Some absolute gems are more affordable than you might think.
The 1990s were, on the whole, a prosperous decade. As personal incomes doubled from the recession in 1990, it brought a more cultured level of refined excess than the late 80s as people flaunted their improved lifestyles and the world demanded the future to start arriving now. The start of the tech boom came early in the decade and entrepreneurs were making millions out of their garages and basements. The 90s taught us that you didn’t have to be college educated to make your fortune. The car industry was happy to serve the new money, and the technology developed to stay within the emissions regulations that killed the muscle car and make real power in cars again. The fact that fuel was cheap didn't hurt either.
Here in 2019, we have a decent and relatively stable economy with an overflow of cars on the used market keeping prices down to a point where you can currently get an awful lot of vehicle for your money. However, many 90s cars are on the verge of becoming true classics and turn of the century nostalgia is building, so now is the time to pick up some bargains. And, some of the best bargains had the biggest price tags back in the day.
The 80s and 90s are where you can find some of the most over-engineered Mercedes as well as some of the rarest. The 500E is a quintessential 90s Mercedes that falls into both categories, but you can still pick them up for under $20,000 if you’re sharp about it.
Rather than use AMG to get the performance side nailed down, Mercedes brought Porsche in to help design the new performance version of the W124 sedan. It’s still a quick car today and its low key style earned it the nickname, "Der wolf in der kleidung eines schafes,” from the German press which, as you’ve probably worked out, translates as "The wolf in sheep’s clothing.”
The 944 Turbo was launched in 1982 and a major success that stayed in production until 1991. It’s a narrow window for a 90s car, but a 90s 944 Turbo can currently be found for around $15,000. Unlike the 911, who’s 90s models are crazy money now, the 944 is a front-engined car that has found itself overlooked by enthusiasts over the past 20 years. That’s starting to change as it is truly a wonderful car and 911s of the same vintage are out of reach to many. So, if a 90s Porsche is on your wish list, then now is the time to get looking.
The SVT (Special Vehicle Team) Cobra was the top of the line high-performance version of the Mustang from 1993 to 2004. By today's standards, the 235 horsepower 5.0-Liter Windsor V8 isn’t especially muscular but with some knowledge and a little cash it can be improved. There is a strong argument for leaving an SVT Cobra stock as a shining example of the era and likely future classic for the auction block. Currently, you can pick a project car for less than $8,000 but for around $12,000 you can find a very fresh example.
The Allante is one of Cadillac’s unsung heroes. It’s a luxurious cruising convertible helped along by a big smooth V8 and, at the time, was packed with features uncommon in other cars. Its production run only made it to 1993 and sales were never strong for the $52,000 Cadilac. That was unfortunate for Cadillac, but means that, if you want something unusual and powerful to enjoy cruising around in, they're an absolute bargain now. For low mileage examples don’t expect to pay more than $7,000 for some roof down extravagance.
BMW’s large luxury sedan was a $92,000 vehicle in the 90s and, according to reviews of the day, worth every cent. Not only was it big, comfortable, and superbly engineered, but the 7-Series also had the performance many smaller cars could only dream of. The 7-Series depreciation is best described as horrendous though. That sucked for people buying them new in the 90s, but means we can get some serious BMW for around $10,000 now.
While not the most expensive of luxury cars in the 90s at $51,200, and to the point BMW accused Lexus of selling it under cost, it was easily one of the best. Massively over-engineered with a chassis and engine as well as comfort and features that made BMW and Mercedes very nervous, it’s amazing that you can find solid drivers now for under $4,000. Don't be too afraid of higher mileage examples as long as they've been well maintained, as the 90s LS400 has a reputation for long-term reliability.
The E39 is till regularly cited as one of the best cars BMW ever made. It had the looks, the driving balance and feel, and a fantastic V8 under the hood. When new, the E39 M5 sold for around the $75,000 mark. Now, an immaculate and a low-mileage example can fetch over $100,000 but if you’re looking for a daily driver you can pick something sweet enough for $15,000. And, if you set your sights a little lower for a project, they’re out there for under $10,000.
