With 200+ Lemons races in the books, we’ve seen just about every kind of vehicle on the race track, from a Hillman Imp to a Mercedes-Benz S600. We’ve learned that there are different ideal cheap race cars for different kinds of teams. Some teams want to be Lemons heroes by bringing spectacularly insane cars that never in a million years belonged on a race track. Other teams want to turn more laps than anyone else, in fast cars that can be tough to keep running and even tougher to fix when they break. Then there are the teams that just want to race, all weekend long if possible and without spending all their beer money on car parts. Today we’ll be looking at some cheap race cars that work very well for that last type of team.
We’re considering several factors here. First, the car in question must be easy to find for dirt cheap, anywhere in North America. Second, the car must have a proven record of good reliability in 24 Hours of Lemons races. Third, the car must be easy to fix when it breaks stuff. Fourth, the car must be plentiful in junkyards and the big auto-parts chains must stock its parts. Considering those factors, we came up with a list of five cheap race cars. Race one of these and your team’s drivers will have a good chance of seeing both the green and checkered flags on race day.
Here are five cheap race cars for Lemons, in no particular order:
Ford P71 Crown Victoria Police Interceptor
The P71 Crown Vic stayed in production for the 1992 through 2011 model years, and beat-up runners can be found for scrap value or better. The P71 was made to be abused, and it comes with heavy-duty everything plus a full complement of big coolers to keep oil, transmission fluid, and power-steering fluid temperatures down. The 4.6 Modular V8 engine has been proven as the most reliable V8 in Lemons history, by a big margin, and the 4-speed automatic transmission holds together well under race conditions. Stock P71s mostly get put into Class B at Lemons races, where they compete strongly. Parts are hilariously easy to find, with fresh P71s being dragged into track-convenient wrecking yards every day.
Strengths: Sturdy, V8 engine, big brakes, easy to cage, rear-wheel-drive.
Weaknesses: Consumes fuel/tires/brake pads in a hurry, can be tough to squeeze through heavy traffic.
Classing: Nearly always Class B, occasionally Class A.
Chrysler’s Civic/Corolla competitor boasts decent power (especially from the later DOHC engines) and 5-speed examples for bottom-feeder prices can be found with no sweat. In the hands of a top-notch driver, a Neon can keep up with anything on a Lemons track. Neons might break when pushed hard, but the local Autozone or Ewe Pullet will stock what you need to fix these cheap race cars. Best of all, Neons have virtually no resale value, so the buyer always has the upper hand during price negotiations. Start with a slow early single-cam Neon, then upgrade the running gear cheaply as your team’s driving skills improve.
Strengths: Good speed potential, easy on tires and fuel, lots of junkyard upgrades available.
Weaknesses: Axles and hubs on the fragile side, 1990s Chrysler build quality.
Classing: 10%/60%/30% Class C/Class B/Class A split, depending on hooptieness, competition at a particular race, judges’ mood that day.
Toyota spent a billion dollars to develop the LS400, and the result was a ridiculously overbuilt and overengineered masterpiece of build quality that made a lot of Mercedes-Benz execs go wee-wee in their lederhosen. Once the interior and paint go bad on an LS400, though, the real-world value plummets to “just take it off my hands” levels in a hurry. The LS400 team benefits from big brakes, independent rear suspension, and a sophisticated 6-bolt-main V8 engine protected by lots of big ol’ fluid coolers. Because of the piano-falling-off-the-roof nature of LS400 depreciation, junkyards offer all the LS400s (and SC400 cousins) that teams need for paddock repairs. Automatic transmission only, just like the Crown Vic, but still plenty of fun on a race track.
Strengths: Sturdy, top-notch design and build quality, rear-wheel-drive.
Weaknesses: Thirsty, rapid tire/brake-pad wear, starter motor buried inside the engine.
Classing: Usually Class B.
Mazda Protegé/Ford Escort/Mazda 323/Mercury Tracer
The glut of 1991-2003 Mazda Protegés/Mazda 323s/Ford Escorts/etc. will take many decades to pass through the American junkyard digestive system, and your Lemons team can profit from this! With tough Mazda B engines (the same ones that power Miatas) or Zetecs, these cars hold together better than most Lemons machines, and they’re capable of taking an overall Lemons win. You won’t have any of those strained conversations with befuddled parts-counter guys when seeking bits to keep one running, because you can’t get any more mainstream than this family of cars.
Strengths: Speed potential, simplicity, astoundingly easy parts obtainment.
Weaknesses: Fragile hubs, axles, transmissions.
Classing: Odious clunkers in C, ordinary heaps in B, unaccountably fast cars in A.
1996-up Ford Taurus/Mercury Sable
We’re not talking about the Taurus SHO here, because the SHO blows the hell up in Lemons races. No, we mean the bread-and-butter Taurus (and its Sable twin), the one that sold by the hundreds of trillions (slight exaggeration) and that loses 99.999% of its value by age 15. Many of the 21st-century Tauruses/Sables came with better than 200 horsepower, and a blowed-up motor or transmission can be replaced with a quick trip to the junkyard or a desperate Craigslist parter-outer.
Strengths: Plenty of power, reliable, easy to fix.
Weaknesses: Automatic transmission only, limited bragging rights.
Classing: Early ones in Class C, later ones in Class B. B winners promoted to A.
We could include some other cars here, such as the Volvo 240 (but parts are too hard to find away from the West Coast) or the Ecotec-powered Chevy Cavalier (small sample size in Lemons racing), but you really can’t go wrong with the five cheap race cars we’ve shared with you here. If you have any questions about our opinions on the cars your team is considering, don’t hesitate to email us!