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Under Priced Chevy - Your Next Project Car

Hot Rides For Cool Dollars

Bob Mehlhoff Dec 1, 2005

With so many cool body styles to choose from, ease of modification, and unparalleled performance, driving a high-performance Chevy is a blast. But as the most covetous of these cars are approaching the pricing stratosphere, what's a hot rodder to do? Be different. That's what hot rodding is all about. Find one of the Chevys that the market has not yet zeroed in on and build it yourself. Yes, with the right car, a little labor, and some cool performance parts you can transform an overlooked '70s or '80s car into a hot ride for far less dough.

We've compiled a list of some of the Chevys we feel are currently under-priced but offer returns far in excess of what they're actually worth. The list is full of affordable later-model cars you can probably find near your home. Most of them will accept a wide array of performance engines and transmissions. We've done the research. The majority can be yours for $2,500-$5,000. Sure, you may find pristine examples for more dough, but for those looking for a bargain there's lots to be excited about.

The specific modelswe'll show are:
* Second- and Third-Gen Camaro
* Mid-'90s Camaro
* '78-88 A- and G-body
* '94-96 Caprice/Impala
* '68-74 Nova
* '75-79 Nova
* Early-'70s Malibu
* '82-92 S-10 Pickup

Where to get 'em
Local papers that include a photo or online services listing cars in your area are good sources. It's generally best to be able to look at the car yourself before plunking down your hard-earned money. Don't pay too much, either, if the seller believes his car is worth close to a high-priced musclecar of the same or similar body style. For example, don't pay a Z28 price for an ordinary Camaro. On the other hand, stay away from super low-priced cars that need everything. Often you'll end up money and time ahead by spending more money up front and forgoing a lifelong career rebuilding junk that once was a car.Another very popular source is eBay Motors ( As the largest source of used cars on the planet, eBay also offers a variety of services to help you buy the car you want. These include on-site vehicle inspection reports that disclose the general condition of the car without your actually seeing it.

The eBay site also provides the market-selling price of a particular car nationwide. Unlike the old published pricing standards that may have little or no actual record of the selling price of the particular car you're interested in buying, on eBay you can actually see how much a certain model has recently sold for and how many people bid on the vehicle. Just enter the year and type that interests you on the eBay site search box and then check the Completed Listings box within the last five days (shown down on the left). We tested this feature with a '77 Camaro and found most prices ranging from $2,000 to $6,000 (at the time of this writing).

Another way to find great cars is to ask about ones not offered for sale. Maybe the owner has been contemplating selling the car, but just hasn't gotten around to it yet. Look around your neighborhood; ask friends, relatives, your mailman. You may be surprised to find that the lady next door to your aunt has had a mint-condition '71 Nova two-door that hasn't run since 1990 and is just taking up space in her garage.

Once you've decided on a model, consider being flexible on some of the equipment and colors. For example, you may want an overdrive automatic, but the car you've found has a three-speed automatic. The overdrive trans can be added later. If you plan on painting the car anyway, you may overlook the exterior color as long as the interior is the color you want. On some other equipment, though, hold your ground, especially on a six-cylinder versus a V-8 engine on later-model cars. This is because most late-model cars (computer controlled) incorporate extensive underhood wiring, cooling systems, and emissions control infrastructure specific to the original engine. Secondly, if the vehicle must be emission-control tested, a switch from a six- to an eight-cylinder will raise a big red flag when it's time to have an emissions test. On the other hand, if you have simply replaced a 305 with a 350, most emission- control test centers will not notice, providing you've completed the install to match the original appearance and function and/or have chosen certified aftermarket parts with the proper labels. An engine transplant on a pre-computer-controlled (or emission tested) model is generally not much of a problem.

With a little homework and effort, you can find a great car at a good price that you'll be able to transform into a boulevard stormer. Be honest with yourself. Buy a car that matches your abilities, budget, and schedule. Building a good car requires all these things.


Early-'70s Camaros like this Rally Sport are often offered at bargain prices, especially when compared to the popular '69 models. The special Rally Sport front bumper was optionally available from '70 through '73 model years. We saw this car for sale near Long Beach, CA. When we returned a day later, the sign was gone. If you see a car you like, talk to the seller immediately.

Add a big motor, new paint, and some hot-looking wheels and you're off. Second-Gen Camaros benefit from having a large engine bay that will accept any Chevy V-8, as well as from the availability of a lot of aftermarket body parts.

Although the '78 Z28 did not roll off the showroom with much power from its low-performance 350, it did exhibit very good handling. Installing a modified 350 will make it really fun to drive. Late-'70s Z28s were typically fitted with 3.42 or 3.73:1 rearend gears (depending on transmission choice or CA emissions equipment). The '71-81 F-body uses the stronger 8.5-inch rearend. The front suspension of the Camaro can also use the larger 1.250-inch sway bars found on most Second-Gen Trans Ams (Z28s were smaller, 1.125-inch).

