If you're in the market for a decently priced, or dirt-cheap Chevy for a project, it can quickly get frustrating searching through everything on the market to find what you're looking for. Between the televised auto auctions making people think any rusted out six-cylinder first-gen Camaro is worth $30K, to the barn find shows inspiring everyone to go out and dig up any buried automotive treasure left out there, you'd think there are no deals left anywhere.
Never ones to pass up a challenge, we decided to go out hunting, both in the flesh and on the web, to see what's still out there that's desirable, buildable, and most of all, affordable. If you are persistent, do your research, or have a good network of car-guy buddies, you can still find good deals out there on '55-'72 Chevys, which for the most part are the most desirable among our readership. The market says you'll invariably pay less for '73-newer vehicles, but only you can decide if you really want one. Same for esoteric finds like Corvairs, Vegas, wagons, or four-doors. They're out there.
On the flip side, it's important to recognize the fact that recession or not, the SS396 '69 Camaro you paid $1,500 for in 1978 has gone up in value significantly. In any shape today, someone is going to want a king's ransom for it. Also gone are the $50 Tri-Five Chevys you used to hear about. This is simple supply and demand. Camaros, Chevelles, Novas, etc., are among the most popular collector cars on the market today. No one is giving them away and you wouldn't either. Be realistic about how much you can afford to spend. This will determine what you can purchase.
Don't immediately dismiss a vehicle because it's not exactly the color you want or doesn't have the right wheels, etc. This is where your negotiating skills will come in handy. Again, you alone have to decide how much you can afford to spend, and how much skill you have to build your purchase into the car you want.
Hitting the Swap Meet
While the Internet lets you look at, well, almost everything, buying a used car on the web where you can't see more than what few-posted pictures show you can be a crapshoot. We've written about more than one feature car over the last few years that started out as a great deal on the web, but turned out to be a nightmare. When you're checking out a car in person, you can look for any of the tell-tale signs that scream “stay away” from a deceivingly good deal.
To make things easy, Super Chevy Technical Editor Calin Head and I headed out to the famous Pomona Swap Meet, to walk through the car corral and see what kinds of deals there were. Being an east coast guy from Florida, my idea of a deal can be different at times from my California native co-worker. We came up with a basic formula to evaluate what we saw. We looked at the price, if there was any room for negotiation, what kind of shape the car was in, what the parts supply was like for said vehicle, and its potential cool factor.
Hill: If you're in the market for an already finished project, this '57 150 two-door handyman wagon could be what you're looking for. With a fresh 350/350 drivetrain combo, Vintage Air A/C, disc brake conversion, and a clean interior, for $20K you could drive it home and start enjoying it right away. When you figure in the cost of having to do body work on one of these rare birds, the $20,000 asking price seems a pretty good deal.
Head: I think Patrick is right on this one. The amount of money it would take to restore one of these to this level would cost you more than $20K, but only if you like what is here. If you are not a fan of yellow paint or those wheels, then you may want to look for a different option.
Hill: Another hauler that was ready to drive away at the swap meet was this '65 Malibu. Asking price was $17,700. It was straight, clean, had disc brakes, the interior was fine, and it has plenty of space for a long road cruise, or for taking a family to a cruise night. For a turn-key, no real work necessary car, this seemed to be a good deal.
Head: I kind of disagree with Hill here: $17.7K for a four-door wagon that still needs paint work (primer on the roof) is a bit much. Albeit a nice car, I think a lot of haggling of the price would be in order for me to pull the trigger on this one. Hill is right, this would be a great long haul family cruiser.
Hill: This '70 Monte was as clean and straight as they come. Still wearing original paint and interior in excellent shape with working A/C, the current owner had upgraded to tune port EFI system, 200-4R trans, new wheels and tires, and full Flowmaster exhaust. The price was $12.5K or best offer, which means with some cash and haggling you could've probably driven away in this Monte for $10,000-$11,000.
Head: I think if I had $10K I may have put in an offer on this one. While I'm not a fan of the white vinyl top, the rest of the car is well worth it. Luckily the tops are readily available from companies like Original Parts Group. Which brings me to a point. When you are thinking of buying one of these non-Chevelle, Tri-Five, or Camaros, make sure to research what restoration parts are available. While Chevelles and Camaros are more expensive on the initial purchase, they might ultimately be less to build because of the replacement parts available.
Hill: This generation of Chevy trucks always had a problem with the cab corners and fender lips rusting out, and in the south it's tough to find ones as clean and mint as this '75. Asking price was $8,500 or best offer, probably meaning some slick negotiating could knock at least $1,000 off that price and net you a super clean truck.
