By on July 28, 2006

mazda323.jpgYou’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.

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51 Comments on “In Praise of Beaters...”

  • avatar

    Now here’s a topic near and dear to my heart. Oh, the beaters I’ve known. Like the ’89 K-car that got me through grad school and my first six months in the real world until a heat shield fell off the underbody and landed on top of the exhaust. Every time I hit a bump after that, it sounded like silverware falling on a cookie sheet. Then the idle speed motor went berserk and started idling the car at 2500 RPM . . . not much fun in an ice storm.

    Or the ’89 Escort, refrigerator white, purchased for $600 and run into the ground by racking up 550 miles every other weekend for a year while I was dating the woman who would become my wife. Never changed the oil in that thing, and it still ran after all that.

    Or the ’74 Gran Torino I bought for $200 from the back end of a trailer park. The less said about that, the better.

    New cars are wonderful and I can’t wait for my next one. But whenever I go to a car lot, I always start looking in the back row. I love beaters.

  • avatar

    I’ve only ever owned one new car in my life. The rest have been some glorious beaters. I love beaters, the are the quintessential manifestation of mobility. I guess it’s why I can’t stay away from them.

    Some of the worst offenders to others are the greatest cars to me. One of my favorites were the Yugos I owned back in the ’90’s. They were pocket change cheap, hardly used any fuel, and as long as you didn’t leave toll fare on the passenger front seat, no one would bother them in parking decks. (Hell, people usually ran away from them…) Come back in the evening, fire the little tiny motor up and be on my merry way.

    To paraphrase: Find ’em, Beat ’em, & Forget ’em…

  • avatar


    As a rule of thumb, there should be ONE(!) car review on the front page among all these great topics w/o having to scroll to the next page down. As much as I enjoy the truth and the daily topics there are enough new cars coming out to test drive on a weekly/monthly bases from all around the globe to integrate one every so often.
    Do not get me wrong, I love the format, my recent and numerous posts attest to that. I like read the daily quotes, reminesc and share my experience/opinions with all of you.

    But I am also a sucker for a good, objective car review Ain’t THAT the truth!!

  • avatar

    Great article! I think about this topic a bunch as I putter around in my Hyundai Accent. Sure, I bought it new, but I think it qualifies as a beater anyways. 50k miles in 2 years, no problems, and no complaints about being parked outside in the heat/cold/snow. I should still be driving it when it reaches true beater status.

    The beautiful thing about a good beater is that they allow an enthusiast to have the passion vehicles (in my case a motorcycle and an Austin Healey) and still get to work and haul the mountain bike around. And I have still spent less on all three together than most folks spend for one new car.

  • avatar

    Yes, great topic….and something we can’t argue over. Although it is early. My truck was supposed to be my ‘rebuilt from the ground up’ project… but with gas, leech on the way (read: baby), and remodelling our old house, it has turned into a beater here and there, and lawn ornament the rest of the week. Since my wife and I own a small business, we just ride together in her honda. I guess this is my first ‘beater’.

  • avatar

    The car that got me through grad school was an ’89 Geo Metro. The little beast, which I named Skippy, was three cylinders and all heart. Cost me $300. Even though I was the third owner and the thing had been rolled at least once, it STILL got about 70 mpg. If it hadn’t been such a piece, I’d gladly be driving it today. What I wouldn’t give for 70 mpg now.

  • avatar
    Martin Albright

    The best beater I ever owned was an 84 Mazda B2000 pickup. It had a 2l carbureted engine and the cheesy, 80’s graphics on the side were already peeling off. Music, if you could hear it over the sound of the wind, came from an AM radio (when was the last time you saw an AM-only radio in a car?) It was so slow that going up Mt. Vernon Canyon (West of Denver) I had to be in 2nd gear and was getting passed – no kidding! – by Volkswagen Buses! It was painted a dull silver and since it would never be mistaken for a “bullet”, I christened it “The Silver Slug.”

    But I had that truck for 2 years while I was stationed at Fort Lewis, Washington, and in that time I drove it all over Washington, Oregon, and even down to California. No power steering, no AC, and no extended cab. But that truck would go nearly 400 miles on its tiny 11.5 gallon gas tank and never failed me once. Sure, I had to replace the front wheel bearings every 6 months in Washington’s excessively rainy winter climate, but other than that and a muffler, I never put any repair money into it. Hell, I never even bought tires for it, it still had the originals at 80,000+ miles!

    Bottom line, it was exactly what I needed (cheap, reliable, useful transportation) exactly when I needed it.

    It’s really a shame you can’t seem to find small, economical trucks like that anymore. Nowadays it seems they all have power windows and V-6 motors and can barely break 20mpg (my Mazda once got 37mpg on a long trip to California.)

  • avatar

    Just wanted to add the virtues of the Urban Beater: You don’t mind when other people do the beating!
    No driveways or garages out here in the urban jungle. Only street side parking. Almost every morning I find some ape added a new scratch or dent to my ’93 Saturn. Do I care? Yeah, but I sigh instead of curse and reach for the wallet for repairs.

    One more Urban Beater advantage: The person driving a beater has leverage when driving in traffic. When the beater driver merges in front of a shiny BMW or Lexus, which driver backs off first? The driver of the lux has more to lose in case of a fender bender. The beater driver already has a few dents and another one has as a good a chance of making the car look better than worse…
    Whether it’s in a merging situation or blatantly cutting some one off (which I don’t condone), the beater driver can be more brazen!

  • avatar

    My favorite was my 80 something Ford Festiva. 4-speed, no overdrive or fuel injection, “roll down” A/C and oil in the anti-freeze. Built long before Kias became re-badged Hyundais. A cinder block has more curves. The 12 inch rims sported the tires that are always advertised as the cheapest in the newspaper ads. I thought the gas gauge was broken, but I later realized that it didn’t use gas.

