Project cars that don't cost an arm and a leg until they're finished.
So many people buy a car planning to build it up, but then the idea goes stale because it gets expensive and complicated. Often, the problem is starting off with a car that's already expensive and complicated. It’s a truism that an expensive car bought ten years ago is going to be an expensive car to maintain now, and if all the money is going into maintenance then little is going to go into modification.
That’s not a hard and fast rule though. Older cars tend to be simpler because the available technology was simpler and/or legislation hadn’t overcomplicated anything. A great example of that is the pre-2000s E36 generation BMW 3-Series and the new millennium’s E46 generation. While you’ll still immediately want to refresh the cooling system on an E36, there’s going to be less electrical issues due to less complexity, parts are freely and cheaply available, and bushings are simple and easy to replace. That means more time and money can go into bringing the suspension and handling up to date.
Of course, that doesn’t necessarily mean you should be put off going for the car you want to build out if you have the time and the money. However, pick the perfect car as a platform for what you want to do and things will fall into place a lot quicker, easier and be more cost-effective. Despite what the YouTube channels might suggest, car enthusiasts don’t tend to have a lot of spare money. After all, we’ve spent it all on our cars.
We mentioned the E36 already so let’s start there. The previous E30 generation is simpler to work on, compact, durable, and endlessly mod-able. However, it’s also starting to go up in price due to its desirability and the drift tax. The E36, however, is still common as the 3 Series cultists haven’t eaten them all up. The M3 isn't over-expensive either, particularly in the US where it was much maligned as it didn't make as much power as its European version. However, it's not that big of a drop in power and there are ways of bringing it back and then adding some more.
The E36 is not as simple to work on as the E30, but you get a car with more stock power from a smooth inline-six as well as some safety equipment we consider basic now. The track-rats and drifters spotted all of this a long time ago so there’s a lot of aftermarket support and recorded know-how out there to tap into.
The reason the Civic is always a great commuter car is that the ingredients are the same for a great project car. Inexpensive, light, small and with simple and solid engineering. It doesn’t hurt that Honda has always made sure the Civic is a driver-orientated car as well. There’s an overwhelming amount of aftermarket parts and companies dedicated to all generations of Civic and you can safely assume that any problem you have with any Civic, someone has already solved it and then documented it online.
By law, we are required to mention the MX-5 here. The beauty is that the original owners tend to be from one of a few distinct types, so finding one that's been well looked after with low miles, full service history, and kept garaged is not usually a problem. The MX-5 has been around for so long now that whether you want parts to turn it into a lithe canyon carver, a weekend racer, or an LS swapped mini-monster, the aftermarket has you well and truly covered.
Like the Civic and Miata, the sheer length of time the Mustang has been in production means the aftermarket is immense. Mustangs have been built for any possible style of driving you can imagine from canyon carving to drag racing but, if you twisted our arms a little for a more specific recommendation, we would point at the Fox Body platform that ran from 1979–1993 as the most adaptable platform. Plus, the 5.0-liter V8 is common, incredibly well documented, and extra power gains are relatively easy to get.
The Z32 generation 300ZX was a Car and Driver magazine darling for every year of its six-year run in the US. It came in two flavors of V6: naturally aspirated and twin turbo. You probably want the 300 horsepower twin-turbo version although there’s no harm in turbocharging or supercharging the base engine as its made of strong stuff.
The 300ZX sold very well to start off with so they are out there but, unlike some of the cars on this list, they’re not a big secret. That means you’ll see them overpriced on Craigslist accompanied by the words "NO LOWBALLERS I KNOW WHAT I GOT.” However, if this is what you want then be patient and keep looking.
Early models of the TT had some issues, so although they first appeared in 1998 we’re going to suggest 2000 as the earliest TT to look at. Then, due to cost and complexity, the latest version we suggest here is the second generation that ended in 2014. The beauty of the TT is that it’s based on the Volkswagen Golf platform for the first generation and a more general VW platform for the second generation. That means the TT has a lot of shared parts that keep the cost of ownership down. It’s also a great performer, the aftermarket is out there, and it doesn’t take a lot to get some extra horses from the engine and tweak the suspension to make it turn fast and hard.
The fourth-generation Legacy GT shared a lot of drivetrain with the Impreza STi and WRX. That means a turbocharged Boxer engine and Subaru’s proven all-wheel-drive platform in what turned out to be a better-built car. There’s plenty of aftermarket support and the engine side is particularly vast due to the cult of the Impreza. A big advantage of the Legacy GT is that, unlike Imprezas, it’s easy to find examples that haven’t been badly modified or thrashed within an inch of their lives. Plus, if you like a wagon then you're truly in luck.
Small, lightweight, driver orientated, and well engineered. That sums up about every Golf GTI except the much maligned Mk3. Other than that, it’s hard to go wrong as the aftermarket is large and the enthusiasts are rabid and it's the original hot hatch, so there’s a big knowledge pool to tap into.
The Impreza certainly has the larger pool of followers, but the Lancer’s fans are no-less hardcore. The Evo models are as legendary for their performance as they are for their maintenance schedule nightmares, but a more basic Lancer with a turbo engine and a manual transmission has a lot of room to tune in. There are extensive build threads out there showing just how far a Lancer can be taken.
In the early 1990s, Lexus needed a luxury level coupe to complete its lineup. Strip away the marketing speak, and what Lexus delivered was a Supra MKIV with a new skin. The SC 300 landed in 1992 with a 3.0-liter inline 6 2JZ-GE, and the letters 2JZ get people very excited although this wasn’t the turbocharged lump. However, it’s the basis for the more famous 2JZ-GTE and takes forced induction well. Some people will be wondering why we are only listing the SC 300 and not the SC 400 as well, and only models until 1997 even though it was in production until 2000. The answer is that the SC 300 was the only one offered with a manual transmission and that only lasted for five model years.
This might be our favorite right now because that’s one hell of a platform to base a project on and decent and unmolested examples can be picked up for under $7,000.