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A Half-Dozen Great, Cheap Vehicles for The Noobie Wrench

Peter Tanshanomi March 6, 2014 Terrible Ideas, Wrenching Tips 85 Comments


A couple of days ago, Jeff received an E-mail from Redusernab reader “John”, who says he “never had a mechanic-savvy family member to teach me as a teenager, so now I find myself learning the ropes all by my lonesome.” He wrote seeking recommendations for a cheap and easy project car to fiddle around with and learn the basics on. John is in college and doesn’t have a bucket of extra cash to spend, but he doesn’t want to attempt to wrench on his daily driver and wind up without reliable transport. He’s currently considering “an old Datsun Z, an old VW bug, or an ’80s-to-early-’90s Japanese four-banger….”

When Jeff asked for input from the Redusernab staff, I replied that I’d read an article on this very subject in either Auto Restorer or Cars & Parts about 10 years ago. The author of that article said that everybody thinks that old Beetles make good beginner restoration candidates, but in reality they are a horrid choice. They inevitably have extensive corrosion, flimsy sheetmetal, a lot of weak components that can break easily during dis-assembly or are difficult to re-assemble, and Beetles rarely run properly once you get them back together unless you know which things need to be adjusted and tweaked just-so.

Jeff’s reply back to me was succinct: “So write the article.” That is how, despite being perhaps the least qualified of the Redusernab staff to erudiate on auto restoration or modification, I find myself suggesting six vehicles that I think are suitable project cars for the neophyte hobbyist. I’m thinking of truly starving-college-student budgetary restrictions: in a quick survey of La Liste de Craig, I was able to find multiple ads offering of each these vehicles—complete and in (claimed) running condition—for $1000-1200.

1. ’75–’91 Volvo 240


I’m basically stealing this one from the author of the original article I mentioned. I believe the expert’s ultimate noobie restoration vote was an Amazon, but a decade or more has passed and the prices of Amazons have long since bounced up off their depreciation nadir into genuine collectable territory. I am guessing he’d probably suggest a 240 today, because they are more readily available with some life left in them at beater prices. Old Volvos are battle-tank solid and soldiered on for many years without extensive changes, so there is a huge pool of usable salvage parts available. If you’d like some oil-burner experience, you can find diesels without too much trouble. And unlike the majority of other cars here, they can be made to go, stop and turn in very satisfying manner. Okay, so maybe not that “go” part, unless you’re game for bolting on later turbo hardware, or a non-Volvo engine swap…

RUNNER-UP: A solid, un-butchered Volvo 140/160-series would probably be an even simpler and equally suitable candidate if you can find one, but expect to dig long and hard to find a good bargain on one.

2. ’60s–’80s Full-Size, 2WD Domestic Pickup


Prices for classic full-size domestic trucks are definitely headed upwards, but if you skip the more desirable (and complex) 4WD versions, you can still find an affordable buy without looking too long or hard. Repair parts are also cheap and plentiful, with nearly every mechanical part you’d need available from the closest Auto Zone or Pep Boys. Interior and trim parts are about the only things that might require some hunting. Since I’ve never purchased a sticker of Calvin urinating on anything, I will endorse a Chevy, Ford or Dodge equally. Since these trucks are big rear-wheel-drive vehicles with a full frame, they are easy to work on, with lots of room in the engine bay, especially if you go with a six-banger. Manual transmissions are fairly easy to find in older trucks, something that cannot be said of most passenger cars. Also, what other vehicle lets you unbolt the entire rear half of the sheetmetal if needed? As far as years, I would either go with something mid-’60s to ’71 (to avoid emissions hassles), or jump forward to the ’80s, when emissions hardware and electronics had gotten simpler and infinitely less frustrating. Perhaps the best part of owning an old beater pickup is that it’s something you might actually find useful and valuable to own as soon as you get it roadworthy, even if it has no A/C, worn out seat springs, and rusty fenders.

RUNNER-UP: A mid-’80s B-Series or Econoline van can probably be found even cheaper than a pickup, but a greater percentage of them will be former commercial vehicles that have had the will to live totally beaten out of them. Less convenient engine access and fewer replaceable body panels, along with a scarcity of row-your-own gearboxes, tips the scale in the pickups’ favor. But if you don’t have a garage, a van does give you a way to lock up your tools and spare parts out of the elements.

3. ’67–’72 Plymouth Valiant


If you looked at a cutaway drawing of a generic mid-20th century automobile, the layout would be pretty much exactly how a Mopar A-body is put together. Front-engine, RWD with a live axle and leaf springs, unibody construction, recirculating ball steering; there is nothing mysterious or unique about the design. We the most adventuresome the designers got with the A-body was the use of torsion bar front springs.

The slightly smaller, less sporty Valiant is just as simple and durable as the cousins it shared the platform with, but the Valiant’s 3-inch-shorter wheelbase never enjoyed the same popularity with the muscle car crowd. Therefore, they are easier to find at bargain prices, especially if you can live with the decidedly dowdy appearance of the four-door body. You can easily find one anywhere in the country, stuffed with either the lazy but unstoppable slant-6 or a more powerful Mopar V8. Unfortunately, you’ll also have to contend with some less-than-ideal specifications, most likely a Torqueflite 3-speed slushbox and unsatisfactory four-wheel drum brakes. ’73, the last year for the 108″ wheelbase, got some suspension upgrades but gained added emissions complexity and lost power. Rust-through is a problem, but there were so many made that cheap, un-oxidized bodies are still around, at least in the Southwest.