    Since then, I’ve had more modern beaters. My air conditioned DOHC 94 Nissan Sentra proudly sits in my driveway. The best way to sum up my relationship with my Festiva is like having a girl that you are kind of embarrassed to be seen with, but enjoy making love to.

  • avatar

    In 2001 I purchased a 1991 – VW GTI. Over the next four years I enjoyed experiencing the entire vehicle collapsing around the drivetrain.

    Outside driver and passenger door handles broken
    Driver side window wouldn’t roll down
    Sunroof Broken
    Front bumper cover poped off at will
    Front bumper eventually secured with electrical tape (that did fix it)
    Huge plume of smoke everytime it started
    Fix-a-flated the rear tire 5+ times…

    It just wouldn’t give up the ghost. Finally sold it to the local packrat for $200, and it was still running.

    It never left me stranded though…

  • avatar

    I owned a ’72 Gran Torino in college. It had an electrical short some where and the battery would go dead after it was parked for a couple of hours. When ever I parked I would pop the hood and unattach the battery cables.

    Great car though, you could fit 4 people accross on that wide back seat.

  • avatar

    After leaving the military, I could just about afford to keep my then three year old Plymouth Volare’ – remember those? – but then mom-in-law came to visit and another woman totalled my car while mom was driving – not her fault. But now what? After the Volare’ was paid off, we had $200 to our name. We could not afford a decent car and I hadn’t been at work in my current job long enough to get a car loan (I didn’t even try).

    Cash for a clunker, or nothing. Well, it was 1980 and so small cars (even beaters) were going for big bucks (gas was about twice as expensive as now on a real basis, taking inflation into account).

    I found a 1971 Cadillac DeVille in PEE green, with 472 cube V8 which got about 11 miles per gallon, and that was our everything car. I commuted to work, we did shopping, everything. What a total POS, but the only time it scared me was when it suddently would not shift.

    I thought we were totally screwed. So I called a transmission shop and explained, said – hey, I’m just out of the Air Force, this is what happened, this car is all I’ve got – help. He said – look for a vacuum line on the back of the carburetor, it must have fallen off. Put it back, it’ll run. Phew. He was right.

    Had to trade it for a 1967 Chrysler Newport (another clunker) because the tires finally wore out on the Cad, and new tires were the $500 difference between the Chrysler and the $200 I was given on trade for the Caddy.

    At least the Chrysler got 15-18 miles per gallon.

  • avatar

    94 Nissan Sentra LE
    169k and going strong.

    I love it. It is my first and only car. I have spent more on maintenance than on purchasing the car.

    1. front suspension
    2. muffler
    3. tires
    4. lamps
    5. brakes
    6. battery

    So basically i have changed everything except the engine and the transmission.

    It is a blast to drive and has never left me stranded.

  • avatar

    My first car was a ’78 VW bus, with the classic ignition-switch jury rig. Had to push-start it a number of times, but luckily, those things are light!

    Most recently I was driving a 97 GTI, and I sensed the car was on the verge of beaterhood. Now, though, beaterhood for a VW means money pit, so I dumped the thing.

  • avatar

    For a VERY long time, many of the cars I have owned would have been described as beaters, even though they were actually pretty good cars for my needs. I tend to run cars until they won’t, or close to it, so even most of the few new cars have ultimately turned into beaters.

    Which poses the question, what makes a beater, a beater? A lot of people would have called a somewhat modified 1970 VW Beetle I had in college a beater–it looked like one–but it was solid and I won or placed in the top 3 in many an autocross with that little beast. Was it a beater? Not to me.

    Is a beater in the eye of the beholder?

  • avatar

    The best beater I ever had was an ’88 Dodge Lancer five door hatch. An anal retentive assistant registrar had loved it well for 98,000 miles when he sold it to me for a thousand dollars (I had to outbid the mechanic who had maintained it over the years). My wife and I came to calling it the Stealthmobile. If you were going to rob a bank and needed a car that noone would remember, you couldn’t do better than our leprosy white K car.
    We hauled wood and furniture and fertilizer in the Stealth, and, when it needed new brake lines, we donated it to the kidney foundation.

  • avatar

    Ahhh…what a topic.

    In college (circa 2000) my roommates and I split a $250 1983 Chevette 3 ways ($85 a piece) to have something to tool around and beat up on. We found it as it should be…at a trailer park on the VA/TN border with weeds grown up all around it. It was a real beaut–no wheel covers, windows were permanently rolled down (stuck in doors and off track), passenger seat’s front hinges were rusted off so it had a reclining effect that would quickly turn into a catapult through the windshield if we ever got in an accident. The three speed auto was as smooth as a cinder block to the forehead. It leaked every fluid and needed a top off before each drive. We didn’t like the paint job (white latex paint, done with a paint brush by the three-fingered chain smoking redneck who sold it to us), so we covered every square inch in duct tape, and we instantly became famous on our college campus. We drove the hell out of it…when it snowed (and we had to drive with three layers of clothes on due to the permanently down windows), we would “sled” down the same hills and mountains as the people on real sleighs, snowboards, etc–in a shitty Chevette while we wore racing helmets. Brakes went out while driving it at least 10 times, which led to a couple slight single-car wrecks and a whole bunch of exciting times. We drove it for two years, totally illegal for the first year, so we parked in front of our dorm and collected as many illegal parking tickets as we wanted, then just brushed them off and went for a drive. Then my buddy decided to legalize it, so we had to bribe an inspector $100 to put a sticker on it.

    That same buddy took it on a 300 mile jaunt through the Virginia countryside one day without oil in it. That was the last day of the car. So we threw a party, smashed it all to hell, and flipped it over in our front yard in a sea of littered beer cans.

    our landlord wasn’t happy. But I’m pretty sure that was near the pinnacle of my existence on this planet.

