It's not a midlife crisis if I learn valuable skills
January 27, 2017 7:25 AM   Subscribe

I do not know how to drive with a stick shift, nor do I know how cars work. Nonetheless, I would like to get an older manual sporty car (e.g. MG B) to toodle about in and wrench. Hope me.

I have always wanted to drive manual cars, and I've really enjoyed the minor small engine maintenance that comes with being a homeowner (lawn mower, blowers of the snow and leaf varieties). I would like to combine these pursuits with the purchase of a sporty older car, for toodling. Something along the lines of an MG B--not looking to break the bank. This would be for summer toodles, so a convertible is de rigeur.

What's the most reasonable way to do this? Buy a later model manual to learn on before moving to an older car (I've never driven a car without power brakes/steering, either)? Learn about vehicle engines with an older Vespa?

I am not looking to go terribly fast, or far. This would not be a daily driver, and as I said, fair weather only. Thoughts on specific cars would be appreciated, in addition to general thoughts on advisability. There would be more questions in the future, but any advice on an appropriate first foray into such cars would be appreciated e.g, XYZ cars are higher maintenance, but lower maintenance ABC is harder to drive.

Brrm, brrm!
posted by Admiral Haddock to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (27 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
I have seen 2 or 3 MGB's in person, but I don't know if I have ever seen one of them in motion. I've heard stories, but I have my doubts.

How tall are you? Miata Is Always The Answer, no? (If you're over 6 feet tall, then no.)
posted by Huffy Puffy at 7:31 AM on January 27, 2017 [5 favorites]

I would suggest buying something like a KLR 250 or similar simple motorcycle. You'll be able to buy one in running condition for probably cheaper than you would find a completely broke down car. There is less to them and the maintenance on them is pretty simple and there is a very robust internet community of maintenance enthusiasts.

And learning to ride a motorcycle will teach you everything you need to know about manual transmission, to the degree that I suspect if you know how to drive automatic and know how to ride a motorcycle, you could get into a manual transmission car for the first time in your life and drive it successfully after simply identifying where the clutch and shifter are.

Plus you'll learn how to ride a motorcycle.

(Oh and I would specifically not buy a scooter for these purposes (not that I really have anything against them in general). The engines are different and they won't teach you how to use a manual transmission.)
posted by 256 at 7:34 AM on January 27, 2017 [1 favorite]

A minor consideration from an ex-Mini owner. When the Longbridge plant (home to Mini, MG, Rover, and a number of other British brands) was closed down, British Motor Heritage acquired a lot of the factory tooling and is therefore still able to make spare/restoration parts. This may make some cars easier to maintain than others if parts are less readily available?
posted by A Robot Ninja at 7:37 AM on January 27, 2017

Start buying tools. Have a a good private garage space exclusively for car and a tool bench. Then hunt down a classic Austin-Healey ! Tiny, butt is 6 inches from the ground but at 6' one of the most comfortable leg room, and coolest cars I was ever in. (you can learn to rebuild your own transmission :-)

Oh, you said practical :-) Look at Miatas.
posted by sammyo at 7:43 AM on January 27, 2017 [1 favorite]

Do you have a friend who would let you practice with their manual transmission car, say in a large empty parking lot? I think getting the hang of a clutch and manual shifting will be 99% of the issue compared to learning to cope with lack of power steering/brakes. FWIW I recently spent an hour or so helping some friends learn stick in my car and after that they'd gotten very good at avoiding stalling the engine but still would be uncomfortable in city traffic. I like the motorcycle idea as well. Great post title by the way.
posted by exogenous at 7:47 AM on January 27, 2017

Learning to drive stick is pretty easy, just takes practice. I would worry less about that and more about engine complexity. You need thousands of dollars worth of tools, and a tremendous amount of learning, to seriously consider wrenching a fuel-injected car (such as a Miata). Make sure whatever you get has a carburetor. No computers.

Power steering isn't a big deal. You'll just end up with bigger arms. Be sure to understand the brakes on your car, though, for emergency situations--the drum brakes on a 1967 Ford Mustang will NOT react well if you slam on the brakes when a kid runs out in the street.

