Like most people who make espresso at home, I did plenty of research on machines. I soon found out that for the budget I was on (GBP250-300) I would be better off getting a second hand machine and a decent grinder than a new machine and a cheap (or no) grinder. So I bought a new Iberital MC2 grinder and looked for good condition Gaggia Classics on eBay. Ideally, I was looking for a 'used once' or well- maintained example to ensure that it wasn't scaled up and dirty. Finally, I picked up a 'used once', which turned out not to be quite so pristine and had a leaky boiler gasket, but that's the risk you take with eBay.
With a good clean up it was ready to go. Once I'd dialled in my new MC2 grinder (which is very good by the way) I quickly found the Classic was capable of producing some excellent shots with loads of crema. I discovered quickly that freshly roasted beans are a must for best flavour and producing crema. It wasn't perfect though, and once I'd worked my way through a variety of beans and got used to grinding, dosing and making shots consistently, temperature surfing and so on, I couldn't get away from a very sour/bitter taste to my coffee.
I tested the brew water temperature using the styrofoam cup method and found it to be too high (from 97 to 100C). Other Classic users report the temperature to be too low, so mine probably had a dodgy thermostat. I sourced a 100C thermostat (standard is 107C) and the difference was immediately clear. My straight espresso shots were now so much more drinkable, the bitter/sour taste was almost absent. Tests showed the water temperature to be 88-93C - I try and pull a shot when the heater switches off so it doesn't get lower. However, I still get sour flavours with lighter roasts and am only able to avoid this with heavier roasted, oily beans. So the next step might be a PID...
In use, the Classic is solid and reliable. It's easy to strip down and forgiving of clumsiness in rebuilding! Parts are readily available and there's a large online community who can help with any problems or questions you might have. I particularly like the heavy, chrome-plated brass, commercial style 58 mm portafilter. It's a world away from cheaper aluminium models and helps you feel like you're using a decent machine. The amount of metal there helps retain heat too - the group head is bolted on to the bottom of the boiler so everything gets hot pretty quickly and stays hot.
The small boiler is both a strength and a weakness. The heating elements are embedded in the aluminium walls, not inside the boiler. The plus side is that the machine will be warmed up within 10 minutes which is ideal for most home users making a quick espresso before work. The downside to the small boiler is that water temperature quickly drops off in use. When you are making a shot the pump draws cold water in to the hot boiler whilst you are brewing. It doesn't have enough time to heat it fully before sending it out again. It then takes about 4 minutes for the boiler water to be at a stable temperature again, even though the heater will have cycled off and on a few times during this period. So this may be an issue for you if you need to produce several shots in succession, but for most home users who probably produce two or three shots a day it's fine. You can control temperature by either temperature surfing, swapping the thermostat or installing a PID.
The stainless steel body is solid and feels like it will last a lifetime. The bakelite rocker switches have a satisfying clunky action to them, however the steam knob feels a bit weak in comparison. I'd like a bigger drip tray, as I tend to run a lot of water through for warming up and cleaning. Likewise, the water tank could be a bit bigger to prevent frequent refilling, but then the whole machine would be bigger. Brew pressure can be adjusted with the over-pressure valve (OPV) to the standard 9 bar, many Classic users report it's set at 11 bar or higher as standard. The three-way solenoid valve allows for relief of pressure after pulling a shot and siphons off water that stays in the coffee puck, making it easier to clean up. Back-flushing with special detergent allows you to clean this pathway. The steam wand has a plastic attachment (pennarello) on the end which doesn't have a great reputation. You can replace the steam arm with the arm from a Rancilio Silvia which promises better results. To be honest, I haven't used the steam function at all. The trick is apparently to start steaming just before the heater's ready light comes on.
In conclusion, provided you descale, backflush and clean regularly, the Classic should last for many years. The aluminium boiler might be a weak spot as it can be prone to corrosion but they're easy and cheap to replace. It's solidly-built, heats quickly, has adjustable pressure, a solenoid valve and a decent portafilter. It's certainly a great machine for anyone to learn how to make espresso at home and it costs a lot less than the Rancilio Silvia which has the reputation of being more fussy, if slightly better. I'd certainly buy one again and would recommend it to anyone in the same situation, used or new.