Enthusiasm towards the automotive world takes many forms. Whether you watch movies or tv shows that revolve around cars, drive your car on the streets or race tracks with passion, or engage in any other form of automotive appreciation like going to meets, there’s no point in trying to define a “true” car enthusiast. One aspect that not everyone gets into, but is perhaps the greatest way to form a bond with a car though, would be taking on a project car.
A way to make a car truly yours, a project car is any that you buy with intention of working on. With enough time, money, and mechanical know-how, you can turn a car into whatever you want, depending on the aftermarket parts you use. This though is not a cheap endeavor, but relatively speaking there are affordable cars that can be turned into some uniquely badass machines for not a whole lot of money. From dirt cheap drift cars to unique homebuilt supercars, here are 10 ideas for your next project car that are both cheap and badass.
10 BMW E36 Drift Car
Several years ago, the typical recommendation for a cheap yet capable drift car build would have been without a doubt the Nissan 240SX platform, and for a while, that truly was the best cost/capability ratio. But, with drifting having become more and more popular in grassroots settings, the “drift tax” has priced many of these ideal platforms out of what’s considered truly cheap.
Still plentiful to find for a couple of thousand dollars or less, any RWD, manual transmission E36 generation 3-series is perfect for the job thanks to its balance, power when stock, and parts availability. Weld the differential, strip the interior, install an angle kit as well as lower, stiffer struts and spring (or coil overs if you can spare the money), get a bunch of extra tires to shred, and you’ll have a great beginner drift car on your hands that you can continuously upgrade with parts like a hydro e-brake as you learn the sport, or destroy (a natural consequence of learning to drift) without worrying about losing too much money.
9 Infiniti G35 (2002-2007) Drift Car
Another car you can buy used for just a couple thousand dollars, the 3rd generation G35 is rather underappreciated as a fun platform, offering RWD, good handling, and the same engine used in the 350Z sports car.
Powered by the notorious trumpet-sounding VQ35 V6 with just under 300 hp, the G35 is typically RWD, can be found with a manual transmission, has a stock limited-slip differential on later manual models, and can get sideways even without serious mods. If you want to do some proper drifting though, the G35 has a great and plentiful aftermarket, making the typical mods for a drift setup readily available for it at fair prices.
8 Chevrolet C4/C5 Corvette Kart
C4 and C5 Corvettes already make great cheap project cars, frequently able to be found for not much money in decent shape, and coming stock with V8 power. For really cheap ones with significant body damage though, stripping it down into a go-kart style vehicle offers some hilariously fun cheap thrills.
With simple fiberglass bodywork, stripping the body off the car is not all that difficult, and with a roll-bar already being a stock feature too, doing this isn’t as dangerous as it would seem. From there you can go wild with what you want your kart to be – get a suspension lift and slap on some big all-terrain tires to enjoy blasting around off-road, or leave it otherwise stock and rip it around the track. A prime example of what can be done if seriously dedicated to the build is YouTuber Cleetus McFarland’s “Leroy,” a C5 kart turned into a 7-second drag racing monster.
7 Exomotive Exocet
If an affordable stripped-down racecar sounds appealing, but a Corvette just seems too big, un-maneuverable, and heavy, look no further than the Exomotive Exocet, essentially a bit of scaffolding on wheels with basis on the iconic Mazda Miata.
Already an excellent affordable sports car, the Miata is beloved for its lightweight and terrific handling. Making it even lighter though, the Exomotive Exocet is a kit car that turns a 1990 to 2005 Miata into a barebones track-ready rocket. Available as a basic kit for $7,000, or FIA certified roll-cage equipped version for $8,300, the Exocet is a fairly simple kit that involves bolting the cage body onto a Miata’s running gear, resulting in a machine that weighs next to nothing and handles like few other cars at this price point.
6 Shelby Cobra Kit Car
One of the most badass roadsters ever created, the Shelby Cobra is an absolute legend, but unfortunately for most people costs millions of dollars to buy. There’s a reason then, that when seeing a Cobra in public that it’s safe to assume that it is a replica. Offering a way to get similar performance and those epic looks for less money than a Toyota Corolla, a Cobra kit car can be had for under $15,000.