I would also look for something that was mass-produced so that there's a large number of repair-hours, and therefore institutional memory, floating out there on the Internet. How about a VW Bug cabrio? My friend in high school was able to mess around with her Bug engine with a minimal set of tools and could understand problems as they arose because, well, the engine was simple enough for a human to understand.

On preview, an old Mini Cooper convertible could make sense. Rally drivers still use old Minis the world over, so I'm sure there are replacement parts out there. You'll want to garage any old convertible, though, to avoid inevitable leaks.
posted by radicalawyer at 7:50 AM on January 27, 2017 [1 favorite]

I drive a manual Mazda, and the clutch and such have been very good to me.

Honestly, driving a manual is all about listening to the engine. Once to hear when you need to shift (and listen to your automatic, because the sounds are there!) The rest is just timing and footwork.

Of course if you are a runner from stress, learning how to drive a manual becomes a little more complicated when you want to abandon your car in the beginning. (Ask me how I i know)
posted by AlexiaSky at 7:50 AM on January 27, 2017

Learning: the third time I drove stick (ever) was the day I drove my del Sol off the lot, and I'm not even sure the first time should count because a car salesman badgered me into trying to test drive the car I was interested in even though I had told him I didn't know how to drive stick yet. He regretted his choice. But after one afternoon with friends I only stalled the del Sol once on the way home. My bigger problem was starting in third at intersections, because I hadn't learned how to feel first yet. So learning is totally manageable.

As far as what car to get: Miata. They're not high powered because they don't need to be. The del Sol had a bigger trunk and more leg room and was more practical for me, and it had better brakes and more horsepower than a Miata, but a friend had a Miata and it handled much better than the del Sol. Nearly everything else you might think of is probably going to be a parts nightmare and/or really cramped. MGs are both.
posted by fedward at 7:53 AM on January 27, 2017 [1 favorite]

Learn about vehicle engines with an older Vespa?

So, I like vespas and have owned/repaired/maintained many. They are quirky, and due to those quirks, learning how to maintain or repair a Vespa engine, while satisfying in its own right, doesn't even really translate to much motorcycle repair/maintenance, let alone to cars. They're fun, but the knowledge you'll gain is only tangentially applicable to other vehicles. Odd parts here and there tend to be pretty expensive to fix. They broach on the territory of owning a Weird Car*.

I owned a Weird Car once, and it was kind of a shitshow. I don't recommend purchasing a Weird Car unless you want to become a parts hoarder, and spend more of your time scouring for parts on ebay than actually working on your car, taking vacations to random junkyards that might have a part you're looking for, and finding that one guy in your state that knows how to fix that one part or tracking down the one place on earth that has the parts manual for your rig. Owning a Weird Car is a different hobby than owning a car you want to wrench on.

If you're looking to get to know the basics of vintage car, look no further than a VW bug. They're standardized. Parts are READILY available (and pretty damn cheap). They're endlessly modifiable (if you want to). And most importantly, they're pretty simple. There's nothing superfluous on a VW bug...this also means that almost everything on a bug is going to exist in another vehicle, albiet in a different format. Moving to your next vehicle, you'll see many of the same systems, but with additions.

*Weird Car is the status I've given to anything that's a gray market import, made by a smaller manufacturer (International Harvester, Metro, Studebaker, etc), or made by a manufacturer who had a reputation for hating standardization, loved factory-customs, or had lots of purchaser-defined custom options available. These can all be a real shitshow. They come in both domestic and import categories.
posted by furnace.heart at 8:00 AM on January 27, 2017 [5 favorites]

I wouldn't worry about learning to drive stick. I bought my very first new car (VW GTI) as a stick having only driven my dad's truck a handful of times, and I was fine. There's a chance my clutch was replaced a little earlier than normal, but not by much. If this is something you actively want to do you'll be proficient in a day and comfortable within a week. Don't let this fact influence your vehicle choices. Let all the other fun factors do the influencing!
posted by cgg at 8:05 AM on January 27, 2017

I mean, everyone else is right that learning to drive stick isn't hard, but I'm not sure you really want to do that in a presumably nice older car. Why mess with the MG (or Miata, or whatever you end up with) when you can buy a beater for a couple hundred dollars? I'd take $500 for my 96 Protege, you won't feel bad about messing it up, and you can donate it when you're done and write half the price you paid off your taxes. If you're wanting to mess around with engines, having a beater to learn on wouldn't hurt either. Also, if you're self-conscious, if anyone sees you struggle in your MG the first time you're in city traffic (which will probably happen), they're going to think you're a douchebag. If somebody sees you struggling in a 20 year old POS, there'll be a lot less judgment. Just a thought.
posted by kevinbelt at 8:09 AM on January 27, 2017

