If you’re a classic muscle car fan, but don’t have anywhere between $35,000 and $100,000 to spend on that perfectly restored Chevy Camaro, don’t worry!
It’s always possible to find a project car for your budget, even if it’s not a Hemi ‘Cuda, Mustang Boss 302, or a Camaro Z/28. But, who says it has to be one of those to be the coolest person on the block?
These are my choices that have been proven to be total street/strip demons for not a lot of money (you could buy a new Camry for the price of a well-built one).
I’ve always thought that the most important part of the hot rod building process is buying. The better the car, the less work you’ll have to do.
Obviously, there are far more choices than the cars listed below, but if you’re new to hot rodding, start with one of these! You’ll thank me later.
- 1979-1993 Ford Mustang: Yes, there are always a good dozen of them at the local dragstrip, autocross, or drifting event. But, that’s why people choose them – you can build a killer “Fox” for under $10,000. Getting a car made after 1987 is what I would go with – they have sharper styling, more powerful engines due to better airflow and more fuel flow. They are light, dirt cheap, don’t look too terribly bad, easy to work on, and have more aftermarket support than any other car on this list. You can buy one from $1,500 to $5,500. If you own one and want a massive supporting community, check out foxbodyforum.com
- 1965-1970 Chevy Impala: Yes, a behemoth is here. In 1965 alone, Chevy sold a whopping 1 million cars. Only the top-of-the-line Caprice had more options than the Impala. They look good, but they have performance to back it up: They had the infamous 409 cubic-inch big-block V-8, as well as the 396 cubic-inch big block V-8 and thundering, coveted 427 cubic-inch L-88 big-block V-8. In 1970, the 454 cubic-inch big block took over from the L-88. These big bruisers also came with a host of small block V-8s. Though they may not be a canyon carver, there is a thriving aftermarket. Expect to pay $1,500 to $10,000 for a non-L-88 car. A good website is impalas.net.
- 1971-1977 Pontiac Ventura: The less-popular version of the Chevy Nova is a good way to get into hot rodding. That being said, get a Nova. While it’s a badge-engineered version of the Nova, it’s less popular and harder to find parts for. Early Camaro suspension parts are interchangeable, but other than that, not much other Chevy stuff but engines and transmissions are interchangeable. Paying somewhere between $3,000 and $12,000 is what you should expect.
- 1973-1976 Chevrolet Laguna: This land barge is one of my favorites. There’s a guy in Sonoma County who’s trying to sell one. It was famous way back when for it’s wins in NASCAR (it came in right when the HEMI cars went out). You can do literally anything to a Laguna. The big engine bay can accommodate a big block, big headers on a small block, or a stroker engine. The stock fenders can take very wide tires, which make it a good choice for drag racing or road racing. Expect to pay $1,500 to $6,000 for one. A good website is g3gm.com.
- 1970-1974 Ford Maverick: When the Mustang’s rampant sales numbers killed the Falcon, Ford introduced the Maverick. It directly competed with the Chevrolet Vega, but was more fun to drive with an optional 302 cubic-inch small block V-8. Next to the Chevy small block, the Ford 302 small block is one of the most popular engines in America, making the modifications nearly endless. Want to make it turn? Turn to Global West, who makes tubular control arms for the Maverick, making it handle like a true goose (sorry for the Top Gun joke – I couldn’t help it!). Pay between $1,500 and $3,500 for one. Go to fordmaverick.com for a community.
- 1971-1977 Chevrolet Vega: Yeah, this was next on the list. It only seems logical to put Chevy’s offering below the Ford (it doesn’t have a V-8 stock, so it’s below the Maverick). It was a glimpse into the future with it’s all-aluminum, overhead-cam four cylinder engine. It also came with an electrical fuel pump and standard front disc brakes. The suspension, punchy engine, and light weight means that it can be quite the performer with a modern engine. If I were you, I would get the 3.6-liter V-6 offered in many of GM’s cars today. It’s plenty powerful, and coupled with a car that weighs 2,300 pounds, will make this car a rocket ship. Pay between $1,500 and $6,000. Go to vega-world.com for a community.
- 1965-1973 Plymouth Fury: If you want a stock big block in the 1965-1973 Fury, get a 1970 Fury Sport GT. It’s got a 440 cubic inch big block topped with six carburetors. That being said, you can easily drop just about any engine made by Mopar into one of these without a lot of work. Go to stockmopar.com for a community.
- 1967-1973 Mercury Cougar: Essentially just a Mustang with better styling (in my humble opinion) and a 3-inch longer wheelbase, the Cougar is an excellent cruiser. It fits in at just about any motorsports scene, and is a crowd favorite at shows. Pay between $1,000 and $6,000 for one. Visit mercurycougar.net for a good website.
