Top Picks for Project Cars

Top Picks for Project Cars

Last Updated August 8, 2023 | Meghan Drummond

Defining what makes a great project car can be challenging. Most enthusiasts would say that great project cars have a few common factors: Strong aftermarket support, potential to improve performance, and easy to work on. This last reason is why most project cars are pre-1996.

In 1996, on-board diagnostic (OBD) sensors became a standard feature. This can make the initial engine work more challenging, but some people prefer post-1996 model years for project cars. Though the OBD’s initial use was diagnostics and emissions control, it turns out it’s an easy way to tune your car. Though it requires an aftermarket tuner, this can make some performance modifications more efficient. It does usually increase cost though.

For beginners looking for project cars, older engine and transmission types tend to be easier to work on and only require basic tools. If these vehicles have stood the test of time, then it’s safe to say there’s a network of people who know how to work on them. This means it won’t be too hard to find help if you need it.

Cars in salvage yards can be cheap project cars. Many salvage car titles can change to rebuilt, though they may require a more experienced wrencher to reach their full potential.

Other factors may make a project car a better fit for you than others. While some love a good project off-roader, others are looking for a tiny tuner car they can disguise as a sleeper. There are a lot of contenders for the best project car title. While there’s no clear winner, these are some of our favorites for the top project car categories.

Pony Project Cars

A bright teal Fox Body Mustang in front of a building

We may be a little biased, but let’s face it; the Mustang is known for being a great project car. Many tuners learn to wrench on Mustangs and they can have an inexpensive entry point.

Mustangs are great project cars partially because it’s easy to find parts. Another reason is that there’s a huge network of Mustang enthusiasts. The community loves sharing their projects and helping people who are new to the world of performance cars.

Fox Body Mustangs have been the go-to project car recommendation for Mustang enthusiasts for a long time now. While Foxes are still great if you can find one, the S197s are really coming into their own as a project car choice.

It’s easy to find S197s and SN95s at a great price point, and they have more safety features than older Mustangs. Though they’re more modern, a huge network of Mustang enthusiasts can provide a wealth of knowledge for the best ways to tune these engines. The modern setup also makes them great candidates for engine swaps, like the popular New Edge Coyote Swap.

Mustangs are our pony car of choice, and they have the advantage of being in continuous production for over fifty years. But most pony cars are easy to find and fun to work on. Challengers, Camaros, and Firebirds are all great project cars.

Through the years, pony cars’ body styles have evolved. This means there are great-looking options no matter what your pony car of choice is. You’ll have an easier time finding Mustangs just because they’ve been more popular over the years for a variety of reasons (all of which we support).

Don’t Forget Sibling Cars

For options that have great features at a lower price tag, don’t forget to look at “sibling cars.” For example, the Mercury Capri shares a platform with the Fox Body Mustang. There just happen to be far fewer people searching for “Mercury Capri.” The difference in demand makes it easier to get them at a good price point. This is especially funny because the Lincoln-Mercury division of Ford was supposed to be the more luxurious line. At the time they were sold, the Capri would have been seen as the more premium Fox Body Mustang.

Even classic pony cars have siblings. The 1971 Ford Maverick looks very similar to a 1971 Mustang. They even share many of the same parts! This means that while there aren’t many Maverick clubs, you still have great aftermarket support.

    Top Pony Car Project Choices:

  • Ford Mustang
  • Chevy Camaro
  • Dodge Challenger
  • Pontiac Firebird

Hot Hatch Project Cars

Dark Blue Focus ST on a gray day

Focuses, Fiestas, Fits, and other great cars that start with a letter other than “f.” There are a lot of hot hatches waiting for a great tune to reach their full potential. Not only are they fun to drive, but there are few cars as practical as a hatchback. These vehicles work great on autocross days, but also work as daily drivers that have a little flair.

