That's it, I'm settling it once and for all. These "Best car for $5,000 or less" posts keep cropping up like some automotive variant of the Herpes Simplex virus so we decided to end it once and for all with an official Facebook poll. I left the poll open on the MNCEC Facebook group for 2 weeks, each of these cars got 30+ votes to rule out any statistical abnormalities, I bumped the poll every day or so to make sure people saw it and people were allowed to add their own entries as well.
While these are some of the best candidates for a cheap project car, you can't just go and buy just any car. Watch out for the usual red flags like excessive rust, poor quality modifications and poor maintenance. I will also add that it's always a good idea to pay for a carfax to see if the vehicle has had a rough life, avoid cars that have records of flood damage or have been on fire. If the car has been in an accident or been stolen, be extra cautious that there aren't any problems lurking under the surface.
So enough babbling, here are your votes on what the 5 Best Project Cars Under $5,000 are...
Honorable Mention: MK1 Volkswagen Golf/Jetta
I wanted to use the MK1 Golf/Jetta as the Honorable Mention because they're a perfect example of a car that is a great value-for-money project car. Just about every bolt for this car is available through aftermarket shops like MK1 Autohaus and there are endless approaches that can be had. People have built Mk1 Golfs for everything from show to rally. The Mk1 Golf is the '32 T-bucket of the euro community in regards to how iconic and prolific they are.
To date Hagerty values the average price at $5,200 for one in good condition however finding one in MN is usually the hardest part. The second hardest part is what bodystyle you want. Everything from a 3 door hatch, 5 door hatch, convertible, 2 door coupe, 4 door sedan and even a ute are available for you to pick from. There are so many variations with these cars, some people have never strayed away from this chassis. I mean can you blame them? They're basically an adult lego kit.
5.) C10 Chevrolet Pickup (Third Generation)
Although the earlier examples of the C10 are well above the $5k mark, a later model can still be had for a perfectly reasonable price. It's arguable that the pre-face lift trucks looked prettier, but there is something to be said for the stacked headlights of the later model trucks too. Regardless of the year, there was one thing that stayed true to these trucks, they were built to last and that they can still be had in good condition.
The Thrid Generation C10 Pickup was produced from 1973 until as late as 1991 in some markets. This makes for an incredibly strong aftermarket to this day and parts are widely available for restoration with entire parts catalogs dedicated to this chassis. The powerplant options were aplenty ranging from L6s to SBCs and the 454 big block V8. Due to parts interchangeability, the same techniques and parts used in most GM muscle car projects can make a C10 into a formidable drag or street truck. The main worry with these is finding a quality example, 30 years of Minnesotan winters can make these look like the Titanic. Check around the wheel wells, along the frame and behind the seats in the cabin for the most common rust spots.
4.) Honda Prelude BB4/BB6
During the forming years and golden age of the modern import movement, roughly 1993-2007, Honda tuners were experimenting with engine swaps for added power. One engine in particular earned the name "The Honda Big Block" and that engine was the H22 series of engines. It was a 2.2L DOHC 4-cylinder found in the BB4 and BB6 generations of Honda Prelude, there was also a 2.3L variant as well. Putting out between 160 to 220 HP off the shelf, the H22 was enough to power a Civic to the mid-12 second range. Tons of records were broken with this engine including the First 10 second All Motor Honda driven by Viet Lam at Battle of the Imports in 1997. Mitsubishi Evolution 8/9 and DSM OEM turbo manifolds will bolt up with minor modification as well, which can allow for seriously cheap power when done correctly.
The Prelude chassis itself is formidable, albeit rather heavy by Honda standards at 2800-3000 lbs. From 1978 until 2001, the Prelude was Honda's test mule for it's go fast technology. So what it carries in weight, it makes up for in technology like VTEC, Limited Slip Differentials and 4-Wheel Steering. You are also marginally more likely to find a Prelude in decent condition compared to a DA/DC Integra or EF/EG/EK Civic. A lot of people write off these cars due to their specifications on paper, but for someone looking for a more avant garde Honda project, a Prelude is a great choice.
