For gearheads, ownership is only a small step on the path towards the acquisition of a dream car. Far more of the process comes down to knowing a vehicle inside and out, replacing parts as needed, and making upgrades as they arise. Sure, buying a car off the lot makes for immediate gratification, but the reality is that it’s a fleeting enjoyment at best.
However, not everyone is born with a mechanic’s intuition, and intentionally buying a project car can be an intimidating prospect for the uninitiated. In concept, it sounds like a fun, educational experience; in practice, it can make for an overwhelming commitment. For no matter how confident anyone is of their ability, all it takes is one pop of the hood to test their chops.
The good news is that project cars don’t have to break the bank. With so many options available on the classifieds, it’s not hard to find a buy befitting your budget. But having so much choice can make it difficult to tell an ambitious project from all-out money pit. Moreover, not all cars are intuitive to work on, and you can quickly find yourself in over your head. Rather than whiling away the day, wondering when you’ll get around to tackling a build, have a read and see what we’ve picked for the best budget project cars.
What Makes A Good Budget Project Car?
Key Characteristics To Consider
Parts: First and foremost, you should consider the availability of aftermarket and replacement parts for your project. There’s no feeling worse than successfully diagnosing a fix only to discover that the part is out of your price range or no longer produced. Because the longer a problem persists, the more likely it is to go unfixed. Before you know it, you’ll be looking to offload your build in order to hop to another project. Even if you can’t buy new OEM parts, a transplant from a donor car could be just what you need to get your ride back on the road.
Forum Support: Although insider knowledge was once something exclusive to owner’s clubs, the internet has allowed for a thriving online enthusiast community. If you find yourself stumped on how to go about repairing your project, have a look at the forums — chances are good that someone has asked the same questions you’re thinking. And should your particular car present a problem unique unto itself, you’ll at least have the backing of fellow wrenchers to advise a plan of attack.
Availability: Everyone envisions rolling up to a car meet with a unicorn in tow. While it can be tempting to seek out rare and unloved models in order to distinguish yourself, it doesn’t make for the best budget build. Cars that are more readily available are cheaper up front. What’s more, donor cars make for inexpensive fixes — assuming they’re in serviceable condition. And in the event you need to do a significant body repair, you’ll be far better off dropping in a new panel than you would trying to fab it on your own.
Equipping Yourself For Success
Where There's A Will, There's A Way
Tools: Get yourself a solid set of tools. Sure, budget sets will save you money in the short term, but with the potential for improper clearances and poor build quality, they could result in a much bigger problem down the road. Consider your car’s need for any specialty tools. Are they easily available? If not, do you have the mechanical ability to make your own?
Knowhow: There’s no prerequisite to buying a project car, but it helps to have a solid base to get you going. Whether that’s understanding how to turn a wrench or familiarizing yourself with the principles of a powertrain, knowledge is power in any project.
Support: Bad days are inevitable throughout the ownership of a project car, so it helps to have the support of those around you to keep you going. If you’re fighting to justify your build while you’re also fighting to fix it, you’ll soon find yourself forced to make a decision — with potentially unwanted consequences.
Will: Drive is one thing you can’t buy or learn. If all else fails, perseverance will serve you well in your efforts to get your project running again. Remember why you bought such a car in the first place — to work on it.
From The Far East
Japanese imports are ideal project cars because of their unrivaled build quality, intuitive engineering, and abundance of aftermarket parts. Whether you’re a die-hard drift fan or a would-be street racer, you can’t go wrong with any of these options.
Although a lot of once cheap project cars have seen a considerable rise in their asking prices, the Acura Integra is still very much affordable. With most examples available for less than $5k — even some clean ones — the cost upfront is more than reasonable. Couple that with lots of aftermarket parts support and plenty of owner’s forums, and you have a bonafide budget project great for beginners and experienced enthusiasts alike.
