10 Best Cheap American Cars To Turn Into Dragsters

Drag racing is just as ingrained in American culture as apple pie, baseball and barbecue. There are approximately 450 drag strips in the United States, and 120 of them are members of the NHRA (National Hot Rodding Association). Combine that with the small town kids racing on back roads and the red light street races that take place every night on major streets across America, there are millions of Americans lining up to run.

So how do you join America’s rowdiest hobby…and on a budget? Ten American-only rides with a few easy tweaks will get anyone to the 1/4 mile starting line or revving their V8 against their buddies at the nearest stoplight.

ten 1981-1988 Dodge Diplomat

For anyone born before the 1980s, the Dodge Diplomat may be a foreign name. These cars are all but forgotten, as were most regular commuter cars of the 1980s. They were mainly used in taxis and police departments, with low civilian sales. So why a Dodge Diplomat?

The police package. Dodge Diplomats equipped with the police package had a 318 cubic inch V8, larger carburetor, heavy-duty rear end and limited slip. A diplomat could easily accept parts from a Mopar A-Body, a rig renowned in drag racing. A quality example of a Dodge Diplomat might cost less than $2,000 and one in mint condition will set you back just $12,000. Good luck finding one, though. Unfortunately, many of these cars were crushed in the scrapyard program money.

9 Chevy Caprice 1991-1996

Any American muscle fan or up-and-coming car fan knows the legendary Impala SS from the 90s, if not, take a look on YouTube and hundreds of black muscle sedan videos will adorn the screen. The Chevrolet Caprice was the car the Impala SS was based on and can be found for a fraction of the price. The 9C1 Police Pack was also mechanically identical to the Impala SS, equipped with the venerable LT1 and enough tough police parts to even make Jake Elwood blush.

There is no shortage of parts for these given their fleet usage and use of the small block Chevy engine and 4L60 transmission. Good examples can range from $3,000 to $7,500 for a good example. With a plentiful supply of cheap bolts, there’s no doubt the Caprice would be a great option to take to stoplights near you.

Related: 10 Things Gearheads Forgot About The Chevrolet Impala SS

8 1998-2012 Ford Crown Victoria

The Ford Crown Victoria needs no introduction, most American and Canadian readers have probably had one arrested. Most of these cars are now retired and still hitting the market at killer prices, even with today’s inflated prices. The Crown Victoria featured the proven Ford 4.6 V8 and the police models sported all the goodies like limited slip, lowered ride height and stiffened suspension. Parts from the Mustang GT bolt right up to the Crown Victoria, and there are a host of cosmetic parts to spice up the otherwise bland exterior.

The prices for these cars are everywhere depending on the region, the condition of the car and whether it was in fleet service or not. Prices typically start at $3,000 and can go as high as $20,000 for collector’s editions like the Mercury Marauder or the LX Sport version.

seven 1973-1977 Chevrolet El Camino

The old cliché “business in the front, party in the back” couldn’t be truer than when the El Camino travels the quarter mile. This generation tends to be the cheapest to sell in today’s market, but it comes at a cost. Emissions equipment in the ’70s starved small-block V8s of power, with the top-of-the-line V8 making just 245 horsepower.

An engine massage and a new exhaust system would give the El Camino the power it deserved. Performance parts for these are relatively easy to find and install. A great example can be yours for around $10,250.

Related: A Glimpse Of What A Modern-Day Chevy El Camino Could Look Like

6 1988-1998 Chevrolet C/K1500

Dubbed the OBS (Old Body Style) by enthusiasts, this truck proves to be a favorite with muscle fans in small towns and high school parking lots. Equipped with the proven 350 cubic inch V8 and a four-speed gearbox, these trucks share the same drivetrain as many classic muscle cars.

Parts for one of these trucks can be found at any auto parts store, junkyard, or roadside in the southern United States. Bolt-on is cheap and easy, and engine swap options abound, from a boxed big-block 454, scrapyard Vortecs and any variety of LS engines. OBS can fit them all. The only downside is that prices are going up, these trucks have seen a price increase over the last few years and it doesn’t look like they’re going to come down anytime soon. Good examples can be found for around $5,000, but keep an eye out for transmission issues in later models.

5 Chevrolet S10/GMC Sonoma (all year)

Yes, this is the last Chevrolet truck on this list. The only truck with more inexpensive parts than the C/K series is the Chevrolet S10 and its identical twin, the S15. The trucks were equipped with everything from the anemic inline-four to the reliable Vortec V6.

The glory of the S10/S15 is the ease of trading. Small-block Chevy and LS engines fit right in, with few modifications needed for the engines to fit. There are a host of bolt-on parts for stock V6 and V8 swaps, and plenty of appearance modifications to spruce up the exterior. Good examples can be found starting at $7,450.

Related: 2,000-hp Chevy S10 is a fast and scary truck on the drag strip

4 Ford Mustang 1994-2004

Chances are a high school kid in an SN-95 tried to race you through a red light. A favorite of high school gearheads, and for good reason.

The Mustang SN-95 came with a variety of engines, from V6 to the classic 5.0 liter V8, the now famous 4.6 liter V8 and a 5.4 liter V8 if you had the cash to drop on a Cobra R. All engines have plenty of fast parts and enough exterior modifications to make the Honda Civic jealous. There’s a car for everyone with such a long production run. Here’s an immaculate 1999 “New-Edge” Mustang for just $10,000.

3 1970-1976 Plymouth Duster

The Plymouth Duster is royalty among drag racing fans, with many in the pits of any drag strip across the country. The Duster was offered with a variety of engines, starting with the gas-efficient 198 cubic inch Slant Six up to the fire-breathing 340 cubic inch V8. Trading large blocks is easy, with many kits offered online to make trading easy.

Another huge advantage of the Duster is the fact that it is not huge…unlike most cars in the region. The Duster weighed less than 3,200 pounds and has dimensions similar to those of a modern midsize car. Good examples like this with a slant-six can be found for $7,900, but expect to pay three times as much for a V8 model.

2 1975-1979 Chevy Nova

It is well known that old Novas are almost impossible to obtain on a budget. Car collectors have grabbed them all, racers have cut them up, or they have been wrapped around telephone poles. The Malay-era Nova can still be found at a decent price…even if it needs a massage, just like the El Camino.

Any performance part for a small-block Chevy will hang on to the anemic 190-hp, 350-cubic-inch V8. Working on the fuel delivery and exhaust can get this car up to 300 horsepower in no time and for a price you won’t get divorced from. Good examples with smaller V8s or inline 6s can be found under the $5,000 mark.

Related: Nova Vs MR2 Drag Race Pits American Muscle Against Japanese Sleeper

1 1979-1991 Ford Mustang

I should have seen this one coming, and there’s a reason the Fox Body Mustang proves so popular on the Strip. The car is incredibly light for starts, light revs can bring the car under 3,000 pounds. The stock V8 only produced 220 horsepower, but modifications for the 5.0 V8 abound, from road-legal bolts to tires and only camshafts. LS swaps also remain a popular option, much to the chagrin of Ford fans across the country.

Good examples with a V8 can still be found for $10,000 with a little hunting. But don’t walk, run… prices have been on the rise for a few years.

About Melanie Tweed

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