While 90s Supras are out of reach for those of us without the deepest of pockets, there’s a strong argument that Toyota’s little mid-engined wonder is actually the better all-around and daily driving sports car. The turbo versions are starting to get harder to find, but with some patience and Google alerts they can be found for around $10,000 or even less. True, that is the same sort of money for an E39 M5, but unless you’re dead set on the BMW we’re talking about Toyota reliability and servicing costs.
With inflation, $25,000 in 1995 works to over $40,000 right now, and for that money in the 90s you could have walked into a Ford showroom and bought a true sleeper. We're talking genuine performance without drama and a car that nobody expects to leave them behind from the traffic lights.
SHO stands for Super High Output, and the cars to look for are pre-1996 with the exceptional Yamaha developed 6-cylinder engine that developed 220 horsepower with the redline at 7,200 rpm. In 1996, Ford dropped in a V8 that looks good on paper, but only performed marginally better and had reliability issues along with no manual transmission option.
The Bentley Brooklands featured both Rolls-Royce design cues and the Rolls-Royce 6.75-liter V8 engine under the beautifully sculpted hood. On the inside, there’s plenty of real luxurious leather and woodgrain to admire and enjoy after listening to the satisfying dull thunk of the door closing to remind you just how well engineered and built your car is. In the 90s you would have paid $156,000 for that sound, but now you can show your style and class for as little as $10,000. You could also pick up the Bentley Turbo R for similar money, but we think that extra performance is a little uncouth for someone with Bentley taste.
If American opulence is more to your style, look no further than the Cadillac Brougham. The Brougham is from back when Cadillacs were massive cruisers that floated down the road with the occupants not feeling too far from their living rooms. The interiors still hold up as lavish and elegant with the right color scheme, while the fuel-injected V8 and modern features such as automatic headlights and auto high-beam dimmers make for a car not feeling too far out of its decade. The Cadillac Brougham started at $30,000 in 1991, but you can find them now for under $3,000 and for an exemplary example you could go to town and pay up to $10,000.
If a BMW or Mercedes isn’t quite to your taste, then its worth looking at Audi’s first generation of the A8. It was up there as one of the most expensive luxury sedans of the 90s but today you can find them as low as $4,000. The A8 is the car for those that want all the top of the line features, comfortable seating for five passengers and the ability to get where they need to be in a hurry. Look for the V8 version and a pair of leather driving gloves.
At a touch over $122,000, the SL600 was the ultimate 90s Mercedes. It had everything you'd expect of a Mercedes but with just two seats, a soft-top, and a 389-horsepower V12 with torque to spare. The same engine, in fact, that found its way into the Pagani Zonda.
A word of caution though. Like all German luxury cars of the time, the more there is on the car then the more there is to go wrong and expenses can rack up fast. You can pick up an SL600 for under $10,000 and the V12 has a reputation for reliability, but keeping a lump of cash to one side for any issues cropping up is a smart move.
For $15,000 and under, the C5 Corvette is an incredible amount of car for the money. This won’t last forever though. The drift crowd is starting to realize that rather than spending time, money, and effort on engine swapping a rear wheel drive Japanese car, the C5 packs a bulletproof 350 horsepower V8 with lots of room for tuning and rides on a well-balanced rear-wheel-drive chassis. The good news is that there’s still plenty out there and older Corvette enthusiasts are well known for keeping their cars garaged until the weekend car shows.
Good luck finding an E30 or E46 M3 for reasonable money, but the middle late last-century sibling M3 is out there and can be found for around $8,000 in good condition. How long that will last is hard to call as they are a very popular track day and drift cars. The reason they are perceived as being less desirable to the previous and next generation M3 is most likely due to the US market engines being a little less powerful than those sold in Europe. Don’t let this cloud your judgment though, there’s a reason they enjoy popularity as track cars.