By on August 22, 2012

Congratulations!!! And my condolences.

You have just bought yourself a vehicle that may be worth more dead than alive.

Did you follow my car buying advice? Of course not! You wanted cheap to the extreme and now you got it. Bald tires. Doors that may be lovably ‘scrunched’ just a little bit thanks to those pesky inanimate objects. But hey, at least the ashtray still works.

Now you just have to figure out what to do with it?


A beater will have any one, many, or all of the following issues.

  • Bad engine
  • Bad transmission
  • Bad steering and suspension mechanisms
  • Bad body damage
  • Bad frame damage
  • Bad electrical issues
  • Bad reputation
  • Let’s face it. It drinks. It smokes, and it hangs out with the bad boys.

The operative word in all this loathsome criticism is ‘bad’. Forget about the very concept of ‘good’ for now. Until you can get this beast rolling safely in the same general direction of the nearby traffic, don’t even think about your car as anything less than illegal roadside architecture.

Let’s take a recent example. This 1999 Taurus was recently traded into my dealership with 213,000 miles and the obligatory transmission fluid container in the trunk.

Ugly? You bet. But the beginning of the bad news here is a bit more obvious. The headlights have performed the late-90’s water seep and headlight shatter that is as common as kudzu here in the South.

So, do I invest in it?

The cost for the headlights is $75 on Ebay and about fifteen minutes worth of my time. I could go with a $30 junkyard version. But nice clear headlights that are devoid of plastic exfoliation are a better bet. Few things make an old crappy car from the Clinton era look like new than a pair of Chinese headlights and a full set of Malaysian floormats.  Throw in a $5 automated car wash from down the street, and you’re pretty much all set.

This is what we call in this business ‘the $99 upgrade’. It does wonders to nearly any beater.



What else did we forget? Inspecting the car of course. Get ready to take out the ‘bad’ checklist.

The body had all the dings, dents and bruises that you would normally expect from a 13 year old beater. All doors opened and closed fine. So body wise, we’re already ahead of the game.

I opened the driver’s door and….

Clean. Surprisingly clean.

Yes, there is also the obligatory Southern dashboard peel that seems to provide a nice contoured holder for all your papers and related knick-knacks. But any car that has soaked up the Georgian sun for 10+ years without the occasional protectant spray is gonna get a burned and warped dashboard.

A/C… works! You have no idea how important A/C is to the evolution of Southern life. Forget about all the politics and ‘the city too busy to hate’ propaganda. Air conditioning finally gave us Southerners a feeling of luxury that no Tara styled mansion, ceiling fan, or mint julep could ever provide. Thanks to A/C this beater car has no sweat stains or frayed fabrics.

The interior is clean overall. The A/C works as noted. Radio works as well as all the speakers. The trunk has no leaks. Turns out this was one of those ‘owned in the same family’ cars that gets traded in once the younger folks want something that is a bit more fun to drive.

Tires are mediocre, not great. The trunk has no leaks. What am I missing???

Everything else needed to drive it.

I opened up the creaky curvaceous hood and saw a few small things.

Like the battery. It isn’t the right one. Apparently one of their other cars must have bit the bullet in the past and they decided to put small battery #1 into car #2. I’ll brace that battery correctly should I decide to retail it.

The power steering hose is leaking. A standard feature in most older Fords.

No recent tune-up. Then again, the check engine light wasn’t on at initial start up and a quick hookup with an OBDII scanner revealed that no codes were pending.

A few pictures didn’t make it to this article. The coolant reservoir was empty. A lot of buyers will assume a head gasket issue once they see an empty reservoir. This may be the case here. But a quick splash of water pointed to a small crack in the container. Some Fords get it, and nearly every Mercedes I have ever seen from this era will have this as well. Another potential Ebay order.

I popped open the copious plastic covering the radiator and found a brand new one in there. But why the heck did they get a new radiator and use the old hoses? Cheap bastards! I’ll have to keep an eye for leaks.

Oil looks fine. It’s not new which is a good thing because a lot of ne’er do wells will put in new oil to try and hide the milky residue of a blown head gasket. The oil cap seems fine. I start it up and verify that the transmission fluid is just below the min mark. I put in about a quarter of a quart from the free container and go on a fifteen minute drive.

