Dirty Dozen: Twelve Great Project Car Platforms

[Editor's Note: This article ran originally in our June 2007 edition. Some information, pricing, or car availabilty has changed.]

Let’s get one thing straight: Not every car is going to be rehashed in a single weekend. If you’re dreaming of investing a couple of days in a rust-to-race track rebuild, you might want to wake up. 

The key is to start with the right car in the right condition—something new enough to be solid, but still old enough to have completely depreciated in value. For the most part, we’re talking about cars that are about 15 or 20 years old.

Since the salvage yard is going to be your friend during this project, it’s also easier to rehash something built in large numbers—or at least a model that’s based on something very common. Sure, you can probably score a decent Mitsubishi Starion hood on eBay, but then you have to get the thing shipped—and that means a nice bill from a trucking company. Save the bucks and get some exercise; go visit your closest salvage yard, and they’ll likely have the same part for a Civic, BMW 3 Series or VW Golf in stock. 

Here are a dozen cars that can make easy resto projects. All of them were built in large enough numbers that they’re common on today’s market for two grand or less. They’re also all on the simple side, meaning most work can be done in the garage. And when done, each of them makes a great daily driver or fun weekend toy.

BMW 325i: 1987-’91

None

We discovered something about these cars when building our Spec E30 project: It doesn’t pay to convert an economy-minded 325e to 325i specs. We paid $1500 for our 325i and drove it home. There are more deals like that out there.

pro: Well, it’s a BMW. 
con: Interiors seem kind of dated. 
buying advice: Make sure that the limited-slip diff is present and operating. The engines are bulletproof so long as the timing belts are regularly changed.  
insider information: For increased caster, order a set of M3 control arm bushings. The 4.10:1 final drive from a 318is will help off-the-line scoot.

Dodge/Plymouth Neon: 1995-’99

None

Dodge’s race-ready package for the Neon turned this humble car into a track star. Can’t find one of these ACR cars? Then get a regular model and start shopping; all of the performance parts can easily be found at salvage yards or online.

pro: Light, inexpensive and common.  
con: Can be a little fragile.  
buying advice: Looking at a Neon that seems sluggish? Replacing the plugs and wires might be the answer. Neons are known for cooking their plug wires.  
insider information: Replacing all of the suspension and shifter bushings can totally rejuvenate a Neon. At a minimum, do the front control arm bushings.

Chevy Camaro and Pontiac Firebird: 1982-’92

None

Ever shop for Camaro parts? Summit Racing alone shows 5033 different parts for a 1990 Camaro—and that’s not counting all the killer deals out there on used stuff. These cars are the 15-pound sledge of our world: cheap and effective.

pro: Fast.  
con: Not cheap to reshoe.  
buying advice: GM both glued and welded the unibodies together starting in 1991. The end result was a stiffer tub that can make a better starting point. 
insider information: The weakest link in the 1982-’92 Camarobird is the five-speed gearbox. The 1988-and-up cars came with the better World Class box.

Ford Escort GT: 1991-’96

None

Many people forget that Ford made a sporty version of their Escort. The Escort GT features a capable suspension, 15-inch alloys and a delightful twin-cam Mazda engine. Put the same basic package in a sedan, and you have the Mazda Protegé LX.

pro: Low demand equals low prices.  
con: Motorized seat belts.  
buying advice: Not all Escorts and Protegés are created equal: You definitely want one of the twin-cam, 1.8-liter cars.  
insider information: For low-buck, sporty struts, order the Escort ZX2 S/R Tokicos from Ford Racing for $199 complete. You’ll also need the ZX2 strut bearings.

Ford Mustang: 1979-’93

None

See our Camaro/Firebird entry and replace 5033 parts with 3403. That’s still a lot of go-fast bits for one of the most popular performance cars of all time. The hatchback models are a little more practical, while the notchbacks are said to be stiffer.

pro: Fast. 
con: Wacky suspension geometry.
buying advice: Ford made some big improvements halfway through the ’80s, with the cams, heads, induction, rear ends and transmissions all eventually upgraded. 
insider information: By now, most all Fox Mustangs will need new steering rack bushings. Offset bushings will help correct bumpsteer problems on lowered cars.

