12 Inexpensive Project Cars for Gearheads

Snap-On Wrenches
Source: Snap-On

Some enthusiasts find pleasure in showing off their ride at cars and coffee on Saturdays, or taking it to an auto show for their chance at some trophies and fame. Others like hitting the track on weekends for a bit of performance-pushing power, or prefer snaking their way down a canyon like petrol-powered bobsledders. And then there are the guys who find that the greatest pleasure comes from breaking a car down to its bare bones, and then rebuilding it from the ground up.

This is where some of the greatest innovations in automotive history began and where many concepts are born, far from the engineering laboratories of the world’s biggest automakers. Every day, in garages and shops across the country, friends and family members meet-up to have a few beers and turn some wrenches on their project cars.

A project car is typically considered as a vehicle that is purchased inexpensively and needs a bit of love in one form or another. As the auto industry has evolved, so have the DIY guys and aftermarket shops, and nowadays there are entire industries dedicated solely to producing third-party components and accessories.

Of course, America will always have its favorites when it is time for a tear-down, as muscle and sports cars continue to take precedence on average. But muscle cars are rarely cheap, and even in poor condition they typically fetch a premium price. Since virtually any vehicle can be considered a project car, certain models can be acquired on the cheap.

We’re talking about the bargain busters here: the inexpensive options that cost little to buy, are easy to fix, and parts for them cost about as much as a pack of pudding. The guys over at Super Street Online put a good amount of time and energy into researching the topic a few years back, and we have opted to supplement a portion of their list with some entries of our own. So read on to see what project car best suits you, and maybe if you’re lucky you’ll find one for the right price and can start wrenching sooner than later!

1. Toyota Corolla (1984–1987)

1986 Toyota Corolla GT-S Liftback
Source: Toyota

Toyota has built some of the longest-lasting vehicles to ever roll off an assembly line, and while the Corolla may appear to be a cut-and-dry commuter car to most, it is still a great car to wrench on. According to Super Street, models found between 1984 and 1987 offer the best chassis build options as back then Corollas were rear-wheel drive, and engine rebuilds are relatively straightforward, as this vehicle was naturally aspirated. Just beware of gearbox issues and be forewarned that their fuel pumps are prone to rust, so removing them can be a real bitch.

2. Nissan 240SX (1989–1998)

Source: Nissan

As an older Nissan model, the 240SX is a sports coupe that came with a manual gearbox and a rear-wheel drive configuration — making it a great example of an ideal project car for anyone looking for higher performance at a lower cost. There are plenty of these things floating around too, and prices can range from extremely cheap to atmospheric depending on what shape they’re in and what has already been done to them.

3. The DSM (1989–1999)

Mitusbishi DSM
Source: Mitsubishi via Facebook

During an odd turn of events in the late 1980s, Mitsubishi and the Chrysler Group joined forces to make a bevy of turbocharged performance cars. This unusual union was known as Diamond Star Motors (DSM), and popular vehicles included the Mitsubishi Eclipse, the Eagle Talon, and the Plymouth Laser.

All of these cars were essentially the same thing, they just had slightly different styling cues and badges. What makes these cars so special is that certain models were offered with a manual gearbox, all-wheel drive, and a turbo. And while finding one in good working order may be as rare, engine swaps are relatively inexpensive, and many gearheads can rebuild the car’s 4G63 engine for pennies on the dollar. 

4. Honda Civic (any generation)

1990 Honda Civic 3-door Si.
Source: Honda

The Civic is one of the greatest and most popular commuter vehicles of all time, and with its lightweight chassis and bottomless engine swap options, it really is an adult-sized Lego kit.  Customization options are endless, as are the amount of aftermarket parts available. Unfortunately, knock-off parts have over-saturated the market, so be sure to go with parts from companies like Hybrid Racing, HeelToe Automotive, J’s Racing, and Cheddas Auto as they are Honda-exclusive companies and offer a dizzying array of quality aftermarket parts for virtually every Honda on the planet.

