The Project Car Conundrum

So, I enjoy my Subaru, and I enjoy working on it. However, there is a space in the back of my mind that wants something I can take apart without fear, something I can leave non-running as I work without needing it to get to work. Yes, that’s right, a project car. Admittedly, all of my project car ideas at this point are little more than intellectual masturbation, as I have neither the money nor the space to actually purchase a second car, cheap as these ones may be. Nonetheless, I’m going to try and get everything down on paper (heh, paper) as a way of more clearly understanding what my wants and needs are in this category.

For me, a project car must fulfill two goals:

  1. Fun to work on
  2. Fun to drive

That’s it. Price is of course a factor, but all of the proceeding vehicles can be found for 5000 or less. Besides, as this is certainly not happening until I’ve paid off the Subaru, I can fantasize a little in the affordability aspect. Without further ado:

The Answer to Every Question: 1990-2005 Mazda Miata

The title is a Jalopnik trope, but it also refers to the fact that, in all likelihood, this will be my choice. The Miata represents an approach to a sports car that the Subaru does not: Where the Subaru has raw power and sophisticated AWD, the Miata has low weight, simple drivetrain, and very intentional design. The cars are plentiful, the aftermarket is good, and there are multiple routes to making a Miata truly special. I also believe that I could swap a differential, install a new clutch, and plumb a turbo kit on this car, even though I have not yet done any of these things on any of my vehicles. It’s mostly due to the simple layout and the ease of access to the small four cylinder engine. Ultimately, the Miata has what I want in droves: lots of projects, high reliability, and fun as hell in stock or tuned form. It’s also outrageously impractical. The Miata almost exists solely as a second car due to the two seater layout, minimal trunk space, and spartan accommodations. This shouldn’t come as a surprise when power steering was optional on the first generation cars. So although the use case is restricted, these cars push all the right buttons for me.

Tuner Bait: Nissan 240SX, Honda CRX

Both the Nissan 240SX and the Honda CRX represent great platforms with which to enter the wide world of engine swaps. Both the SR20DET into the 240SX and the B-series into the CRX are well-documented, supported, and relatively straightforward. Even the engines are easy to source. The cars, however, are not. Enter these vehicles as search terms into Craigslist. I’ll wait. Now, did you see a single vehicle that had not been previously modified? If you did, was the price in any way sane (remember, these are 15-20 year old Japanese sport compacts)? That is ultimately the problem. While I do fantasize about the engineering problem that is acquiring some rice boy’s car and putting it right, it seriously ramps up the cost and frustration factor, and that’s not even taking into account the fact that none of these guys seem to realize their cars aren’t worth the 8k they want from them sorted, let alone in the condition they’re actually in.

American Muscle: Fox Body Ford Mustang, GM G-Body (Buick Regal, Chevrolet Monte Carlo)

So many parts…so much potential power…these cars have a fair amount of potential out of the box, though they’re of a very different character than the Japanese ones above. The Mustang would be more likely due to aftermarket and manual transmission potential, but I think the G-Bodies are pretty cool, especially the Buick. That being said, they probably fall into the category below (that is, cruisers). Problem with these cars are similar to the problems with the tuner bait, namely no one realizes these cars are old and not really worth much, even if you put mods into it.

Cruisers: Lexus SC300/400, GM B/D Body (Chevrolet Caprice, Chevrolet Impala SS, Buick Roadmaster)

These cars would serve a very different purpose from a driving style perspective. When I think of a perfect roadtrip car, these are my choices, along with potentially a Lincoln Mark VIII if I want fewer modifications and more headaches. The SC300 would probably be at the top of the list in this category, though if I were to purchase one it would almost certainly end up with a 2JZGTE swapped into it. If I can tolerate the automatic, a GS300 with that same swap would also fit the bill, and make a great sleeper. Most of these cars (excepting a real deal Impala SS) are both affordable and relatively plentiful.

The long and short of it is that most of these cars would fit my needs. The last segment would be approached cautiously, as I don’t take many roadtrips, but the cars are still appealing. What all of these project ideas come down to is space, time, and (to a lesser degree) tools. So ultimately, once I have the money and storage space for a second car to wrench on, I’m going to have to more clearly lay out my goals, as well as what I want as a project. If I want to do an engine swap, the Miata is still a possibility due to the great V8 kit options available. However, if I don’t think that’s in my plans, then maybe a CRX is a poor choice (as it would be saddled with a milquetoast D-series engine). If I want to do a lot of suspension modding, then maybe the cruisers aren’t a good choice…or maybe they are, with more room for improvement. There’s a lot of variables, so it stands to reason that I start thinking about the possibilities now, even before I have what I truly need to make a real step towards project car reality.


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