3.) Ford Foxbody
I am not going to list every car that used the Foxbody as it's base so we will be concentrating on the 1979-1993 Mustang, since it's the most common of the Foxbodies. Most people write off the 1979-1983 models due to being strangled by emissions but after 1983, a new intake manifold design and fresh carburetor brought power to 175 HP. Around this time is when most people contribute the Foxbody with the start of the modern muscle movement. It's pedigree for performance needs no introduction, on any given weekend you are almost certain to find a Foxbody at the track in auto-x, drag, drift or track car mode.
Silly amounts of cheap power can easily be made with these cars and parts interchangeability with other Fords can allow unlimited variations for building one of these. While GM was toiling with early electronic fuel injection on their F-body Camaros, Ford took a hit in power by staying with a carburetor so enthusiasts could maintain them easier. After 1985, Ford switched to what can be recognized as modern electronic fuel injection. With this switch they saw 200 HP out of the Mustang and that would grow throughout the years. Due to the quality of Ford's EFI engineering, most people opt for the EFI models. For power, there are almost unlimited options from all motor builds to supercharged or turbocharged engines. Motor Trend recently had an episode of Engine Masters on a budget turbocharged 5.0L V8 build you can see here.
2.) Honda Civic 1988-2000
Nearly 30 years after the first EF chassis Civics (1988-1991) hit the American market, they are still one of the most popular FWD platforms. Honda hit it out of the park with these, they were economical, cheap, fast and fun. Double wishbone front and rear trailing arm independent suspension derived from their F1 cars of the era meant that, in the hands of a skilled driver, these could turn unbelievable lap times. The records and landmark achievements these made for FWD drag racing can not be ignored either. The first 10, 9, 8 and 7-second FWD full chassis cars were all done in these Civics and that's only scratching the surface of their achievements.
With a curb weight between 1,922 to 2,535 lbs, these were featherlight. Honda was able to get 40+ City MPG out of these regularly, not through hybrid systems or CVT transmissions like we see today, but through their clever engineering. The same engineering that made these get 40+ MPG consequently made them perform better and made them more fun to drive. Between the model changes in 1992 to the EG and 1996 to the EK chassis, the cars didn't get any worse to drive, if anything with each update they got better. The EG saw ODB-1 diagnostics systems and VTEC being added. The EK saw ODB-2 diagnostics systems and the B16 DOHC 100 HP/liter engine being available stateside. The only major downsides to the EF/EG/EK Civics are a byproduct of it's popularity, a massive amount of theft and a perfect chassis being nearly extinct. It could easily be 5 years since I've seen a unmodified, never stolen and rust free EG Civic Si. However, if you do manage get one of these in good condition, you will get one of the most perfect FWD cars ever designed.
1.) Mazda Miata
For your first place pick, the spot will have to go to the NA Miata made from 1989-1997. While the car has been endlessly popular with enthusiasts, recently it has had an exponential boost in it's popularity across the board as more people are migrating to this chassis. These are widely credited with bringing back the affordable roadster after the British roadsters gradually disappeared throughout the 1970s. During the Miata's creation Mazda went through endless R&D to perfect the car and it has paid off with the Miata being the best selling roadster ever with over 1,000,000 units having been sold. This is a rare example of a car where no corner was cut and nothing was left to a focus group, this was engineering at it's finest.
The resulting product was a reliable front engine, rear wheel drive roadster with double wishbone independent suspension all around. It could comfortably fit two people and was affordable at only $14,000 in 1989. It's only competitor, an Alfa Romeo Spider, cost $16,400 and had a pedigree for maintenance. The engine in the Miata was a 1.6L DOHC L4 which would grow in subsequent years to a 1.8L making 130 HP. The NA Miata is the bane of all non-Miata driving autocrossers, it is a car that makes you a better driver and even in the hands of an amateur driver can punch far above its weight. Given the seemingly unlimited numbers which have sold over the years means that, not only does it have a great aftermarket, but they are affordable due to the vast quantity. If you are worried about the Miata becoming rare due to it's popularity don't fret, Mazda has recently announced a restoration program and have begun to reproduce OEM parts.
If there was ever a perfect project car candidate for under $5,000 it would be hard to beat this car.