While a far more intense and involved project than modifying a factory-built car, a kit car like this is perfect if you have the time, tools, skills, and space, and want a car you can truly call yours. Designed almost identical to the genuine Cobra, the Factory 5 Mk4 is one of the most prolific options, costing just $13,000 for the kit, and another few thousand for an older Mustang donor car that will supply everything not included in the kit – like the engine. While you can spend far more money building it to your liking, in its base form a Cobra kit car is about as badass a car as you can get for your dollar.
5 Factory Five GTM
Another kit car, the Factory Five GTM is a unique supercar that you can build at home for a fraction of what any other mid-engine design from a product brand would cost.
Like the Cobra-based Mk4 kit, the GTM is designed to be built by anyone with knowledge and experience with working on cars, provided they have the time, tools, and space to do so. Unlike the Mk4 though, the GTM is no replica and instead is an original supercar in itself. Costing $25,000 for the basic kit, not including a C5 Corvette donor car, the GTM is much more expensive than other cars on this list, but for a unique and eye-catching mid-engine, V8 supercar is about as affordable as it gets.
4 VW Beetle Baja Bug
An old-school way to build a cheap desert rally car, the classic VW Beetle is by no means a badass car in its normal form, but when modified into what’s known as a Baja Bug becomes thoroughly awesome machine.
Originating with desert racers in California during the late ’60s, the cheap and simple Beetle was quickly found to make for an excellent cheap, and road-legal alternative to sand rails and dune buggies. Involving a strip-down of its interior, installation of off-road wheels and tires, shaving offenders, removal of rear engine cover, and installation of a slightly larger engine, a Baja Bug is a relatively simple and cheap project. While you can go more involved with the build, the most basic Baja Bugs are still awesome little off-road beasts.
3 Subaru Impreza Rally Car
A brand associated with rally racing, Subaru’s Impreza is among the most iconic rally cars ever made. A mass-produced AWD commuter with (usually) a stock LSD and rally-bred heritage, an Impreza even in its weakest naturally aspirated form makes for an excellent way to enter the world of rallying for not a whole lot of money.
While turbo Imprezas like the WRX hold their value rather well and can be fairly expensive to maintain, the NA ones aren’t (except for head gasket issues on the EJ251), and a decent older-gen Impreza can be found for as low as $1,000 with a bit of searching. Strip the interior, install a roll-cage, performance suspension, racing seats, skid plates, and better tires, and your Impreza will be ready to blast through grassroots rallying or rallycross events and can take on more upgrades as your Colin McRae ambitions get stronger.
2 Subaru Outback “Battlewagon”
If you’re looking to build a vehicle that can conquer the most extreme obstacles off-road, a comprehensive 4×4 build like a Jeep Wrangler would be ideal – but rather expensive. However, if looking for a capable and comfortable off-road machine, but for a fraction of the price, look no further than the Subaru Outback modifying scene.
Available in good enough shape for just a couple thousand dollars, a first or second-generation Outback is already a capable dirt conquering wagon as is. Budget another couple thousand dollars for skid plates, a lift kit, new wheels and tires, heavy-duty suspension components, other optional (but good-to-have) mods like a light bar, and a snorkel for mud or water crossings, and you have what’s colloquially known as a “Battlewagon.” While it won’t get you the same attention, or give the same capabilities as a fully built 4×4, a Subaru Outback with a few modifications makes for an awesome affordable adventure vehicle, with enough space in the back to carry a load of camping supplies.
1 Jeep Cherokee XJ Off-Roader
While many of the serious body-on-frame Jeeps can cost quite a bit of money to buy and modify into a beastly off-roader, one capable Jeep remains rather cheap – the XJ generation Cherokee. A classic SUV rising in popularity, the massively successful XJ Cherokee offers a great way to get into the Jeep scene for not a whole lot of money.
Debuting in 1984, and kept in Jeep’s lineup until 2001 without a dramatic change to its design, the Cherokee’s XJ generation sold by the hundreds of thousands, introducing the capable yet civilized formula most SUVs would later follow. While an inherently less-tough unibody design compared to Jeeps like the Wrangler, the XJ is still a relatively potent off-roader even while stock. Easy to find for several thousand dollars, reserve another few thousand for parts like beefier wheels and tires, frame stiffening components to help compensate for the unibody design, and the other typical mods like a suspension lift, and an XJ Cherokee becomes a great deal for an off-road build.
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