A couple of days ago, David asked our readers about the crappiest cars they’ve driven on public roads. For me, one little red car immediately came to mind. Back in 2019, I bought a Ford Festiva, threw its windows and doors into the trash, then drove it in a Midwestern winter. It was supposed to be a Gambler 500 rally car, but it ended up being my daily-driver and thus the dumbest car decision I’ve ever made in my life. This stupid thing was a rust bucket that spilled gas everywhere and briefly made me a local internet sensation.
If this car looks familiar to you, it’s because I’ve made references to it over at the old publication I used to work for. Back in 2019, I wrote a story at Out Motorsports about tearing the darn thing apart. Now you get to read about what it’s like to leave work and have to shovel snow out of your car’s interior because you thought you wouldn’t need doors again. I’m still not sure how I survived the daily misery.
It Goes Back To The Gambler 500
In 2018, reader and Opposite-Lock denizen Shop Teacher wrote a post about taking an old Geo Metro on an endurance rally. That adventure was the Gambler 500 that I talk a lot about today. For a quick reminder, the goal of a Gambler 500 is to make a $500 beater survive a 500-mile trip, much of it off-road. Along the way, you’ll pick up trash, party, and make new friends. I first went on a Gambler 500 in late 2018, and I took my then daily-driver 2012 Smart Fortwo on the run. That life-changing event got me hooked, and in 2019 I started experimenting with different vehicles to take 500 miles.
After the Smart, I ran a 1986 Honda Elite 150D scooter with a bent frame, a dead water pump, and a cruddy tank. Later that year, I decided to make a White Claw-themed 2000 Ford Ranger. It had a 4.0-liter Cologne V6 on deck and a working four-wheel-drive system. Building the truck (shown above) was so much fun, but taking it on the Gambler turned out to be somewhat boring. The truck was so good at getting through and over obstacles that half of the time it felt like I was driving through a parking lot.
During that particular Gambler, I got to take a spin in a Ford Festiva that had its windows and doors removed. Its owner, in a golfer outfit, had given the car a golf cart theme, complete with a set of golf clubs in the back.
For me, the magical part was that the Festiva felt like driving a go-kart, but it had a license plate and headlights. It was ridiculous fun, and I couldn’t get enough! I tried to buy that car but someone else beat me to the punch. I wasn’t about to let that stop me, so I decided to build my own clone of that car. The Ford Ranger was sold and the cash went to a seller in Wisconsin, who had a 1991 Ford Festiva sitting in a field.
The Worst Car Decision I’ve Ever Made
When I got the car home, I initially resisted tearing the tiny car apart. I drove it to work and back a few times to get a feel of the car. Let’s just say that I chose a horrible vehicle. A previous owner covered up rust holes with riveted patch panels. The rear axle? Well, the right side was connected to good metal, but that metal was surrounded by deep rust holes. The brake rotors up front had turned into chunks of rust, and the steering was more like a suggestion box. The most important part about the car–and the reason why I got a 1991–was still good; the fuel-injected 1.3-liter four up front ran great and the manual transmission was perfect. Prior to 1990, the Ford Festiva’s engine fed from a carburetor and I didn’t want to deal with that.
Tearing down the car was remarkably easy. All of the fasteners are exposed, and zip out with minimal effort. I believe I used a basic Harbor Freight tool kit and had the doors, windows, back seat, and tailgate off within an hour at the most. The windows were held on with phillips screws! The torque used to fasten everything was so low that even a child could have taken this car apart.
After my rapid disassembly, I found myself with two doors, two windows, and a tailgate with nowhere to put them. At first, I carried them into my apartment in case I later needed to put them back on. To make this car look at least somewhat road legal, I bought a truck mirror from eBay and self-tapped it into the left fender. For a license plate light, I took an LED light bar pod, put some thin tape over the screen to act as a filter, and bolted that into the bumper.
