Click above for high-res image gallery of our LeMons contender

Not to be confused with the "24 Hours of LeMans" (that zooty French endurance race), the "24 Hours of LeMons" is an event comprised of low-budget $500 race cars (yeah, "lemons"). The so-called "crap-car enduro" has enticed various members of the Autoblog team over the years into covering, and more recently participating, in the event. When asked to join a team for an upcoming race, we knew it was our obligation to go. We now find ourselves booked for the "Thunderhill Arse-Freeze-Apalooza." The event scheduled during last few days of December promises dreadfully cold weather, but plenty of off-beat racing fun. Our six-part weekly series will take you behind the scenes with our new race partners, the "Tinkerbell Rosso" racing team, and their 1996 Crown Victoria "Police Interceptor." The madness begins after the jump.

Photos Copyright ©2008 Michael Harley / Weblogs, Inc.

The Tinkerbell Rosso Race Team isn't your average LeMons contingent. While other teams may enter the event for the thrill of low-budget racing, a lifelong desire to feel semi-important, or the need to take out their pent-up aggressions on some all-season tires, the Tinkerbell Rosso racing team is doing it for the kids. Seriously. (Named after the "Tinkerbell Guild" at the Children's Hospital of Orange County, the race team is raising money for children struggling with health issues during their first years of life.) Come on, if it weren't for the kids, we wouldn't have any other excuse to leave our families in the middle of the Christmas holiday and race cars, would we?

With our optimal LeMons racing team set in stone (the Tinkerbell Rosso racing team is comprised of four average guys with car/kart racing experience... and more than a slightly demented sense of humor), we needed to find some wheels to survive our upcoming track flogging. The choice of vehicle is very important. It has to race on a track in a semi-maneuverable manner, survive during the long hours of the enduro, and (most importantly) cost less than $500. The team vacillated between a small FWD import with an inline-4 and a larger domestic RWD car with a V8. Some of us felt the reliability of an older Honda or Toyota would position us well near the end of the race. Others on the team argued that the engine would be overworked and parts would be hard to find. In the end, after countless conference calls, we decided an 80's-era Ford Mustang V8 (the Highway Patrol "LX" model in particular) would be the perfect car. They were fun to drive, parts would be readily available, and they were easy to work on.

After several weeks scouring the classifieds and Craig's List, we could find nothing close to our needs. Then, while searching in our price bracket, we found a 1996 Ford Crown Victoria Police Interceptor. It was a bit larger than we had wanted (a serious understatement), but it had the V8 under the hood and a heavy-duty police-duty cooling package. We made a few calls, and arranged a meeting at Taco Bell to check it out (worst case, if the car didn't work out we could eat lunch inexpensively).

The original asking price was $650. However, a tree had fallen down during the Santa Ana winds/firestorm mayhem about a week earlier, struck the rear quarter panel, and bashed out the rear window. It wasn't pretty, but it was a stroke of luck for us. According to the owner, the tired Crown Vic started life proudly as a cop car (possibly in New York). When it hit about 80,000 miles, it was sold to a San Diego-based taxi company. There, it labored as a taxi cab for another 200,000+ miles until it was one mile short of the wrecking yard. The exterior was a collage of mismatched wheels (one pair of Ford OEM alloys, the others steel), and salvaged doors with trim from different eras. Most all of its panels had been repainted (countless times) and there was plenty of glue residue on the doors from its hasty decommission from the cab fleet. The interior had the obligatory pillow for "cabbie rear end preservation" and the bright aftermarket dome light for collecting fares. The only thing that was missing was the air fresheners hanging from the rearview mirror (the owner joked that they probably flew out the gaping hole where the rear window used to be).

Our test drive was brief. While the throttle response and brake modulation seemed mediocre at best, the steering feel was over-the-top atrocious (and you thought a brand-new Crown Victoria handled like a wet noodle). Tired shocks aside, it was hard to keep it in a straight line. Each of the indicated 285,986 miles on the speedometer must have been torturous (yeah, it must have been living in New York). With price preceding logic, we made an offer. While the four of us thought it would be funny to pay in Taco Bell chalupas, the owner preferred cash. It was ours for an even $500 as long as we took delivery that afternoon. After a few hours at the DMV to process the paperwork, the car was ours. As my home was the closest to this treasured find, I was selected to drive it home and park it in my driveway. My wife wasn't thrilled at its arrival.

Obnoxious comments from the neighbors aside ("Hey Mike, you opening a junkyard?"), the car sat in my driveway for the next three weeks collecting dust and a few homeless mice. One afternoon I started it to keep the battery fresh and fluids flowing. I walked back inside to work. Five hours later my wife came home and asked why the "police car" was idling in our driveway. Doh! I had forgotten all about it! At least the cooling system withstood the challenge -- and now the battery was fully charged.

The last major hurdle before we were to begin transforming it into a bona fide race car was to move the Crown Vic about 100 miles. It needed to relocate to a place where we had storage, a trash dumpster, and all the proper tools to gut it out and weld a roll cage. The drive took place at night. We figured there was less chance of stop-and-go traffic. And, help would only be an hour away if it broke down. The lanes on the 405 freeway are 10-feet wide. It was mildly amusing watching the ex-taxi with blown steering and no rear window use every inch of the width swerving back-and-forth between the painted stripes. Too bad I was viewing the show from the driver's seat-wildly gyrating the steering wheel trying to stay alive! The only enjoyment of the journey was watching other drivers yield to the Crown Victoria's headlights in their rearview mirrors (at night it still looks like a cop car, you know). After two hours of sheer terror, I exited the highway in search of my destination. A few miles later, the Police Interceptor pulled into a driveway for the last time as a street-legal vehicle. The engine sputtering to a stop signaled the start of the next stage in building our LeMons Racer... the tear-down. We'll be back next week with the gory details.

Photos Copyright ©2008 Michael Harley / Weblogs, Inc.

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