  • avatar
    C. Alan

    My favorite beater has to have been my ’86 toyota 4runner. I called it the ‘blue bomber’. It had a terrible paint job, and a salvage title. I bought it for a song, and the truck sang along too, mainly due to the fact that the rear end was going out.

    Lucky for me I had a good mechanic. He rebuilt the rear end, and a year later when it would not pass smog, he did an engine swap for me. I image some where out there on the roads of California, that old 4runner is still going strong.

  • avatar

    Well kids, those mentioned so far in this comments section are gussied up and downright respectable compared to my first beater:
    1977 Chev Monza ($450 with a full tank)….complete with two tone paint job ala Starsky and Hutch AND (yep, that’s not all) a flat red primer paint job on the hood and front and. The chics were powerless against it. This car was nicknamed “Manfred” in spite of all beater Geneva Conventions. Conversations could not be held at speeds in excess of 30mph due to the four speed and rapidly deteriorating exhaust. This unique whip also was quite fond of motor oil to the tune of about a quart per fuel fill. Closing the heavy doors was an olympic event due to the severe misalignment and sheer weight of them. The HVAC system was possessed by demons. I could go on and on, but just so you dont miss the point; If Randall “Tex” Cobb took on the form of a car, this was it.

    That was the kind of determination in a car that makes you believe that welding the doors shut and painting a flag on the roof just might actually allow you to perform “yeehah” jumps over large bodies of water. Well…maybe.

  • avatar

    My first car was a ’72 Chevelle that I bought in ’87 for $450. I think it got about 8 miles to the gallon (it was hard to tell — the odometer read differently going uphill or downhill so I was never sure), there was no upholstery on the front seat (easily remedied with a $50 cover) and it needed a suspension badly. It always ran, though, and had a terrific V8 burble which didn’t make for the stealthiest way to sneak home at 2am.

    I now own two beaters. I ’94 Suzuki Sidekick that I bought in ’95. It too needs a suspension job, but other than that has been absolutely reliable. It has a slashed top from the asshat that stole my radio a couple years ago, and a jimmied lock (see below).

    My other “beater” is a 2003 Forester. Why a beater you ask? Well shortly after we bought it was stolen from our underground parking garage and smashed into a tree. The insurance company elected to spend over $16,000 repairing the vehicle instead of writing it off. So I now have a near-worthless car, on which I am brutally upside down on the financing. (I keep kicking myself that I didn’t take a sledgehammer to the impound lot and dent every single body panel on the car.) Needless to say, I’ll be keeping the Scubie for a long time.

    Ironically enough, the car was stolen just two days after my stereo was stolen from the ‘kick. To add insult to injury, the thieves that stole my Subaru jimmied the lock on my Sidekick. You’d think they’d have noticed the big gaping hole in the dash where my stereo used to be and spared me. Failing that, could they not have at least noticed that the top was already slashed?

    The same thieves also stole a Miata from the parking lot, and burgled at least 8 other cars. There was obviously more than one of the bastards.

  • avatar
    Martin Albright


    If you really want to do us all a public service, let us know where you live so we can be sure not to move there.

  • avatar

    I’m pretty easy-going about cars. If it starts and runs, I’m generally OK with it.

    That’s why, close to 4 years ago, I bought a ’94 Kia Aspire (in spite of the Ford badge on the front, I call it a Kia because I refuse to admit I’m driving a Ford and it actually does say Kia on the door plate).

    It’s a real piece… Dented all over when I bought it, generally looking heavily abused. No air conditioning, of course, and it’s doubtful the car could move and run an a/c compressor at the same time. The shifter’s so loose, I’m not entirely sure that it is actually attached to anything, I might be changing gears by telekinesis. The oil turns black in 1000 miles – but doesn’t leak out.

    However, it starts right up in Minnesota winters and, in spite of the clutch and brakes I put on it, has cost me less than $30/month to own (gas additional). I figure every mile on it saves a few cents depreciation on one of our other cars.

    But it’s small, lightweight, has a stick and is actually much more fun to drive than, say, our minivan.

    However, the needs of the many, as Mr. Spock once said, outweigh the needs of the few. Our children now drive and have terrifically expensive insurance premiums. We can’t afford to insure them driving one of the newer cars, so it was with some reluctance that I recently bought myself a 6-year-old 5-speed Rav4 in excellent condition and tearfully handed the keys to the Kia over to the child with the highest premiums.

    Yes, I’m stuck driving the Rav while my child gets to enjoy the Kia but, really, it’s better for the family this way.

  • avatar
    Infamous Dr. X

    NN – that was the most uplifiting car story I’ve ever heard. Thanks for sharing. And thank you Lesley, for starting it off with this article!

    My favorite beater was the Iron Maiden: a 1981 poop-brown Dodge Ram cargo van with zero frills, an AM radio, four-on-the-floor and a stubborn refusal to die. God bless that thing…got me through high school, college, and then some.

    Nothing against ubercoupes and streak-of-lighting euro sports sedans, but it’s nice, once in awhile, to recognize the POS’s in our driveways that get us from point a to point b, and say, hey – this Bud’s for you.

  • avatar
    Sajeev Mehta

    Great article on an often forgotten topic. My beater is so beat it’s now one dead battery away from the junkyard. Course, since this is Texas (what’s a “winter beater”?) I’m readying for a restoration when the time comes, much to the dismay of my bank account.

    All hail the beaters. :-)

  • avatar

    This is, by far, the most amazing thread I’ve ever followed on TTAC, and maybe on-line, period.