RUNNER-UP: If you can find an equivalent bargain on one, the 111-inch-wheelbase Dart, Demon, Duster, Scamp and Swinger versions of the A-body are more popular and stylish.

4. ’79–’86 Ford Mustang


If you dream of building a genuine high-performance car, not just a beater, you can’t do much better than the original iteration of the Fox-body Mustang—the so-called “Four-Eyed Fox” (for its quad sealed-beam headlights, which were replaced with aero units in the ’87 refresh). Unlike the other vehicles here, the early Fox is a terrific option for the guy who aspires to eventually buy shiny new parts out of a performance catalog rather than greasy, worn junkyard stuff. There are a nearly infinite number of high-po accessories for the Fox platform, and there’s a better-than-stock replacement for nearly every part on the car. Want a manual gearbox? 4-speeds and 5-speeds are fairly easy to find. Just stay away from the 2.3L turbo 4-banger; they pop up fairly regularly at very tempting prices, but the normally-aspirated Pinto-powered version can be found just as cheaply and is infinitely more reliable (although you’ll be hard-pressed to stay awake behind the wheel). Conversely, if you want real power, you’ll be better off in the long run to start with a V8-equipped example, even if the buy-in is higher. The six-cylinder options are varied, from the 85HP straight six to the 232 c.i. Essex, and all fall somewhere in the I-guess-I-could-live-with-it range.

RUNNER-UP: Any of Ford’s myriad transmutations of the Fox platform have the same underlying DNA, and thus can accept most of the Mustang’s performance upgrades, but there are sure to be unexpected variations and caveats. Since the Mustang is the popular version those parts were designed for, overall parts availability and fitment will be least problematic with the real McCoy.

5. ’78–’83 AMC Concord


This is a rather provocative and quixotic choice, and the one I expect to get the most flack about. But American Motors has been a perpetually overlooked choice, and the Concord flies even under AMC fans’ radar. The Concord can be thought of as either a last-gasp Hornet that was gussied-up with a more formal grille and landau roof, or an Eagle minus the four-wheel drive. The majority of the Concord’s body went all the way back to 1970, and much of the running gear was interchangeable with Ramblers before that. By the time the Concord name debuted, AMC’s coffers were empty and the only option they had was to soldier on with exiting tooling. Thus, the focus was on improving build quality and corrosion resistance, with some admirable success. The Concord and Eagles of those late days were built to a standard favorably reminiscent of the brand’s Rambler heyday. It’s remarkable that the Concord managed to come off the line better built than the more popular AMC cars of the ’70s, despite the company teetering on the brink of bankruptcy.

The Concord is sort of the anti-Mustang. Since they’re so unloved, even rust-free Concords are dirt cheap…but there aren’t nearly as many aftermarket parts. (Although you can find some and if you know where to look.) But, since so many AMC vehicles used the same underpinnings, you’ll do well with salvage parts. You can pull most any part off any AMC car and expect it to fit. Plus,there’s a good chance it will be within useable tolerances: AMCs were heavy, cumbersome cars mostly because so many individual parts were over-engineered. They’ll never handle better than the mid-’60s Ramblers that first wore much of the Concord’s suspension, but at least the powerplant options will keep you happy going in a straight line: you can easily swap in a late-model Jeep 4.0L six for over 200 bulletproof HP, or go crazy with any of the bull-strong AMC V8s. The Concord tried to trade the Hornet’s flash for upscale luxury, and failed to be either stylish or prestigious. However, despite it’s medeocracy, you’ll have a car that manages to be both ridiculously cheap and very straightforward to wrench (nailing that equation almost as well as an old truck, and perhaps even moreso than the Valiant or Volvo). The parts that make up a Concord are mostly strong, and you’ll never have to worry about being unable to figure out how they’re supposed to work together.

RUNNER-UP: A 4×4 Eagle from the same era, whether the popular wagon, short wheelbase SX-4, or less common sedan/coupe, will have many of the same traits as the Concord, but with greater cost and complexity in the fixing offset by greater versatility in the running. Fortunately, the Eagle’s viscous transfer case, while somewhat crude, is simple and not hard to keep alive.

