So what if there's no seat cushion, it goes like hell!
August 22, 2010 6:39 PM   Subscribe

I want to buy a fun, impractical, and unusual sports/muscle/fun car for under $5000(USD). This will be my second car, and not my daily driver. Can you offer some suggestions? (It must be available as a stick shift.)

I'm looking for a fun car. It doesn't have to be safe to drive in the winter, or get good gas mileage, or be comfortable. I have no problem buying an old car. What it needs to be is fun to drive.

My interest is more in handling than in raw power. But, I kind of have always wanted a car that would plaster me to the seat.

It doesn't need to be reliable, but I would prefer that the parts, tools, and labor not be premier-import expensive. A friend has a story about the $10,000 Bentley he bought, and then $22,000 he spent on tools for it.

Cars I already have thought of and like (not necessarily in my price range): Corvette Stingray, MG Midget, BMW Z series, Lotus Elise, Audi TT. I don't like Mercedes or Jaguar even a little tiny bit.

I currently drive a Subaru Impreza, but the WRXs and STIs that are actually better than my car are all mostly more expensive than I'm willing to pay.
posted by Netzapper to Travel & Transportation (47 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
I'm surprised you didn't mention the Mazda Miata (MX-5) -- seems like an obvious possibility, especially because you care more about handling than power.
posted by xil at 6:44 PM on August 22, 2010 [2 favorites]

I love the FD RX-7. It handles great and depending on what you do turbo wise it can be extremely fast. You can find them for around 5K in OK condition. They are definitely a car you need to learn how to work on too.
posted by zephyr_words at 6:46 PM on August 22, 2010

What about an old Cooper? They're zippy and built bulldog style, hugging the road. Might be pricier these days now that they've been reinvented though (I don't know though, maybe not).

A 64 1/2 Mustang could be loads of fun. Sure, Mustangs are everywhere, but the half-model introductory year have recognizable differences (if you know what to look for), are considerably more valuable, and are super cheap 'n easy to work on.
posted by iamkimiam at 6:48 PM on August 22, 2010

Around here, guys of a certain age drive old British two-seaters. Flat cap optional, shit-eating grin included.
posted by seanmpuckett at 6:49 PM on August 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

'half-model introductory year' should be 'half-year introductory model'. Whee!
posted by iamkimiam at 6:49 PM on August 22, 2010

2nd generation Toyota MR2 turbo seems to hit all your bullet points. Looks, handling, (potential for) big power. Priced around $5k. Exotic in that it's mid-engine and pretty rare.
posted by knave at 6:50 PM on August 22, 2010

I too am in the market for a similar car. I've been looking at Datsun 240 and 280 Z's from the 1970's. If you're willing to wrench a bit and don't car about a few belmishes, I've seen these sell pretty consistenly for $2000-$3000 in decent driveable condition. I'm partial to the the plainer body style on the earlier Z's, but the later ones have more reliable fuel injection rather than carbs.
posted by cosmicbandito at 6:50 PM on August 22, 2010

A 6th generation Toyota Celica - you can get one from the mid '90s for about $5000.
posted by fiercekitten at 6:50 PM on August 22, 2010

mustang or camaro/firebird.
posted by patnok at 6:52 PM on August 22, 2010

Honda CRX? Perhaps slightly more pedestrian than what you are looking for, but. A friend had one and I thought it was a really fun ride.
posted by kmennie at 6:54 PM on August 22, 2010

I daydream about this sort of thing frequently, but given my searches on Craigslist and eBay, I decided to up my price limit to $10,000. I am not in the market now, and probably won't be for another 5 to 7 years at least.

Anyway, in the 5k range, I think you could maybe find some interesting cars. Your best bet would probably be cars of the mid 80s to early 90s that aren't yet collectable or generally brands that don't exist anymore. I haven't seen many FD RX-7s for 5k. I would imagine you could get a FB or FC RX-7 for that amount that might be pretty decent. The Mustang SVO is a nice handling car - for 5k you should be able to get a good one. I've driven both an FB RX-7 and SVO and both were fun.