One tire needs to be replaced. The heat doesn’t work. The temp gauge doesn’t get to the right point as quickly as it should. I’ll want to put in new hoses and a thermostat when the time comes. After I drive it for 15 minutes and park, I look at the oil again to verify the lack of head gasket issues and take a glance underneath the car for leaks.

The underside is ‘frosty’ dry. Just a little bit of residue which is a shocker.

Other than a few cheap repairs, this old bull of a Taurus is still surprisingly decent. Except for one thing.

It has a transmission whine. Not even giving it new fluid via a hand-pumped Mityvac will remedy that. This process usually helps keep a bit of the grit in place while giving the car new blood. The transmission is shifting well. Perhaps some time spent at the prestigious Taurus Car Club of America will help remedy that potential issue.

So here comes the golden question…

Should we be driving this beater a lot, a little, or at all?

Unless you have a friend, cousin, or sister named Vinny who is in the transmission rebuild business, don’t bother with the frequent driving. The AX4N transmission is the best one ever put into a Taurus. But at 215k, this particular one has given all it can to God, country, and the prior owners.

I would consider this a short trip car. You need to drive seven miles or less to work and back? This type of car can be an interesting oddsmaker. So long as the fluids are kept clean and on level, this type of car can work well as the ‘airport’ car or ‘bus’ car if you live nearby one. But make sure you have a second family car for when the tranny does decides to go south.

It may take years for a beater to become crusher fodder at the local junkyard. Or instant death can happen on a hot summer day in the middle of outbound traffic. Beaters, cheap as they come, are like a free box of Gump chocolates that have been left in storage for an indeterminate amount of time. You may get a great deal.

Just make extra sure you don’t kill yourself in the process.


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36 Comments on “How To: Invest In A Beater...”

  • avatar

    i dunno how it is in your neck of the woods but a recon auto trans isn’t that expensive here

    maybe $500 for a reco unit

    maybe $500 to get it in… cheaper if you time it during a service

    will bring a lot of cars back from the near dead

  • avatar

    Nice walkaround. How much this Taurus would sell for? And why? Does it make any sense as a short trip car, considering that a new Corolla can be leased for $150/month (plus $2K down which would be covered by a trade-in)?

  • avatar

    This makes me think of our ’02 Mazda 626. It’s been a good car for my other half to get to class and work, both of which are very close to home. Recenly it’s showing it’s weaknesses though. Fuel pump died ($700+), battery cables replace (no big deal), power steering howl (cured easily enough w/ flush/bleed), and to top it off it was recenly the victim of a hit and run, so the once perfect body is now marred by a dented rear door.

    At $2800 it was a great buy. Had 120k on it, a/c works, no leaks. The interior was somewhat abused and the dash has given in to the Florida sun. The biggest concern though is that notorious automatic transmission. It shifted perfectly and was quite snappy. But now, 10k miles later, it’s acting up. Sometimes it wants to hold a gear, sometimes it dramatically objects to throttle changes.

    So what to do? Try and sell it while it’s still a reliable runabout? Start putting real money into it? I’m sorry to say that no, I did not do any of the sensible steps you list in buying a used car when this was bought a year or so ago. I’m a fan of Mazda (and readily acknowledge that this is perhaps their worst car, ever) and have a handy uncle, but transmission issues scare me and my wallet. With used car prices what they are now I don’t see trading up without putting a good chunk of cash on top of this Mazda.

    What should I do?? Sell it or save for the timebomb automatic and hope that buys a few more years?

    • 0 avatar
      Steven Lang

      Get the tranny rebuilt when it comes time. Give a few calls to some shops between now and then, and don’t go too cheap.

      Given the nasty history of the 626 automatics, I would pay about $700 more for a lifetime warranty if I were a retail customer seeking a long-term hedge.

      • 0 avatar

        Thanks for the advice. Although I hate putting money into a car (it’s such a great excuse to buy something else!) it is the sensible thing to do. Time to start calling around…

    • 0 avatar

      When is the last time you had the transmission fluid and filter changed? If your answer is a blank stare, try that first; along with the Seafoam trans tune. That may help.

      As I stated elsewhere, my Dad and most people for that matter never think of having the transmission filter and fluid changed. While it can go much longer than the engine; it is still neccessary if you want it to hold up for the life of the car; especially for a known weak one like Ford’s AX4N or your Mazda’s transmission.

