By on May 25, 2012

A 1997 Ford Escort is not exactly a rolling testament to the dreams of auto enthusiasts.

But for $300, it beats the ever loving snot out of a Schwinn.

This LX model was a trade-in from one of my customers. Did I rip them off? No. Not at all. One of the cylinders was dead. The interior was as dirty as Hugh Hefner’s mind, and with 221k miles coupled with a 5-speed, it wasn’t about to go on the front line.

But where should I put it?

Rent: Yes, people like small cars and you can always give a good detail to any dirty car. But 5-speeds? I did offer one, and only one, as a rental back in the day. It was a 1995 or 1996 Geo Prizm. I would only rent it out to older folks and would sit with them for a long test drive around town before letting it be sent out. Just to make sure that they knew what they were doing. It worked out real well. But unless I replaced the engine on this Escort, the rental idea would be a non-starter.

A small car like this would typically rent for $20 a day or $105 for a week. Miles don’t matter. Fuel economy certainly does in a semi-rural Southern town where folks have more distance to drive than money in their pocket. So it is possible to make this a rental. Except for one thing.

Lease: A good engine for these things is about as tough to find as a popular American car in South Korea. An inordinate number of these Escorts end up having engine problems between the 120k to 150k mark. Why?

YouTube Preview Image

The Escort has an unusually high compression ratio  for an economy car. A low tolerance for bad gas, and an engine diagnostic system which is pretty much the worst I’ve seen in OBDII history. In short, these engines don’t last unless you put at least 89 octane in them and ‘listen’ for issues. This particular one had no check engine light blinking even though cylinder one is now more defunct than an old parrot in a Monty Python sketch.

Lease? $500 down and $50 a week once the repairs are done. But only if I could find a good engine with a prancing unicorn next to it.

Sell: Perhaps, but to who?

There are three types of prospective beater buyers. The ‘cheap keeper’. The ‘cheap flipper’ who would try to nickel you down even if you were selling the car for fifty cents. And the ‘cheap old guy’ who really isn’t in the market for a car at all. But wants to call you up anyway and share stories about his once great ride.

The cheap keeper will sometimes have what I call Craigslist issues. For example, the title of your ad can read.

1 OWNER 1997 FORD ESCORT – 5-SPEED – COLD AIR – RUNS BUT NEEDS ENGINE WORK

And the top three questions you will likely get are…

1) Is it a stick?

2) How many owners?

3) Does it need repairs?

if you live in a major city you will also get…

4) Can it pass emissions?

This is where it pays to know someone who already has a good use for this type of vehicle. In my case, I have a friend who owns one of the largest junkyards in the state. Since all the doors and interior components are in good shape, he will likely get a decent return out of it. I also know a few mechanics who are always looking for a cheap ride for the wife, ex-wife, daughter, son, or the friends they play poker with on Friday nights.

I can sell it quick for $450.

Keep:  How cheap am I? Not at all these days. I used to always drive the most fuel efficient car on the lot or the ‘wore out mop’ that I bought for a low price. These days the small things start to get to me pretty quick. My commute may only be all of 5 minutes when I’m not heading to the auctions or other dealerships to load up on cars. But I have found that driving a car that encourages conversation can offer returns far greater than a wore out beater. The 1st Gen Insight will stay due to it’s popularity. This Escort needs to be gone.

So should I fix and rent it? Pray for unicorns and lease it to a stick smart buyer?  Sell it to the more gritty elements of automotive commerce? Or keep it as a rolling version of chick repellent?

What says you?

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58 Comments on “Beater Edition: Rent, Lease, Sell or Keep...”


  • avatar
    Educator(of teachers)Dan

    Sell it. Mechanics special.

  • avatar
    brokeguy

    Sell! Sell! Sell! If it wasn’t a stick i’d buy it for my kid.

    • 0 avatar
      Thinkin...

      All the more reason to buy it for your kid! Perhaps it’s generational, but both my wife and I learned how to drive with manual cars. The idea was “If you want to learn how to drive, you’re going to learn how to DRIVE, not how to just point something at magically varying speeds.”

      Needless to say, it genuinely killed us to give up the clutch pedal last year, for the first time in a couple decades.

    • 0 avatar
      vlangs

      food for thought. Back when I was in high school (a decade ago) A girl who could drive a stick was a very attractive prospect.

      I don’t know if it still rings supreme, but every girls I’ve ever dated up to today can drive a stick.

      I don’t know that that means for you, just throwing it out there

  • avatar
    Zackman

    221,000 miles and the engines don’t last? Huh? Are you kidding? This is a Sherman tank of a vehicle, although one I wouldn’t ever buy, but that’s impressive, and a Corolla has nothing on this bad boy.

