Written by David S. Wallens
From the June 2007 issue
Posted in Shop Work
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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