5. Mazda Miata (1990–1997)

Mazda Miata
Source: Mazda

When it comes to sports cars, the Miata is the long-running champ in terms of affordability and fun. Since the Miata has been in production for such a long time, there are lots of replacement and aftermarket parts available for anyone looking to turn one into a project. This rear-wheel-drive, stick shifting little rocket has seen a spike in popularity in recent years, with a healthy handful of people swapping in GM’s LS motor for some insane power to weight ratios.

But for those of you just want a fun little car for the weekends and prefer to keep it stock, we recommend looking for models from the mid-to-late 1990s, as the Miata was upgraded following the 1994 model year to include a larger engine, brakes, and wheels. For parts, check out Integrated Performance in California; they were the ones who helped Super Street with its Miata project a few years back.

6. Acura Integra (1994–2001)

1997 Acura Integra Coupe
Source: Acura

The Integra may be out of production, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t ripe for building. This Acura sold incredibly well here in America, and when driving to the store you are sure to see a few of them on the road. But being that they are such a popular car to build, most Integras that are for sale will go for a premium, so be sure to shop around a bit.

 7. Lexus SC 300/400 (1992–1996)

Source: Lexus

As Toyota’s luxury line of vehicles, Lexus’ typically don’t make good project cars, but that could change as certain models age. Case in point, the SC 300 and 400, which were very sleek and attractive in their heyday. These cars can be found for prices ranging from a few grand all the way up to about $7,000, and offers an engine bay that is ideal for a V8 or a turbocharged Supra powertrain. Look for model years between 1992 and 1996 for the most bang for your buck, and since most common issues with this chassis are superficial in nature, it is a great car to consider.

8. Scion xB (2004–2006)

2005 Scion xB
Source: Scion

That’s right, we recommend that you build a better lunchbox. Scion caught a lot of flack from the general public when the company first hit the scene, with car designs that were… a bit out of the box. The xB, depending on how you feel about the design, can still make a pretty neat project though.

There are many strategies you can take when working on one of these vehicles, as the engine can be easily boosted and the interior offers a wider range of possibilities than the standard car. The problem is that they don’t always come cheap, so shop around before committing to this little toaster on wheels.

9. Subaru WRX (2000–2007)

Source: Subaru

Few cars offer more fun to their owners than the classic boxer-powered, rally-inspired Subaru WRX. This car has been in production for a while, and that means that there is a lot of aftermarket support available to us now. But since WRX owners aren’t always keen on letting go of their vehicles, these cars can still be a bit steep and a super cheap WRX should immediately be a red flag — especially if it’s decked out in STi trim like the one pictured.

 10. Nissan 300ZX (1990–1996)

1990 Nissan 300ZX
Source: Nissan

If you want a great street racer, the Nissan 300ZX is a superb choice. Turbo versions came outfitted with a 3.0-liter twin-turbo V6 engine, making up to 300 horsepower, and it wasn’t too bad on the eyes either. Just be forewarned that their engine bays are cramped at best, that they suffer from oil cooler line issues, and that electrical issues are a royal bitch to deal with. But if you want to go the path less traveled, and are looking to rebuild a speedster, the 300ZX may be exactly what you’re looking for and companies like Stillen are a great go-to resource for parts and advice for this platform.

11. Ford Mustang (any generation)

1984 Ford Mustang
Source: Ford

As a classic project car, the Ford Mustang has seen a monsoon of aftermarket parts and tech support over the years. Because the Mustang has been in production for so many decades, finding one for a reasonable price shouldn’t be incredibly difficult, and practically any DIY project revolving around the vehicle can be found online. Due to its extensive history, there are so many parts and accessories that can be used to build the ideal custom, and unloved body styles from the 1980s and 1990s can be picked up on the cheap.

12. Chevrolet Impala (any generation)

1958 Chevrlolet BelAir Impala
Source: Chevrolet

Finally, no project car list is complete without a Chevrolet classic like the Impala. The Impala, like the Mustang, has an extensive history among car buffs, meaning that there are a lot of choices available to us, and that you can make it as quick or as low as you would like. SS models are a great way to go, but since those usually carry a premium price tag it is often best to swap a beefier powerplant into an Impala with a good shell.

There are lots of examples to look toward for inspiration, and a quick Google search is sure to inspire anyone who is looking to make the Impala their next project car.

Like classics? It’s always Throwback Thursday somewhere.