Festiva Gambler 500 Kart Build: Pretending Winter Doesn’t Exist

Amazingly, it’s been a year of many fun Gambler 500 rallies for me. I never expected myself to run more than one or two, yet here we are!

During the recent October edition of the Illinois Gambler 500 I got to drive a silly fun little Ford Festiva turned into a golf cart.

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I’ll be honest when I say I haven’t had a vehicle put such a big smile on my face in a very very long time. After that drive I made it my goal to come home from that weekend with that car. I did not get that awesome little car. However, I’m never deterred by failure. Within a week I found my own rusty Festiva and dragged it home. I know winter is approaching but I don’t care, I want a street legal go kart right now!

The Idea

Most go kart builds (often called “death karts”) involve stripping a donor car down to the floorpan then building a cage around it.

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But if you’re someone like me without the tools, skills, or income to do such a thing, you may want to find a car that can be turned into a kart without going that far. Some options you have are cars like the Geo Metro or something like this Ford Festiva. My goal for this car was to make it into a sort of “overland go kart”. Basically an offroad go kart you can camp in during Gambler 500 runs.

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Teardown

Disassembly of a Ford Festiva is scary-easy. Everything is held on with small bolts and screws that aren’t even trying to hide from you. They’re also torqued down so lightly a child can undo them.

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I started out easy by removing the rear seat. Two bolts up front, flip the seat over, then two more bolts out back. Out it goes!

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Next, I decided to get rid of the hatch. Four bolts hold this one on. In theory you should have two people for this, but if you’re careful you can use the gas strut like a pair of second hands. If your wiring is intact, there’s a harness residing behind the left tailight and all you have to do is disconnect everything. From there, take out the four bolts on the hinge, lower it down, then let the gas strut hold it up. Now crawl into the car and take off the gas strut. If you did it right the hatch will now be leaning on the car, waiting for you to take it elsewhere.

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The side windows are alarmingly easy. Three Phillips screws hold each on and they reside right behind the little dots that hold the window to each of the three arms.

From there, move to the front doors. Each door has two hinges, each hinge holds onto the door with two bolts that are kinda hard to get to if you’re too lazy to remove the front fenders. Before you do anything, get in the car, turn the key, let the auto seatbelts get into position, then pull the 30A fuse labeled “belts” (ignore if you have an earlier car without auto belts). This prevents the system from pulling the belts forward due to your soon to be lack of doors.

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Now just undo four bolts per door, undo a pin with a hammer, then toss those hunks of metal wherever you put the hatch. If you removed the doors from the hinges and not the hinges from the body, you now have a perch for your foot, Jeep style!

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It’s a Little Windy in Here

Your car will be happy with the dramatic weight loss but your hair won’t be happy with the wind. Thankfully, half the build is done! You still have to theme it and choose some new rubber to meet the road!

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For tires, I contacted shop-teacher. Since his little RallyMetro was no longer he found himself sitting on four good 14 inch wheels with some knobby snow tires on them. Unfortunately, one tire was utterly destroyed after getting dragged down the road after a rally. They served him well on a Geo Metro for many Rallycross runs and a Gambler 500 run. I thought I’d just grab those wheels and tires then pick up two 15s with mounted tires off Facebook Marketplace. Then I’d mount them up at home and have a chunky spare tire to boot. This fix is easy and avoids buying a tire and having it mounted for an additional expense! If only it were that easy…

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A Fantastic Deal

I picked up the 14s from shop-teacher (and a flat towing kit) then sent $50 at the two 15s from Facebook. I felt pretty proud of myself for getting a total of 6 wheels, a towing kit, and 5 good tires for $100. All I had to do was mount them up!

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Mounting the fronts was pretty easy and painless. They fit without clearance issues and gave the car a solid two or three inch lift. The rears? Well, they rubbed on the subframe, shock, and wouldn’t even sit flush on the hub. Well, drat. I wasn’t about to waste a perfectly good night of wrenching, so I went ahead and put my roof rack on. Like the Ranger before it, I drilled directly through the roof then used fender washers and U-bolts to secure it.