Head: Trucks are always a great option if you just can't afford muscle car prices, but just know that if its got a long bed the resale value won't be nearly as high as the more sought after short beds. Plus, if you live in a non-smog regulated state, it's a good idea to look for mid- to late-'70s trucks in California. They don't typically see the abuse, and rust will be limited to the rockers and cab corners.
Hill: When looking at any used El Camino, you always have to be wary of rust lurking around the rear window area, and rust damage in the bed where replacement sheetmetal is unavailable. This '64 Elky looked to be really clean, and the $7,700 or best offer asking price was good, too. But looking around the rear window area, there were signs of corrosion underneath the rear window trim. This was something that made us stop and think.
Head: For me this was one of the better deals at the swap meet. Even though there was rust under the rear window, as Hill stated, the rest of the car was in great shape. The sheetmetal in the rear window area could be repaired in a weekend, and since the paint in that area is surrounded by chrome trim it could be spotted in without blending it into the roof or quarters.
Hill: Another good Monte buy, this factory A/C '71 was solid and the interior worn but intact, its vinyl top having been peeled off and the underlying sheetmetal cleaned up and primered to stop any rust. The sign said $4,900 or make offer, and claimed it had a new motor. A good deal for a first-gen Monte, though we would've asked to see some paperwork on the engine to verify its “new” status before handing any money over. Since first-gen Montes take any of the aftermarket suspension goodies their Chevelle cousins do, it wouldn't be hard to turn this into a corner carving fun ride.
Head: Even though this one has a more attractive price tag than the gold one from earlier, I think it would take more than five or six grand to get it as nice, so to me its not as good of a deal. With that said, this is still a very solid starting point if you just don't have $10-grand in your purchase budget. You could do a quick scuff and primer to get the body all one color, then cruise the wheels off while you save up for future mods.
Hill: The supply of '78-'81 Z28s has been dwindling and prices going up the last few years as people on budgets move on from the early F-bodies to stuff they can afford. This '79 had an asking price of $10K or best offer, the interior looked almost new, the body was straight, and everything was there. For a little haggling, the price would probably drop some and make this a decent deal, leaving money left over to put some modern wheels and tires on the car and start cruising.
Head: Much like the point I made on the truck earlier, if you are looking for a car that is in the '76-and-up range, California (and the southwest in general) is a good place to hunt, because most of the time getting cars like this back to smog legal by California standards could be pretty expensive.
Hill: For the enthusiast really on a budget, this clean and amazingly rust-free '75 Vega would've been just the ticket at $1,400 or best offer. Some suspension upgrades, a budget LS swap (or salvage blown/turbo Ecotec swap) and other tweaks, for well under $10K you could have a serious sleeper that would catch everyone by surprise. This one would also be great as a first car/project for a son or daughter interested in getting into cars.
Head: This is the one I would have brought home if my shop wasn't already full. Not a perfect car by any means, but it was all there and the price was low enough to justify tossing a lot of the parts in the trash.
Hill: Available for only two years, this Corvair Lakewood wagon was clean, neat, and ready for a good home. Asking price was $4,500, and all the unique and nearly impossible to find trim pieces and other stuff were there and in good shape. Definitely a two-thumbs-up deal for something different that would be fun to cruise around in.
Head: I personally don't like Corvairs, so it's hard for me to judge this one, but I will agree with Hill that having all the trim and glass on this car is a must.
Hill: For the guy with a really good budget, this 390-horse, 427-equipped '66 Caprice would've been perfect. Asking price was $30K, and for that you got one of the most heavily optioned '66 Caprices you'll ever see. All the car's original documentation was there, including the window sticker. Again, while not in the budget of an average guy, for those with more bank this would've been a good deal.
Head: I don't care how many options are on this car, $30K was just ridiculous in my mind for a Caprice. It is a nice stock, well-optioned car, but I don't think it should be in the price range of a comparable Chevelle or Camaro. Plus, for someone like me who's gonna lower it, change the rims and tires, and put on some loud exhaust, it's just too expensive.
Hill: A great budget beater is a third-gen Camaro like this '92 RS. Asking price was $2,500 or best offer. For guys who aren't restricted by emissions laws to doing engine swaps, swapping out the 3.1 V-6 or 305 V-8 for something with more punch would be easy, and give you a great all around fun machine that could do autocross or dragstrip duty easily. Slap on a fresh, el cheapo paint job, you'd still be under $5,000 and have a great deal.
Head: One thing you need to really look at with these cars is the interior, most notably the headliner, trim and seats. The seats in these cars have a high bolster design, so just getting in and out tends to wear a big hole in the seats. The plastic trim can be drying out and starting to flake, and not all of it is available in the aftermarket just yet, and the headliner, if still stock, will be drooping down. While it won't be super expensive to redo the interior at this price level, you will almost certainly need to do some sort of trim work.
