Wrenching on cars can be exhausting, both physically and financially. We know that and also know that we have a lot of beginning wrenchers in Roadkill’s audience. This site has put up lists of potential project cars from time to time here, but we thought this time around we’d list off some smaller, more affordable, and more attainable motorized projects for wrenchers new and old. We know this list isn’t exhaustive, but we figure it’s a good start to brainstorming the kinds of projects our young fans can begin with and for the experienced mechanics to take up while waiting for parts from Jegs. Here are 10 ways to turn wrenches on motorized non-car projects.
For many people, lawnmowers—both push and riding mowers—were their first experiences with internal combustion engines. Small two-stroke push-mower engines can give a chance to learn about basics like tune-ups and even rebuilding. There is some collectability and tuning among the lawn-tractor culture, like Justin Kramer—who ran the LeMons Rally in a Ford LTD—and his eBay-tuned turbodiesel Cub Cadet. It’s a pretty cool customized mower for the sake of tuning mower. Also, lawnmower racing is absolutely a thing. Be careful though, because if you have a lawnmower, someone is probably going to expect you to mow the lawn.
For cheap speed, you can’t get much more affordable than a go-kart. Karts range from little casual transportation to white-knuckle puckermobiles and you can find what you’re looking for price- and speed-wise anywhere along that spectrum. Last summer, I drove this kart built by my friend, Andre Molina, which is powered by the common Briggs and Stratton LO206 engine. With 8.8 horsepower, Andre’s kart has enough grunt to hustle the bantamweight chassis at wide-eyed speeds. You can spend less coin—this is probably $1,500 to $2,000 of racing kart—and have ample fun with lower-output engines.
Top speed shouldn’t be limited to paved (or gravel) surfaces. Snowmobiles provide both basic transportation in northern climates and satisfy the need for speed after the snow has piled up. You can still find old running (or close to it) sleds around for cheap and the numbers of them around in winter can make for readily available parts. As we see above, these are simple machines that can be rebuilt with relative ease; this Ski-Doo Elan project on PowerModz was totally disassembled in about an hour.
This is obviously a broad category to lump everything together, but half the wheels can be many times more fun than cars. We obviously love minibikes, having featured them on a Roadkill episode and regularly on the website here. Friend of Roadkill Laura Conrad (right, with Roadkill editor Elana Scherr) rebuilt her first minibike—you can read about it in the Spring 2017 issue of Roadkill Magazine—as a way to see that wrenching isn’t as intimidating as it first seems. This category isn’t just minibikes, of course; you can throw dirtbikes and motorized bicycles in the cheap-and-fun category, too.
We’re well aware that farmers are the OGs of Roadkill wrenching: They were making the most of what’s around on non-existent budgets before it was cool. Most farmers cut their mechanics’ teeth on old tractors simply to keep half-century-old workhorses in service. Tractor projects may very well cost as much as (or more than) cars, but an old tractor can be a great first “big” project for the aspiring rural wrench. When it’s done, it can of course till a field or pull a wagon around the farm, too.
If a big multi-cylinder tractor engine is too big a project, there are always early agricultural single-cylinder internal combustion engines to restore or to build from scratch. Sure, these mechanical antiquities are usually the refuge of old farmers and machinists, but what better way is there to learn the principles of internal combustion engines than from their humble beginnings? These various engines operated water pumps, ran a variety of other farm equipment, and sometimes worked as generators, giving them a modicum of utility even today.
Boats and outboard engines
You don’t have need hundreds of outboard engines in a collection like John Herberg. Like all things, that kind of dedication starts with one boat motor. As with most things on this list, outboard engines tend to be relatively simple and could be a good starting point to learn about small engines. And when you’re done cranking one up, you can head out to the lake for a nice weekend of fishing. Or jump into something like the Dinghy Derby (above), if you’re more adventurous.
Radio-control airplane and cars
Motorized projects don’t always need to be capable of doing work or transporting people. The RC hobby remains an immense and cool place to learn about building things. Airplanes, boats, cars, helicopters…It’s all cool stuff. The gas-powered RC stuff is particularly awesome once you’re neck-deep in the hobby. Airplane modelers build some fantastically accurate replicas as big as ⅓-scale (above). As for RC cars, you can do all kinds of things with them, including race. Above is one our favorite videos of radio-controlled drag racing in Brooklyn.
Tether cars and airplanes
Once upon a time, tether racing was a huge deal in the United States. While there are far fewer venues for it these days, you can still find tether racing in a few places stateside and further afield in Europe and Australia. In tether racing, the motorized vehicle—planes, cars, and boats all still race on tethers—run a circular track on a line (the tether) mounted to a spinning hub on a post in the middle of the track. The cars make short (well under a minute) top-speed runs and attain some incredible speeds with the top-class cars eclipsing 200 miles per hour. The sounds of those fastest cars are simply otherworldly.
Nothing says a great project like real utility and a rebuilt old generator just might save your bacon. We mean that literally, since emergency power can keep you from having to toss out that most delicious of food items. If you can manage to find a generator and get it running again, that gives you the power to plan for contingencies from storm-induced power outages to zombie-wasteland-scrounging-for-gas apocalypses (Be sure to add a muffler or two, though). Here’s a great generator restoration that we found on the YouTube.
Like we said, we know our readers have every kind of hobby and project imaginable from vintage chainsaws to homebuilt airplanes. Let’s hear what you’d add to this list for the aspiring wrench.