      • 0 avatar

        We bought it from a mechanic that had just replaced the belts and motor mounts, so I (perhaps naively) assumed the fluids were good too. I’ll check it out.

        I’ve heard before that replacing the fluid can sometimes cause more issues on a worn tranny, is there any truth to that?

      • 0 avatar

        You should be fine with JUST a fluid and filter change. Some folks will offer to flush the transmission; that can dislodge some of the junk that built up in the transmission over time, and lodge it somewhere else, causing it to fail. I would not flush it; have a shop with a good reputation do the job, and not a quick change place or a buddy who is handy with tools.

      • 0 avatar

        And I forgot to mention: if it does fail after a fluid change and filter, that does not mean that is reason why it failed. It was just money wasted; it was going to fail anyway.

    • 0 avatar

      Mazda auto transmissions from back in the day were infamous. Lots of 626’s, MX-6s and Probes that were otherwise OK ended up in the bone-yard after the transmissions died and the repair cost more than the MFV of the car. Last Mazda trans I changed out….doing the labor myself….cost $1,500 from the re-builder….actually it was re-manufactured (3 year/36K mile warranty included).

  • avatar

    “The AX4N transmission is the best one ever put into a Taurus. But at 215k, this particular one has given all it can to God, country, and the prior owners.”

    First of all, what color is the transmission fluid. Bright pink? Dark red? Like dirty motor oil? If the answer is anything but bright pink, not just a fluid change, but a filter change is in order as well. Adding a little Seafoam trans tune may help the growl; but since this example is not leaking nor slipping; I would not try anything more radical than that.

    The AX4N was a fragile transmission; though it did not die a premature death after about 1994 model or so. But, it absolutely required fluid and filter change every 20,000 miles. The fact that this example is still running at all with that many miles on it indicates that either they serviced it fairly regularly, or they babied it; the fluid color will help tell you which one it was, as will the amount of shavings on the magnet inside. Dad never believed in servicing the transmission, and I carried that forward in his 1995 Taurus until I had the motor rebuilt @148K this year. The fluid looked like used motor oil, but Dad and later I babied that car since my late Dad gave it to us in about 2002; and the mechanic reported there was very little in the way of shavings on the magnet; he just cleaned it in the parts washer and put it back in.

    Pretty much the same is true for the Vulcan 3.0 SOHC engine your Taurus has. Service it regularly, never let it overheat (ask me how I know), and it will take good care of you. They are not as strong as the Duratech DOHC engines that were an option; but they got better gas mileage, held up better, and any mechanic worthy of the title can repair it.

    The Taurus was built for highway cruising, and that is where it is at home. If you can keep it out of rush hour traffic; I would think it would do great on long commmutes as well; steady state driving is easiest on both the transmission and the engine. Once again, get that coolant bottle fixed though, and don’t let it overheat. If you are going to drive around town only, keep shifted in “D” rather than “OD” (overdrive, the “D” with the circle around it); that cuts down on the number of shifts. If someone wanted to a long term relationship with it, an after market trans cooler will also help.

    Regarding leasing a Corolla instead; there will be months you won’t have to spend $150 to fix anything. I haven’t gotten there in the seven months since the Taurus came back to life because I have been catching up on deferred maintenance, but I may be there now. (This Taurus already looks better off than what I started off with.) Insurance is less; depending on your area, registration may be less as well. Mileage may be just as good; when I am not running the A/C, the “Blue Goose” has gotten as high as 28 MPG in mostly highway driving (60 mile one way commute.) You can still come out ahead; and when someone puts another scratch or ding in it, or the kids spill their drink in it; it is not so tramatic.

    This Taurus would probably fetch around 2-3K, I would imagine. You still see a lot of these on the road, and the next generation (2000-2006) are still common fodder on the “Buy here, pay here” lots. It will also make a good first car for a young driver, or someone going to college. If nothing else, it will teach them how to take care of a car and drive responsibly before strapping them in a new Camero, Mustang, or Corvette.

  • avatar

    “But at 215k, this particular one has given all it can to God, country, and the prior owners.”