- 1968-1970 AMC AMX: AMC’s much less popular competitor to the Camaro and Mustang never really caught on, which is a shame. Yes, it sat two, so it really competed with the Corvette and lighter European sports cars. They can be somewhat hard to find, due to their low production numbers. They are more of a collector car, as their owners take pride in them. Pay between $3,000 and $15,000 for one. Get a more expensive one – it will be in better condition. Go to theamcforum.com
- 1972-1974 Dodge Challenger: The reason I chose the 1972-1974 version is that the 1970-1971 models are more coveted and expensive. Swapping a modern 5.7-liter HEMI V-8 under the hood is a popular, economical choice. If you want to go over the top, shove a Viper V-10 under the hood. Most buyers choose to restore them rather than radically modify them, so you likely won’t need to spend a lot of money on paint, trim and interior parts. Pay $2,000 to $15,000 for one. A good website is cuda-challenger.com
- 1971-1972 Dodge Demon: This car was very nearly called the Beaver. It came as a fastback only, so you could tell it apart from the other drab cars of the era. While it never would beat a HEMI Charger, it could hold it’s own against a big block Camaro. The V-8s available are popular with racers today, as they can easily rev to 8,000+ RPM with very little modifications. They are the Mopar version of the Fox-Body Mustang on this list. Pay between $1,500 and $5,000 for one. A good resource is valiant.org
- 1963-1965 Mercury Marauder: This car is the Mercury version of the Ford Galaxie. It’s an entry-level version of the Monterey, and it only came with V-8s – the same engines as the Galaxie. It came with a fastback roof like the Galaxie, as it helped this big bruiser win in NASCAR. Pay between $4,000 and $15,000 for one. A good resource is mercurymarauder.org
- 1960-1970 Ford Galaxie: The first-year Galaxie had all of the bling of the 1950s. It’s a pretty car, but in 1960, it didn’t quite cut. So, Ford redesigned it. Halfway through 1963, Ford decided to improve it’s aerodynamics to get the upper hand in NASCAR. This new slope-back style was called the Sports Roof or Scatback hardtop. Ford also introduced the mighty 427 cubic-inch V-8 that is legendary in drag racing. In 1968, Ford replaced the 427 with the 428 Cobra Jet designed for drag racing. It also got better styling. In terms of suspension, there isn’t much. However, you don’t need much to go fast – a 427 Roush crate motor, drag shocks, big drag slicks, and a 9-inch rear end are all it needs for speed. It’s not meant to be a canyon carver. Pay between $800 and $9,000 for one. Go to galaxieforum.com for a community.
- 1975-1980 Chevy Monza: A derivative of the Vega, which was produced two years into the Monza’s production span, the Monza replaced the aging, terrible Vega. Unlike the Vega, the Monza came with a standard V-8. This makes it very easy to find speed parts for one. They even have some race breeding in them, as they competed in the IMSA GT series. You’ll also see many at the drag strip or in standing mile events, as they are fairly aerodynamic. Pay $1,000 to $3,000 for one. Go to v8monza.com for a community.
- 1967-1976 Plymouth Valiant: The first generation of the Valiant had a look right out of the 1950s. 1967 gave it a redesign that made it look relevant to the 1960s. Finding a pre-1973 model is the best, as they don’t have the federally-mandated rubber bumpers. Plus, they are lighter. In 1974, it was essentially just a rebadged Dart. This is good because there are twice the parts available. One of the most common Valiant models you will see is the Valiant Scamp – it accounted for more than half of Plymouth’s sales that year. Pay between $1,000 and $8,000 for one. Again, valiant.org is a good resource.
- 1973-1976 Chevrolet Nova: The Nova is a very popular choice with hot rodders because it is cheap, light, and shares parts with the first-generation Camaro. Many Novas came with a small block Chevy V-8 stock, but they can easily accept big block Chevy V-8s. In 1973, the government made every automaker put horrible rubber bumpers on their cars. However, Chevy put an aluminum cover on the bumpers to minimize the horrible look of rubber. So, the damage is relatively minimal. The Nova is one of the most popular cars in the autocross and drag racing circuit, as they are cheap, easy to modify, and are light. Pay $1,500 to $4,500 for one. A good resource is chevynova.org
- 1979-1986 Mercury Capri: The Mercury version of the Ford Fox-Body Mustang is a love-it or hate-it affair for enthusiasts. Mercury made multiple versions of the Capri, but they are all cheaper than the Mustang, and share the same parts. Pay anywhere between $1,500 and $3,000 for one. A good website is foureyepride.com
- 1963-1969 Mercury Comet: The first year of the Comet came with a weak 260 cubic-inch V-8. In 1964, Mercury saw that people wanted better looks and more power. The Comet was light, and Mercury made 50 cars that did well in the NHRA Super Stock drag racing class. The next batch of Comets were true comets, with the powerful Ford small block and big block engines. The sister cars to the Comet open up an aftermarket for it. Pay $2,000 to $7,500 for one. Go to cometcentral.com for a community.
- 1982-1987 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme: This is the Oldsmobile version of the legendary Buick Grand National. GM sold a lot of these cars, so finding one is easy…and affordable. You can buy one for $500 to $3,500. They might not be the best choices for canyon carving, but they are a cheap way into bracket class drag racing. Go to oldsmobileforum.com for a community.
- 1964-1974 Plymouth Satellite: This was the luxury mid-size Plymouth. It was the only version of the Plymouth Belvedere to come with a V-8. You could even get the 426 HEMI in it! They can get pricey, but are fun cars to cruise around in. Pay about $2,000 to $13,000 for one. Go to bbodiesonly.com for a community.
This post took a lot of research, and I hope that you enjoy it. Don’t take the Internet verbatim. Even what you think is common knowledge should be double-checked. I recommend getting books on muscle cars. One of the best out there is the Encyclopedia of American Cars: A comprehensive history of the automakers and the cars they built, including every major American automobile and scores of minor makes. It’s a good read, and an even better research.