The Lemons Rally starts this week on the West Coast, running from Monterey to Bremerton and back. We’ll have the coverage of that event, the Monterey Car Weeeeak Rally, right here on Roadkill. The idea of the rally got us started on thinking about great roadtrip cars, whether for the rally, for family, or just for goofing off with friends.
As we usually do, we are considering cars that you can find for about $4,000 or less in running condition. Sure, they might need some work, but we’re thinking about a car that can move under its own power and make a road trip without breaking the bank on repairs or maintenance. Here’s our list, but let us know what you’ve road-tripped.
Ford Crown Victoria and/or Chevy Caprice
Nothing screams “Ready for automotive abuse” quite as loudly as Ford’s long-running police platform. The Crown Victoria has become ubiquitous for its role with police departments, many of which continue to use the old Panthers still. Ford designed the Crown Vic for heavy-duty usage and you can still pick them up for dirt cheap at government auctions or in the classifieds. They’re roomy, cheap, and you can still find parts.
On an early Roadkill episode, we more or less proved that Chevy’s rear-wheel-drive counterpart in the ‘80s and ‘90s, the Caprice, was more fun than a Crown Vic. However, because production of the B-Body cop cars stopped in the late ‘90s, they’re slightly harder to find for cheap.
Reasonable price: $2,000 should buy a good Crown Vic. A Caprice will probably run at least $1,000 more.
Really, Jeep enthusiasts will go anywhere in any Jeep. However, if you want to go somewhere in style with room for a few friends and the potential to travel off the paved path, you really need a Wagoneer. Most of what you’ll find in the classifieds come from the last decade of the Wagoneer’s long production run and you should find quite a few of those with AMC V8s.
Reasonable price: Hagerty valuations will probably keep pushing prices higher even on engineless Wagoneers, but for now, you can still find some running—albeit tired—ones for $3,500 or less.
Lexus LS400 or Infiniti Q45
Luxury cars tend to suffer the curse of multiple owners. Original owners usually ditch them when issues arise and subsequent owners usually drive them into the ground without fixing things on them. Sometimes, however, you can strike the lottery and find one-owner Japanese luxury cars with high miles and complete maintenance records.
Flagship cars like the Lexus LS400 (or SC400 if you like coupes) and Infiniti Q45/M45 can provide a smooth ride with surprisingly sweet-sounding V8s. These are cruisers and they’re great for taking in the sights and sounds with style.
Reasonable Price: $2,500 will buy you a V8 luxury sedan all day in most parts of the country.
Pontiac Grand Prix/Buick Regal/Chevy Impala
Until their exhaust inevitably rusts away and the blatting General Motors V6 becomes deafening, these W-Body cars are practically invisible. They’re also cushy highway cruisers that, so long as you don’t buy a base model, have at least 200 horsepower from the 3.8-liter V6. They occasionally exhibit serious rust issues and you’d do well to swap out wheel bearings before you hit the road, but buying one should save you plenty of pocket cash for your roadtrip.
Reasonable Price: Grandpa’s old Grand Prix (or Regal) shouldn’t cost much more than $1,500.
Old Mercedes Diesels
If you’re not in a hurry to get anywhere and have a hankering for piloting battleships and/or tanks, look no further. Mercedes’ ubiquitous diesels are overbuilt and if you can sort out the myriad vacuum issues on older chassis, they will run hundreds of thousands of miles. Need evidence? You’ll find these everywhere still enduring abuse after 35 years in scorching Sub-Saharan Africa. That’s good enough for us, even if top speed is probably about 65 miles per hour.
Reasonable Price: For an older Merc Diesel, somewhere around $2,500 should suffice.
Cadillac Eldorado Convertible
Of course, a convertible is the perfect roadtrip machine and bigger is always better, right? Fred had the right idea on Dirt Every Day, of course, with the 1,000 cubic-inch Eldorado. Even as GM downsized the engine before shortening the platform, a beaten-on 1970s Eldo is still king of the road. You don’t need more than 10 miles per gallon, right?
Reasonable price: You might have to dig a bit, but a $3,000 Eldorado ‘Vert is not out of the question.
MG B or Triumph
It’s like a Cadillac Eldorado Convertible except you can’t get away from the other person at all. If you’ve taken long road trips, that can be either the best or the worst thing ever.
Reasonable Price: It doesn’t matter what you spend, it’ll be unreliable. Aim low.
Rock bands toured in full-size vans before Minutemen, but Mike Watt and his series of full-size vans has inspired touring indie bands for the last 35 years. The abundant Econoline (or Tradesman or Chevy Van…pick your brand) lets you pack in a whole bunch of people plus a ton of gear. The van affords you space, usually, and a place to crash if need be. Watt, as we learn from the Kelley Blue Book video above, is a fan of Ford’s V10-powered vans. We are, too.
Reasonable price: The world is your oyster. You can find vans for just about any price and in any kind of condition.
Small Wagon: Saturn, Cavalier, Escort
If you’re looking to haul a bunch of people and gear on a little budget, a small station wagon remains a great option. My 24 Hours of Lemons co-conspirator Alan Cesar swears by 1990s Ford Escort Wagons while I knocked around in a durable little Saturn SW2 wagon that got 38 miles per gallon all day every day. We both camped in them and slept in them when it rained, hauled a pile of people around, and dumped a thousand pounds of car parts in them. They took that abuse and stretched a dollar in our late teens and early 20s like no other car could have.
Reasonable Price: A cosmetically challenged 1990s wagon shouldn’t cost more than $1,500 at most.
Any 1950s American Car
If you’re traveling the two-lane byways of the country, nothing will make you feel nostalgic like doing it in just about any car from the 1950s. Affordable running examples can be hard to find, but with some patience, hard work, and flexibility, you can probably dredge up a driving project for under $4,000, especially if you’re willing to go for an early 4-door, rather than a 528ci Hemi-powered Gasser. You’ll get better gas mileage too.
Reasonable price: In the ballpark of $4,000.
Basketcase “Grand Touring” Car
A grand tourer is, more or less, a two-seat car with some interior luggage room. The idea is that you, the super-rich person takes your spouse, or extracurricular significant other on a weekend getaway, usually several hundred miles from your origin. Of course, these were all extremely expensive and, if you’re buying from the late 1970s or early 1980s, extremely unreliable cars in perpetuity.
Essentially, any grand touring car you find for under $4,000 is gonna be a horrible idea on a long road trip and, therefore, we can’t recommend enough that you try it. Not us, this time, but one of you should give it a whirl and let us know that worked out for you. The ideal here is something like a V12-powered Jaguar XJ-S or a Maserati Biturbo, but we’ll accept any $4,000 Ferrari or Porsche 911 as a suitably stupid idea. Also, let us know where you found a $4000 Ferrari.
Reasonable price: A 1980s Maserati is practically worthless and a terribly good-bad idea. The experience—whether good or involving a roadside inferno—will be priceless. Take pictures, and send ’em to us.