  • avatar
    long time listener

    Great topic. I think all I’ve ever had were beaters:

    1970 Chevelle bought for $600, died in crash when hit by a drunk driver. My first car, that was a sad day.
    1978 Olds Cutlass with v8 and 4 speed manual ($900, sweet fun spinning the tires in that thing)
    1970 Impala coupe; loved that car! front and back seats both as big as couches, could put just about all my college friends in it at once, and 10 or 15 golf bags in the trunk.
    1984 Mercury Marquis, most luxurious car owned up to that point. About the only one with working AC (and this is in Georgia.)
    1992 Civic, my wife bought it new, and now I drive it. Broken AC, driver window doesn’t roll down, dash lights don’t work, but it gets good mileage and gets me where I’m going. Plus I can fold the backseat down and carry 8 foot 2x4s with the trunk closed (honest, I did it yesterday!)

    Next car I buy will be new, and hope to God I am done with beaters, but they have carried me this far. For that I am grateful.

  • avatar
    Lesley Wimbush

    Thanks guys, it’s a topic very near and dear to my heart too. Unfortunately… the 323 in the illustration has, shall we say, passed from my hands.
    I bet some of you can relate to this: in need of another beater, I chanced upon a 96 MX-3 GS, in good shape. Needed a motor mount, water pump and brakes and the price was great. Kind of pretty too with the added bonus of having next to no rust.
    Perfect – I had my beater and it was actually one that I didn’t need a paper bag and dark glasses to be seen in. Unfortunately… I took it in a couple of autox and a lapping day at Mosport. I say unfortunately… because it was a blast. So now, you guessed it, I’m going to park it over winter and hunt for another 323. Sigh.

  • avatar

    One of my first cars was a ’69 Impala that my parents bought from the little old lady down the street. It had 3 on the tree, which would always freak people out the first time they rode with me. I had a girlfriend in college who refused to ride in it. At the time I hated it, but I think I might enjoy driving it now for those “What the hell!” moments when you want to do something stupid like drive through a corn field.

  • avatar

    My first car was also the car that is responsible for me being able to fix most anything that goes wrong on a car. It was a 1959 Studebaker Lark. For those of you who think that this was a “classic”, remember that the first part of “classic” is “class”. This thing was a 3800 lb. four door monster with a flat-head six (65hp) and three on the tree. It didn’t even have a radio until I installed one from a trade I made with a junkyard. (My VW beetle for $50.00 and an AM-FM radio.) The car was so heavy that I usually had to recruit at least two other people to push-start it when it needed it, which was frequently. Once, it got away from us and I had to chase it down the road for about a quarter-mile. It picked up speed pretty quickly because of its bulk. My father bought it new in 1959, and drove it for about 50K miles,then put it in the barn. When I reached the age of 16, I needed a car, and hey, there’s a car in the barn! We had the engine rebuilt, and had new upholstery put in. It was black on the outside, with gold, slick vinyl on the seats. A/C? Are you kidding? It could barely pull itself around- top speed of 82 mph on a good day. I put in two clutches, numerous transmissions (finally had to sell when I used up all the junk trannys around here), and too many to count head gaskets, as well as two cylinder heads, a radiator, and a voltage regulator. (Yes, they were separate items in those days) Did it serve me well, even as a beater? H*** NO! My wife has said that she would have refused to go out with me if I had still had that POS when we first started dating. Fortunately, my Dad had traded it for a new Chevy before I met her! The worst thing, however, was that after I slung a rod in that engine in the Stude, I was offered a ’57 two-door post Bel-Air for the bill against it (about $485.00) from the local gearhead engine and tranny rebuilder. My Dad took one look at the Chevy’s Hurst shifter, and said: “No! I’m not buying you no hot rod!” Think of the possibilities. This was in approximately 1970- ’57’s weren’t as pricey as they are now, but they were worth something, even then! But, that old Stude taught me a lot about building cars, and the fact that it ain’t all in the perception of the vehicle new, it’s more in the ease of service and repair that really counts in the automotive world.

  • avatar
    Infamous Dr. X

    Great stories.

    The best part of the beater is getting the poor thing inspected. I remember, every october taking the ol’ van down to Billy, our family mechanic. Didn’t matter how bad it was, what the problems were – $300, and we passed inspection. No questions asked, no information volunteered. Never failed. One year, I didn’t have time to go to Billy, and took it to the local gas station to get a sticker. The guy didn’t even hook it up to the machine before telling me I totally failed, and asked me if I’d driven it there or had it towed in. So…off to Billy’s with three benjamins.

    We finally bade the van farewell when Billy told me, almost with a tear in his eye, that the car was no longer worth the $300 he’d need to get it past inspection. After two transmissions, a few radiators, brake jobs, and countless other tense, open-engine surgeries, it was dead. He was as sad as I was…he told me that van alone was the difference between his kid going to state school and a private university.

  • avatar

    What’s an inspection? If it runs, you can drive it on our roads. If it doesn’t, you can push it, or haul it around behind your pickup.

  • avatar

    To me to drive a beater is to spend a certain amount of time where you could derive joy in motoring in something that sucks. I thought about getting a basic car for my daily commute and two days a week I???d have a 350z or something fun to drive. Then I thought to myself I???d have two cars to maintain, two cars to repair and get inspected and two cars to insure and only 30-40% of the time enjoying my drive. Instead I???ll choose to just maintain one and trade it in when I???m bored with it so that all of my time behind the wheel is enjoyable.

  • avatar
    Lesley Wimbush

    Beaters don’t necessarily have to suck!!! Mine last 323 (I’ve owned four) was a riot for TSD rallies – with that wee wheelbase it was nimble as a flea, and I didn’t really care if I hurt it much.
    Honestly, there were times when I’d be driving back-to-back character-less press cars, and I’d crave the honest realism of one of my own vehicles. Really!