Of course, we can’t forget to mention the VW Beetle, arguably the original sporty hatch. Not only were bugs abundant back in the day, but they’re also well-constructed and worth fixing up. The beetle didn’t have a lot of power at its time of creation. Though some would argue this makes it a “luke-warm” hatch, it’s a light car with a lot of potential. Because the VW Beetle has the smallest hatch out of these, it’s the least practical. But it definitely has enough style to make up for it.

If you love the idea of a Volkswagen but want more power, a Volkswagen Golf or Rabbit is a great hot hatch option. These are popular, which can make them hard to find. On the plus side, they have more powerful stock options and a larger hatch.

Brand Name Is Important

Hot hatch project cars are practical and fun. There are countless hatches, from the well-known to the obscure. When selecting a hatch project, it’s important to think about the availability of aftermarket parts. If you’re a master fabricator, you may not care about the ease of buying parts. For those of us without welding gear, it’s an important consideration.

There are some incredible (and affordable) hatches that have had short runs. Despite that, we recommend hatches from brands that are still manufacturing other vehicles. This will make it easier to find cross-compatible parts.

    Top Project Hatchback Picks:

  • Ford Focus
  • Honda Fit
  • Volkswagen Golf
  • Ford Festiva
  • Volkswagen Bug

Small and Light Project Cars

Bright teal Mazda Miata in front of trees

Small, light tuner cars are fun to drive, great as sleepers, and capable of speed. This makes them a popular category of project car. Honda Civics are the go-to recommendation for this category, and if you’re feeling lucky, you could always try to find a Nissan Skyline. Don’t forget some of the other less-memorable (but equally fantastic) vehicles in this category.

Toyota Echos weren’t very popular at the time of sale. They all kind of look like they accidentally tapped a pole due to their strangely dimpled front panel. But Echos are small, light, and have the same easy to find parts as other Toyotas.

Older Toyota Corollas are another great pick. They have the same vintage look that makes so many other Toyotas (like the Supra or 86) desirable, but they’re a little easier to find. Just remember that many older Toyotas that eventually became front-wheel-drive started as rear-wheel. This can either be a bonus or a drawback depending on what your intended usage is.

Mitsubishi Eclipses are another great project car. Besides being inexpensive and easy to work on, they’re capable of significant improvement with only moderate tuning. Because these were popular when they were being sold new, they’re also easy to come by. Though these are post-1996, they’re enough fun to justify working with the OBD.

It’s amazing that Subarus make it onto so many project car lists. Subarus tend to hold onto their value, which means they’re among the more expensive project cars you can find. That said, they can provide a lot of value depending on the options they came from the factory with. The Subaru Imprezas, particularly the WRX variants, are prized cars in enthusiast communities. Most Imprezas can be on both the hot hatch and small-light tuner lists since they come in both body styles.

Is a Miata Always the Right Choice?

Of course, the number one pick you’ll see recommended for small, light cars that are fun to drive is a Mazda Miata. These little cars deserve their reputation; they’re among the least expensive and lightest cars around. Unfortunately, they do have some disadvantages that make them a poor fit for some.

Miatas are very small, which means a lot of tall drivers have found them to be uncomfortable. They also don’t have any storage options, so if you’re looking for a vehicle to be your one-and-only, a Miata is going to be a tough choice. They are favorites for a variety of reasons, and if you see one in your area you owe it to yourself to at least check it out.

    Top Small Project Car Picks:

  • Honda Civic
  • Mitsubishi Eclipse
  • Mazda Miata
  • Toyota Corolla
  • Subaru Impreza

Fun Vintage Project Cars

A classic bright red coupe

It’s hard to deny the appeal of a great classic car, and while vintage pony cars are our favorite, there are a lot of other great options. AMC made a wide variety of great vehicles, but most collectors favor the AMX. Javelins and Ramblers have also been made into great project cars by people who are drawn to their unique looks and fun colors.

