Reader Question: Learner Car for Wrenching?

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Here’s the latest reader question, along with my reply!

Chris asks: I bought a ’98 Lexus a couple of years ago. Thought I’d use that to learn to work on cars. Then the check engine light came on for the catalytic converter and also upstream and downstream from it. I believe it is the oxygen sensors and the mass air flow sensors that are also an issue. Not sure because I haven’t gotten in there yet. Now, I can’t weld and it’s too much to pay someone else to swap out or repair the catalytic converter. The car is too old. So is it worth keeping that car for those purposes or should I try and get the $1,000 or so out of it and invest in a better car for working on?

My reply: For a beginner, a used late-model luxury car is probably not a good place to start. These cars are almost always more complicated – being luxury cars – and also more expensive to repair, being luxury cars. Not always, but there are often critical parts specific to them that can cost daunting dollars. Example: I once owned – briefly – an ’87 Lincoln Mark VII LSC. This car had the same 5.0 V8 as the same-year Mustang GT (simple, common parts – good news!) but also had an air-suspension system unique to the Lincoln that was both unreliable and haltingly expensive to fix when one of the air bladders (there were four) failed.

As regards your Lexus: It might be worth fixing, if the car is otherwise sound. But if you want to learn to work on a car and not go broke doing so, I’d recommend something along the lines of a same-era or Civic or Corolla. These will have OBD II, so you can use them to get hip to the diagnostic process that applies to all new cars. You may also want to consider going back even farther – to a car without any computer controls at all – to learn and master the basics of mechanical and electrical systems. My go-to recommend on this is an old Beetle, as they are literally lawn mowers that carry passengers. But the principles involved in maintaining and fixing them scale. They are also – nowadays – great investments. Buy one, play with it/fix it up – then sell it for more than you spent to buy it.

But, anything built before the early 1980s will suit, too.

I would avoid cars made from – roughly – the mid-1980s through the early ’90s, which have computer controls, but not OBD II (and so have the common OBD II port and access to codes, etc.). These can be a real PITAS to diagnose and fix, if you’re not well-versed.

. . .

Got a question about cars, Libertarian politics – or anything else? Click on the “ask Eric” link and send ’em in!

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  1. Many thanks to Eric for taking the question and posting an answer. I’ve been a long time reader here, but never posted much. Thanks too for the comments. As Divine Providence would have it, I’ve been gifted a 2010/2011 Ford Escape. Runs perfect no issues. I also picked up a 1986 Nissan truck that still runs like a top. I bought it for $800 from a friend who was moving. We needed something for the small farm jobs. Lots of rattling when under acceleration, so I have to figure that one out.

    I’m going to sell the Lexus, if I can.

  2. I get closer every day to buying this (can’t recall the name)dongle that goes into your OBD port and connects to your smartphone. It’s advertised that it’s constantly being updated and claims to be able to find any fault(well, there are some of those it probably can’t). Anyway, the $80 it costs is an hour of shop time.

    • You can get ’em on the bay for under $10. And they work great with any number of free smartphone apps, though if you pay another $10 for a good app it has lots more goodies in it. You can put up gages for everything the PCU tracks- tranny temp, boost, oil pressure, RPM, stoichiometric ratio etc. Highly recommended, but a cheap tablet is way easier to read and use than a smart phone.

  3. “My go-to recommend on this is an old Beetle, as they are literally lawn mowers that carry passengers.”

    Plus you will ALWAYS be working on it!

    • Thanks for the reply. Looks like the CRX though is in the early 90’s, which Eric recommended against because it won’t have OBDII. Do you recommend a particular model year? Thanks!


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