Photographer: Hannah Elliott/Bloomberg
Photographer: Hannah Elliott/Bloomberg

I Had the Most Fun Driving These Classic Cars in 2017

As Bloomberg Pursuits' car critic, I  spend most of my time in new automobiles. But every so often I get to drive a vintage beauty that has so much personality, it makes all modern cars feel clinical and cold.

Driving dozens of cars a year is fun. This is not news.

It can also become a blur: When you drive four or five mid-size premium sedans in the $50,000 range (and when they’re all basically made by one of three massive global auto groups), the verdict can often become one of personal preference and style rather than a judgment of significant mechanical differences.

So it’s always refreshing to drive something from another time. Whether it’s a true vintage classic such as the cruise-ship smooth 1960 Cadillac Eldorado, a rebuilt '64 Shelby Daytona, or a muscled-up '67 Eleanor Mustang, these cars may not have automatic transmissions or air conditioning, but they do have personality and style. Amid the sea of appliance-like sedans, they stood out as machines with real personality. These are the cars to love.

Here are my favorites—in no particular order—from those I drove in 2017.

1989 Lancia Delta
1989 Lancia Delta

Italian automaker Lancia designed the Delta Integrale specifically for rally cross. It evolved the model over three distinct generations—1979 to 1994, 1993 to 1999, and 2008 to 2014—but never sold the car in the U.S. The ’89 Lancias debuted at the 1989 Geneva Motor Show and then won the San Remo Rally that year. (The rally is a world-championship series competition held in Italy every year.) 

The ’89 Lancia Delta Integrale has a 2.0-liter, turbo four-cylinder, 215-horsepower engine that gets 232 pound-feet of torque at 3,000 rpm. It has a max speed of 137 miles per hour and a zero-to-62-mph sprint of 5.7 seconds. (The relatively small engine’s whopping 16 valves are special because they allow it to “breathe” easier and quicker—to inhale air and exhale exhaust.) In simpler terms, that means it was really fun to drive, a plucky, little rally car eager to race.

You’ll be hard-pressed to find anything of this size and weight that can match the sheer thrust of this five-speed, all-wheel-drive manual as it comes through first and second gear. But if you like them you should act quickly. Prices are going up: Earlier this month in New York, Sotheby’s sold one for more than $170,000.

Photographer: Cesar Soto/Bloomberg

1976 Porsche 930 Turbo
1976 Porsche 930 Turbo

I drove this one briefly during the fall in Los Angeles, but it made a big impression. We all know that early air-cooled Porsche 911s from the 1970s through the '90s are among the most intoxicating, coveted cars on the road today; the air-cooled 930 Turbos are some of the most iconic, desirable, and collectible of the lot, especially the first-generation three-liter ones from 1975 to 1977. 

Magnus Walker's silver 1976 930 is one such car. It has the proper flares, the statement rear-wing, the blonde-tan leather interior, and the signature Porsche flat-six engine—and it has the driving personality to back them up. The short wheelbase, four-speed manual, and rear engine all make for a car that feels thisclose to the road at all times.

Early versions could hit 60mph in under five seconds, which was considerable for their time. This model felt considerably faster. From the moment I slipped behind the wheel, it never let up. Sure, the 930 has the reputation of being a widow-maker—those who fail to anticipate the massive turbo boost when it kicks in are doomed to overcorrect behind the wheel and end up spinning, or worse. (That's also why this car is so rare: Many of the ones made from '75 to '77 were crashed and wrecked, or upgraded and junked in favor of the bigger engine that came out in the following years.) But if you can handle it, that powerful turbo boost is addictive; the 930 has more personality in just its shifter than most other cars overall, even with all the upgrades and extras.

What makes this one even greater is the fact that it was the first production 930 sold in the U.S. On Hemmings, it runs from $100,000 to $300,000. If you’re lucky, you can find them on BringaTrailer for less than that. As for Walker's own? Its exclusiveness, unique build, and provenance make it worth more than most. He says he's not selling. 

Photographer: Magnus Walker

1960 Cadillac Eldorado
1960 Cadillac Eldorado

For pure cruising love, it’s tough to beat a classic Cadillac. Take the 1960 Cadillac Eldorado: The model was so good that Caddy made one version or another from 1952 all the way until 2002. During the early years, at a price just under $14,000, this was the most expensive, most luxurious car Cadillac manufactured.