6. ’70s–’90s Japanese 4-Stroke Dual-Sport Motorcycle


And finally, this one might be expected, coming from me. But it’s not just my personal bias at work here. A late-20th-century, single-cylinder, Japanese motorcycle is a great way to start learning your way around a garage workshop. But first, let me emphatically make two important points: 1) Corrosion and weak parts can be an even bigger problem than the aforementioned Beetle, and 2) IT PROBABLY WON’T BE ANY CHEAPER THAN A CAR. In fact, compared to a 4-speed, 6-cylinder F-150, individual parts will probably be way more expensive. But bikes do have some obvious practical benefits. They’re physically much smaller, so a bike won’t require nearly as much storage and workshop space. The parts are smaller and lighter, so it’s easier for one person to work on. Bikes also require fewer, smaller, and cheaper tools. (When you can heave the entire, assembled engine and transmission onto the workbench yourself, the need-a-buddy and need-a-hoist factors are greatly reduced). Lastly, if you totally screw it up, nearly all the components are small enough to ship UPS, so you can make your money back parting it out on Ebay. Why can you do this? Because many people are surprised to discover just how difficult it can be to source affordable parts for that not-that-old Japanese bike. The secret is to pick a model that was simple, durable and popular. Two stoke engines are a piece of cake to rebuild, but a lot of what you’d learn won’t translate to cars. That’s why I’d recommend a 250cc or larger four-stroke dual-sport (aka dual-purpose, “enduro” or on/off-road) bike. They are robust, simple, and most of the expensive parts are tucked in well enough to survive previous owners’ mishaps. There are plenty of great four-stroke thumpers that were unchanged for many model years: the Yamaha XT and Honda XL series in their various capacities come to mind. The Kawasaki KL600 & KLR650 came slightly later and have water cooling, which is more car-like but quite often reveal a leaky, corrosive nightmare upon teardown. One overall rule I can’t stress enough: buy an example that WAS NEVER STORED OUTDOORS. This is imperative. Rusty bolt heads and alloy engine parts chalky-white with corrosion are an invitation to Project Bike Hell, which can be just as torturous as any Project Car Hell ever was.

The downside of a bike is that if you don’t actually have a motorcycle license and/or don’t really want to ride a motorcycle, you’re building something you won’t get to enjoy, and I guarantee that you won’t get your money back out of it when you sell. Also, there are a lot of skills in car wrenching (working with sheetmetal, ball joints, distributors, fuel pumps, proportioning valves) that bikes won’t teach you diddley-doo about.

RUNNER-UP: If your tastes run to street bikes, there are some pavement-dwelling thumpers to be found: The Honda FT500 Ascot and Yamaha SR500 are street-only versions of the above dual-sports that are nearly as simple to wrench on as their dirty bretheren. Unfortunately, they are rarer and more collectable, thus more expensive. They also have more fragile, shiny geegaws to refurbish if they’ve been crashed (which if they’re cheap, they have been). The more recent Suzuki Savage 650 one-lung cruiser is a total snooze-fest to ride, but it’s cheap, simple, rugged and very common.

Other Possibilities

There are many other cars that might have been included here, but are desirable enough that even non-runners command prices on the high side of my $1200 cutoff (NA Miata, XJ Cherokee, AE86 Corolla). Others are rare enough that finding a cheap, salvageable example could be a lengthy task (A40 Supra). You’ll notice that all my suggestions are rear-wheel-drive; any number of FWD cars may sound like a good idea, until you’re bicep-deep in the engine bay. At that point, most noobs won’t be very keen on the concept of cramming an extra transaxle and half-shafts in there alongside the powerplant, when they could’ve been spread out around the rest of the chassis.

What you do think of this list? Is there a vehicle I’ve included you don’t agree with? Is there one you think belongs on it that I’ve missed?

Ed: I have to chime in here, to add a recommendation of any compact from The Big Three from 63-72: Falcon, Dart, Nova, etc. They sold by the humillions, used parts-bin parts that stuck around for decades and have endless aftermarket support. Their small size means you can get decent mileage and performance from a smaller small-block (260, 273, 283) and they can be made to handle with enough catalog parts. They’re like a better-looking, smog-exempt version of the Fox Body on this list. For extra utility, look into wagons, but they do tend to have loads of wagon-specific parts that can be hard to source. 

Additionally, we’ve touched on this before: How to Pick Your First Project Car

How Not to Buy a Project Car, Episode One and Episode Two

  • CherokeeOwner

    Possible replacement for the motorcycle should one not have a motorcycle license: Honda Ruckus.

    50cc scooters require only a valid drivers' license. Insurance is cheap too. Just don't forget a helmet and glove.

    • wisc47

      If rarity is more your thing and you don't mind spending some extra cash, the MB5 has always been my dream 50cc machine:
      <img src="; width="600">

      • Prince Halibrand

        I believe a manual clutch means you need a license.

        • wisc47

          It varies state by state. Unfortunately Wisconsin requires an automatic transmission, hence why the MB5 is just a dream for me. If I have to get a motorcycle license to operate it, I might as well get something with a bit more displacement.

          • Having owned two MB5s, I can emphatically say that more displacement ≠ better riding experience.

            <img src=";

            • Thanks to sharing this blog its help me alot
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      • C³-Cool Cadillac Cat

        I loved these when I was a kid in the 80s.

        Found one for my stepson in the 90s. He rode the crap outta that machine, then, the guy I sold it to, for like $200, was a good friend, restored it with his sons.

        It'd go close to 55 MPH, but no torques, so if I rode it, I had to push with my feet through the first 5 MPH.

        I still want a CT110, 1986, to this day.

