If you’re a guy, there’s a fair chance that you love cars — especially the ones which have made a name for themselves as the industry’s most classic offerings. It almost goes without saying that these classic vehicles have earned their trademark notoriety for a specific reason — helping the manufacturers, designers, or industry as a whole in the pursuit of unwavering progression. The competitive nature of European, Japanese, and North American automotive manufacturers has been a transcendental constant, regardless of era, economic standing, and trend-driven evolution — it’s only natural that, amidst these conditions, a catalyst for bigger, better, and increasingly refined platforms would take hold.
Throughout history, there have been victors — and with each step forward, the automotive industry has seen endless innovation. From natural aspiration to improved suspensions, stabilization, weight reduction, and futuristic electronic power, there are a handful of noteworthy vehicles that helped to pave the way for their modern counterparts. Below, we’ll outline the best classic cars to drive before you die — an honest, up-front guide to the greatest platforms to ever be conceived, spanning generation, style, and purpose. From race-ready track warriors to luxury sedans, and everything in between, we’ll outline the most exhilarating four-wheel coaches to have ever made their debut on the blacktop — so strap in, it’s going to be a wild ride.
Acura has found a comfortable niche among luxury offerings and performance-focused platforms, and the NSX has undoubtedly helped the manufacturer to segway in a more “race-oriented” direction. From 1990 to 2005, the vehicle stood as the sole proprietor of Acura’s high-end performance lineup, and while it wasn’t as clean cut as its competitors (thanks to a boxy, angular body style), it represented something much more for the company — the unison of purposeful design elements that you’d find in an everyday-driven vehicle melded with the power and poise that one could expect from a storied supercar.
The first generation vehicle was powered by an all-aluminum 3.0L V6 and featured a five-speed manual that would later be available in a SportShift 4-speed automatic transmission variant. Coupled with Honda/Acura’s infamous VTEC engine system, the NSX would achieve 270 horsepower and provide even greater handling capabilities than its European rivals. To this day, the cult-classic vehicle is still touted for its unique body style and impeccable handling, quickly becoming one of the most underrated platforms on the market.
Aston Martin DB5
The Aston Martin DB5 needs no introduction, as it’s one of the most recognizable vehicles on the planet, and perhaps, of all time. Due to popularization throughout history (and its extravagant role in the James Bond film series), the DB5 has ascended into a legendary realm that few vehicles will ever reach. Built as the successor to the iconic British manufacturer’s DB4 in 1963, the DB5 set itself apart thanks to the inclusion of an all-aluminum 4.0-liter inline-six engine, a ZF five-speed transmission, and three different SU carburetors — bringing the luxury grand tourer to 282 horsepower.
It was featured in the original James Bond movie, Goldfinger, in 1964, and quickly became a fan favorite as the chosen platform of the international super spy. The consumer variant of the vehicle sports a tasteful leather interior, wool pile carpeting, electric windows, and a fashionable 2+2 configuration — helping the Aston Martin DB5 to solidify its place in history as one of the most remarkable vehicles to ever be produced.
The Austin-Healey 3000 was introduced to the masses in 1959 and quickly became a coveted vehicle that western audiences would fall deeply in love with. In 1963, nearly 92% of all Healey 3000s to be sold and exported were to that of North America, proving once again that quality design principles and beautiful, curvaceous bodywork were the mainstays of the era. The vehicle would go on to become the iconic image of the “Swinging Sixties,” and found a devoted following through the use of a large 2.9L, six-cylinder BMC C-Series engine, alongside an adaptive chassis that helped the vehicle transition from its original open layout to that of a sport-oriented 2+2.
When it wasn’t being utilized by traditional consumers, the Austin-Healey 3000 could be found on the track — winning a number of European rallies as the Best In Class. Even today, the revered vehicle refuses to dismiss its racing roots and can be found alongside other timeless variants within the winner’s circle.
The Chevrolet Camaro is one of many iconic vehicles from the American automaker and was one of the first vehicles to ignite the war between 8-cylinder manufacturers for automotive supremacy. It was introduced to the North American market in 1967 as a mid-size pony car and would stand side by side with Ford’s infamous Mustang as a vicious competitor, oriented toward the horsepower-fueled rivalry between manufacturers.
The first and second generation Camaros were monsters in their own right, utilizing 3.8-liter, 4.1-liter, 4.9-liter, 5.0-liter, 5.7-liter, and 6.5-liter V8 power plants to meet every possible marketing niche, as well as provide consumers with variable platforms depending on their budgets. Standard, Super Sport, and Rally editions of the Camaro would be released throughout the first generation’s tenure, with the iconic Z/28 model adding rally styled wheels, pinstriping, and a 4.9-liter V8 engine that could stand up to the runaway success of Ford’s original pony car.
