Most people see the 24 Hours of Lemons as focused heavily on the crazier ideas like head-scratching engine swaps, obscure cars, and insane weekend adventures. They see this because that’s the best part of Lemons. However, a decent chunk of the Lemons faithful are competitive types out to win on laps and an even larger contingent just want a whole bunch o’ cheap seat time in a fairly reliable car. You can pretty much get whatever you want from Lemons, but if you’re looking for cheap wheel-to-wheel time with a durable and relatively competitive car, what vehicle should you prepare?
A couple years ago, this author compiled and analyzed all of the data from seven years of Lemons races and came up with the most successful car types in the series from its outset (Click here for more on how the numbers were calculated). Rather than rehash the whole list (which you can find here), here are the five most successful car types based on average distance completed along with two honorable mentions.
Honorable Mention: GM A-Body and G-Body – These ubiquitous three-box coupes are staples at dirt tracks and drag strips, but Lemons racers have scraped together fairly capable road racing versions of the Monte Carlo and its badge-engineered brethren. It took several years for GM aficionados to figure out that the Small-Block Chevy doesn’t like being revved to redline a few hundred times per hour, but once they understood that, these cars became the most competitive American V8 cars in Lemons. The Roadkill-worthy Moldecarlo (above) became the first General Motors product to win a Lemons race overall at Carolina Motorsports Park in 2013.
Honorable Mention: BMW E30 (3-Series) – The Bavarian “Ultimate Driving Machine” is the easy answer for competitive teams, having racked up more wins than any other model of car. However, for every E30 win, you’ll find at least two BMW teams struggling with head-scratching electrical issues or swapping out wheel bearings in the pits while a Pontiac minivan slowly laps them a few hundred times.
5. Mazda Miata – The Internet will tell you over and over that Miata is always the answer, but they’ll also insist there is no such thing as a $500 Miata. The patient classifieds digger can score cheap-o Miatas with enough free time and the little roadsters have proven extremely reliable in Lemons. Winning with a mostly stock Miata is still a challenge given the pace of some cars, but Eyesore Racing run a homebrewed turbocharging setup that has taken their ‘92 Miata to six Lemons wins. The above-pictured Miata is a regular Top 10 car that has since retired, with the team now running the famed Geo Metro Gnome.
4. Alfa Romeo Milano – The success and surprising durability of Alfa Romeo remains one of the greatest demonstrations that street-car reliability bears little resemblance to the world of endurance racing. Maybe Alfa teams are composed of Italian car enthusiasts who know all the tricks of the tricky Italian stallions, but the Alfa is still a tough Lemons customer. Brian Shorey’s race-winning Scuderia Limoni Milano (above) has run more than 30 races, including putting tens of thousands of race miles on one 3.0-liter Alfa V6, an engine second only to the Jaguar V12 in terms of the spine-tingling engine sound among (relatively) common Lemons engines.
3. Lexus SC and LS – The early Lexus models—notably the SC300/400 and LS400—have been tough old cars, albeit without the sheer number of entries of, say, a Honda Civic or Ford Mustang. However, the Toyota platforms feature remarkably solid construction with high-quality electrical components that endure the rigors of Lemons well. The tuning community is starting to come around on the 1UZ-FE V8 as a robust engine for turbocharged swaps. In stock form, even a well-traveled 250,000-mile 1UZ makes good power for Lemons. These cars have depreciated mightily and while you might struggle to find a $500 SC300 (2JZ, bro!) on CraigsList, local police auctions seldom seem lacking for SC400s and LS400s. Bring some spare change for gas, though; these V8s can burn 10 or more gallons per hour.
2. Mercedes-Benz 190 (W201) – Just about all Mercedes-Benzes have performed pretty well in Lemons. Diesel 300s are solid Class C runners that accelerate like Panzers but are also tank-durable, while massively depreciated S500s have won multiple races. The sporty 190 has been as good as most E30s and while it’s starting to come back into vogue as a valuable car, a resourceful Lemons team can sell enough 190 parts to knock the cost of the car down to $500. The RC Spiders (above, formerly Ziegelscheißhaus) are multiple winners in their 190E.
1. Volvo 240/260 – The old Swedish bricks were renowned in their time as extremely safe cars and the Volvo’s stoutness also extends to their ability to endure hours and hours of racetrack abuse. Brittle old wiring causes the occasional problem, but the old Redblock motors are relatively bulletproof, even with a turbocharger on them. That said, the BertOne Volvo 262C (above)—which is powered by a turbo Redblock—only took the first Volvo-engined 240/260 win this year. However, V8 swaps are popular and can be done on the cheap; a pair of Ford 302-powered Volvos had been the only 240s to win before BertOne’s victory.