  • Kogashiwa

    FWD or not, 90s Civics are very easy to work on, and just as importantly (and why I cannot agree with the otherwise appealing AMC) parts are everywhere, and usually pretty cheap.

    • Prince Halibrand

      But when you get it running you'll still stuck with a front wheel drive car.

  • ˏ♂ˊ mzs zsm msz esq

    If you live certain place like near Seattle an Amazon is still barely possible, also a 140 many places, just sort of depends on what people you know and your luck, but yes a more reasonable figure is $4-5K. They are great, decent availability and prices for parts with plenty of resources online, it's the route I went. It's funny at first I was also looking for old VWs but seeing how rusty and poorly running the cheap ones were taken with the advice of a bunch of people named Mike and one guy named Brad convinced to ignore them and for Amazon 140 route. Another aspect to them is that they really show some circa WWII era tech so things like valve lash has to be adjusted more often and it's somewhat annoying to do with how low it is. Though I'm having to balance SUs with black magic routinely instead of course, so yeah…

  • Around here, Volvo 240's start at $1,500 for ones with four bad wheel bearings and a blown engine, and $4k for something in decent shape, thanks to the resident hipster population relentlessly driving up the price. The 840/850's are a lot cheaper (I almost bought a '94 850T wagon for $800; someone else got it first,) and usually in better shape. And I wouldn't call Volvos (or Saabs, for that matter,) easy to wrench on either; Swedish engineering is something else.

    I hate to say it, but an older Honda Accord coupe or Civic, or as you suggested, an NA Miata, would be a much better choice. Basically anything small and Japanese (outside of DSM stuff.)

    • ˏ♂ˊ mzs zsm msz esq

      I've found the 240s falling out of favor with that crowd here, seems to me the VW Golf/Jetta contemporary to the 850 is where it is now.

    • FuzzyPlushroom

      Older Volvos – anything with a redblock on back – are easy enough to work on. FWD models, on the other hand… well, still not difficult, but weird. Why does the 850 have the exhaust manifold on the back? Easiest oil change I've ever done, though.

      For a grand, the best value is probably a '90+ 740/940, though manual cars are super-rare at that point. If you want a stick, hold out for a 240 (or some other car entirely) or be prepared to wait. With an earlier car, be it a 240 or 740/760T – take a good look for rust.

      • topdeadcentre

        *laughing* BECAUSE VOLVO *laughing*

        It's so true about my '04 V70R. There are so many things that only make sense when you've overdosed on aquavit and surströmming…

        Sadly, I don't have the hardwired car-phone. My wagon is incomplete.

      • +1 on the 740 or 940 over 240, re: cheapness. Never mind that functionally, they're both better cars, incrementally, than the 240.

        Also, I'd prefer newb mechanics not to butcher the remaining 240 stock, tyvm. (Have at the 260s & 850s, though.)

  • Jesse B

    What's wrong with the 92-93 240s? They're probably the best. :^)

    I agree though. I cut my teeth 5 years ago on an '88 245 and now I'm at the point where I can do head gaskets, transmissions, clutches, etc. without batting an eyelash. Great car for the shadetree beginner.

    • I couldn't find any running 92 or '93 240s under my price limit. Weren't they all some sort of "special edition" those last two years?

      • Jesse B

        They had a Classic Edition in '93 that they sold alongside the regular '93s. The '92s had nothing special except blacked out grills, door handles, and trim.

        If you can find a '93, there were a number of good improvements like r134 AC and oil-squirter blocks. They all got ABS in '92.

      • FuzzyPlushroom

        A fair number of '93s were indeed '240 Classics' – Ruby Red or Tropic Green, special plaque, bit of fake wood, grille surround painted the same cranberry or green as the rest of the car rather than black or the earlier chrome. They had sharp-looking 14" alloys, too.

        All 240s just got incremental upgrades over the years. I wouldn't recommend a pre-'88 model to someone on a tight budget, since '88-89 is when they finally got the biodegradable wiring out of the mix, and '89+ models have LH-Jetronic 2.4 rather than 2.2 – slightly more complex, but it can display error codes, and you have a wider variety of parts cars. '90 onward had driver's airbags (that almost certainly wouldn't deploy today) and wagons had larger rear windows, '92 got black trim instead of chrome, '93 had power mirrors that probably don't work anymore. Things like that.

        • Sjalabais

          Didn't they finally manage new seams around the wagon's rear window, too, in 1992? An angry rust spot since 1967 and they fixed it 25 years later in the second last year of production…

          • Jesse B

            I dunno, the rear hatch still leaks on my '92 245, but from the main door seal. :^)

            I think they also finally moved to blade style fuses in '93.

            To add to what FuzzyPlushroom said, the bodies got galvanized in about '88, which makes rust slightly less of a problem.

  • fallous

    If you're a noob, do not even consider a full-sized van unless it is old enough to be flat-nosed and the entire engine is revealed when you open the doghouse. In "modern" vans even the most basic maintenance such as spark plug changes or cap-and-rotor replacement is an exercise in the demented practice of tantric masochistic yoga with a helping of tarsal origami thrown in.

    • C³-Cool Cadillac Cat

      One of the best things about the '67 Dodge A-108 which was my first vehicle…first for everything was you could wrench on it in the rain, yet stay dry.

