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Vintage JDM on the Cheap: Five Classic Japanese Project Cars You Can Still Afford

Whether you are looking to restore or modify, vintage Japanese cars are fantastic, but with many people feeling the same way and an ever decreasing supply means if you're looking for a classic Japanese project car you may be priced out of the market. Once cheap and plentiful sports cars like the Datsun 240Z or the Toyota AE86 Corolla are selling for crazy prices, with even total basket case projects carrying asking prices that would have been laughed at 10 years ago.

And while it can be disappointing to see these cars elevated into being pricey collectors items and status symbols, the good news is there's still plenty of affordable vintage Japanese machinery from the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s that can be just as cool.

Datsun 620 V8 Render

Here are five choices you may have overlooked.

First Generation Mazda RX-7

The so-called "FB" or SA22C first generation Mazda RX-7 was a groundbreaking sports car by any standard. It was sleek, lightweight and had a rotary engine that set it apart from everything else on the market.

Mazda RX-7 FB SA22C Red

Yet, despite being revered among enthusiasts, the original RX-7 hasn’t skyrocketed in value the way many other ‘70s and ‘80s Japanese classics have. The unconventional rotary engine may scare people away, but it’s performance potential is well known and there’s plenty of possibilities for engine swaps if the Wankel isn’t your thing.

Datsun Fairlady Roadster

Years before the 240Z came onto the market, Nissan achieved success with its predecessor the Fairlady Roadster. Taking the familiar British sports car formula and putting a Japanese twist on it, this was basically what Mazda did with the Miata—only 30 years earlier.

Datsun Fairlady 2000 Roadster On Dirt

The Datsun Roadster has been a bonafide “classic” for a long time now, but at the moment they still seem to be a fair bit cheaper than the ultra popular 240Z. The higher performance 2000cc cars are naturally the most desirable, but the 1500 and 1600cc models still make great affordable choices for restoring or modifying.

Datsun Fairlady Roadster 1600 Rear View

Datsun 620 Pickup

Another option for Datsun fans who might be put off by the high costs of 240Zs and 510s is the Datsun 620 pickup. These handsome trucks sold in large numbers all through the ‘70s and are powered by the same SOHC L-series four-cylinder engine as the 510.

Datsun 620 Pickup Red

The 620 may not be as sexy as 240Z, but they have the potential to be every bit as cool—whether you are going for an old school vibe, a modern engine swap or even a vintage off-roader.

Datsun 620 Pickup Lil Hustler

1964-1970 Toyota Corona

Another 1960s era Japanese classic that’s still rather affordable is the RT40 generation Toyota Corona. Along with the original Land Cruiser, the Corona helped put Toyota on the map here in the United States.

Toyota Corona RT40 Red

The four-door models are going to be the cheapest and most common, while the two-door hard top version is much more exotic. Aftermarket support won’t be as large as a Datsun 510, but there are plenty of options for upgrades out there.

Toyota Corona Hard Top Coupe

1972-1979 Honda Civic

Last but not least we get to the first generation Honda Civic, which was sold from 1972 through 1979. While the Civic is now considered one of the most recognizable Japanese automobiles of all time with strong enthusiast DNA, the originals still can be found for reasonable prices.

First Generation Honda Civic Blue

Some may be put off by their economy car mission and front-drive layout, but 1970s Civics make for excellent projects, whether you are looking for on old school cruiser or if you want to swap in a newer, more powerful Honda engine as many have done with great success.

First Generation Honda Civic CVCC Red

There you have it. The next time you get discouraged about how collectors are swooping up once-affordable Japanese classics, consider one of the above.

  • Want to learn about some other 1970s Japanese minitrucks that are out there? Find them here.
  • And here's a closer look at an amazing build using the aforementioned Datsun 620 pickup as its base. 
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