The future of the automobile is as uncertain as ever. Will we all have to surrender our licenses and keys to be hoovered around in autonomous pods? Or, perhaps it’s that gnawing thought at the back of your head that individuality and personality in most cars today are gone in favor of cookie-cutter SUVs and crossovers? If so, now is the perfect time to start looking for the cheapest project cars.
We’re at what I like to call the goldilocks zone, ladies and gentlemen. We live in an era where new technologies make car modifications easier, safer, and more efficient than ever before. Cranking out huge performance figures has never been as simple. Yet, the availability of potent car tuning crosses very neatly in this day and age, where older cars are also easy (and affordable) to come by.
Like me, you probably grew up lusting over that 80s and 90s JDM or Euro tuner scene. Maybe there’s a bit of Americana muscle thrown into the mix, as well. Even for cars made in the 2000s, a couple of decades is more than enough for that depreciation to bottom out. It’s prime territory to start looking for a place to get your DIY-ing craze out. So, just what are the cheapest project cars out there?
- What Are They?
- Criteria To Look Out For
- The Best Of The Best
- JDM Imports
- European Tuners
- American Muscle
- Honorable Mentions
What Are These “Project Cars”, Anyway?
Before we get into looking at the cheapest project cars, there’s an elephant in the room that we need to address. Just what is a “project car”, anyway? Most likely, those of you reading this already know what a project car is, and what it entails. The thought of it might bring some inspiration. But for the ones who are intrigued but aren’t in the know, let’s take a moment to talk about what they are.
As per the Urban Dictionary, a “project car” is defined as, quote: [noun] ‘A car of any kind, rusty, broken, classic, modern, muscle cars, JDMs, exotic cars and so on. But need a lot of money to maintain and improve performance. Other people see this as wasting money, but in the eyes of car enthusiasts, they are actually building a bond with the car.’
In layman’s terms, a project car is a (most possibly) cheap, easy to tune, yet somewhat performant automobile. It might be a bit rough around the corners and needs some love and care. It might have a bad engine, poor suspension, unworkable transmission, and so on. But a particular person’s keen nature to practice their DIY skills or those who like modifying cars enjoy this art to no end.
It’s a hobby, in the same way, some people collect stamps or build Lego sets. With a project car, the entire hobby revolves around getting a jalopy, fixing it up, bolting a few modifications on it, and then it’s off to the races. For the most part, a project car is a significant investment of time, energy, and money. That said, it’s also a source of joy for many of the more hands-on car enthusiasts.
What Are The Criteria To Look Out For That Makes A Good Project Car?
It doesn’t matter what camp of the automotive landscape you belong to. You may like European or JDM tuners, or you may be a muscle car nut. Whether it’s smoking a drag strip or drifting down a mountain pass – everyone likes a good project car. It’s fun, engaging, and helps you to build a bond and emotional connection with something that is otherwise “just” a machine.
However, project cars – as we mentioned – are quite hefty investments to make. You could be pouring thousands of dollars and years of your life into a black hole, for all I know. At the end of the day, that project car may not even bring a smile to your face. As such, you have to prepare yourself mentally, and commit to a project completely. It’s not that easy to back out once you’re halfway done.
Therefore, and before we look at the cheapest project cars, there are a few boxes that a car needs to tick to qualify as a ‘good’ project car. These are the set of criteria that we’ll be basing our search on. Even if you’re going to ignore our list altogether, making a mental note of these must-haves may aid you in finding that perfect starting point. So, what makes the cheapest project cars actually good?
1. Price – Project Cars Cheap Enough That It Won’t Bankrupt You
Remember, a project car doesn’t just include the cost of purchasing the car. You’ll have to ration out your bank account for repairs, restoration (if it’s too old and worn), servicing, and all those tuning bits and pieces that you’re going to bolt onto it.
The latter is especially pricey, by the way. With that in mind, the cheaper – but relatively in an okay to good working order – end of the classifieds would always make the best project cars. On top of that, any mistakes along the way won’t be too costly to mend.
2. Parts – All-Around Project Car Parts Compatibility And Support
Depending on how kitted out you want your project car to be, you’ll then have to assess not just the availability of the parts. But also, whether certain mods – a bigger turbocharger, louder exhausts, a new set of coil-overs, fancy alloys, etc. – will be compatible with your future project car.
The best project cars, therefore, are incredibly modular. There’s no shortage of aftermarket parts or even OEM-sourced modifications that could fit your would-be project car. There’s great diversity for an array of options, they’re easy to acquire, and are also attainable.
3. Accessibility – Just How Easy Is That Project Car To Work On?
Just after you’ve taken some time to consider what parts go where there’s another conundrum that needs pondering. Just how accessible is that project car that you’re eyeing after? This will be a very crucial point to make, as a hard-to-access project car is as good as no project car at all.