    This is exactly why my car is worth so much more to me than it would be to anyone else. People see miles like this and they faint. In reality, if the car has been very well taken care of, it may have a lot more to give. But it’s a big risk.

    I just turned 215k on my 2003 Accord V6 6-Speed. I’m insane OCD with routine maintenance and replacing components at the slightest sign of wear or concern. Drove from my home in Michigan to Florida and back with it 4 months ago. Will be driving to Boston and back this weekend. Drive about 90 miles a day for work. Biggest issue I’ve ever had with it was when the window regular grenaded itself and I had to gorilla tape the window shut for a week while waiting for the $45 part came in. Has never so much as not started on me. But it’s not worth anything to anyone but me because of the odometer.

    • 0 avatar

      Agreed. At 247,000 on my 2006 Grand Prix…there’s no sense in getting rid of it. I figure as long as repairs – not routine maintenance – are under roughly $3,600.00 a year I’m money ahead. I figure for something I’d want to drive I’m looking at a minimum of a $300.00/mo note…and don’t want to put a lot down (what’s the point if I’m going to drive the wheels off of it anyway?).

      I wouldn’t get anything for it and it runs OK enough, is comfortable enough and if I’m careful enough (read: one foot in the grave grandpa) can eek just a tad over 31 mpg out of it on the highway to and from work (90 or 170 miles depending on if I carpool or not). Of course if I carpool it’s always less…running 75-80 with 4 adults typically returns about 24 mpg.

      I figure it’s got quite a bit of life left. When I bought it I was shooting for at least 300,000 miles. Now I’m thinking I might just see how far it can go.

      • 0 avatar

        +1. We tried leasing a car only once driving those kind of miles, and quickly got inverted in it. It was worth nothing when the lease was up, and still owed quite a bit on it. Rolled the balance into the next car note, and the insanity continued.

        If you can’t pay cash, then you take out say a 4-5 year car loan. At the end of your loan; you have a car with 125,000 miles on it. So, trade it in and buy another? Once again, the insanity continues.

        Bought my daughter’s 2001 Suzuki Esteem from her when her husband bought her a TL. It had 120,000 miles on it, I think. It now has 235,000 miles on it, and still going strong. Just the occasional repair; last one was replacing a half shaft, one brake caliper, and installing the brake shoes I bought (before I spotted the bad caliper and torn C/V joint boot.) Total cost was about $500, or four months of Corolla payments. Replaced the broken door handle myself; and cleaned the foggy headlights. Still trying to find the right plastic clips to put one of the door trim strips back on. Last major repair was the alternator and battery last winter; can’t remember the last one before that. It is now the backup car when the Taurus needs attention, will also be my son’s first car for driving around our small town.

      • 0 avatar

        Me too. I have a 97 Cavalier with 254,000 miles on it. After both kids were done with it (well, the one kid still drives it occasionally), it looks like poop. Dented, rusty and 15 years out in the weather. But it starts every time you turn the key and still gets 25+ MPG in town and 35 or so MPG on the freeway. No serious leaks, doesn’t burn oil and barely burns fuel. I can’t complain, bought the car eight years ago for $1000. It had 192,000 miles on it then, and my BIL drove it for his work. He racked up all of those miles, but was fanatic about maintaining the car. It paid off, for me!

        I keep it in good running condition even though it looks awful. I’ve surprised more than a few people thinking it’s a junky old beater. It looks like one, but it still runs well. At least as well as a 2.2L autobox Cavalier can.

        I don’t know how far the old girl will go before the body falls off, though.

  • avatar

    I don’t get it. Why would anybody buy an American car from late 90s with over 200K miles? And why invest any money into a car that’s worth maybe a $1000?

    • 0 avatar

      Top Ten Reasons to own a 200K beater:

      1. $1000 pays for it, period; it is not just a down payment
      2. Insurance, registration is less
      3. Some of us LIKE the way the cars of the 90s look; as oppossed to today. And in my case, it is an honest-to-god station wagon; not a CUV or “sport wagon”
      4. If you are willing to do your own light repairs, you come out way ahead in overall car ownership cost. If you have to go to the dealer every time somthing breaks; forget it.
      5. No, they do not have side air bags or rollover protection; but the late 90s cars do have airbags, side impact beams, and shoulder belts all around — plenty adequate 99% of the time
      6. They get equivalent mileage to most of their counterparts today
      7. If you have to have a USB port for your iphone or satellite radio, it is just a cheap aftermarket purchase away
      8. You don’t have to fuss over parking lot damage
      9. You don’t have to worry about it getting stolen. Unless it is a Honda Accord. (Taurus? What Taurus? I didn’t see any Taurus there.)
      10. A good find like this one drives just as well. My 1995 Taurus wagon is just as quiet, and gets better mileage than my wife’s Durango; our other 6-8 passenger hauler.

