In Praise of the $500 Car

Steven Lang
by Steven Lang

“Wooden Shoe Rather Be Dutch?” Sigh. Bumper sticker humor aside, the Subaru Legacy had 140k miles on the clock and a well-maintained powertrain (records in the glovebox). The hardback book about Abraham Lincoln under the driver’s seat gave me hope that the owner was equally conservative with his driving. After a bit of tire kicking, I slowly concluded that the old girl had plenty of life left. Fortunately, the kicked-in driver’s door and smelly interior made the other dealers turn-up their nose when the Subie went across the block. For $500, the Legacy became mine… all mine. BWAHAHAHHA!!!!

Welcome to the wonderful world of the $500 car. From public auctions to impound lots to private sales and eBay, they’re there for the taking. We’re talking old Fords that hardly ever fail, to mondo mileage minivans with the interiors to match. The cost of today’s ‘affordable’ commuter has rapidly sunk to the point where it’s nearly equal to the price of a new scooter. Even better, as the old saying goes, “They ain’t building em’ like they used too.” They’re building them better.

Thanks to huge advances in mechanical engineering, materials and manufacturing, the average vehicle has a remarkable ability to sustain itself well in six figures on the clock and double decades on the calendar– given the right owner and proper maintenance.

In my daily work as a dealer, I see the results of this every day: old Camrys old enough to drink in all fifty states that run as well as a twenty-year-old sewing machine; old Volvo wagons that you can’t kill with a stick, SUVs built for durability instead of bling that can still climb every mountain, conventional family sedans that have watched an entire generation grow up and head off to college, ready for grandchild duty.

For a true indication of the average car’s added endurance, look no further than Canada. Our neighbors in the Great White North recently reported that the number of 15-year-old vehicles on their roads had skyrocketed from just 800k in 1990 to 2.8m today. They’re not hanging onto to their vehicles longer because they’re poor. They’re doing it because they can. And the money saved is phenomenal. But the $500 car? How can that be a good deal?

First of all, understand this: the $500 car always has something wrong with it. Examples: the Subaru had a foul odor and a severely dented door. A $100 door and a $50 detail brought it back to its rightful glory. A 1989 Toyota Camry and a 1993 Eagle Vision I bought for $500 apiece needed nothing more than a $190 paint job (called a “scuff and shoot”). Two 1989 Volvo 240 Wagons, a 1988 Isuzu Trooper and a 1991 Ford Explorer Sport needed… well… nothing actually. They were just unpopular and ‘old’. Finally, a 1977 Mercedes 350SE bought for $250 needed a/c, new tires, and an alignment.

That old Merc was a freakish, right place/right time deal. But all the others had dozens of eyes on them and nary an interested buyer in sight. But why did all these sell so cheaply? Most car shoppers (and dealers) judge a book by its cover. Fashion rules. A damaged door or other body panel, peeling paint or lack of functional air conditioning stops most buyers in their tracks.

In time though, most folks pretty much just treat their cars as appliances. If it breaks a little bit, but it still works, they figure why bother even fixing it? Car buyers prefer to trade-in or sell their problems instead of fixing them, predominantly because they believe the repair cost is simply too much to bear.

That’s where the challenge and opportunity lies. Paint is cheap, parts at the local recycling yard (check or parts store are a fraction of dealer prices, and the time spent calling a few shops to get a direct quote for the labor on a specific repair costs you absolutely nothing. Enthusiast sites for specific cars are great at telling you the weak spots of any particular model, and what to look for during the test drive. Again this costs nothing but time and the willingness to learn.

For those of us who buy for the long haul, or just want a good cheap car to play with for a while, my advice is to look at the ‘scratch and dent’ side of the market. There are a lot of cheap old cars out there that had owners who did the maintenance, but not the cosmetics or the seemingly big repair. A little homework and a good independent mechanic can truly give you a ‘keeper’. It will also stave off the five figured financial scourges of depreciation, higher ad valorem taxes, and insurance while keeping your car hobby affordable and fun.

Steven Lang
Steven Lang

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  • Ddavidv Ddavidv on Dec 08, 2007

    Wow, one of my favorite topics written about with zeal. My best purchase ever, though it was years ago now, was a Ford Fiesta (the good, German car) for $65 off the wholesale line of a 3rd string car dealer. Dirty and allegedly with an engine that smoked, I drove that car for something like 5 years and sold it for what I had in it, including all repair costs and a cheapie paint job! Still the best car I ever owned. I now buy all my cars with at least 100,000 miles on them. Most people still think a car is worn out at that point, and the bulk of the depreciation has been absorbed by dumber folks. If you pick the right brand and do research ahead of time, it's not hard to pick a reliable one. On the subject of paint jobs, unless you know someone, it's near impossible to get a car painted for $200 anymore. However, you can paint it yourself with plain old Rustoleum and a roller. Really. I just painted my BMW race car this way and it really does work. It's a bit labor intensive, but nothing the average guy can't do. $100 or thereabouts in materials and a week of evenings and weekends and you can have a car with shiny paint that looks good from 5 feet away. It's talked about on the web pretty extensively. I was as skeptical as the next guy, but it really can be done.

  • Jason Moy Jason Moy on Dec 08, 2007

    The best part is not caring about dents and scratches and speed bumps. If it breaks, so what, it was a cheap junker anyway. And when approached like that, even the old Toyota Cressida (1981) I drove in my High School dayz and college too was entertaining. How many twenty something year old cars take abuse and just shrug it off. The alternator, water pump and stuff like that required replacement, but other than the time needed, it cost me practically no money. I still have reckless immature tendacies today because of the carefree days of driving the Cressida and not giving a flip.

  • VoGhost Key phrase: "The EV market has grown." Yup, EV sales are up yet again, contrary to what nearly every article on the topic has been claiming. It's almost as if the press gets 30% of ad revenues from oil companies and legacy ICE OEMs.
  • Leonard Ostrander Daniel J, you are making the assertion. It's up to you to produce the evidence.
  • VoGhost I remember all those years when the brilliant TTAC commenters told me over and over how easy it was for legacy automakers to switch to making EVs, and that Tesla was due to be crushed by them in just a few months.
  • D "smaller vehicles" - sorry, that's way too much common sense! Americans won't go along because clever marketing convinced us our egos need big@ss trucks, which give auto manufacturers the profit margin they want, and everybody feels vulnerable now unless they too have a huge vehicle. Lower speed limits could help, but no politician wants to push that losing policy. We'll just go on building more lanes and driving faster and faster behind our vehicle's tinted privacy glass. Visions of Slim Pickens riding a big black jacked up truck out of a B-52.
  • NotMyCircusNotMyMonkeys dudes off the rails on drugs and full of hate and retribution. so is musky.