How easy is it to work on? Is the engine bay big enough, or are certain components bolted so tightly together, that it’s virtually impossible to tinker with it? Are some of the parts only accessible by the dealership that have specialized tools? These can prove to be a deal-breaker.
4. Forums – Learn About A Project Car From Those Around You
No matter how skilled you are in and around cars, you’ll most likely get stuck at some point. Project cars are like that, a constant whirl of emotions from jubilance to utter confusion. To make things a tad easier on yourself, find project cars that have huge forum support.
These online forums are a great place to probe questions from folks who’ve trodden this path before. Either they’ve toyed around with that same project car, or have experiences – both good and bad – that could be of help to you. These trinkets of wisdom and handy pointers will be invaluable.
You can ask them about how to diagnose a particular issue. Or, maybe inquire as to what parts are the best ones for your specific application. Few things are as powerful as the mind of a community, as they say. Whenever you need any help, you’ll have a whole gang at your back.
5. Rarity – Do You Really Want A Unicorn For A Project Car?
A “unicorn” is a term used to describe a car so rare, you’ll most likely only ever get to see it once, if ever. Naturally, we all want that unicorn-mobile in our lives that catches gazes of wonderment and gasps of approval from passers-by. But these won’t be a good basis for a project car.
For one thing, rarer cars mean that the supply of spare parts would probably be non-existent. So, a unicorn-status car won’t just be more expensive, but once things go wrong, finding spares or getting them serviced could be a nightmare. You’re better off keeping a unicorn as an investment, instead.
What Are The Best Of The Cheapest Project Cars Out There?
Having ticked all the boxes up above, we’re now ready to dive into the rabbit hole of the cheapest project cars in the world. Nevertheless, this won’t be an exhaustive list. That’s because practically any vehicle can be a project car. Find them cheap, and if you have a passion or love for it, then that there is a good basis for a project car. You don’t need to follow a set of defined rules.
But to keep this list somewhat concise, we’ll look at the very best from what humanity in all four corners of the globe has to offer. This should at least provide you with a decent starting point or an idea of what to look out for. Without further ado, let’s look at what our friends in the Far East have brought to the table…
Cheapest Project Cars – JDM Imports
Perhaps the most popular grouping of project cars hails from the land of the rising sun. JDM, or also known as Japanese Domestic Market, refers to automobiles originally made for the local Japanese market. Watch a few episodes of Initial D or Wangan Midnight, and you’ll instantly recognize just how iconic JDM cars have been, both in mainstream culture and media, as well as for gearheads.
Japanese cars are well-known for their reliability and dependability, which is unrivaled to this day. Matched with pretty ingenious engineering, it means that you can crank out hundreds or thousands more horsepower without skipping a beat. Moreover, there’s an ample abundance of aftermarket parts and spares. So, you’ll have endless options to tweak and tune it however you want.
1. Mazda Miata MX-5
You can’t have a project cars list without at least one mention of the MX-5. Even as-is from its factory spec, Mazda’s beloved Miata is a fantastic foundation for a project car. It’s small, light, and taut, as it maintains its reputation as one of the best handling cars ever made.
That fun factor will compound even higher once you start bolting a few modifications on this tiny roadster. The MX-5 is relatively cheap, though they’ve been appreciating lately. Spares are easy to obtain, as are after aftermarket parts, seeing how over a million MX-5s were made.
If that’s not enough, then consider that the MX-5 is incredibly pliable. Its stock engine may be tiny, but that engine bay is handily big enough for even a V12. The Miata is approachable, DIY-friendly, reliable, and you can tune anything from the chassis to the suspension to make the perfect racer.
2. Nissan Fairlady 350Z
For a more potent project car, the 350Z is a personal favorite of mine. It was built as an out-and-out sports car, with tail-happy rear-wheel-drive and an angry V6 in the front. Not only is it affordable, but the sky’s the limit as far as modifications go on any Fairlady 350Z.
Tuners have bolted out ginormous twin-turbochargers on it, cranking out upwards of 1,000 hp. For mods that are a bit more down-to-earth, everything on the 350Z is easy to get at. The suspension, chassis, and brakes are easy to upgrade for optimal handling.
Additionally, its power- and drive-train can be uprated massively without breaking the car in half. Aftermarket components are bountiful, trending from approachable to turning the 350Z into a pseudo-supercar. External body kits and cosmetics are always welcomed, too.
3. Honda Civic
The Honda Civic has long been recognized as a fantastic people’s car. It’s cheap, economical, and is reliable. But who knew it had such power in it, especially once you install a few mods here and there. Sure, all those Civic Si and Type R models have become collector’s items by now.
