The Top 15 Best Car Restoration Projects
Some classic cars from around the world just begging to be restored.
Published February 8, 2018
Even if you’re a gearhead that’s only into cars made after you were born (and you were born in the 90’s), chances are, you’ve got a soft spot for a clean and restored classic car. Car restoration is usually reserved for those of us with some disposable income, but that doesn’t mean the rest of us can’t dream about projects we’d like to undertake some day, circumstances permitting.
Restoring classic cars is dirty, time-consuming, heart and back-breaking, and generally expensive work. When everything is said and done, though, seeing that pristine piece of automotive history looking as new as the day it rolled off the factory line is all the reward you’ll ever need. That feeling is exactly why we’ve pulled together this list of the top fifteen car restoration projects.
These cars were selected for a number of different reasons; some of them are cheap and have parts readily available while others we simply wish there were more of out on the streets. They may not be the best projects for beginners to tackle (and could come with a ton of issues) but nevertheless, here are fifteen cars that are just begging to be restored.
70-73 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am
Introduced in 1967, the Pontiac Firebird took styling cues from both the Pontiac GTO and Chevy Camaro. While the first generation of this car is great, it’s the beginning of the second generation (which ran through 1981) that we’re most interested in. There’s something special about the styling of the ’70-’73 Trans Ams that really gets those classic muscle juices flowing.
As a GM vehicle, you can bet that many parts are shared between vehicles from this era, which means that finding parts shouldn’t be terribly difficult. This may come in handy with a 1972 model, which produced only half of the average number of examples due to a worker strike.
This Japanese classic was introduced stateside in 1969 to huge success. It came with a 151-hp inline-six that did 0-60 in 8.0 seconds; it adds up to a car that is both reliable and fun to drive. It’s not winning any awards at the drag strip (not out of the box, at least) but it is widely regarded as a great cruising car with plenty of fun waiting at the next twisty road.
If you’re thinking about picking one up for a restoration project, know that these cars like to rust from the inside out. If the vehicle appears to be in pretty decent condition already, make sure to be attentive and thorough in your rust checklist. Once it’s up and running, though, expect it to behave like a much more mechanically engineered Scion FR-S. The 240Z will be lighter and have less power, but it should balance out pretty well.
Fourth Generation Lincoln Continental (1961-69)
This is arguably one of the most gangster cars ever produced, and it comes with some of the sexiest lines in the Lincoln lineup to date. To highlight this fact, notice the factory suicide doors, which make entering this vehicle like stepping through the velvet ropes of a plush and luxurious theater.
The fourth generation Continental came with a 7.0L V8 before 1966, when a 7.6L variant became available. The name of the game with the Continental was unrivaled luxury, which meant that this car would be one of the heaviest, floatiest, best-handling cars of its time with one of the smoothest rides around. Customizing a restored version is also a ton of fun, and these cars can be made to look seriously mean.
Parts shouldn’t be hard to find, though pricing may not be exactly affordable, either. That said, this could easily turn out to be one of the most rewarding car restoration projects you’ll ever take on.
Land Rover Ninety (1983-90)
Considering the questionable reliability coupled with the extreme potential of the Land Rover Defender, this is a car restoration project that may serve you better as a resto-mod. There’s plenty that could be upgraded during the renovation process to see you through the sticky times that would leave other Defender owners broken down on the side of the road.
The Land Rover 90 is arguably the most iconic body style for this vehicle, and it featured an iconic look that is still highly-prized to this day. To clear things up for those of you that may be a bit confused, the vehicle was not actually called the Defender until 1990, and the design was very much inspired by the 90 and 110.
The LR90 came with an inline-four petrol engine that produced 83 hp and 133 lb-ft of torque, or a 2.5L diesel variant good for 68 hp and 114 lb-ft. While the diesel is arguably more reliable, chances are you’ll probably want at least an I6 or V8 powering your restored Defender for optimal performance.
And come to think of it, the 110 isn’t a bad choice either.
