5 Inexpensive European Project Cars for Gearheads
In an effort to add to our running list of affordable project cars for gearheads to tinker with, the Cheat Sheet has decided to approach the European side of the market this time around. Right away there was a problem: While our article on American project car possibilities was pretty straightforward, and our piece on five Japanese vehicles to consider was well received, they both came together with some sort of fluidity.
But for whatever reason, the Euro side of the equation was a real tough nut to crack. That’s partially due to the fact that there are so many considerations available these days. From classic BMW M3 rockets, to the iconic Volkswagen GTI MKII, the amount of options were overwhelming, as many of these cars can now be had for well under $10,000.
The old stigma that “European car parts are expensive” may still be true in certain cases, but knowing that in advance is half the battle. Remember, if you’ve got the money for a fixer-upper, you damn well had better have the dough for some quality restoration parts and upgrades.
So in order to keep it concise, here’s what we came up with: A list of five European cars that can be had for very little with some dedicated patience and internet time. Yes, there are going to be some brilliant automobiles that have been omitted due to space constraints, and while we would like to include them all, a rundown of a few of our personal faves seems to be a far more digestible option. Here’s what we’ve got…
1. 1968-1976 BMW 2002
We start off with a classic car that both looks timeless, and handles surprisingly well for its age. Taking a minimalistic yet utterly practical approach to versatility, BMW wooed Americans in the late 1960s with a sporty two-door that came in a surprisingly large package, offered independent suspension all around, and showcased a build quality that was both resilient and timeless. To make this car, BMW supposedly cut 2 inches out of the wheelbase and removed the rear doors in order to create what it called the “1600-2″ for the 1966 model year. Once a torque-filled 2.0-liter version emerged a little later, this more powerful unit wound-up in the enlightened entity you see here.
According to a feature from a while back in Popular Mechanics, “the 2002 almost single-handedly established BMW as a serious, world-class builder of sport sedans.” Naturally, the most sought after 2002 is the 130-horsepower, fuel-injected 2002tii model that was first introduced in 1971, and since quite a few of these cars were made for America, and swaps remain a pretty straightforward process, this Datsun 510 adversary makes the list as a relatively affordable option.
2. 1966-1969 Porsche 912
When Porsche halted production of its 356 back in 1965, the world waited with unknowing curiosity bubbling alongside enthusiastic anticipation. Everyone already knew that the 911 was going to be a homerun, it’s just that this was going to be a six-cylinder, and enthusiasts were already so used to the four-bangers Porsche had been cranking out. So in a moment of madness, desperation, or so some blend of both, Porsche slapped its trusty air-cooled four-cylinder from the 356 1600 SC into the back of the minty fresh 911, thus creating the 1966 912.
Labeled as a simplistic, “detuned” version of the 911, this oddball cost around $1,400 less than the flat-six model, and despite being mounted to a different chassis, still ran a lot like a 356. But Porsche had misread its target market, and after a successful first year, enthusiasm quickly waned, with buyers instead opting for the far superior 911, which to this day remains a flagship. This gives reason for you to buy a 912, because they are cheaper than a 911, are still somewhat overlooked/under-appreciated, and carry the ability to have a more powerful engine swapped in at any time. It’s not the cheapest European car out there, but still a great deal for an antique Porsche.
3. 1956-1974 Volkswagen Karmann Ghia
The Volkswagen Karmann Ghia is what happens when a German designer has a bit too much Dinkel Acker pilsner while working late, and decides that a Beetle is not sexy enough and needs some muscle car influence. But what started off as a stroke of genius ended up materializing as little more than a two-seater version of the VW Beetle. Sure, it was sleeker, but it wasn’t like this car was faster or handled any better. Yet drivers didn’t seem to mind, maybe because anything was sportier than the Beetle, Bus, or hideously named “Thing.” So the Karmann Ghia sold well, due partially to the fact that it wasn’t very expensive, and that many of its components were interchangeable with those found on the common Beetle. It also had a reputation for being extremely simplistic, as well as being easy to work on, so DIY heads that grow tired of other VW stock flock to this chassis.
While the first incarnation in 1956 only sported a 36 horsepower, 1.2-liter, air-cooled flat-four engine, it’s the 1971-74 models you should look for since that’s when VW finally slapped a 1.6-liter motor in the back — bumping power numbers up to the 60 horsepower mark. More powerful engine swaps are also a possibility, just know that this is more of a Sunday cruiser than a Friday night speedster.
4. 2004-2009 Saab 9-5 Aero 2.3T
Scoring high points on Edmunds.com, and costing on average between $4,000-8,000 for a well maintained version, buying the 2.3T version of Saab’s 9-5 Aero is a fun and funky way to salute to the now defunct Swedish automaker. While everyone else may scoff at the idea of a Saab 9-5 being exhilarating to drive, the 2.3T Aero version is truly a performance sleeper in every way, secretly packing an optional manual gearbox and 250 horsepower in certain models. Though Saab was operated under GM for this period, the 9-5 Aero retained the B234R engine while the lower 9-3 was moved to GM’s EcoTec line.
Couple that with a luxurious leather interior, some seriously Swedish styling, and an aftermarket fanbase that is just as devout as it is small, and you’ve got a killer European performer for very little money. Just be sure to avoid anything prior to a 2004 model in order to negate any risk of engine seizure, and always run synthetic oil to help prolong the life of this four-banger.
5. 1976-1985 Mercedes-Benz 300TD
When looking up the word “tank” in the dictionary, you are likely to see a picture of this diesel-powered monster from Mercedes-Benz, which arguably remains one of the most indestructible vehicles on the planet. Sure, you could opt for the quieter, more robust gasoline-driven version, but then you wouldn’t be able to run your car on french fry oil and watch it last half a million miles without so much as a hiccup.
Serving as the E-Class for its prolonged nine-year tenure, the W123 generation seen here is perhaps one of the cheapest and most dependable diesel cars of all time, with drivetrains typically outlasting everything else on the car once maintained properly. It may be noisy, smoky, and somewhat shaky, but it’s a diesel from thirty years ago, so just as long as all of the seals are good and there isn’t a ton of rust underneath, you’ve got a war wagon that’s ready for the zombie apocalypse.