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Top 11: Cars That Deserve A Top-Budget Build! History Wasn’t Kind To These Cars, But Should They Get A Second Chance?

Top 11: Cars That Deserve A Top-Budget Build! History Wasn’t Kind To These Cars, But Should They Get A Second Chance?

It is amazing to see just how quickly some car models disappear from the landscape, isn’t it? How strange it was that you used to see Ford Mavericks everywhere and then POOF! they are all gone except for the hot-rodded ones and the cars that the owners were too lazy to drag to the junkyard. But does every car deserve to go extinct? Setting aside my personal quirks about strange vehicle appreciation, no, I don’t think that most cars are pointless turds. Some are…the late 1990s era Chevrolet Malibu is one of those cars that neither had soul, point or purpose, and was nowhere even close to the target that GM had in mind. They suck. But these cars, for one reason or another, deserve a second chance. Do they need work to get to where they need to be? Yes, they do. But are they worth it? I think so.

11. 1993-1997 Chrysler LH Platform 

eagle vision

They arrived with a ton of fanfare and gave Chrysler the kick in the ass they certainly needed in sales in the early 1990s, and together with the new-for-1994 Ram truck, brought Chrysler another wave of good fortune. Then they all just freaking disappeared. Why? Let’s start with the transmission that had all of the structural integrity of a glass house and go from there. They look good, but they don’t perform. Chrysler dropped the ball by keeping the LH cars (Chrysler Concorde, Dodge Intrepid and Eagle Vision) front-wheel-drive, but that’s ok…a leftover AMC-Renault collaboration, the LH platform was designed to be both FWD and RWD…you know what we’d do, but as for the engine, that’s up to you. In case you’re wondering, here’s a Dodge Intrepid with a turbocharged Chevrolet 396 in the bay for consideration:


10. Geo Metro 


The Geo isn’t on the list because it was a terrible car. It did exactly what it promised to do: deliver great fuel economy. And, unfortunately, that was all it ever did. Where was the failing? GM missed the boat on two separate trends: the import tuner craze of the late 1990s-2000s and the hot hatchback trend that is rapidly picking up steam. Sure, the Metro would have sold on it’s fuel mileage capability, but wasn’t there room in the lineup for a hot version with a killer suspension? A high-revving four-banger, possibly turbocharged, and a stiff suspension can make ordinary, basic transportation quite interesting.

9. Chrysler Minivans


Don’t laugh. The first generation came with manual transaxles. The second generation came with all-wheel drive. Combine both of those positives in one minvan and what do you get? A rally wagon that can haul the kids, haul some cargo, and haul some ass. This early 1990s Caravan has got my full attention…I’m picturing the drivetrain from an SRT-4 Caliber jammed in the front end of this baby. Yes, I’m sick right now. No, I’m not insane.

8. 1990-91 Oldsmobile Quad 442


To be fair, General Motors actually tried here. A homologation special meant to go racing in SCCA’s , Olds took the Cutlass Calais, slapped in a hot Quad 4 engine up front, set the suspension on “kill”, dug up the recently killed “442” nameplate and cut it loose to the world. And it was solid out of the box: it’d run a [email protected] stock in 1990. But the Quad 4 was a bitch to maintain (think a timing belt ever 35,000 or so miles!) and not many were produced. The concept was great, the execution…not so much. The look is right, but I wonder how it would take to the drivetrain out of a Chevrolet Cobalt SS?

7. 1994-2001 Dodge Ram


Without question my favorite truck ever made, the 1994 Ram bridges the gap between trucks as they used to be and the freaking monoliths being sold now perfectly. The look of the body aged beautifully, and in clean condition, like the one pictured, they just exude class. But Chrysler really screwed up in one department. Ok, maybe two: the transmissions aren’t known for being great. But worse was the engine choices. The Cummins diesel is faultless. The V-10, while odd and thirsty, isn’t the one I’m looking at. It’s the 5.2 and 5.9L Magnum V8s that fail the truck. I owned a 2001 5.9L extended cab, and the 245 horsepower it had was barely enough to qualify as useful. Nowadays you see these ran down and ragged out… time to refit the 6.4 out of a wrecked SRT item into one of these beasts and restore it!