Late 60’s Ford Mustang
There really isn’t much to be said about this car restoration project. The Ford Mustang was introduced in 1964 and immediately upset the market by creating an entirely new ‘Pony Car’ segment. The idea behind a pony car was to create a small and light vehicle with moderate power that handled and performed exceptionally well. Passengers optional.
This is easily one of the most recognizable cars on earth, and you really can’t go wrong restoring one. No matter what year or trim you choose (aside from the rarer Boss variants and Shelby offerings), you’re pretty much guaranteed a surplus of cheap and readily-available parts.
It’s also a great car to do custom-fab work on if you’re more of a do-it-yourselfer like our buddy Beto, whose 1966 Resto-Mod Mustang we covered a while back. Of course, if the Mustang made this list, that surely must mean…
1970 Dodge Challenger R/T
Surprise surprise, another classic American muscle car. This time, though, we’re going with a specific year in mind. When the Challenger was released, it had just four years to figure itself before disappearing for a few years, coming back as a terrible import, then disappearing again until its 2008 revival. The subsequent editions of the Challenger R/T saw numerous redesigns and options dropped, but despite these changes, we feel that Dodge really got it right on the first try here.
Engine choices ranged from the 335 hp 6.28L Magnum V8 up to the fabled 7.0L, 425 bhp Hemi V8 for R/T models, and you can probably guess which one is the engine of choice here. There really is nothing like Hemi power.
The Challenger debuted with a body style akin to that of the Plymouth Baracuda (no surprise there) and was also similar to some of the other muscle monsters on the market. There’s something really unique about the Challenger though; there’s a sort of feral ruthlessness about it that makes it seem like a cornered, angry animal.
First Generation Chevrolet Camaro (1967-69)
No surprise here either, as we round out the classic muscle trifecta with the renowned Chevy Camaro. While the earlier iterations of the second generation weren’t bad at all (especially the Z/28), the first generation Camaro really solidified and conveyed exactly what the Camaro was meant to be: a heavy-hitting pony car to tackle the Mustang.
There were 8 engine options when the car was first released, and by the end of the first generation, that list of choices grew to 12 engines strong. With the massive engine bay and a little creativity, the car could easily handle damn-near any swap you could throw at it. There were also quite a few transmission options, including a 2 or 3 speed automatic and a 3 or 4-speed manual.
There’s plenty of literature out there not only for the classic Camaros, but for most classic muscle cars too; many people have gone down this path and taken notes along the way to help future car restoration projects go off with fewer hitches. With guides readily available and parts circulating the aftermarket, this should prove to be a fun and interesting project car.
Second Generation Chevrolet Bel Air (1955-57)
There really is no mistaking this car at first glance. There’s no other car that combines a rounded bubble top with long, radical tail fins like the Chevy Bel Air did in the mid-fifties. The Bel Air was actually sold from 1950-81, but its the second generation that everyone is interested in. These cars are only climbing in value, which means getting your hands on a body to restore, and parts to pump it full of, might prove to be a real challenge.
The second generation of the Chevy Bel Air is one of the most iconic cars in American history, and while subsequent generations tried to copy and build on the success of this model, none were successful. The car went on to die a quiet death in the 80’s and hasn’t been seen since, save for a rather unremarkable concept in 2002. It only took one generation for Chevy to figure out how to sell the Bel Air, and it only took one or two more for them to totally drop the ball. But really, how could anyone follow an act like this? They got it right and there’s no shame in trying to do better.
It’s strange to think that we’ll likely never see another car like it in our lifetimes, which is all the more reason to try and snatch one of these bad boys up at the next opportunity.
First Generation Ford Thunderbird (1955-57)
For a car that lasted 11 generations, there really isn’t much to say about it after the first. Ford hit the nail on the head on the very first try, and the first generation Thunderbird was essentially the first and last real Thunderbird. The iconic styling set the tone for what this car would be, while the generations that followed would slowly but surely disappoint consumers and wander further and further away from the car’s mission statement.
