By on January 8, 2010

(courtesy:boulderreview.com)

It was mine. A 1992 Lexus SC400 with only 78,000 miles had gone through a small dealer auction back in early 2009. Paint a little blotchy. Driver’s seat front had a small rip. But I really didn’t care. I knew it would be the last of it’s breed I would see in a while. After being halved to death ($50 bid increments), I bought if for $3450 plus the $120 fee. Threw in $300 of paint, $100 of upholstery, and financed it to an enthusiast for $8500. $3200 later the economy caught up with my customer and he voluntarily brought it back. $270 for a windshield and alternator and 11,000 more miles left me with a quandry. Do I keep it or finance again?

Of course I’ll tote the note. But the big point is this. Well kept cars with low mileage can be a dream in some cases. Generally I consider anything that’s been well kept and driven from 5k to 8k as qualified for this honor. SC Coupes, Sunfire convertibles, Celicas, Saturn Sedans, even the well-cursed Tauruses and Centurys of times yore tend to be attractive. I’ve bought 1990’s versions of all these cars and more with mileage well back of the century mark and all except the SC were $1500 or less. When I get an oldie I always do the following…

First I look at it’s history. Was it recently driven regularly? A surprisingly large number of them are ‘donated’ by grandparents and other kin who no longer have the need for a car. The subsequent buyers fall into two categories. Maintainers and neglecters. Discolored coolant, old oil, too much slack in the steering, and substandard replacement materials (curse you Firestone and Goodyear!) are among the usual casualties. Replacing fluids as needed and buying high quality replacement parts go an awfully long way to making an older car a wonderful long-term companion. I use a Mityvac for most fluids and enthusiast sites to point me towards the right OEM replacements.

Paint doesn’t bother me at all. In Georgia it’s hot all the bloody time (except this month) and exteriors along with dashboards always have wear issues out here. I do pay very close attention to tires and who sold the vehicle previously. Nothing turns me off more than seeing cheap Wal-Mart tires and a dealer name on the back whose buyers rarely inspect the cars that go through the barn. A few particularly nasty ones will put nothing into the cars, literally, and repo them with an attorney in tow for the sole purpose of long-term garnishment. This is done with newer cars for the most part but I’ve also seen older ones in the fray as well. Anything that is domestic and made forever or an import in drag may find itself as an accessory for highway robbery.

Finally you have the estate deals. Two of which are etched in mind forever. I purchased a two year old Chrysler PT Cruiser back in 2006. Base model, five speed nothing special. Except it only had 199 miles. I bought it for $7000 back when these models were worth something. 16 pictures and one Ebay listing later I sold it for $9200. A lot of folks with the ‘new’ bug would do very well to consider a late model car with low mileage. Tires and batteries may need to be changed, and perhaps the motor oil in extreme cases. But these are always among my favorites. On the flip side are the museum pieces. The 1985 Town Car with only 45,000 miles that was recently de-clunkered for $700 is my most recent one. But in the past I’ve bought everything from Peugeots to Porsches that fit this mode. Knowing a good friend of a friend or enough people in Florida will always get you ahead in this regard.

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14 Comments on “Hammer Time: Older And Bolder...”


  • avatar
    threeer

    Steven,

    I may be talking to you at the end of this month.  I’m the guy who has the sister-in-law that just moved to Charleston, SC to be closer to my wife (I’m assigned here in Huntsville, AL).  She’s (the sister-in-law) is an unemployed mother of three children, one of which my wife and I are now raising.  She came to SC with nothing…except her suitcase and youngest child (middle child is with the father now).  She’ll be looking for a (relatively) decent car, probably around $2000 or so.  I know it isn’t much to work with, but the sooner I get her situated, the better.  You seem to have a good idea on what works and what doesn’t within this realm, so your expertise would be much appreciated…:)

  • avatar
    don1967

    With such a bull market in frugality these days, last year’s $8,500 Lexus might be this year’s $9,500 Lexus.     Also, the tightened credit supply puts private lenders like you in a stronger bargaining position, while taking on less risk now that so many nasty economic surprises are behind us.    What better time to sell?

    PS: I enjoy reading your insights into the ups and downs of buying older cars.

  • avatar
    jpcavanaugh

    Steven, you have been describing my daily drivers for the last 15 years.  Though I don’t have access to the auctions where the really great deals seem to be, I have driven a parade of really nice one-owner cars that are 10-15 yrs old and have 60-75K miles.  It helps if your tastes parallel those of the older retired folks who bought these cars new.  My price point has been around $2500, but that is getting harder to hit these days.
    You are right about the low mileage cars that are no bargain.  The cars with 55K miles that has sat outside in a trailer park for the last 8 years is nothing I am interested in.  Find me a nice car that has been garaged and owned by someone who can afford to maintain it properly, and I will have my next “new” car.
    One problem these days is the pre 1994 or so cars that use R-12 air conditioning refrigerant.  This factor crossed a lot of nice old cars off of my list during my last search, due to the increased expense of either maintaining the R-12 system (if you can even find the stuff) or having to do an R-134 conversion, that I am told is not always all that successful from a performance standpoint. 