  • avatar

    Beaters in my youth and now on a variation of the beater for old age. Had the usual variety of beaters both pre and post divorce, in no particular order: 65 Beetle, 78 Olds, 66 Mercury Park Lane (never should of sold) 76 Dodge Dart slant 6 given up in divorce, Mazada RX-4 wagon with the larger rotary mill ( kept winding up above 7000rpm, brakes could not handle the car, after 2nd brake fire sold the car), Volvo 244 wagon used while putting the 2 kids through college.

    Went to new cars for three purchases, then woke up, the expense doesn’t make sense.

    Now on retired guy’s beater theory..Shop on line every week, stop and look at for sale signs in driveways. 1984 Cadillac 4 yrs, 1994 cadillac 4 years, 1995 Lincoln Town Car 6 months and currently driving. Buy from anyone after my mechanic looks at it, pay cash, never more than 5K, take six months to replace battery, alternator, water pump, fuel pump, and brakes, one job at a time. Drive 4 years, start looking again, sell to neighbors after finding another luxo beater. I know that of the past six cars I have sold five are still running, I see the above 84 and 94 Cads every week.

  • avatar

    My first car was my best car ever: 1985 Nissan Sentra. I bought it in 1990 after my first year in college with 40k on the clock. I drove that car into the ground over the next 6 years (all through college and grad school). When I finally sold it to a grad school buddy for $50, it was still running strong. I needed to get rid of it quickly and the junk yard want me to pay them to take it.

    It never failed to start and it never fell apart. I crossed the country in both the north-south (Indiana to Big Bend Texas and back, Indiana to Georgia and back 3 times) and east-west (from Indiana to California and back again) directions and never had a problem.

  • avatar

    My first car was also my favorite car ever … a 1993 Ford Escort GT. It shared a chassis with that 323 you’ve got pictured up there, and was pulled around by a Mazda BP08, a peppy little DOHC 1.8L from the same family of motors as the B6 in your 323. A lotta people hear the word “Escort” and can only picture granny putting along to the grocery store, but they can be seriously underestimated. Not trying to say they’re some sorta sleeper supercars or anything, but my Escort had no problem burning up the Civics and J-bodies and late 80’s Chevy pickups with glasspacks that my school mates were all driving. I was proud of the little thing, despite that everybody still thought I was a loser for driving an Escort.

  • avatar

    Ah, memories. My first car was a ’62 Falcon in 1970, which I drove across the country. My father had given it to me instead of a plane ticket when the family had a sabatical in STanford.

    The first car I bought myself was a 1977 Toyota Corolla in 1984. Around ’88, while I was away for Thanksgiving, the car took a bullet in the door when there was a police chase through the neighborhood (this was Wash. DC). I was proud of that bullet hole, and much chagrined when, several years later, the inspection people made me get the hole fixed. My body man always teased me about it, because he knew I didn’t want that thing fixed.

    I must say, though, I’m glad to be out of beaters.

    Thanks, Lesley, for the memories.

  • avatar

    You sure don’t read much on “beaters” except maybe eggs and cooking but the truth is that’s what most Americans use. I’ve often thought about
    reviews where writers revisited old model cars that now would be beaters.

    Our beaters were actually fine durable cars beginning with a 1972 Plymouth Duster the began new and by 1984 and 207,000 miles became a beater. Like many Chrysler vehicles of the era it fell apart around the engine and tranmission.

    Its companion as a second car in 1975 when my wife I married was a $150 1967 Plymouth Valiant with 154,000 miles. We put over 50,000 miles on it, rebuilt the manual 3-spd tranny ourselves, used re-refined oil
    and even swapped starters with the Duster once in a pinch.

    It had one fan belt, AM radio and heater for extras and my wife even changed the water pump in a pinch once while I talked her through it on the phone during a business trip.

    Our finest “beater” was a 1970 Chevy Nova 307 V8 with a 3-on-the-tree
    manual. THis thing could start in 2nd gear and go to 55 then when you went into 3rd it was still too low.

    Boy could that thing fly, roaring to life to pass on 2 lane roads and the V8
    power was just unreal during a vacation through Colorado and SOuth Dakota’s Black Hills. We bought it just after a valve job. It rusted to
    death in South Louisiana and I gave it to a friend down on his luck.

    Funny thing, a fellow in a Nova followed him home one day and paid him $500 cash for it on the spot just for parts. I was happy for my friend.

    A 1974 Buick Apollo which was a Chevy Nova in disguise with the GM “stove bolt” 6 was next. My Dad gave it to us and it served us well for many years. We sold to someone else who needed a beater.

    Next up was a 1976 Buick Riviera with a 455 and the longest hood imaginable. I had the heads machined and radiator replaced and it served us for many years. It rode supremely well on the highway.

    Our current “beaters” are a 95 Jeep Wrangler with A/C, and a truly fun 4-cyl to drive at 160K miles and a 96 Olds-88 at 210-K miles. The Olds
    still does 8 second miles, gets 22 mpg in town and 29 on the highway,
    does not burn oil, but it needs A/C work and MacPherson struts.

    With a daughter leaving the nest and buying her own car, a used Acura
    we are debating whether to keep the Jeep or the Olds.

    Probably millions of people have beaters running threads through their lives even if they don’t want to admit it. There is nothing wrong with beaters. They are a most honorable means to an end. And, the parts houses don’t mind either. Beaters is money to them.

  • avatar

    My roommates and I are on the beater program. The neighbors think we’re running a used car lot, but I’ll always have a beater, and usually two — so I can drive one while I’m repairing the other. Right now for me it’s an ’86 Nissan 720 pickup and a ’72 Chevy LUV pickup (really a rebadged Isuzu). I paid $500 for the Nissan and $0 for the LUV. In a year I’ve got about $500 repair dollars in the Nissan, including the rubber mallet and Rustoleum dent repair method, and again $0 in the LUV. My insurance premiums (liability only! can’t do that with a new car!) are absurdly low — about $400/year for both trucks (and I’m not yet 25!).