It may come as a surprise to you that the Thunderbird was actually introduced as a rival to the Chevy Corvette, though we all know how that worked out. Perhaps even more surprising is that it outsold the Corvette 23-to-1 in its first year. The second generation Thunderbird was also extremely successful thanks to the addition of a four-door model, though this version got away from the original idea of the Thunderbird and doesn’t necessarily represent what the car set out to do; it was just a really smart marketing move.
The Thunderbird saw many variants of its V8 engine throughout the years of the first generation and even featured a supercharged 300 hp mill towards the end of its life. Despite high sales numbers, these cars are still quite rare, as most examples are currently snatched up or sitting in museums. Still, it can, and very much should be done.
Porsches have long been revered as some of the best driving cars around. They can be sublimely balanced with both great handling and solid power, but owning a dated model can definitely prove to be a labor of love. Unfortunately, while the golden air-cooled Porsches of old used to be somewhat affordable, a recent boom in the market has resulted in prices skyrocketing. It may be highly unlikely that this is a realistic car restoration project to take on, but let’s entertain the thought for a minute anyway.
I’m not going to bother listing specs because there are just so so many variants to choose from here. To clear up one common misconception right off the bat, these cars are not necessarily fast. Speed does not always equal a better driving experience, and the driving experience is exactly what Porsche was focusing on when they created these cars in the first place.
Also worth noting is the fact that damn-near every one of these cars has either been abandoned, bastardized, or driven into the ground. There’s no such thing as an air-cooled Porsche that will cost you less than $30,000.
That being said, just about every owner with a restored or working example claims it’s the best car in all of existence and palm leaves should be laid at its tires as it strolls through town on a Sunday afternoon. If you’ve got the cash and that sounds appealing, by all means: go for it.
J40 Toyota Land Cruiser (1960-84)
Let’s start this off by saying just one thing: this vehicle is absolutely bulletproof. Toyota knew exactly what it was doing when it created this wonderful truck which has proven to be one of the most reliable off-road vehicles on the planet, even 30 years later. It comes from a time when cars were still made of metal, which incidentally is also a time when sound-proofing wasn’t terribly effective…or really present, for that matter.
This is not a road car by any means, but the 4×4 drivetrain is just as effective today as it was when it was released. You can go just about anywhere in this truck and since it’s a Toyota, you can also be sure that you’ll make it back, too. Japanese brands generally make for better car restoration projects because of cheap and available parts, and even though these J40s are somewhat rare, they’re actually surprisingly affordable for the most part.
1983 was the last year this vehicle was imported to the US (and in record low numbers), and it’s worth noting that the late 1980-82 models are the most mechanically advanced. There’s still plenty of love for ’74-79 models too, though, so don’t get hung up on the model year when looking for one of these off-road warriors.
Datsun 510 Wagon (1968-73)
The Datsun Bluebird 510 was available as a two-door sedan, four-door sedan, and two-door coupe, but the model we’re most interested in here is the five-door wagon variant. It is an adorable little car that is absolutely charming and a genuine joy to putz around town in. It’s powered by a rinky-dink little 4-banger which was rated around 97 hp, which brings us to the next point of order: this is not a fast car. At all.
It’s a joy to drive but that joy most definitely does not come from power. Though, you probably could fit an I6 under the hood if you want something with a little more zip to it. Then again, the two-door coupe apparently makes 109 hp which, while still not a lot at all, could actually adequately address those speed concerns.
This car stands out in this list because it’s not a big, strong, badass classic muscle car, nor is it a capable 4×4 off-roader. It is simply cute as shit and fun to be around and if that doesn’t make you happy, I question your taste in cars. As far as car restoration projects go, this one is simple, easy, and surprisingly rewarding.
Did I mention it can be made pretty damn clean, too?