      • 0 avatar

        You got it. Beaters only make sense if you’re capable and willing to do a little light wrenching. Not AT replacements but stuff like replacing old rotten hoses or worn out brake calipers.

    • 0 avatar

      I receive more theraputic benefit from wrenching on my beater for 3 hours on the weekend then I would from yoga or playing golf so it ends up being a good investment for me.

    • 0 avatar

      I receive more therapeutic benefit from wrenching on my beater for 3 hours on the weekend then I would from yoga or playing golf so it ends up being a good investment for me.

  • avatar

    From a dealer’s point of view, it’s all legit business, but from personal… At some point in life (and income) these techno-financial exercises around junk cars are starting to look tedious.

    • 0 avatar

      That’s exactly the point I reached early last year. I was getting sick of spending time under the hood fixing yet another something or other that had gone wrong, I had the money to put a large down payment on a new car, aaaaand my job was secure.
      Now however, I’m bored of my new blandmobile, still have 10 months payments to make, and my job is looking shaky at best.
      Here’s hoping my work lasts until the damn thing is paid for.

      • 0 avatar


        The inconvenience of either visiting a mechanic or spending your free time on minor repairs gets old.

        But as you point out, job security in current economic conditions is an issue. It’s hard to project job security for the duration of a typical new car loan. The great thing about paid-off cars is if you aren’t driving them, they cost you very little. The payments on a newer car come due whether you are driving the thing to work or not.

  • avatar

    I’ve said it before, these cars make the perfect winter car for those who live above the 40th parallel. Front wheel drive with good meat on them, enough ground clearance to not get high centered easily, a working heater, a bullet proof tranny, comfy seats, and decent gas mileage make for a winner for winter commutes.

    I had a ’88 Pontiac 6000-LE with 215K Canadian kms that I bought for $1300 back in ’05 while stationed in Ft. Riley, KS. It ran extremely well, 3.1L V6, four speed auto, engine block heater, working A/C, fog lights and a tachometer, 30 mpgs, and power windows and locks that worked. It wasnt much to look at, but did very well in the snow and ice. A monster Ford F-350 rolled over the driver’s side while it was parked to which his insurance company totaled it for me for $1500. A year later, I parked it for sale at the commissary and sold it within the hour to a gentlemen needing a second car for his construction job for $1200.

    Synchromesh, you’d be amazed at how many people love a beater and that they sometimes pay you back. I paid very little for it outright, drove it for two years with no drama, and sold it for what I had paid for it. Could say it was almost free driving.

    • 0 avatar

      I suppose if you enjoy beaters then it could be fun. But I don’t like to beat on cars and on top of that I do value reliability. The problem with the beater is you never know what will fail next and where. Bad timing could happen and you could end up stranded in the middle of nowhere. Not a scenario I’d like to see happen to myself.

      Now, I do prefer to buy used cars and imho a decent $10K daily driver will go a long way. And if you must do wrenching you can always buy a second car just for that. :)

  • avatar

    I bought a beat up 83 TBird TurboCoupe at the city abandoned vehicle auction in 2005. I paid $120 for it. I figured once I put a new battery and wheels/tires (TRX go bye-bye) on it, if it lasted a year I would have had $50/month into it. That would have been OK.

    I drove it to work this morning. Since then I’ve had to put struts, exhaust(w/cat), and an ECU in it, but I’m still way under $50/mo.

  • avatar

    “Operable”? I believe you mean “operative,” unless you’re referring to a engine transplant.