    Still, with the engine shot, it probably make no sense to put in another motor, unless you can find one cheap and everything else works. If that’s the case, rent it to the right person who won’t tear it up, or sell it outright for a good price, or, if it isn’t worth replacing the motor, as Educator Dan says – “mechanic’s special”. Makes perfect sense.

    • 0 avatar
      Steven Lang

      2nd Engine… maybe 3rd…

    • 0 avatar
      icemilkcoffee

      The Escort engines are prone to head gasket failures. These engines are junk.

      • 0 avatar
        Russycle

        Purely anecdotal, but I had a friend do a compression check on mine at 208,000 miles and all four cylinders were at the top of the spec. The intake manifold gasket did start leaking at 200k, Ford claimed replacing it was an 8 hour job, my buddy did it in an hour.

        As I recall these came with a 1.9 liter mill, which mine had, or a 1.8 liter “hi-performance” motor. Are you sure that wasn’t the hi-compression motor that had the bad rep?

      • 0 avatar
        wagonsonly

        @Russycle – The ’91-’96 Escorts gave you the option between the 1.9 and the (Mazda-sourced and top-spec only) 1.8. ’97 through 2002 had the 2.0L mill in Steve’s example.

  • avatar
    RSF

    For just a couple hundred bucks it’s not worth the effort to even try to figure it out. Junkyard bound

  • avatar

    I’d say realistically it is scrapyard bound. Likely not too many people glamoring to fix up an Escort of this vintage. I owned the wagon version of this in 5spd – still wasn’t remotely sporty.

  • avatar
    ciddyguy

    While not sporty, these were decent enough looking, though I’d not say it’s overly stylish, especially in the sedan.

    That said, in this condition, do as Educator Dan says, sell it as a mechanics special or simply scrap it – especially if as you say, finding a good motor for it is difficult due to their issues, it may be best to just drive it to the scrap heap.

    That said, if I lived near you, was poor, needed wheels, was not caring if a sedan or not, but CAN drive a stick, and can find a source to fix the motor if sold as is, I’d consider it.

    But I not any of those so…

  • avatar
    rmwill

    These engines are common at the Junkyards around Detroit. If it were local, I would buy a cheap junkyard motor and spend a few hours on the swap. Detailed, the car would go for about 1500. The used car market is insane.

  • avatar
    DDayJ

    This one might be better classified in the Smash, Part, Crush, or Race series.

  • avatar

    i see a LeMONS racer in the making… sell it.

  • avatar
    NN

    put a Craigslist ad up in Spanish, somebody will buy it and export to Latin America. One missing cylinder is no big deal down there.

  • avatar
    MrWhopee

    These things really belongs in the junkyard. Though if one can get money out of it, why throw it away? Maybe foist it to your least favorite customers.

  • avatar
    nikita

    Out here you would get it to flunk smog and junk it with a nice “clunker” bonus from the state, after stripping salable body parts. Where you are, just junk it.

  • avatar
    NormSV650

    What duration would it be rented out for? A day or two, weeks?

    Not ready for the junk yard. Not dead yet.

    • 0 avatar
      Steven Lang

      By the week…

    • 0 avatar
      Educator(of teachers)Dan

      Not dead yet…

      The Dead Collector: That’ll be ninepence.
      The Dead Body That Claims It Isn’t: I’m not dead.
      The Dead Collector: What?
      Large Man with Dead Body: Nothing. There’s your ninepence.
      The Dead Body That Claims It Isn’t: I’m not dead.
      The Dead Collector: ‘Ere, he says he’s not dead.
      Large Man with Dead Body: Yes he is.
      The Dead Body That Claims It Isn’t: I’m not.
      The Dead Collector: He isn’t.
      Large Man with Dead Body: Well, he will be soon, he’s very ill.
      The Dead Body That Claims It Isn’t: I’m getting better

  • avatar
    jaydez

    Ever though to donate it to a local high school shop class and take the tax deduction for the book value of the car?

    • 0 avatar
      krhodes1

      You can’t do that anymore, the IRS changed the rules. You only get a deduction for what the donated car SELLS for, not book value.

      Sell it for whatever you can get for it, probably scrap value. I assume you made all kinds of money on whatever it was traded in on?

      • 0 avatar
        namesakeone

        Not quite true. The deduction depends upon what the charity does with the car. If the charity sells the car, then krhodes1 is correct, the deductionis based on what the car sells for. But if the charity uses the car for something–a church using a van to transport people around town, a collectible megabuck exotic or antique put in the permanent collection of a museum–then the tax deduction is based on the fair market value.

