The long summer break from school is winding down and it’s just about time to head back to class. Whether you’ve spent the last couple months taking abuse at the fast-food drive-thru window or slinging hay bales, we’re hoping they paid you enough to swing a new ride. We’ve already given some suggestions on cool pre-1980 cars you can buy with your summer-job dough, but let’s take a look at some more modern affordable projects. Most of these ’80s cars should be within even a a summer job budget.
As with the previous list, we’ve aimed for less than $4,000 for a running car. That isn’t intended for a pristine car but rather for a running, non-basketcase version that could be a drivable project while you fix and upgrade it. While there isn’t anything too obscure in this list, we think it’s a good start to help you find a cheap way to have fun in whatever way you want, whether that’s shredding tires (and/or differentials), cruising in style, getting work done, or trudging off the beaten path. Give it a look and shout us down in the comments for our blaring omissions.
General Motors’ third-generation F-Body has provided years of source material for mullet-mocking and hair-metal bashing, but the Camaro and Firebird still remain a great way to get cheap horsepower. With the astonishing number of third-gen cars floating around today and with some patience, you can still find a good, inexpensive F-Body with a 350 cubic-inch Small Block Chevy V8. If you’re a bells-and-whistles type, you can find all sorts of trim and special edition models: Z28, RS, and Berlinetta for the Camaro and Trans Am, GTA, and Formula for the Firebird to name a few. Whatever Camaro or Firebird you’re looking for and whatever use you intend for it, the F-Body aftermarket is absolutely enormous and relatively inexpensive.
Realistic low-end of pricing: Around $2,200. If you’re not picky, Firebirds seems to go slightly cheaper. If you’re really not picky, a V6 can go for a few hundred less. If you’re a masochist, Iron Duke four-cylinder cars go for peanuts, provided you can find one that hasn’t been swapped or crushed. Pro tip: If you don’t find your desired car in the classifieds, try searching “Camero.”
Ford’s Fox-platform Mustang ran all the way through the 1980s and the original pony car remains available in huge numbers. While the low end of asking price looks similar to GM’s F-Body, it seemed from our research that there were more Fox Mustangs closer to that pricing floor. A bit lighter than the Camaro, the Mustang remains popular in drag racing for the ability to take on big horsepower and run little ET’s. You won’t struggle to find a running V8 car, though it may need an item or three, but curiously enough, the turbocharged four-cylinder SVO seems to command a bit more money. Like its GM counterpart, the Fox Mustang has massive aftermarket support.
Realistic low-end of pricing: $2500 for a V8, a little more for a turbocharged, four-cylinder SVO, considerably less for a naturally aspirated four-cylinder.
Ford Thunderbird/Mercury Cougar XR7
Ford didn’t use the Fox platform just for its Mustang; they built a number of Fox-based cars, including their personal luxury coupe Ford Thunderbird and its upmarket sibling, the Mercury Cougar, through 1988. While parts interchangeability among Fox cars isn’t really as ubiquitous as the internet might suggest, the Thunderbird and Cougar both got the same engine options as the Mustang with V8 and turbocharged four-cylinders available in the performance trims. The big two-doors received typical personal luxury coupe appointments, making them slightly more “adult” than the sporty Mustang. Despite the bit of extra weight, the V8 still moved them along pretty well. Interestingly, lots of Thunderbird Turbo Coupes are still floating around in reasonably good shape, though they seem to bring about $500 more than a V8 car.
Realistic low-end of pricing: $1,500 for a V8 or about $2,000 for a Turbo Coupe. Cougars seems to be slightly more rare and expensive.
Ford Taurus SHO
The Ford Taurus has been junkyard fodder for a decade now, but the high-performance SHO trim has stuck around in bigger numbers than the pedestrian models. Featuring a high-revving, Yamaha-designed V6, the SHO debuted in 1989 and ran 0-60 in 6.6 seconds with quarter-mile times in the low 15-second range, which was only a half-second slower than a contemporary Mustang GT. When you factor in that a SHO could also seat five comfortably, this was happy family hauler. Unfortunately, as one ad we found said, “These cars have almost all been modified or trashed” and, from the looks of some, it’s more like, “modified AND trashed.” With some patience, however, you can find an affordable all-original car that has been someone’s pride for decades.