The version I drove was a two-door, 345-horsepower, V8 convertible with ecru paint and a Coke-bottle-red interior. Hagerty loaned it to me from its fleet of classic and notable cars in Michigan. It came with two large bench seats—one across the front; one spanning the back—a three-speed automatic transmission, and the elegant, reed-thin steering wheel drivable by just the lightest input. Air suspension, cruise control, air conditioning, and a radio all came standard in the car’s original form.

The design of the car is special, because 1960 was the last time Cadillac made those epic, wrap-around glass windshields. The gas tank was hidden under the trunk at the center of the tail, behind a little mesh gate. And how about those fins? They shoot out from either end of the rear like lethal weapons lined in red lights.

I loved the analog driving experience: Smooth and easy and light like a cloud, with no buzzer or beeper or parking camera in sight. It’s like doing a digital detox from the over-computerized world. It’s no surprise that in 1960, Car Life magazine named the Eldorado “Best buy in the luxury field.”  

Photographer: Hannah Elliott

1956 Porsche Spyder 550
1956 Porsche Spyder 550

This is not the original version. That one, produced by Porsche from 1953-1956, is now worth plenty, such as $5 million for the one Jerry Seinfeld bought at a Gooding & Co. auction. (It’s also the car James Dean was driving when he crashed and died.) All told, only 90 examples of those were built, 43 of which were non-race “customer cars.”

But this is an exact kit replica that won’t bankrupt you if it gets a dent. The 550 Spyder has a 150-horsepower, flat-four-cylinder engine and four-speed manual transmission. And it’s low enough to the ground that you can literally step over the door and slide right down behind the wheel. On a body that weighs less than 1,500 pounds, that’s enough to have a very good time.

It's owned by Classic Car Club Manhattan, drivable at any time for club members. Access to this beauty alone is worth the membership fee. 

Photographer: Bob Champ

1981 Rolls-Royce Corniche
1981 Rolls-Royce Corniche

The original Rolls-Royce Corniche replaced the older Silver Shadow in 1971 and brought a then-revolutionary V8 engine and self-righting suspension to the English automaker’s stable. I drove one in Los Angeles earlier last summer—a black convertible number with tan leather seats and a gliding ride that feels like a cloud. It is such a classy car.

It’s big inside, with a stuffed bench seat in the back and plush chairs up front; the automatic transmission is easy, the brakes capable and efficient. Plus, with a large, flat, silver grille and the obligatory Spirit of Ecstasy hood ornament, a wide wood-polished dashboard, slim steering wheel, and just enough modern technology (radio, heat, air conditioning), the Corniche is as livable on a daily basis as it is handsome.

The car can be had for relatively affordable sums, too, if you’re lucky enough to find one in good mechanical condition. The average value of a Corniche Series I is $34,300 for one in excellent condition—or as low as $25,000 for one in fair condition, according to Hagerty. The flip side: Maintenance on something such as the Corniche can easily surpass the car’s value. But if you’re determined to own one—and it’s well worth the struggle—demand a very documented service history, avoid examples with neglected or deferred maintenance, and build a relationship with a mechanic you can trust.  

Source: Rolls-Royce

1986 Land Rover Defender
1986 Land Rover Defender

East Coast Defender makes this $285,000 1986 Land Rover Defender 130 custom rebuild near Orlando. Nicknamed “Project Viper,” and only 10 made a year, it’s a gunmetal gray Defender pickup truck with a 6.2-liter, 430-horsepower, V8 engine and a six-speed automatic transmission that lurches and barrels down the road like a Mack truck.

It’s half new and half old: The body itself is an original first-generation Defender restored and then loaded with such amenities as air conditioning, touchscreen infotainment, wireless phone charging, and built-in Wi-Fi. The leather seats are heated; the locks and windows are power-operated. But rather than feeling like obligatory add-ons to a vintage mobile, the additions blend well with the overall concept of the car.

Of course, there are some … quirks. Project Viper drives like a cargo plane on steroids: Braking takes forever, and you’ll need about a five-point turn to pull a U-turn on a two-lane street. Visibility through the back half is terrible, although that towering suspension lets you see far above everything in front of you when sitting in traffic. Zero to 60mph takes nearly seven seconds. As for fuel efficiency, you might as well be in a Lamborghini. But much as we see with Eleanor Mustangsearly generation Range Rovers, and Shelby Daytonas, I loved this as a happy marriage between vintage and contemporary automotive craftsmanship. Such add-ons as LED work lights set high atop the roof, 20-inch, mud- grappler black tires, and the tubular wrench setup more than make up its odd bits. In short: Go out and get stuck.

Photographer: Hannah Elliott/Bloomberg