Hammer Time: The Ultimate Tightwad Car

Steven Lang
by Steven Lang
hammer time the ultimate tightwad car

Saturn? Civic? Neon? A diesel owned by Chuck Goolsbee? For the longest time I’ve been trying to figure out what penny pinching prodigy earns the most keep. I’ve spent years pondering this question. Well, more like a few dull moments at the auctions. I finally figured out the answer this evening. The cheapest car to own is the one you like so much… that you’re willing to buy another one just like it so that you can keep yours on the road for years to come. I’ll give you a recent example of two ‘cheap’ cars with two very divergent destinies.

A family bought two vehicles from me recently. In turn, they traded two cars in for $500 altogether. One was a 1996 Taurus Wagon. The other was a 1992 Volvo 240. Both of them had ‘issues’. The Taurus had a weak tranny and looked like.. a Taurus. The Volvo had been in a fender bender where it looked like it got into a fight, and lost. Both of them were worth more dead than alive. Perhaps…

The Taurus and Volvo were put on Craigslist for $700 apiece. The Taurus had at least two dozen contemporaries over the prior seven days that had also been listed for $1000 or less. If variety was the spice of life, the dozens of Tauruses on Craigslist seemingly offered more spice-filled suggestions than an old Simon & Garfunkel tune. Mine thankfully was a luxurious version of Ford’s attempt to wreak utter havoc on the Camcords of that era.

A 200 HP Duratec engine in this one equaled the output of the late Toyota Celica All-Trac. A well adorned cloth interior with foldaway cupholders and storage bins made it family friendly. The ‘Mach’ premium sound systems made the ancient Volvo seem tinpot cheap. Let’s see what else. Did I mention the engine already?. Anyhow the 1996 – 1999 Taurae represented a billion plus dollar project for Ford at a time when the Taurus was fighting it out for the ‘best selling car’ award in North America. Surely people even today must want to snatch these things up?

Nope. Nothing moved. Not a one. Not even my ‘gem’ with only 115k. Most already had blown trannies that were underengineered just like all the prior ones. But there was an even bigger problem. Working on the dang thing. Compared to a Camry, Accord, or even a Lumina of the same vintage, the Taurus is an absolute pain to diagnose, repair and maintain. We’re not talking about Nightmare on Elm Street or Fiat levels. Just enough fragile electric doo-dads, strangely configured parts, and cheap stuff to make the whole upkeep process a trying one. Plus there’s nothing special or unique about the Taurus. No character. No longevity. No strengths within it’s design or presence to make a keeper want to keep fixing it. I wholesaled it for $550.

Now the Volvo 240 was a complete paradigm shift. Volvo had built these cars to last decades with proper maintenance and everything about this vehicle was ‘authentic’. No marketing cabal in their right mind would ever design something like a Volvo 240. It’s as utterly square in it’s appearance as Lawrence Welk with a bubble machine and a baton. But thankfully the parts within the 240 also make it as soulful as Coltrane on a light blues riff.

The red brick engine under the hood has become to the classic Volvo enthusiasts, what the V-twin engine has become to Harley enthusiasts. A symbol of the vehicle’s strength and character. On the road the Volvo 240 has a sound and feel unlike anything else on the road. It’s not fast at all in stock form. Even compacts from the same era offered far more power.

It’s not the smoothest. The cheaper Camry’s and Accord’s of that time were far more refined and quiet. So were Maximas, Intrepids, and almost any other pricey competitor of the time. The interior? Even calling it luxurious in the early 1980’s would have been a stretch. By 1992 the only thing saving it from an early grave were the glacier like changes in American luxury cars, and that the Lexus ES300 was not yet a known commodity.

But the sound and feel of a Volvo 240 in motion has made thousands of folks around the world smile and enjoy their ride. It’s genuine and earnest in all it does… which means you either love it or hate it. This one was merely one of nine available from the past six weeks at the thousand dollar or less ‘TLC’ level. At that range of time and prices, the Tauruses on Craigslist were as common as herpes at an Elliot Spitzer fundraiser.

I got calls, calls and more calls. They ranged from a fellow who had an almost Rain Man like knowledge of these vehicles, to a parent who couldn’t understand how a radio could be removed out of any car. My first question to everyone was, “Do you know how to work on cars?” If they didn’t get the hint or read over my listing, I explained layer upon layer of cosmetic issue until I finally received the polite response, “I’ll keep on looking.”

A missing interior door panel. No radio. A bad A/C compressor. A couple of broken door handles. A passenger side hit with just enough force to make the front passenger door nearly impossible to open. Oh, and no antenna! Eventually I was able to ferret out the cheap and inexperienced and find the hobbyist who would put the 240 to good use.

The fellow who bought the 240 was already driving another 240. It had a bad wiring harness. A frequent issue with pre-1988 Volvos. It would be far easier for him to part out his current ride in favor of this commuter. Door handles and panel? Check. Radio and A/C? Check. Engine and transmission? Two of each in great shape. Before my ‘Raging Bull’ Volvo received it’s battle scars from the teenage son, it had been expertly serviced by a Volvo specialist with OEM parts for nearly 15 years.

Like all true beaters the gold mine of value for this Volvo 240 was all beneath the surface. The sum of all it’s parts will definitely be enough to keep the owner on the road for at least another five years. At which time the old engine and or transmission from the donor car can be put into a classic that is already old enough to drive itself.

The tightwad’s car… is always the car worth keeping.

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2 of 39 comments
  • Brettc Brettc on Aug 04, 2010

    I vote for a VW TDI, preferably an A4 body style (1999.5-2004) with the ALH engine. That generation still looks awesome, especially compared to the more recent Jorolla body style. What makes them great is that the ALH engine is fairly simple overall, and any problems can be diagnosed with a laptop and a $200 program that can be bought online (VCDS). There is a ton of knowledge about them on tdiclub.com, and access to reasonably priced OEM parts from online vendors means that most parts can be purchased without going to a dealer. As long as you change the oil every 10000 miles with decent full synthetic oil and keep up on timing belt changes and other regular maintenance, you'll likely get about 300000 miles before a rebuild becomes necessary. My car is now 7 years old with about 118000 miles (and still on original front pads and rotors). I fill it up once a month and I typically get 40-47 MPG depending on if I'm doing city or highway driving. My wife's 2000 Jetta has approximately ~151000 miles and returns slightly lower economy because she's special and has to have an automagic. I plan to keep both for 15 years because they're paid for and easy to work on. And also because I really do not want another car payment.

  • Gasser Gasser on Nov 26, 2011

    So much Taurus love!!! Wife and I had an '87 Sable LS wagon bought new (era of have a kid, buy a station wagon). Pro: good size, roomy, comfortable, cheap to buy. Con: head gasket, 3 transmissions, A/C compressor, heater core, alternator and assorted other parts over 7 years and 70,000 miles. The best part?????......Ford's 6 year 60,000 mile warranty. In that era, the only way to buy a new Ford model.

  • FifaCup Loving both Interior and exterior designs.
  • FifaCup This is not good for the auto industry
  • Jeff S This would be a good commuter vehicle especially for those working in a large metropolitan area. The only thing is that by the time you put airbags, backup cameras, and a few of the other required safety features this car would no longer be simple and the price would be not much cheaper than a subcompact. I like the idea but I doubt a car like this would get marketed in anyplace besides Europe and the 3rd World.
  • ScarecrowRepair That's what I came to say!
  • Inside Looking Out " the plastic reinforced with cotton waste used on select garbage vehicles assembled by the Soviet Union. "Wrong. The car you are talking about was the product German engineering, East German. It's name was Trabant.