If you’re in the market for a new headache (project car,) there’s no better time to get started than in the winter. You’re not going to be driving, you spend a lot of time at home, and need something to keep that seasonal depression at bay. Why not take advantage of those aspects and do some wrenching on something that doesn’t have to run for a while? Since you won’t be driving it any time soon, the winter allows you the opportunity to get something in rough shape, make it slightly passable, and then enjoy it when the weather warms up! Here are our top five suggestions for project cars you can pick up for cheap and get running in time for spring.
1: BMW E39 528i
The E39 5-series is perhaps one of the most slept-on cars out there. It’s rear-wheel drive, comfortable, available as a manual transmission, and has a simple M52 straight-six engine to provide power. With affordable examples in the $1,000-2,000 range, these cars rarely need much beyond basic maintenance to have them on the road for little effort. Generally, you’ll need to worry about head gasket issues, cooling system issues, interior electrical issues (window regulators, seat controls, steering column functions, climate control), and traction control module funny business. Other than brakes, oil service, wheels/tires, filters, and maybe a few other bits, the E39 528i could be your next project for less than a few grand.
2: Volkswagen Jetta MK4 (VR6)
Around the same price point as the E39 528i is the Volkswagen Jetta MK4 VR6. Its compact 2.8-liter narrow-angle V6 power plant makes it more spunky than its mundane appearance looks on the surface, it can be had with a manual transmission, comes with a modern and somewhat luxurious interior, and the convenience of a sedan layout makes it usable as a daily. These are popular entry-level stance builds, as they look incredible laid out static or bagged, and have enormous aftermarket support. These cars are also known for cooling issues, poor interior condition, paint fading, and rust, but mechanically they’re incredibly simple and inexpensive. The MK4 Jetta could be your next build for as little as $2,000.
3: MINI Cooper R50
If you just want something spunky, the MINI Cooper R50 (first generation) is the spunkiest thing you can think of. It’s not going to blow anyone’s doors off, it isn’t going to turn any heads, but my god, are MINI Coopers fun to drive. They’re plucky, energetic, and engaging. While they don’t offer blistering performance figures in terms of horsepower to the wheels, they’re small, nimble, and incredibly responsive. Again, head gaskets, timing chain guides, suspension, and basic maintenance issues are your main concerns like everything on our list, but it’s not exactly a complex car. Its diminutive stature makes everything a bit compact and tough to wrench on, but that’s about it. If you want a fun, unique, and engaging project car, the R50 MINI Cooper won’t do you wrong.
4: Mercedes-Benz W124
Ok, this one is a bit open-ended. There were quite a few different models under the W124 chassis code, which had different engines, transmissions, and features, but they were all fairly similar. The 190e, 300d, and other number-soup models are easy enough to find, generally well-kept by their doting old owners, and can be found in visually excellent condition for next to no initial investment. Unfortunately, they are all rather complex, with many functions being vacuum-operated, and will probably require a good bit of work. However, the diesel editions, while slow, are incredibly stout and maintenance-free. These are becoming popular among stance enthusiasts, especially since its main rival, the E30, has grown in price.
5: Audi B5 A4 2.7 Quattro
Finally, an Audi for the rest of us. With 1.8T A4 and 2.7T S4 models rising in price, the less popular 2.7 naturally aspirated A4 is still affordable, if harder to find. These cars are comfortable, with a modern interior despite the age of the car, and come in manual transmission Quattro variants for year-round driving fun. While they aren’t as easy to pull power from as the 1.8T versions, or as desirable as the S4, that makes them a bit better to find in unmodified examples that haven’t lived a rough life. The biggest issues with the 2.7 NA B5 A4s will be basic maintenance like spark plugs, fluid services, filters, brakes, and unfortunately, rust. Rust and age will be the most annoying things to fight with a B5 A4, but you can still find decently clean examples. The B5 A4 2.7 Quattro is potentially the nicest, most modern, and best car for year-round fun and could be your next project for less than a few thousand bucks.
These are simply some suggestions we have for Euro project cars that are still affordable, but when it comes to your next project, there are far more options than you would consider. What it takes is thinking outside the box. Consider what you want from your car. Make a purchase decision based on your budget and needs, then get to work. One of the most fun things in car enthusiasm is picking up a new project, especially when you are the only person who sees the value in your near-scrap priced purchase. This is your chance to breathe life, and appreciation, back into a forgotten part of car history. Now go out there, pick up something fun, and start wrenching.