You’ll never see one on the cover of a buff book or tuner title. They’re never the subject of motorsports art. Chip Foose's Overhaulin' crew wouldn’t touch one with a ten foot spanner. But for every pristine vintage roadster, numbers matching cruise night star and drag strip trailer queen, there are millions of "beaters” out there, saving wear and tear on a car owner's pride and joy or just racking-up the miles. A non-descript econo-box, compact hatchback, sedan, four-cylinder pickup or mini-van, the beater is motoring’s unsung hero.
The classic beater is an integral part of mainstream family life. I have fond memories of our family's 1960 Buick LeSabre, christened the "Blue Witch.” On long weekend road trips, confined to the back seat, our youthful imaginations stretched to relieve the monotony of long Sunday drives. If we grew tired and napped, we awoke with nubby damask patterns etched on our cheeks. By the same token, I remember the grey seats of a friend's parent's Renault that ferried us to and from swimming lessons while we sang Partridge Family songs (mea culpa), marking the vinyl with our wet bathing suits. A green Plymouth sedan– boring as Danny Partridge’s do– eventually became The Millennium Falcon to my pre-teen cohorts.
And who can forget their very first set of wheels? For most of us it wasn't a fancy performance machine, a new car or even a nice car. It was whatever we could get our hands on– after we’d begged, borrowed and yes, worked for the cash. Mine was a Nissan Micra. I quickly became adept at beater basics: the 'running-push-and-leap-in’ start, bending clothes hangers to temporarily hold up the exhaust and 1001 uses of duct tape. Don’t knock it: the beater gave us glorious mobility.
Writing this, I cast occasional glances out the window where falling petals from a neighboring crab apple tree are busy blanketing my 1997 Dakota pickup truck. A picturesque scene perhaps, but it only serves to emphasize how long it’s been since the Dodge truck last moved. A wheel bearing that needs replacing accounts for its current state of immobility. It isn't a huge or costly job, just another addition to a lengthy list of future household expenses which must, alas, await additional income.
I'd rather not add up what I’ve spent on this vehicle over the past six or seven years. One (not me) could probably think of it in terms of groups of matching appliances, exotic Caribbean trips, home renovation projects or a normal, sane person's retirement savings plan. Somewhere in the last couple of years, I crossed that invisible line between conscientious vehicle maintenance and obsessive compulsive custom hobby. This leap, of course, necessitated buying something that I could actually drive, you know, when I need to. A beater.
That’s why I purchased a Mazda 323 for less than the price of the tires that encircle my pampered pickup's custom rims. The Japanese sedan isn't much to look at (a statement that could also have been made fourteen years ago when it was new). But $20 in regular fuel keeps it running between two paychecks. It doesn't sulk if I forget the date of its last oil change. It slugs through the worst that winter can dish out and starts unfailingly during cold snaps. Snow hasn't stopped it yet, although deep ruts slow it down. It chugs along determinedly, with little-engine-that-could stoicism. Stalling and unexpected drifting displays are not part of its repertoire; unlike, I might add, its prima donna pickup counterpart.
The onboard Hanes manual has proved useful as an impromptu cushion when the sagging driver's seat suspension becomes a little too relaxed for sustained driving. As familiar as an old glove, the beater’s interior offers no-frills comfort. When I discover my nephew's cuisine– half a cream cheese bagel stuck to the seat back– I snicker, instead of a gasp in horror and rush to the car spa. The nondescript carpeting bears witness to countless Tim Horton's spilled on shared road trips. With the hatch flipped up and the seats flopped down, the beater’s cargo hold has played host to dogs and horseback gear, bags of grain, a set of spare tires, assorted building materials and a mountain bike.
My beater may not be pretty, but every scuff, scrape, dent and spill tells a story. That should be enough reason to remember those oil changes. But no, we tend take our beaters for granted– until that sad day when they simply aren't up to their humble, but essential task. Then, we have a decision to make. Unfortunately, despite years of faithful service and unfailing reliability, the scrap yard is usually the final destination. Perhaps one day Barrett-Jackson will tout compacts and K-cars as the new cool and beaters will earn their just reward.