Many gearheads dream of one day having the time, money, and skill to build their own project car from the ground up. Well, there’s never been a time when more people had downtime necessary to get to work wrenching on a car than right now—and despite the fact that in-person car events like the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance being canceled, a wide range of awesome cars have popped up for sale online.
But amid all the classic Porsches, vintage Ferraris, and modern muscle cars, it can be easy for anyone in the market for a budget project to get a little disappointing. Even the website Bring a Trailer has become more of a hub for six-figure cars than vehicles that might actually require a trailer to get home.
Anyone looking for a perfect project car on a budget shouldn’t lose hope, though. In every city and town on the planet, there are plenty of affordable cars available to choose from—the hardest part is making the right choice and finding a car that’s cheap to buy, cheap to maintain, and relatively simple to work on. The best project car is one that its owner can develop a relationship with, learn from, and keep forever.
After all, very rarely will a project car make money—this is a labor of love. And deciding upon the right car to love for years to come can be a challenge in and of itself. Every category of cars has its pros and cons, from smog-free pre-75 classics to newer OBD-scannable models. American cars, German cars, Japanese, Italian—so many choices and so little time.
But for 99% of gearheads, there is without a single best project car to buy on a budget: the Mazda Miata sports car.
So Many Options To Choose From
Mazda has built the Miata, known as the MX-5 abroad and sometimes in the United States, as well, since 1989 when it debuted as a lightweight, simple sports car with nimble handling and moderate power. The whole design ethos hasn’t changed, although over four generations, the Miata’s power and performance have increased along with curb weight and complexity.
But that long production run means that there’s a Miata for everyone out there. The earliest cars were the lightest and the simplest, but they lacked power. Plus, most have been driven hard and put away wet, only to suffer through the years at the hands of neglectful owners. Meanwhile, newer examples might have more ponies under the hood but they’ll tip the scales a couple hundred pounds more than the earliest NA-gen cars.
Lots Of Engine Options
Meanwhile, the second, NB-generation features OBD-II port that allows for easy diagnosis of any potential engine problems. The next iteration, the NC generation, added a hardtop convertible, which can be a plus for certain buyers depending on their geographic location.
Regardless of the generation, finding a good Miata project car—just like any project—requires doing a solid search and having patience. Buying one at a huge discount may mean more money and labor in the long run, though that’s not always a bad thing in a project car, just another consideration.
Regardless of the generation, a Miata combines a simple powertrain with a four-cylinder engine routing power to the rear wheels, perfect weight distribution, and ideally, a manual gearbox (a must for true enthusiasts).
Anything You Desire
Maintenance on Miatas comes with the advantage that parts are cheap, mechanics don’t charge a ton for the work that can’t be done at a home garage, and the aftermarket community maintains strong and enthusiastic forums online.
Upgrading a Miata, for those in the mood for a bit more performance, can be a fun project to undertake, as well. Bolting on a turbo or supercharger, a set of high-performance coilovers, an exhaust system, or wider, lighter wheels won’t even cost too much and can make a big difference in terms of smiles per gallon.
Depending on the purpose, a Miata can do perfectly well at the track or in some canyon twisties with zero mods at all, while some owners go the whole gamut and drop in an LS V8—or more! No matter what the goal is, a Miata will serve as an excellent starting point for stanced lowriders, open-top dragsters, even lifted off-roading rally cars.
Plus, fuel efficiency is a plus, and a Miata is great for driving both in the country and in the city, where parking will be a cinch. Pretty much the only negative for the Miata is that extra-tall gearheads may find it uncomfortable—but if you fit, go ahead and find a Miata project car to start working on. It will never be a bad idea.
Sources: Car and Driver, Road & Track, Miata Forum, Jalopnik, and Wikipedia.
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