A funny thing happens on the way to adulthood: The cars of our youth transform seemingly overnight from late-model beaters to classics. To qualify for classic car status in most states, a vehicle has to be 25 model years old, which means that today, cars built in 1990 are classics. Some, like the original Mazda Miata or the BMW E30 M3, are well deserving of that title. But what about a Mercury Cougar? A Volkswagen Fox? What separates the criminally forgotten from the thankfully forgotten?
Luckily, the folks at eBay Motors — who know a thing or two about moving classic cars — set up criteria and polled a set of automotive experts to separate the wheat from the chaff. They came up with a list of 29 future classics that should go down in history as some of the most notable cars of their era. While the bulk of the list is made up of cars from the past 10 years, they named a number of cars from the not-too-distant past that have just reached or are fast approaching that classic threshold. For the sake of keeping things interesting, we’ve decided to look at the older models to get a glimpse of what the classic car market could look like in the next decade or so.
From well-respected legends to nearly forgotten curiosities, here are 10 cars (in order of appearance on eBay’s list) from the waning years of the 20th century that just might convince you that they don’t make ‘em like they used to.
10. 1985-1993 Mercedes-Benz 190E
Long overshadowed by its rival, the BMW E30 3-Series, the 190E is finally starting to get its due. Mercedes conceived the 190E as both a replacement for the 240 series and as a direct competitor to BMW’s “Ultimate Driving Machine.” The company spent billions on over-engineering the car to handle like a top-of-the-line S-Class, and as a result, there are plenty of 190Es left on the road today. Still under-appreciated compared to the E30, the compact Mercedes could soon develop a cult following like the older 240 models, and it is a great entry-level modern German classic. The 190E kicks off eBay’s list by coming in at 29th.
9. 1990-1997 Mazda MX-5 Miata
Launched in 1990 as a modern interpretation of the classic British roadster, the Miata has become one of the most beloved cars ever built. Now in its 25th model year, Mazda has sold more than 900,000 Miatas. The car’s reliability, affordability, and relative ubiquity make it a great entry-level sports car. After a quarter-century of the Miata, it’s hard to imagine the automotive landscape without the little roadsters, and first-generation cars are already being snatched up as collectibles. The Miata came in at 27th on eBay’s list.
8. 2000-2005 Toyota MR2 Spyder
When Toyota introduced the original MR2 in 1984, it competed with a crowded field of small, affordable sports cars like the Fiat X1/9, Honda CR-X, and, later, the Mazda Miata. The car left the American market in 1995 only to return in 2000 as a convertible-only Spyder version. By then, the car looked spartan compared to the Miata, Porsche Boxster, and Honda S2000.
With a lack of a hardtop model and non-existent storage space, the car sold poorly compared to its more civilized rivals, and Toyota pulled the car from its U.S. lineup in 2005. But who buys a sports car for sensibility? The final-generation MR2 offered one of the purest driving experiences of its era and is that rarest of modern cars: an exciting Toyota. While they can still be had for used car money, the MR2 came in at number 25 on eBay’s list and is a safe bet for future classic status.
7. 1991-1997 Subaru SVX
The Subaru SVX was never understood in its day, and that’s a shame — it was one of the most interesting cars of its era. The car was designed by Giorgetto Giugiaro, the man responsible for the BMW M1 and the DeLorean DMC-12, but its love-it or hate-it styling and high price didn’t win over many buyers. It had Subaru’s bulletproof all-wheel-drive system, and its 231-horsepower, 3.3.-liter flat six was the largest engine the company had ever put in a car.
Unfortunately, it was only available with a sluggish four-speed automatic transmission, and the car’s hefty 3,600-pound weight didn’t do it any favors in the acceleration or braking departments. But because of its rarity, performance potential, and oh-so-’90s styling, the SVX is beginning to be reevaluated. There are even how-to’s on manual transmission swaps and brake upgrades to help the big Subaru become the performance car it always could be. Despite elusive success the first time around, the SVX came in at number 24 on eBay’s list.
6. 1992-1994 Volkswagen Corrado VR6
The Corrado VR6 was a very good car that came along at a very bad time for Volkswagen. Offered while Volkswagen was considering leaving the American market altogether, the Corrado was a gorgeous but expensive front-wheel drive 2+2 coupe based on the Golf platform.
The VR6 model used Volkswagen’s new compact 2.8-liter six that developed 179 horsepower and took the car from zero to 60 in an impressive 6.7 seconds. Despite serious performance pedigree, dismal sales made the base Corrado a rare sight when they were new — let alone a VR6. Today, the car’s clean lines, impressive performance, and scarcity make it a contender for next-generation classic status. The experts at eBay placed the car at 21 on its list of future classics.