        That said, the FMV of a 15-year-old Escort–bad engine or not–isn’t likely to be much either way. You would have to do some real convincing to an IRS auditor to allow more than about $500-1000.

  • avatar
    Yoss

    Dang, so you’re saying I’m on borrowed time in my ’99 with 150K then? It’s also a 5-speed. I’m still holding out hope that it’ll see 200K. Well…. sort of.

    I bought it during college and have been driving it for 11 trouble-free years. I’d very much rather be driving something else, but it just keeps ticking along so I figure I’ll let it live out its natural life.

  • avatar
    Felix Hoenikker

    Drive it into the country side, pull over to the side of the road, and shoot it through the radiator.

  • avatar
    DIYer

    Sell it to someone you don’t know, and hope you never see them again. About 15 years ago my boss sold a an ’86 Dodge Aries wagon in relatively good shape to someone in the office, and when the gas tank developed a slight leak 2 weeks later, wanted the boss to pay to have the leak fixed.

  • avatar
    Joshua Johnson

    Ah the good old Escort. My Mom’s 99 gave up the ghost a few months back with 167k on the original engine and 2nd transmission. It started making some out of the ordinary noises towards the end of its life, but she never looked into it and sure enough one of the cylinders seized up causing a whole host of problems that made the car inoperable. However, having survived that long while also having served as training wheels for my 2 brothers and myself, 167k is pretty good.

    I have many fond memories of taking that car at speed through sharp turns in the snow, all thanks to the all magical e-brake. I was very sad when my Dad told the mechanic to disconnect it. It was also due to this car that I learned the benefits RWD – one is not nearly as prone to breaking tie rod ends with any regularity.

    My Mom got $300 for an inoperable car, but if Steve’s example is also on its last legs where it could die at any moment, than the $300 he paid is fairly reasonable.

  • avatar
    harrycase2000

    I would expect engines for this car would be hard to come by. I needed an engine for my daughter’s 94 v6 Rodeo cause she loved the car but let the oil run low. I looked for six months at almost 40 different Rodeo’s in north georgia yards, many in better condition
    than my daughter’s except for the engine. Had to scrap it out, wish I had saved the Michelins but didn’t have a vehicle to put them on and no desire for the hassle to sell them used.
    Body parts for 15 year old non collectible cars aren’t very valuable – all the vehicles that could use them will soon be all gone

  • avatar
    wstarvingteacher

    Hate to give up on something with a stick, however, to me it’s worth about $8/100 lbs.

  • avatar

    Engines not common? Unreliable? I’ve got a 98 escort LX 4 door (with hub caps and air, though) and a five speed with 241,000 miles (one owner) that has had a clutch put in and that’s it. I’ve got a sort of ‘back up’ engine on call at my local wrecking yard with 45,000 miles on it for $200, valve cover to oil pan complete.

    Seriously, this is a flippers dream, $1200-1500 with a set of hub caps and a deep cleaning all day.

  • avatar
    Flybrian

    Park it alongside my teal ’97 I just took in trade that’s an automatic, but has no headliner and smells like vomit.

  • avatar
    Sinistermisterman

    Sell it as is, or kill it. It’s not worth the time, effort or aggravation to do anything else with it. Even if the engine is toast, at that mileage, it’s just one of many things that could go wrong very soon.

  • avatar
    icemilkcoffee

    Don’t listen to all the people who say ‘oh just put a junkyard engine in and you’re good to go.’

    You wish. Anytime you do something like this you end up spending $400-$500 at least on all the little odds and ends like all the tune-up parts, timing belt, hoses, clutch, gaskets, seals, and this and that knick-knack.

    Also- you don’t know that the engine is the only thing wrong in this car. I bet you a car like this would have a whole host of other little issues. Forget it- too much work for too little return. These are throwaway cars. Throw it away.

    • 0 avatar
      Russycle

      Valid point. At 200K miles, mine was getting pretty loosey-goosey in the front end. Didn’t like to take it much past 60 mph at that point, and fixing it would have cost more than the car was worth.

  • avatar
    azmtbkr81

    Surprisingly the interior and exterior seem to be in great shape for a car with such high mileage, $1500 doesn’t seem unreasonable at all with an engine firing on all cylinders. I’m sure you must know a few resourceful mechanics who would be up for making a little money on the side. Make a deal, he fixes the engine and you split the profits.

  • avatar
    nickoo

    See what you could get for scrap or throw it on craigslist.

  • avatar
    "scarey"

    Sell it to rmwill.

  • avatar
    Acd

    Keep it and park it out back so in case Bertel, Jack, Derek or Ed ever visit Atlanta they’ll have something to drive during their stay.