A Third-Gen IROC Camaro or Z28 is another great car to build. Most came with 700-R4 overdrive automatics and 350 engines, and with the proper combination of parts and driving habits, these cars provide good fuel economy. Camaros without T-Tops age better than those with them because the body doesn't flex as much with the entire roof intact.

If you're handy at bodywork and searching wrecking yards for deals, minor damage like this hit may be a good bargaining tool. Remember to deduct the retail parts and labor price (what a body shop would charge from the seller's price or market value of the car). Avoid cars requiring extensive repairs to the frame or major rust problems.

Love '68-72 Chevelles but don't want to spend the money for an SS? Consider buying a Malibu for far less money, removing the side emblems and moldings, and adding a domed or cowl induction hood...

...When you're done you'll have a hot-looking Malibu that will offer lots of fun and turn heads. Generally, stock Malibus carry a premium price compared to the others shown in this story.

Rated at 260 hp in the '94-96 B-body, the 5.7L LT1 provides strong power. The special (police) green silicone hoses provide long service life, withstanding relentless underhood temperatures. The alternator is a high-amp unit.

Police Caprices (in good condition) offer lots of factory-engineered performance components. To identify an authentic police Caprice with the 5.7L V-8, inspect the option label (found under the trunk lid) and look for the 9C1 code (Police Package) and the LT1 engine code (5.L V-8). A factory-built police car uses components designed for severe use such as engine-oil and power-steering coolers mounted in front of the radiator, green or blue silicon hoses, stiffer front seat springs, harder durometer body bushings, a firmer shifting transmission, a performance axle ratio, and a higher top-speed limiter in the factory ECM. In 1994, the Michigan State Police clocked a '94 Caprice with the 9C1 police package and LT1 engine at a top speed of 141.2 mph. Many of these cars are offered at government auctions for about $1,000 to $3,000. The best ones are those driven by fire captains, police sergeants, or government agencies that did not use them for 24/7 patrol.

The owner of this '87 El Camino added 1.6:1 rocker arms and a cold-air intake, and keeps the engine running in perfect tune with biannual tune-ups. All of the vacuum hoses have been replaced with new ones to help the engine from developing random vacuum leaks or robbing mileage and performance. Many of the mid-'80s El Caminos we saw sold for $4,000 to $6,000 in average-to-good condition.

We found many average-condition '96 Z28s selling from $5,000 to $7,500. The LT1 engine for '96 produced 285 hp, and automatic versions (when new) offered 17-mpg (city) EPA ratings. Not bad for a stock 14-second ride. These cars offer great handling, acceleration, and look great with a cool set of wheels and tires. Simple performance improvements are better exhaust systems, air intake, MAS airflow sensor, and computer reprogramming.

If you're looking for something fun to drive around town, haul a few items, and look cool, check out an early S-10 pickup. Though most came with economical four-cylinder engines, they make fun vehicles to modify mechanically as well as visually. The proliferation of V-8 swap kits makes the S10 a very viable alternative to the usual coupe or sedan (as long as your local smog laws allow it).

With some fresh wheels and tires, a spoiler, and some paint you can transform an ex-police Caprice into...

...a cool-looking ride similar to this Impala SS.

General Motors designated its mid-size A-body platform through the '81 model year; in '82 they renamed the same platform (mid-size RWD) the G-body. These mid-size cars were produced (depending on model) until the '87 and '88 model years. When choosing one of these platforms you'll be money ahead with a factory V-8. Most As and Gs with V-8 engines are 305-powered. This '87 El Camino has a 200-4R-overdrive automatic and 3.42:1 gears added (pulled from a wrecked Monte Carlo SS), a combination that provides a combined 20 mpg. Chevrolet's rear-drive Monte Carlo ceased production in '88, the El Camino in '87, and the rear-wheel-drive Malibu in '83.

Novas are a great alternative to early Camaros. The front suspension and subframe of a '68-74 is largely the same as a '67-69 Camaro. The models from '68 through '72 typically sell for more money than the '74s and '75s, mostly because the '74 and '75 models have the energy-absorbing larger bumpers...

...If you want a Nova that handles exceptionally well, consider the '75-79. The front suspension is similar to the front of a Second-Gen Camaro (F-Body) and will accept the same parts, such as the '70-81 Trans Am front sway bar.

Check and Compare
Buyer's Checklist
Be sure that...
.the car has a clear title
.the car doesn't have a salvage title
.the VIN on the title matches the car's VIN (on the dash in front of the driver)
.the car can be re-registered in its current condition
.your insurance company will insure the car
.you put the car on a lift and inspect the undercarriage for hard damage
.you inspect the front tires for unusual wear
.you check for excessive rust in the trunk, around the bottoms of the doors, under the carpeting, and the windshield
.you check for wet or mildewed carpeting
.all of the windows roll up and down
.you have the car inspected by a third party if you can't be there
.the car sits reasonably level on even ground


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