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Gambler Problems Require Gambler Solutions

I decided to mount the factory wheels back on and drove to work the next morning. On the drive there I discovered the front tires rubbed on their shocks as well.

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Of course they rubbed. During this unfortunate instance I realized that these cars are really aggressive about their tiny wheel and tire size.

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This presented me with a potentially much larger bill than expected. I found myself stuck with a conundrum of either getting wheels and tires that fit, or getting spacers and trimming my fenders. After some rough calculations, I figured out it would be cheaper to get spacers, buy the cheapest tire imaginable to fit on the fourth 14 inch wheel, then mount everything up. I could then borrow a reciprocating saw then go to town on my fenders!

$90 later and a new tire and four spacers would show up at my door next day. I decided to kill time by setting up my electrics. I mounted light bars to the bonnet, wired up my CB radio to the light bar’s harness, then wrapped it up by sticking RGB lighting and routing the cables.

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Racking up Firsts

Mounting spacers is another first for me and wow are they easy to mount. I found them even easier to mount than wheels are! Start by taking off your old wheels. Then slide the spacers on and tighten them using your existing lug bolts like you would a wheel. I advise to make sure the spacers are centered before they’re tightened fully. There are hub-centric rings for this but honestly you don’t need them. Then you can just slide your wheel onto the spacer’s studs and use the new lug bolts to secure them. I purchased 1.25 inch spacers. They not only allowed all four wheels to clear obstacles, but gave the Festiva a mean stance.

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Sawzall Hero

Unfortunately, I rubbed on the fenders every single bump. I solved it same day by borrowing a Gambler’s reciprocating saw. That night was my first time ever using such a tool in my life! Fair warning: The tool makes a lot of noise and even more vibration. Trust the saw, give it a little force, and you’ll find yourself cutting your way through metal like it’s butter. Once you use a reciprocating saw you may see all metal as metal that absolutely needs to become multiple smaller pieces. I fear a me with a welder and a saw will effectively be a mad scientist! Maybe I’ll run a future Gambler 500 on a twin engine scooter!

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With the spacers on and my fenders cut the car was ready for the home stretch! I finished out the night by wiring up my license plate light (a re-purposed light bar) and testing everything out!

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Taking a Quick Oppo-Specific Exit

In a slight departure from this build article, I have an update with my plans for the car itself. I recently drove the car through a snowstorm. It was here I sort of realized that this car won’t be a multi-year Gambler. The already terrible metal is getting attacked from all angles by moisture. I’m adjusting my expectations and hoping I get just a year out of this little thing. I’m not going to renew the plates, so if it makes it to next October I’m going to give it a massive fatal send or sell it. I put the hatch back on and gave it door bars, but that bit will be for a different article.

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As of now, I’m planning on the car’s eventual replacement to be a diesel Benz.

Another Completed Build

The next morning I woke up early then performed some cable management on my RGB lights. During the prior night rush I had failed to pick up a FM transmitter for my tunes, mount my cheap tire, or pack up the car for the trip. I got all that done in only an hour’s time. The finishing touch was ratcheting two spare tires and a jerry can to the roof rack.

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The immediate public reaction was a surprising. A large amount of people assumed I’m homeless with an even greater amount of people taking pictures. The former was genuinely baffling. Clarifying that the vehicle is my rally car didn’t improve the situation with those people.

Those opinions weren’t even on my radar. I was far too excited for the five hour road trip to the Gambler 500 ahead of me! I parked the little Festiva at work and like all of those silly “you know you bought the right car when” memes, I turned around and admired my insane work.

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Edit: Proofreading!

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About the Author

Mercedes lives her life at full throttle all day, every day. Perhaps it’s a good thing all of her vehicles are slow and powerless. See her at a Gambler 500 near you!

Contact: the_smart_car@yahoo.com / the1transmission@gmail.com / @mistymotors @outmotorsports

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