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What "non-enthusiast" car would be a "sleeper-muscle" car?

Basically, I have the hankering for a traditional “Michigan muscle” type car, but cannot afford the price tag of the late '60s machines.

So, I was thinking, perhaps use as a starting point one of the cars made when RWD domestics were decidedly “uncool.” This made me think of the '82 Plymouth Gran Fury my grandparents had. Since the Dodge Diplomat version was a hack/squad car, beefed up suspension parts should be available, plus the 318 or 360 V8 has the necessary cu in (granted the HP was way off, but there ought to be a fair amount of easily obtained HP).

The obvious downside is no resale value, but it’d be a fun car! Any other ideas of how to get a V8, RWD ride for a minimum of $$?

Plain Buick Grand Nationals (not the GNX) or the Buick Regal of the same vintage OR the Chevy Monte Carlo, those are nice. The Chevy Citation X-11 from 1981-1985 are very cool but rare. The square Fox body Mustangs have more aftermarket than most any other car out there and are pretty inexpensive. Ford Taurus SHO, Thunderbird Turbo Coupe ('83 - '88) or Super Coupe ('89 - '95), Chevy Impala SS or Caprice with sporty options, C4 Corvettes (not a muscle car, but still),

Of course the Ford Crown Vic can easily be cloned to a Mercury Marauder, and a Chevy Caprice to an Impala SS. I saw a Crown Vic once that had the police package, except for a beefed up Mustang GT engine with a Roush supercharger on it. This was not a Ford option, believe me.

Both base cars can be found dirt cheap. It’s the build up that costs money. If looking old school, like carbs and distributors, you’d need to find '82 or earlier versions. And, there are a lot of other base models that can handle large amounts of HP.

How about a '63 Studebaker Lark sedan with the optional Avanti supercharged R-2 engine, or the even hotter R-3, or the very rare R-4 engine?

This would be much faster than any of the other cars that you are considering, and it would be a real “Q-ship” that would take everyone by surprise.

I’ve always found it to be cheaper to follow the trend when trying to “hop-up” anything. Mustang comes to mind . . . Ford made the car to be “hopped-up” and recently . . . the last dozen or so years, has been selling top shelf performance parts just for the Mustang. Hacking stuff together to make a sleeper is cool, but it could get to be more expensive than, say a Mustang build. Just my humble opinion. Rocketman

A 94-96 Caprice with a 5.7 liter LT1 motor. The LT1 was standard on the wagon. The 91-93 Caprice had 5.0 or 5.7 liter TBI motors (L03 or L05), plenty of torque, good mpg, reliable, but not a lot of HP. I have a 93 with the 5.0, enough power, but no hot rod.

If you can live with a pickup, a second generation Dodge Dakota (92-96) with the 318 Magnum (~220 HP) should do the trick. I had a 95 Dakota with the V6 and regret not getting the V8 at the time. Newer Dakotas (97+) got bigger and heavier.

A friend picked up a plain jane 2006 Crown Vic with the Interceptor package. He’s quite happy with the performance.

Ed B.

For low $$ the best RWD V8s would be either the Mustang or a short-bed pickup. Those Diplomats/Grand Fury were rust magnets, hard to find one. The Caprice (not Impala SS) and the same year Buick version with the LT1 would also work.

How about the late 70’s/early 80’s G bodies (Pontiac LeMans/Grand Am, Chevy Malibu, Olds Cutlass, Buick Regal)?

A non-Grand National Buick Regal would be good. Everyone knows about the Grand National. But nobody suspects the regular regal with wire hubcabs and a 383 stroker sitting under the hood. The Crown Vic would work, the P71’s are dirt cheap and with the addition of a supercharger could surprise alot of people. The Z34 Chevy Luminas are good sleepers. The ultimate sleeper would be a 1989ish Dodge Caravan Turbo. You can swap out the 2.5L turbo for the 2.2L turbo III/IV engine, crank up the boost and have a minivan that can knock out 12 second 1/4 miles all day long.

The 71 LTD with the 351 Windsor engine was a lot of fun. Any old Maverick with a V’8. Any old Ford with a 390.

Are you subjected to emissions testing where you live?? Don’t get into a project and then hit THAT wall…1981 through 1995 can be emissions nightmares, the worst cars ever made.

