Your First Race Car: 12 Excellent Vintage Vehicles for Beginners


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Story by E. Paul Dickinson • Photos by Chuck Andersen

Looking to make the jump from spectator to vintage racer? Who better to offer some car shopping advice than one of the most knowledgeable people on the subject? Meet E. Paul Dickinson, professional racer turned longtime driver coach.

Initially I thought answering this question would be a rather easy task. It was not. While I often respond to “What’s the best vintage race car for me?” by counseling, “Choose the car that lit the fire of desire when you were younger, and still does,” this exercise came with an additional challenge: Name five fun and affordable vintage race cars that also efficiently promote learning driving skills.

So for this challenge I combed several decades of history and only considered cars:

• that maximize time on track as the primary goal–not time at the track, in the paddock, with wrench in hand. Maximize the on-track experience in a given timeframe, and the more and faster you can learn.
• that are reliable.
• that are better than you.
• that you can grow into.
• that compete in a class with a large base of competitors with costs that will not break a well-thought-out racing budget.

Porsche 911

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Road Atlanta Lap Time - 1:37

“To me, the fabrication is the most important thing–if the fabrication isn’t nice, the rest of it isn’t nice. The rest of the stuff is rebuildable.”
-Jack Refenning, 901 Shop

The 1966-’73 Porsche 911 allows a driver to hone racing skills like no other car. My preference would be the early, short-wheelbase cars. They are increasing in price and can be expensive to maintain, but they don’t have to be.

COST OF ENTRY
Jack Refenning has seen race-ready cars start as low as $35,000, but notes that a real race engine can cost $45,000. A race-ready, fully developed car for $85,000 may be the better value in the long run. Final advice: Prices for these Porsches have been climbing rapidly lately. Buy sooner rather than later.

Datsun 510

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“I’ve always been a guy who likes cars with history. If this is an investment, get a car with history.”
–Les Cannaday, Classic Datsun Motorsports

This the Energizer Bunny of vintage racing. It has the favored front-engine, rear-drive layout and is more forgiving than a 911. It’s quite competitive, too. A driver can have a blast with this car for not a lot of money. Preferably you’d get a car with four-wheel disc brakes, too.

COST OF ENTRY
Les Cannaday says you can find 510 race cars for as low as $8000, but they’re most likely retired SCCA Improved Touring cars. To go vintage racing, you’re likely looking at swapping the original 1600cc engine for a 2000cc as well as upgrading the transmission and rear end gears. Les figures $30,000 to $60,000 buys a good, real 510 vintage racer, but one with Trans-Am race history can easily fetch double that.

Sports 2000

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Road Atlanta Lap Time - 1:33

“Make sure you fit comfortably. The Royale, March, Tiga and Lola up to 1987 are roomy. You can't go fast if you're not comfortable.”
–Peter Krause, Krause & Associates, LLC

These cars follow a competitive, tightly constrained class structure. The result: fields of mostly identical cars running durable engines based on the Ford Pinto block. The layout makes them forgiving, and the class is affordable.

COST OF ENTRY
Peter Krause says to budget $28,000 to $35,000 for a good car sporting an engine from a proven builder. Projects can be found in the low teens, while national championship podium cars top $50,000.

Formula Ford

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“This is a race appliance, and you want a car with good integrity. You want a car that has been reframed.”
–Kent Bain, Vintage Racing Services

Despite their exotic looks, pre-1973 Formula Fords are easy to work on and have very good parts availability–meaning they’re affordable to run. Given the rear-engine layout, though, they demand the driving skills needed for the Porsche 911.

COST OF ENTRY
“None of them were really terrible,” Kent Bain says, meaning that your search should include all of the major players in this market: Titan, Lotus, Van Dieman, Eldon, Caldwell and the like. Assuming the bulkheads are savable, you’re looking at $25,000 to $35,000 to go through a Formula Ford and bring it up to speed. Meanwhile, about $35,000 is the starting price for a good, sorted car sporting a safe, solid frame. “Car free, pay for restoration,” Kent says is commonly heard.

Austin-Healey Bugeye Sprite

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“Try to find one that’s been raced before. Most people run a 1275cc, even though the Bugeye never came with that. But when starting out, any of the three [Spridget] motors would work.”
–Dave Giorgi, The Winner’s Circle

I’m happiest learning to drive a car that magnifies the driver’s mistakes. That is what gets this one on the list. This is the kind of car that vintage racing is all about. The Bugeye is a simple, great-looking machine that’s inexpensive to own and operate. Parts are readily available, too.

COST OF ENTRY
Dave Giorgi has seen solid, race-ready Bugeyes starting as low as $7000. He notes that a recently retired SCCA Production-class car could also go vintage racing. Depending on the vintage race group, however, the SCCA-legal flares may need to be removed or replaced with smaller ones. A later, square-body car can cost less than a Bugeye, but Dave recommends avoiding the 1500cc engines.

HONORABLE MENTIONS

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Looking to cast a wider net? E. Paul Dickinson and Publisher Tim Suddard have a few more cars worthy of a look.

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1966-’72 BMW coupes
Their layout makes them forgiving driver’s cars and more affordable to buy and maintain than both the early Porsche 911 and the Alfa Romeo 1750 GT Veloce.

Mini Cooper
Similar to the Bugeye in that the owner must understand the power limitations that magnify driver mistakes. Great for front-wheel-drive enthusiasts.

