Should I fix up an old Fiat?
November 9, 2012 4:05 PM   Subscribe

I want to fix up a fun little old car, but haven't really worked on cars much before. Where should I start?

I've always liked cars, but I don't really know much about working on them. I can change oil, and that's about it. I don't even really know how to drive a stick.

I'm good with my hands. I've worked in a Gibson guitar factory, so I have experience working on precise machinery using weird tools. I've just never really worked on cars.

But. I've been looking at old Fiats and Triumphs (especially the Fiat X1/9) and Peugeot 404's and I think it'd be awesome to have one to drive around (at the speed limit, of course) in the country on weekends.

What's my first step here? Would an old Fiat be a terrible choice for somebody who isn't a mechanic? Is this a stupid idea?
posted by epilnivek to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (25 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
I had and worked on a Triumph back in the '70s, and it was pretty simple to take apart and put together again. You should check how available parts are now where you live. No idea about Fiats or Peugeots.
posted by anadem at 4:10 PM on November 9, 2012

My first was a 1970 Karmann Ghia Cabriolet. I dropped and rebuilt the engine when I was 17 with a skateboard and some jack stands.

It's easy to switch out cylinder sleeves and squeeze an extra 10 or 20 hp out of it. Even then you might get 160 hp out of it, but with a curb weight of like 1500 lbs, it's really fun to drive.
posted by cmoj at 4:15 PM on November 9, 2012

I'd say that you'd probably be better off with a British sports car from the 70's/80's, in terms of part availability and cost. There's a lot more MGs and Triumphs tooling around then there are Fiats and Peugeots.

And seconding what anadem said about Triumphs (and MGs) being *kind of* easy to disassemble/reassemble.
posted by kuanes at 4:16 PM on November 9, 2012

It's not a stupid idea at all. There are two things that you should consider carefully here--

1. Body work is much harder than mechanical work, so when acquiring such a car, you'll want to make sure the body is in good shape (i.e., minimal rust.) Sometimes previous owners will put bondo over rust and then repaint; You'll want to learn how to detect this and make sure you get a car with a straight body.

2. For 'learning' how to work on cars, I recommend finding a car with carburettors (as opposed to fuel injectors) and with minimal emission control equipment. The Fiat X1/9 is kind of a mess in terms of emission control equipment. If you can find a car built before 1974 (lots of triumphs fit the bill here) or better yet before 1968 you'll have a much simpler system on which to cut your teeth. The emission controls introduced in the US market really make cars built from ~1975-1990 more of a challenge to 'get to run right.'
posted by u2604ab at 4:16 PM on November 9, 2012

Old VW bugs are fun, and easy to work on. You might also want to consider an early vintage Miata.
posted by HuronBob at 4:47 PM on November 9, 2012

I had an X1/9. Loved it. Giant pain in the ass to work on, though, because access to the engine was tricky (hint: to get to the distributor, you go through a panel behind the passenger seat). I was also looking at Porsche 914s at the time, too (which also are mid-engined, but are somewhat easier to work on).

I'd buy another X1/9in a heartbeat... but I'm not sure that it's a great car to learn how to wrench on.

Have you considered a Datsun fairlady/1600/2000?
posted by toxic at 5:01 PM on November 9, 2012 [2 favorites]

Seventies Fiats are beautiful cars to look at but generally need A LOT of maintenance and for that effort you will be driving a car that will always make you wonder if you'll get home before the next thing goes wrong. A friend of mine had a mid 70's Fiat in the mid 80's, our joke about the car was that you could count on it breaking about once a week, and it lived up to that for a few months, till he got rid of it. Also, parts for those are going to be tough to find.

I like Toxic's idea for the Datsun, a 510 two door sedan or maybe a 240-Z.
posted by doctor_negative at 5:11 PM on November 9, 2012

These old Fiats are a world of trouble. Fun to drive though. But the issue is going to be rust and body work. They are generally pretty awful quality.
posted by the noob at 5:20 PM on November 9, 2012

Seconding air-cooled VWs, and at least considering first-generation Miatas.

Depending on how much money you want to spend, the kind of driving you want to do and your definition of 'small,' you might also consider a '60s 'compact' American car like a Ford Falcon or Chevrolet Corvair.