Also from Ford is the XR4ti of the mid 80s. You would have to put some money into modifying the car (getting a newer turbo) for big power, but it does have independent rear suspension, which the SVO lacked.

Again, you might be able to find some 80s/90s Japanese sports cars in that range, especially if they are unmodified, but higher mileage. So, maybe a 280zx or 300zx from Nissan or the aforementioned RX-7 and Miata from Mazda or the Supra or Celica from Toyota or an older Integra or so on...

Since you have a Subaru, you might be looking for something non-Japanese just for a different flavor. If you want to go back to 60s / 70s muscle, you might look into American Motors. 5k would be really stretching, but I bet you could maybe find an early 70s Javelin for that amount...

I think the biggest concern is that 5k for any car from the mid-80s or earlier might mean rust.

I will keep my eye on this thread.
posted by Slothrop at 6:57 PM on August 22, 2010

Honda del Sol convertible from the early 90s might be good. It seems a lot of people who bought them liked to tune them up. It's a Civic, so it's a decent car.
posted by bonobothegreat at 7:02 PM on August 22, 2010

Seconding a Miata. Best fun to dollar ratio bar none.
posted by milinar at 7:05 PM on August 22, 2010 [2 favorites]

I love my 88 firebird. It handles amazing- I take turns like a mad woman and have never once lost control of the car. It would run forever....if I didn't have to stop for gas every few miles. I also like driving around the KIT car, because I'm a dork that way. For 5k, you could buy one for half that and spend the extra money on making it perfect.
posted by haplesschild at 7:10 PM on August 22, 2010

I had (actually *have*...keep putting off selling it) a 1990 Honda CRX that I drove like I stole it for about eight years. Corners? yep. Get up and go, if you're not scared to rev it? yep. Put two ladders, ten lengths of pipe, and all the tools you need to put together a car wash in it and drive 200 miles on 20 bucks in gas? Oh yes. Hell, I took it (mild) four-wheeling on fire roads in Colorado and Montana.

I now drive a Del Sol. Also a hell of a blast, also really cheap. For your 5 grand, you could get a clean-ish example and drop a hot motor in it. The top comes off.
posted by notsnot at 7:13 PM on August 22, 2010

Response by poster: I also like driving around the KIT car, because I'm a dork that way. For 5k, you could buy one for half that and spend the extra money on making it perfect.

I'm sorry, but what is a "KIT car"? Searching that phrase only gets me, well, kit cars.

I don't have the space to build a kit car, unfortunately. I can probably tinker, but I can't have it up on blocks.
posted by Netzapper at 7:18 PM on August 22, 2010

I'm not a car guy (IANACG), but my dad and brother are. I can offer some second-hand advice.

My dad loves MGs. He's had at least one in the garage for as long as I can remember. But he's a mechanic (he used to own gas stations and car service shops), and his MGs spend as much time on jacks as they do on the ground.

Part of that is his constant fiddling to try to increase performance, but it's also because MGs are super unreliable. He would admit as much. That said, his current toy, a "rubber bumper" MG B that's definitely not stock in a lot of ways, is insanely fun to drive. It's loud, tiny, and doesn't have power brakes or steering.

My advice -- if you're not looking to spend a ton on maintenance or do a lot of work on the car yourself -- is to do as xil advised and look into a Miata, or perhaps, as knave suggested, a Toyota MR-2.

My brother has an MR-2. It's also not stock in a lot of ways, but that car is a rocket ship. And the mid-engine thing IS cool.
posted by thebergfather at 7:18 PM on August 22, 2010

A 1983 Mazda RX7, in silver. I know where you can get one - in my garage right now. I'll pay YOU to get this damn thing out of here. Don't tell my husband.

