10 Inexpensive American Project Cars for Gearheads
Some people need a place to escape to at the end of the day. A safe space, far removed from the rest of the world. A spot where thoughts of work, school, family, and other stressors are all forbidden, and in their place resides a constructive outlet. For most gearheads, this means tinkering with an inexpensive project car in their garage — or attempting their own restomod build.
While Asian and European automobiles have their own place in separate cheat sheets, the American side of the story is underlined by a desire to uphold the time-honored tradition of heavily-modified V8 engines, fuzzy dice, and whitewall tires. OK, maybe not all at once, but you get the picture.
In order for a vehicle to qualify as an ideal project car, it needs to meet specific requirements. For one, you want it to be fairly easy to find. It should also be uncomplicated to fix. And since you want the project to be relatively inexpensive, your average spend should not exceed $10,000 on eBay. Unfortunately, this opens up an endless flood of automotive options. You don’t need to panic, though. We’ve done the hard part for you. After wading through a plethora of vehicle choices, we’ve come up with 10 solid contenders.
Anyone looking for a reason to get in the garage will likely dig at least one vehicle on this cheat sheet. Whether you’re a fledgling fabricator or just a dedicated junkyard junkie, there’s something out there for you. It just might take some time to find the right chassis for a good price.
1. Pontiac Fiero
With its plastic body panels, two-seater cockpit, rear-wheel drive layout, and mid-engine configuration, the Pontiac Fiero sounds like it should have been the American supercar for the ages. Sadly, it was never meant to be after the designers at General Motors thought it wise to make the Fiero more of a commuter car than a performance machine. By outfitting the wedge-shaped wonder with underwhelming 2.5- and 2.8-liter engines and an automatic gearbox, GM succeeded in turning one of the most promising platforms in American history into a complete snoozer.
Fortunately, the engine bay was designed to hold a V8. Therefore, it isn’t uncommon to see a small block V8, or a supercharged 3800 Series II motor in the back instead. Just be sure to pick up an 1988 model if possible. Why? Because it features bigger brakes and a sportier suspension, making it the best (and last) production year for the Fiero.
2. Jeep Cherokee
Dustin Hobbie of Cincinnati-based All-Terrain Outfitters took his Jeep Cherokee all over America in search of the ultimate off-road adventure. To date, his Jeep has yet to meet a rock it wouldn’t climb. Hobbie tells us that pretty much any generation of Jeep Cherokee will work if you want to hit some trails, but suggests grabbing an older model that’s in decent cosmetic shape and is mechanically sound in order to save some cash.
After finding your Cherokee (halfway decent ones can still be had for a few grand), start your project by doing any engine and/or drivetrain repairs needed in order to keep it as reliable as possible. It also wouldn’t hurt to buy a transmission cooler and an auxiliary fan. This will keep the differentials and the drivetrain from overheating. A racing seat and six-point race harnesses are a good thing to have on hand if things get a bit “vertical.” Suspension-wise, a well-reviewed lift kit is a great place to begin, but don’t forget to include any appropriate bump stops and limit straps to keep the truck’s geometry in check — and skid plates are never a bad idea.
3. Lincoln Continental
For decades, the Lincoln Continental has been a go-to for guys who want a chunk of Detroit steel for a great price. Since aftermarket restomod companies have developed ways to upgrade classic cars with modern amenities, it’s not uncommon to find a Continental with better electronics and a modern AC at a fair price. If you look long enough, you can still find rough ones from the 1960s and 1970s for cheap. And since’s there’s plenty of room to work with, almost anything is possible with these big boys.
Naturally, how much you spend depends on what direction you want to go with a build. While there are quite a few classic Continentals on eBay for under 10 grand, a solid project car doesn’t always arrive on your doorstep running. Remember, saving a few bucks by opting for a gutted version might help you afford that crate motor and an airbag suspension setup down the line.
4. Fox Body Mustang
The 1980s were a strange time. Although it may look dated, the 1987 to 1983 Ford Mustang is still a fantastic platform to build. Whether you want to keep the original 5.0-liter V8 engine or upgrade to a modern supercharged monster, the amount of support and interest for the third generation Mustang is staggering. Since it was a popular body style, finding one in good running order for under $10,000 is still quite doable.
