Within a week or two, the guy who ran the gas station we patronized said he knew of a car that might be just the ticket. It was in a junkyard on the edge of town, but, he said, the body damage was just minor and, according to his sources, the car didn't need much to get back on the road. Certainly, he claimed, it was a car that could be fixed up even by a 15 year old with only fair mechanical instincts.
Okay, we said, we'll go out and take a look. So one night later the four of us piled into the family car to take a look at this potential candidate for our garage. It was a cold, windy Chicago night - this was in February - but we found the junkyard and, somehow, found the car. Just as the gas station proprietor had told us, it was in fairly good shape for a vehicle that was then nearly three decades old. There was a crease or two in the body, and on the passenger side the running board had been knocked askew, but otherwise, from what we could tell by the yellow glow of a flashlight, it looked pretty good.
The junkyard guy who was trying to sell it then fired up the engine, and it sounded pretty good, too. Of course, the sound of a running engine in any car that had the potential to become mine would have sounded like a symphony, but the fact was, it ran. Not a bad recommendation for starters.
What was this amalgam of rubber, iron and steel? It was a 1939 LaSalle opera coupe, a big-fendered, tight-cabined, voluptuous beauty of a car straight out of a Humphrey Bogart movie. Good God, what a gorgeous thing that car would be fully restored with paint and chrome trim gleaming.
So how much did the junkyard guy what for this lovely relic?
Fifty bucks. Fifty bucks! FIFTY BUCKS!
And you want to know the saddest thing? We didn't buy it. I had my heart set on a car from the Twenties: an Essex, a Rickenbacker or, as it turns out, a Nash, so we ended up shaking our heads, thanking the junkyard man for coming out on such a dark and blustery night, and climbing quietly back into the family car.
Less than a month after my encounter with the LaSalle I did buy my first car, a 1926 Nash Light Six that I still own some 33 years later, but I've always wondered what became of that beautiful, ghostly image of a car seen only by flashlight with snow flurries whirling around it out of the blackness. Whenever its dark countenance comes back into my mind, which happens with remarkable frequency, I hope against hope that somebody saved it from the crusher after we turned our backs on it and walked away.
Which brings us to the subject of this article, namely, cars you can buy today that will someday be the equivalent of that late, long-gone 1939 LaSalle opera coupe. Hemmings Motor News, "the bible" of the old car hobby, has announced its 13th annual top 10 picks of what it calls "sleeper cars," in other words overlooked collector cars that should gain in interest and value over the next few years. The list will appear in the November issue of Special Interest Autos, the bi-monthly collector-car magazine. The 10 vehicles were chosen by SIA editor Richard Lentinello for their potential future appreciation in the collector marketplace, which is becoming increasingly dominated by mature Baby Boomers looking for the performance cars of their youth.
Lentinello followed two basic criteria when he selected these soon-to-be-hot "sleepers." First, each car must be available in today's market for less than $10,000. Second, except for truly exceptional cars, the model must have been produced for at least two or three years to broaden the average collector's chance of finding a good example. Lentinello's analysis of price and collecting trends in the hobby has produced the following list, presented below not necessarily in order of desirability but rather in alphabetical order.
AMC Javelin, 1971-74
Having won the Trans-Am racing series in 1971 and 1972, the Javelin became one of American Motors top selling models during the early Seventies. Available in three distinct trim levels, these hump-fender models range from a base model with a straight six to the mid-range SST to the high-performance AMX. Powered by either 150-horsepower 304-cubic inch V-8 or a 245-horsepower 360-cubic inch V-8, the SST was the most popular of the three, averaging more than 22,000 sales per year. The most sought after model is the Javelin AMX, with its 401-cubic inch V-8 putting out a very respectable 330 horsepower, a big block ponycar somewhat on the order of the contemporary Firebird Trans Am.
Regardless which V-8 version you choose, these distinctive muscle cars are extremely affordable, costing about $4,000 in average condition. Several fully restored AMX models have been listed for sale in Hemmings Motor News for only $8,000, and that's just a little more than half the price of a comparable Buick Gran Sport, Chevrolet Chevelle, Olds 4-4-2 or Pontiac GTO. The Javelin is clearly an outstanding alternative muscle car for the enthusiast on a budget.