6. Chevrolet Astro/GMC Safari


GM really missed an opportunity with their S-10 based minivans…the four-wheel-drive market! They had a decent range of engines available, and if that wasn’t enough they can accept a small-block, but lifted, four-wheel-drive people movers for a decent price? How was this not a thing from the factory? A ZR2 Astro Van would have filled a niche that nobody had thought of.

5. 1981-82 Ford Granada 2-door


Most people don’t even remember this car, and that’s not surprising…it’s bad, even by Malaise Era standards. It’s boring, bland as hell and cheap-looking. So is a box-top Ford Fairmont 2-door from the same era…they are the same damn car and Fairmonts are desired! Yet, the Fox-body Ford Granada does have a few things going for it besides the platform: nobody knows what it is, and there is no indication of what it can do. A 347 stroker on nitrous hiding behind the quietest exhaust ever lends this one into sleeper territory nobody would see coming. This is one of the few cars over 30 years old that could pull off the ruse successfully.

4. 1985-88 Ford EXP

Ford Exp

Yes, the first-generation Ford EXP was an ugly little bastard. It looked like a sad frog. But Ford’s idea of a two-seat, “fun to drive” coupe wasn’t such a bad idea…it was just born in the middle of the worst point in American automotive history. By 1986, Ford had managed to make the EXP look pretty good…ok, really good…but as far as power goes, a church mouse’s fart has a bigger impact than the 1.9L four-banger underhood could have dreamed of, and that’s a shame when a pretty body is cast off due to performance failure. The Ford Fiesta ST’s 197-horsepower 1.6L four would be more like it, but why stop there when the Focus ST’s 252-horsepower mill would be better suited…six speed transaxle attached, of course. This would make for a killer Pro Commuter build.

3. 1995-2000 Chrysler Sebring


This car was tragic from start to finish: Chrysler digs up the “Sebring” nameplate, which had great memories and a connection to the fabled race course, put it onto a handsome coupe that was based off of the Mitsubishi Eclipse platform, then proceeds to ignore any and all good sides of the Eclipse platform, like the turbocharged 2.0L four cylinder and the all-wheel drive and almost sarcastically pawned it off as a personal luxury coupe. The Sebring name may be forever tarnished due to the even worse generations that followed this car, but there’s hope for the first generation: find an Eclipse GSX, raid it for the good stuff, and shove under it. Domestics and imports alike wouldn’t know what hit them when all four wheels brake loose at launch. Or go the V8/RWD route, like Dodge teased with early IROC Avenger race cars.

2. 1995-2000 Chevrolet Monte Carlo


The second the relaunched Monte Carlo appeared, the cries started to raise to the heavens: V8. Rear drive. And if you ignore Jon Moss’s attempts with the Chevrolet “Toy Box” team, those cries fell on deaf ears, even as the car became wildly popular in NASCAR. There was no V8, or rear wheel drive. Even the supercharged 3.8L V6 was years off, and the LS4 5.3L V8 was both wrong-wheel drive and a decade away. The shape is slippery, the look is clean and handsome (if bland), and for a coupe, it’s roomy. And they are cheap…a couple thousand dollars will net you a nice car, a couple hundred dollars will get you a body donor that runs. I doubt that you would hear bitching about doing an LS swap into one of these.

1. 1987-95 Chrysler LeBaron Coupe

LeBaron GTC

Yes, it’s front-wheel drive. Yes, it’s based on the K-platform. No, in stock form it wasn’t that great. But look at the damn thing…it’s the muscle car Chrysler should have built! Yes, the Shelby cars and the Daytona/Laser get more press but the LeBaron coupe that was made from 1987 to 1995 just looks perfect. It doesn’t look as “Florida retiree” as much as it’s roofless sibling does. It’s smaller than a similar vintage F-body, and is just smaller than a Fox Mustang. But there is room underhood to wedge in a third-generation Hemi and we know a guy who does an excellent job with the rear-drive conversion process. This car deserves the V8 it needed to back up the decent lines it got. And we’d suggest ditching the “LeBaron” nameplate for the moniker it took in the Mexican market: the Chrysler Phantom.

