Our favorite muscle cars won’t be getting cheaper anytime soon, and regardless of the current economic situation, street machines are still commanding big money. If you’re like most enthusiasts, a lot of us still dream of owning a first-gen Camaro, or early Chevelles and Novas for that matter.
It’s not to say that you still can’t score a project car for a decent price, but let’s be real—you better be at the right place at the right time. For others, they’ve done an excellent job of holding onto their pride and joy and gradually transforming them into the incredible street machines we like to feature.
Nevertheless, we’re still fortunate enough to have a wide selection of cool cars to choose from, including the four-door variants and wagons. Lest we forget, there are also the later-model Novas, G-bodies like the Monte Carlo and Malibu, and El Caminos. Taking it one step newer are the third- and fourth-gen Camaros and C4 Corvettes—all of which are great platforms for performance modifications.
We’re living in an era where the aftermarket offers just about every bolt-on you can imagine, making it easy to turn any mundane cruiser into a serious performer. The hardest part is deciding which car is right for you. Check it out and we’re sure you’ll agree, plenty of cars are still roaming around that are just craving to get your attention. —Henry D
The two-door, “big-body” Chevelle (A-body) is legendary. As its design progressed through the years, its claimed horsepower and torque ascended into muscle car history with superstar status. However, by the ’73 model year, the Chevelle had lost a lot of its power due to government and environmental restrictions. Although power was on the decline, its suspension remained throughout and front discs were now standard. Its frame was also sturdier than previous models and came with the larger, 8.5-inch rearend and wider, 6-inch wheel rim width. Rear suspension is also a four-link design and makes upgrading to stronger, adjustable arms a no-brainer for performance applications.
The Chevelle was supposed to be GM’s midsize family hauler, however, many owners and gearheads alike quickly turned them into stripped-down models for racing. The good news, Chevelle parts are plentiful and suspension components are not only abundant but probably the aftermarkets most favorite to supply. These models serve as the perfect LS-engine swap, too, with complete swap kits available. Even though the coupes of these years are fetching higher bids, the four-door and wagon models remain low. Again, suspension and drivetrain remained the same and could haul more since wagons came in six- and even nine-passenger models.
|’73-77||two-door coupe, four-door, and wagon|
|Expect to pay|
The earlier-model year Novas sporting fewer doors are undeniably, the most sought after platforms. Commonly referred to as, “Chevy IIs” and “Box Novas,” their simplistic shape, minor parts, featherweight construction, and ability to swallow almost any engine size has made them well liked. Finding a rust-free, two-door roller in “decent shape” is another story. Unless you’re in the right place at the right time, finding one at a bargain is almost unheard of.
That’s where the previously unwanted ’62-65 four-door sedan gains its strength. Typically not as desirable as its earlier two-door sibling, the aftermarket is rich in suspension and OEM replacement parts since most are universal. Early Novas relied on a semi-unibody construction and consisted of a bolt-on front and rear section. For later Novas (’68-74) the front and rear was changed to a complete subframe structure assembly and was shared with the Camaro, introduced later that year.
More recently, the aftermarket has followed suit and even offer complete, drop-in front and rear sections for early ’62-65 model years. While full-tilt packages for suspension upgrades can easily run through any builder’s budget, not all is lost. Most aftermarket manufacturers are continuing to supply these platforms with affordable bolt-on performance parts for the factory subframes and their costs are dropping. Since drivetrains on these models varied, you’re bound to find one with an aftermarket or rebuilt unit. Typical sellers of these models have probably already swapped in a beefier, TH350 transmission. If you’re a great bargain hunter, finding a six-cylinder or small-block–powered Nova is a steal. This makes upgrading on these platforms not only easy, but affordable too. Small- and big-block or LS swaps are extremely popular and parts for such a job are readily available for little cost.
|’73-77||El Camino (A-body)|
|’78-87||El Camino (G-body)|
|Expect to pay|
|expect to pay|
Possibly considered one of the stepchildren of the muscle car bunch, the ’70-87 Monte is anything but. Monte Carlos are easily one of the most underrated two-door coupe performers that came from GM. With the early Monte models sporting a rear-drive setup and either a small- or big-block, and anything from a manual (three- and four-speed) or automatic (two- and three-speed) right from the factory, their potential for a cool hot rod is obvious.
Although some later Montes (’73-87) suffered from an underpowered small-block (305 ci), there is still room for improvement for the street/strip minded. Upgrades, like a set of cylinder heads, camshaft, and larger carburetor can quickly morph any of these variants into a great performer. Not good enough, still? The entire Monte Carlo lineup, A- or G-body variants, will accept nearly any powertrain combination. Moreover, replacement parts are easily found, too, and will support nearly any rearend upgrade.
Whether an A- or G-body variant, all were supported on full frames that made them strong and allowed them long lives on the road, making them available today with little rust. Factory suspension components would suffice, too, to an extent. Having a four-link rear suspension will support any duty and still leaves room for big tires.
|Expect to pay|
Is it a truck or car, or could it possibly be GM’s very first crossbreed SUV ever built? Produced between 1959 and the late ’80s, the El Camino saw a ton of model changes before it was discontinued in 1987. The good news is the early ones were essentially the same as a Chevelle wagon, and shared that frame, which makes upgrading the suspension simpler. Although the more popular mid- to late-’60s El Caminos are still available, even as a straight roller, they’re getting harder and harder to find at an affordable price.
