Sometimes we need a place to escape to at the end of the day, somewhere far from the reach of the rest of the world, where work, school, family, friends, and stress are forbidden, and in their place rests a way to unwind. Maybe that’s why so many of our fellow millennials find solace behind a video game controller: They can focus on something challenging just long enough to forget the world around them. But for some of us, sitting in front of a screen for a few hours at the end of every day sounds like torture – we’re already glued to a screen eight hours a day for work anyway. Instead, we seek refuge within the confines of a garage, where turning a wrench or two and sipping a cold beer offer the respite we crave after a long day at the office.
A while back, we did a piece on 12 inexpensive project cars, which turned out to be a surprise hit. So we’ve decided to break it down even more, and take the time to focus on American, European, and Asian budget builds individually, so that you can better pursue a direction that works best for your budget and style of driving.
So let’s start with the American side of the story, and as Americans we feel that it’s our civic duty to uphold the time-honored tradition of heavily-modified V8s, loud exhausts, and whitewall tires. OK, maybe not all at once, but you get the picture.
Some readers might cry foul over us excluding a certain car, or that we unfairly forgot to mention a model that “kicked more ass than others,” but quite frankly we aren’t too worried. This list is designed to inspire the person who’s looking for a reason to get in the garage, but might need a splash of direction to get things started. So if you’re a hardcore car modifier, or a dedicated junkyard junkie, now might be the time to hit the forums, because this is more of an inspirational cheat sheet than a bonafide “how to” write-up.
That said, here are five inexpensive American project cars worth your time.
1. A ferocious little Fiero
With its plastic body panels, two-seat cockpit, and a mid-engine, rear-wheel drive layout, the Pontiac Fiero sounds like it could have been an American supercar for the ages. Sadly it wasn’t meant to be, as the designers at GM decided to make the Fiero more of a commuter car than a performer, outfitting the wedge-shaped wonder with either an underwhelming 2.5- or 2.8-liter engine. Fortunately, the engine bay was originally designed to hold a V8, so isn’t uncommon today to see a small block V8 or supercharged 3800 Series II motor under the hood instead.
Just be sure to pick-up an ’88 model, as it was the best (and last) year for the Fiero, thanks to bigger brakes and a sportier suspension. Also note that this car also shares numerous part numbers with other GM offerings, so sourcing components are typically inexpensive and readily available. Because it’s found such a strong cult following, online forums like Pennock’s Fiero Forum have given a new generation of enthusiasts mountains of advice on upgrades.
2. Mud-churning Jeep Cherokee
Dustin Hobbie of Cincinnati-based All-Terrain Outfitters has been taking his Jeep Cherokee all over the east coast in search of the ultimate off-road adventure, and quite frankly he’s yet to find it – because his truck has yet to meet a rock it won’t climb. Hobbie tells us that pretty much any generation of Jeep Cherokee works if you want to hit some serious trails, so to save some dough, grab an older model that’s in decent cosmetic shape, then concern yourself with making sure that it’s in good mechanical order.
After finding your Jeep (decent ones can still be had for a few grand), start by doing any engine repairs needed to keep it as reliable as possible, buy a transmission cooler and auxiliary fan to keep the differentials and drivetrain from overheating, then maybe pick-up a racing seat to better keep you strapped in if things get a bit “vertical.” Suspension-wise, a well-reviewed lift kit is a great place to begin, but don’t forget to include any appropriate bump stops and limit straps to keep the truck’s geometry in check.
3. The stinkin’ Lincoln
For decades, the Lincoln Continental has been a go-to for guys who want a chunk of Detroit steel for a great price, and since many models can easily be upgraded with modern amenities, it’s not uncommon to find them already upgraded with better electronics and AC at a fair price. You can still find rough ones from the ’60s and ’70s for cheap, but since’s there’s plenty of room to work with, almost anything is possible with these big boys.
Naturally, this all depends on what direction you want to go with the car, and while there are quite a few classic Continentals on eBay for under 10 grand, it’s good to remember that a true project car doesn’t always arrive on your doorstep running, and that saving a few grand on a gutted version might help you afford that Ford crate motor and airbag suspension you want down the line.
4. One foxy Mustang
The 1980s were a strange time, and in retrospect many Americans realize now that the days of Apple II computers, synthesized, cocaine-powered pop music, and fountains of hair spray have left left us with little more than an ass-ton of crappy cars and a massive CFC-riddled hole in the ozone layer. But not everything from the ’80s was complete crap, because even though it may look dated, the 1987-’93 Ford Mustang is still a fantastic platform to build on.
Whether you want to keep the original 5.0 V8, or upgrade to a modern supercharged monster, the amount of support and interest for the third generation Mustang knows no bounds. Since it was a popular body style, finding one in good running order for under 10 grand is quite doable – just be sure to look the car over thoroughly for body work if it seems modified at all, as many of these cars have seen damage over the years due to ill-advised fits of “Mustang Machismo.”
5. Ye’ olde Heavy Chevy truck
People love to talk about how hardcore their new trucks are, or how they’re so tech-savvy because they can interface with your smart phone while choosing the best route to the store for a six pack of IPA. But some of us don’t need any of that; all we need in a truck is a bench seat so our baby can ride next to us, a bed big enough to haul a couch without incident, and good enough looks to make us want to cruise around town on weekends. If you’re saying “hell yeah” to this, then you should take a look at the Chevy C-10, as you can find a lot of truck for cheap while getting that timeless styling we all know and love.
While this model truck ran from 1960s all the way up until 2002, the earlier ones offer the most charm for the money. But if aesthetics aren’t your thing, and you’re looking for brute force, look to the fourth generation, as 7.4-liter V8s and 6.5-liter turbo diesels were options for anyone wanting more power than character.