And they're not drivers cars, but old pickups and proto-SUVs are fairly reliable and very easy to work on.
posted by box at 5:51 PM on November 9, 2012

I'm here to echo toxic. I've worked on a Triumph Spitfire and on a Fiat X1/9 and I'd pick the Triumph every time because of the engine location and orientation compared to the Fiat. Mid-engine cars are a giant pain in the neck to work on because of the way the engine is wedged in there. Italian ones are even worse because they find any way they can to stick everything in upside-down and sideways.
posted by The World Famous at 5:54 PM on November 9, 2012

If you're just looking for something to wrench on rather than satisfy your love for e.g. X1/9's, I would check on parts availability in general so that you're not stuck with a hulk in your driveway while you track down a spark plug wire for two years.
posted by rhizome at 5:55 PM on November 9, 2012

Not sure where you're at, but if you live anywhere with real winters and salt, a Fiat will rust away to dust and heartbreak. Engines are one thing, but bodywork is another. I love Euro roadsters, but that's jumping in at the dep end, if you're nto familiar with the basics of tuning and refurbing an engine. Not to say it can't be done, but you're looking at a pretty steep learning curve.

If you want to get started on working on engines, maybe consider a motorcycle? Find an air-cooled bike, and you can do things like drop the engine or move it around by yourself. Also bikes remained simple (carbs and no emissions) up throughout the 90's, most models still have excellent parts support (something a Fiat or Triumph won't necessarily have), also you'll have a lower cost of entry (important because you should always plan to spend at least 3x what you pay to properly restore a vehicle).
posted by 1f2frfbf at 6:29 PM on November 9, 2012

Thirding old VWs; lots of parts availability and they're usually pretty simple for a beginner --- I once hooked up a new battery in mine backwards (negative post to positive cable and vice versa) and the dang thing STILL ran.
posted by easily confused at 7:03 PM on November 9, 2012

I own both an old Fiat (a 600E) and an old MGB. This particular Fiat is dead-easy to work on compared even to the MGB, but the problem is parts. There are maybe two good sources for old Fiat parts in the USA, and even they don't have much of what you're going to need. The MGB is a bit more complicated, but in its favor is that parts are readily available and many of them are still being made new, even today. Pre-1974 will be easiest.

But yeah, body work is the absolute killer on an old MGB. You'll need someone to examine the entire body with mirrors and magnets to figure out if it's worth proceeding. Some repairs are OK, but if the rocker panels need work then just run. Fast and far.
posted by 1adam12 at 7:07 PM on November 9, 2012

My son and husband are big car freaks, and my son learned on a 68 MG. Very fun, very cute, and easy as pie to tinker with.
posted by Ideefixe at 8:06 PM on November 9, 2012

2nding the Spitfire- you can't beat the ease of access to that engine! And it's a simple little beast, and an awful lot of fun to drive. Just make sure the body's in decent condition- rust will kill the poor thing.
posted by drhydro at 9:24 PM on November 9, 2012

for 500 different reasons your best choice is a VW bug or one of its VW bretheren.
posted by jannw at 3:44 AM on November 10, 2012

First off, you can totally do this. Don't be cowed by your relative lack of experience; especially in the internet era, performing basic and even semi-advanced work on old cars is much more manageable than you'd think.

Second, I came in here to recommend you pick up a BMW 2002. They're stylish as hell in a subdued, sophisticated way, they're 9/10 as sporty as a Fiat but about 30 times as practical and a million times more reliable/better built, they're relatively affordable (you can find nice ones floating around for under $4000), like most cars from their era, they're pretty straightforward to work on (with obvious exceptions), there's an extremely friendly and knowledgeable community of 2002 drivers out there who are easy to access, and perhaps most importantly, BMW's Mobile Tradition division is still manufacturing brand new parts for them, so parts availability is superb.

Just avoid the '75 model, those cars came with some insane emissions equipment that you'd rather not tangle with.
posted by saladin at 4:25 AM on November 10, 2012 [2 favorites]

Thanks for all the answers and encouragement. Sounds like a Fiat is probably a bad idea, since I live in Tennessee and it'll quickly turn into rust powder in my carport.