Realistic low-end of pricing: $2,400 – $3,500
Oldsmobile Cutlass (A-Body/G-Body)/
Chevy Monte Carlo/Buick Regal/Pontiac Grand Prix/Chevy El Camino
General Motors’ boxy A-Body—later renamed the G-Body—remains a favorite for the same reason as the Camaro and Firebird: Cheap horsepower. Despite their hefty looks, most of these cars weighed about the same as a Camaro and featured similar engine options. The pinnacle of the type is almost certainly the Buick GNX with its turbocharged V6 and menacing triple-black look, but the general Lego nature of GM platforms means that with some clever junkyarding and parts-catalog digging, you can build a potent V8 Cutlass or even a GNX clone. These cars are popular with the big-wheels-and-candy-paint crowd (aka Donks) so there is still some market competition for them. However, a running V8 car is still plenty affordable, though not all V8 options were created equal. If you want to build your own V8 for the car, a 307 Olds-powered Cutlass or any V6 car might be worth a buy for now while you put together your raucous powerplant.
Realistic low-end of pricing: $2,000-$3,000 for assorted V8s and V8 swaps. V6 cars seemed price similarly.
From big power potential to a little less, we move to General Motors’ attempt at a mid-engine sports car. The little Pontiac two-seater is often remembered for having the engine behind the driver “just like a Ferrari,” though it’s less frequently said that the 90-horsepower Iron Duke four-cylinder was “just like a Ferrari.” Later Fiero GTs got a healthier 2.8-liter version of GM’s 60-degree V6 and since the Fiero’s discontinuation in 1988, people have dreamed up all kinds of swaps. Later and bigger-displacement GM V6 swaps remain popular, as do “Faux-rarri” body kits that transform the Fiero into a Ferrari, sort of. These kits look, at best, like putting on dad’s dress shirt for the homecoming dance and more frequently are in some state of incompletion or disrepair. Nevertheless, non-kit Fieros have developed a niche market and while classifieds pricing tends to look a bit inflated, you should be able to sift through them to find a running V6 or a pristine four-cylinder Fiero well within your budget.
Realistic low-end of pricing: $2,500 will buy you a running V6 car or a very, very nice Iron Duke car.
Buick Estate Wagon
We’ll call this the start of the “Bigger is Better” section. While General Motors’ B-Body wagons (Chevy Caprice and Impala, Pontiac Parisienne and Catalina, Buick Estate and Electra, and Oldsmobile Custom Cruiser) have plenty of heft, most of these cars had the V8 option ticked so that you have a bonafide, wood-paneled war wagon in the making right away. As a bonus, you get a bit of towing capacity, seating for eight, and room for your four-piece rock band plus your drums and amps. The rear-facing third-row seat remains awesome—Ford’s wagons had two longitudinal seats facing each other in the rear, which is also awesome—as does the swinging rear gate. Your biggest competition for this will inevitably be demolition derby builders, who have touted the merits of extra bodywork to absorb two-ton blows from big ol’ Cadillacs.
Realistic low-end of pricing: $2,000 should get you a running start. You can find decent running cars for as low as $1,200, but you might have to fight demo derby builders for them. That’s usually inadvisable. Those guys will back right into you and squash your radiator.
Low-budget performance is all well and good, but sometimes you just need seriously inexpensive comfort. Those full-size C-Body Cadillacs that have survived Cash for Clunkers and your local demo derby builder’s car-buying prowess stand at the pinnacle of affordable luxury. As the typical Cadillac owner put something like 20 miles per week on the car for two decades, most have immaculate interiors, low mileage, years spent in a dry garage, and to-the-hour maintenance records. In other words: Mint. The High Technology V8 engine choices (4.1- and 4.5-liter) aren’t going to set any land-speed records, but Cadillacs look best when cruising at low speed anyway. For true land-yacht status, aim for a 1980-1984 model before Cadillac trimmed a quarter-ton off their high-end offerings.