It actually is fun to drive. I guess it has some kind of rotary engine-something-something, that's supposed to be cool. And it is kind of neat/scary to ride along at warp speed with your ass approximately 6 inches above the road. Every time I've driven it, I've gotten a speeding ticket, because apparently I don't know how to handle it correctly. ::rolls eyes::

The linked one isn't actually my husband's. His isn't for sale, unfortunately.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 7:22 PM on August 22, 2010

Miata! I owned a 1999. great car... fun to drive, reliable...
posted by HuronBob at 7:25 PM on August 22, 2010

Response by poster: I have no problem turning wrench.
posted by Netzapper at 7:26 PM on August 22, 2010

I think notsnot is referring to KITT, the car from Knight Rider; the original was a Pontiac Firebird.
posted by Upton O'Good at 7:33 PM on August 22, 2010

...I mean haplesschild, sorry.
posted by Upton O'Good at 7:50 PM on August 22, 2010

Two words: Miata. Or one word.
posted by glaucon at 8:18 PM on August 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

300ZX Twin Turbo. You will get plenty of tickets, and smiles, every time you start it up. The car has a good following and was rated "Car of the Year" when it first came out.

I'd opt for a 1990 but do your homework on what is offered. Read up on past issues of Road & Track and you will see what an amazing vehicle this thing was, and continues to be, for many.

When the car first debut in, I believe, 1989 with its redesigned format, it was a monster of the sports car world beating out the likes of the Vette, Porsche 911, 928 and a few Ferraris. I loved this car and have many memories of its attraction but none stays with me more than the night I smoked the doors off a Mustang 5.0 and then a souped up Vette on a hot summer's night in 1992. Oh the good ole days...

The car still sits in my garage. It doesn't have a license plate. I don't start it up as much as I should but I often find myself sitting in it, smelling the interior and day dreaming of many wild jaunts against some power houses of the day.

Hope you find it as equally exhilarating. Oh, one more thing- wear your seat belt.
posted by bkeene12 at 8:34 PM on August 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

I am astonished that the Miata is getting such high marks here. I have always loathed them, and I see no value whatsoever in them. But, if people with more experience recommend them, it may be that I have not gotten my feet wet enough in the Mazda river to know their true beauty.

I would recommend a Supra MKIII, as far as newer cars go. With a well-tuned turbo and some tweaking, you can have what is without a doubt one of the fastest cars on the road, with excellent handling to boot. A friend who has one has taken me on some of the fastest rides of my racing life, and the 2 times I drove it I had no problem with drifting it dramatically after a few seconds behind the wheel.

However, I must say this: buy something old. Seriously old. Something classic. Buy a Mopar, or an old SS Chevy. You can burn the tires all to shit, you can feel like you are gonna break your neck off the line, and you can make passengers piss their pants. And, you can look absolutely awesome while doing it. I have done single-handed ground up restos on a few old Mopar cars, and the end result is a show quality, head turning, fast as the devil beast... for around $8k total. And that is with a lot of serious part replacement. You can likely find a good Mopar (specifically, a pre-75 Plymouth Duster) or a good SS (Novas are likely in your price range, if you search) and have a seriously good time rebuilding it.

Or, another good time rebuild I have done for cheap is early-mid 70s BMWs. The BMW 2002 (or the fuel injected version, the 2002tii) is an awesome little machine, and very easy to build. Also, very easy to make fast. The tii, when done right, will do damage to the ego of the driver of nearly any modern tuner car.

All of this is making me want to build another car. Sadly, I ran out of room and had to switch to motorbikes. So, in lieu of building another car, I think I will go ride a bike at dangerous speed!

Have fun!
posted by broadway bill at 8:36 PM on August 22, 2010

Nthing miata, esp. if you're serious about prefering handling to power. Miatas are a favorite among track rats because they're cheap, (so you don't mind so much if you put it into the wall) and lots of aftermarket stuff you can do with them to improve power, brakes, and suspension, etc.
posted by smcameron at 8:36 PM on August 22, 2010

Personally, I'd look for an early-to-mid-90s BMW M3.
Brilliant drivers' cars.
I considered looking seriously for one before I decided to simply upgrade my daily driver to a much newer 330i.
posted by nickthetourist at 8:45 PM on August 22, 2010

Old 1960's SAAB 96 two-stroke? It was an insanely successful rally car, and they are definitely rare and very fun to drive, in a clunky antiquarian way. The V-4 models are less powerful.