5. Chevrolet pickup truck
People love to talk about how hardcore their new trucks are, or how they can interface with a smartphone to show the best route to the store for a six-pack. But some of us don’t need any of that. All we need from a truck is a bench seat so our baby can ride next to us, a bed big enough to haul a couch, and looks that are good enough for cruising around town on weekends. If you’re saying “hell yeah!” to any of this, then you should take a look at an older Chevrolet C10, which combines inexpensive build fun with timeless styling.
While this model truck ran for decades, the earlier ones offer the most charm for the money. But if aesthetics aren’t your thing and you’re looking for brute force, look to the fourth generation. Both a 7.4-liter V8 and a 6.5-liter turbo diesel engine are options on this model, offering plenty of torque for anyone who favors grunt over curb appeal.
6. Pontiac Trans Am
Some people have an inexplicable infatuation with the 1980s, and all of the quirkiness that goes along with that era. For car guys, this translates into cars with pop-up headlights, retro digital read-outs, and styling cues that are somewhere between being block-like and science fiction.
If all of this sounds like a lot of fun to find in one automobile, it might be time to look toward a third generation Pontiac Trans Am. While almost any generation is an inexpensive project car, this version really stands out as one of the most iconic cuts from 1980s car culture, primarily due to the popularity of the hit TV show, Night Rider.
7. Chrysler Laser
This has to be one of the best bad car commercials in history, because if anyone can sell a Chrysler, it’s James Earl Jones and a driver that’s dressed up like Darth Vader. Loaded with luxurious features and futuristic technologies, the upscale version of the Dodge Daytona makes for one intriguing project car.
Originally labeled as Chrysler’s performance offering, the Laser was only offered from 1984 to 1986, and supposedly served as an attempt at overtaking the European luxury coupe segment. While plenty of base models were made available, it’s the turbocharged 2.2-liter version that you’ll want. These Turbo Z models came with Mark Cross leather interiors, illuminated speakers, and rear amp switches, which were later dropped in favor of an optional Carroll Shelby suspension package. This vehicle later morphed into the Dodge Conquest, which eventually became the Plymouth Laser — a Diamond-Star Motors collaborative vehicle from Chrysler and Mitsubishi.
8. Ford Bronco
Older Ford Broncos may hold a high premium among enthusiasts, but anything from the lesser loved years (1978-1996) can be picked up for a surprisingly low price after a little hunting. Capable and old-school enough to be labeled “retro,” this two-door SUV offers plenty of room for modifications and tinkering if that is your goal.
If you’re opting for one of these machines, remember that many components off period F-Series will fit on the Bronco, and that aftermarket support is sizable enough to warrant some four-wheel drive performance tweaks. For anyone looking for a smaller and quirkier alternative, look no further than the Bronco II, and note that models from 1987 and up had a push-button for engaging four-wheel drive.
9. Chevrolet Corvette (C4)
The most unloved Chevrolet Corvette in history is also one of the coolest, because it truly did pave the way for many of GM’s advancements. With its LCD displays, clam-shell hood, vented fender wells, high tech digital read-outs, and targa top, the Corvette of the 1980s and early 1990s was a strange signature for the brand. And, to this day, it is still cheap as chips!
The version most enthusiasts look for is the ZR-1, which came with a 5.7-liter V8 that turned out 375 horsepower and was co-created with United Kingdom-based Lotus (which GM had acquired in the late 1980s). This performance model also came with upgraded brakes, steering calibrations, and improved suspension. While this high-performance version still holds a high premium after all these years, it remains a relatively inexpensive vehicle to tinker with due to its ability to receive parts from other GM vehicles.
10. Dodge Van
Although B-series vans and vehicles like the Dodge Caravan are plentiful and inexpensive, they don’t come close to having the same charm as the first generation of the A100 compact van. Manufactured from 1964 to 1970, this was Dodge’s answer to the Volkswagen bus craze, and in certain ways it was superior. By positioning the driver over the front axle and placing the engine between the split front seats, Chrysler was able to achieve a “cab over” design that promoted an iconic flat nose, which helped aid both visibility and aesthetics.
Sadly, both the slant-6 and a V8 option were not known for putting out terrific amounts of power. But where it fails to be hardcore, the Dodge A100 more than makes up for in cool points. For those who are more interested in trucks, a pickup variant was also made available — an A100 focused feature in Hemmings from a few years back, showing us that this inexpensive chassis is “a very easy restoration for anyone to do.”