Ford Model As and Ts may never win a drag competition, but that doesn’t make them any less fun to fix up and drive around. These cars are enjoyable to restore due to the simplicity of their inner mechanics. Once they’re fully functional, they’re sure to be popular at any automotive show. Though they’re significantly older, the popularity of these early cars makes it easy to find project-ready units in your vicinity.

Vintage Muscle

If you’re interested in some rumbling V8 power, then it’s worth it to check out some of the early muscle cars. A Pontiac GTO or Chevy Chevelle are both going to be great-looking powerful cars.

The Ford Falcon or Chevy Impala were also available with powerful options. These two vintage finds have many of the features people look for when they’re appraising the project-worthiness of a vehicle. Their vintage components make them easy to work on, and so many were sold that there’s an abundance of parts wherever you look. There are also countless guides detailing the process of restoring these classics.

    Top Vintage Project Car Picks:

  • Pontiac GTO
  • Chevy Impala
  • Ford Fairlane
  • AMC Rambler
  • Model Ts

Pickup a Project Truck

A light blue classic pickup with a patina of rust

F-100s and C10s have become popular buys for project trucks. These classics are abundant, easy to source parts for, and relatively inexpensive. They also offer exciting variety in terms of the finished project.

While some prefer to perfectly restore their pickup, there are many directions to go. Resto-mod trucks offer classic bones and looks, but with modern technology and safety upgrades like a relocated gas tank. Others prefer to go in a totally modern direction with their build.

Though F-100s and C10s are at the front of the pack when it comes to restoration candidates, don’t forget about other vintage pickups.

Small Pickups

Ford Rangers and F-150s are also relatively easy to come by. Chevy had the successful and feature-packed S10 and LUV series of pickups that are great for a restoration.

Toyota Tacomas were a late addition to the American pickup game. However, versions from the ‘90s have become popular candidates for restoration. The small size of these pickups makes them perfect for people who need a pickup occasionally but are put off by the aggressively large size of most modern pickups.

    Top Pickup Truck Project Picks:

  • Ford F-100
  • Chevy C10
  • Toyota Tacoma
  • Ford Ranger

Vintage Off-Roading Project Vehicles

A bright red Bronco with black trim

Modern off-roaders are incredible, with tons of options for accessories and powerful modifications. But there’s something about the vintage-appeal of older off-roaders that make them a great pick for project vehicles.

From rusted-out Jeeps to classic Broncos, the old style of off-roader was undeniably smaller than modern versions. The great thing about these vehicles is many of them used versions of parts available across their brand’s other vehicles. This makes it easy to source parts, and relatively inexpensive to boot.

Condition May Be a Factor

Because older off-roaders weren’t as comfortable for highway driving, most of the ones you’ll find were driven off-road. This will affect the overall condition.

While some damage may be part of the package, you will want to do a thorough check for damage that’s harder to repair. A GMC Jimmy or Chevy Blazer that’s scratched up or in need of new tires is a find. But if those scratches have rusted through it may change the equation.

You’ll want to do a thorough undercarriage check for rust and damage. Working on one of these as a project car is a challenge, but the results are unique and worth the effort.

    Top Off-Road Project Picks

  • Ford Bronco
  • Jeep Wrangler
  • GMC Jimmy
  • Chevy Blazer

Unique Project Cars

Ultimately, if you have a great vision for what you want a car to be, then any car can be a project car. These are some of the best options for people who are looking for cars that are easy to work on. If you have a more specific vision, then striking out into new project-car territory is an option.

Converting a Toyota Prius into an off-road monster didn’t come with a road map. And there weren’t guides for changing a first-generation Mustang into an electric vehicle. Then someone had an idea and a vehicle they loved. That’s more than enough to get started. If you’re a great idea-pioneer, you might be on your own. But most great project cars weren’t great until a few fantastic projects came from them.

Don’t be afraid to strike out on your own into untapped project car potential. Who knows, your great idea might become the next big project car category.

This article was researched, written, edited, and reviewed following the steps outlined in our editorial process. Learn more about CJ's editorial standards and guidelines.