Next came tires, and as luck would have it, Shop Teacher had a set of wheels with first-generation Firestone Winterforce tires on them. The Geo Metro that they were once fitted to was retired from service; three of the tires still had plenty of life left. Those first-gen Winterforce tires were something special, too. Sure, they were made for snow, but the tread featured chunky blocks like the ones you’d find on a mud tire, making them pretty good off-road.
Since these massive 13-inch wheels were bigger than the baby 12-inchers that the Festiva came with, I took a reciprocating saw to the car’s bodywork and cut until the wheels fit. I tossed on some spacers so the wider tires didn’t rub the car’s struts, replaced the bad tire with the cheapest tire from Walmart, and called my build complete.
Final touches came in the form of RGB light strips and a rack bolted through the car’s roof panel. I was so happy with my work that I tossed the windows and the doors in the dumpster outside of my apartment. Oh, that was oh so stupid.
The Calm Before The Snowstorm
At first, driving my creation was a blast. It really did feel like I was driving a street legal go-kart. I would prop my foot up on the door hinges and blast some tunes from the car’s stereo. Forget spending at least $21,500 on a Polaris Slingshot when all you need is a $500 Ford Festiva! The weight reduction also made it a ball to drive. If I dropped the clutch just right it would peel out all of the way through first gear. The car turned heads everywhere it went, too.
Police would stop and stare, but never pull me over. Was my car actually legal? Probably not, but nobody stopped me. It was great, until it wasn’t.
My Festiva-honeymoon turned sour when I finally decided to throw more than $10 in the fuel tank. When I tried to fill the car up, fuel started dripping out along the seam around the tank. The seam had rusted through in places, which meant that I couldn’t fill it past half until I replaced the tank. Crap. Well, it had a 10-gallon tank and roughly 300 miles of range, so I decided to never put more than 5 gallons in and refill every 100 miles to be safe. If only that had been my only problem.
When I arrived at my first Gambler 500 in this car, things were great for all of an hour. I drove the car around blasting music during a big bash at the campsite. The RGB lights were great, too, and the car quickly became known as the party car. Then I tossed the keys to a friend and watched them take the car into the forest for a trail run. When they came back, the car smelled horribly of gas. None of us could figure it out and eventually, the smell disappeared.
I Tried To Turn My Car Into A Camper. It Sucked
It was here that I also learned one major downside of a car without doors or windows. I had this galaxy brain idea to turn the Festiva into a tent using a car cover. I’d put the car cover on, go inside the car, and enjoy a hybrid of a camper and a tent. I was off of the ground, had plenty of space to stretch out, and could use the car’s electrical system for lights or some music. Great, right? Well, during one of the nights at the event, outside temperatures dropped into the 20s and winds gusts reached around 40 mph. Even with paving stones on the hood and roof, the car cover would not stay put and my propane heater was easily outmatched. I was freezing and miserable. But, I had bragged about my car tent to my friends, so I suffered through it trying to prove a point. To whom was I trying to prove a point? I still don’t really know because my friends were warm and I wasn’t.
On another night, it was cold and rainy. This time, the cover stayed on the car, but now I was both wet and cold. It was amazing that I somehow didn’t get frostbite or hypothermia. Ok, so sleeping in a car without doors and windows sucks, but maybe it’s good at an endurance rally?
During the rally, the car ranged from a ton of fun to the biggest mistake I’ve ever made. The car climbed over obstacles like a goat and just didn’t get stuck, even in mud that stopped proper 4x4s. The lack of doors and windows also gave me motorcycle levels of visibility. I had no problems choosing an off-road line because all I had to do was stick my head out of the gaping hole where my doors used to be.
Everything’s Cold And Wet
It’s only the rest of it that sucked. See, it rained basically that whole Gambler 500, which meant that I spent the entire time just soaking wet and cold. Somehow, the puffy coat that I brought seemingly kept me just warm enough to stay, you know, alive. But the misery was real. And aside from fighting a wet freeze, I had to constantly watch my fuel gauge and make sure I was always close enough to a gas station. Remember, filling more than 5 gallons meant a fuel leak! I also discovered that the seatbelts looked fine, but in reality, they were held in with zip ties.