  • avatar
    Crosley

    Almost bought one of these new, but from my memory, a loaded Ford Contour with a V6 was the same price (maybe even cheaper), so I went with that. Around $12k, I thought it was a smoking deal.

    I’m amazed though you get $20 a day for a beat up, 15 year old Ford Escort with over 200k miles. Why on Earth would someone not simply pay a few dollars more to have a nearly new car from Enterprise or Hertz?

    More power to you though, and I love this column.

    • 0 avatar
      krhodes1

      Steve said it is $105 a week. That will not cover the ancilliary fees and taxes from a regular rental agency, and I suspect that Steve does most of his rentals in cash, which is not a practical option with rental agencies.

      For my business rentals for work, I figure $100/day with damage waiver but not liability insurance (my employer has an umbrella policy for that) to rent from Hertz at airport locations. Sometimes a little less for a full week, but sometimes a lot higher too in some locations. And there is very little in it between a small car and a full-size, usually less than $10/day. Often the small cars are MORE expensive.

      Out of curiousity, Steve, how do you handle insurance on your rental fleet? Is that included? Renter required to show proof of thier own policy?

      • 0 avatar
        Crosley

        I think the last business trip I was on a few months ago I rented a brand new Nissan Versa for right around $30 a day.

        Great if he can get $20 a day for a short term rental, but I know I’d find a way to cough up the extra $10. Also, unless it’s under the table and off the books, he has to pay the same ridiculous taxes other rental agencies do.

      • 0 avatar
        Steven Lang

        It’s plus tax… the renters are required to either have full insurance coverage or to pick up the insurance we provide. The $105 is a long-term, week long rental rate for a base vehicle which does NOT include taxes and fees.

        I am an hour away from the airport so the volume and rental frequency is a bit different out here.

    • 0 avatar
      DenverMike

      Steve’s renters probably lack credit cards or they’re maxxed. They may also lack they’re own insurance. In that scenario, $20 a day isn’t too much to ask. Rent a pressure washer or rototiller and you’ll spend as much.

  • avatar
    Russycle

    Oh dear. Looks like I was lucky. The answer to your question of why do these engines die around 120K? Valve seats:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ford_CVH_engine#2.0

  • avatar
    DenverMike

    Keep it as a parts car. Buy its (good running) twin and whatever parts it needs, bam. Keep that car as a rental just for your spare parts inventory. Don’t fleets of taxis stay with mostly one model for that reason?

  • avatar
    namesakeone

    I take it the engine is even worse than you describe it, because the video is not of the same car.

  • avatar
    chicagoland

    Sell it to bone-yard, these Scorts are starting to die off here in salty road-land, and parts are needed.

    I had a 2000 Scort for 3 years [50-90k miles] and after 85k, it seemed to get more rattly. I put in seats from a ZX2 though for fun. I sold it before used car prices went up in 2010, buyer got it for a bargain.

  • avatar
    Thabo

    You can really rent out beat up cars like this for $20 a day? I’d be worried about the clientele, but I guess if you can run the numbers and make it work then why not do it. I’d be worried about no airbags and all of that but as my mom say’s don’t be so bloody scared, we drove around in our youth with jack shye so why worry now. She just bought a new car WITHOUT an airbag!

    My buddy has one of these, he was given it and he had to weld the subframe or summin crazy like that because it was cracked. He loves to brag about how he get 1000mgp and how you don’t really need a subaru or AWD in the snow here in Colorado or snow tires. Needless to day, I almost never drive with him and the times I have done its been quite an experience. Sure you can get around town in the white stuff when you’re driving 10mph as well as the mountains most of the time but I feel like I’m going backwards when I’m in his car and there is snow on the ground. There is one spot near the Moffatt tunnel where he always gets stuck and i’m must waiting for this POS to roll back onto the railroad line that is right below it and for this little car to get mushed. Hopefully he or myself won’t be in it.

    But he swears by this car and it’s not like he couldn’t buy a real car, he owns a house here in Boulder, CO.

    • 0 avatar
      Boxer2500

      No airbags? It is a 1997 model, not 1987.

      All passenger cars in the US were required to have dual front airbags as of the 1995 model year. They might be the overpowered, first generation “Decapitation Specials” however.

      • 0 avatar
        Thabo

        Yes, this was not in the US but in South Africa where they actually assemble BMW’s, Mercs and lot’s of other cars for the RHD market so not as low tech as you think. She got one of these about 4 years ago: http://www.hyundai.co.za/index.cfm?event=Atos and I don’t believe it has airbags or ABS although the photo of the steering wheels looks like it has SRS or summon on it for the current model.


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