Honda Civic and CRX: 1988-’95

None

Honda’s Civic and CRX models are the ’69 Camaro and ’32 Ford of today: Everyone makes hop-up parts for them, and the cars have potential to seemingly do it all. Just about every possible engine swap has already been engineered for you.

pro: Huge aftermarket, huge potential, tiny gas bills. 
con: Good examples still fetch strong money. 
buying advice: The Si models are heavier and command a bigger premium, but that gets you more power, bigger brakes and a nice sunroof. 
insider information: The mechanical components seem to last forever, but these cars can rust around the rear wheel wells; the CRX Si sunroofs also rust.

Mazda Miata: 1990-’97

None

The Miata has become the universal answer for almost any question posed on the GRM message board. Name a fun car. Miata. What’s a good autocrosser? Miata. Tell me what to buy next. Miata. Parts, cars and advice are usually only a mouse click away.

pro: Top goes down. 
con: Make sure you fit. 
buying advice: Most of the sub-$2000 Miatas are of the 1.6-liter variety, which were built up until 1993. The 1994-’97 cars came with a 1.8.  
insider information: Pretty much all used Miatas need a new clutch slave cylinder—it’s a $30 part that’s easy to replace.

Nissan 240SX: 1989-’94

None

Even if you’re not a drifter, the 240SX makes a neat ride. While some say the U.S.-market 240SX was a little underpowered, it’s still a sporty, practical, great-looking car. The hatchback models can easily swallow bicycles, furniture and other sizable stuff.

pro: Practical, great looks. 
con: 12-valve cars are sluggish. 
buying advice: The 1989-’90 240SX received a 12-valve, 140-horsepower engine. Go for models from ’91 and up, when the 16-valve, 155-horsepower engine became standard.  
insider information: The stock engine not hot enough? Popular swaps include Chevy V8s and the SR20-spec turbo engines fitted to the Japanese-market models.

Nissan Sentra SE-R: 1991-’94

None

The Sentra SE-R came from the factory with the brakes, power and gearbox needed to get the job done. Replacement parts are now as close as any base-model Sentra or Infiniti G20. Too boxy? You can now buy a 200SX SE-R for less than $3000.

pro: Nice alternative to a Civic. 
con: Smallish aftermarket support.  
buying advice: When checking out a potential buy, make sure the tranny will stay in fifth. We have also seen a lot of rusty door jambs and bad paint. 
insider information: The Sentra chassis is on the flimsy side. Chassis strengthening mods should be on your to-do list, including strut bars.

Saab 900: 1979-’93

None

If you’re after something that’s tougher than dirt, extremely practical and a little more interesting than the standard econobox, look no further than the Saab 900. Production stretched into three decades and included sedans, convertibles and hatchbacks.

pro: Different but long production cycle.  
con: Transmissions are fragile. 
buying advice: Watch for rust behind the fender liners as leaks can develop and go unnoticed for quite some time. 
insider information: The automatic transmission is terrible and will break. Buy a stick, or convert an automatic to a stick if possible. 

Saturn: 1991-2002

None

Here’s the sleeper on our list: the twin-cam Saturns. GM’s newest nameplate turned out zillions of these cars. For those looking for performance, we’d have to recommend the twin-cam, five-speed setup—it was put into coupes, sedans and even the wagon.

pro: Dent-resistant body. 
con: Tiny aftermarket support. 
buying advice: Our pick for the ultimate Saturn SC2 coupe would be the 1997 model; it was the only time Saturn offered the coupe with ABS and four-wheel discs. 
insider information: Some twin-cam Saturn engines used too much oil, so they were rebuilt under warranty. These rebuilt engines seem to be aging just fine.

VW Golf: 1985-’92

None

A1-chassis Rabbits are cool, but the supply is drying up. The A3 cars never really caught on with enthusiasts in mass numbers. The A2 VW, however, is a blank canvas for mods, much like the Honda Civic. If you have ever wanted to build an A2 Golf, now is the time. 

pro: Practical, common, huge aftermarket.  
con: Beware of electrical problems.  
buying advice: As far as reliability goes, 1985 and 1986 seem to be the best two years. The later GTIs did come with the cool big bumpers, however. 
insider information: For a relatively easy engine swap, check out the 2.0-liter ABA block from an A3 Golf. Later cars can also donate bigger brakes.

Join Free Join our community to easily find more BMW, Chevrolet, Dodge, Ford, Honda, Mazda, Nissan, Plymouth, Pontiac, Saab, Saturn and Volkswagen articles.
Comments
View comments on the GRM forums
Jordan Rimpela
Jordan Rimpela Digital Editor
9/17/19 9:59 a.m.

Ah, Saab. Wish you were still here. 