My worst decision in this rally was probably following my friends down a rocky obstacle course. The Festiva handled it like a boss, but there was a big problem. At the end was a creek crossing. This was a one-way deal because there was no way the Festiva could go back the way it came. I wasn’t worried about filling my interior up with water; in fact, I expected that. No, the problem was my gas tank. Remember how I said that the seams rusted through? Well, leaks work both ways and in crossing the creek, I managed to shove a ton of muddy water into my gas tank.
From that point to when I got rid of the car, it would frequently stutter and misfire from sucking up whatever was in that horrid tank.
Things somehow only got worse.
I Have To Daily Drive This Thing?
When I got home from the rally, I fired up my Smart Fortwo just for it to snap its serpentine belt due to a seized alternator. At the time, service for German cars was non-existent in my town. The quotes I got to replace the alternator were sometimes more than the car was worth, let alone what I could afford. That meant that until I had something figured out I had to drive something else. I had two other Smarts, but neither was legal to drive. Or at least, the Festiva was more legal than they were, so I drove the Festiva as my daily.
By this time, it was November in northern Illinois, which meant freezing temperatures and the occasional snowstorm. Driving this car as a daily sort of minted me as a local celebrity. My car would show up on various spotted pages with pictures of me driving the car while looking like Bibendum:
At work, I often heard chatter about the “rally driver” who parked their car in the parking lot. One morning, I was getting breakfast at my workplace’s cafe when the CEO asked me if the car was mine. I still have no idea how he came to the conclusion that it was my car, but I admitted that it was indeed mine. I expected to get fired or something, but the CEO couldn’t stop talking about how cool the car was and how he wished he had the bravery to do something like it.
Admittedly, the attention that the car got was fun. One time I did get pulled over by two police cars, but the cops pulled me over just to check out my creation. Still, the car was an awful thing. I think I hit rock bottom after a snowstorm blew in while I was at work. I came outside to discover the car’s interior full of snow and my winter gloves also full of snow. I had to shovel my car out, scrape ice off of the inside of the windshield, and drive home with an icy butt.
That’s when I called it quits. I started driving my less-legal Smart just so I didn’t end up killing myself.
Getting This Car Out Of My Life
I would later discover the source of the gas smell. As it turned out, my friend had hit a rock with one of the front wheels and the force from that impact was just enough to snap the return line nipple off of the gas tank. It wasn’t a hard hit, but as I found out, the tank was rusty on top, too.
Whenever the engine sent fuel back to the gas tank (usually at idle) it just pooled up on top of the gas tank, causing the smell and the leak. As a temporary fix, I used JBWeld and a section of 50cc scooter fuel line to recreate the nipple, then connected it back to the return line. Amazingly, it worked, but it wasn’t safe.
Since I didn’t have enough money to fix my Smart, I instead bought my first-ever Volkswagen, a 2005 Passat TDI wagon with a turbo boost leak so bad the car took 42 seconds to reach 60 mph. But hey, it was a warm and dry car that didn’t try to kill me with every drive.
After about two months of torture, I decided to get rid of the Festiva. The plan was to send it out during a second Gambler 500 run, but it would barely just make it to the starting line. The car blew a hard brake line the second that it reached camp. I was so done and just tossed the keys to my friends.
They spent the weekend bashing it through the woods and by the end, it somehow ended up on its roof. Last I heard, the owner of the off-road park turned it into a side-by-side.
This is absolutely, without question, the dumbest thing I’ve ever done to a car and the worst car that I’ve ever owned. After the Festiva, I promised myself that I’d never go that stupid with a car ever again. I’m happy to say that my promise to myself is still kept. Today, I laugh about how stupid it all was, but for the love of your own body, never do to yourself or a car what I did.
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