But then again, why not create a distinct Type R of your own? Its oh-so-popular and meme-friendly VTEC engine has a lot to give. While its factory tune is fairly innocent as a grocery getter and daily runabout, you can easily crank out more power with a turbo or two.
Accessibility on the Civic gets an A+. The suspension, chassis, brakes, exhaust, and almost everything else are happily within reach. Stiffer and sportier shocks-slash-coilovers are a must, on top of a racy set of tires. With aftermarket parts aplenty, the world’s your oyster with a Civic in hand.
Cheapest Project Cars – European Tuners
From Japan, we skip ahead across the pond to grand old Europe. It’s a large continent, after all, so we’ll condense things down to the best of what the Euros have to offer. The Europeans have enjoyed project cars and tuning for a lot longer than the rest of the world. Quite simply, because it was there in the late 1800s, that the automobile itself was born. Since then, they’ve left quite an impact.
In general, European cars can’t match the Japanese for sheer build quality. But when it comes to its geeky technology, racing pedigree, upscale elegance, charm, and general chic, you can’t find much elsewhere in the world to compete. Plus, there’s a vast array of cars to choose from, be it from the steps of the Bavarian Alps or some scrappy little workshop in old Britannia.
1. Volkswagen Golf GTI
The Golf – any Golf, GTI or not – is the European equivalent of the Mazda MX-5. It’s cheap, as VW has sold millions of them over the last few decades. A positive side effect there is that you’ll have little to no trouble at all with finding both spare parts, as well as aftermarket mods.
If you can, get the GTI – or Grand Touring Injection – model that tops off the Golf range. As the most quintessential hot hatchback, the Golf GTI has a good base to get you started. The engine is a good place to begin. You can boost the turbo on it, or rebuild the entire motor from scratch.
Then, it comes time for the suspension, which can be lowered or stiffened with ease. If you happen to have deeper pockets, the all-wheel-drive Golf R is a fantastic option, too. As one of the cheapest project cars out there, there are forums aplenty for fellow Golf owners to get along.
2. BMW 3-Series
Ah, you might wonder – aren’t BMWs expensive? At the showroom, yes, but give it a few years of depreciation, and even I can afford one. The 3-series has been hailed as one of the best of the cheap project cars. Though to be more specific, check out the E46 generation and earlier.
The E30 in particular should be a good starting point for a Bimmer-based project car. M3s of this era are inexplicably expensive, but the regular 325i, for example, is dirt cheap. The E30 lacks all the complex electronics of the more modern 3er, so it’s much easier to work on.
Programming aside, its straight-six engine is bulletproof. In other words, crank as much power as you want out of it, and it’ll readily oblige. That motor is quite reliable too, and it’s been fitted atop a car that’s proven itself well dynamically from the factory.
3. Porsche 928 Or 944
Porsche… Are you kidding me? Not entirely, as you could find Porsches near the bottom-end of the bargain if you really looked. See, Porsche makes a whole lot more than just 911s. Back in the day, they also made something called the 928, as well as the 944.
The 944 was the entry-level Porsche of the 80s and 90s. It had an actual Volkswagen campervan engine. While that doesn’t sound terribly exciting, remember that projects cars like these aren’t just about the raw horsepower. It’s engineered by Porsche, and they know a thing a two about cars.
Stock, it handles just as well as any Porsche has a right to be. That’s before you set about squeezing a bit more power out of that motor. With some fine-tuning to the suspension, chassis, and brakes, I’d reckon it’d do well. If you’re lucky, you might even find the V8-powered 928 for cheap.
Cheapest Project Cars – American Muscle
Finally, we return to home base. Europe may have invented the car, and Japan may have popularised the idea of the car with mass media. But it’s America that pioneered the early developments, as well as the manufacturing and aspirations of the automobile. Thanks to Detroit, passion for this machine we call a ‘car’ has become widespread all over the globe.
Namely, I’d argue that America’s truly greatest gift to the world is the muscle car. They’re simple to work on and are thus rather approachable for newbies who’re just getting into tuning or DIYing. In addition, there’s no shortage of aftermarket parts, not to mention how easy it is to bolt components on or off your muscle car. If that’s not enough, then we’ll let the rumble of a V8 convince you.
1. Ford Mustang
Alas, the earlier Mach 1 Mustangs are ungodly expensive owing to their collectability. A properly restored one is far beyond the means of most mortals. Thankfully, however, the later Mustangs such as the Fox-body or SN95 Mustangs. Sure, they’re perhaps not as appreciated as the early Ponies.
