Modifying a car requires time, money, and most importantly knowledge. Time is money, so whether or not you have enough of either depends on you, but knowledge can affect the modification process in a different way. No matter what car you want to modify, there’s always a wealth of knowledge you need to obtain that dictates if whether or not the modification will be successful. Understand that modifying a car doesn’t necessarily raise its value, so if you plan on heavy modification don’t plan on selling it anytime soon. With that said, we’d never officially recommend car modification, but if you’ve obtained tunnel vision and the only thing you can see emerging from the light at the end is 500 horsepower displayed on a computer monitor, carry on. Modifying cars can be difficult, so we’ve found five cars that are cheap to buy and relatively cheap to modify, and everything under the sun has already been done to these cars. That makes knowledge plentiful.
Fox body Mustangs actually came out in 1979, however, did not receive fuel injection until 1986, so we're going to start with that year. Mustangs, in general, are pretty easy to modify simply because there are so many options available, and as a whole, they are cheap cars. Usually, people modify Mustangs for straight line speed and for that you need less weight, big tires, and a lot of power. To handle that power you need an engine that’s strong enough in its construction. For lightweight, high and cheap horsepower, you’ll want to look for a 1987-1992 Mustang GT. In those years the Mustang's 5.0-liter V8 had forged pistons and could take 500 horsepower with a good carburetor and Ford Powerstroke turbocharger. If you’re worried about tires next, don’t worry the Mustang has been known to handle tire width of up to 275mm in the rear with no modifications.
One of the most sought-after modifiable cars is the Nissan 240sx. You can do a lot of things to these cars with their massive engine bays, including engine swapping their original 2.4-liter inline-four engines for a Chevrolet LS1 V8, for 350 naturally aspirated horsepower right out of the factory. The differential from the 240sx is beefy enough to handle that power too. The only problem you may face with the 240sx is its tires, as it comes with 4-lug wheels which makes finding wheels and tires somewhat difficult. Not to worry though, you can get a 5-lug conversion kit and Z32 (1990-1996 US Nissan 300zx) brakes to solve the problem. Then you will have wheel and tire choices aplenty. You can also fit a variety of suspension setups and that coupled with the fact that the car will be lighter from the aluminum V8 means your 240 will handle beautifully. If you price It right and do the work yourself, this swap can cost as little as $3,000.
Under “Acura” in North America, the Honda Integra is one of the first cars to ever get a VTEC Honda engine. VTEC is Honda’s own technology and can be explained by extra rockers spinning camshafts faster thereby allowing more power at high RPMs. For its size the Integra has enough power, so the only thing that’s thought to need modification from the factory is the suspension. Of course, improved braking systems can’t hurt, but aren’t totally necessary until you start doing some power modifications. Integras are everywhere. For later models with VTEC, you’ll be paying more, but earlier models are still very affordable. Also, it’s a Honda so it’ll be reliable.
Like the S13, the Mx-5 has a sizable engine bay that can comfortably fit a V8. If you’re going to get one, get a 1994-95 1.8-liter Mx-5 for the bigger engine which is mated to a superior differential. 1994-95 also means its computer is only capable of the first stage of On-Board Diagnostics (OBD1), so the car is easier to smog, as it’s under less complicated parameters than 1996 and onward OBD2. The Mx-5’s appeal comes from it weighing just barely more than 2,000 pounds, and a lot of Mx-5 owners put stock into its 50/50 weight distribution which makes it handle like mad. One of the biggest, possibly the biggest appeal of the Mx-5 from 1994-95 is its cost. The car is very cheap, in just about every way. It’s reliable and easy to work on so repairs are cheap, it’s small so maintenance is cheap, and initially, they go for as little as $1,000 as running cars.
Subarus are a part of a niche market of blind enthusiasts, and they have good reason to be as such. The 1990s Subaru Imprezas are phenomenal to modify because they are interchangeable with newer Subarus. You can fit the second generation WRX STi power and drive train into an Impreza without modifying the body. That’s 300 turbocharged AWD horsepower in a much lighter package. More than just the power and drivetrain is interchangeable though. To be sure, consult a list before you start spending tons of money on eBay.
The main thing to take away from this list is that each of these cars has been modified to death. The knowledge of these cars is abundant, which means less mystery. It’s a luxury when you can simply research a crazy modification idea you have and find out if it’ll work or not.
Avid Formula 1 fan and motorcyclist, I enjoy chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream and long rides to the beach.