10 Inexpensive Japanese Project Cars for Gearheads

Turbocharged Mazda RX-7 Wankel rotary engine | Mazda via Facebook

In the past, we’ve covered a few inexpensive DIY ideas geared toward anyone looking to get into wrenching, and this time around it’s time for the Japanese side of the market to get some love. From actor Paul Newman racing Datsun 510’s in the 1970s to the Fast & Furious franchise inspiring millions of kids to modify their Hondas, Americans have learned to love Japanese project cars in a big way.

Reliable, efficient, and surprisingly potent when pushed, these machines have been a pivotal piece in the automotive puzzle since they landed on our shores over half a century ago.

Not sure what project car life entails but would like to learn? It’s a world filled with research, tinkering, making mistakes, learning from said mistakes, and decompressing after work to the sounds of a ratchet clicking. Regardless of what kind of project you have, or how you go about assembling it, you’re both the master builder and the architect, and if something goes awry you have no one to blame but yourself.

If this sounds like your kind of challenge, and you like the idea of a relatively inexpensive Japanese project car, what should you buy? Since there are so many interesting options out there we’ve decided to narrow things down a bit, and go with a handful of tried-and-true contenders, as well as a few oddballs. So crack open a cold beer, invite your buddies over, and get to work, because the following ten vehicles are all great Japanese project cars.

10. Fourth Generation Honda Accord

1991 4th Generation CB7 Accord | Honda

Everybody wants to build a Civic or an Integra because they’re lightweight, have tons of aftermarket support, have a great suspension, blah, blah, blah… Fortunately, for those of us who prefer something a little bigger there’s the fourth generation Accord. Readily available, and surprisingly well-supported by the aftermarket community, the 1990-1993 Honda Accord is one of many amazing Japanese project cars to consider if you want something cheap to wrench on.

It may have come with an unassuming single cam 2.2-liter motor, but go ask any seasoned Honda engineer for their take on the F22A engine and you’ll get an earful about how this was the best flowing head in Honda history. Despite making 130-140 horsepower stock, they’re easy to modify, and since they’re underrated in the tuning community, they’re cheap as chips to buy and simple and inexpensive to rebuild.

But for those of you who demand instant gratification, the 200-horsepower, dual overhead cam H22 out of the Prelude bolts right in without the need for custom motor mounts and whatnot. Just watch out for rust in the rear quarter panels, look for either an EX or SE model so you get rear discs instead of drum brakes, and remember to change your water pump and timing belt every 80,000 miles. We also strongly recommend swapping out the front knuckles and hubs with 1998-99 Acura CL 2.3 assemblies, along with 1993 Prelude VTEC calipers and rotors to eliminate Honda’s infuriating hub-over-rotor design.

9. Third Generation Toyota Land Cruiser

Source: Kent Leach
Toyota Land Cruiser | Kent Leach

Big, burly, and badass, the classic Toyota Land Cruiser offers builders a bit of everything. Hop in a third-gen model and you’ll find that there’s plenty of good to go around when it comes to reliability, capability, and affordability. With cavernous interior space and a world-class off-roading reputation, it’s a tank on wheels disguised as an SUV that can be regularly found for under $10,000.

Although earlier versions were quite good off-road and could be made to look the part, it’s the last year of the third generation (1990-97) that you want to look for. These models came with electronic locking differentials, automatic climate control, two-tone tan and brown leather interiors, keyless entry, port-installed roof racks, and running boards. They’re also known for being incredibly comfortable and came with a revised V6 that was the strongest and most reliable of the bunch, giving us even further reason to list it as one of our favorite Japanese project cars.

8. Datsun/Nissan Z Series

1978 Datsun 280ZX 2+2 | Nissan

If old school performance mated to a five-speed gearbox and rear-wheel drive sounds like your idea of a good time, then the 280ZX is a great place to begin. While it was hailed as Motor Trend’s Import Car of the Year in 1979, it wasn’t until two years later that turbocharged models came into existence, further winning performance fans and setting the benchmark for Japanese performance in the early ’80s.

While the overall value of these sports cars has grown tremendously over the past few years, it’s not uncommon to find one in good shape for under $5,000. While the first generation 240/260/280Z continues to gain in popularity, the lesser loved 280ZX and 300ZX are still quite reasonable and have excellent aftermarket support.

If you want something really special, keep your eyes peeled for the 10th Anniversary Edition. This limited run features gold emblems and matching alloy wheels, a two-tone gold paint job in either red or black, custom embroidered leather seats, headlamp washers, and an automatic climate control system.

7. Second Generation Subaru Forester

Subaru Forester XT | Subaru

Our next offering is the biggest sleeper of the bunch. While it may look like a typical CUV, the XT version of the Forester packed a turbocharger. Some guys will put a full-blown STI engine in, while others will tell you to turn it into an off-road bushwacker like no other. Either way you are in for a lot of fun thanks to Subaru’s symmetrical all-wheel drive system and track-proven turbo technology.

While boosted models were available in 2004, it wasn’t until 2006 that a more aggressive engine setup was introduced, so hunt for those versions first. Just know that while these vehicles are relatively inexpensive to wrench on, they have held their value pretty well, so it may take a little shopping around to find one at the right price.

