Buying a Used Formula Ford

contributed by Barry Haynie (edited)

So, you've decided you want to go racing and open wheel road racing is your thing. You've decided to own your car. That's the easy part. Now you have to decide what class, new or used equipment, work on it yourself or hire a prep shop, do you need a tow vehicle etc, etc. Fortunately, there is a perfect governor for these decisions - the almighty dollar. Following the simple (and not so simple) guidelines below hopefully will help you get the most for your money.

Here's a naked Lola 342 ready for inspection! Body's off, engine's out, transmission's been removed. This Lola was a great design, fast in the right hands and extremely user friendly but it had its quirks. If you're thinking of buying one, look closely before you take out your checkbook!

What's Available

Let’s start out with a short description of what is out there to tempt your open wheel racing palette.

These are older cars – from the earliest Formula Fords made in 1967 through about 1972. Vintage racing can be a very expensive endeavor. Buying a ready to race vintage car is not for the faint of heart or checkbook. Even basket cases in need of restoration often demand high prices. I have to admit I am not very well versed in the vintage scene but you can find out more by checking the many vintage racing sites on the Web: search Vintage racing and look at the vintage section on

Sports Car Club of America
If wheel to wheel competition is your thing then SCCA is where you will find it. SCCA offers Formula Ford and 8 other classes of open wheel formula cars. Component costs to consider are chassis, engine, transport, and running expenses such as tires, entry fees, lodging, food, crew cost - if you are lucky enough to have a crew. As a point of reference I am showing a range of budgets from low to high. Racing can be expensive and you can spend a ton of money doing it but you can also get by with less expenditure and still have a lot of fun and, if you are good enough, you can still win too!


  • $50-100K very serious National effort
  • $30-50K front running National car
  • $15-30K low budget National effort
  • $8-15K serious Regional effort
  • $5-10 low budget Regional effort

FF - Formula Ford: 1.6 liter Ford, 112-118 HP, restricted class, no aerodynamic devices, class dominated by the Swift chassis since 1983, National $15-30K to buy and prep, Regional $10-20K to buy and prep

CF - Club Formula Ford: same as Formula Ford but older chassis, 1974-1982 (more or less) Regional only class, rules vary from Region to Region. Basically, pre-1983 cars with at least one end of the car with outboard suspension (shocks in the air stream). Many Regions require Spec Tires - $7-15K

There are other sanctioning bodies where you can find formula cars running. Check out Race Car Club of America, Formula Pro and EMRA on the east coast for information.

Ready to Go?

Have you been to the track to check all this stuff out or just watched it on TV? Have you been to driver's school and gotten your Novice permit? If not, think about doing that first. It is much cheaper to rent a ride for a school weekend to find out if you really want to do this. Jumping in with both feet? That's OK. Lots of racers start that way. Let's get a car.

Where Do You Start?

Your first task is to find a car for sale which is not all that difficult. If you want a brand new car you are limited to Van Diemen, Stohr, Piper and, perhaps, a Citation. Be prepared to spend upwards of $35,000 less engine. You could import other brands from England for FF if you are really motivated. Used cars make up around 98% of the race cars sold every year so let’s explore buying them.

Start in your SCCA Region. Contact the Region's class administrator/driver representative to inquire if any cars are for sale. It’s good to make friends at this point as it will pay off later. Buying local has a big benefit because it’s always better to buy from someone you have a chance of seeing again - there will be less risk.

No cars for sale there? There are a number of web sites that have For Sale listings; go to and SportsCar, the official publication of the SCCA has extensive listings of cars for sale each month. If what you want is found on the other side of the continent, ask for a lot of pictures and a detailed history plus a few references.

Buying your race car should be an enjoyable and exciting experience. The first step will be to make contact with the seller. A little etiquette here goes a long way. Don't be a time waster. Call when you are serious about purchasing the car. To make it a little easier for you I have mined my years of experience to come up ten points to consider. Tailor them to your experience level.

10 Commandments of Buying a Used Formula Race Car

This may sound obvious but it entails more than kicking the tires. You are about to purchase a machine that frankly, you are trusting your life to. If that sounds too dramatic, then think of all the fun you will be missing while you are broken down or waiting for some obsolete parts.

The first car I bought was a Lola 540. The owner would not let me take the car away until, under his supervision, I had taken a lot of it apart and put it back together. I was able to do this because we lived in the same city. You probably won't be that lucky so, how do you ensure you are making the right decision after driving across 3 states and two time zones? Read on.  