Those recommending a VW: how "sporty" is a Karmann Ghia? I've never ridden in or driven one before. My whole mission here is to end up with a car that's fun to drive (read: peppy and with decent handling). I'm intrigued by them.

doctor_negative: I'm kind of on a budget. Are 240Z's affordable? I'd always figured they were on the pricey side.

I gotta say, I've always been fascinated by VW bugs, but how do they drive?
posted by epilnivek at 6:17 AM on November 10, 2012

My Fairlady 2000 had parts availability problems in 1982 so check carefully before you go there. Seconding the BMW 1600/2002. By modern standards they are not powerful, but they are light and eager and quick.

I've had Alfas, Fiats and Lancias and parts availability aside they've been great for me, but my luck with them seems to be unusual.
posted by jet_silver at 9:27 AM on November 10, 2012

In the VW department, you might also consider a Porsche 914 2.0.
posted by rhizome at 9:39 AM on November 10, 2012

Having spent considerable time in a Karmann Ghia, my opinion is that they are the most terrifying, horrible cars ever and not worthy of any use of the term "sporty" unless the "sport" in question is hoping you don't die a fiery death. But that's probably a matter of opinion. And they can be made more sporty - though not much less terrifying - by liberal application of modern aftermarket suspension, racing seats, roll cage, etc.
posted by The World Famous at 9:46 AM on November 10, 2012

I've ridden in my friend's '73 Karmann Ghia, but never driven it. It's a fun little car to ride in (I wouldn't have said any scarier than any other 60's/early 70's vintage car), but it's basically a sporty body on a VW Beetle chassis and power-train... so not really a powerhouse.

You mentioned that you have a carport - when I lived in an apartment building in Los Angeles I had a 1966 Ford Mustang, some aspects of which which were pretty easy to work on, within the constraints of being in a carport; limited room on all sides of the vehicle, other cars coming and going (so you couldn't really lie under the car with your legs sticking out for fear of being run over) Prior to owning my Mustang I had done one or two oil changes, but that was about it. It was fairly easy to understand what was going on under the hood - I installed a fan shroud and a new alternator, and surprised myself by successfully doing the brakes too. I had a Chilton manual that explained everything pretty clearly. And the nice thing with classic Mustangs is that aftermarket parts are plentiful (you could probably built a brand new Mustang from aftermarket parts) and pretty cheap. But not having a garage was a pretty significant limitation; no permanent tool storage, and no leaving anything half-done lest someone walk off with the tools and/or parts. No working in the rain, etc. I won't even think about buying another project car until I have a garage to keep/work on it in.

But it was definitely sporty. I miss that car.
posted by usonian at 12:52 PM on November 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

The Karmann Ghia can be as mild or wild as you want ... being a beetle underneath they are heavily modifiable, with a strong aftermarket performance community. The hardest part is separating the good from the snake oil ... but given that people bore and stroke the engines and stick them in aircraft, there is a lot of potential there.

VW bugs and Ghia's are rear wheel drive, rear engine, (same as a Porsche) which gives them some interesting driving characteristics ... but I've owned many and love them (and am used to their quirks).

The Ghia's have beautiful bodywork, which rusts out terribly if not looked after ... make sure you really look closely at them for rust in the lower pannels, channels, etc. Use a magnet to check!
posted by jannw at 3:19 AM on November 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

Agreeing about Ghias, though I'm not sure why they're more terrifying than any car without modern safety features... which is every car mentioned.

They're fun to drive on their own... good power/weight ratio and decent suspension. Plus you look cool in it. But as noted the real fun can be how easily modified they are. There are minor suspension upgrades that really put them on rails. I remember something about RAV4 (or something) disc brakes happening to bolt on easily, making a major braking upgrade. Because of the existing power/weight ratio it's worth it to squeeze that extra 10hp out with sleeves, and you can go nuts and put a Chevy small block or a 911 engine(I've seen this! Terrifying!) in it and just rocket off to the moon.

The attraction is that it's as easy or major of a project as you like.
posted by cmoj at 12:01 PM on November 12, 2012

« Older Critique my workout   |   Will slowing down my loan payments help my credit? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.