Hammer Time: And the Beater Goes On

Steven Lang
by Steven Lang

There are three types of beater: cheap, cheaper and push start. A cautious consumer can’t let brand snobbery blind him to the truth about a car. Case in point. A low mileage leathered-up Olds Silhouette minivan. In Gold. Sure it’s the epitome of GM mediocrity, equipped with more parts bin pieces than a Junkyard Wars jalopy. But, in this case, the owner stabled the Silhouette in the great indoors. A ream of paperwork highlighted the undeserving loving care the machine received. So I bought the old Olds for $2200. I’ll be financing it for a little over four grand. Hey, it’s a living.

Like most of my domestic purchases, I’ve had good luck buying unpopular cars with great owners. But there are plenty of examples of worthwhile beaters born across the pond. I cently picked-up two old school Volvos. Number One: a one owner, zero accident, pristine 1995 Volvo 940. Number Two: a 1990 Volvo 240 with a perfect interior in good running order.

Neither can be bought cheap unless you’re lucky. A quality conservatively maintained vehicle almost always goes for a price premium at the auctions. I was fortunate in this regard. The 1995 model cost me $1450. The 1990 model $700. Decent prices for truly exceptional cars.

In fact, if I ever were able to focus on purchasing specific cars, both of these Volvos would be on my short list. The bulletproof red brick B234 engine, classic rear wheel-drive architecture and simplicity of service make these Swedish vehicles a virtual W123 equivalent– without the weight and price penalty. If I ever move to Maine, I might even start a rental car business using old Volvos like these.

The miscellaneous bin was mostly domestic this time. Someone bought a 1994 LeSabre with 90k original miles for $500. It had an older owner for 10+ years and a mind numbingly idiotic young driver for it’s last six months. New fluids, new antenna a wash, and a passenger side mirror later and it looks as good as new. Well, as much as a beater can…

A 1999 Mercury Sable LS went for $650 (it needs a blendor motor for the temp control). Everyone assumes that the trannies are bad in these things, but the Arctic temps in the Southeast pushed the forgiving Christian owner (radio stations, literature and bumper stickers) over the edge. I also got a 1996 Mitsubishi Mirage with 46k miles for $900 and a 1999 Subaru Legacy wagon for $1300. The Subaru is a Southern car that will need a new radio and front right wheel bearing. If you take care of the maintenance issues early on a Subaru, they last forever. This one thankfully was dealer maintained and will be sold for $2900.

[For more information about these or other cars, contact steven.lang@duke.ed

Steven Lang
Steven Lang

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  • Countryboy Countryboy on Feb 09, 2009

    While this column is interesting to read, I have to question the ole "highway miles" reference. Generally speaking, "highway miles" is code speak for "we want more of your money for this high mileage vehicle than it is worth". It is in the same genre as "only driven on a Sunday by a little old lady". I see this descriptor used quite often by both amatuers and dealers on sites such as Craigslist et al, usally as a way to obfuscate around the fact that someone is trying to get top dollar, for a relatively new model, but very high mileage domestic. In my opinion, all things considered such, mileage is mileage. It's still wear and tear. And while it is true that IF a vehicle is driven within it's design parameters, i.e max speed/RPM, highway miles are preferable. But I've seen plenty of fools on highways abusing speeds and engines and transmission in the process. And if the so called highway miles are in any metropolitan city, the under hood heating, stop and go wear on brakes and transmissions are every bit as detrimental as the dreaded "city miles". There seems to be no magic in finding sellers wanting to dispose of used domestics with over 100K miles logged on them. Say what you will, but, at that point, the doomsday clock is ticking for a domestic model. The real trick in the car business, is finding those elusive opportunities to buy a 3-5 year old car, with most of its appreciation out of the way, with between 50-70K miles. That's the real deal. And it is certainly not unreasonable to expect to be able to find good used vehicles that have been driven on average of 15K mles per year. Those 100K+ miles critters might be fine for financing at the local "buy here-pay here" corner lot, but I do not consider them to be any kind of special gem or require any special skills to be unearthed. My experience at many of the autctions is that the cream has been skimmed long before the auction, and there is usually a reason why many of these cars have to resort to the auction line in order to be sold. Just a thought.

  • Countryboy Countryboy on Feb 09, 2009

    Steven, When you finance it for "a little over 4 grand", is that the interest, the cost basis when selling it, or the total amount of the sale of the vehicle to a private party PLUS interest? Just wondering

  • Picard234 Would it really be too much extra work to just write a proper full review? These lists of bullet points aren't exactly the stuff purchases are based on. Example, the two points about the interior (cupholder space and door tops) are not accompanied by supporting pictures. The "mileage" is noted but is that observed or EPA? As others have asked, how's the ingress/egress? How much stuff fits in the back? Not trying to be personal here but if you had the thing for a whole week you should have more for your readers than 16 bullet points.
  • MaintenanceCosts On the one hand: nobody should be tracked without their consent, and deceiving customers about how their driving data is used is evil and should be stopped by regulators.On the other hand: don't blame this for your rising premium. Premiums are up because losses are up. Both premiums and insurance-company margins are regulated in nearly every state and increases don't get approved without supporting claims data. Actuaries are very good at predicting losses, and forecasts of higher losses are almost always right.Some part the of recent increase in losses is that newer cars are more expensive to repair, and some part is increased climate-related fire and flood losses. But the majority of it is that everyone is driving like dog sh!t. There are more, and more severe, crashes, and specifically more serious injuries and fatalities (which are the things that tend to max out insurance payouts).
  • Bullnuke I quick scanned the title of this article and saw "Jeep is ranked the most pathetic brand..." and thought, "Yep, that's what it is these days.".
  • Jimbo1126 Can't believe I'm the first to comment that I find the 4 window sedans much more interesting than the 6 window ones.
  • ToolGuy I was making especially gentle stops on my drive home today... because my brake booster is failing.