Chevrolet Corvette Split Window
The Chevrolet Corvette is as American as apple pie, and thanks to a number of successful redesigns, the vehicle has cemented itself within the list of legendary vehicles that you should drive before you die. While most of the platform’s variants will suffice, it’s the split window Stingray that serves as the most coveted offering of them all. In 1963, Chevrolet introduced a 327-cid engine into the Stingray chassis, which would bring the all-American vehicle to 250 horsepower — although, for an additional cost, 300, 340, and 360 horsepower variants could be obtained.
From this model year forward, the automotive market began to show signs of a newly acquired taste and civility when it came to the purchase of sports offerings, opting for quality-of-life improvements such as power steering, power brakes, air conditioning, and the first ever Corvette special performance package, the RPO Z-06. Outside of the limited 199 platforms to be produced for the consumer realm, Chevrolet reserved only six Z-06 Corvettes for use in Le Mans and found well-to-do placements within the NASCAR-sanctioned Daytona 250 — proving that American engineering was something to fear (or respect).
Citroen might come as a surprise to most, especially if you’ve been living outside the realm of French automotive manufacturers. However, the DS, a front-engine, front-wheel-drive vehicle that was manufactured and marketed by France’s Citroën from 1955 to 1975 is an undeniably beautiful car coupled with a generous amount of prodigal technology for the era. The vehicle’s unique aerodynamic body, futuristic silhouette, and unheard of mechanical innovation came as a shock to the worldwide automotive and consumer-base — helping to shape the future of the industry into what we know today.
The DS was outfitted with a number of progressive car technologies, including a hydropneumatic suspension system, an automatic leveling system, power steering, and a semi-automatic four-speed transmission, which was groundbreaking at the time. A 2,347 cc I4 (DS 23) engine powered the vehicle, and thanks to the inclusion of disc-brakes, the DS was the first mass-production vehicle to innovate handling and ride quality through the development of a new braking system.
The Datsun 240Z is a favorite among old-school Japanese car enthusiasts, and it’s entirely deserving of the legendary status it has received over the past two decades. The two-seat coupe almost single-handedly ignited the import of Japanese vehicles into the United States, spurning other automakers such as Honda, Toyota, and Nissan to promote their platforms within North America.
At a time when drivers were unsure of the future in regards to big American automotive manufacturers, who were still focused on producing large displacement, overly-engineered vehicles, the Z offered an affordable, attractive, and smaller alternative to the less-than-economical vehicles Ford and Chevrolet were releasing to the public. An L20 2.0-liter straight-six SOHC engine powered the brand’s flagship vehicle, the Fairlady Z, and would ease unrest within western countries regarding the quality and dependability of foreign cars — eventually leading to a widespread introduction of small displacement imports that would positively impact the worldwide economy.
The Ferrari F40 stands alone as one of the most exotic vehicles to ever be produced, seeing immense popularity during its 1987-92 run — during which, it was noted by several publications as a crowning achievement for the Italian manufacturer. The mid-engine, rear-wheel-drive sports car utilized an engorged version of the 288 GTO’s IHI twin-turbocharged and intercooled V8 engine, which would produce 471 horsepower and 426 lb-ft of torque — enough to provide awestruck buyers with a significant feeling of power and freedom.
Pininfarina panels constructed with kevlar, aluminum, and carbon fiber minimized weight for racing and road-faring applications, while arduous aerodynamic testing left the vehicle with little else than a simplified, angular body style — perfect for open-wheel airflow. In 1987, the vehicle was released to the public and would garner mixed reactions, and with a $400,000 price tag, it was a steep investment for most buyers. However, the Ferrari F40 remains one of the fastest and most sought after vehicles of the era — making it a true contender in our list of bucket list rides.
Ferrari 250 GTO
The Ferrari 250 GTO was built to compete — finding a home amongst the GT racing circuit as a direct competitor to the popular cars of the era — the Shelby Cobra, Jaguar E-Type, and Aston Martin DP214. It featured a top-of-the-line Tipo 168/62 Colombo V12 engine, producing 296 horsepower and 217 lb-ft of torque to overtake adversarial track platforms alongside a beautifully realized, curvaceous body that would earn it the titles of the “Greatest Ferrari of All Time,” and “Hottest Car of All Time” by Motor Trend and Popular Mechanics, respectively.
In the late 1980s, the value of classic vehicles saw a notable increase, with the 250 GTO leading the Italian manufacturer’s lineup as the most valuable model to ever leave the showroom floor. To this day, the GTO’s massive popularity and loyal following have continued to stoke increasing monetary value for the vehicle — and, it’s safe to say that with only 36 variants to ever be produced, the rarity of the original 250 GTO has far surpassed the expectations of most.
The Jaguar E-Type is certainly one of the most attractive vehicles to ever be produced, earning the praise of Enzo Ferrari, himself, as “the most beautiful car ever made.” The British sports car came into prominence from 1961 when it was first released to consumers until 1975 — a 14-year time span that would engrave beauty, high-speed performance, and relatively affordable pricing to create one of the most iconic vehicles to grace our list.