Robbie
Robbie UltimaDork
9/17/19 10:03 a.m.

this is just a list of basically my favorite cars of all time. What is wrong with me?

Jordan Rimpela
Jordan Rimpela Digital Editor
9/17/19 10:11 a.m.
Robbie said:

this is just a list of basically my favorite cars of all time. What is wrong with me?

Nothing, my good sir, nothing. 

Dusterbd13-michael
Dusterbd13-michael MegaDork
9/17/19 10:14 a.m.

I have owned five on that list. 3 of them exact same color and option package as the pictures. 

Am i being stalked? Or do i just have great taste in cars?

Robbie
Robbie UltimaDork
9/17/19 10:21 a.m.
Dusterbd13-michael said:

I have owned five on that list. 3 of them exact same color and option package as the pictures. 

Am i being stalked? Or do i just have great taste in cars?

Ha! I just had to go count after this comment. I've also had 5. Plus two more REALLY close ones like a 99 Saab and a VW fox instead of a golf. 

Powar
Powar UltraDork
9/17/19 10:30 a.m.
Jordan Rimpela said:

Ah, Saab. Wish you were still here. 

Same.

I've had at least one example of six of the cars on the list and still have examples of three of them. I like this list.

Cooter
Cooter UltraDork
9/17/19 11:05 a.m.

I've had 9 cars on that list.

Unfortunately, they are all Saturns...

Keith Tanner
Keith Tanner MegaDork
9/17/19 11:23 a.m.
David S. Wallens said:

The key is to start with the right car in the right condition—something new enough to be solid, but still old enough to have completely depreciated in value. For the most part, we’re talking about cars that are about 15 or 20 years old.

Might want to take another look at the calendar. The newest car on your list is 17 years old and the majority of them went out of production a quarter century ago. Of course, the article is 12 years old so maybe we should be more worried about that wink I'm going to say the answers have changed. E30 and NA Miata prices are on the way up - E36s and NBs are probably more appropriate answers now, or maybe even NC Miatas. And seriously, are there any running Escort GTs and Neons left?

As for cars on the list, I own four. Granted, it's four copies of the same car, but that counts, right? 

alfadriver
alfadriver MegaDork
9/17/19 11:33 a.m.
Keith Tanner said:
David S. Wallens said:

The key is to start with the right car in the right condition—something new enough to be solid, but still old enough to have completely depreciated in value. For the most part, we’re talking about cars that are about 15 or 20 years old.

Might want to take another look at the calendar. The newest car on your list is 17 years old and the majority of them went out of production a quarter century ago. Of course, the article is 12 years old so maybe we should be more worried about that wink I'm going to say the answers have changed. E30 and NA Miata prices are on the way up - E36s and NBs are probably more appropriate answers now, or maybe even NC Miatas. And seriously, are there any running Escort GTs and Neons left?

As for cars on the list, I own four. Granted, it's four copies of the same car, but that counts, right? 

Probably better to just suggest an update.  For sure, swap the Escort for Focus- or something like that.  But a lot has been added and subtracted (based on availability) from that list in 12 years.

MazdaFace
MazdaFace Dork
9/17/19 11:37 a.m.

Yea an updated list would be pretty cool. Swap escort for focus, e30 for e46, put the sn95 mustangs on there. 

Jordan Rimpela
Jordan Rimpela Digital Editor
9/17/19 11:40 a.m.

In reply to Keith Tanner :

You can blame me. This article is... older. And while the Escorts and Neons might be light on the ground, they're still out there. But it's definitely a list worth revisiting. 

MadScientistMatt
MadScientistMatt PowerDork
9/17/19 12:21 p.m.
Keith Tanner said:
And seriously, are there any running Escort GTs and Neons left?

I think my co-workers stockpiled the lot of the Escort GTs (and 323s, MX3s, etc) for Chump Car.

Vigo
Vigo MegaDork
9/17/19 12:23 p.m.

Generally speaking the newer equivalents gained power roughly commensurate with their weight gain, but of course tires and brakes get a little more expensive. 

The F-body upgrade is huge. A 4th gen goes circles around a 3rd gen until you get pretty far from stock.

On the other hand, the 2nd gen Neon is just...worse than the 1st gen. Unless you get an SRT4. devil

BoxheadTim
BoxheadTim MegaDork
9/17/19 12:24 p.m.

I apparently don't belong in this crowd, I've only owned 5 out of the twelve.

Jordan Rimpela
Jordan Rimpela Digital Editor
9/17/19 12:39 p.m.

