How To: Invest In A Beater
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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