    There’s no beater like a pickup truck beater, IMO. It can haul its own parts, and bolt a toolbox in the back and you can carry spare belts, plugs, points, and all the tools you need to repair the thing onboard. Sure, your friends and family ask to borrow your truck all the time, but if it’s a beater, you just throw ’em the keys. You also double as a support vehicle. If your garage queen breaks down, you can tow her home, or drive the truck out and fix her on the side of the road — out of your toolbox. The compact trucks get great mileage, and even if they’re not rated to tow great big loads, there’s not much you can’t get away with towing a few miles across town.

  • avatar
    Lesley Wimbush

    A friend took me out for supper tonight in his ’72 Challenger… I had to chuckle when I read the license plate: “MY BEATER”


  • avatar
    the sherpa

    I genuinely feel sorry for those rich kids whose parents buy them nice cars upon graduation… they never get the full “beater car experience.” My first car was a 1991 Isuzu Stylus that I bought for a dollar. That’s right, one dollar… the owner was a friend of the family who didn’t think the car was worth repairing, since it was a P.O.S. to begin with and now had 160K miles on it. It needed a couple hundred dollars worth of repairs, but after that initial outlay of cash (the dollar to own the car, about 500 to make it driveable) I had myself my very own car. I was eighteen, just out of high school, and working a couple of jobs in a futile attempt to save enough money for college, so having my own car was a necessity. And what a car it was

    It had a 3-speed automatic tranny, and took about 14 seconds to get up to highway speeds (and that was with a tailwind going downhill). I think it had around 100 horses originally, but a couple dozen of those had run away over the years, leaving a depleted team of equestrians to power the beast that was the Stylus. My freshman year of college, I was the only freshman in the dorm who had his own car on campus due to restrictions enforced by the nazi-like organization of Campus Safety. But since I drove the car to school (Maine to Ohio, a thousand miles one way), they were forced to let me keep it on campus. Thus began a nightly ritual: packing the Stylus full of passengers to drive over to the cafeteria. I think the most we ever fit in the car was 10 people… which probably meant that the passengers wighed more than the car did. That was also most likely what caused the struts to give out soon after. Most people would get them fixed… but I endured the harsh ride as long as I could until the car truly became a danger to drive. I finally begrudgingly got them replaced, which also was the only major repair I ever made to the car

    I put over 60K miles on that car over the four years I had it, and not once did it leave me stranded. I got the *occasional* oil change, but since it had a slow but steady leak in the oil pan, I figured that since I was adding about 1-2 quarts per month it was more or less changing it’s own oil, so why go any further? One time I was driving back to school in the middle of a blistering snowstorm when I hit a big chunk of ice in the road, which managed to dislodge the already-dangling muffler. Normally I would keep driving whenever I started to heard funny noises and check it out at the next stop, but when I saw sparks being kicked up in the rearview mirror I figured I’d better pull over at the next exit. I quickly surveyed the situation, and decided on only one solution: the muffler had to go. So my friend and i pulled/twisted/wrenched it off, and then threw it over a fence. I proceeded to drive the car muffler-free for the remainder of the time I owned it, and enjoyed the throaty roar of the unrestrained exhaust when I revved her up.

    Aside from driving back and forth to school, I took many a road trip in that car, and it was generally a centerpiece of conversation whenever any of my friends got together (still is to this day). During one road trip to Cleveland, I was pulling out of a rest stop and attempting to merge with traffic when an all-too normal occurence took place… the Stylus refused to go any faster. Maybe it needed a new air filter, or spark plugs, or other luxuries that beater cars never seem to get, but whatever caused its diminshed power would cause it to sluggishly chug up any hill of consequence, and as luck would have it, this on-ramp was headed straight up what had to be one of the only lengthy hills in the entire state of cornfield-flattened Ohio. So I gassed it, put on my blinker, and pulled of the power-merge of all power-merges: straight in front of a long convoy of tractor trailers. They were braking and changing lanes and attempting not to run me down, and the net result of the entire encounter was me chugging up the remainder of the hill at a robust 30 mph with a loooong string of tractor trailers all clogged up behind me. Priceless.

    Eventually I had to part ways with the car… it’s inspection sticker was expiring, and I knew it wouldn’t pass without hundersds of dollars of repairs (no muffler, lots of rust, other various deficencies and problems)… plus I hadn’t changed the oil in over a year (20k miles!). So I sold it for a hundred and fifty bucks to some schmuck who ended up abandoning it on the streets of Portland a little while later. I know that’s what the fate of the car was, because I received a bill for several hundred dollars worth of parking tickets a couple of months after the sale. Apparently the guy who bought it never registered or inspected it (no big surprise there), so it was still in my name. Fortunately I was able to prove that I had in fact sold the car, so the tickets remained unpaid and the car was towed off and reposessed by the city. A truly ignominious and undeserving end for such a fine stallion as the Stylus was. If only they knew…

    I’m drivng a ’97 Audi A6 now, which is an excellent car… but I still miss the Stylus. It was the Rest in peace, sweet Stylus of mine, wherever you are

  • avatar

    All Hail the BEATERS!!!

    I remember my first car and first beater. It was an 88 S10. Metal bumbers and vinyl interior. I could use it to push over my high school enemies mailboxes, go muddin’ (as much as 2WD would let us), and then use Tire Foam and a garden hose to clean out the interior! I learned that chicks do dig trucks. And the donuts were glorious to a sixteen year old kid. That 85mph top speed was a let-down, but that was still probably faster than it shoud have been from a safety standpoint. It was sold for 500$ after I bent it in half. I fell asleep at the wheel (apnea) and drifted into a ditch. As I came up on a crossroad (still asleep) and the ditch inclined, the truck launched 5 feet in the air (AWAKE!) and landed hard on the front end. Well, at least I walked away.