It featured a 3.8 L XK I6 engine (with a 4.2L of the same design) and produced a neat 265-horsepower to accompany 283 lb-ft of torque, which was exhilarating for the era. A maximum speed of 150 mph helped to carry the E-Type into prominence, and throughout its multi-generational run, the vehicle never ceased to amaze drivers and reviewers alike, earning multiple titles as one of the most impeccably designed cars of all time.
Lamborghini is widely renowned as one of the most powerful supercar manufacturers around, and their flagship Miura has seen more than its fair share of positive acceptance. It originally debuted in 1966 and utilized a 3,929 cc V12 engine that was conceptualized to challenge Ferrari’s greatest supercars at the time.
A transverse mid-engine design and tightly-packaged layout gave the Miura a supremely attractive look, which was released to excessively positive critical acclaim — bringing stylist Marcello Gandini into the limelight as one of the premier designers of the period. At 345 horsepower, the newly conceived Miura would rattle the world of Italian supercars and solidify its place in history as the vehicle that defined Lamborghini’s expansion into the realm of household notoriety.
Mercedes Benz 300SL
The Mercedes-Benz 300SL is, without a doubt, a well-designed courier — outfitted with distinct gullwing doors and an innovative direct fuel injection system (found in the 1955 platform) that set it apart from its competitors. It’s a testament to style and grace, achieving both a super-light tubular chassis weight and a 2,996 cc M198 straight-six engine that produced 175 horsepower — bringing the car into the realm of race-proven pedigree.
It was conceptualized as a track car and finished in the top of its class on several notable races, including that coveted 24-hour race at Le Mans. Despite removal from showroom floors everywhere due to poor sales and a limited understanding of the newly adopted fuel injection system, the 300SL Gullwing stands today as one of the most sought after vehicle platforms — due, in large part, to its aesthetic qualities. An impeccably designed, curvaceous body, low stance, and unique chassis layout gave the vehicle all the gumption it needed to become a classic — sadly, it wasn’t realized until much further down the road.
The Porsche 356 was built as a nimble, rear engine flagship for the renowned German automaker, serving as their first production automobile. The four-cylinder, air-cooled, rear-wheel-drive car was engineered as a competitive racer with a focus on unparalleled performance, but slow sales and stagnant interest in the car during its first two years after production nearly brought it to a standstill.
Thankfully, the vehicle’s handling, performance, and aerodynamics began to materialize general respect for the car throughout the enthusiast community, and in 1954, Porsche introduced the four-cam racing “Carrera” engine to the 356, ushering in a new generation of high-performing vehicles. Following four distinct series of the platform, the manufacturer would move forward to replace the 356 with their 901 (and later, 911) chassis, which would solidify the company’s standing as a tried and true competitor in the automotive industry. Needless to say, the success of the 901 and 911 line owe it all to their predecessor — making the 356 a respected, prestigious forerunner that’s still not crossed off on most individual’s bucket lists.
The Shelby GT350 needs no introduction — as the premier pony car of the 1960s, it was widely renowned due to its high-tier performance, aesthetically pleasing body style, and American muscle pedigree. It utilized a 4.7-liter V8 that was rated at 306 horsepower and 329 lb-foot of torque, making it an instant hit among youthful racers and enthusiasts who were looking to latch onto Shelby’s iconic name.
A Holley four-barrel carburetor and durable four-speed transmission carried the vehicle from 0-60 in just under seven seconds, and with a top speed of 140 mph, the GT350 satiated the need for speed that was common among drivers searching for American-made power. The vehicle would find immense popularity during the V8 horsepower wars of the era, reigning supreme as the quintessential pony car that’s often associated with the golden years of the North American automotive industry. Today, collectors and enthusiasts alike search for the perfect Shelby GT350 to call their own — a nostalgic piece of history that was built for raw performance and nothing else.
Toyota has made a handful of iconic vehicles but over the manufacturer’s lifetime, none have reached the apex of popularity like the Supra. It pulled the greatest design aspects from the Japanese car manufacturer’s first GT platform, the 2000GT, adopting the inline-six layout and redefining the brand’s sport car offerings from 1978 onward. Over four generations, the Supra would shape the way that tuners approached bone-stock, street-faring vehicles, and in 1993, the platform would obtain the legendary 2JZ-GTE twin-turbocharged inline-six engine, catapulting it into prominence as one of the most sought after cars for aftermarket modification and customization.
While the factory body of the Supra wasn’t much to look at, aftermarket manufacturers capitalized on the popularity of the sports car to create one of the most extensive lists of add-on and modification-oriented parts lists that any specific vehicle has ever seen, further promoting the Supra to the masses as one of the most noteworthy tuning platforms in history. Today, the rarity and poise of the 276-horsepower vehicle are unmatched, with collectors and aspiring tuners chomping at the bit for a taste of the legendary 2JZ motor.
10 Best Affordable Vintage Japanese Cars
Now that you’ve added a few more vehicles to your bucket list, head on over to our guide on the best affordable vintage Japanese cars to add a couple more noteworthy performers to your bucket list.
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