Still in the 60's: Datsun 1600 or 2000 convertible. They have a ton of pep and are quirky and interesting. I had a 1600 but my friend's 2000 was way more fun.

Another friend had the 2-liter Porsche 914, which was a total blast to ride around in. Very low to the ground, decently quick, targa top.

Sadly, none of these interesting cars is likely to be able to keep up with a modified Civic. So you may have to choose between looks/rarity and performance.
posted by richyoung at 8:52 PM on August 22, 2010

You, my friend, need a 1974 Plymouth Scamp. Plymouth version of the Dart, 318 engine with a 2bbl carb, runs great on pump gas (and gets respectable mileage doing it) but fun as all get-out to drive. I know you don't believe me, and you're mocking me in your head. But seriously, tuck and roll upholstery, 4 on the floor if you look hard enough, rally wheels. I'll even give you a head start on finding one:

Congratulations on being awesome.

(Sorry, the Scamp was my first car. I'm a bit nostalgic. Still, how much of a blast would that thing be?)
posted by littlerobothead at 9:16 PM on August 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

Another vote for a Miata.

I have always loathed them, and I see no value whatsoever in them.

The value in a Miata is that it is an incredibly fun car to drive. Not to mention the fact that they're cheap, reliable, have a huge following which results in easy access to information about them, have great aftermarket support, both in oem replacement parts and in performance parts, and are just gobs of fun.

Did I mention they're extremely fun?
posted by entropic at 9:30 PM on August 22, 2010 [2 favorites]

The easy part is knowing that you want an Alfa Romeo. The hard part is deciding between the Spider or the GTV6. The Spider has the classic looks that everyone drools over. The GTV, though much less of a looker and a bit harder to find, has perhaps one of the most addictive exhaust notes and very sophisticated handling.

Alfas aren't as unreliable as they're made out to be, just keep on top of everything. And read up on your
posted by hwyengr at 9:32 PM on August 22, 2010

I've heard that the 300ZX turbos tended to have monumentally expensive turbo problems; the normally aspirated ones have good reps, except for the automatic transmission, which you don't want.

The first- and second-generation MR2 are superb cars to drive.

A lotta people like the VW GTI and I hear they're pretty easy to work on.
posted by ambient2 at 10:07 PM on August 22, 2010

One suggestion that's in your budget would be an 87-93 5.0 Mustang. Quite a few came with 5-speeds. Easy to work on, a blast to drive, and tons of aftermarket support. Probably more of a "plaster you to your seat" car although they can be made to handle decently.

The Miata isn't a bad choice as far as a handling car. If you really have no problem turning a wrench, using a wrecked/rusted Miata as the basis of a Locost (Lotus 7 clone) might be an idea, although that may be way (way, way...) more of an investment in time and money than you're looking for.

As far as going for an older car (say, 1970s or earlier), be sure whatever you choose appeals to you on a gut level enough to get you through the work of keeping it in running order. If working on your car and projects like, say, rigging up an electronic ignition from junkyard parts seems like fun rather than a chore, go for it.
posted by zombiedance at 11:28 PM on August 22, 2010

I have toyed with exactly the same requirements as you, including budget, and I always ended up back to the e30 BMW 3-series. I am biased because I love that car, but you will never be lacking parts/knowledge with an e30. I know many guys who track their e30s to great delight and envy.

I would love to get a 318is, but those are pretty rare these days; 325is or 325i will be much easier to come by.

