10 Cool Project Cars That You Can Buy For Less Than $10,000

It's no secret that the used car market has been on a one-way trend upward over the past couple years, in part because of increased demand stemming from the semiconductor shortage. Add in the record levels of nostalgia for certain '80s and '90s cars, and the result is that a lot of once-affordable project cars are now out of reach for more cash-strapped enthusiasts. Nevertheless, there are still plenty of great cheap cars out there that won't break the bank and are versatile enough for all sorts of projects.

It's easy to say that you can buy almost any old enthusiasts' car if you're willing to fish it out of a barn or take a chance on a sketchy-looking Craigslist ad, but for the purposes of this list, we're only concentrating on models that can be bought in decent running condition for a four-figure price tag. After plenty of digging around on Bring a Trailer, we've put together a selection of 10 of the best cars that will suit almost any type of project, whether that's restoration, modification, or even just stripping the car out and tearing 'round the track in it.

Nissan 300ZX

Although plenty of other Japanese sports cars from the '90s have skyrocketed in value over the past few years, the value of the Z32 Nissan 300ZX has remained relatively affordable. The car debuted for the 1990 model year and immediately impressed critics, with Car and Driver declaring, "We can think of no other car that offers more style and sculptured, buttoned-down beauty for the money." The twin-turbo version is the fastest, but even the cheaper naturally-aspirated cars packed plenty of grunt straight from the factory. There are plenty of issues to watch out for when buying a cheap 300ZX, but get one in good condition and they're arguably still one of the best performance bargains on the market.

Project car builders will also benefit from the large aftermarket surrounding the car, with plenty of off-the-shelf options for both performance and cosmetic improvements available. Anyone looking to buy the cheapest examples will likely find themselves with plenty of work to do straight away, as cheap 300ZXs tend to be poorly maintained. Scruffy but mechanically-sound examples can still be found within budget though, with a manual '96 300ZX selling for just $8,100 on Bring a Trailer in January 2023.

BMW 3 Series E30

The E30 3 Series is perhaps most famous for being the first generation of the car to receive a proper M variant, and although the M3 is now well out of reach for the average enthusiast, lower-spec cars remain under budget. Plenty of aftermarket parts are available for project car builders, with the E30's balanced handling making it perfect for everything from drift car builds to rally car conversions. If you want, you can always dress your cheap E30 up to look more like an M3, too. It's a controversial idea, but plenty of people do, especially since a real M3 can now cost over six figures.

Widebody kits are also easily sourced, in case it's the static look that you're going for. To build any of these projects though, you'll need a car that's in fairly good shape to begin with. Luckily, they're easy to find, with a January 2023 listing on Bring a Trailer showing a '90 325i selling for $8,600.

Chevrolet Corvette C4

While a Corvette is hardly the most exotic of project cars, it's hard to argue with its value for money. The C4 is a particular bargain right now, as it's readily available on the used market for just a few thousand dollars, yet it's ripe for restoration and easy to modify should you want to give it some more poke under the hood. It's not unusual to see project C4s packing over 500 horsepower if they've been engine swapped, even if they don't look that different on the outside. Even without turning the car into a tire-shredding sleeper, the C4 can leave plenty of its peers from the era in the rearview, at least in a straight line.

A side-by-side test saw the C4 easily beat a Porsche 911 Carrera 3.2 over a quarter mile, although its 17.06-second time is dwarfed by the capabilities of a modern 'Vette. For less than $10K, though, a C4 might just be all the project car you need, and then some. An '88 example recently sold on Bring a Trailer for $9,000, and it only showed 64,000 miles on the odometer.

Mazda MX-5 Miata

Another car that's neither exotic nor particularly original, the NA Miata is a long-standing enthusiast's favorite for good reason. The pint-sized roadster might not be fast by any stretch of the imagination, but it's great fun to drive. Its light curb weight means that it's easy to throw around, and even relatively modest power increases can make it significantly faster. It's also one of the most versatile project cars around, and no matter what direction you take your build, there will be plenty of inspiration out there. This is, of course, one of the world's best-selling sports cars of all time (via MotorTrend).

Early Miatas are prone to rust, and as a result, it's not as easy to find a cheap, solid one as it once was. A lot of decent examples will now command prices well out of budget, but there are still some affordable cars about if you wait for the right listing. A one-owner '93 Miata sold for $9,850 on Bring a Trailer in November 2022, and it came with a set of BBS wheels thrown in.

Volkswagen Beetle

There have been very few cars in history that have become quite as iconic as the classic VW Beetle. For decades after series production first started in 1945, the car became the affordable transportation of choice for drivers across the globe, with 21.5 million examples of the first-generation car sold. That makes it the most popular single-platform passenger car of all time. The car's enduring popularity ensured that there are thousands upon thousands of innovative Beetle-based project cars out there, from Baja desert runners to slammed rat rod statics.

