Cars are perhaps the most obvious outward indicators of our economic situations. Sure, some people might be barely making those monthly Lamborghini lease payments, and Walmart’s Sam Walton drove an old-ass pickup truck, but that’s not usually how it works.

In an bigger and even flashier way than watches, handbags, suits or shoes, our cars tell everyone else where we sit on the social ladder. But some of them are truly classless. How does that happen?

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By “classless,” I don’t mean doing donuts in front of your wife’s trailer because she had the nerve to send her new boyfriend to beat your ass when you got behind on your child support payments, or announcing on national TV to God and everybody that you’re taking your talents to South Beach. I don’t mean rude or uncouth or lacking in class, I mean transcending class.

The Volkswagen GTI is a good example. Mark Zuckerberg has a GTI, as does your cousin who’s a regular fixture at his local autocross, and so does the nice girl at your office who isn’t really into cars but wanted a Volkswagen and fell in love with the power. I can’t tell you how many owners of Porsches and Bentleys and high-end exotics have told me that a GTI, or a Golf R, is their daily driver and grocery-getter.

This makes sense. A GTI is a really nice car, quick and practical, but it’s not from a “luxury” brand so it doesn’t ooze pretentiousness. It looks equally at home at the country club parking lot as it does at the track. It fits in everywhere. It’s quick without being ridiculous or dumb-looking to normal human beings, like some boy racer hot hatches are. It’s classless. Ask Jeremy Clarkson if you don’t believe me.

Maybe I’m tooting my own horn here too much, but the current Mini Cooper is the same way. Granted, the current ones aren’t exactly cheap, but they are owned by people who could probably buy a lot more car but don’t because they love Minis.

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Here’s an example: last year before Formula One race here in Austin, I was at this party at the local Ferrari dealer. I got to talking with a woman and her husband who were both well-to-do Ferrari clients. Real Ferrari clients, the kind who get every new one that comes out, if you catch my drift. She recently traded up from a 458 Italia to an F12 Berlinetta. I forget what he drove, but it was fast and red and brand new.

Anyway, as we talked about Ferraris and F1 racing, she asked me what car I had. I told her my wife and I have a Mini Cooper S.

“I used to have a Mini Cooper S and I loved it!” she said to me, beaming. “It was the most fun car I’ve ever owned.”

From someone who’s owned some of the fastest and most desirable cars anyone makes, I took that as a big compliment. She could afford much better, but she went with the Cooper. I have one, and I’m just a working guy who’s ballin’ on a budget. The car is classless.

I’d say that the Chevrolet Camaro and Ford Mustang are kind of classless. You have plenty of young hoons that own them, as well as older, more well-funded Mustang and Camaro people who could probably afford something more premium but don’t buy them because that’s their car. It helps that well-optioned Mustangs and Camaros these days can touch $50,000, not including the crazy special editions like the Z/28 and GT500.

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Here’s another: Jeep Wrangler. A Wrangler doesn’t tell the world that you’re rich or that you’re poor, just that you like to go off-roading. Would you find it weird if you met a tech CEO who owns a Wrangler? What if a guy who worked a humble construction job had one? I don’t think either is out of the ordinary.

Notice that all these examples have one thing in common: they’re all retro. Or rather, they’re from established nameplates. All of them are modern examples of cars that have long histories dating back decades.

Jason and I had this discussion back on our long road trip to Los Angeles. The original Volkswagen Beetle was a great example of this back during its prime. Almost everybody owned a Beetle in the 1960s and 1970s, from college kids to hippies to working professionals to rock stars. The Type 1 may have been the most classless car of all time, fitting since it was the People’s Car and all.

In fact, a lot of those early entry-level affordable cars from the 1950s on were pretty classless. People from all walks of life owned Fiat 500s, Citroën 2CVs, and the original Mini. Princess Diana drove a Mini for a long time. And yet, those cars’ closest modern equivalents aren’t the stylish luxury-ish cars that have taken their place — they’re Corollas and Versas and Fiestas, basic, affordable, practical transportation. Nobody with money is going to drive one of those.

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So what does it take to make a truly classless car? It’s hard to put your finger on. I think it has to have stood the test of time and be generally well-regarded in the process. It has to be attractive, styled well. It helps that it has a wide price range, from a lowly V6 Camaro all the way up to the really crazy expensive ones. I asked Jason about this, and he thinks a classless car has to have some quality to make you choose it beyond its price point — style, character, novelty, something along those lines.

But not every old-school esteemed car passes the test. Porsches aren’t really classless. There’s no such thing as a cheap 911, unless you get a shabby used 996, and there’s not a ton of desire around those. And a Craigslist 914 doesn’t really scream classless to me, even if they are cool. Maybe the E46 BMW M3? Their owners seem to be all over the map, and that car looks good anywhere it’s parked.

What do you think makes a classless car, and are there any new examples of this?

Photos via the wonderful Auto Clasico