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18 thoughts on “Top 11: Cars That Deserve A Top-Budget Build! History Wasn’t Kind To These Cars, But Should They Get A Second Chance?

  1. Nick D.

    I ha a 1995 Monte Carlo. It was a bland, flaccid piece of garbage. The 3100 was there under the hood, that’s all there is to say about it. The massive C-pillars created blind spots that could conceal a dump truck. The stupid factory decklid spoiler taxed the decklid springs so that when a gust of wind hit it, the decklid shut and attempted to decapitate you. The nose was so long and sloping that it made telling where the front of the vehicle was more of a guessing game.

  2. Matt Cramer

    I had a LeBaron coupe with the 2.5 Turbo. It was a rustbucket I picked up for $900, but was entertaining as cheap beaters go. Either a V8 / RWD build or an all out turbo four banger build could be pretty fun.

  3. Wes T.

    I’m having a hard time finding on the internet, but GM’s skunkworks and Bob Lutz put together a V8 RWD Monte in the mid-90s (as well as a big block, 5 speed Impala and other goodies).

    It looked great.

    1. kurt

      yes it was the holden with motee bits thrown on it ..green car… same body as aussie just rear drive there…

  4. Chevy Hatin' Mad Geordie

    That gorgeous Le Baron with a new-gen Hemi transplant – now that would be perfection indeed!

  5. Turbo Regal

    I worked for Enterprise Rent A car back in the early 90’s, so I’ve driven nearly every one of these cars. There is a reason history hasn’t been kind to these rides; they were throw away rental sleds when they were new.

    Never throw good money after bad.

  6. Albert Wentzel

    Shouldn’t that be the LH platform rather than the LX? LX is the rear drive platform for the 300 etc.

  7. Chris

    A comment of the Olds 442 Quad4. They were all timing chain driven….That wasn’t the issue. The issue was cylinder heads and head gaskets!

  8. Rattler

    Seems to me the 350 chevies found in 1995 through 2000 full size trucks
    weren’t putting out much more than 250-265 HP. Take a 360 Magnum, stroke it with a D tyoe Procharger pushing 14 psi and you can get 595 HP at the RWs. I know, I have one in a 2000 extended cab Dodge Ram. Come over to Norwalk some Wednesday evening and watch a 5100lb truck in the high 11’s.

  9. Nick Mercer

    So many Chryslers on the list

    Makes sense, from the mid 80’s until the RWD LX cars debuted was a bit buncha almost from Mopar. While the Ford and Chevy guys dined on affordable RWD cars Dodge guys were left holding the bag. (except for a limited conversion from Ma Mopar to convert FWD Daytona to RWD using a LA small block)

    All we had production wise was the Dakotas, and V8 Dakotas do not handle like cars.

    Depressing times…

  10. C.M. Bendig

    I have a $750 1998 Lumina LS (3.1LV6). I drove a 98 Monte Carlo that had 3K miles from Dayton Ohio, To & Around Chicago and Back. Coming back in a snow storm. Compared to many of the other FWD & RWD cars I drove at the time it was a good all around car. The MC & Lumina have 2 inches less wheel base then the two 98 Buick centuries I had from November 1997 to mid 2014. Sure it’s not a Corvette or Camaro yet I can corner faster & harder then a 1988 all stock MCSS. Other then doing major re-constructive surgery with a 93-2002 Camaro/firebird victim the other way to make then RWD is a Chassis kit from jegs or summit and then hang some round track type suspension instead of 1/4 mile stuff. I have toyed with the idea for a while. It would be simpler just to take a later year MC/Impala V8 subframe sit them side by side and adapt parts as needed. The FWD LS block is shorted water-pump to bell-housing then a RWD block so it may just clear the front uni-structure.

    On the M/T AWD caravan. Not going to work. The AWD unit bolts on to a special automatic transmission case. Very common for the drive unit for the back axle to break. A buddy bought one and tore it apart when he had ideas of making one.

    Astro-Vans are a Combination of parts. 1/2 ton Chevy Truck brakes, and axles. S-10 power train. The only M/T units had the S-10 2.5L, all the 4.3’s were automatic. The one company that made lifts for AWD vans 33’s was about it. Unless one wanted to do a sub frame drop/body lift and lift blocks in the rear.

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