VW's reinvention of the Beetle in 1999 saw most of its enthusiast appeal lost in the process, and by 2019, the car had been killed off altogether. However, its sales success in its heyday has meant that there are still plenty of classic examples ready to be snapped up for bargain prices. A lightly-restored '66 example of the car crossed the auction block on Bring a Trailer in January 2023 for $9,000, and historical listing data shows that there are plenty more examples selling for similar prices.

Honda CRX

The Civic-based CRX is a typical Honda in that it's practical, affordable, and supremely economical. It was, in fact, the first car to ever break the 50 mpg barrier in the EPA's testing cycle (via Road and Track). However, unlike plenty of other economical Hondas, the CRX was also a blast to drive, with its lightweight and stiffened suspension making it as great for the backroads as it was for the morning commute. Its Civic underpinnings also meant that modifications were easy for anyone who wanted to spice up their CRX a bit, and rally and hillclimb builds are also popular alongside the usual street-racing builds.

Like many Japanese cars of its age, prices for the CRX are rising, but they're still available within budget for now. A manual California-registered example with 108,000 miles on the clock sold on Bring a Trailer for $8,250 at the end of January 2023.

Mercedes-Benz W123

The Mercedes-Benz W123 has built up a rock-solid reputation for reliability in the decades since it was launched, with many examples still running with mostly original components despite having several hundred thousand miles on the odometer. This was German luxury at its most bulletproof, although years of daily use has meant that there are plenty of examples out there that could do with some TLC. They make the perfect restoration project for someone looking for a daily drivable classic, especially with the car's range of roomy body styles. Coupes, sedans, and wagons are all easy to find for sale, and many sell for surprisingly low prices.

A 280CE coupe with a four-speed manual transmission sold in mid-January 2023 on Bring a Trailer for $6,000, and a 240D sold for $9,100 a few weeks before. Like many of the cars here, good, cheap examples are getting harder to find. As a result, you may well make good money if you're buying one to restore with a plan to sell it later down the line.

Porsche 944

Porsche might not be the first manufacturer that comes to mind when thinking of cheap cars, but the 944 can in fact be found relatively easily for under budget. It's also a lot more versatile as a project car than many might assume — owners have kitted their 944s out as safari-style off-roaders, GT-inspired widebody racers, and even LS-swapped drift machines. Of course, there's also always the option of restoring your car back to factory spec, and enjoying one of Porsche's more underrated sports cars.

It might not be that fast in stock form, and it's not as iconic in design as, say, a 911, but the 944 still ticks all the right boxes for a cheap enthusiasts' car. Manual transmissions are common, examples often appear for sale in good condition, and those pop-up headlights give it a retro appeal that not even a 911 could match. A manual '86 944 went under the hammer in early January 2023 for $8,420, and there are plenty more like it in Bring a Trailer's historical listings data.

Toyota MR2

Finding a mid-engined car for a four-figure price tag is not an easy task. Arguably the best way of doing it is by opting for a Toyota MR2, the Japanese brand's entry-level sports car that ran across three generations between 1985 and 2005 (via MotorTrend). Any of the three generations make for a great affordable project, but we've picked the second-gen SW20 MR2 as an example here. Prices for this generation are on the rise, so finding a car under $10,000 will mean heading straight for the "Price: Low – High" filter on most auction sites. That's exactly what makes it a great project car though: Anyone who buys one and restores it should see the value of the car rise along with their work.

A '91 MR2 with 171,000 miles fetched $7,300 on Bring a Trailer in mid-2022, and an example with a whopping 421,000 miles sold for $6,521 later in the year. Similarly high mileage cars can be found for cheaper on other auction sites, but be wary of poorly-maintained examples, and as with all old cars, keep an eye out for hidden rust.

Mitsubishi Delica

The Mitsubishi Delica is a bit of a wildcard entry, as it looks like a minivan — albeit one that's weirdly capable off-road. These odd 4x4s have gained a cult following as great all-terrain campervans, with many owners fitting their Delicas out with beefier tires and lifted suspensions. They were never officially sold in America, but since many of them are now over 25 years old, the first wave of Delica imports has already hit U.S. shores.

Driving one is an unusual experience, as you're sat right over the engine, giving you excellent all-around visibility even if the driving position might take some getting used to. They're not fast, either, since most examples have sluggish-but-reliable engines making either 86 or 140 horsepower. Even so, the Delica is arguably one of the coolest hidden JDM gems on the market, so it's best to get one quickly before too many other people discover them and the prices go up. Delicas are still relatively rare to come across thanks to their import-only status, but an example sold on Bring a Trailer in December 2022 for $8,400, and it only had 107,000 miles on the odometer.