13 Jan 2013

Fun cars on a (very) low budget

Gareth Jones reckons you don't need to spend a fortune on a car to have bags of fun. 

What kind of fun? And how low a budget exactly? Enough fun to make you grin while driving, and low enough budget so that if it breaks down terminally, you're not on your knees in front of the bank manager (we've all done it). 

 Let's say £1000.
And just because we're down on our luck it doesn't mean we have to put up with being common.  Whilst the MX5 is a fine car it's not exactly the car world's unsung hero.

Coupe fun

A few options here, let's go to the Porsche 924 and straight away meet up with the bar room experts. Good evening, sir. Can you tell me about the Porsche 924?

"It's not even a real Porsche, it was always gonna be a Volkswagen. And the engine is from a van! A decent XR3 is faster never mind something newer, let me tell you about...."

Fair points the odious gentleman makes, firstly it was going to be sold as a VW but to Porsche’s design. Let's imagine a late '70s VW coupe with 125bhp, rear wheel drive and pop-up headlights for retro-cool.   It would be worth a fortune these days, much nicer than a Scirocco GTi.  Nope, £800 and it's yours, about half the price of a decent Mk1 Scirocco. And don’t try and get an early ‘70s Audi Coupe for that kind of money either, nor a VW-Porsche 914, a BMW 2002 (which isn’t even a coupe) and even if you wanted a Skoda coupe you’d have to double your budget. If the 924 was badged as anything else it would be worth more. Weird.

Back to the abhorrent gentleman - the engine wasn't exactly from a van, it was based on the Audi 100 engine but Porsche developed the cylinder head for its fuel injection system, then a bit later the detuned version was fitted to a van. However the Pinto engine was fitted to Transit vans and I don't see Escort RS 2000s for £800 anymore.

Let's stay with the 2 litre engine.  The cars with the 2.5 Porsche engine were known as the 924S but they're naturally more desirable and valuable. However the originals have a nice interior, if you're lucky you get enough chequerboard on the seats to induce a hallucinogenic experience and the rev-counter needle starts at the 3 o'clock position. No, I don't know how many cupholders or NCAP stars it has - are you sure you're reading the right section?

Despite having galvanised bodyshells, look for rust as well as failing electrics and all the usual old car stuff.   I'd like mine in white with Martini graphics please. An antidote to the "Gulf Porsche colours are best".  I prefer a Martini girl if you remember their tag line.

Coupe fun part 2 - Ginetta G26

What’s a Ginetta G26 - just a Cortina with a plastic top? Google is your friend for the history of Ginetta, making lightweight cars since 1958.  In the 1980s they realised that kitcars should be made to a higher quality so did the trick of using proper doors in their designs, borrowing them from the Mk1 Fiesta. The family of G26, G28, G30 and G31 were born, with either 2+2 or 5 seats and either pop-up lights or fixed with a higher bonnet line.

The G26 is a 5 seater with pop up lights; this means you can throw kids in the back, and the front looks more like a Lotus than the others, which resemble a Mk4 Escort. Engines were either 1600 or 2 litre Ford Pinto, 2 litres needed the bonnet bulge.

The whole car is about 10% lighter than the Cortina it’s based on and all the weight is low down in the chassis. Ginetta also specified that the front subframe bushes should be removed so it handles a lot better than the Cortina you remember from 30 years ago. 

Front anti-roll bar was standard. of course.  A rear antiroll bar was often fitted, remember the days when that was on the options list? Many of these kits came with a galvanised chassis which is worth having but you'll need to check everything else works. No matter how good the kit car, it's still been assembled by someone with relatively little experience so look for bodged wiring, woodscrews that aren't suitable for seatbelt mountings and all the usual stuff. The magazines of the time called it the best kit-car on the market, but even its best friend wouldn’t say it’s refined.

The 2 litre engine with 5 speed Type 9 gearbox moves you along briskly enough and the handling is a breeze which flatters the driver, you can be powersliding through roundabouts with the grace of Fangio but the skill of Andrea de Crasheris. It's more like driving a good Escort than the Capri it more closely resembles. If you’re ready to get some classic RWD coupe action, but don’t fancy chasing rust every month, this could be just the thing for you. People will ask you if it’s a Lotus, but you can buy an entire engine for the cost of the two twin Dellorto carbs the Cortina motor doesn’t have.

