Build the car that you want with these project car candidates

No matter how many cars are built by automakers these days, there’s still no substitute for the kind of purity and authentic love you can have for a project car. This kind of car is the one that you spend hours upon hours, days upon days, and months upon months trying to build.

Project cars are based largely on existing models, but when these models aren’t built or tuned in the manner that you want them to be, you take it upon yourself to do it, rebuilding it to your taste and preference. Some project cars take years to build, and the cost of doing it can go as high as you’re willing to take it. But the results speak for themselves. Project cars are your creations, and they are the most fulfilling ones to drive. They are built according to how you want these cars to look and run. Here’s a list of cars that make great project cars for every gearhead.

Chevrolet Camaro First-Gen

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The first-generation Chevrolet Camaro is a great choice to serve as a platform for your project car. You won’t have to worry about crate engines because Chevrolet offers more than enough choices for you. Check out Chevrolet’s website and you’ll see almost 80 crate engines available. Sure, not every engine is suited for the first-gen Camaro but there are some intriguing choices in Chevy’s crate engine lineup that should turn your first-gen Camaro into an all-conquering menace on the drag strip.

The Camaro’s long hood also makes for a big engine bay so you won’t have to worry about the size of the crate engine that you’re dropping there.
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From a physical perspective, the first-gen Camaro’s big and aggressive exterior opens up a lot of possibilities as far as aftermarket bits and pieces are concerned. There’s no shortage of ways on how you can turn a used first-generation Camaro into the project car of your dreams.

Ford Mustang First-Gen

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As intriguing as it is to turn a first-generation Chevrolet Camaro into a project car, the same is true for the Camaro’s nemesis, the first-generation Ford Mustang.

Just like the Camaro, the first-gen Mustang is a great starting point for a project car.

From a parts and resources perspective, you’re not going to run out of components for your build. Whether it’s small parts or big parts, there’s extensive support available for you to procure the items and equipment that you need to finish your build.

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Be advised, though, that just because resources are plenty, building your own ‘Stang using a first-gen model as your platform requires a lot of work. You’re going to have to beef up the car’s suspension if you want to drop a powerful crate engine in there. You’ll also have to make sure that in designing the muscle car’s appearance, you don’t go too far and strip the Mustang of its timeless aesthetic. There’s a reason why the first-generation Mustang is a great choice for a project car. You get to play around with it, but not to the extent that you have to completely change its identity.

Read our full review on the first generation Ford Mustang.

Datsun 240Z

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The Datsun 240Z is more than just the direct successor to the Nissan 370Z.

The 240Z has already established a cult following to the extent that a premium unit with low mileage is going to set you back somewhere in the vicinity of $50,000. Fortunately, there are beat-up models that you can score on the cheap, and these beat-up models are precisely the ones that you need to be looking out for if you want to make the 240Z your project car.

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So, what’s awesome about the 240Z? Other than the provenance attached to it, the 240Z is arguably one of the most timeless looking Japanese sports cars in the world. The Porsche-like front section and the sweptback rear end make for a great-looking sports car to drive around town. Beyond that, the 240Z’s mechanical simplicity affords plenty of leeway as far as how you want to proceed in restoring or building one as a project car.

Engine swaps are also common when it comes to the 240Z, and with the car’s long hood and svelte weight, there are plenty of options to choose from as far as V-8 engine swaps are concerned. Chevy’s small-block V-8 engine, for example, is commonly used as the engine-of-choice among those who have undertaken 240Z rebuilds.

Read our full review on the Datsun 240Z

996 Porsche 911

1998 - 2004 Porsche 911 Carrera (996)
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Anytime you can use a Porsche 911 as the platform for a project car, you just go ahead and do it. No questions asked.

It just so happens that there is a version of the 911 that’s ripe for such builds.

The 996-generation 911 is arguably the most hated version of the 911. It wasn’t deemed a “proper” 911 because it didn’t feature an air-cooled engine. It also shared too many similarities with the Boxster, including the funky headlights. It also didn’t have an engine that inspired the kind of awe you’d expect from a 911. All these things made the 996-generation hated by a lot of 911 enthusiasts. It’s also why it makes for an ideal project car since it’s one of the most affordable 911s in the used car market.

1998 - 2004 Porsche 911 Carrera (996)
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Here’s where the fun lies. If the 996-gen 911 is so reviled, you have the opportunity to make it better on your own. Whether it’s replacing certain mechanical parts to make it run smoother or ditching its flat-six engine for a powertrain that’s more appropriate for a car that carries the 911 nameplate, there are a plethora of ways and avenues that you can go to in order to turn this version of Porsche’s iconic nameplate into a car that’s worthy of the 911 name.

Read our full review on the 996 Porsche 911

Ford Mustang Box Body

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I’m not particularly enamored with the third-generation Ford Mustang, aka the Box Body, but I do recognize the appeal it brings as an ideal project car. Make no mistake, the third-gen Mustang was justifiably maligned for all of its faults as much as it was loved for what it brought to the muscle car table. But the whole point of this is to showcase the ‘Stang’s appeal as a project car, and, in that sense, the Box Body holds a lot of weight.

For starters, Ford built the third-generation Mustang with a lot of engine options so you’re not going to be challenged in coming up with a suitable engine that can address your need for power and performance.