There are certain parts of driving a stick that require a little finesse, say hanging a hill or learning how to start off in first gear. Other than that just listen to your automatic car with a critical ear. Get the hang of hearing when the gears change in the automatic then you'll be able to get how manual transmissions sound too.
posted by PJMoore at 8:26 AM on January 27, 2017

Find a friend with a stick and do some reading and spend some time in a big parking lot. A long afternoon should be fine.

As for what cars to look at, I agree that you want something with as few computerey bits in it as possible. When you open the engine bay you want to see quite a bit of dead air; it shouldn't be packed to the gills with sensors and smog whatevers etc. etc. And you want parts to be plentiful. The suggestions above for a VW Bug are good ones; it ticks all of the boxes. An MG might be okay, but parts are going to be tougher to get.

An old Jeep CJ may fit the bill (think late 70s). Driving a vehicle without a roof or doors is a blast. Parts are reasonably available and the vehicle is pretty simple. Our family used to have something like this V8 swap and it was a lot of fun to learn on and to drive.

Miata's are fun cars to drive but may be more complicated than you'd prefer for the wrenching part of this.

I would stay away from basically any imports in the simple-engined time you're looking at; tracking down a widget for a mid-70s Fiat is probably going to be a pain in the ass. Though I would be tempted by an old Datsun Z. Might be a little pricy for what you're looking to do though.

70s Muscle Cars could also fit the bill but they're going to be expensive if they're in halfway decent shape.
posted by craven_morhead at 8:52 AM on January 27, 2017

Convertible Carmen Gia. It's basically a VW Bug, very easy to work on, breaks down less than an MG for sure and excellent for summer tootling. Once you get the hang of maintaining it move on to an MG.
posted by fshgrl at 9:31 AM on January 27, 2017 [5 favorites]

If you don't have friends with manuals (or don't want to strain their friendship if you have some difficulty picking it up or trying bigger challenges like stop and go traffic uphill) take some lessons. A friend of mine decided he wanted to trade in his car for a sporty manual, and he found it very reasonable to just hire a driving instructor for 2-3 lessons before he bought his new car.
posted by TwoStride at 9:37 AM on January 27, 2017

This is the compromise I followed as a teenager with cool enough parents to let his happen: A VW Karmann Ghia. A cabrio (convertable) if you can find one. It is essentially a VW Beetle chassis and motor with a lighter body. It's air cooled, easy to work on, and has a huge community of enthusiasts to help for an intermediary introduction to car maintenance, and cool as hell. It is very surprisingly zippy, and easy to modify to make it even more so*. Man I miss that car.

*I've seen more than one retrofitted with a Porsche 911 engine. Terrifying. Like a jet engine on a shopping cart. I want one.
posted by cmoj at 9:58 AM on January 27, 2017 [4 favorites]

Dude, do NOT get a vintage British sports car. You'd be basically picking the hardest difficulty setting without ever having played the game before.

Start with something already reliable, with a huge support community (in both parts and advice) that you can actually spend time driving, aka Miata. Socks, then shoes.
posted by danny the boy at 10:08 AM on January 27, 2017 [4 favorites]

radicalawyer: "You need thousands of dollars worth of tools, and a tremendous amount of learning, to seriously consider wrenching a fuel-injected car (such as a Miata). Make sure whatever you get has a carburetor. No computers."

This is untrue for the vast majority of work needed on any fuel injected car. Yes you may occasionally need to pay a garage for diagnostics but a few hundred dollars in wrenches and other mundane tools is all you need for most work. Buy a 300+ piece socket set; a set of flat wrenches; Torque wrench; floor jack and jack stands and you're basically set.