Sober bank manager fun - Volvo 740 Turbo

Most people think that Volvos only became fun with the hot versions of the 850. Most people don't know that in 1989 you could buy a Mk2 Golf GTi which would do 0-60 in 8.1 seconds, or a Volvo 740 estate which would do it in 7.7 

The Volvo is quite a useful car, firstly it's massive inside. The estate version is huge in the back until you fold the seats down when it's even bigger. The front seats are incredibly comfortable and usually the leather is heated, as are the mirrors which is quite nice. Aircon was an option and the 4 speed manual with overdrive (ask your dad) is a tough old thing. The mechanical fuel injection is robust too and as long as it's one of the pre-"lambda sond" cars you won't get the engine management light of doom.  Later Volvos had a low pressure turbo which had improved throttle response but where's the fun in that?

The standard suspension is more tuned for comfort which means you can ride over potholes with gusto.  Handling kits can be bought and the basic system is good, the solid rear axle has a substantial panhard rod for location and even the standard car is good fun to hustle as long as you don't mind the body roll. They don't rust much either, what more do you want?

Pocket rocket fun - Honda CRX

1987 phoned, they want to know why we're driving family hatchbacks with 120bhp yet they feel like you've got anaesthetic in your arms and legs.  Back in the 1980s Japan was on top of their game in many things - whilst the Corolla wasn't an inspiring drive they had coupes with real power, like the Nissan 200SX and lightweight fun like the Honda CRX. We're talking about the little hatchback here, not the later Del Sol which is too much like a Nissan 100 for my liking. The CRX had a gutsy little engine.  Later ones had VTEC and they'd sprint to 60mph in around 8 seconds. But it wasn't really the bare figures, more the feeling you got.  It's much more a bonkers Mini with nice seats than a fast cruiser.   

Nowadays you need to check for rust around the wheelarches and around the sunroof if fitted.  The biggest issue is usually badly done modifications so a nice one will take some tracking down. But for less than a grand it's a great way to zip around.

Modern fun - Vauxhall Calibra

The Vauxhall Calibra is pushed forwards into the spotlight, looking nervously around. Let's look at the car from most people's viewpoint - when launched it wasn't much different to a Cavalier inside.  It wasn't as glamorous as a VW Corrado or Honda Prelude.  Vauxhall wasn't a "premium" brand when others were coming on strong and after a few years they were increasingly found with those awful aftermarket Lexus rear lights and ugly sill skirts. Time to let it die a death?

Well, no. Now the car is judged against other £800 cars, rather than 15 grand ones the results are different. Being the same as a Cavalier underneath is actually a good thing when it comes to toughness and parts availability, let's not ignore the slippery shape, fine 16V engine and, for a coupe, it's actually quite roomy even in the back. The 8V engine is OK but I'd hunt down a 16V, avoiding the more powerful ones too. The 16V has a reasonable amount of torque low down and, as well as low repair costs, they're quite frugal on petrol.

Its handling may not set your heart on fire, but if you do a lot of miles and like the idea of a car which is less than 30 years old, it could be a winner.

Icon fun

You're not telling me you can get a motoring icon for less than a grand, surely? Yes I am, and don't call me Shirley. VW Beetles that can be driven are double our budget, 2CVs are the same and Minis seem to have taken off as if they've been launched off a roof in an Italian city 40 years ago. Look instead at the London Taxi.

Real London Taxis, the FX4 Fairway I mean, not the modern TX ones. There's a few important things you need to know.  You can't really judge it like other 1980s or 1990s cars in terms of performance, but a 2CV or Mini 850 isn't really suitable for long motorway hauls either. Neither is it suitable for hustling through the lanes unless the car you're chasing is an Armstrong Siddley with the 6 turns lock to lock steering. 

 How about fuel economy, surely the diesel engines must be frugal? Looking down at my shoes here, but no, not really good on fuel either.  30mpg perhaps, the manual gearbox might get a little more but they are more difficult to find than the usual auto with lock up on 4th gear.

Anything else to worry about, whilst the author's credibility is cascading down the toilet? They're not especially comfortable, the seat adjusts upwards rather than backwards but being hunched over the wheel gets you into character. And they rust on the bodywork.  This is probably the biggest killer.
So is this transport icon a rubbish mode of transport? Well yes, a bit, were you expecting a Series 1 E Type for your grand? But they are a hoot to drive if your journey isn't too long.  Since London has banned older vehicles there's plenty to choose from and it's the kind of car that everyone recognises. 

Compared to normal cars they're very roomy in the back so compared to the kind of small van you'd get for your money, the Taxi could be a winner.

A turbo engine was offered later which gave better emissions rather than more power, but the engine is similar to the Nissan Cilla Black (Terrano) so a swap to that engine will get you some more poke. Remember the chassis is from the '50s so don't go berserk, and early ones have drum brakes so I'd advise one with disks. If you've got ideas about making a cheap MPV be aware, there's not much room for a front passenger seat because the partition is stepped forward on the nearside. You can remove the partition but bear in mind it's huge welded bits of box section steel and I think it helps the structure of the bodyshell.