While its predecessors — the 240z and 260z — can fetch a pretty penny at auction, the Datsun 280Z is comparatively reasonable. In recent years, the market has caught onto their appeal, but with some diligent searching you can easily find one ready to be your next project. If considering a classic Z car, do yourself a favor and check the body panels for rust — anything that’s likely to affect the structural integrity should signal a red flag.
First entering production in 1972, the venerable Honda Civic has seen all sorts of variants, from spritely hot hatches to stately shuttle wagons. With so many options out there, you can have your pick of the lot when it comes to body style, engine capacity, and interior furnishings. Like any Honda, it’s resilient, easy to work on, and can be tuned to your heart’s content. Throw on some suspension upgrades and a set of decent tires, and you have yourself a capable performer.
Mazda Miata MX-5
Granted, Miatas have experienced a bit of appreciation in the last decade, but most model years still make for very affordable project cars. Not only are they incredibly reliable and approachable learner-maintenance cars, but they’re also enjoyable to drive and ideal for upgrading. So while you may initially buy it as a budget fix, you’ll soon come to find that you won’t be able to part ways with this little roadster.
These days, unmolested 240SX’s are a bit of a tough find; most of them are half-baked drift car projects that have seen better days. That being said, when stock-spec 240SX’s crop up now and again, they can be had for as little as $3-4k. While you can spring for one that’s been modded to the moon, you’ll save yourself time and money if you don’t have to undo all that hard (but questionably executed) work.
There’s no denying the appeal of domestic classics — they’re as American as apple pie and baseball. Simple in build yet powerful in performance, all of these are good budget buys.
Later Camaro coupes are a dime-a-dozen, so they make excellent beginner muscle car projects. But if that’s not your jam, you can even find some earlier examples on the low, provided you’re willing to put in the work to get it up to shape. With ample aftermarket parts support and a crop of readily available crate engines, there’s no shortage of ways in which you can turn a Camaro into the car of your dreams.
Chevrolet El Camino
Part of the A-body line, the El Camino features parts compatibility with several other popular models including the Chevrolet Chevelle, Buick Special, Oldsmobile Cutlass, and Pontiac Tempest. As such, it’s quite easy to get your hands on replacements for any problem areas that need addressing. What’s more, they’re incredibly simple cars, making them approachable options for beginners looking to get their feet wet.
As the oft-quoted aphorism goes — rising tides raise all ships. In practice, this means that many look-a-likes from the golden age of American muscle have also increased in value, such as the Chevy Vega. However, there are some standouts that can be had for an acceptable sum. The Dodge Dart is a case in point, for though it’s not quite as common as some of the other options featured here, it seems to have staved off its appreciation for just a bit longer. Whether you’re going for a full-size first-gen or a mid-size fourth-gen, each makes for a good budget buy.
When properly restored, first- and second-generation Mustangs command a pretty hefty sum. And while you can find them pretty reasonably depending on the condition, their iconic status makes them a hard sell as a budget project. Instead, go for a Fox-body or an SN95. Seen as a flop upon their debut, they haven’t held their value over the years nearly as well. What this means for you is that they’re both cheap and readily had — you should have no trouble sourcing a car suitable to your tastes.
As with most popular muscle cars, later-gen Firebirds are considerably cheaper than their iconic forebearers. Sure, they don’t offer the same high-octane nostalgia, but they’re a great budget gateway to muscle car performance. If possible, shoot for a third or fourth generation model year — the low overhead cost will give you room in your budget for future upgrades and unanticipated repairs.
Ready To Off-Road
Truck & SUV
If your travels take you off the beaten path, it’s in your best interest to get a vehicle that’s up to the task. Each of these off-road icons makes for an approachable option with upgrade potential aplenty.
Cheap and robust, Chevy C10 trucks make for great project cars. They’re simple to work on and also popular amongst enthusiasts, so there’s a lot of parts and support available in the event you run into trouble. It’s worth noting that the older you go, the harder parts will be to find. If possible, stick to second-gen model years — you’ll save yourself a lot of headaches in the long run, and it’ll be much easier to work on.