In reply to BoxheadTim :

Well I've owned zero. I've had Volvos instead of Saabs and Mercedes-Benzes instead of BMWs, but that's as close as I get. 

Jordan Rimpela
Jordan Rimpela Digital Editor
9/17/19 12:49 p.m.

Here's a cool update on what the Camaro used for the lead image looks like today from the same owner:

Tyler H
Tyler H UberDork
9/17/19 12:56 p.m.

I remember this article from the mag...seems like ~10 years ago.  What a difference a decade makes.  The pedestrian entries on the list almost don't exist any more, and the rest are classics and have appreciated.  

When was the last time anyone saw a clean SE-R, Protoge or Escort GT?

RevRico
RevRico PowerDork
9/17/19 12:58 p.m.
Jordan Rimpela said:

In reply to BoxheadTim :

Well I've owned zero. I've had Volvos instead of Saabs and Mercedes-Benzes instead of BMWs, but that's as close as I get. 

I thought you got a miata as a sign on bonus at GRM? 

Jordan Rimpela
Jordan Rimpela Digital Editor
9/17/19 12:59 p.m.
RevRico said:
Jordan Rimpela said:

In reply to BoxheadTim :

Well I've owned zero. I've had Volvos instead of Saabs and Mercedes-Benzes instead of BMWs, but that's as close as I get. 

I thought you got a miata as a sign on bonus at GRM? 

They were out of stock. I got a Mercedes instead!

spacecadet
spacecadet Dork
9/17/19 1:18 p.m.
Keith Tanner said:
David S. Wallens said:

The key is to start with the right car in the right condition—something new enough to be solid, but still old enough to have completely depreciated in value. For the most part, we’re talking about cars that are about 15 or 20 years old.

Might want to take another look at the calendar. The newest car on your list is 17 years old and the majority of them went out of production a quarter century ago. Of course, the article is 12 years old so maybe we should be more worried about that 

That explains a bunch of why it felt old. I didn't catch the date first time I read it earlier. These were/are all good cars. But my first thought was how bad parts availability will be for some of these. 

Having owned an EF, you can find some parts easily. But hard parts are getting more difficult to source and moving to a EG or really an EK chassis is the best choice just for the support level still available from those double wishbone cars. 

The 8th gen civics I would argue are the new Honda hot ticket for a cheap project/track day car. Hondata makes a tuner for the R18 and there's parts for them on the aftermarket like crazy. 

Thinking domestics, the early MK3 focus are starting to hit the lower end of the depreciation curve and because of the RS and the ST there's a bunch of aftermarket support for the chassis. 

I realize I own the performance versions of both the 8th gen civic and the Focus MK3 so I'm a bit biased. But they're capable. 

Its too bad the early Mazda3 had so many rust issues. They'd feel like a good Grassroots candidate to me as well. 

 

pinchvalve
pinchvalve MegaDork
9/17/19 1:53 p.m.

Where's the list of terrible platforms to start from?  We need to start saving these kids from their Scion TCs and Grand Ams!

If you are updating the list, consider the Cobalt SS in place of the Neon. It was a hell of a platform, there is support out there, and its reasonably priced. You can get it NA, super, or turbocharged in 2 door or 4 door.

Streetwiseguy
Streetwiseguy MegaDork
9/17/19 1:59 p.m.

I currently own three of the cars on that list.  One I bought new, and another I own four versions.

GCrites80s
GCrites80s Reader
9/17/19 8:41 p.m.
Vigo said:

 

The F-body upgrade is huge. A 4th gen goes circles around a 3rd gen until you get pretty far from stock.

 

An '82 vs. a 2002, yes. An '87-'92 5.7 car vs. a '93-'96 not so much.

Vigo
Vigo MegaDork
9/17/19 9:10 p.m.

An '87-'92 5.7 car vs. a '93-'96 not so much.

Maybe a track with no straightaways? Or, if you put a  self-imposed 4500rpm rev limit on an LT1 then i'm sure it's no faster than a 5.7 TPI car.  I think that's called the Lemons Limiter because nobody can keep an SBC alive in Lemons if they actually rev it, right? angel

In all seriousness i don't see where you're coming from. I also dont think in stock form an LS1 fbody is that much faster than an LT1 Fbody. They're certainly closer together than the LT1 car is to the TPI car.

Streetwiseguy
Streetwiseguy MegaDork
9/17/19 9:30 p.m.

Seems like an ideal time to search up the video of the 1982 road test where a shiny new Z28 stomped all over a shiny new 928 on a road race track.