6. First generation Acura TSX

2004 Acura TSX | Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

What’s so great about a first generation TSX? Well, let’s start with the fact that its K24A2 engine is one of the most bulletproof motors Honda has ever made, and how it has a sizable amount of aftermarket support. Originally producing between 200-205 horsepower, this engine featured variable timing on both intake and exhaust cams, and for the 2006 model year both throttle body and intake valves were increased, as were cam duration and valve lift. Buyers can get either a 5-speed auto or a 6-speed stick, and you can easily find TSX’s with a tech package for less than $5,000. Bolt-on options are also plentiful and relatively inexpensive.

Another reason why this sedan is a great Japanese project car is because the TSX is really just a rebranded Honda Accord with a stronger engine. This means that many of the same components from other Hondas and Acuras will fit on this car. Once outfitted with better brakes, suspension, exhaust, and intake upgrades makes for a reliable and fun daily driver. The 2.4-liter engine also responds extremely well to supercharging, so if your pockets suddenly get a lot deeper we strongly recommend going this route.

5. Second generation Suzuki Samurai

The SJ-Series Samurai was first introduced to the United States in 1985 for the 1986 model year. While the puny 63 horsepower 4-cylinder engine is laughably under-powered and completely carbureted, there’s a lot to the Samurai that makes it cool. It may have been infamously unstable at speed, but off-road, the subcompact truck can go places even slightly larger Jeeps can’t.

In fact, the Samurai’s biggest strength lies in its ability to easily be turned into a fun off-road demon. Compact, lightweight, and packing a transfer case with switchable 4WD and low range settings, this miniature Japanese CUV is actually quite the agile on tough trails. Due to its simple design, both engine and suspension modifications tend to be easy and inexpensive as well, and since you can pick one up used for next to nothing the Samurai remains an ideal beginner 4×4 for Japanese car fans. Just beware of rust.

4. Second Generation Mazda RX-7

Mazda FC RX-7 Turbo | Mazda via Facebook

When it first emerged on the scene in 1985, the second generation Mazda RX-7 (FC) was a funky and fun performance car that went on to take Motor Trend’s “Import Car of the Year” award a year later. This was followed by the Turbo II version making Car and Driver’s Ten Best list as critics and fans alike praised the chassis for its nimble driving characteristics and turbocharged ferocity.

Three decades later, the FC version of the RX-7 has become one of those Japanese project cars few people build but everyone loves. If you can find one of these machines on the cheap you’ll have a sporty touring car that costs very little to insure and build, while remaining an absolute blast to drive. This FC platform can also be swapped with a slew of different engines (V8 anyone?), and remains a cool relatively rare 1980s sports car.

3. Mitsubishi Montero Sport

The Montero, or “mountain hunter” is another one of those awesome Mitsubishi machines from the 1980s and 1990s that we wish had never disappeared. As boxy and military-looking as the first-generation SUV was, the second generation (1991-1999) is the version to search for if you want a solid platform to build upon. With its larger body, four unique trim levels (Metal Top, Canvas Top Convertible, Semi High Roof Wagon, and High Roof Wagon) options are abundant and powertrain choices include both a V6 and a turbo diesel, with the best ones being from 1993 onward.

This second generation may be one of the more obscure Japanese project cars out there, but being that it came standard with Super Select 4WD (SS4) and multimode ABS, its capabilities are impossible to ignore. SS4 combined both part-time and full-time four-wheel drive with four available options. 2H allowed high-range rear-wheel drive, 4H handled high-range full-time four-wheel drive, 4HLc utilized high-range four-wheel drive with a locked center differential, and 4LLc was for low-range four-wheel drive with locked center differential. You can also switch between two-wheel drive and full-time four-wheel drive at speeds up to 62 miles per hour in this SUV, while Multimode ABS was fully functional in all SS4 modes.

2. First generation Lexus SC

1992 Lexus SC 400 | Lexus

The SC 400 first made its debut as a 1992 model and came with the same engine as what was in the LS 400 at the time. Honored as the Motor Trend Import Car of the Year for 1992, and making Car and Driver magazine’s Ten Best list from 1992 to 1998, this GT is still a comfortable ride, and makes for an excellent project car.

The SC 400 produced 250 horsepower and 260 pound-feet from 1991 to 1995, before the 1UZ-FE V8 came around in 1996 with 10 more ponies. While it would be great to get the 5-speed manual transmission that was exclusive to the inline-six powered SC 300, the VVT-i V8, with its 290 and 300 pound-feet of torque wins the OEM tug-of-war. Due to the size of the car’s engine bay, motor swaps are fairly commonplace, so even if you find one that’s not running for the right price pick it up and get to wrenching.

1. First generation Mazda Miata

Mazda MX5 Miata | Mazda

Cheap to buy, drive, and modify, these three things make the Mazda Miata one of the top go-to Japanese project cars in history. Since so many of these little roadsters were built back in the day, and their reliability was so on point, finding one in good shape is just a Craigslist search away. While any generation will work well as an inexpensive introduction to Japanese project builds, it’s the 1990 to ’97 model that most performance enthusiasts prefer, due to its low curb weight, substantial aftermarket support, and ability to receive a plethora of different engines.

Another great thing about the Miata is that its popularity has caused community support to grow exponentially over the years. Forums are overflowing with useful information, YouTube is riddled with step-by-step instruction videos, and chances are the local guy at Cars and Coffee will be more than willing to hand out any additional advice and show you firsthand how they built their MX-5.