I never ended up getting mine because I don't have a second parking space, and I couldn't bear putting a car I loved on the street.
posted by danny the boy at 11:29 PM on August 22, 2010

Perhaps a V-8 Pontiac Fiero? If so, I recommend taking the time to find a 5 speed rather than settling for the 4 speed. Any year but the 84's.
posted by InsertNiftyNameHere at 11:56 PM on August 22, 2010

RX-7s, Supras, and Nissan 300zx are really hard to come by in good condition and, from what I've seen, basically don't exist for $5000. Many have been wrecked or tuned and modified.
What you can afford, can be fixed with basic tools, can be found for $5k, and is rare, fast, and fun is the Volkswagen Corrado. They were available in the US in the early 90s. Depending on the year, they had a supercharged 1.8 liter or a 2.8 narrow angle V6.
They are quick and good handling. They are rare enough that finding the perfect one could be a little adventure, but I think it's the car you're looking for.
posted by Jon-o at 3:04 AM on August 23, 2010 [1 favorite]

LoL, Upton O'Good is right- I dropped a T in there. Sorry about the confusion.
posted by haplesschild at 4:15 AM on August 23, 2010

Another vote for the SW20 turbo (MR2) - but I'm biased because I get to drive mine every day. Downsides are that the engine bay is cramped and real hard to work in and the mid-engine wet-weather slipperiness can be dangerous if you're not careful. If you get a Celica, make sure it's the GT-4: has the same 3S-GTE as the SW20 and it's not a f**king front wheel drive.

A 300ZX TT would be good, but good ones are hard to find. Same might go for MR2s in the US since you guys can't just ship them over from Japan like I did - it helps to drive on the correct side of the road!
posted by polyglot at 4:32 AM on August 23, 2010

AMC Eagle, AMC Javelin, 70s 2-door Volare or Aspen. AMCs can be a little more difficult to fix, but Volare/Aspen you can fix with a basic toolbox and the parts are easily available (and the slant-six engine kicks ass). Each of these are the kind of car you can get for $500 in running shape and put a couple thousand in, or spend a couple thousand for a well-kept-but-not-restored version. Heck, you might even get a nicely restored one for $5,000. Also, runners up, an MG or a Karmann Ghia.
posted by AzraelBrown at 6:50 AM on August 23, 2010

I had a 81 Celica (stick shift) that was a BLAST to drive. Insanely fun, and felt like an extension to my body every single day.

By comparison, the 2001 Forester (stick shift) we got to fit the kid & dogs, etc -- felt like crap every single day. It never felt like *mine*, even after 2 years of getting to know each other. And then we got pregnant with twins and had to trade it in for a toyota mini-van -- my sienna is no celica by a long shot, but that mini-van is much more fun to drive than the Forester was.

Car and Driver said the Mazda 3 was extremely fun to drive, and various Mazdas are rec'd here. I think that as soon as the ankle-biters are out of car seats, I may have to look into a Mazda or another Celica . . .
posted by MeiraV at 9:05 AM on August 23, 2010

Seconding the 64 1/2 Mustang. I have one and if you don't mind little things like lack of backup lights and shoulder harnesses, there is a lot of coolness to be had. I wouldn't exactly call them tight handling cars, but there is power to spare.

For handling, I'd consider something small and light, (maybe an old MG or a Datsun) and sink whatever you don't spend on the car into parts to stiffen the suspension.

Or, as b1tr0t already suggested, a motorcycle. You can get a lot more for your money in terms of power and handling, and if it is just for fun, you are going to be hard pressed to beat cruising on a bike.
posted by quin at 9:18 AM on August 23, 2010

The editors of Insideline have a '94 project Miata that they got away with for under $2000. They've since added coilovers, new wheels/tires, hard top and some other things. They're pacing slowly but surely and you can read all about it.

If you can get over the silly stereotypes around the Miata (I have an '00 LS in my stable), you'll find a rampant community of car enthusiasts who've done some incredible things with this amazing car. Visit a local track and see what kinds of cars people are running (I promise you'll see a Miata or three or more)

If you want to be plastered to a seat, forced induction is the way to go and there are tons of options in that department regarding the Miata. My Mazdaspeed3 does that reliably everyday. I dig the Miata for the lightweight feel, nimbleness, shift/clutch feel and being able to drive 8/10 without getting into trouble. On a daily basis, I can only do maybe 4/10 of my MS3. 8/10 or higher needs a track day event.
posted by liquoredonlife at 9:19 AM on August 23, 2010

BMW E30 for a seriously great car that can be surprisingly sporty.

