Brandon would like to spend his spare time bonding with friends under the hood of a project car. The problem with this plan is that Brandon doesn’t have a lot of experience, but what he and his friends lack in skill they will make up for in determination. What car should he buy?
Here is the scenario:
I’m a lifelong car enthusiast, and I would like to make the official transition over to a gearhead.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve had a weekend gig bartending to keep myself out of trouble. As I’m getting a bit older, I’ve decided to hang it up. The problem is, I’m losing my mind and need to pick up a weekend hobby that doesn’t involve drinking beer and playing video games until 4 am.
So, my buddies and I decided we want to start wrenching Friday nights; we started with an old Stratus R/T that was sitting around and lo and behold, we had a damn good time doing it. Seeing as how we exceed in making poor life choices, we’re currently for something we can modify a bit and take to the track.
What we’re looking for is somewhat of a blank canvas. Probably something on the simpler side as well - We believe ourselves to be a group of decently intelligent individuals, so we think we can pick it whatever we need to as we go along, however we don’t want something that needs 4 engineers (and overnight parts from Japan) just to eek out a bit more power.
Also, with the entire group having at least one child under a year old, (told you, great life choices) we’ve decided on a very modest budget, around $5,000 or so. Something that would not require a trailer to get to and from the track would also be a plus.
We’re flying blind here - where do we start?
Daily Driver: No, project car/race car
Wants: Cheap, something easy to learn on, ability to race it
Doesn’t want: Too complex or difficult to source parts
Brandon, I’ll be straight with you: I’m probably the least qualified person on Jalopnik to give you wrenching advice. With the exception of changing my oil a few times and rotating my tires, I have little to no skill when it comes to fixing things. So I’m going to let nostalgia guide me on this one.
When I was 19 I wanted a V8 Camaro more than anything else. Being a young kid under a New Jersey insurance policy, that car was not in the cards. But those F-body muscle cars can be had for dirt cheap now and from what I understand they are pretty easy to work on.
The aftermarket for the Camaro is pretty extensive and you and your buddies can set it up for the dragstrip or the autocross.
Here is a 1995 Camaro Z28 nearby for only $2,500. It would be a great car to learn the ropes, make some mistakes and eventually build a beast that could seriously roast some tires.
I had a similar conundrum a few years ago, in needing something affordable, simple, with lots of parts, support and a gentle learning curve. On a whim, I bought a Baja Bug, and it turned out to be just about the easiest car to learn to wrench on imaginable. Not only can you get the parts you need at just about any auto shop (still!), everyone wants to help you. Everywhere you go, somebody’s friend’s uncle’s buddy’s roomate’s brother’s cousin owned one and the two of them did an engine swap together. Also they make fun noises and they look cool.
You could go for something from the ‘90s with a V8, but there’s no need when Bajas are still in good shape and within your budget. This one took me ten seconds to find.
So, yeah, my go-to pick for something like this would be an air-cooled VW, and I even found this amazing ‘57 Beetle project near you, but I don’t want to get redundant, so I started thinking outside the bug-box. I’m still thinking dirt-simple, I’m still thinking people’s car, and I’m still thinking fun. I’m thinking Model Freaking T, dollface.
You want a $5000 project car that’s simple enough to do everything with you and your relatively inexperienced friends? This 1926 Ford is ideal: you can’t get much simpler than a Model T, and, since this ‘Huckster’ has a bunch of wood bodywork, repairs are just a jigsaw and a hammer away.
Have you ever driven a Model T? I have. They’re deeply weird, and a hell of a lot of fun. Even at 25 MPH you and your buddies will have a blast driving around in this thing, and you’ll make everyone you see noticeably happier.
Plus, you could still take it to the track, why not? Autocross it! I guarantee you’ll be the only guy autocrossing a Model T, and that means you’ll be the best at it.
This thing is glorious, archaic fun. Your life is about to get so much better.
Congrats to my hardworking Jalopnik staff here! All their answers are bad.
First of all Brandon, I want you to know there’s no shame in being a car enthusiast who isn’t yet an expert wrencher. We’ve all been there, and not all of us grow up covered in grease. But whether you want to do a simple oil change yourself or an engine swap, it’s great to learn to do this, and a lot of fun—especially with friends.
I always worked on my cars, but never really got a chance to do anything extensive. Then last year I bought a BMW E30. Specifically a 1985 325e, the one with the garbage engine, which I got for well under your $5,000 budget.
With the help of some experienced friends, good service manuals and a hell of a lot of YouTube videos, I was troubleshooting starting issues and doing my own valve adjustments in no time.
The E30's a fantastic choice for a project car. While prices have risen on the pristine ones in recent years, it’s still a 3 Series, so they’re remarkably common. There’s a huge supportive community ready to help you out. The car is modern enough to present interesting problems (and comforts) but has an engine bay that’s shockingly easy to access. Parts can be expensive but are plentiful. When the car runs it’s a blast to drive, but it’s old and German, so you’ll always have something to fix.
And it can be made into a track car with shocking ease—these things were born to compete. Whatever your plan is for this thing—turbo, V8 swap, strip it out—someone’s done it and can give you pointers. You and your pals should pick one up and do something interesting.