Nevertheless, they’re just as Mustang-y as you’d expect. While they were respectively considered as sales flops back in the day, Fox-bodies and SN95s are just about to resurface as a fantastic option for a cheap project car. So, that’s affordability ticked off, including the ease of getting spares.
Aftermarket parts for them are also plentiful. Besides, all you should care about in a Mustang is that V8, which is very tuner-friendly in this case. Clamp-on a supercharger on there, and you’re good for a massive power boost. Maybe even consider tuning up the chassis and suspension, too.
2. Chevrolet Camaro
Okay, so maybe not the earlier Camaros. Just like the Mustang, they’ve appreciated far too much to be considered a suitable budget build. Although the Camaros of the 1980s and 1990s sat below the radar for so long, you can find them for peanuts now.
More specifically, we’re talking about variants such as the IROC-Z. They look menacing enough with flared arches and a wide bodywork. Furthermore, you can find loads of cosmetic accessories inside and out. To top it all off, this generation of Camaro is very beginner-friendly.
So, if you’re just getting started with tinkering around with project cars, look no further than an old – but not too old – Camaro. Aftermarket upgrades are abundant, as are ready-made crate engines to squeeze even more power out of it. There’s no shortage of modifications that you can do.
3. Pontiac Firebird
Ah, Pontiac… Rest in peace. But just before Pontiac bit the dust, we can credit them for being one of the earliest pioneers of the mad muscle cars. Meaty V8s with unreasonable horsepower was their game. It’s a shame that earlier Pontiac GTOs or Firebirds have become collector’s items.
On the bright side, the Firebird of the 1990s was one of the best and most underrated performance cars of its era. It was just as angular and sharp as a fighter jet, and had a truly monstrous V8 motor under the hood. From its stock specifications, that engine is begging for more horsepower.
And deliver it can, as you could easily boost the power with the factory engine block with no issues. As is, the Firebird handles the corners quite well, too. A few more modifications there would be quite welcomed and should be manageable, given the expansive community and aftermarket support.
Cheapest Project Cars – The Honourable Mentions
I think that’s a great place to end our quick guide on the best cheapest project cars that you can find floating around a newspaper ad. That Pontiac Firebird does make one great point – in that a project car can appear out of nowhere. Oftentimes, these vehicles are underrated enough to a point where we’d mock them today. But as tomorrow approaches, they might gain some appreciation.
Naturally, our list up here is just barely the tip of the iceberg. So, here are some honorable mentions for the top spot as the best and cheapest project cars…
- Nissan 240SX – The fact that many drift and competition cars are built on a 240SX is a testament to its upgradability.
- Acura Integra – A more sumptuous Honda, one might say, but highly under-looked, and with a lot of room for improvements.
- Toyota Corolla – Remember the AE86 in Initial D? Well, any Corolla from the 80s is your first big step to getting one of your own.
- Lexus SC300/400 – A surprising entrant, for sure. But that engine bay is big enough for a V8 engine swap if you’re feeling brave.
- Mitsubishi Lancer – Not the more expensive Evo, but a “lesser” Lancer still gives you ample changes for tunability.
- Subaru Impreza WRX – It’ll be hard to find a WRX STi for a budget price, but with a few mods, the regular Impreza gets you close.
- Volvo 240 – You don’t need massive horsepower upgrades, as the 240 will give you just as much joy in its bulletproof dependability.
- Audi TT – Another German, but the handsome TT’s Quattro all-wheel-drive could be a great first base as a rally car.
- C4 Corvette – The lost generation of Corvettes is a bargain right now, with a hungry V8 and yearning for someone to make up for GM’s failings.
Budget Project Cars: What You Need to Know
- Project cars require a deep understanding of the vehicle and the ability to replace parts and make upgrades, making buying a car off the lot a fleeting enjoyment at best.
- When looking for a good budget project car, consider the availability of aftermarket and replacement parts, forum support, and availability of the car.
- Equipping yourself with a solid set of tools, know-how, support, and perseverance will set you up for success when tackling a project car.
- Japanese imports are ideal project cars due to their build quality, intuitive engineering, and abundance of aftermarket parts.
- Affordable project cars include the Acura Integra, Datsun 280Z, Honda Civic, Mazda Miata MX-5, Nissan 240SX, Chevrolet Camaro, Chevrolet El Camino, Dodge Dart, Ford Mustang, and Pontiac Firebird.
- Trucks and SUVs that make good project cars include the Chevrolet C10, Ford F-100, GMC Jimmy, Jeep Cherokee XJ, and Suzuki Samurai.
- European imports like the BMW E30, MGB, Porsche 944, Volkswagen Golf GTI, and Volvo 240 can also be good budget project cars, but require a diligent owner to keep up with maintenance.
- When buying a project car, be sure to check for rust and carefully consider the direction of your build.
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