    My beater now is a 95 Jaguar XJ6. If I’m gonna drive a beater, I’m gonna be comfortable.

  • avatar

    The Sherpa,

    I loved your story. I also agree that I almost feel sad for kids who get a nice car straight out of the proverbial gate. Let’s face it, any nice car and there’s no chance for you to mess around with it! No time to learn, to experience. The feeling of having a car that required lots of attention and most importantly, one where you felt safe doing weird things to and in it.

    I feel pretty safe in saying that the stories of beaters from my family beat you all. My parents’ cars were legendary. A Ford Falcon with no floor. A Volkswagen Beatle that pumped exhaust INSIDE the car. An Oldsmobile who’s muffler was being routed up through a large hole in the trunk and out through a hole drilled in the trunk lid.

    But mine wins. I’ve even uploaded a picture for all to see.

    It was an ’86 F150. And I loved it. It was a piece from the moment I bought it for $1,000. I didn’t realize at the time how badly I was getting ripped off. See! Learning experience! Kids who never go through this don’t know how to spot con jobs.

    The rear brakes didn’t work. The guy had crimped the brake line as to fool the idiot light. I discovered this when the brakes blew and I rolled through a stop light. Wow. That was scary. There was also a large family of dead squirrels living in the induction system. One squirrel was half sucked into the carburator.

    I spent more money on stereo parts than on the truck. I actually wedged three, 12″ subwoofers behind the bench seat. Anyone who’s driven one of those knows what a miracle that was. It was an utterly absurd setup. I had the entire interior coated in Dynamat. It looked like some kind of strange level-5 clean room. Still, I learned, and now I can do professional car audio. I’ve won awards.

    It had the 4.9 Liter straight-six under the hood. One of the largest six-cylinders every made. The engine bay was rather clean. I regularly hosed it down with gunk-be-gone. I also “customized” the engine with performance parts. I had no idea what any of them did and I bought them all from Pep-Boys. In the end, they did nothing except part me with hard earned cash. Still, I learned, and now I know how stupid it all is. I’ve now hand-built engines.

    The only thing I really had a lot of problems with was the cooling system. It had a tendency to explode.

    The exhaust was interesting. I’ve never smelled an exhaust as bad as my truck. It smelt like roasted skunk. Considering the squirrels, there very well may have been a real skunk in there, somewhere.

    It looked like shit when I bought it, so my friends and I added a… custom… paint job. My truck was the talk of the town, I tell you what. I also COVERED it in lights. It looked like a casino rolling down the road. Blue, green, red, orange, purple. I’m not amazed I never got pulled over, I’m amazed that planes never tried landing on me. Still, I learned. I can now do perfect custom paint and lighting.

    I had a “honk if parts fall off” bumper sticker. Parts actually did fall off. Exhaust, hub caps, heat shields, things I could never identify. Still, I learned… and I still can’t identify those parts.

    I installed fog lamps. That triggered an electrical fire. It’s a fun feeling having flaming wire insulation fall onto your feet while driving. Still, I learned. I can now run automotive wiring with the best of them.

    I lost my truck when I was forced to pick between being hit by another pickup or hitting a cement wall. I picked that wall and went into it head-first at 45 mph. Even after that, my truck got me home. The steering was all cock-eyed, the head lights were going every-which-a-way, the exhaust smelled worse than usual, but it got me home. It always got me home.

    Now I’m getting all teary-eyed. I really did love that truck. It looked like crap, but it was an icon around town. I got waves and honks everywhere I went. It was me and the cow-car (A car painted like a cow with a giant, fake cow glued to the roof). And I truly do feel bad for those who don’t get this experience. No, it’s not cool when you’re going through it, but these are incredibly important lessons I had.

    The kind words everyone has for their beaters proves that they all had profound impacts on everyone’s lives. It’s like a rite of passage. It’s part of growing up and when you give it up, it’s gone forever. Yes, I dreamed up BMW’s and Porsches when I had the ugly thing, but I’m truly happy I never got one. I would not be the person I am today. I believe I would be something less.

  • avatar

    This goes back to the mists of internet time – 1996 – but I still laugh out loud every time I read it.

    My list of glorious beaters:
    1969 Impala with a 2 speed slushbox, purchased for $85.
    This car defied the common wisdom that cars can’t heal themselves.

    1967 Mercury Cougar with a 302 and manual tranny. Back seat passengers could look down through the rust holes and see the road – very popular when going across bridges with open gratings. Lettering on the trunk read, “Basic Ride”.

    1979 Ford Fiesta – that thing was like a Model T, could go anywhere off-road or on. Glad I never got in an accident in that thing though, probably less safe than a motorcycle.

  • avatar

    Mine was a late 70’s Ford Grenada that I had during some of my college years. It may have been an earlier 80s model, but it really just doesn’t matter. Man, what a POS! And I loved it!

    It was maroon that had faded into a somewhat violet color. We nicknamed it “Purple Passion.” You could fit 5-6 people in the back seat alone, and so it became a communal transport. It also had the less noble name of “Saggy Butt”, primarily because the rear suspension was completely shot. Today, lowriders pay good money to get the effect I was getting for free.

    It wasn’t dependable though. I still remember standing in a parking lot over the engine with a hacksaw in one hand and duct tape in other trying to cut the heater out of the coolant loop because something in the heater blew and coolant was dumping into the passenger compartment. It worked, but I lost heat.

    Eventually it was towed away to the junk yard, but I still remember that car with fond memories. Ahh crap, I’m getting all emotional now….

  • avatar

    I think the unofficial ‘king’ of the beaters is a seventies’ Plymouth Duster. I get the feeling the main reason those Dodge commercials resonate so well with consumers is because of the beat-up Duster the two yokels drive (“C’mon, man, floor it!”).