5. 1982-1991 Porsche 944
Based on the 924, the 944 was introduced in 1982 and considered one of the best sports cars of its era. With its water-cooled inline four mounted up front and near 50/50 weight distribution, it was named the best handling import in a 1984 Car and Driver test and became a massive sales success for Porsche. Like the iconic 911, the 944 was available in a number of variants, from 150-horsepower grand tourer to a turbocharged 250-horsepower model that could rival its 911 stablemate.
Citing the 944’s development as a joint project between Porsche, Volkswagen, and Audi, as well as the car’s mass-market appeal (Porsche built 163,962 units), “traditional” air-cooled rear-engined Porschephiles have long snubbed the cars, but their undeniable performance potential and relative affordability have made them the entry point for a new generation of Porsche enthusiasts. After decades of being overlooked, the 944 is finally getting its due, coming in at 18 on eBay’s list.
4. 1993-1997 Land Rover Defender
Like the Jeep Wrangler, the Defender is a rugged, body-on-frame four wheeler with world-class off-roading capabilities that can trace its roots back to the beginning of its company. Unlike the Wrangler, the Defender is considered forbidden fruit in America, and people are willing to spend nearly $90,000 to get their hands on one. Land Rover offered the Defender for only four years in the U.S. before safety regulations forced it off the market.
Still on sale in the U.K. (for about $34,000), the Defender is in such high demand in the U.S. that smuggling has become an issue, and last year the Department of Homeland Security seized and crushed 40 illegally imported Defenders. Because of the rarity of legal U.S.-spec models and high demand, the rugged utility trucks are appreciating faster than some ’90s-era supercars. The mighty Defender is number 16 on eBay’s list of future classics.
3. 1991-1995 Mazda RX-7
When it was introduced in 1978, Mazda’s RX-7 was the jewel in its rotary-engined crown. By the time the third and final generation was introduced in 1991, it was the sole rotary offering in Mazda’s U.S. lineup — but the company made it count. The RX-7 was the first Japanese sports car to offer a sequential twin-turbo setup, helping launch the car from zero to 60 in 4.9 seconds; that’s faster than an Acura NSX.
Despite being universally beloved by the automotive press, the RX-7 never quite caught on with the American public, and it was discontinued after the 1995 model year (it soldiered on in Japan until 2002). Today, its timeless looks, strong performance, and popularity in tuning car communities makes the final RX-7 one of the most sought-after cars of the ’90s. It also came in at number 13 on eBay’s list.
2. 1986-1991 BMW M3
Approaching 30 and aging beautifully, the first-generation M3 has become one of the most iconic and beloved cars BMW has ever built. It could arguably be called the greatest car the makers of “the Ultimate Driving Machine” have ever built. BMW’s M-Motorsport division built the M3 for racing homologation, and the car was little more than a street-legal race car.
But since it was based on the excellent E30 model 3-Series, the M3’s seamless blend of race-ready performance, superlative handling, and real-world usability makes the nearly 30-year-old car a capable performer, even by today’s standards. With prices for immaculate E30 M3s already approaching the price of a new M3, the days for getting these legendary Bimmers on the cheap are long over. The original M3 is still the standard all BMW M cars are judged by. As a result, it comes in at number four on eBay’s list.
1. 1991-2005 Acura NSX
When the NSX appeared on U.S. shores in 1991 with a mid-mounted 3.0-liter twin-turbo V6 pumping out 270 horsepower, sleek all-aluminum bodywork, and a suspension developed with help from Formula 1 legend Ayrton Senna, Honda muscled its way into the supercar market and single-handedly raised the bar for quality, reliability, and drivability in the segment. With the original cars approaching 25 years old, prices are climbing back to well over its original $60,600 base price. After never quite earning the esteem of its European competitors in its day, the NSX tops eBay’s list for future collectibles, and today, it’s officially a blue-chip classic.
For years, people debated whether Japanese cars would ever be considered classics. Then it was whether cars from the ’80s or ’90s could be worthy of true classic status. As the collector car market continues to grow, a new generation of buyers will make the cars of their youth skyrocket in value, just like baby boomer collectors did for ’50s and ’60s cars during the last great collecting boom of the 1980s. As cars recede into the past, a new generation of enthusiasts will emerge to celebrate them — that’s the way it’s been, and that’s how it always will be. These 10 cars may not be that old, but it’s time we get used to calling them classics.