F-100’s are extremely popular buys for classic project trucks. And it’s for good reason. There’s an abundance of project-ready examples, they’re easy to source parts for, and they’re relatively inexpensive to come by. What’s more, there are plenty of directions you can go with your build. So whether you prefer to perfectly restore your pickup or want to resto-mod it with modern tech, there’s ample opportunity to make it your own.
While Chevy Blazers have long left the realm of the budget project car, their GMC-badged brethren are still easily had for a cool $7k and under. They’re not the most powerful SUVs or especially fuel-efficient, but they’ll promise you years of dependable performance if properly taken care of. Just be wary of driving them on the highway; it’s a surefire way to discover any problems that might be lurking.
Jeep Cherokee XJ
Popular amongst beginners and seasoned trail experts alike, XJ Cherokees are nearly-indestructible when properly maintained. Sure, they have their characteristically American quirks, but they’ll go a long way toward teaching you how to perform upkeep on your own car. And while they’re quite the rock-bottom affordable offering that they once were, the immense online support and parts availability remain.
With collectors having sufficiently inflated the value of other boxy off-road classics — such as the Toyota FJ40, International Harvester Scout, and Ford Bronco — the Suzuki Samurai stands out as one of the last of such cars yet to be snatched up. It’s worth noting that these pocket-sized SUVs aren’t known for their power (quite the opposite in fact). With a top speed of just 65mph, it’s advisable to spring for an engine swap. Count on these becoming harder and harder to find.
Across The Pond
By their very nature, European imports require an owner that’ll keep up with maintenance. While this can lead to some sad and neglected examples, others can prove quite a find when it comes to budget project potential.
These days, E30 M3’s fetch astronomical prices at auction. But with a bit of patient searching (and some luck), you can easily snag a 325i. With a bulletproof straight-six under the hood, it’s a great car for beginners just getting into things or experienced wrenchers looking for a ready-to-tune ride. While 316’s and 318i’s are all over the classifieds, you should consider the direction of your build before buying one; if you’re looking for performance, you’ll quickly outgrow their meager four-cylinders.
If you’re a fan of small British sports cars, it doesn’t get much better than the MGB. Available as a roadster and as a GT (pictured here) these cars are extremely popular amongst automotive enthusiasts. As such, there’s a wellspring of available knowledge for you to tap into come time to fix up your own. When considering a potential MGB project, be sure to check for rust — British cars are notorious for the stuff.
For all of its flaws, the 928 has managed to leave the world of budget project cars behind. However, the 944 is still regularly affordable with reasonably low miles. Obviously, Porsche parts come at a premium, so it’s up to the buyer to determine the budget status of this pick. If you have your eye on a 944, get your hands on as complete a record of maintenance as you can. They run like a top when they’re properly kept up with, but neglected examples can become a true can of worms.
Volkswagen Golf GTI
Second to the Beetle, the Volkswagen Golf is one of the most prevalent models the German marque produces. So no matter what body style you’re considering, they’re incredibly affordable project platforms. In GTI form, they make for lightweight little hatchbacks that offer tons of driving fun. Bag it, boost it, or bring it back to factory condition — the world is your oyster when it comes to the end result. Even a cursory search will show you just how thriving the VW wrencher community is.
Older Volvos have tons of qualities that make them ideal platforms for getting your hands dirty. For instance, their spacious engine bays allow for easy access to components come time for maintenance. And when it comes to the ride, they’re built like tanks and are generally pretty reliable. Buyer beware — depending on the fix, some parts can be hard to find (as is the case with most Swedish imports).
The 20 Best Tuner-Friendly Cars Of All Time
Getting your project car back on the road is only part of the experience; the real fun comes when you decide to start making it your own. However, some cars are more readily-accepting of aftermarket modification than others. If you’re looking for a base platform to start your build, have a look at our guide to the best tuner cars.
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