  • avatar
    jmo

    <i>A lot of folks with the ‘new’ bug would do very well to consider a late model car with low mileage.</i>

    If you can get a deal then great.  I had a friend who bought a new Corolla it was 17,500 – after incentives  it ended up costing her $15,000.  She went across the street to check out used cars and found a 2yo Corolla for $15,500.   She was like – huh?

  • avatar

    Don’t put anoher dime into it.  I’ve been looking for a clean one to drop in an LSx drivetrain into and go have more fun for the buck than anyone can imagine.

  • avatar
    educatordan

    Keep it.  Enjoy it.  If I see a car dealer driving that kind of car I know he’s two things, SMART and FRUGAL.  BTW, I’m definitely a maintainer.

  • avatar
    Steven Lang

    Freeze-12 can be had at a few independent parts stores. If you don’t want to bother with a conversion, that can always work. But most R-134 conversions cost only about $50 in my neck of the woods. All you have to do is install the new fittings and pump out the remaining liquid. It’s not that big of a deal.

    Dan, I’d be keeping it if it weren’t for my 1st gen Insight I use as a daily driver. Even if I found a $100 that got 35 mpg it wouldn’t be as frugal in the long run as the Insight. I have $4100 in it and it regularly gets 55 mpg. With 30k miles a year on the road, I come out ahead with the Inisght. Coincidentally my mentor drives an SC400.

    Prices were strong at the sale today. A 1998 Taurus for $2050 (74k, cloth, no roof) and a 1991 Accord for $1850 (136k, cloth, no roof). Plus a lot of  higher end late model inventory that went for clean book. Today’s WTF was a custom colored 1989 Volvo 240 with 250k that had a trashed interior and an exterior customized with a spray can and glitter. Engine had a knock and it still sold for $800.

    Yep, it’s tax season again.

  • avatar
    Steven Lang

    Freeze-12 can be had at a few independent parts stores. If you don’t want to bother with a conversion, that can always work. But most R-134 conversions cost only about $50 in my neck of the woods. All you have to do is install the new fittings and pump out the remaining liquid. It’s not that big of a deal.

    Dan, I’d be keeping it if it weren’t for my 1st gen Insight I use as a daily driver. Even if I found a $100 that got 35 mpg it wouldn’t be as frugal in the long run as the Insight. I have $4100 in it and it regularly gets 55 mpg. With 30k miles a year on the road, I come out ahead with the Inisght. Coincidentally my mentor drives an SC400.

    Prices were strong at the sale today. A 1998 Taurus for $2050 (74k, cloth, no roof) and a 1991 Accord for $1850 (136k, cloth, no roof). Plus a lot of  higher end late model inventory that went for clean book. Today’s WTF was a custom colored 1989 Volvo 240 with 250k that had a trashed interior and an exterior customized with a spray can and glitter. Engine had a knock and it still sold for $800.

    Yep, it’s tax season again.

  • avatar
    Steven Lang

    Freeze-12 can be had at a few independent parts stores. If you don’t want to bother with a conversion, that can always work. But most R-134 conversions cost only about $50 in my neck of the woods. All you have to do is install the new fittings and pump out the remaining liquid. It’s not that big of a deal.

    Dan, I’d be keeping it if it weren’t for my 1st gen Insight I use as a daily driver. Even if I found a $100 that got 35 mpg it wouldn’t be as frugal in the long run as the Insight. I have $4100 in it and it regularly gets 55 mpg. With 30k miles a year on the road, I come out ahead with the Inisght. Coincidentally my mentor drives an SC400.

    Prices were strong at the sale today. A 1998 Taurus for $2050 (74k, cloth, no roof) and a 1991 Accord for $1850 (136k, cloth, no roof). Plus a lot of  higher end late model inventory that went for clean book. Today’s WTF was a custom colored 1989 Volvo 240 with 250k that had a trashed interior and an exterior customized with a spray can and glitter. Engine had a knock and it still sold for $800.

    Yep, it’s tax season again.

    • 0 avatar

      In that case, it’d be a good idea to wait until the wave of people throwing their tax return money at dealers and auctioneers ebbs?
      I ask because I’m looking for another beater to wail on, somewhere between the $500 and $1500 bracket).  The current state of gas prices (and the fact that my current ride nets 15mpg on a good day) is putting an uncomfortable dent in my wallet, so my choices are currently confined to Civics, Corollas and 4 cylinder Accords.  That is, unless I run into a 94-96 Q45 or a first gen LS400 — the latter was my last ride for $1500 and it gave me two years of comfortable, drama-free service before the transmission gave way.
      I’d keep the SC for a personal ride.  The 1Uz-FE’s rock solid reliable and powerful to boot, plus it seems well taken care of.  Enjoy it.

  • avatar
    Dave M.

    Yep, it’s tax season again.

    Or at least Groundhog Day ;)

  • avatar
    Spencer Williams

    I don’t have anything really to add here, just wanted to say that I really enjoy your column here on TTAC.

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