In Praise of Beaters

Lesley Wimbush
by Lesley Wimbush

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.

Lesley Wimbush
Lesley Wimbush

Gearhead, newspaper grunt, car writer, illustrator:,front.spy

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  • Frankrizzo Frankrizzo on Aug 01, 2006

    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!

  • Chalmers Chalmers on Aug 03, 2006

    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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