Hill: Another rare one, this '64 two-door wagon was loaded with a Muncie four-speed, power steering, power disc brakes, 350 small-block, and all of the hard to find wagon glass was mint with no cracks or other damage. Asking price was $7,400 or best offer, and considering the rareness of these combined with their popularity in the Chevelle world, seemed like a good deal.
Head: All the right mechanical things are already done on this one, leaving the body, paint, and interior to you. I also think this was a good deal since it had all the rear glass and wasn't rusted out.
Hill: This '72 Nova had some dents and dings, but nothing that a competent body man or simple door and front fender swap couldn't fix. The rest of the car was solid, and it was a factory 350 car, meaning it was pretty much a blank canvas waiting to become a masterpiece. Asking price was $3,800, and since so many of the '68-'72 Novas have either been run into the ground, turned into racecars, or bought up by other guys, this was a pretty good deal in the eyes of an east coast guy.
Head: Same here for the west coast guy. This was a pretty good deal. For me, it is a pre-smog V-8 car that could be made to be a driver pretty quickly, and since it's a '72 aftermarket parts are readily available.
Hill: For the guy really looking to stand out, this '63 Corvair side ramp would be perfect. Everything was there that you'd never be able to find for one of these, the body was in great shape, and the asking price was a meager $2,800 or best offer. Lots of potential for this one!
Head: Um, no thanks … Can't give you an opinion on it as these things just make me go bleh.
Hill: We spotted this '67 wagon over in the swap meet area. Asking price was $4K or best offer. All the glass was there, along with the hard-to-find wagon trim (in good shape, too), the tailgate was solid and rust free, and it had a factory tach-equipped dash. With the popularity of wagons growing, with some savvy negotiating this '67 could've probably been had for less than $3,500.
Head: I will say for a four door, this wagon is pretty sexy. The rear quarter lines are great. If you could get it for the $3,500 price I'd say go for it, even though it's gonna need a disc brake swap and new weather strips for sure. The weather strip is available, which is not always the case with some of the more oddball vehicles like that Corvair ramp truck.
On the Web
Since so many people are finding their classics on the Internet, in one way or another, we couldn't ignore this venue for finding your next project, or turnkey classic Chevy. You've got eBay Motors, Craig's List, Racing Junk.com, and even the website for auction giants Mecum and Barrett-Jackson have online bidding available during their auctions.
The nice thing about the web is if you live in the rust belt or similar area where almost everything is rotted out and in need of major body work, you can look at possible deals in more arid climates that preserve classic Detroit steel better. To work within our west coast/east coast theme here, we each looked up cars on eBay within a 500-mile radius of our respective offices, scouting for a good deal on a first-gen Camaro and '68-'72 Chevelle. Here's what we found.
Hill: The details says the car is running and drivable, meaning you can still have fun driving this '69 as a Rat rod of sorts while working on it. Seller says the front driver's floor needs patching, rear floors are solid, and in the photos it looks like the rear window area needs some attention. Bonus is the factory A/C, easy to repair and always handy in the hot southern summers, or a hot summer anywhere for that matter. When we saw this the top bid was $5,600, and the auction had four days left.
Hill: Scouring eBay, this was the best, reasonable Chevelle deal to be found in our search parameters. When spotted the auction had a little over 24 hours left, but hadn't met the seller's reserve price. The info listed a lot of new items installed, including sheetmetal, work already done, and included new parts that make this a pretty good deal if it stays under $10K.
Head: The best deal on a Chevelle I could find happened to be outside of California in Las Vegas. All the bodywork was already done, and according to the seller, all the interior, glass and bumpers are included. If you are one of those guys who can do it all except paint, then this is a car to consider. It's an original V-8 A-body, but it's sold with no motor. Everything else I found in my search was in the $12K-$30K range, so it's safe to say people in California are really proud of their cars.
The Bottom Line
There are still deals to be had out there; it just takes a lot more legwork and research than it used to. While almost everyone wants a '69 Camaro or '70 Chevelle, at some point when you're on a budget, reality has to come into play. While that dream Camaro might not be within reach financially, there are plenty of other cool Chevys out there that can fit into even a modest budget, provide just as much fun and enjoyment, and quite possibly be the stepping stone to eventually acquiring your dream car.
Head: Here is the most reasonable Camaro I could find in my search. Even though the reserve had not been met, I suspect it is in the $10K-$12K range. According to the seller, it's a true SS car with a factory four-speed, no rust, and runs and drives like a top. It has a non-matching numbers motor, but the rest of the driveline is. The seller was nice enough to offer to pick you up at the airport if you come to look at the car. With the prices of first-gens going higher and higher, this might be a chance to get one before it gets fully restored and the price jacked up to the moon.