E30 BMW M3
This car is somewhat widely regarded as the chariot of the Gods and is allegedly one of the most incredibly smooth and rewarding cars to drive in all of existence. Never having been behind the wheel of one outside of a Forza game, I couldn’t really say for sure that this reputation is deserved, but knowing BMW, it probably is.
As far as affordability goes, you can bet that this is going to be in a similar realm as the air-cooled Porsches we discussed earlier. Even further, the likelihood of you finding a rusted out example in need of restoration is probably pretty low. Assuming you can find one on the cheap that is rusty and in need of some TLC, consider yourself lucky, because you now have the wonderful problem of needing to rebuild a fantastic car from the ground up.
You should know, though, that the engine the M3 came with, while matched well to the car it’s in, is not as powerful as the V8 editions we enjoy in modern times. You might consider swapping in a straight-6 for better times to be had, but it isn’t wholly necessary.
Second Generation Volkswagen Type 2 (1968-79)
It’s been called many things: the microbus, the hippie van, the transporter, and more, but it was originally known as the Volkswagen Type 2. While the first generation, which spanned from 1950 to 1967, is the first thing that pops into most people’s heads when thinking about the VW bus, those models are much more expensive and generally difficult to find.
The second generation of this fabulous people mover is much more affordable and approachable, and there are tons of different layouts to choose from. It’s more modern as well, though you still get the classic microbus look that people love so very much.
Parts are generally cheap and plentiful for these models, though you may want to look into securing a more powerful engine for your restoration; many owners report that the engine struggles sometimes to power the large van around the countryside – especially when its loaded up with Biofuel, surfboards, and vegan hot wings. At the end of this car restoration project, you’re sure to have a liveable and driveable piece of automotive history that’ll draw many an onlooker with hopes of traveling the countryside themselves.
Nissan Skyline “Hakosuka” GT-R
Here it is, folks, possibly the most unrealistic yet badass car on the list. The GT-R variant of the C10 Skyline was introduced in 1969 and featured a 160 hp 2.0L I6 engine. The base model was stripped of unnecessary weight, which in 1971 even saw the car being offered in a two-door version, which really is the best-looking in our opinion.
This will undoubtedly be one of, if not the most difficult car on this list to actually track down, which may mean settling for a four-door base model and doing a GT-R swap yourself. Or maybe you don’t; this car is special in its own right and shouldn’t really be in need of any further assistance.
Just like the Datsun Bluebird, its a fun, cute little car with tons of heart and soul. This car restoration project isn’t one to take on lightly, but if you can manage to pull it off, you’ll most certainly be turning heads and breaking necks on the daily.
Car Restoration: The Need to Knows
Restoring a classic car is not something that should be taken lightly, nor on a tight budget. You can expect to be shelling out tens of thousands of dollars through most car restoration projects, so make sure you’re truly financially equipped to properly flip the car.
Free time is another important factor, and you can consider your project a failure from the start if you never even have time to put in work on the car when you manage to wrangle some parts together. Time has already taken its toll on your dream vehicle’s body, so make sure it doesn’t also take its toll on you.
Finding the perfect car to restore can also be a grueling process, and you’ll want to see the car in person before making the final decision. Rust could be far worse than advertised with online listings, so check locally in classifieds and talk to people at car meets to see what is already waiting around in your area.
You’ll also want to make sure you actually have a space to work on the car as well as any equipment that might be necessary, such as a floor jack, power tools, and plenty of socket choices and wrenches to work with.
Finally, know what you want from your car. Do you want a proper restoration with matching parts that you can sell for much more than you put into it, or something you can safely drive on the weekends with a little bit of modern flair and personality thrown into the mix? Make sure your heart is really in the project and that this is something you want to do before setting out and you won’t regret making this huge commitment.
Other than that, have fun with it, and enjoy the process. These cars are meant to be loved and enjoyed, and if you find that it’s causing you more heartache than it does bring you joy, it’s probably time to take a step back or can the project entirely. You’ll get frustrated along the way but if your heart is truly in it, the final result will make you glad you took on a car restoration project in the first place.