Affordable Project Cars
There are guys out there who will drop $15, 000 on a rusted-out 1967 Camaro body, but we don’t want to know them. Our friends usually think more and spend less when it comes to scoring fast and cool. We can take advantage of cash-drained times like these, as hoarders of muscle car-era sheetmetal are sometimes forced to lighten their loads to pay for mortgages, alimonies, or their next tender. That opens the door for guys with a little less coin to get in on some sweet deals on project fodder if they know what they’re looking at. As the prices for the really good stuff drops, pressure is applied to the dork who thinks his 1980 Malibu wagon is worth 10K, making market prices dip there as well. So flash your cash at some of these prime pickin’s.
No. 10: Cheap 1965 to 1972 Cadillacs
If ever there were a time to swipe a Cad project, it’s now. There is virtually zero niche interest in these cars, as they are ignored universally by the tattooed rat-rod welder, the numbers-correct Barrett-Jackson broker, and the street/strip guy for fear of their sheer density and lack of double-sized spots for power parking.
But just because they are big doesn’t mean they aren’t great. Big cars have big factory engines, and cubes make power. Skip the expensive N/A builds and go right for the power-adders. Turbos, centrifugals, and nitrous spell huge grunt from huge inches, and these cars have the transmission guts and rearend beef to take it. We recommend you try the ’65 to ’75 Cads, since these cars were honored with having the best power-to-weight ratio of any base-model domestic car in 1965–and they were the first and only American passenger cars to enjoy a factory 500-inch powerplant.
1965 to 1975 Calais, De Ville, and Fleetwood
1967-and-later Fleetwood Eldorado, 1975-and-later Seville
No. 9: 1975 to 1979 X-Body Drag Cars
Want to practice your tubbing skills? Try a wrong-year Nova, Omega, Ventura, or Skylark. The V-8 cars are so cheap you won’t have to do the six-to-eight swap. Plus, aftermarket second-gen Camaro front end parts and 1967 to 1974 Camaro/Nova rearend parts bolt right on.
Classifieds Quick Peek
We jumped on Craigslist Los Angeles to see what was available as this was written. All three of the cars we found were clean runners: a 1975 Nova with a 454 and a four-speed, $3, 800; a 1977 Nova with a 305/auto, $2, 000; a ’77 Skylark, mint with 52, 000 miles, 350/auto, $1, 800.
The Freak show AMC
Yup, they’re still out there, and yes, they are still cheap. Despite our attempts to glorify Brand X with the CC/Rambler 1967 AMC Rambler American project car, people still ask what is wrong with us. We have no money. There, we said it. If you want to get attention and burn smoky donuts in front of interested teenagers, get into an AMC.
Nos. 8-5: The Department of Cousins: 1978 to 1984 Fairmont and Zephyr/1981 to 1986 Ford Granada and LTD II/1983 to 1985 Mercury Marquis/1983 to 1988 Thunderbird
These cars share the same huge aftermarket parts mother lode that is offered for the Fox Mustang. If you can’t find a factory V-8 car, you can use a swap K-member from any one of a million aftermarket suppliers and drop in a 5.0L from a Mustang. The 8.8 rearend housing is identical, so it will also swap right in–and you can even add disc brakes from other factory Fords. These cars are light, plentiful, and cheap.
All 1970s and 1980s Fairmont, Zephyr, Fox Granada, LTD II, and Marquis
Non-Fox-chassis LTD II, pre-Panther-chassis Marquis
No. 4: Fast 1978 to 1988 GM A- and G-Bodies
We’ve been beating this drum since the mid-1990s, and mostly drag racers have listened. The A- and G-body platform uses the classic rear-drive configuration and usually has a small-block with a TH350 and a 10-bolt from GM. The most sought after is the 1978 to 1981 A-body Malibu with the single headlight, but the G-body 1982 to1988 Monte Carlo and Cutlass and 1982 to 1987 El Camino and Pontiac Grand Prix are also desirable.
No. 3: 1982 to 2004 S-10s and Blazers
We spoke to the guys at Jaguars That Run (JTR) to get the deal on this way-cheap swap. The 2WD trucks are light enough that even a stock V8 will make them fly, so really the focus is on performing V8 swaps cleanly and getting the cooling system right. JTR says the best bet for low-buck fun is finding a truck that has a 4.3L six with a five-speed. The transmission will bolt to a Gen I small-block, and if you find an 1983-and-later, you can reuse the hydraulic clutch. In 1995, the S-10 came with an 8.5-inch 10-bolt, so you can either start there or find a wrecked one and swap in the housing. To cool it all down, JTR recommends a radiator from an ’84 to ’89 Corvette and an electric fan from an 1988 to1995 Ford Taurus.
1995 H.O. V-6 five-speed S-10
1982 to 1983 S-10 with the cable-clutch BorgWarner five-speed–unless you want to run an auto
No. 2: Wrong-Year Muscle
After seeing all the alternatives, if you still want a Mustang or Camaro for low bucks, buy the wrong year or body style. That means 1974-and-later Camaros, Grande Mustangs, El Caminos, and six-cylinder cars. These cars aren’t as collectible and are therefore cheaper but still use all the bolt-on goods of their flashy brethren.
No. 1: The number one affordable project car can be seen here.
Tricks on the Negotiation
1. Be ready to walk away.
Do a lot of squinting to portray this guy’s junk isn’t worth your hard-earned dollar. Rent a Benicio Del Toro or Tommy Lee Jones flick and practice.
2. Bring enough cash to underpay.
If the guy catches a wad of hundos falling out of your wallet and doesn’t try to mug you, he will at least stick to his price. Try to bring the same amount as the ad price to ensure you don’t blow it and overpay.
3. Bring a friend who is not a problem.
Your car-guy friends will get more excited about the car than you and might even bid against you. It’s happened to us. Bring a girl or a noncar guy to the negotiation.