    Being a slant-six Valiant underneath (one of the most durable cars ever produced, not only by Chrysler but the entire domestic auto industry), the automatics would run forever with a minimum of maintenance, plus they were every bit as dirt cheap as anything else in the low-rent category.

  • avatar

    My best were my beaters.

    First car: ’64 Midget. $100. Broken axle, replaced for $10. Spare muffler was $5, which I carried because the clearance was so bad I lost one about once a month.

    Second car: ’60 something Corvair converable, 3 on the tree, bought for $20. No cap on the oil pipe, it was covered with a bunch of aluminum foil and duct tape. Gave it to my friend for all his help in getting the Midget running. Probably a bad choice.

    Best beater story in my repertoire – My best friend’s dad had an old Jeep with too many problems to list here. He asked us to take it in for inspection, which was in South Jersey. My friend hands me a flashlight, says we’ll need it for the inspection, and he’ll let me know when to use it. We pull in, and the guys says, ‘Horn’, and my friend goes, ‘Beep’. He says, ‘Left blinker’, and my friend starts turning his flashlight on and off. The guys says, ‘Right blinker’, my friend says ‘Now’, and I start turning my flashlight on and off. The guy puts a sticker with a big ‘X’ on it and throws us out. His dad said something like, ‘Ah, it was worth a shot’.

    They also had a pair of Shelby’s, a GT350 and a GT500, which made up for the Jeep. But, those aren’t beater stories…

  • avatar

    I have a love/hate relationship with my beaters at the moment. I’ve certainly had my share of them. I have a nice little collection going right now, from a 96 Skylark to the 92 Blazer, and even an 87 Justy. My 98 Dakota R/T is currently the only running vehicle in my stable, and even though she’s supposed to be the Garage Queen, she’s been pulling workhorse duty for some time now. The Intrepid needs tires, and probably a tranny, the Blazer needs a water pump, a muffler (have you ever HEARD a V-6 with an exhaust leak? eeewww) and some sensors, the Skylark appears to have a siezed engine (yaaaayyy) and the Grand Cherokee was a brief moment of stupidity on my part that destroyed the faithful little 318 under the hood. The Jeep isn’t supposed to be a beater anyways, but it certainly qualifies now.

    I find myself longing for the fuel economy of the Intrepid right now tho. Feeding the 360 in my truck is a bit rough. With twins coming, I think it’s time to patch up the beaters and trade them in on a minivan. :-(

  • avatar
    Lesley Wimbush

    Hey Barkley, at least your Dakota is running… mine’s sitting with a pooched cat and a driver’s side window that fell out on the weekend. Sigh.

  • avatar

    Ahhhh the beater. Although I’ve driven a few in my lifetime, it’s only been recent (since 03) that I have embraced the beater concept. The owner before me was the original owner and was mechanically challenged. They usually took it to a shop for needed repair. Since they were moving out of state, and it had a questionable starting status, they were going to donate it to a local car charity. I struck up a barter conversation with the owner and that was the start of my beautiful beater relationship.

    I traded an older laptop (333 MHZ Toshiba that I got for free) for a 93 Sentra. It had 146K miles on it. A little rust in front of the rear fender wells, a slightly faded dark blue in color factory paint job. It s an automatic, has ac and ps. So it might be an upper class beater, but the miles, hand crank windows and faded paint keep it in beater status. I call it the “Blue Meannie”.

    Ive driven it daily since fixing the starting problem in 03. The alternator was bad. I happened to take it to AutoZone for a replacement and the counter clerk recognized it as one of ours and he happily exchanged it for a new one. Sweet free parts! Since then I do my regular maintenance and replaced only the water pump. It developed a small drip out of the bearing wear hole.

    It has been a faithful mode of transportation. I have driven it like and adult, but have at times squeezed every last ounce of horsepower the 16 valve motor could produce. I have over 211K miles on it. And it keeps running with no signs of stopping.

    Just last week, a chick failed to yield and she pulled out in frot of me. Damaging the front bumper, hood, fenders, grill. That wreak earned the Blue Meannie another stripe in the beater status. Although damaged, nothing in regards to drivability was damaged. Everything in the front is just shifted a little to the right. In true beater form I will collect the check to fix it and promptly spend it on one of my other projects. You see the beater allows these projects to exist. Which, is one of the reasons why Ive converted to a beater fan.

    I drive 65 miles a day round trip, it gets about 33 MPG and cost me next to nothing to own. On top of that, the recent accident would have pained me to no end if I had a car I was making a payment on. Knowing the accident would just lower the overall value for a car/truck that is depreciating faster than Paris Hilton changes boyfriends.

    Long live the beater!

  • avatar

    I think my beater, beats all others:
    I have a vintage 1992 Renault Clio – yeah, I live in France. I want a new car, but I can't really justify buying a new one while this one is still running. It sounds like a lawnmower, but not as smooth. It's got a manual choke. It has something like 50bhp. Everything was ok with it (except for a small pull to the right under any braking), until I had to make a 500 km (~310 miles) trip when I moved. For some reason highway speeds (85mph here) weren't too good for the engine and it decided to spring a huge oil leak, that now sprays down onto the right front disc (this hasn't helped the braking pull). A couple of quarts of oil is cheaper (and easier) than maintenance!
    The worst thing: After the oil leak happened, I took it to get inspected and it passed for another 2 years. Can't even use that excuse to buy a new one.
    Over 3.5 years of ownership, the total cost of operation (not counting gas) is probably at ~$1000.
    The thing is I do feel something for this car. Drive it in the city and you never have any fear that someone's going to ding it. What'll it do, just make one more scratch on the patchwork that used to be the paintjob.
    It's solid in a way that only a 1400 lb, 1.2 litre carburated 2-door can be. 

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