  • avatar

    I bought a 91 Pontiac Bonneville a couple of years ago because we had got cought in the housing crissis and were in the middle of a bankruptcy. I went the opposite way that a dealer would. Cosmetics were the very lowest priority. All four doors and both quarters had large scrapes, the paint was pealing, the interior was missing all of its knobs and there was a hole where the radio had been. It had 80,000 miles ran great, shifted perfect, had good anti lock brakes. I got it for $800. I drove it for 2 years and put 2 tires on it. I got tired of it about when the water pump went. I Bought a car that needed much more work and was less safe for about the same money to replace it. But it was a car I really liked, a 1965 Dodge Dart wagon for $1000. Drove it for 2 1/2 years and sold it for $1000. Now my finances are much better and I just got a new Fiat convertible that is both safe and fun.

  • avatar

    Beater Fans…need some advice. Just sold my old Saab and picked up a first gen Toyota Avalon on the cheap. Prior owner was going to trade it in and the dealer was only going to give him a few hundred bucks. Runs fine, looks ok, 150k miles. But has a few minor issues (struts, brakes, AC recharge, a few interior buttons falling off, etc). Tires are fine, have all service records, runs great. So, no major powertrain issues and unlike my Saab, all the windows and gauges actually work. Basically, when I drive it the motor and trans runs new, but the rest of the car yearns to go back to the Monica Lewinsky years, when AOL Dial up was the most popular way to access the internet, and white Ford Broncos were quite popular with ex football starts who were running from the law.

    Here’s my dilemn given its age…do I
    1. Drive as is until it blows up or dies. Then part it out.
    2. Put about $1k into it to make it nice?
    3. Keep driving it but nurse it along with fluid and filter changes and resell next summer?

    Let me hear from the beater experts out there…I need this car to last me about a year, so I don’t want to dump a whole lot of $$ in it but don’t want it to die next week either. By the way, I have seen Avalons on the Toyota forums that are pushing well over 300k miles. So I figure this one is just getting broken in!

    • 0 avatar

      I’d fix the brakes and struts for the sake of safety and then just keep an eye out for junkyard/ebay parts and replace as available. I wouldn’t go on a spending spree though.

      Change the oil and the rest of the fluids semi-on-schedule you’ll be bored of it before it blows up.

    • 0 avatar

      Agreed on brakes and struts, especially brakes. Depending on how bad they are, you might be able to ignore struts. Brakes are a must fix though.

      If you only need it for a year, I wouldn’t touch the rest. And AC recharges are bandaids at best. It’s a closed system. It doesn’t lose its charge without a leak. It will take more than a recharge to fix the AC.

  • avatar

    I came up with a unique way to get a beater, make it one! I was looking at buying my brother’s truck so I asked to take it on a “test haul”. Well someone who obviously hadn’t lived in our small town long decided to turn left at the light that everyone knew was “no left turn” and I hit him. The noise was so loud the cops at the police station two blocks away heard it and walked over to investigate. The other guy got the ticket and I was left to explain to my brother what I’d done to his truck. Thankfully the damage was all cosmetic and the other guy’s insurance of course paid my brother for the damage which came to just $100 left than what he was asking for the truck. So I paid my brother the $100 and got a decent running but beat up pickup which served me well for several years!

  • avatar

    Geeze Louise: “…why would anyone buy an American made car with over 200k on it…when it’s only worth $1,000?”
    Uhhh…maybe because it runs…and passes smog…and has 2 airbags…and if you are lucky ABS. Thats why.

    At 200k miles you know its got a new fuel pump and a new alternator and probably a new starter and hallf shafts.
    My God! Who are these people who make fun of a person who buys a high mi American car?

    Is the 100k mark really the death knoll for American used car buyers? If a car passes smog, has airbags, ABS, and a new alt-f-pump-and probably a starter … then just maybe it will be an OK car. To each his own but being afraid of high mi cars seems a bit out of touch in this day and age.
    In AZ any running car with A/C that passes smog and seems to drive OK probably is OK and is normally worth about $1500.If you can get it for $1,000 so much the better… Granted: If you live in the rust belt… I have to agree about 15 year old cars…regardless of miles…they really do rust out…and become worthless… but seriously; for the rest of us who live in a more civilized part of the country…and have never heard of rust… then high miles just dont matter.
    Airplanes never wear out when properly taken care of… why should cars?
    If Uruguay…Cuba… and any 3rd world country worth its salt can keep its old American cars running forever…WHY CAN’T WE?

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