      Also had a place to sit, even if it was on the wheel well.

  • An excellent piece. It's a little depressing to think what the equivalent choices would be this side of the pond: There are precious few cars of any kind running carbs anywhere to be seen and the vast majority of anything even vaguely antique is either well outside noobie territory thanks to being far too crumbly, or is just too damned valuable.

    I'm a big fan of old RWD Fords, with simple, tough engineering and which are quite a lot of fun thanks to skinny tyres and live axles, but they have gotten such a cult following that they've become stupidly expensive.

    Beetles are worth hella money in seemingly any condition, so they're out anyway. Old style Japanese stuff like 120Ys have either rusted into history or are becoming too fashionable to be cheap any more. Big old Volvo's are a good choice, if you can find one, but that's a lot of car for your average cash-strapped Brit to find a home for.

    Overall, anybody over here in "John"'s position, would be off to a good start if they moved stateside.

    That said; if you're really determined, you're in good company. There's a forum called Autoshite that I spend a lot of time on, and one of their most entertaining threads is the full of gems folk have found on auction websites. A lot of them are more like rejects than projects, but that's where I'd look if I wanted to take something on.

    • ˏ♂ˊ mzs zsm msz esq

      Over there I would recommend FSO Polonez (probably hard to find) and Volvo 3X0 or 4Y0, but I have no idea what I am talking about when it comes to reality vs. my imagination. How bad could an 800squigglyL SD1 be too?

      • Sjalabais

        Volvo 340 are okay and simple if you find some with a normal gearbox – not the CVT. That demands a bit of regular maintenance to work troublefree, if I remember correctly. On the upside, if you live in Europe, you can get ship shape 340's, like grandma's low mileage, one owner, garaged 340, for a hug and a loaf of bread. At the time being, I think the Volvo 340 is one of the most underappreciated cars available. The trouble with it: Still just an ugly econobox – and they took ugly to a whole new level, inside and out. Additionally, it so weird, I don't know if it is hard to find regular maintenance parts outside of the Netherlands or Britain, where they were the most popular.

        • Battles

          I can't remember the reason but there are a load of engines from 90s Renault hot hatches and warm hatches that fit directly into the Volvo 340. There's a Granny-look brown 340 close to our house with a 2 litre 16v engine from a Clio in it.
          The unusual wheels (presumably for safety reasons) are the only giveaway.

          • Sjalabais

            That I didn't know! The 440 had Porsche-modified Renault-engines with "Volvo" stamped on top of them. I thought the 340 had the classic, durable machinery at its heart.

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    • nanoop

      I don't see why carburetors are "easier" to wrench than EFI – more fine mechanics, more messing, bending, and the wrong needles eventually… my opinion.

      I'm reluctant to recommend anything japanese pre-90 outside Japan, unless it's a cult car (and hence, out of limits) or you can connect to the Japanese community in Japanese.

      Thanks for the autoshite link, hilarious, and partly usable!

      • Carbs aren't easier or better than EFI. They just give you something more fun than a charred circuit board to fiddle with when you're broke and the car won't run.

      • Carbs are just more fun, and mean that the car will invariably be more free of sensors and control units, which are a black art to me.

        I want to fix faults with screwdrivers, not code readers.

        And Autoshite is universally awesome.

        • nanoop

          I see your point, I just seem to be more inclined to the black art – as always, once you know what makes a problem tick, it stops being a problem. For EFIs, 75% of the problems I encountered were faulty sensors. Statistics heroes will assume now that I encountered four no-starts, and they are right.

          Code readers? That's devil's creation from the 90ies!

        • R Henry

          I get it….but I sure like the way a FI engines starts and runs on a cold morning. I don't miss the sputtering and stalling that characterized the last generation of smog carbs…..Chrysler's "Lean-Burn" system was enough to make a grown man cry.

      • Guest

        Amen. There is nothing as nightmarish as a smog-choked early 80's carburetor. The other flavor of nightmare is having to clean the gunk out of 4 motorcycle carburetors.

    • Battles

      +1 for Autoshite and a plug for Retro Rides –
      They're both great forums frequented by some very, very knowledgable people. Some people have an alarming ability to retain information that may never be useful, but once in a blue moon they make someone very happy they asked.
      The for sale and eBay threads make finding a cheap beater/charming retro/practical classic very easy.

    • Vairship

      Oh come on, how much can a Morris Marina or (insert any BL make here) Princess cost?

  • jeepjeff

    My Jeep has been a great first semi-project car, but they're collectible enthusiast vehicles, so they never really get down to the $1000-$2000 budget range here. The AMC Inline 6 is a wonderful engine to work on, also, lots of low-end torque, even for the lower power carbureted versions.

    My favorite thing to point out on the junkyard 4.0 into older AMC swap: the 4.0 block is a newer, better machined big-bore block. It can use the older 232 and 258 cranks unmodified, and they end up being stroker cranks. (I really, really want to build a stroker I6 with a 4.0 block and an older crank.) Also, with light modification, the later heads will bolt to a 258 block, and without going through the hassle of a complete engine replacement gets you access to the later Chrysler parts (which amount to factory hotrod parts; the MOPAR heads, intake and so on are much better than the AMC designed stuff from the 70s).

