Staff Picks: The Perfect $500 Lemons Racer

Photography: 24 Hours of Lemons

  • “Staff Picks” chooses one hypothetical car topic and polls the Pit+Paddock team for the best possible answer.
  • The 24 Hours of Lemons is an endurance, wheel-to-wheel car racing series on dedicated road courses for, at maximum, $500 cars. 
  • No prior experience is required and each entry yields two drivers and any number of crew members to keep your car alive through the race.
  • The series is two parts fun and one part serious motorsport, which nets an entertaining interpretation of what enthusiasts can turn into a race car.

If our first Staff Picks segment was any indication, it’s getting harder to find a cheap car these days. We’ve decided to up the ante for our second effort; this time, our staff would mentally tangle with an immensely difficult question: what would be the perfect 24 Hours of Lemons race car for under $500?

The 24 Hours of Lemons is a series that is dedicated to this exact query and it has provided an affordable and fun platform for enthusiasts to enjoy the world of racing. Because there is such a liberal interpretation of what makes a race car, there are several “unique” cars that make the grid — some of which you’d never expect to see turning laps on a road course. The series traverses some memorable tracks from coast to coast as well, so once you find that perfect car, there are likely some options to make it happen near you.


I must admit, when the topic of 24 Hours of Lemons cars arose, I was equally excited and frustrated. As Mike mentioned in the intro, cars are increasingly difficult to find in an affordable price range, let alone for less than the price of a PlayStation 5. Determined, I scoured the racing series’ Instagram page to draw inspiration for my choice. Despite the immense variety of competitors, there was a severe lack of “stiff upper lip” in the field. It then suddenly dawned on me that this series is no different from a long-form version of Top Gear’s beloved Cheap Car Challenges from the golden days of automotive journalism. And this led me to think of the most popular recurring character – the Jaguar XJS.

With my brief stint as a Jaguar Technician, I’ve had a chance to poke around the mechanical mess that is the 5.3L naturally aspirated V12. The truth is, even before I was wrenching for JLR (Jaguar Land Rover), I always had a fondness for the “Grandfather Clock.” Something about its size and lines, combined with the fact that it had a V12, always tantalized me. As I’ve grown older, I’ve only come to be more tempted to find a financial mistake to increase my stress levels. 

A key part of the Lemons racing series is competition, and luckily for me, the XJS actually has a pretty stout motorsports history. The real inspiration behind my #racecat would be the Tom Walkinshaw factory works car that claimed the 1984 European Touring Car Championship. Of course, I would hand paint it myself with a basic painter’s brush and use a silly name in place of the simple “JAGUAR” logo, but I’m sure I would have fun piloting this mega machine. And on that note, back to the studio…


As a logical exercise, I’ll start off by saying that a $500 car, even for the street, sounds like a terrible idea. And adding in the stress of motorsport can only compound the burden. Nevertheless, when it comes to cars, I am all for bad decisions, which brings me to this: a 1983 Porsche 944.

I know what you’re thinking already and I am too: something is going to break. But hey, this isn’t about what I’m going to win the 24 Hours of Lemons with — it’s a question of what I actually want to drive — and if I break down on lap 87 in a 944, I’m good with that.

Honestly, I didn’t think about this question too hard. I’ve been hunting for a 944 for the better part of three years and the most difficult thing about buying one of these cars is whether you want to start with a project or a more presentable driver. While the latter has risen in value exponentially of late, early examples (pre-facelift models in 1983, 1984, and the first half of 1985), will still be teetering on Lemons territory. The one that I found is a perfect candidate. Its salvage title, brown exterior, and suspiciously criminal-looking interior will likely scare most people away. And although the purchase price may well exceed $500, the crucial loopholes in choosing a Lemons car are two-fold: 1.) you can sell parts from your car to meet the budget and 2.) safety items — like brakes, seats, steering wheel, and so on — are exempt from the budget and all need to be sorted as part of the regulations to ensure the safety of you and the other competitors. Queue the Eddie Murphy thinking meme.

