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


A couple of days ago, Jeff received an E-mail from Hooniverse 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 Hooniverse 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 Hooniverse 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. About 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 wild options and quality replacement parts 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

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