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I don't know much about cars. I mean, I understand in general terms how an engine works, to the extent that every mechanical engineer has taken thermodynamics, but other than that... not nearly so much as I'd like. I was thinking of buying an old, basically worthless vehicle and... fiddling with it. A friend told me she found something very liberating about owning a car that was functionally worthless and working on it, saying: "what are you going to do, lower it's value?"

Second point: I've been doing a fair bit of camping/traveling lately and was thinking I'd like a vehicle I could sleep in. To that end, I was wondering about getting a van. I have no desire to buy another new vehicle, nor to insure one, so an old, inexpensive model appeals to me. I do have access to a lift at work.

I've seen a few old conversion vans on craigslist that seem like they could do both of what I'm thinking. Issues with buying a vehicle on craigslist aside, is this a dumb idea? I'm figuring the worst case is I can't make it work and I turn around and... donate it and take the deduction or scrap it. In any event, if I'm prepared to gamble the sale price. Am I likely to have to spend a lot fixing or maintaining an 80s or early 90s big American van (assuming it has a working engine and what not when I get it)? I was under the impression that these were fairly mechanically simple, and might not be as difficult to work on as a newer car with 100 ECUs and such.

Finally, if in theory this isn't that bad an idea, is there anything especial I should look for or avoid in a van that age?
 

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The first idea isn't dumb. I did just that when I bought my first car, a 1969 MG Midget, for peanuts when I was 15. Took a year to get it running and I learned a lot. One of the things I learned is that I hate working on cars. :p

The Midget was nice for learning because it was easy to get at everything, and all the parts were about as small and light as they could get. Seems like some vans have their engines tucked away and harder to get at.
 

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An old VW van would be a fun project car, if you're looking to tinker. There's a wealth of support and information about them out there, and the engine is about as simple as they come.

Project cars are fun, and if you get tired of it, they make great yard art. (I'm a hillbilly on my father's side)

Funny story--when I was a little kid, my dad had an old Oldsmobile that he was trying to get to run. He decided to have my mom tow him down the road to see if it would turn over, and I jumped in the family car with her. We were bombing down the dirt road, and dad kept waving at mom to speed up, speed up! Finally she go so freaked out by it, that she pulled over. He jumped out of the old beater and ran--turned out all the waving he'd been doing was because of the wasp's nest in the car, not because he wanted her to speed up. Oops.
 

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Worst part about your typical Ford/Dodge/Chevy conversion-type van is the limited work space under the hood. The motor is literally behind the windshield, but I believe there is an access hatch under the console/dash. To me this is just a pain in the ass.

If you are looking for simple and cheap...your best bet would be to find either a VW bus or go with an older full size American built pickup (parts are readily and cheaply accessible at any parts store or junk/salvage yard) and throw a sleeper on the bed.
 

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+1 for the older fullsize american pickup, parts are super easy and cheap to find and a sleeper isnt too big of a deal, it will be so much easier to work on and as a plus you might get a 4x4
 

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stay away from that old electronic stuff. shoot for mid to late 90s k1500,f150,tundra, in the 100k-150k range and you should do good.
 

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It really is nice to have a beater car you don't care 100 percent about.

Everyone starts somewhere, just because you don't know much about cars, doesn't mean you shouldn't start to work on one. For whatever car you get, get the factory service manual, join a forum that's dedicated to that car, most likely you'll be able to find someone locally on that forum, who could help you work on your car. Most of the time, you can pay them with 6 packs of beer.

PS- you can get a decent starter toolkit from Sears for 200 bucks or less.

Good luck!
 

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A1an said:
Worst part about your typical Ford/Dodge/Chevy conversion-type van is the limited work space under the hood. The motor is literally behind the windshield, but I believe there is an access hatch under the console/dash. To me this is just a pain in the ass.
If you are looking for simple and cheap...your best bet would be to find either a VW bus or go with an older full size American built pickup (parts are readily and cheaply accessible at any parts store or junk/salvage yard) and throw a sleeper on the bed.
+1000000000000

i have worked on lots and they suck. the counsoul, a.k.a. dog house, does come out, but still a pain. if you have a lift, it would be best to drop the motor for most big work. i agree with the pick up. but a van might be more comfortable for longer drives.
 
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