Best Used Vehicle for Self Maintenance?

I’m a mechanically inclined/experienced guy but cars are one thing I’ve just never worked on. Ever. I don’t own a car now but I’m shopping for something used, $4,000 or less.

I’d like to be able to do basic maintenance, and try my hand at more involved tasks when needed (and possible). Assuming I have a small garage or other workspace for this, which models are better for self repair?

Part 2 of this is: are “easier-to-repair” cars necessarily part of the same group as reliable used cars? In reading reviews for an old Nissan truck, I saw a comment that the its parts can be difficult to get and very expensive, but it doesn’t matter so much because that particular model tends to stay solid well into high-mileage use.

(I’ve been favoring trucks as I may be moving soon, but I’m not stuck to the idea.)

I’d suggest a nice small 4 cylinder RWD pickup truck with a manual transmission. There are lots of them around in that price range - obviously on the older side with higher mileage. Just find one that’s been maintained well. When you find one hold out $100-150 to buy a factory service manual for it. You’ll be good to go.

If you go to FWD cars instead - make sure its a 4 cylinder. Manual transmission is still preferred.

I agree 100%…

Other than agreeing with the others, try to avoid a vehicle that uses a timing belt or this could be one of your first jobs. Maybe an expensive job if you were to botch it.

Just curious, but how do you define old Nissan truck? What decade are we talking about?

Ford F-150. You Choose Model-Year, Price, & Condition.


For a small pickup, the Ford Ranger or Mazda B-series (same truck, different name) are a dime a dozen and easy to work on. The Chevy S-10 is also a good candidate, but they generally command a higher price, for whatever reason, than the Ranger. If you want a full size pickup, the Chevys are generally the easiest to work on. For a passenger car, it’s hard to beat a mid to late '90s GM for ease of service, cheap and readily available parts, and a low asking price in the used car market. The Japanese makes are hailed for their reliability, but I find the GMs of the same era to be cheaper and easier to repair and maintain, and they are an excellent platform on which to learn. Trust me, you would rather cut your teeth on a Buick LeSabre than a Honda Accord or Toyota Camry.

Everyone: thanks! Mazda B-series is one option that keeps coming up in different contexts, always positive. I didn’t know it was the same truck as a Ford Ranger, but then I owned a Probe once that turned out to have been manufactured (or comprised of parts made) by Mazda.

ok4450: is there an easy way to determine whether or not a timing belt is used? I mean other than looking under the hood - lots of internet browsing going on! Is there a common alternative? If that’s a huge question, feel free to leave it alone :slight_smile:

The Nissan was a 1995 Nissan Pickup SE.

The good thing about the Ranger is that a lot of years have parts interchangeable, so you shouldn’t have to worry about not being able to find parts later on. Same with the F-150 someone mentioned earlier too.

In What Part Of The Country Do You Reside ?

Learn to recognize rust on the underside of a vehicle. Aroung here a 95 Nissan or some old Maxda B-2000 truck would be too rusty to be worth buying. You’d be better off with no vehicle and growing savings account.

Rusty gas tanks, brake lines, fuel lines, exhaust components, and frame members can render a vehicle practically useless and you are just the purchaser of such a vehicle that an owner has been waiting for.

$4000 is a tough price for which to shop. It’s right on that line between an old worn, serviceable unit, and a total piece of junk. Is there a car /truck savvy friend that can help with inspections ?

Where do you live ?


The “bible” for all things timing belt is the Gates Guide (

You can also just plug the car’s info into an auto parts website and search for “timing” - you’ll either come up with belts and related or chain and related as parts.

Thanks again, cigroller.

I live in Chicago but I might be headed for Austin. I don’t have a notably car savvy friend to help, but I do plan on having any potential purchase looked at by a mechanic first. The sorts of things you’ve listed here: rusty gas tank, break line or fuel line issues… since these are common for a vehicle of this age, I hope they’re the same things a (paid) mechanic would inspect? At least, if specifically asked to look at those things?

I used to have recommendations but the 83 Corolla isn’t always available these days.

If you can, buy one in Austin not Chicago.

The Nissans are good trucks. They had a few issues back in the 80s but those problems got sorted out.
The Ranger is a good suggestion as is the Mazda B series trucks. A large multi-line dealer I worked for also carried a Mazda franchise and while I did not get involved deeply enough in the Mazda line to be any kind of Mazda expert, I can say they appeared to be pretty well built trucks.
I know that we did not see them in for chronic problems and the guy who worked there and handled most of the Mazda stuff swore by them. He also owned 2 of them.

A small truck would be great. Toyota with a 22R motor. But if you do go and look at a front wheel drive car I would suggest almost anything with the GM 3.8 liter motor. Very reliable. I think as long as you have a good manual and some room in the engine bay you be good. As for the timing belt you can always call autozone and ask if for the price of a timing belt. Then you will know if it has one.

The easiest cars I’ve ever worked on that I’ve owned myself were my 1988, 1990, and 1991 Honda CRX’s. The Civic shares the platform so they’d be equally easy to work on. Parts availability is, however, no longer guaranteed as the newest of that generation is now 20 years old. That said, there are still about a jillion of them on the road, so you probably won’t have to worry too much about finding parts for some time yet.

Based on a neighbor’s experience, how about a Series IIA Land Rover? I’d swear you didn’t need more than 4-5 tools to do anything on that vehicle… and I can distinctly recall him removing the bolt-down floorboards and doing significant transmission repair work on the vehicle with the transmission still in the vehicle and him just standing next to it in the now big open hole the floorboards used to cover…

mechanically inclined buddy of mine at work says he absolutely refuses to do brake work on Pontiacs because of the way they’re setup in the front. Not sure if it’s because they’re FWD or what.

Land Rovers are allegedly a high repair make. I haven’t had one, but those who have had one say they really fall apart when they get old.

Do not assume you can buy an older small pickup in Austin at a reasonable price. Mexican law allows Mexicans to import small pickups older than ten years for country use. The price last time I checked for older small pickups was extremely high well into Oklahoma.

And, with Mexicans living in the north, there might be a problem there, too.

As we drive north and south on I-35, we see them packed to the gills, headed south.

This is not an intellectual issue. I live in rural Mexico, and there are small, imported US pickups all over the place.

But, as pointed out, when you go north, there may be a serious problem with salt induced corrosion.

They are not allowed to import F-150’s.