    Also, the rear end in that Concord is probably an AMC 15 axle. When Chrysler bought AMC, they sold the rear axle designs to Dana-Spicer, and the AMC 15 became the Dana 35, which was used as the base axle in the Jeep Wrangler YJ, TJ, the Cherokee XJ and the Grand Cherokee ZJ. It's weaker than a Ford 8.8, and while a lot of Jeep guys deride them junk (they're nicknamed the turdy-five), there's a lot of aftermarket support for them. Plenty of options for re-gearing, LSDs, alloy axle shafts and so on.

    So, while suspension parts might be hard to come by, a lot of that drive train has plenty of aftermarket support thanks to its use in Jeeps. Not all of it is going to be useful (an off-road axle truss is wasted money for a drag racer), but a lot of stuff works for both street/track and dirt.

  • nanoop

    I would utterly recommend a car that has an active forum that doesn't shy away from answering the same questions again and again. It really helps if the threshold to ask is low, and you get proper answers that pick you up wherever you are, even from THAT low.
    When searching for a car, one will stumble upon some forums anyway, so keep your eyes open which forums seem nice and more along a "let's keep your baby on the road" attitude, and which aren't.

    • JayP2112

      Any time I look at a new vehicle, I check out the forums. I think I have a login id for about every site.

  • Sjalabais

    The Volvo is the no-brainer here, represented also by almost everybody commenting on it. I feel with John – I never got mentored, but when I tried, I didn't manage much either. Over the years, I have come to accept that I am never going to wrench much. But…the huge advantage of the 240 over most cars I know and have seen in friend's hands etc is that it is forgiving. Stuff can be maladjusted to the moon and back, and, miraculously, the red block engines will propel the car forward anyway. They'll take abuse with pride.

    I had a '93 once where both the lambdasond and the air measure thingy broke simultanously. Gas consumption tripled and it stalled sometimes, but I could still drive it lazily for hundreds of kilometres before my broke college ass had saved the necessary repair money.

    The best car I have ever owned, without a sliver of doubt, was a 1971 145 though. It is basically a 240 with a more antique suspension and the intestines of the Amazon. The latter fact made the 140 popular as a donor, too, and it has only recently become a car to collect in its own right. What was so good with the 140? Everything was made out of solid materials. The amount of plastics was kept to a minimum. It was the first car with a dual brake system, has discs the size of commercial trucks, it is a robust car that offers a surprising amount of space. Forgiving on the road. Nominally weak engines that are long stroke and strong haulers. Simple technology, lots of space to work on stuff. Underappreciated for a long time, they are nice conversation starters, too.

    • wunno sev

      i thought the P1800 had dual-circuit brakes as well?

      • Sjalabais

        Yes, apparently from 1969 on, if I am to trust Google. The 140 was presented in 1966:

        [ 029nFGSzZZY ]

    • The 140 series was my favorit too, the I loved most was a 72 142.
      <img src="; width="600">

      • Sjalabais

        How long did you have it on the road? Strictly speaking, mine was model year 1972, too: New front, new gearbox, old dash.

        <img src="; width="600">

        • I've had several Volvos 140 series, ever since I was 18 I'had one of them ready to run. When I was 25 I moved to Brazil and had to sell them all.

          • Sjalabais

            Where did you move from? I guess Volvos don't do too well in hot climates…

            • The Netherlands is the place where I grew up.

              • Never realized that…always assumed you were a native Brazilian. What took you to Brazil?

                • Well there is the weather, the women, the landscapes, the food and there was a job for a recently graduated engineer. Europe in the late eighties was in a economic crises and few interesting jobs were available, so there was this oppertunity for a job as an engineer in Brazil and I went for it. I did have some money to spent if things went wrong with the job so I could spent it on a nice holliday. So in fact it was a win win situation.

                  • The Opala looks great on the March calendar, by the way.

  • 2cver

    Don't forget the Crown Vics! Cheap, reliable and lots of room under the hood and in the back seat.

    • As a Panther owner, I reject your reality and substitute my own.

      • 2cver

        As a former 94 Lincoln Town car owner, I accept your reality.

  • JayP2112

    Isn't the answer usually Mustang?

    • R Henry

      My teenage son and I just began restoration of a thoroughly clapped-out 1968 Mustang Coupe V8. Already he has learned all about busted knuckles, cursing, dangers of cooling fans, and the frustration associated with door/fender/hood alignments. Most importantly however, he has learned that V8s sound better than L6's….what better for a young man to learn…..?!

      • JayP2112

        Cool. Post pics!