Here is some cheap, fast fun. Locate a V-8 Mustang-II and a Pinto. Transfer the V8 and the running gear, brakes and suspension, rear end from the Mustang to the Pinto, they share the same platform so it’s pretty much a bolt-in. Use a C-4 tranny. The only tricky part is relocating the radiator forward and fabricating a nice set of duel exhausts. With a STOCK 302 (use a 500cfm Autolite 2V carb off a 390 truck engine) this car is a rocket. A real giant killer. I built one for $800 20 years ago. If you put some money in the engine, better get your driving skills sharpened up and maybe add a roll cage…

Another cheap sleeper, a V8 Chevy Monza. This was a Vega with a 265 small block. Replace the 265 smog motor with a 350 crate motor and fasten your seat belt…

The problem with even a lot of the smog era cars is that they’re also becoming collectible or have been turned into drag cars. The early 80s Malibus for instance.
As mentioned by Rocketman, Mustangs are one of the cheapest and easiest to build and shoehorning a 460 into them is a common swap.

My personal preference is for the unusual so if standing out a bit is preferred you could go with something like an AMC (American, Rebel, even a Hornet). The cars are way underrated and the 304 is a very good, strong running engine even in stock form.

Another possibility (and I’ve got one) is a Merkur XR4Ti (German Cosworth Ford). These cars can be found on the cheap and have an unusual if not downright weird appearance. They can be modded by adding a small block Ford or the stock turbo 4 cylinder can be beefed up to run with the best of them.
A guy running at the road course near here a few years back was running an XR4 with a stock 4 cylinder bottom end with 21 PSI of boost on the turbo and was outrunning 427 Corvettes and CJ428 Mustangs with it.

A buddy of mine is thinking of putting a Ford V-8 in a Mazda Miata . . . he says it’s a real easy swap, I don’t know much more than that about it except what I see on the web . . . a bunch of aftermarket outfitters are selling complete kits for this swap. It fits your parameters . . . low buck (used Miata with blown motor) . . . Ford V-8 . . . rear wheel drive . . . but I can’t call it a sleeper somehow. One of my old mechanic friends used to say there’s NOTHING you can’t build if you have a torch, tools and a lot of money. Good luck! Rocketman

Try to Google “V-8 Mazda Miata on You Tube”. Stacy David goes through a build on video. Rocketman

We must not forget a Chevette with a 350 conversion : ) Or maybe a Ford Fairmont wagon hoped up on mustang parts.

There are lots of good suggestions here. What do you want to do, drag race? If you want an uncool sedan, I have two words for you, Grand Marquis. You can’t say it without Grandma! They are the same car as Crown Victorias, but have a more plodding image.

You can get a new or lightly-used one very inexpensively. Get one with a blown-up motor and it will be cheaper still. That would be challenging, however, since they are very reliable and grandma can’t really push down on the accel pedal very hard. The chief advantage I see is that these are modern cars with infinitely better systems including, modern brakes, air bags, better steering, stronger frames, better suspension,… The 80s vehicles feel like rattle-traps by comparison. There are good suspension upgrades available too.

You can get lots of information at If you are really serious about adding horsepower, start in the modular high performance forum. There is discussion there right now about how to put a 3V, VVT 4.6l into these cars (in place of the 2V). You could probably do it for between 5 and 10K + the cost of the car. Supercharge it and you could probably make 500+ HP. That would be a pretty good sleeper.

I’m partial to the old 70’s RWD Japanese cars. If you live somewhere that rust hasn’t destroyed all of these, you can get an old Corolla or a Datsun and you’ve got a really light RWD platform that an engine from, say, a Supra or a later Z-car will drop right into. And there’s a HUGE aftermarket of performance parts for those engines.

try craigslist for a cheap car to build

Fat chance of finding one but the Dodge Aspen/Plymouth Volare had a package that was supposed to be a hot car for the smog dog era.

Try an AMC Gremlin X.

No idea how deep you want to get into a muscle car but nothing says muscle to me more than a large number of cubic inches and pure tire-twisting torque.

If this is a project involving an engine swap you might consider using a 70s era Cadillac 500 C.I. engine. The engines and even the entire cars can often be found on the comparative cheap and if luck is with you the car may be one equipped with a Posi rear axle that could be fitted to another make of car.

The only drawback to the Caddy engines is they’re comparatively low revvers and limited by their valve train. Of course, they were never meant to be wound to 6 grand by granny on the way to church either. The valve train issue is very easily remedied and the engines are about as indestructible as you can get.

With manifold changes the physical size and weight of the Caddy is not much more than a Chevy 350.
Just something to consider if you want to have braggin’ rights for the biggest motor on the block and yes, traction is an issue. :slight_smile: