By on April 30, 2015

mechanic house call

With the proliferation of technology in newer cars, getting a grasp on the basics is a good plan before tackling anything else. Older cars provide just that. But, what car is best for learning the basics of auto mechanics?

I’m not going to lie and say I’m gifted with a wrench, because I’m not. Give me a mechanical problem to solve and my mind spins like a 20 G centrifuge. That’s not to say I can’t handle the basics, though: oil, brakes, and other simple wear items are fairly easy to learn when you own a clunker. But, if there’s a sound coming from the engine itself, I’m absolutely clueless.

I’ve owned two vehicles in particular that have taught me much more than I’d ever thought I’d know. One was a 2000 Honda Civic this author admits to lowering during his formative douchebag years. The second, and on the completely opposite end of the size spectrum, was my 1995 Ford Bronco. It was a big, beast of a truck. If you were looking for a particular part attached to your Bronco and couldn’t find it, you were probably having a diabetic eye stroke. Everything was massive.

So, Best & Brightest, what vehicles in your life have taught you (or maybe the ones around you) the most about automotive mechanics?

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124 Comments on “QOTD: What’s The Best Car For Learning Auto Mechanics?...”


  • avatar
    blockmachining

    An air cooled VW beetle along with “How to keep your VW Beetle alive for the complete idiot” book.

    • 0 avatar
      Mark_Miata

      Exactly what I was going to post – if you know nothing about cars, that book will hand-hold you through just about anything you might want to do to your VW Bug. It gave me the confidence to go on to do multiple car restorations after a complete rebuild of a 1962 Type 1.

      However, I’m not sure it’s the best way to learn these days. Basic car technology may be the same, but so many subsystems require more advanced understanding of electronics. Moreover, a VW Bug is a pretty crappy car to drive around on a daily basis in most parts of the USA, what with the lack of AC, crappy heater, and terrible handling by modern standards.

      I think the internet supports so many cars now that pretty much any reasonably common vehicle would be suitable to learn on. As long as you can access YouTube videos and discussion forums, things are so much easier than they used to be for the novice.

      • 0 avatar
        Sigivald

        It’d be a hell of a way to learn about engine rebuilds, though.

        Since they’re a regular maintenance task, and possibly the easiest to remove and rebuild engine ever put in a mass-produced car…

    • 0 avatar
      ClutchCarGo

      The only thing I would add would be an original owner’s manual. My first car was a ’65, on which I learned to drive stick (very forgiving), change oil, refurbish brakes and rebuild the carb. The manual included wonderful photo illustrations of nearly everything an owner might do with the car, performed by 2 lab-coated engineers (the original Hans und Franz), up to and including removing the engine, all done in a garage that was cleaner than any kitchen I’ve been in. It was clear that VW expected the owner to handle all of these repairs and maintenance. Altho I do none of those things myself anymore, it was great experience that allows me to comprehend what goes into work that I have done on my car.

    • 0 avatar
      Russycle

      Yep. When my brother was in college, a friend of his stopped by our place to visit, his bug died in our driveway. He spent the next week rebuilding the engine, then went on his way.

  • avatar
    Isotope9

    EG/DC Civic or Integra. Can practicaally be taken apart with only 10, 12, 14 and 17mm wrenches. Limited electronics, no frills and very easy to work on. Parts are also dirt cheap.

  • avatar
    PrincipalDan

    I would say late 1960s American car with a V8. Everything is pretty straight-forward and there is usually a decent amount of room under the hood for you to get your hands and arms in there to do something. Plus all the linkages and things are still mechanical and should be simple to diagnose.

    • 0 avatar
      zamoti

      No way, that’s too easy. Nothing is like that anymore.

      You need some eurotrash car like a VW or a mid-2000s Mercedes. The parts are so expensive that you’ll learn to do new things like rebuild alternators instead of swapping them because of the eye-watering cost. You’ll also learn not to screw up and break something, again, because of the cost of parts. You’ll learn maintenance routines because eurocars DEMAND it and you’ll get lots of experience troubleshooting crazy problems that the Japanese cars don’t have anymore! That awful bug in the picture is a perfect example. Mind, you’ll never actually fix it, but you’ll certainly get a lot of practice!
      My eurojunk has made me better at soldering because of the dodgy electrics and the absurd costs of replacing large sub-assemblies when only a tiny component has failed (see themister for HVAC).
      If you can keep your garage floor dry with a BMW parked on it, you can fix anything! (my garage floor is NOT dry)

      • 0 avatar
        PrincipalDan

        I’m saying to start learning. After you know the basics (spark, fuel, air) then you can start learning “system Y is like system X that you learned on except now _______ is controlled by this sensor.”

      • 0 avatar
        facelvega

        A 2005 E320 OE manufacturer alternator is $123.79 on Rockauto with no core, exactly one dollar more than the same part for a 2005 Malibu.

        • 0 avatar
          zamoti

          You’ll also learn that a $123 alternator (branded OE or otherwise) is a miserable POS and how not to buy cheap garbage parts that were reman’d in a Mexican sweat shop.
          There’s a reason they’re so cheap!

  • avatar
    geozinger

    I was going to suggest an old Beetle, too. Or in more recent times, a Yugo. Probably more likely to find an old Beetle than a Yugo, though…

    Much after 1990 and there’s way too many electronics on them…

    • 0 avatar
      Perc

      Wouldn’t you say that it might be time to start considering electronic skills to be a part of the basics? 1990 was a quarter of a century ago, after all. Knowing how to change the fan belt on an air cooled beetle will be a completely useless skill when the car you actually own decides to break down.

      A basic code reader and a multimeter is neither expensive nor difficult to use.

      • 0 avatar
        Quentin

        Agreed. Diagnosing the fuel/spark system of a Beetle isn’t going to help you at all with a modern car. The way that transmissions, brakes, HVAC, etc are operated these days is far different from what it used to be.

    • 0 avatar
      geozinger

      I agree that some diagnosing electronics should be part of all this, but I was under the impression the OP was asking about the simplest of cars to learn the very basics on.

  • avatar
    raph

    Fox body Mustang, really simple cars to work on and with so much aftermarket support they are invariably modified in some fashion when owned.

  • avatar
    Onus

    An old ford truck. Stay in the half ton range. Parts prices increase a good on 3/4 ton and up. Should also break enough to give you plenty of opportunity’s. Many can be had in a state where they need some work. Plus if you keep it in at least running state you’ll be able to find a buyer when your done.

    From a ford truck owner.

    • 0 avatar
      andrewbarnet

      I have been thinking about buying a late 80s or early 90s F150. I hear your advice on the 1/2 ton, but for us it would be a farm truck so I think the utility of the 3/4 ton is more important than higher parts costs. Part of the idea though is that it would also be a way for me to start learning how to do mechanical work.

      Any other advice as far as year, 8 vs 6 cylinders, manual vs auto, or anything else like that?

      This is almost exactly what I have in mind, except I think I’d rather have the 6 cylinder engine, and a 5 speed instead of 4:

      http://frederick.craigslist.org/cto/5001000674.html

      • 0 avatar
        redmondjp

        Early 1990s Ford with a fuel-injected 300-I6 and ZF 5-speed manual transmission. I don’t know if this engine was ever offered in a 3/4 ton or not – you may be limited to the 351, 460, or 7.3l diesel then.

        I have a 460 in my 1990 F350 and it is awesome if you can deal with 9-12mpg. Diesel-like torque down low where you need it. The diesels in this era are mostly worn out already (and google 7.3l cylinder wall cavitation and start reading) and can cost $5K for a remanufactured engine.

        • 0 avatar
          Onus

          I have a 1990 7.3. It currently has 365000 on it. No cavitation. I do have the low silicate anti freeze that came with dca2 in it. Bought some test strips and additive and test it every oil change.

          I’d be more concerned with trucks needing injection pumps, injectors, and fuel pumps. All are easy to do. But will cost you about a grand if you include the cost of the timing tool. There are a couple idis around here nearly all badly timed. Get the tool if you do it. If your in New England I have all the needed tools.

          Another problem is air in the fuel. This is a never ending fight for me. I ended up having to replace all my fuel lines.

          The air causes high high idle and the timing gets thrown off. It can also be hard to start or die just after starting.

          I’ve also had issues with rebuilt stock starters dying quickly. I stick with these brand new high torque ones of eBay. I’ve had great luck with them.

          On top of that you have glow plugs which go bad. The harness also gets worn and needs to be rebuilt. Personally I have disabled by glow plugs and use ether. One second shot in the plastic fender air intake starts it every time.

      • 0 avatar
        Onus

        The 300 is a good choice. You can find it behind the zf 5 in anything 3/4 ton up and post 1989 when the zf came out. But they seem to be quite rare.

        I personally have an 83 with a 300 t18. 2 wheel drive though.

        Stick with manual unless it’s a c6 3 speed auto. I’d avoid the e4od 4 speed auto. I have one behind an idi that will need a rebuild soon. It’s more a matter of if than when with these.

    • 0 avatar
      NoGoYo

      Late 80s 4×4 F250 with a 300 inline six? I’d love to have one of those. Poor gas mileage, but torque for days and the 300 is tougher than granite.

  • avatar
    michal1980

    the out of warranty car you own.

    • 0 avatar
      FormerFF

      Correct. Learn to work on whatever you’re planning on maintaining.

    • 0 avatar
      Undefinition

      This is great advice, except if you fark up the job, and it’s your daily driver, and now you’re stranded at home. If possible, I’d rather keep a reliable DD, and have a “learner car” on the side. But money (and space) are everything.

      • 0 avatar
        sco

        Finding your make and model at a local self-serve junkyard also works well. You can experiment all you want and figure out how things come off and go back on before you work on your own car.

  • avatar
    heavy handle

    Quote from my favorite tech: “I tell new mechanics to get a job at Volvo. That way they’ll get to work on a wide variety of issues. If they start out at Honda or Toyota, they’ll be fixing the same 5 problems all day.”

    He’s not saying that H&T are better, but that they are so consistent that if one new control arm fails, the next 1.6 million control arms they build will fail in the exact same way. That’s great if you want to bank the most hours, but it sucks if you need to hone your diagnostics skills.

  • avatar
    OneAlpha

    Thunderbird Super Coupe or Mitsubishi 3000GT VR-4.

    If you can keep an SC or VR-4 alive, nothing automotive will ever intimidate you again.

    Nothing.

  • avatar
    sportyaccordy

    Mid 90s Corolla

    I think the value of being able to work on your own car is overrated though. For quick stuff like oil changes or brake pads/rotors, which is easy enough on most cars, cool. But its hard as hell to learn how to diagnose problems, and anything that involves complete disassembly (i.e. clutch job) will usually be a one time thing that will cost more in tools than labor at a competent independent mechanic. I do my own maintenance and in my heyday did engine swaps and all that stuff… I don’t miss those days much.

    • 0 avatar
      gtemnykh

      “Knowledge is power.” You’re right, my time these days is much more valuable and better spent doing other things. But the knuckle busting, rusty bolt shearing work I did back in high school and college working on my old cars now gives me the knowledge to never having to worry about getting fleeced by a shop, or recognizing a sound when I’m going down the road and knowing what that issue probably is. I’m secretly looking forward to having kids just for the opportunity to teach my son (or daughter) beater maintenance.

    • 0 avatar
      sproc

      I see where you’re coming from, but there’s a flip side, too. Money aside and when time permits, a Saturday afternoon in the garage with some good tunes and a couple of cold beers doing simple to moderate maintenance can be very relaxing and therapeutic, not to mention a lot of fond memories wrenching with my dad. Sometimes it’s more than just car work.

    • 0 avatar
      danio3834

      ” anything that involves complete disassembly (i.e. clutch job) will usually be a one time thing that will cost more in tools than labor at a competent independent mechanic.”

      The tools required to do a clutch job are a one time invesment and can be used to perform other maintenance on the vehicle (jack, jack stands, socket set, wrenches). Axle nut sockets and ball joint separators can be borrowed at no cost from many parts stores. So if someone works on their own car at all, those tools are what they’d already have on hand.

    • 0 avatar
      psarhjinian

      I’ll second the 93-02 Corolla: that’s a very easy car to work on and the parts are very cheap.

      Downside: it doesn’t break often, and it does rust out. Bodywork is an entirely different discipline.

    • 0 avatar
      Sigivald

      Yeah – one reason I bought my old 300D was to learn to do wrenching.

      Turns out I’d rather pay someone else to do anything more complicated than brake pads*, and I hate disposing of waste oil.

      But at least I have a fair idea of what they’re doing when they repair a thing.

      (* I totally don’t mind doing those, because it’s fast and satisfying and low-mess and a lot cheaper than Les Schwab, where they *infuriatingly* insist on replacing the calipers EVERY TIME they change pads.

      Because calipers are now a rapid-wear item, evidently.

      Only, hell no.)

    • 0 avatar
      kmoney

      I do tend to agree with gtemnykh. Not only can you avoid getting fleeced, but you develop little habits and feelings for the little nuanced things that make cars last a lot longer than people who don’t know/care. Probably my biggest reason for working on all my own cars, is I know the works has been done properly and I know the condition of all the other parts and fluids that get inspected when you’re under there.

  • avatar
    cwallace

    I learned a heck of a lot on an old Nissan pickup.
    • Cheap to buy
    • The Chilton manual for the 70-86 Nissan is very comprehensive
    • Parts are plentiful and cheap (thanks RockAuto)
    • A 10, 12 and 14mm wrench and a Phillips screwdriver are all the tools you’ll need
    • When you’re done and want to sell, you’ll get most of your money back on the work you put into it

    • 0 avatar
      gtemnykh

      I was just looking at a ’86 Nissan 720 on the local craigslist, man I wish I had more of a need for something like this so I had the excuse to scoop it up.

      linkhttp://indianapolis.craigslist.org/cto/4999403342.html

      • 0 avatar
        CoreyDL

        I love the Maxima faced trucks! That one is so tidy for the Midwest. Can’t recall when I last saw any Nissan truck that old.

        • 0 avatar
          gtemnykh

          I’ve become quite obsessed with all things “old Nissan” since visiting Mexico for work. I’ve been looking for clean B13 Sentras and Hardbody trucks on craigslist, a tall order in the salt belt. But you’re right that ’86 is super clean. I’m also looking for a Mexican restaurant that makes tortilla chips at least half as good as what I tried out there.

          • 0 avatar
            bumpy ii

            G20 might be worth looking for. From my observations, they tend to live easier lives than Sentras.

          • 0 avatar
            CoreyDL

            Keep in mind the G20 shares almost nothing with a Sentra (engine, yes). That was a common misconception. The G20 is actually a European Nissan Primera.

            I do like the later G20s when they got some more body cladding and the revised tail lamps to match up with the I35.

          • 0 avatar
            gtemnykh

            G20 is quite different, as Corey pointed out, it’s the European Primera. And mind you I’m not chasing a SE-R Sentra with the SR20DE, I specifically want a 4 door with the base 1.6L G16DE motor, and the more spartan the better. I basically want a Nissan Tsuru to drive here in the US.

          • 0 avatar
            CoreyDL

            Too new maybe, but very nice and low miles and manual!
            https://cincinnati.craigslist.org/cto/4976435299.html

            Might be hard to find one so old that’s not rurint or with rust.
            https://cincinnati.craigslist.org/cto/4991538217.html

          • 0 avatar
            28-Cars-Later

            There was a 94yo gentleman across the street where I grew up who had a MY95 Sentra 5spd with 21K original miles. If the paint weren’t peeling you wouldn’t have known it was such an unused car as the interior was immaculate. When he moved into a home the car disappeared no idea what happened to it (I assume his kids kept or sold it).

          • 0 avatar
            greaseyknight

            That is a tall order in the rust belt. I bought my B13 December 2012 and it took me a while to find a decent one, in the correct trim level, and this was in the Seattle area. In checking Craigslist recently, they are really starting to dry up, their day is over as a good cheap car to buy. The best IMHO is a SE trim, upscale interior(Tach, leather steering wheel and shifter, better seats), painted bumpers, and a wing on the trunk. A SE-R without the motor.

          • 0 avatar
            bumpy ii

            Yeah, best time to pick up a B13 (go for the E trim to get the true Tsuru feel- gray bumpers, manual steering, 4-speed manual) was about 10 years ago. Gas was still in the early stages of its ramp-up, everyone wanted SUVs, and the economy hadn’t imploded yet.

          • 0 avatar
            gtemnykh

            I think a middle of the road XE would be my ‘unicorn:’ 5spd manual transmission rather than the 4spd, but pretty basic aside from that. Unpainted bumpers would be a neat plus, but I think XE and up had them painted. if I can’t get a clean Sentra then a Tercel may have to do.

    • 0 avatar
      TR4

      • A 10, 12 and 14mm wrench and a Phillips screwdriver are all the tools you’ll need

      Gross exaggeration. You can’t even change spark plugs with just the tools in that list.

  • avatar
    gtemnykh

    Whatever your broke highschool butt owns. For me it was a 1990 Civic Wagon. Started off with oil changes, then I did the brakes. Then my brother and I replaced the CV axles and upper control arms. Every spring I’d spend a weekend sanding down and cutting out rusty metal off the rear quarter panels, then bondo, sanding, paint and primer. Ended up looking pretty passable for an 18 year old with rattle cans.

    Speaking more generally, something common (for access to junkyard donors and cheap and easy to find parts) with room under the hood. Hondas are nice because they’re fairly well thought out in terms of DIY maintenance. Old RWD volvos are also an excellent candidate. One could make the argument in favor of a 1990s European car simply because they don’t rust anywhere as much and chassis fasteners still look like new rather than like lumps of rust.

    Lastly, and equally important these days, is the online community and forum support. Going from my old Mazda MPV to my 4Runner, I was blown away by the immense and easily accesible knowledge base in the form of documented and photographed write ups for every imaginable DIY job. With that 4wd MPV, I sometimes found myself trailblazing so to speak, and then reporting to the small forum community on my findings.

    • 0 avatar
      Nick 2012

      I second RWD Volvos, particularly n/a 740s and 940s. It’s what I learned on. Tons of room in the engine bay, easy access to most things, helpful forums, and quality components.

  • avatar
    Zykotec

    Here in Europe the best you could do was an old Ford in the past. Partly because you had no other option unless you could afford taking it to ashop (and if you did , you didn’t buy a Ford) secondly, they were dirt easy to work on, and the parts were cheap and easy to find.
    Nowadays I guess even ‘old’ Fords are getting complicated, and working on a Japanese car will cost you a lot more in parts, even if they are mostly assembled in the same way, so maybe Audi and BMW? Bioth Audis and BMWs are made like Legos, so parts can fit between models, and parts are reasonably cheap (until you start adding them up). Also, since they are not Ford or Japanese there is more room for error, as they don’t have a similarly thought through manufacturing process. The higher ‘build quality’ also means you will have to remove a lot more parts to get to the part you want to replace, so it takes more time, but that just gives you even more practice hours :)

  • avatar
    danio3834

    Obligatory Panther recommendation. Relatively simple and straightforward to work on, lots of communal knowledge, readily available cheap parts.

    A prospective mechanic can learn repairs of varying difficulties from easily replacing most suspension and brake components all the way to replacing timing chain sets and re-threading blown out spark plug holes.

    • 0 avatar
      CoreyDL

      I knew this rec was coming, just surprised it took over half the comments to get there. Certainly a good recommendation. And Ford cars are so common that learning one of these will undoubtedly apply to lots of their other cars as well.

    • 0 avatar
      Sigivald

      And at least there are tons of walkthroughs on replacing that plastic alternator mount/manifold that always breaks!

      • 0 avatar
        CoreyDL

        That was MY97+, right? I am thinking that’s always why the 96 sticks out in my mind as the best year. But maybe they did that for 95+.

        • 0 avatar
          01 ZX3

          My ’96 Mustang had an all plastic intake from the factory for what it’s worth. I believe in 97 they upgraded to an aluminum crossover, but they switched back to an all plastic intake in 99 when they came out with the “performance improved” 4.6.

  • avatar
    Chocolatedeath

    92 Taurus 3.8 I even bought one of those books from AutoZone to help me. I have zero mechanical skills and was able to change the water pump, Power steering pump, Radiator, starter,and several other under the hood parts. I finally gave out because I couldnt (to lazy) keep up with it. Believe it or not it was a very good car I just didnt care for it the way it should have been. I drove hard and fast back then..

    • 0 avatar
      danio3834

      And if you keep it long enough, you’ll eventually get to the boss level repair; replacing the head gaskets on that transverse beast.

    • 0 avatar
      jhefner

      I have worked a little on every car I’ve owned; but after 14 years of ownership I know more about my ’95 Taurus than anything else in regards to how everything works — for example, the brake light switch that is on top of the brake pedal; pressing the pedal closes the switch spring first, then pushes in the brake rod. And it has to work because if it doesn’t, you can’t shift out of Park because the car thinks your foot is not on the brake pedal, and the cruise control thinks you are just going up a hill and will not disengage until you press the brakes hard.

      Replaced the airbag control module on the side of the body next to the glovebox, and the master cylinder. (Any car that has an active repair forum and lots of junkyard candidates is a good candidate; that’s where I learned how to replace the control module.) I know what the usual sounds are — the occassional squeaking of the left rear brake drum; the tiedowns on the roof rack vibrating in a crosswind when they work themselves into the middle of the rack, the fold down jump seat and not the rear hatch or suspension making an occasional squeak on bumps. But I left the radiator replacement and head gasket work to an indy shop. He looked at it with a look of disbelief when I picked up last time he had to do his magic to get it to pass emissions.

  • avatar
    Pig_Iron

    Jeep Wrangler or Ford Ranger. Easy to work on, easy to get under. Tons of factory and specialty manuals available.

    • 0 avatar
      Car Ramrod

      Agree completely. Particularly with a YJ or TJ Wrangler, there is TONS of room to work on the 4-cylinder becuase you’ve got the space the straight six fits in to work in.

      Broke kids cant usually afford good tools, so the extra space helps.

  • avatar
    319583076

    The answer is always Miata. They are modern cars, so the systems are generally the same as any newer car. They are small and lightweight, so they’re easy to get onto jack stands and can be worked on in small garages/carports. There is a lot of room in the engine bay, so you have room to work. Most of the fasteners are one of three sizes, so you don’t need specialty tools or even a large wrench/socket set. There is a *massive* online community that has done everything mild to wild and documented that work in write-ups, photos, and videos.

    You can get a used Miata that is up for serious scheduled maintenance (timing belt/water pump) for a hefty discount if you know as much and can negotiate. Doing that work yourself saves you a lot of money and bonds you to the car. EDIT: Parts are *widely* available with many choices from cheap to premium upgrades!

    In more general terms, I agree 100% with michal1980 above. A Haynes or Chilton manual, a basic set of tools, and the right attitude can be extremely beneficial for any car owner.

    • 0 avatar
      Big Al From 'Murica

      I second the Miata. The only caveat being that those commonly sized fasteners had a tendancy to break on mine. For the big discount, buy one that needs a clutch and do it yourself. The Trans is light enough you aren’t going to kill yourself. The aftermarket is huge and after you learn the basics you can move right on up to fuel delivery and forced induction. Watch the rear of the rocker panel though or you’ll be learning rust repair.

    • 0 avatar
      S2k Chris

      Came in to suggest Miata, or any other affordable Front-engine, Rear-drive, longitudinal engine layout car. That way you can focus on the repair itself, and not how the heck you’re going to squeeze your hand into the spaces around a transverse FWD car’s drivetrain. Plus they’re cheap and old enough to be reliable-“ish” while still having things go wrong that will need attention.

      • 0 avatar
        JMII

        The answer is always Miata. Just look into the engine bay… there is plenty of room to reach everything.

        The answer is NOT a modern VeeDub as they require a special tools just to change brake pads. Want to remove the calipers? Good luck finding a triple square bit at ANY local store (auto or hardware).

        And my observation is the same as others regarding Japanese vehicles as I’ve owned several Hondas and now a Nissan. 10 to 22 mm sockets and a phillips screwdriver does most tasks. My Dakota on the other hand requires THREE different sockets (mix of metric and standard) just to remove the front seats. Need the center console out? You’ll need two different Torx, a Phillips screwdriver and 1/4″ socket. Everything on my truck is like that a major pain!

        • 0 avatar
          S2k Chris

          “The answer is NOT a modern VeeDub as they require a special tools just to change brake pads. Want to remove the calipers? Good luck finding a triple square bit at ANY local store (auto or hardware).”

          I love to hate VWs as much as the next guy, but a $10 Amazon Prime order fixed the triple square problem in 48 hrs. And a $20 72-piece torx bit set from Crafstman proved to be one of the most commonly reached for items in my toolbox, for all kinds of tasks, automotive related and otherwise. Never have to deal with one of those crappy little allen wrenches included in furniture again.

          • 0 avatar
            Fordson

            About to say the same thing…one you’ve purchased a car, spending $50 on tools as you’ve described is a pretty minor expense.

            Add in the high corrosion resistance of chassis fasteners and the underbody shielding of a modern VW and they are much easier to work on after a few years than lots of other cars.

    • 0 avatar
      MBella

      The Miata is a good idea. Other good choices would be a Ranger, or a late 80s VW with CIS-E. All of these are cheap, and easy to work on. They will present you with most of the components found in a modern car, but in their simplest forms.

  • avatar
    thornmark

    Plymouth Valiant/Dodge Dart(US)

    • 0 avatar
      Arthur Dailey

      Sorry I scrolled through your comment, agree 100%. Pre malaise with the slant six.

      Other recommendations that I have seen and agree with are the Ford Ranger and Miata.

  • avatar
    RetroGrouch

    E30 or Miata, both simple enough to be fixed in the average driveway or parking lot

  • avatar
    87 Morgan

    I guess I come at this from a perspective of where not to start…

    Late 70’s smogger motors with the vacume lines going everywhere can be intimidating. I learned on a fox body mustang. Broke, every part of the car. Was an invaluable if not expensive learning experience of how everything in a car is intertwined together, the law of unintended consequences kind of thing. Can’t plop a motor with lots of hp (for the time) and not address the rear.

    One of the reasons I have an old car in the garage is the time I get to spend tinkering on it with my boys. I can’t think of a better way to spend an afternoon than goofing around under the hood with them trying to solve a problem that would take an average wrench 30 minutes.

    I think the best place to start would be a Jeep CJ. Everything is easy to get to, under dash issues are not a hornets nest. You can very easily determine where all the wires go and what they do etc. parts are cheap and available, with the correct tires you don’t need a jack, unless working in that area and need a tire removed. This way a young lad does not put themselves at risk of having the thing fall in them, etc. FWIW I hate working I under a car on jack stands.

  • avatar
    sirwired

    Find a car with an active and friendly online forum. Browse around a while and see if the posters are friendly to those with basic and tricky questions alike. A forum sub-section with common DIY-jobs archived is a good sign…

    Asking mechanics which cars they prefer to work on can be problematic… for example, somebody that works on a lot of Detroit Iron may any view European car, no matter how straightforward to repair, a nightmare, because of how they simply do things differently.

    Lastly, if you’ve never done an oil change before, it’s much better to buy a reliable car and cut your teeth on routine maintenance. You really don’t want your very first job to involve some tricky diagnostics or heavy dis assembly.

    • 0 avatar
      Fordson

      This is an excellent point…and I have found that online info on cars that could be termed enthusiast models is much easier to find than for appliance-mobiles.

      golfmk6.com has a huge number of sticky threads and you can find esoteric stuff on VAG-COM tweaks for example, easily. Then go to siennachat.com and try to find lug-nut torque. Also with cars that owners actually work on the ratio of members who know WTF they are talking about out of the entire membership is much higher.

  • avatar
    kvndoom

    With youtube videos on literally everything, I’d vote for any car with room to maneuver in the engine bay. Saturday I’m gonna change the valve cover gasket in a 99 I4 Camry. I’m a computer nerd, not a mechanic, but I watched the video already and damn it’s an easy job.

    Meineke wanted $175… I can do myself with $40 in parts and tools.

    • 0 avatar
      Sigivald

      Make sure the video is clear about the reassembly torque and (if it matters on that engine) order.

      Possibly best to find a chart online; valve covers can be irritably tricky to put back on Just Right if you aren’t careful with that stuff.

      (IIRC Toyota has an online service where for a small fee you can access the real shop manual, which is a good compromise between buying one and trusting a video to be Completely Correct, though most of them are very good.

      This is more a helpful hint for the next time something weird comes up, rather than something as simple as a VCG.)

  • avatar
    Big Al From 'Murica

    Anything powered by a TBI Small Block would be right up there with the Miata, Maybe not a Van though. Truck or B/D Body for sure. Stone simple electronics and generations of knowledge about the Small Block.

    Another really easy car I had to work on was the original Saturn. They were actually built with servicibility in mind and it shows under the hood.

  • avatar

    It was a 1997 Volkswagen Jetta VR6…primarily because a lot of the repairs and service required removing the entire front clip.

    • 0 avatar
      CoreyDL

      I think we can all agree the best base is NOT the modern Beetle at the top. What a hot mess of model-specific bits which break often and are expensive and complicated to replace.

      • 0 avatar

        I would say to avoid the Mk.3 and Mk.4 Volkswagens in general, of which the New Beetle was certainly the most frustrating.

        • 0 avatar
          never_follow

          Mk3’s are easy to work on, and even better – you’ll always find one in the pick&pull you can test on.

          There’s very little to go wrong on them, and the things that do already have an answer on the vortex.

          I should specify – get the Bentley manual and it makes things WAY easier. All the specs are there, and generally good images as well.

      • 0 avatar
        bball40dtw

        You repair a New Beetle by driving it into a ditch and lighting it on fire. That’s the day you start making life choices that don’t end in sadness and financial ruin.

  • avatar
    CoreyDL

    Considering this, I think older but not too old – so it has some electronics but not a ton. Cheap but serviceable so it’s worth messing with. And has enough common parts shared with other vehicles to make the knowledge spreadable and applicable. Danio up there said Panther already, and that’s a good US base. How about a good JPN base?

    02-03 Maxima

    The genesis of the VQ35 engine, which unlocks a world of knowledge. It applies to FIFTEEN vehicles in the US market alone. Has been applied to FWD, RWD, and AWD, and manual, auto, and CVTs, and it’s still used today.

    • 0 avatar
      22_RE_Speedwagon

      Yeah but there’s nothing to fix.

      • 0 avatar
        gtemnykh

        Oh I wouldn’t say that. Crank position sensors and MAF sensors come to mind, but yeah they’re free of any real catastrophic issues, not including rust. Oh and I think the Bose stereos have a habit of crapping out.

        • 0 avatar
          CoreyDL

          Some of them have the plastic timing chain guides which eventually get ruined and cause an engine rebuild.

          That might have been limited largely to the Quest, and some early 03+ Maximas – I think.

  • avatar
    Arthur Dailey

    A pre emissions control 225 slant six Chrysler product such as a Dart or Valiant.

    Robust, basic and lots of room in the engine bay.

    • 0 avatar
      PrincipalDan

      But then you might go around thinking that preventative maintenance is unnecessary. ;-)

    • 0 avatar
      CoreyDL

      Was that the low-end engine in the M-bodies? I wanna say my gramps 86 Fifth Avenue had a V8. 12 year old me was always was so impressed with the heavy quality materials used inside that car.

      And all the old church ladies would ooh and aah at the red(int)/red(ext)/red(landau) beast when we pulled up on Sundays. It was the first time I heard the term “pimpmobile,” which was my mom’s nickname for that car. I repeated it, and asked what it meant. I was told not to mention it any more.

    • 0 avatar
      Sigivald

      And perfectly safe as long as you never drive it!

      (I don’t mean that they’re any worse than anything of their era.

      Just that by modern standards, every car of that era is a horrible death-trap.

      Two-point belts [IIRC] and no headrests?

      No, thanks.)

  • avatar
    Truckducken

    B-box.
    2nd place: Panther and Miata (tie)

  • avatar
    Athos Nobile

    Any early-mid 90’s pre OBD-2 car will do. Early OBD-2 ones may do the trick too.

    Nowadays, knowing your way around an EFI system and how to properly diagnose it are fundamental skills. Mechanically, they not so complex and are have some modern features.

    I learned to diagnose with them, and the skills I picked have served me ever since. Even with modern CAN-bus cars the same principles apply.

  • avatar
    psarhjinian

    The BMW 3-Series (E36, E46) isn’t a bad choice: everything is relatively easy to get at and replace, the DIY community is both large and active and the cars are common enough that parts aren’t too expensive.

    And they do break enough that you’ll get experience fixing them.

    • 0 avatar
      psarhjinian

      ETA: I wouldn’t be afraid of modern cars, either. I prefer them: BT & WiFi Code readers are just ridiculously cheap and software is easily available, whereas pre-ODB2 (and especially in the vacuum-driven nightmare of the 70s/80s) is quite tricky.

    • 0 avatar
      boosted_sled

      +1 for E36 BMWs, as long as you can live without the interior plastics :)

    • 0 avatar
      hgrunt

      Also +1

      Learned a lot working on my E46. Easier to work on than some Japanese cars I used to have, modern enough to give you an idea on how to troubleshoot modern stuff, but not so advanced to require proprietary tools.

  • avatar
    greaseyknight

    Whatever make and model you are passionate about, so you don’t throw in the towel when the going gets tough.

  • avatar
    55_wrench

    I spent the first 15 years of my driving days playing around with nearly every style and model of the Chevy Corvair including the Rampside. They were dirt cheap, near the bottom of the depreciation curve at the time..but I rode them so hard they kept breaking, and that was where experience became a great teacher..Engine repair, tuneup, body work, electrical glitches, interior restoration, supercharging, headers,convertible top installation, all that and more. What I learned was invaluable for honing my wrenching skills

    Fast forward to now. There are not many of those left, so I nominate the W123 Mercedes turbo diesel. Practically unbreakable, quite satisfying to work on, and starter R & R will teach you patience. Not much in the way of special tools will be required (but do NOT skimp on a coil spring compressor for suspension work) and you get a great riding car that will at least get you to work and back even if peripheral systems are not quite up to scratch.

  • avatar
    bumpy ii

    Two ways to look at this:

    Learning basic maintenance and upkeep- late ’90s early ’00s compact or subcompact. OBD2 for diagnosis, transverse 4-cylinder, no AWD or fancy controls to complicate things.

    Earning your “I can fix anything” merit badge- ’90s or ’00s FWD-based European car. Find the most-expensive-when-new Audi or Volvo beater special and restore it to like-new condition.

    • 0 avatar
      Pig_Iron

      I was originally thinking 70s SAAB turbo, but they’re neither cheap, nor readily available any more – not even the later ones. The Audi is a great choice, or a Subaru would be a good second.

  • avatar
    Fred

    59 Ford Fairlane taught me how to replace parts. 59 Sprite taught me how to tune, adjust and lubricate a car. 65 VW Beetle along with the “Complete Idiot’s Guide” taught me how to look at a car and it’s maintenance in a holistic way. Maybe “Zen and Motorcycle Maintenance” solidified my whole being as far as cars go. I actually enjoy working on my cars now. Peace, love and cold beer in a garage goes a long way!

  • avatar
    slavuta

    Nissan 240 SX – work at will

  • avatar
    APaGttH

    First and foremost, something you like, you have a passion for. Then it won’t feel like work, it will feel like fun.

    Early 90’s cars that didn’t have Rube-Goldberg emission systems and didn’t have miles of vacuum lines are great to learn on.

    Civic, Corolla, if you can get your hands on a Ford Escort with the ye’ old 1.9L and fuel injection, The Mazda 2.2L 4-banger NA truck engine is pretty darn straight forward. GM W-bodies have dirt cheap parts, simple mechanicals, put also have tight engine bays. Old pickup trucks, even somewhat newer. I remember my GMT800 Chevy Avalanche was stunningly easy to work on – I did a ton of work myself.

  • avatar
    glwillia

    I learned how to wrench on an E30 325is. These days, I’d recommend a later E36, an E39 or a post-2000 E46, so you can familiarize yourself with OBD2, plus you still have the longitudinal front engine/RWD layout, parts are readily available, and there are tons of resources and HOWTOs online for ~15 year old Bimmers.

  • avatar
    kmoney

    Kind of a silly suggestion, but a really easy intro into turning wrenches is buying a motorcycle. Even most new bikes (at least the ones without traction control, electronic Ohlins dampers etc…) are very uncomplicated compared to their automotive counterparts. I get that not everyone wants to learn to ride, but if you’ve ever considered it…

  • avatar
    sprkplg

    A 1980 Datsun 720 was the first of my vehicles that I really started doing my own work on. Simple, with lots of room under the hood.

  • avatar
    hriehl1

    1964 Opel Kadett wagon. What I couldn’t figure out, the Maytag guy could.

  • avatar
    matador

    For a car, I’d go with a Jellybean LeSabre. Mine is one of the easiest cars to service that I’ve ever owned.

    Otherwise, a 1987-2000 Chevrolet pickup will be my choice. Bonus points for a 1987- you get the older square body, but get the first year of the TBI engines.

  • avatar
    davefromcalgary

    I started at age 10 working with my dad on the 92 LeSabre (I remember the first job I helped him was the rear drums). My first crop of vehicles was a 2.4L Twin Cam Grand Am, and Twin Cam Sunfire GT, a 4.3L Sonoma and my 2.2 ECOTEC Alero.

    I always found them reasonably well thought out and easy enough to work on, and spent a fair amount of time wrenching on them.

  • avatar
    brettc

    A 1985 Jetta diesel. I learned how to drive a manual on that thing by taking it out in the middle of the night and practicing on the quiet roads. Then I did a bunch of work to it since it had been a tad neglected and it was the first car of my own. I couldn’t afford to have people fix it for me so I fixed it for me. Very simple engine, no electronics aside from the radio. Contrast that with a 2015 TDI and things have changed a bit.

    That thing was a fun car, too bad it couldn’t get out of its own way!

  • avatar
    Slow_Joe_Crow

    I learned my auto mechanics on several late 70s-early 80s water cooled VWs with the help of John Muir and Robert Bentley. Armed with these 2 manuals I removed cylinder heads, serviced brakes, diagnosed bad fuel injectors and vacuum leaks and generally learned how to work on stuff.
    For more modern stuff, a 4 cylinder Ford Ranger or a Saturn S series is a good training ground, easy service access for most stuff and good Internet support and parts costs. I think anything with relatively simple systems (and EFI is actually simpler than some 80s emissions carbs) good servicing access, cheap parts and good internet resources is a starting point.

  • avatar
    dusterdude

    74 duster – with slant 6. ;)

  • avatar
    Acd

    Triumph Stag. That way the aspiring wrench turner will get plenty of opportunities to practice his skill on every part of the car and will have a tremendous sense of accomplishment if he eventually gets it to move under its own power.

  • avatar
    Cabriolet

    A buddy of mine has the same new Beetle shown in the heading. Not that hard of a car to work on if you know what you are doing. You do need a Vag-Com program to work on the car to get it fixed. I have used this program for years and the cost is very little. He has about 200,000 miles on the car and other then belt changes with water pump and a bad wire with the air bags i have been able to keep the car in service. Unlike Japanese cars European cars are very easy to take apart as the bolts are of good steel and do not freeze solid. My 20 year old Miata was always a job to work on getting parts off. After a while i used to keep a supply of bolts on hand to replace broken bolts. I sold my Miata last month as it was getting a little hard to get into. Getting old is hell. Just brought a 25 year old VW Cabriolet with 50,000 miles and “No Rust”. Now all i have to do is correct the work of butcher mechanics that worked on the car over the years. I can still get all of the parts for this model and the parts are still cheap. Should keep me busy over the summer.

  • avatar
    skor

    I learned the basics on a 1964 Ford Falcon. 170 cube I6, single barrel carb, 2 speed auto, power nothing. Once you’ve got the basics, everything else is just a layer added to the top.

  • avatar
    Ryoku75

    Owning various Hondas, Fox Bodies, a panther Marquis, and air-cooled VWs I’ll say this:

    RWD Volvos have taught me more about car work than any others be it suspension work, electronics, interior, body work, or engine work. They’re setup pretty straightforward, finding junkyard parts has gotten trickier but theres always a cheap 240 for sale somewhere.

    I’m less certain with 740-940’s, in some ways they’re easier to sort out (alternator, superior electrics, modern fuses, better rust prevention) while in other areas not so much (less room under the car, gauge cluster requires more work to remove, interior in general has more trim in the way).

    I’d certainly take one over a MK3 Golf or whatever random suggestions people are throwing around (A Taurus? Seriously?).

    Make sure you like the car from the getgo though, theres a reason why people will fix even the most beige vintage coupes, but not even bother with mini-vans.

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