There are basically zero resources to aid the novice race car buyer. If you don't know anyone who can help you, that's not a problem. Contact your local SCCA region to get the names and numbers of some of the drivers who run Formula Ford or Club Ford. You will find plenty of help and enthusiasm for your joining the group - there is always room for another competitor on the grid.

You will have a lot of questions prior to going to inspect the car and after you get there. What are the potential trouble areas with this make of car? Is it a good make/model or a dud? Is the price too high for what you see? Are all the parts there? Basket case restorations should only be attempted by those who are experienced. What about all those spares listed in the ad? Are they just used up parts or actual usable spares? Speaking of spares, they can sweeten the deal but should not appreciably raise the price of the car. Their condition will dictate the negotiation. The experienced racers in your region will be eager to assist you.

A lot of cars are advertised as "fresh", "zero-time", “race ready”, "stored, not run in 5 years", etc. A good inspection will prove or disprove much of the hype. The owner is trying to sell a car and if he is honest there is no problem. If the owner hesitates to let you investigate a little deeper than kicking the tires or do a leak down on the engine for example, then it is probably not the car for a first time buyer.

Sure, there are cases where cars have to be dumped for one reason or another. Your pre-trip investigation will reveal if it is a time waster or winner. You may not find out until you have made the trip. If it turns out to be a waste, be nice. If it looks like it could work out, follow these commandments and let your conscience be your guide.

Not much explanation needed here. A non-running car pretty much equals roller and the price should reflect that fact. A dead battery is not an excuse, you can always use a jump battery. The run check will reveal a wealth of data.

  • Does the starter work?
  • Does the engine start?
  • Any strange noises?
  • Smoke?
  • Water leaks?
  • Oil leaks?
  • Oil pressure normal (cold engine should be around 60-80 psi as a rule of thumb)?
  • Blown head gasket (water vapor out the pipe)?
  • Water in the oil (tough to check, need to pull a hose and drain some oil)?
  • Does the Tach (and other gauges) work?
  • Is water circulating (feel for heat at radiator)?

Reputable sellers know all this and should already be set up for the test when you arrive. (Like my second car purchase. The car looked like hell but it was sound mechanically and started right up.)

That means a gearbox with a full complement of gears within! A common characteristic of used cars is they usually have worn components. A worn out ring and pinion gear will, at best, waste horsepower and, at its worst, destroy your $4000 gearbox (that's what it will cost to replace if not more!).

While you are back there wondering if the thing works, inspect the CV joints. How do you do all this you say? Well, you could disassemble the gearbox but that would not be practical for your purchase inspection.

First test: try to shift the box with the shift lever. All these cars follow the basic "H" pattern with reverse being left and up. There is a reverse spring detent lockout you have to overcome.

Second test: with it in a gear, try to push the car. It should not move (unless you are trying to push start for commandment number 5.) Not all gears may select in this test due to gear train design but it will at least tell you if the guts are in the box.

Third test: to get all the gears to engage you need to be able to rotate the tires. Jack up the rear of the car. Select a gear and rotate one of the rear tires. The other tire should rotate in the opposite direction. If not the differential should be questioned. Perform this test for all gears, forward and reverse.

Fourth test: when doing this test you need to determine if the ring and pinion is in trouble. This is not a very objective test but short of a teardown it’s the best I can think of. What you need to determine is if there is excessive backlash in the ring and pinion. With the box in gear, hold one tire to prevent it from rotating. Mark the other tire with a reference at 12 o'clock. Gently rotate this tire feeling for the amount of movement before it can't rotate due to the other tire being held.

There should be some small amount of backlash but if you can turn your wheel from 12 to 1 and back to 11 it's excessive. 1230 to 1130 is most likely too much. No backlash at all is cause for concern also. Just expect some play due to normal wear and tear. Watch out for worn CV joints giving a false reading in the test. You should not be able to hold the CV still, rotate that axle and feel any backlash. Eliminate that first.

Lastly, without taking the gearbox out of the car it will be impossible to fully inspect the clutch. A go-no go test can be performed during the push test above. If the box passed the guts check, put the car in gear, depress the clutch and try to push the car. If the car rolls easily (not turning over the engine) then at least you know the clutch is releasing.

Seat belts, fire suppression system, master kill switch, rain light, fuel cell and updated roll hoops; all will ruin your day at Technical Inspection. Belts have to be replaced every 5 years. Look for the date tag on each component of the harness; sub belt, seat belt and shoulder belts. The tag will have a hole punched in the date of manufacture. Add 5 years to see if you're busted.

