Best import Project Cars
In the past, we’ve covered inexpensive American project cars for people looking to get into a grease-oriented hobby, as well as easy automotive DIY projects that are designed to save some green. Since they were both received well, we decided to rollout another list of contenders to consider: This time, we’re approaching the Japanese side of the market, and even though many of the Asian vehicles out there are made here in the States, they’re still badged as “imports” due to their heritage.
From Paul Newman driving Datsun 510 underdogs to the Fast & Furious franchise inspiring millions of American boys to put blue Streetglow lights under their Hondas, Americans have grown to love what compact, tight-handling Japanese cars can offer. Reliable, efficient, and clever, these vehicles represent a pivotal piece in the automotive puzzle these days, and with cars like the all-new 2016 Prius making its recent debut, it’s no wonder that companies like Toyota have grown so large over the past few decades.
This is what car guys do: We tinker, make mistakes, learn from them, and decompress after a long day by turning wrenches, our minds well away from the outside world. Sure, there will always be infighting between American, Asian, and European enthusiasts, but at least there is some form of respect in place, because while our preference in cars may vary drastically, we share a common bond that no one else really can grasp unless they too spend a few hours under the hood every week.
So if you want to get a project car, and would prefer to go with something Japanese, relatively inexpensive, and easy to fix, there are quite a few interesting options available to you. Everything from off-road Toyota pick-ups to high horsepower turbocharged 240SX drift cars are being built every day across the great American landscape over a few cold beers, some camaraderie, and a collection of car parts.
1. Second Generation Mazda RX-7
The FC RX-7 (1985-1991) was a funky and fun approach to performance and was voted Motor Trend’s Import Car of the Year back in 1986. This was followed by the Turbo II version making Car and Driver’s Ten Best list for a second straight year; but while the last incarnation of the 1.3-liter, Wenkel rotary-powered RX-7 was catching everyone’s attention on the big screen in the Fast & Furious flicks, its older, hard-lined predecessor was becoming more affordable.
If you can find one of these cars on the cheap (this typically means not opting for the turbocharged version), you will have a sporty touring car that costs very little to insure, can be swapped with a slew of different engines (V8 anyone?), and is a relatively unseen nostalgic nod to the 1980s. While rotary engines are a bit of an anomaly, and a professionally rebuilt one will set you back between $2, 000 and $3, 000, these motors will easily last 200, 000 miles if they are rebuilt and maintained properly. Just remember that a rotary engine will typically use between ½-1 quart of oil every 3, 000 miles, depending on how hard you thrash it. This is a completely normal occurrence, as it helps lubricate the apex seals before being burned up in the combustion process.
2. Fourth Generation Honda Accord
Everybody wants to build a Civic because they are lightweight, have tons of aftermarket support, sport double wishbone suspension, blah, blah, blah… Well, some of us like a little more room and don’t care very much for their styling. Readily available, and surprisingly well-supported by the aftermarket community, the 1990-1993 Honda Accord is a great car to consider if you want something cheap to wrench on, that can become relatively sporty for very little money. It may have come with an unassuming single cam, non-VTEC motor, but go ask any Honda specialist what their take is on the F22A engine and you will likely hear that this powerplant has one of the best flowing heads in Honda history.
Nobody wants these engines either, so they are cheap as chips to buy and rebuild, and throwing a turbo on one can give you a surprisingly quick little car for very little money. There also is a 200-horsepower, dual overhead cam Prelude H22A option that bolts right in, and double wishbone suspension does come standard on this car like the Civic. Just watch out for rear quarter panel rust, be sure to look for either an EX or SE model so you get rear discs instead of drum brakes, and swap out the front knuckles and hubs with a 1998-99 Acura CL assembly and 1993 Prelude VTEC calipers and discs to eliminate that stupid hub-over-rotor design.
3. Third Generation Toyota Land Cruiser
Source: Kent Leach
Big, old, badass, and burly, this truck offers a bit of everything. Hop in a third-gen Land Cruiser and you will find that there is plenty of awesomeness to go around when it comes to reliability, capability, and affordability. With the interior space of a futuristic semi, this generation of the Land Cruiser is a tank on wheels, and can be had all day long for under $10, 000, with many models going for less than $5, 000.
While manufactured from 1990-1997, it is the last year of this generation that you want to look into, as most 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. These SUVs are known for being comfortable and offering solid off-road prowess, and if there is one thing people complain about it is their fuel economy, even though it’s a big-ass SUV — go figure.
4. Datsun/Nissan Z Series
While the overall value of these cars has grown tremendously over the past few years, it’s not uncommon to find one in really good shape for under $5, 000. While the first generation continues to forge ahead in popularity, the lesser loved 280ZX and 300ZX are quite reasonable for what you can do to them. Unlike the first generation, these later models offered a turbocharged option, and even though the 300ZX from the early 1990s came equipped with two spooling snails, it was an absolute pain to work on, so maybe foregoing this generation for the prior is more advisable.
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 was not until two years later that turbocharged models came into existence. If you want something really special, keep your eyes peeled for the 10th Anniversary Edition, which features gold emblems and matching alloy wheels, a two-toned paint-job in either gold/red or gold/black, custom embroidered anniversary leather seats, headlamp washers, and automatic climate control.
5. Second Generation Subaru Forester
Source: YouTube/COBB Tuning
The last offering on this list may be the most utilitarian, because while a lot of guys say put a full-blown STI swap in it, the off-road junkies like the idea of making a Forester a bushwacker like no other. We can’t really blame them, especially since Subarus are known for their symmetrical all-wheel drive, so they are pretty damn good in the snow, and can kick-up some mud if they have to. But opt for the XT version, and you will suddenly be getting an inexpensive automobile that is going to last you a long-ass time, all while rocking a turbo that is surprisingly sporty.