 

Sk1dmark
Sk1dmark New Reader
9/18/19 7:28 a.m.

Ha! Between me and my close friends we've owned all of these cars save for the Escort GT and the  Neon, and all have been absolutely incredible to drive and modify. Wonderful list, and helpful write-up for sure.

darkbuddha
darkbuddha HalfDork
9/18/19 10:06 a.m.

I was surprised by this list when I first read through it; not because of the cars, but because it sounded like GOOD old GRM.  Then I caught the article's date.  Yeah, a bit outdated in more ways than one.  I do miss the days of the magazine truly embracing bottomed-out-depreciation cars as good content, but I understand why that's changed.  But to the point of updating this list, I humbly offer my suggestions for alternatives in today's market:

1)  BMW e30  —>  BMW e36 and e46 (non-M cars)

2)  Dodge Neon  —>  2000s Celica GTS

3)  3rd gen Camaro/Firebird  —>  3rd or 4th gen Camaro/Firebird

4)  Escort GT  —>  Focus SVT

5)  Fox body Mustang  —>  SN95 or new edge Mustang

6)  Civic/CRX  —>  2000s era Civic/Si

7)  Miata  —>  Miata (because Miata is always the answer, right?)

8)  Nissan 240sx  —>  Nissan 350z

9)  Sentra SE-R  —>  Mazda 2

10)  Saab 900  —>  Saab 9-3 aero is the obvious choice, but the BMW z3 is a better one

11) Saturn  —>  Saturn Ion

12)  Mk2 Golf  —>  Mk5 Golf


 

GCrites80s
GCrites80s Reader
9/18/19 10:26 a.m.

You'd think autocross would be a Z3 festival, but it didn't turn out that way. I've never run one but I have driven one on the street and it seemed like it had all the ingredients.

Rob357
Rob357 New Reader
9/18/19 10:28 a.m.

I  have had 5 Saturns. Two of them were the 1997 SC2 with four wheel disc brakes.

Fun cars for the money. Just replaced one with the 2019 Honda Civic Si Coupe.

If memory serves, the 97 SC2 won the SCCA in its class back then. I remember seeing it trounce the Hondas, at the Reno Grand Prix.

Update might include the Saturn Ion Redline with competition package , I wish I had not let mine go.

Rob

captdownshift
captdownshift PowerDork
9/18/19 11:33 a.m.
MadScientistMatt said:
Keith Tanner said:
And seriously, are there any running Escort GTs and Neons left?

I think my co-workers stockpiled the lot of the Escort GTs (and 323s, MX3s, etc) for Chump Car.

Nah I have a BG chassis collection as well. Protege lxs are still out there in numbers for BPs

chaparral
chaparral Dork
9/18/19 12:17 p.m.

I think a new version of this list would have to include the C5 Corvette.

MadScientistMatt
MadScientistMatt PowerDork
9/18/19 12:29 p.m.
chaparral said:

I think a new version of this list would have to include the C5 Corvette.

C4s are quite a bargain too, if a bit outgunned by the C5.

Jordan Rimpela
Jordan Rimpela Digital Editor
9/18/19 1:59 p.m.

In reply to darkbuddha :

It's older, sure, but the cars on the original list can still be found for a song. Yeah, okay, not as easily, but they are out there, especially here in Florida.  But you can bet that a new list is something that can happen. 

darkbuddha
darkbuddha HalfDork
9/18/19 3:11 p.m.

In reply to Jordan Rimpela :

I agree that we're a but spoiled with bargains here in Florida, but I've also noticed that prices for decent fox bodies, e30s, early Miatas, and 240sx have definitely picked up in recent years.  But you're right that cheap ones are still out there if you're willing to start with something sunbaked and a bit beat.  My thought was that the cars on the list should be just a couple bolt-ons away from being ready-to-run without too much rehab work. IMHO, that's just a tough ask of any normally used car pushing 30 yrs old.

captdownshift
captdownshift PowerDork
9/18/19 6:42 p.m.

For rallycrossing fun the OG list is still better than new suggestions. Suspension travel was still a thing in the early 90s and 14" and 15" wheels that can fit proper gravel rubber is a huge plus. 

 

The OG list is a reminder that IT class racing is a lot of fun. 

Our Preferred Partners
2sqFJx86nAgf9jvUF9pds1CbJxo6LVyOdQSZv3BPp2UpAzkAQ6C9724xRdENSzgp