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It already has a 5.0-liter V-8 engine that produces 122 horsepower. If you’re not happy with that kind of power, there are engine swaps available that could help you net the kind of power and performance you want from your project car.

On top of that, there are aesthetic liberties that you can take to give your project ‘Stang a look that’s more up to the times. Parts and equipment are available, too, provided you know where to look for them.

Subaru Legacy GT

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A station wagon that can double as an intriguing project car? Surely someone must be kidding, right? I’m inclined to say so unless we’re talking about the Subaru Legacy GT.

Despite carrying the “Legacy” nameplate, the Legacy GT actually shares a lot of its components — the powertrain being one of them — with the Impreza STI.

Granted, they’re still two different vehicles, but the Legacy GT still comes with a powerful turbocharged boxer engine and Subie’s famous all-wheel-drive system. These two components already make an impressive foundation for a project car, but that’s not all the Legacy offers, either.

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There are a lot of things you can do with a station wagon as a project car. You can get creative with the car’s design by adding some aerodynamic pieces into the mix to make it livelier to the eyes. Throw in an interior that’s already put together nicely and, just like that, the Legacy GT’s appeal as a project car becomes that much more evident.

Nissan 240SX

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Fans of Fast and Furious: Tokyo Drift continue to lament the missed opportunity that came with not getting fully-specced Nissan Silvia models in the U.S. But if you’re the creative type who thinks you can build your own Silvia using a 240SX as a substitute, then, by all means, go for it.

For what it’s worth, the 240SX will never be looked at the same way as the iconic Silvia, but that’s beside the point.

The objective of using a 240SX as a platform for a project car isn’t to replicate the Silvia, but to offer the kind of driving — and drifting — experience you’d expect to get from the “Mona Lisa of Drifting.”
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On its own, the Silvia is a simple and reliable car that offers excellent handling to go with an affordable price. It might not take after its Japanese counterpart as far as acclaim is concerned, but the 240SX serves a purpose as an ideal project car for those who can’t get their hands on an OG Silvia. There are enough ways to turn the 240SX into a show-off tuner or a performance fiend without having to burn holes in your pockets.

Mazda Miata

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The Mazda MX-5 Miata is one of the finest lightweight sports cars in the market. It also happens to be one of the most affordable ones as well so it’s not hard to find a used MX-5 for a price that won’t turn your finances upside down.

This combination makes the MX-5 an ideal project car for those who are looking for a lightweight, rear-wheel-drive roadster that produces enough power to keep your blood flowing.

Used MX-5 models are cheap. They’re also easily modified to fit your taste and preference. The performance fiends among you can drop a big engine and turn the MX-5 into a pocket rocket on four wheels. Those among you who prefer the experience of driving a robust roadster that can handle corners without sweating can improve the MX-5’s credentials in those departments.

2005 Mazda MX-5 Miata
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Simply put, you won’t run out of ways to make the MX-5 the project car of your dreams. All you need is decent funding and a good imagination before you’re off the races.

Read our full review on the 2005 Mazda MX-5 Miata.

Acura Integra

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In the world of front-wheel-drive sports cars, there aren’t that many models out there that boast the kind of affection that people have for the Acura Integra.

It’s not as much of a unicorn as its high-powered variant, the Integra Type-R, but the Integra is sought after for all the reasons that make it an intriguing platform for a project car.

First of all, used versions of the Acura Integra are cheap. Most of the models you’ll see have three-figure mileage, but some aren’t as beat up that you can buy for less than $5,000. Now, buying a used Integra is just the first step to building the project car of your dreams.

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You’re going to have to buy parts and equipment, too, for your new ride. On that end, factory parts are not only cheap, but they’re also widely available on the market. Settle those important purchases and you should be on your way to creating a project car that also happens to have a unique styling, a peppy engine, and the credentials of a nameplate that’s regarded in the car world as one of the best front-wheel-drive sports cars ever built.

Read our full review on the 2001 Acura Integra

Mitsubishi Lancer

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There’s a reason why the Mitsubishi Lancer is on this list. Mitsubishi’s four-door sedan may be more popularly known for its rally-racing achievements and its high-performance Evo alter ego, but what most people forget is that the Lancer road car wasn’t a pansy on the block.

In its heyday, it was held in high regard for its all-wheel-drive capabilities as much as its tuning potential. The latter is what makes the Lancer a great project car.
2003 Mitsubishi Lancer Evo VIII
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It’s easily adaptable to suit a variety of tuning setups and the cost of owning a used Lancer is cheap enough that buying one will barely make a dent in most people’s wallets. You can set up a Lancer is so many ways that you might as well just go buy a used model now and get started building your project car.

Read our full review on the 2003 Mitsubishi Lancer

Kirby Garlitos
Automotive Aftermarket Expert - kirby@topspeed.com
Kirby’s first exposure into the world of automobiles happened when he caught Knight Rider on television as a five-year old boy. David Hasselhoff didn’t leave much of an impression on him (that happened later on in Baywatch), but KITT certainly did. To this day, Kirby remains convinced that he will one day own a car with the same ‘spirit’ as the original KITT (not the 2008 monstrosity). He doesn't know when that will be, but until then, he’s committed to expressing his love for KITT, and all cars for that matter, here at TopSpeed.  Read More
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