BMW 2002 for a beautiful (in my eyes) design classic, that is tremendously fun to drive. One of my most sublime motoring experiences was driving through the redwoods on a warm summer evening with the the sunroof open and all the windows down. I ended up cackling like a madman as I worked through a series of tight corners and fast sweepers near the coast. I will have another one someday. Soon, I hope.

Miata for the british roadster experience without the hassle. I have a dream of picking up a crashed one, and building a Locost 7

But for the most fun, especially with friends? A VW Thing. Tearing up backroads, albeit at much lower speeds than almost any other car on this list, is hugely fun. Taking the doors off and lowing the windhsheild and bouncing along off road is hugely fun (and it's surprisingly capable off-road with decent tires). And it turns heads every where it goes.
posted by gofargogo at 10:57 AM on August 23, 2010

The $5K limit is your big sticking point for most of the cars mentioned here. By and large, any desirable sports car that you can get for 5K, you probably don't want. BMWs are expensive to maintain even if you do the labor because parts are expensive, ditto that for any of the MGs, Alpha Romeos, Fiats etc. I would stay away from high mileage RX7s because rotary engines aren't known for their long lives and they are expensive to rebuild. Pre 70's American muscle cars are quite pricey these days, finding a 64 Mustang that can even move under it's own power for 5K would be an amazing bargain and virtually all 60's muscle cars were much more about straight line acceleration than handling (without making significant and expensive upgrades).
I think the Miata suggestions are right on the mark. There are lots of them so finding one cheap shouldn't be too hard and even with 100K on them you can still expect to get a few good years out of it. My only complaint with the Miata is the cockpit is very small and the top of the windshield is right about eye level for me and I'm only 5'10".
One thing to consider in general, performance cars of the 60's were only better performing than their more mundane counterparts which hardly performed at all. A mid 60's Ferrari would have a hard time keeping up a Miata. So buying older means throwing away a lot really good technology that's cropped up in the last 20 years. Things like disc brakes and fuel injection were not on most cars from the 60s and 70s. Most people have forgotten how much troubleshooting a carburetor sucks.
posted by doctor_negative at 12:24 PM on August 23, 2010

Response by poster: I've narrowed it down to either the Toyota Celica GTS or the Mazda Miata. Although I'll test drive an MR2 or a Nissan/Datsun if I come across it.

Looks like I'm going Japanese again. Unless there's something real weird on the lots.
posted by Netzapper at 8:04 PM on August 23, 2010

Celica vs Miata? If you want it to be true sports car, front wheel drive is out.

I've been wrenching and driving italian sports cars for a decade when by happenstance I was offered a miata in trade for a station wagon I wanted to sell. Wish I hadn't waited those ten years to get it. It does everything the Italian cars do *and* it starts every time.

The celica GTS is a really fun car if you only get to have only one. Since this is a second vehicle that you're looking for, the miata is uncompromising (celica wins in trunk space, passengers and putting your bike in it, the miata handles much better: compare the curb weights). I can't imagine the smile factor of a Celica is going to get anywhere near the miata with the top down.

If you like wrenching, buy a miata $2k, and spend the rest adding performance parts, which is the fun kind of wrenching (and optional depending on your time commitments). Otherwise, find a clean one that someone else had modified to your liking.

mazda miata buying guide from grassroots motorsports
posted by desl at 9:07 AM on August 25, 2010

Response by poster: Assuming I can get the loan, I've found a fantastic little '91 Miata. It's already been hopped up with an 8psi turbo, intercooler, etc. A bunch of new parts. New paint. Very nice, and exactly within budget.

Gonna throw some stiff street coils on there first thing, though. It rides squishy, and I'm kinda fat.
posted by Netzapper at 5:28 PM on August 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

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