The real problem with something like a Miata for someone wanting to wrench is they essentially never breakdown. A 50 year carburetor car like an MG which wasn't exactly a reliability leader when new requires constant wrenching. Like a couple hours a week on a daily driver on average; maybe a little less on a weekend warrior. The first thing to buy when considering one is a AAA package with the extended tow mileage.
posted by Mitheral at 10:17 AM on January 27, 2017 [2 favorites]

Convertible Carmen Gia. It's basically a VW Bug, very easy to work on, breaks down less than an MG for sure and excellent for summer tootling. Once you get the hang of maintaining it move on to an MG.

Seconding this. Back in ~78, I had my heart set on a used MGB, but was told that driving an MG requires traveling with a tool kit and/or a special budget line item for repairs and maintenance. I bought a 1974 Karmann Ghia instead—the only car I've ever truly loved. Relatively simple, air-cooled engine and an absolute blast to drive. (Later totaled by my 1st husband, which may/may not have anything to do with the end of that marriage.)
posted by she's not there at 10:40 AM on January 27, 2017 [2 favorites]

Karmann Ghia Or a VW Thing plus,
How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive: A Manual of Step-by-Step Procedures for the Compleat Idiot
posted by ridgerunner at 11:00 AM on January 27, 2017 [2 favorites]

If you get the VW, definitely get that book. (I would give you mine, but it was in that totaled car.)
posted by she's not there at 11:36 AM on January 27, 2017

You could start with an old pickkup truck, chevy/ford/toyota with an inline engine and manual transmission. Should be dirt cheap, you can practice grinding gears, and those inline engines will be very close to the tractor engines they put in MGs. Plus you can haul your trash to the dump in it. Then you can keep your eye out on craigslist for an MG, you should be able to find one that somebody put a huge amount of time and money into but never quite got finished and is selling it at a loss.
posted by 445supermag at 12:44 PM on January 27, 2017 [1 favorite]

You've got a few things going on, so I'll tackle them in order:

1. Learning to drive a car with a manual transmission
2. Learning how cars work
3. Learning how to repair a car

I don't think you should do all of them at once, but they're all completely achievable. Let's dive in.

1. Learning how to drive a car with a manual transmission

This is not hard! But it requires tactile feedback and attention. The problem with trying to learn on an older, or otherwise unreliable, car is that you will spend too much time wondering if you're doing it wrong or whether the car is broken. My sister-in-law spent years driving a car with a slipping (read: malfunctioning) clutch. Once it got repaired, driving became SO. MUCH. EASIER! This is a trap you should avoid.

You should learn to drive with a manual on a reasonably well-sorted car that you are confident does not need repair.

2. Learning how cars work

This is not hard! But it requires a reasonable frame of reference for what "normal" is. It's hard to diagnose problems with systems you don't understand, and it's hard to understand a system that has undiagnosed problems. If you don't know how something is supposed to go back together, what use is taking it apart? Unless you're going to take a car apart and not bother putting it back together, which is a very fun thing to do in its own right.

You should learn to do basic maintenance on a reasonably reliable car that is unlikely to require major repair. Maintaining things that are not broken will give you the context you need to understand them when they do break.

3. Learning how to repair a car

At this point, you're confident in your ability to operate a car (#1), and your ability to maintain a car (#2). You know what "normal" is! You've got some confidence in your abilities to turn a wrench! You are ready to take the stone from my hand.

I would then recommend buying something that is rewarding to repair. That can mean many things. For you, I suspect you'll not enjoy the process of hunting for obscure or expensive parts, nor fighting against the design of the car (usually disassembling layers upon layers) to succeed. Older, mechanically simpler cars that are still popular are the ticket for this. VW Bugs/Karmann Ghias are the archetypal example - parts are everywhere and everything under the hood is readily at hand. Old muscle cars are also solid examples of the type.

So, what do I recommend in the specific? Frankly, a Miata is probably the best of all worlds. A well-chosen Miata will satisfy points 1, 2 and maybe even 3, once you want a project. But by the time you're "done" with step 2, you'll have enough confidence and experience to know how much project is "enough" for your skills and desires.
posted by TheNewWazoo at 2:23 PM on January 27, 2017 [1 favorite]

An addendum in re two-wheeled vehicles:

I will recommend the same process, except doubly so. Learning to ride proficiently is an entirely new skillset unto itself, and you will suffer that much more if you mix up learning to ride and learning to wrench. Do one, then the other. The consequences of poor riding and of poor wrenching can be disastrous, and in concert lacking each will hinder the other.
posted by TheNewWazoo at 2:27 PM on January 27, 2017 [1 favorite]

Parts for MGs and other Brit sports cars is not a problem because of Moss Motors.
posted by Homer42 at 4:01 PM on January 27, 2017

Ex-MGB owner here. I'd say, why not? I'm 6'1" and I never felt cramped. It was a blast to drive, especially with the top down on a summer morning.

