course of 20 years.
Production: 1959 to 1970
Expect to Pay: $9,000+
Derived from the Triumph Herald but using a svelte design from Giovanni Michelotti, the original 1963 Triumph Spitfire was the company’s attempt to build an affordable sports car with basic trim and a measly 63 horsepower engine. Throughout its 18-year run, Triumph continued to sharpen the design and increase the car’s engine size, but at its core the Spitfire was still a slow, entry-level sports car. But with classic British looks the Spitfire still proved to be a hit, with the company producing over 300,000 of them — it’s one of today’s few true classic car bargains.