What’s next? The later fifth-gen (’78-87) El Caminos are the same as any G-body. What’s more, running platforms for these years are only commanding $1,000-$2,000. That’s great news for prospective buyers who still want to build a solid performing platform. Even though most came with the milder 305ci (150-165hp) small-block, simple aftermarket upgrades like cylinder heads, manifold, and a free-flowing set of headers can really turn these bland bodies into affordable performers. Some came equipped with 350ci small-blocks; we’ve even seen some with crate big-blocks with zero fitment issues. For California buyers, the upgrades can become more difficult because of smog limitations, but some creative thinking, like an LS swap, can transform these into the perfect hauler.
Since the El Camino bodies all share the same platform as their Malibu cousins, suspension upgrades are also abundant and nearly every aftermarket company offers complete front-to-rear components. Worried about replacement parts? If you weren’t aware, Original Parts Group (www.opgi.com) now carries a complete line of OEM components like the hard-to-find plastic interior trim to bring these back to life.
There’s no question everyone loves the Camaro. However, not all of us can slip into a great-running first-gen without breaking the bank. Luckily, there’s always plan B. With what seems like an endless supply of third- and later, fourth-gen Camaros swimming around in Recycler ads, an educated eye can find a sweet deal.
From ’82-92, third-generation Camaros can supply you with fuel-injected small-block power and an overdrive or manual transmission; making these great entry-level project cars for cheap. Third-gens were light, too, and weighed 500 pounds less than the second-gens with platforms that translate easily into any drag, street, or autocross vehicle.
Stepping up to the fourth-gen (’93-96) bodies will give prospective Camaro hunters an all-new engine design (LT1) with increased power and antilock brakes, traction control, and made the T56 manual transmission available too.
Later fourth-gens (’97-02), again, got another revision. This time it got a completely new engine in the form of the LS1. The LS1s are all aluminum, meaning it’s superlight, and the aftermarket is flooded with bolt-on performance parts to make these mills scream with little work. What’s more, these sleds dipped into the 13-second marks from the factory. Minor tweaking with just intake and exhaust will net gains. Rearends are strong, too, and will support nearly anything you can throw at them.
|’82-92 (third-gen)||two-door coupe|
|’93-02 (fourth-gen)||two-door coupe|
|Expect to pay|
Their bland styling and lethargic powerplants haven’t made them the first choice when it comes to choosing an affordable project car. With most of the first- and second-generation muscle cars absent from the marketplace, the ’78-83 Malibus have become quite the underdog. This would include two- and four-door, and wagon models, too; although, the wagons are considered heavier. They’re quickly filling in for the traditional role of a muscle car and becoming the norm.
While earlier Malibus (’64-81) shared the same A-body platform as the Chevelle, the revised ’82-83 Malibu was renamed G-body. Powerplants varied through the years, however, any buyer in pursuit of one is bound to find it with a either the smaller, 305ci small-block (140 hp) or more desirable 350ci small-block (165-170 hp). Parts are easy to come by, and although many aftermarket companies don’t supply new OEM replacement parts, the local scrap yard will. Additionally, they’ll easily support nearly any traditional, small- or big-block engine, LS swap, and transmission combination.
Though most builders have turned these later G-body Malibus into drag racers, suspension components to transform these into autocrossers are also readily available. With room that comfortably seats four and the wagons holding even more, they’re quickly changing the game.
|’78-83 Malibu||two-door coupe, four-door sedan, wagon|
|expect to pay|
There’s no doubting the Corvette’s legacy as each generation introduced consistent improvements upon its predecessor. With any vehicle, as time goes on, its value will depreciate, making them more appealing to the few who couldn’t get their hands on one when it was new. Nevertheless, if you aren’t into its new-wave ’80s styling, the C4 Corvette superstructure underneath is where it shines. Sporting independent front and rear suspension, large four-wheel discs brakes on each corner, fat tires, and lightweight bodies, these fourth-gens could hook and go with ease.
Even though most examples will probably have over 100,000 miles on them, a mid-’80s runner, generally equipped with an automatic transmission are a steal at just around $4,000. Got more to spend? A later, ’92-96 version has the more powerful 300hp LT1 but fetches close to $8,000.
As with most upgrades, complete bolt-on exhaust systems are a great way to induce more ponies from the stock engine. Other popular engine upgrades include complete top end kits, camshafts, larger fuel injectors, and even cold air kits. Since the C4 Corvette relies on computer-controlled engines, the door for more performance is also available. Plug-in PROM chips and handheld programmers can retune the car’s computer for more performance by changing the fuel/timing, shift points, firmness, and even the rev limiter. Should the factory suspension not satisfy, most Corvette-specific aftermarket companies offer anything from simple bolt-ons to complete road-race ready versions. CHP
|’84-96 Corvette||two-door coupe, Targa, convertible|
|expect to pay|