  • wunno sev

    i like 240s, but i will disagree with the recommendation to shy away from FWD '80s/'90s japanmobiles. easy as pie to live with and work on. the beauty of them is that not only are they super easy and cheap to fix, but for the most part you don't really have to fix them very often.

    my first car (which i've raved about frequently here on the 'verse – my apologies for striking such a one-note tone) was actually an FWD V6 car, a mid-'90s Maxima. completely unkillable and with a heart of gold, the VQ30. i bought mine free of rust and with basically every piece of trim inside and out rattling, squeaking, and cracked. a worn wheel bearing, old tires, finicky clutch hydraulics, etc etc etc.

    that car taught me how to wrench. because it was so reliable i could drive it whenever i needed to, without worrying that some guibo or exceedingly complicated PCV system was going to eat shit and leave me stranded. and when i had a spare moment i could sit down and fix the things that bothered me with the great support on the interweb. when i sold it, i had gotten my fingers into a bunch of the car's systems, gotten comfortable working on it, started a decent tool collection, and learned a lot of useful tips and tricks.

    IMO, and you're free to disagree, that's the way to do it. buy something that will never fail you, but will happily annoy you. you can feel really proud of getting it looking and driving perfectly, and you won't have to worry about something exceeding your grasp while you're getting there. that parts are everywhere, there's good internet support for most models, and there's a healthy aftermarket is icing on the cake. i think those '90s japanese FWD boringmobiles are absolutely perfect for a first car.

    • nanoop

      I am reluctant to recommend a 25+ yo car from japan because manufacturers usually prefer selling new cars, opposed to keep mine on the road. This, combined with the fact that japanese manufacturers really began to gain ground only in the 80ies here, let the amount of stocked spares dwindle.

      So I need to fall back to an existing scene/subculture that can tell me where to get old new stock, what equivalent parts from today would do, where to get re-builds etc. This demands that the people in the know and me share a language. That's why I hesistate, not that japanese cars are bad engineering or something.

      Sure, this is beyond mere "keep her on the road", but once you learned your ways around the car, why move away – unless you wrenched it to death, of course…

      • wunno sev

        i think we're making different points here, because i wouldn't recommend anything over 25 years old to anyone for a first car.

        so if we restrict ourselves to cars from the late '80s or newer, japanese manufacturers probably sold more of the FWD family cars i'm talking about overseas than in japan. there is a vast number of them on the road, and the factory service manuals are mostly available free on the internet – to say nothing of the forum guides for doing everything from oil changes to engine rebuilds, because the generation that's grown up with these models as first cars speaks smartphones and forum code as its second language. parts are normally stocked at every parts store. i remember a last-minute panic at 9.30pm the day after thanksgiving, when i found that i needed a new brake caliper in addition to the bearing i was installing on my maxima. i wouldn't have been able to make that late-night autozone run if it were my current volvo – let alone something 25+ years old.

        sure, it's a scene you'd have to introduce yourself to, but it's not especially hard to do so. besides, you have to do the same for any car, be it 25 or a spring chicken, be it american or japanese or italian.

        • nanoop

          You're probably right about the different points: I think I'm thinking more euro-centric, and consider wrenching as hobby: when it starts to suck, leave it alone for a day or two. This is not for the daily driver, certainly.

  • MrDPR

    If looking at Ford F-150s, keep in mind that 1993 was the last year for the 4.9L, 5.0 and 5.8 motors, as well as the twin I beam front suspension. While not the fastest, the 4.9L straight 6 is legendary for its dependability and durability.

    • R Henry

      Dodge kept the 225 slant six available in the D100 and vans up to about '86 if memory serves. Same fine reputation for being bullet proof, but with only 89 horsepower. That said, the spider-like intake manifold is the anti-Christ of industrial design. Not only does it look weird , but it functions poorly too–worst of both worlds!

    • ptschett

      Correct but for the year… these changes came with the jellybean styling redesign in '97.

  • Felis_Concolor

    Having worked on Chryco FWD vehicles from the 80s, I find they're the exception which falsifies your rule regarding transverse engine layouts. Designed from the start for easy serviceability, you can access every major component and subsystem on a 2.2/2.5 from the front save for the intake and exhaust manifolding, and those are easy to access as they're right near the top of the engine bay and given more than enough firewall space to accommodate tools and the hands which manipulate them.

    Ford's decision to go the single-SKU route to save on costs for its Fox-body ensures you'll always find a nice 8.8" rear axle underneath, which you'll only need to replace if your engine's producing something north of 500hp. Yes, even with the 4-banger in there you can just swap in a small block and complementary transmission and you won't turn the rear end into Wheatena the first time you dump the clutch.

    • Arco777

      Hate to disagree but the 4-cylinder models had the 7.5" rear axle.

      • Felis_Concolor

        Interesting; all I've seen are the more square rear diff covers in the yards. I'll check closer the next time I'm back there – or perhaps there are a lot of swapped axles out there.

  • Maymar

    As far as bikes go, I'd think most things with 1 or 2 cylinders and quarter century production runs would work, right? If was available new recently, parts are probably easy enough to come by still, and if it was around that long, there's probably a healthy supply of cheap used ones. Not that I've done a ton of wrenching on my Rebel, but it hardly seems exceedingly complicated. I'd guess a Suzuki GS500 or a Kawasaki 250 Ninja would also be worth looking into, there's probably a number of other bikes that fit a similar description (like the mentioned KLR650).

    If you are thinking something FWD, I'd hazard a guess that the four-cylinder model of something built to accommodate a V6 would have decent space to work on, although I'm trying to think how many cars that fit that description that you'd be eager to pick up.