Driver actuated (from the cockpit) fire suppression systems are required by SCCA. Don't believe any other story. Is the bottle charged? It should have a gauge with the needle in the green. If not you may be busted (weighing bottles by a certified facility is acceptable if a gauge is not installed).

When performing engine run test in commandment number 5, turn off the master switch and see if the car dies. Too bad if it doesn't.

Does the rain light work? Simple test but this item has the least amount of attention to detail during installation.

Make sure there is a fuel cell. Rules require the cell to be enclosed in a container. Is it? Is the cell vented with a check valve?

Last but not least, a lot of older cars were not built to roll over structure specifications now in use. In 1998, all formula cars raced in SCCA were required to meet the 1986 specifications on front and rear roll hoops and bracing. If the car does not meet these specs and you intend to run SCCA then you will have to have the work done. See next commandment.

Take off all the body work. Put the car up on stands high enough to inspect the belly pan. Look for bent tubes, rust at welds, rust in general, bent suspension links, and oil inside the car (oil leaks will always migrate into the cockpit, one of those silly constants of race cars).

Check for play in the wheel bearings. Rotate wheels to check for bad wheel bearings (don't mistake dragging brake pads for bad or tight bearings, pull the pads to be sure). Try to move the suspension links looking for worn out rod ends; axial or radial play indicates worn out rod ends. Is the belly pan in good shape? Scrapes and minor gouges or OK. Big gouges, and puncture holes equals replacement. Missing rivets are OK, just need to be replaced.

Check the gearbox mounts. The Hewland/Webster boxes (in older FF/CF/FC's) are VW cased and are pretty much bullet proof. They do have a tendency to crack at the mounting bosses to the adaptor plate. Check this out carefully. Check engine mounts for obvious cracks. It is usually not practical to do a complete NDT before you buy but, hey, you never know. Refer to your rule books for legal roll hoops, fuel cell, belly pans. Inspect all the brake rotors for cracks and runout/warpage. Again, this is not the place for a full bown NDT, just check for cracks at mounting holes, and any lightening work.

Shocks and springs should be considered a consumable. Bouncing the car up and down will tell you nothing about their condition. You can't really test a shock without removing the spring. Plan on sending the shocks off for rebuild and buy new springs. A side note about springs. Older cars were designed in an era when tires were not as good as we have to day. To get grip, spring rates were kept rather low. If your new car comes with the springs it was built with, well, first off they are worn out and two, they are too soft. Find out what spring rates you need to move up to before you get the shocks rebuilt. They need to be matched to the spring rates.  

Believe it or not, not everyone can fit into one of these cars. Just being able to sit down is not good enough. Are you comfortable? Probably not at this point. Can you make the car comfortable? Can the pedals be adjusted? Can your size 13 feet fit a size 7 1/2 foot box? If you would not look out of place on an NFL or NBA team then formula cars may not be for you.  

Study the rules before you go to see the car. Use the books to your advantage. While you are collecting your reference material, get the entire Carroll Smith collection and study them. Speaking of reference material, don't expect to get an owner’s manual with your used car. Some Reynards may have one and newer Van Diemens should have a manual.

Before you drive off with your new race car, be sure to ask the smiling person holding your check for all the records he should have kept for the car. You should get things like set up sheets, engine logs, parts suppliers etc. 

Be Realistic  

This may be the best piece of advice I can offer. It is rare that a first year racer will show up and run up front. You will be up against seasoned veterans who know their track, its fast lines and its quirks like the back of their hand. They know the right set ups and the right gear ratios. Their cars are well prepared and proven. You most likely won't know these things. For those in the know it's called "competitive advantage".

For those who have yet to learn, well, let's just call it frustrating. Hang in there though. Those veterans will help you out and if you can stick with them for a few laps you will learn volumes.

If Captain Kirk were to ask Mr. Spock what the odds were of the club racer landing an IRL ride or having CART knocking at his/her door, I think he would say "Astromonical Captain".

If you have talent you will do well at any level. What it takes to move up after you are anointed the second coming of Senna is budget. You have to move up to the Pro series to have any chance at the show. There are plenty of drivers with the budget but not the talent and plenty the other way around too. Just remember, it's supposed to be fun.

That's about it. I can't make any guaranties you won't get burned but if you follow these guidelines you will greatly lessen the chances. I don't want to imply that every race car for sale is a dud. On the contrary, most cars will be about as advertised. It is those odd cases you need to be prepared for.

Good luck on your search.