1964 1/2-’70 Ford Mustang
Chevy may be more popular among the masses, but thanks to race prep shops like Cobra Automotive, the early Mustang has made a huge mark in vintage racing.

1967-’71 Alfa Romeo 1750 GT Veloce(or any Alfa coupe from that time period)
More forgiving than a 911 and quite competitive–good-looking and affordable as well.

Datsun 240Z
There are a lot of SCCA Improved Touring Datsuns out there that can make perfect vintage racers. Like the 510, the 240Z has plenty of race history, too.

Triumph Spitfire
They handle well, look great and drive nicely. Bonus: Lots of knowledge, speed parts, donor cars and ready-to-race machines are available.

MGB
It’s the most popular little British sports car for a good reason: It enjoys huge aftermarket support from its many fans.


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Comments
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930TR6
930TR6
11/13/18 4:04 p.m.

I would suggest that if time and money are an issue, start with a vintage Formula Vee.  Inexpensive and easy to work on, plus you learn a lot about maintenance of momentum.

 

i went from Formula Vee to Formula Ford to E30 to 66 Shelby GT350 to Porsche 356.  Loved them all, but closest wheel to wheel competition was in FV.

Automobilist
Automobilist New Reader
11/13/18 4:14 p.m.

Formula Vee for sure. Absolutely the least expensive way to start, and loads of fun. I've raced a FV, a sports racer, and a few different production cars, but the FV can't be beat (or matched) for good competitive racing on a budget.

alfabeach
alfabeach New Reader
11/13/18 4:24 p.m.

I think the "staff writer" makes too much money if he thinks 911 is beginners vintage vehicle. I do like the Formula Vee idea by 930TR6. I do like the other choices and honorable mentions. There are probably other good choices depending what you pay for a car and availbale parts. 

jwr914
jwr914 New Reader
11/13/18 7:47 p.m.

A FF is a MID Engine vehicle not a 911.  There is little comparison to between the vintage versions.  The FF and CF cars are perhaps the easiest cars to drive.  Not a lot of power, compliant suspension, and great balance.  Only issue is not many run a lot of vintage events.  The are inexpensive for the most part. The best thing to look for is specifications that control costs.  The 356 and 911 guys all run upgraded engines.  Boy can you spend some money there.  A twin plug head for a 911 costs more than most cars.  Just to put it to perspective.  I have a 510, Lola 590, Volvo 544, Ralt RT4, Crosle 25, and a Saab Sonnet.  I sold my K-Code Mustang because they are popcorn cars.  Everyone has one.  At INDY my wife told me I might as well have brought my Spec Miata as there were so many Mustangs.  My position is buy what you want to have based on cost of upkeep.

frenchyd
frenchyd UltraDork
11/14/18 8:10 a.m.

   I agree you need to buy what your heart wants.  The cost and work involved along with the very real risk of loss  means if it’s not a serious passion it’s not going to happen.  

This isn’t a matter of what bar you go to or where you intend to go out to dinner but rather a serious commitment of both time and money. 

I believe the purchase of the car is the smallest portion of the budget. Race preparation next and the go faster part is the most expensive. 

There are a lot of potential vintage race cars available for little money. That’s because  they need serious money spent to upgrade their cosmetics.  None of which will make it faster or safer.  

Finally with regard costs.  Looking at a particular car or group of cars  may not determine costs.  If you have a history or knowledge of a car/cars . Or an association with a particular brand then that’s what you should choose.  Buddies will sell at a friends price or even donate parts even whole cars.  

Youll likely know strengths weaknesses and work arounds. You’ll know where to buy parts at the lowest cost and when a good deal is offered.  That knowledge is your real strength. 

Gary
Gary SuperDork
11/16/18 6:13 p.m.
alfabeach said:

I think the "staff writer" makes too much money if he thinks 911 is beginners vintage vehicle.

I agree wholeheartedly with this. I couldn't disagree more with some of the "biginner's cars" mentioned in the original article. And what about sustainability costs? Jeez. Who's the target audience? Vintage Motorsports? Octane? And also, why suggest a Bug-Eye Sprite for a beginner's vintage racer, and offer-up not a peep about the venerable Spridget, probably the least costly production vintage sports car racer for a beginner? (And a Bug-Eye is not a Spridget, lest anyone challange that. A Spridget is a "square Sprite" or an MG Midget).

(But then again ... there was no mention in the article of the beginner's budget. But the title of the article, and the audience here, would lead us to think we were being recommended "value-priced" beginner's cars).

Tom1200
Tom1200 HalfDork
11/16/18 8:04 p.m.

I liked the article when it came out but came very close to writing in with some of the same observations noted here. I'll go though my list in no particular order.

As a Datsun guy there are alternatives to the 510; a 610 or 710 uses many of,the same bits and being less popular the buy in cost is lower. 1200s or B210s are also less sought after and can be competitive. If I put a proper race motor in my 1200 it would make the top five overall

Sports 2000s are pricey; I'd recommend an older D-sports racer as you can run these motorcycle engines cars for the same amount of money. They are also cheaper to buy. With that said I wouldn't call an S2000 or DSR a good beginners car.

+1 on buying a vintage Vee, they can be had for $5,000-$10,000 and the running costs are low.

+1000 for Spridgets, these are stout, have been developed forever and have loads of support.

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