Thursday, February 4, 2016

Thursday Twister: Best $500 Racer

Welcome to another edition of DT's Thursday Twister, the game where the rules aren't the only thing that change each week.  This week, lets talk $500 race cars...which are in no way actually $500 race cars, that is only a fraction of the cost to build one...but the rulesets of 24HrsofLeMons, Chumpcar, AER, etc all say you need to start with a $500 car before spending money on safety/brakes/tires/wheels.  For today's Twister, we are going to list our favorite $500 crapcan racers.

The first thing you need to know about picking a car is that it can cost more than $500, but you need to sell off parts to bring the price down to $500 -- so you could budget something in the $1000-$1500 range depending on how aggressive you want to get with your price justification.  Anyway, I am a huge fan of picking up a big luxury sedan, stripping away the luxury and ending up with a barebones car that has a large powerful engine, oversized brakes, big cooling system -- it is a different path than putting a bunch of power into a small car and then upgrading those components.  A good place to start is with a G50 generation 1996 Infiniti Q45 offered for $850 on craigslist, located in Los Angeles, CA.  The VH45DE V8 puts out 278 horsepower and 292 ft-lbs of torque into a 4-speed auto, and even before you remove 1000 lbs of unneeded equipment these were fast cars.  All G50 Q45s were equipped with limited slip differential out back and use multi-link suspension -- start with the auto and budget a manual swap sometime it the future. 

What would you pick for a $500 racer?  Comments below. 


  1. Ah, the Q45.

    Most of what I'm going to say is related to what I learned from owning one as a daily-driver.

    First, the engine. '96 is absolutely the wrong year, that's the year they deleted the exhaust VVT because their ECU couldn't handle both VVT and the newly-required OBD-II. Makes the same peak HP, but the torque curve looks like Susan Sarandon's chest these days.

    The '90-95 VH45DEs are utter stoats, they pull like hell, it was a great feeling to feel the car go 'thump' into the 145mph speed limiter on the San Mateo Bridge (we're beyond the statute of limitations...) Nissan's 278HP involves larger horses than the 282HP of the M62 V8 in BMW's E39 540i.

    As for the rest of the shares much design and many parts with the Skylines and the 300ZX of the era. That's not entirely good. The front suspension has several parts - the oblique upper control arm, the big fat liquid-filled bushing in the lower tension link - that have de minimis lifespans, 50K or so.

    The transmissions are strong, but Nissan set them up to start in second gear like a Mercedes. Between that, and a remarkable lack of cooling, ours was on its fourth slushbox when we traded it for the BMW. Knowing then what I knew later, replumbing the cooling and a first-gear-start aftermarket ECU would have helped a lot.

    So what's the sweet spot? 1993. Why? Because '90-92 had a Caterham kit-car steering ratio, 2.1 turns lock to lock. I dunno, if you can get 1400lb out of the car for track purposes it might be tolerable, but in the real world that steering made it a miserable freeway car. In '93 it got both a 3-turn steering rack and a first-gear-start ECU, but in '94 they jacked up the front end and put a grille on it.

    So...for a road car, you want a '93. For a Lemons car...dunno. One other consideration: they're not overly endowed with headroom, so even after you get rid of the sunroof you're gonna be sitting pretty low, especially caged.

    1. Oh, and they're spectacularly underbraked for a car of their size, mass, and power, certainly for track use, so consider your options there.

  2. General question, does the vasoline on the camera lens lower the sale price, or is it a 'feature'?

  3. So the 93 is the one to get? Is that the one with the belt-buckle emblem? I have always wondered what would be the best model year. They look like great freeway cruisers. So look for a 93 with the front suspension rebuilt...anything else to look for or suggest? I'm assuming the "T" model stands for "Trouble?"

    1. The '93 is the last belt-buckle and the first sane-steering. So, yeah.

      They are absolutely beautifully built, the material quality is amazing, if you can find a survivor.

      Ergonomics depend on your height, they're really proportioned for someone of traditional Japanese dimensions. So it suited my wife beautifully, me at six-one less so.

      Cam chain guides need replacement at 120K. Transmission cooling, suspension component life as mentioned earlier. Only aftermarket shock vendor at the time was Tokico, they worked fine but were basically OE-replacement-grade products.

      There were the As and the Ts, the As had a fully-active hydraulic suspension. There was a guy out there some years back who used to rebuild those things quite reasonably.

      The T had a conventional suspension but up through '93 or so it had four-wheel steering (the As had this too, I think), this was something the Japanese were flogging all over the place at that time.

      Nissan started decontenting the car, the A disappeared after '92 or '93, the T lost the rear-wheel steering, etc.

      If you want to preserve something fairly unique find a Q45a, if you just want to drive one get a base Q45, I wouldn't bother with a rear-wheel-steering T.

    2. Yep, he's still around:

    3. And for your transmission ECU, assuming they still have some Q stuff on the shelf:

    4. Thanks, mrkwong! wonderful info.

  4. The Q45 is a good choice. Better grab it as there are not too many out there.

    The Lincoln Mark VIII is another alternative to look at with similar specs and there are more out there.

    Try to find a 1997~98 Mark since they have larger sway bars, firmer suspension, and a little more power. Find a lower mileage version with some minor body damage and it will take the Lemons abuse in stride. All you would need is fluid changes, spark plugs, and low profile tires to make it competitive.

    1. $500 right out of the box and bribe the judges to change out the air bags under the category of safety.

  5. Is this so hard?


    God almighty, what has happened to us and our language?

  6. Auto trans are a terrible idea for road race cars. The reason BMWs are so popular in Lemons is that they offered stick in most of their cars. E36 is by far and away the most ready Lemons platform and can be found honest to goodness for $500.

  7. Auto trans are a terrible idea for road race cars. The reason BMWs are so popular in Lemons is that they offered stick in most of their cars. E36 is by far and away the most ready Lemons platform and can be found honest to goodness for $500.

    1. There are slushboxes that can handle track time, need cooling and regular fluid changes. Cop-car Crown Vic 4R70Ws don't break, some others. Don't think a Q45 automatic would break if it had enough cooling. It's sub-optimal but much of Lemons is about making imperfect choices.

  8. It's not that they will break. It's that cars suck to drive with auto trans.

  9. It's not that they will break. It's that cars suck to drive with auto trans.


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