Buick Riviera Gran Sport, 1965
Considered by many the epitome of clean, elegant personal luxury car design in the 1960s, the freshly revamped '65 Buick Riviera found few detractors when it was introduced to the public. With its concealed, stacked headlamps tucked into tall fenders, cavernous reverse-sloping grille and its smooth, stylish flanks, this car was a looker that offered excellent performance, decent handling and better-than average ride qualities. When optioned as a Gran Sport, the Riviera's already strong performance was enhanced by the 425-cubic inch Super Wildcat engine with dual four-barrel carburetors helping it make 360 horsepower. Backed by the newly introduced Super Turbine 400 automatic transmission and a limited slip rear end, the Gran Sport stunned automotive journalists with its performance and luxury. Inside, true 2+2 seating, tilt-steering, walnut trim and a massive console and dash arrangement are constant reminders that you're in one of the earliest luxury/muscle hybrids.
Whether you're out for a Sunday drive, a trip to the grocery, or a long-distance haul, you'll get more approving smiles and thumbs-up than any Lexus, Mercedes or other modern counterpart -- and it won't cost you the kid's college tuition either. Well, you may have to hit the kid for a semester's worth, as the examples listed in Hemmings Motor News range from about $5,000 for GSs needing some TLC to $10,000 for a decently restored example.
Chevrolet Corvette LS4 coupe, 1974
The most highly-prized Corvettes today are those originally equipped with big-block engines. Powered by very powerful 396-, 427- and 454-cubic inch V-8s, these big-block monsters also carry big price tags. Nevertheless, if your heart desires a big-block Vette but your bank account shouts small block, the 1974 Stingray is the Corvette for you. The last year Chevrolet offered a big-block V-8 in a Corvette was 1974, which makes this model all the more appealing since it represents the end of an era.
First offered in 1970, the 454-cubic inch V-8 produced an emission-control-strangled 270 horsepower in 1974, which was deemed quite worthy by 3,494 buyers. Only recently have these rubber-bumper big-blocks caught on, no doubt helped by the high asking prices of earlier big-block Corvettes. If you're a little handy, you can still locate a decent running example in coupe form with matching-numbers that requires fresh paint and some tinkering with the mechanicals, for about $5,000. A four-speed version in excellent condition was recently offered in Hemmings for $10,500. Best all, these cars enjoy excellent parts supply and support from hundreds of Corvette specialist vendors and clubs nationwide.
Dodge/Shelby Omni GLH-S, 1986
Dodge's "American Revolution" campaign brought America the four-door economy car that put some performance into the low-ball equation. From '84 to '86, the turbo-optioned GLHs made life miserable for the owners of performance imports and, arguably, for their own owners as well. The GLH was inexpensive, quick, and handled on a par with many more expensive rivals. When the 175-horsepower GLH-S debuted in '86, one still got Dodge's rather crudely built economy platform, but it could pummel the competition into submission and give its owner ear-to-ear grins or apoplexy from tire-smoking torque-steer. Only 500 of these Shelby-badged black and silver brutes were built, and today finding one in mint condition is a difficult task as they were, and still are, driven and raced hard and put away wet. Replacing mechanical parts is a simple matter as the Turbo II engine and driveline was used in a variety of Dodge products. The cosmetic pieces (hoods, graphics, interior, etc.) are a little harder to come by because of the limited production run.
That this is an up-and-coming collectible is evidenced by the appearance of restored cars and the few pristine original examples cropping up at Shelby Dodge Auto Club events and Mopar shows throughout the country and the fact that it's a Shelby-modified performance auto. However, great bargains are still to be had, with recent Hemmings Motor News ads listing several GLH-S's needing work in the $5,000 range. Expect to pay close to $10,000 for a restored car or a low-mileage original in excellent condition.
Hudson Super Jet, 1953-54
Cars of the Fifties are among the most extraordinary-looking automobiles ever produced. Among them one of the most sought-after is the Hudson Hornet, but its current price level parallels its desirability. The downsized Hudson Jet of the same era makes a charming and affordable alternative. Smaller than its big brother Hornet, it features the trademark Hudson look with its wide, mouth-like grille opening. The model was produced for only two years, but more than 21,000 Jets and Super Jets were built in 1953 alone, making parts not too difficult to find. Because of their "entry-level" status, most Jets you can purchase affordably are in need of restoration, which makes membership in the Hudson-Essex-Terraplane club an absolute must.
Like the Hornet, the Super Jet features a 104-horsepower L-head inline-six with a very durable chrome alloy block displacing 202 cubic inches. The most collectible Super Jets are those equipped with the optional "Twin-H Power" dual carburetor setup. Other desirable options include the continental kit and rear skirts. (A Super Jet for sale in Hemmings Motor News recently featured all these options yet bore a very reasonable $6,500 asking price). Compared to other Fifties cars, the Hudson Super Jet is one of the most unique, affordable special-interest cars you can buy.