Realistic low-end of pricing: $2,000.
Lincoln Town Car and Mark VI
Basically, take everything said above about the Cadillac and apply it here for Ford fans. Both Lincolns were built on the Panther platform—the same used for the Ford Crown Victoria until its discontinuation in 2011—and featured a design that made the Olds Cutlass Supreme look sleek. Plush interiors and low miles are still the name of the game, though the Town Car and Mark VI both got versions of the same 5.0-liter V8 used in the Mustang, meaning you could make your own supremely boxy hot-rod Lincoln.
Realistic low-end of pricing: $1,800
Jeep Cherokee XJ
Jeep’s off-road reputation was well-earned before the 1980s, but the proliferation of Wranglers and Cherokees in the decade put them at the fore of the SUV game before there even was an SUV game. During the decade where AMC died, the Cherokee (and its upscale Wagoneer cousin) was more or less the sole reason that Chrysler plunked down cash to buy the Kenosha company. That’s a story for another day, but the XJ-platform Cherokee has a huge following to this day and you can find everything from a bone-stock survivor to a hacked-and-modded trail runner without much effort. Like 1980s pony cars, the aftermarket support is still astronomical and a Jeep is almost certainly the cheapest way to head off the beaten path. We’ll give honorable mention to the Big Three’s offerings—Ford Bronco, Chevy Blazer and Suburban, and Dodge Ramcharger—for their loyal devotees, also.
Realistic low-end of pricing: $2,000 will get you started with just about anything from bone stock to a dedicated muddin’ XJ.
Ford F-150, Chevy C10/K10, Dodge RAM
In our “Classic Cars for Summer Cash” list a couple weeks ago, we were on the fence about including a truck and when we didn’t, we heard you loud and clear: Roadkill fans love their trucks. Hailing from a rural Midwestern town originally, this author is familiar with pickup-truck culture; as a result, rather than pick one truck, we know how this works: You’re a fan of the 1980s offerings from one of the Big Three and nothing will convince you otherwise. To that end, we didn’t see much point in singling out one make since you know your loyalties. Go with what you like. Generally, any 30-year-old used truck won’t be a looker so be prepared for some bangs, bruises, and rust on whatever you find. If you’re not of a particular loyalty, our bit of research shows that GM offerings tend toward an extra $500 to $1,000 more than their Dodge or Ford competitors, possibly because there are a few more plug-and-play speed parts options.
Realistic low-end of pricing: Set your sights on $1,500 for a Ford or Dodge, a bit more for a Chevy. Maybe spend a little extra for a stepside because how rockin’ is the Muscle Truck?
Turbo Chryslers: Daytona, CSX, Omni GLH(S), Lancer, Laser, Lebaron GTS, Charger, TC by Maserati
While Ford and General Motors competed in pony car wars, Chrysler downsized to turbocharged four-cylinder engines in front-wheel-drive cars. While the majority of the remaining turbo Chryslers seem to be K-derived Chrysler Lebaron GTCs, Dodge Daytonas, and Chrysler Lasers, Carroll Shelby—of Mustang tuning fame—slapped his name on some of the K-derived cars like the Shelby CSX (an extra rapid Dodge Shadow Turbo) and Daytona to make some rapid front-drive cars. Shelby also lent his expertise to those cars’ predecessors on the L-Platform, the Shelby Charger and Dodge Omni GLH (which famously stands for “Go Like Hell”).They’re all fairly dated by modern standards, but they still have a substantial following and stand out in increasingly beige parking lots. If you’re after luxury, the turbocharged 1989 Chrysler TC by Maserati—a joint venture with the Italian builder that included a few extra horsepower and Italian coachwork in what was basically a Lebaron convertible—have fittingly come down to just-slightly-more-expensive-than-a-Lebaron territory.
Realistic low-end of pricing: $2,000 should get you a good Daytona, Chrysler Laser, or Lebaron. You could get a non-basketcase Shelby or GLH for somewhere between $2,500 and $3,500 and you can go whole-hog on a TC by Maserati for $3,000 to $4,000.
So…What did we leave out?