If you Google “Porsche 944 track car” you’ll be greeted with a myriad of examples that will only fuel your bad decision further. As a motorsport platform, it’s hard to argue with the 944’s natural balance and the pre-facelift cars are also the lightest of the lineup. I’ll be embracing the brown exterior with open arms and slapping a Vintage Apple livery on it before the enduro day. Don’t upset the Apple car.


In my search for a $500 Lemon car, I was surprised to see a handful of 2000 VW Jetta 1.8Ts out there. This would be my obvious choice, being that I’m still the owner of my Mk4 GTi. The 1.8-liter four-cylinder turbocharged engine with the accompanied five-speed manual is a fun combo to drive (in fact the combo I learned how to drive stick on!). I’m also very comfortable with the chassis and would be eager to throw it around on the track in a wheel-to-wheel race. Back then, the Jetta was always looked at as the teenage girl’s car, but now that it’s 20+ years old, I could breathe it some new life, especially after a vintage DTM-style makeover.


I didn’t have to look very far when asked what my $500 Lemon car pick would be. In fact, it was sitting in my driveway. A manual 2009 Honda Fit that I picked up for $400. Yes, it was a steal, but I put about 100 bucks into it to get it running, so it meets the requirements for a $500 Lemon car! After driving my Honda Fit for a few months, I understand why automotive enthusiasts say this is the best daily driver. Not only does it have excellent gas mileage, it feels like you’re driving a little go-cart. I can’t speak on behalf of the automatic Honda Fit, but the manual transmission Honda Fit is a BLAST to drive. It’s reliable, handles great, has a 5-speed transmission, has cargo space, and is quick for a 1.5L 4-cylinder engine! Mine is a daily, but I would love to take it on the track. Honda Fits are becoming very popular in time attack racing, as you will see many of them at Gridlife and other popular races. I would gut the entire car for weight savings besides the driver seat and what is needed to drive, throw some sticky tires on, and go have a blast! The Honda Fit is one of the top contenders for a $500 Lemon car that would still be competitive!


When most are asking why, I stand by those who ask “Why not?” That’s why, when asked what I would choose to endure the 24hrs of Lemons, I instantly thought of a mid-2000s Subaru. 

My first car was a 2006 Subaru Impreza WRX in Alpine White and like most, I’ll never forget it. For me, Lemons is less about the destination and more about the journey along the way. Are there more reliable, functional, and competitive cars within the tight budget the race demands? Absolutely. But would a Crown Vic or E36 set you up for such a nail-biting contest into the unknown? Not even close when compared to a turbo-charged 2.5-liter boxer far beyond the average lifespan of its peers. Winning and losing are dictated by the other 150+ drivers racing alongside you, but the amount of fun you have is always in your hands. I don’t know about the rest of my team, but at least I’m confident I would have more fun pushing a car to its limits rather than driving something you know will survive. 

I might be biased toward the Hawkeye, but I believe any early to mid-2000s WRX will get you what you’re looking for out of this race. Pull up Craigslist or Facebook Marketplace and, as long as you’re willing to drive a state over, you can find a couple of hi-mileage/severely used options that just need a home-depot respray and a couple of extra quarts of 5W-30 in the truck to be Lemons ready.


I think Lemons says it best, “From turnkey builds to hopeless disasters, it’s out there just begging to race.” The series has been so successful that it has added two new offerings to its portfolio: Lemons Rallies which are multi-day road trips in different regions of the United States and Concours d’Lemons which are car show celebrations of “the oddball, mundane, and truly awful.” The latter has some of the best superlative categories I’ve ever seen like “Needlessly Complex Italian”, “Worst in Show”, “Slightly Better Than a Go Kart”, and “Soul-Sucking Japanese Appliance”.

In the end, Lemons is a perfect reminder to not take everything so seriously. Regardless of condition, cars are meant to be used and enjoyed and it’s cool to see the company encourage enthusiasts, even the oddest ones, to do exactly that.