    • RegalRegalia

      Any other input Two-Wheel Tuesday crowd? My goal is to buy my first bike this year, hopefully in time for the riding season here in MN. As I'm looking at classics or older bikes, I'm worried I'll look at price and condition and jump into a bike with little support online and rare parts. Also what should my philosophy be? I have a two friends who are riding their first bikes that they both learned on; one friend has a '73 CB360 who says to stay under 500cc lest I kill myself, the other friend has an 08 650 Monster and thinks that I will be able to learn on a classic under 500cc just fine, but will be bored within a month. We are all in our early 20s and dumber than we think we are, any advice hoons?

      • There is nothing wrong with a smaller bike. The whole "you'll outgrow it" thing is BS machismo. The biggest problem is that many of the smaller to mid-sized bikes that were made year-after-year and can be picked up cheap are utter crap, even when they are fixed up well. DO NOT get some rusty old CB and think it will be a good first bike. Buy a couple-of-years-old Savage 650, Ninja 250 or Honda CRF230L and ride it for at least a season or two. Once you are an experienced rider who's comfortable and confident out on the roadway, and have ridden enough to know what you want in a bike, THEN get a project bike.

        • Number_Six

          I wish this speech, a t-shirt with a print of it, and a big slap in the face just for repeating the "you'll get bored" bullshit was part of getting your motorcycle endorsement.

      • Maymar

        I spent about 2000kms over several months last summer commuting whenever I could by motorcycle (like I said, a 250). It probably helps that I ride in a more urban environment generally, where that archaic 250 is perfectly suited (it'll do highway speeds, but it's definitely working at that point), but at no point did I get bored. Besides, it's plenty fun to run something through the gears many, many times (which you'll have to do on a low-power bike anyhow)

        But, a 40 year old bike is probably a little old to learn on. I mean, unless you're extremely confident in your mechanical ability, a breakdown or mechanical failure isn't really something you want to experience on two wheels. Also, you'd really want to start with something you can expect to start and run consistently, so you can get a season or two of riding whenever you want or can.

  • OA5599

    I think it's hard to go wrong with a 60's pickup from one of the Big 3, especially with an inline 6 under the hood. Everything is simple, easy to get to, and for the most part still available in the aftermarket at a really reasonable price.

    If a truck isn't your style, one suggestion not already listed above is a second or third generation F-body (Camaro/Firebird). There are lots of those around with three-digit asking prices, and even if you blow something up, you can probably get your money back by parting it out and scrapping the metal.

    • Good suggestion, probably belongs on the list. If you live in a state that allows you to rip out all the emissions equipment, a '70s Camaro would combine a lot of the ses of a '60s compact with the speed parts aftermarket of a Fox Stang.

  • TurboBrick

    Early 80's K-Jet 240 with rusty butt cheeks and flaky wiring harness is going to be a character building exercise. I'm going to specify here 88 – 95 200/700/900 series. The later cars have better rustproofing and the wiring isn't crap. Plenty of tinkering opportunities and great online community support that caters to all types of vehicle owners.

  • ptschett

    My KLR650's water cooling system was never a problem.
    But whoever designed the counterbalancer chain tensioning system must have been out sick the day they talked about failure mode effects analysis in class…

    • R Henry

      I had an early '83 KLR600–kick start only. That bugger would bust a shin!….ouch, my right shin still hurts. That bastard was fun to ride, but it demanded that the rider pay dues…regularly

  • Arco777

    Owned two Fox Mustangs. They are SO easy to work on! Love it.

  • oldcarjunkie

    I'd avoid the early 80s Volvo 240s as they have issues with the wiring harness.

    A Triumph Spitfire makes an excellent choice though. Super easy to work (clam shell hood for the win!), drop dead simple and almost every part is easily available. Plus they are fun to drive.

    ; width="500" height="375" alt="1978 Triumph Spitfire 1500">

    • Sjalabais

      No way you can get a car with a cooler name, for sure. My favourite 240's are the early ones with round headlights. Lots of soul. Lots of rust issues.

      <img src="; width="600">

    • Yeah, but can you buy a running Spitfire for under two or three grand?

      • oldcarjunkie

        Absolutely! I just bought the one in primer above, running for $1K last weekend!

        • Wow, that makes ME want to go out and get one!

    • Trouble

      A high schooler owned spitfire is a great learning tool. Unlike a jap car, a spit need constant attention resulting in a wealth of experience in simple mechanicals and rusted out floorboards, just like the Flintstones.

  • Guest

    I am going to veto those late 70's and early 80's american cars. The engines are simple and robust enough, but the problem is that the interiors were really low quality. You end up breaking a lot of ill fitting plastic pieces if you have to fix anything behind the dash, etc.

    I still think the air-cooled VW bugs were the best cars for DIY'ers. Once you've drilled out the apron panel (and replaced the spot welds with bolts), you could swap out an engine in 30 minutes, with nothing more than a floor jack! As simple as it was, it was a quality car throughout. You get a sense of satisfaction you don't get working on frustrating, inferior machinery.



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