You can learn to drive stick on any manual car, no need for a "starter" car for that.

You will get lots of opportunities to wrench. Personally, I don't really like working on cars but have done a fair amount of it out of necessity. The MGB was the neediest car I've ever owned. Among other things, I had to replace one of the front hubs, and rebuild the clutch master cylinder. Neither a huge deal, but I'm glad I sold it just as the head gasket was starting to seep. And this was like 40 years ago. I can't imagine what it's like now that they're antiques. But if you really want to (be forced to) learn about cars and you want a fun convertible, go for it!
posted by bricoleur at 4:22 PM on January 27, 2017

BTW while I picked up on your MG queue any 50 year old car that hasn't had a complete (and expensive) restoration is going to require a ton of constant maintenance if you want to drive it. First because 60s cars required a ton of bunch of maintenance in the first place (points; chokes; numerous grease fittings; mechanical things like voltage regulators that need attention; valve lash; plug gap; etc that modern cars have eliminated or greatly extended the interval of) even when brand new. And second because things are old and or worn and or corroded.

Take for example the brake system: it's not unusual for a 50 year old to need wheel cylinders (cracked or age hardened seals/rusted cylinder); brake lines (steel ones are rusted/rubber ones rotted or damaged); proportioning valve; master cylinder (as wheel cylinder); parking brake cables (rusted or kinked) or vacuum booster (hardened or cracked seals and diaphragm). So even if one has performed the regular maintenance of replacing shoes, drums (disk brakes were rare in 60s automobiles) and fluids your brake system can fail every other week for a new and exciting reason.

And everything on the car is like this. The electrical system can hide all sorts of gremlins that come down to age related issues of cracked insulation and corroded contacts and interconnects. On my '66 Chrysler I once had a glass fuse have what appeared to be a vibration induced crack of the fusible link leave me intermittently without marker/brake/tail/dash lights. It's even worse if the electrical system was marginal in the first place like 66 Beetle with it's 6V generator system (Beetles didn't get alternators until 73). On that same car I ended up replacing all the "working" marker and signal lights because the contacts on the bottoms of the bulbs had worn or deformed to the point that the spring tension in the socket was enough to keep them in contact. Again with the 66 I had to make roadside duct tape repairs when one of the distributor cap clips experienced a fatigue failure and broke in half. And that was 20 years ago when a 60s car was a classic and not an antique.

The fuel system can have perforation rust of the tank or lines. The second is pull your hair out infuriating because old cars had mechanical fuel pumps mounted at the engine so actually pull an vacuum and suck the fuel out the tank (rather than modern tank mounted pumps which push the fuel through the lines at high pressure). This means a can't even see it pin hole leak in a fuel line can cause a difficult to diagnose condition where the car starves for fuel; lacks power; back fires or stalls under load. The pump can fail because of wear (of the cam shaft lobe or the follower) or degradation of the pump diaphragm. And carbs are a tool of the devil designed to suck up all your time tuning and rebuilding and teaching you all sorts of new offensive words. They are sensitive to fuel quality, temperature, and elevation and are generally tuned in a wide compromise band that is really only 95% good for daily driving. (And some MGs have two of them that need to be synchronized).

Any cabin seals are going to be less effective than new. Windows (especially of any car with frameless windows) will need adjustment or repair to minimize wind noise and keep out water.

My recommendation if this is something you feel like tackling is to get something you really love driving. Stick with a car that was fairly cheap when it was new (for example your MG rather than a Porsche) because everything costs more money on more expensive when new cars. Note that because of this you can sometimes get particular models or makes dirt cheap (EG: Rolls Royce) in the used market because the first thing to go wrong will cost thousands of dollars in parts to repair. Those cars can be fun but should be treated as disposable unless you have the funds.
posted by Mitheral at 5:52 PM on January 27, 2017 [3 favorites]

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