For prime-time cars, the pattern is often repeated and easy to discern. A shiny, perfect example of a well-known, but as yet, still reasonably-priced car crosses the block at a major auction, the bidders go wild, a new record is set and suddenly, they’re everywhere at a much steeper price point. Alfa 2000 GTVs, Ferrari 328s, BMW E30 M3s, we’ve seen these “break-out” sales happen time and time again. But what about the not ready for prime-time cars that trade under the radar? Discerning the patterns takes a lot of time scanning eBay and Bring a Trailer, particularly when the car in question has a low survivorship rate. Here are five that you probably haven’t given much thought to, but are quietly gaining a following:

More on this...

  1. 1981-91 Isuzu Trooper II - Boxy, utilitarian early SUVs have an undeniable appeal as anyone who has lusted after a Land Rover Defender 110 or an early Range Rover can attest. A first-gen Trooper ticks some of those boxes – square, upright and simple, with decent off-road prowess, manual locking hubs and a manual transmission added appeal, as did an optional turbo diesel. Early Troopers are almost extinct in rust-belt states, but still turn up with some regularity on the West Coast and quickly become Bring a Trailer fodder. Nice ones can bring north of seven grand.
  2. 1986-95 Suzuki Samurai - If the Trooper is the poor man’s Defender 110, the Samurai is the destitute dude’s Defender 90. Believe it or not, these capable little off-roaders are in demand. At last look on zoomthelist.com, my favorite Craigslist aggregator, ads for Samurais “wanted” outstripped those for sale two-to-one. A narrow-track, a comically short wheelbase and a high center of gravity lead to predictable results in emergency lane changes as Consumer Reports gleefully reported. Perhaps for this reason, the herd of extant Samurais is thin indeed. Asking prices are surprisingly steep – rust-free but ratty tin tops start at $3,500 for decent runners. Asking prices over ten grand for low mileage examples that haven’t been trashed by mudders, are not uncommon. You can’t make this stuff up.
  3. 1989-94 Nissan 240SX – Anyone not into drifting has likely either forgotten this car, or never knew it in the first place. A shame, it’s the Gen-X/Millennial 240Z. While not related in any way to the classic S30 Z car, it followed the same formula. Light weight, rear wheel-drive and a decent multi-link independent rear suspension made the 240SX genuinely entertaining to drive. The hatchback is what you want, although there was also a notchback and a rare ASC-built convertible. Good luck finding one that hasn’t been amateurishly modded or isn’t running on a salvage title. Last week, a nice example with a clean title and 150,000 miles was on and off Craigslist in a nanosecond with an asking price of $8,000.
  4. 1987-92 VW Golf GTI MK 2 – If you’re talking collectible GTIs, you’re almost invariably referring to the MK 1. Whether it’s the vastly superior German-built, round headlight GTI or the Pennsylvania-built U.S. version, it’s what gets all the love. But the MK 2 is a vastly superior driver’s car, and quietly, among the younger enthusiasts who cut their teeth on these cars, or wanted to, the MK 2 GTI is becoming a genuinely desirable, if elusive car. Volkswagen fan-boy site VW Vortex named it the best Golf of all time. Like most of the cars on the list, the survival rate is low. If you’re expecting to snap a good one up for under five grand, good luck. That ship has sailed.
  5. Long roof BMWs with manual transmissions – This trend is in danger of popping above the radar. BMW wagons are hot. They’re call “Touring” in BMW-speak, never a “shooting brake.” E30 3-Series wagons from the 1980s and 1990s (which were never sold in the US) are now importable under the 25-year rule and they’re adding another option in the already frothy E30 market. The cooler still E36 3-Series wagons will soon be legal too. U.S. market E39 5 Series wagons offer a bit more space but are every bit as sporting at the 3 Series cars. All were available with manual transmissions. They’re not quite unicorns, but manual wagons are scarce and they positively fly off of Craigslist or Bring a Trailer when they appear and they sell for large premiums over the more common two-pedal wagons.