Hammer Time Remix: The Ultimate Tightwad Car

Steven Lang
by Steven Lang
hammer time remix the ultimate tightwad car

Saturn? Civic? Neon? A diesel owned by this long-time TTAC commeter?

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 more 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 30 year old 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 Camrys and Accords of that time were far more refined and quiet. So were Maximas, Intrepids, and almost any other pricey competitor of the early 1990’s. 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 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 Volvo 240 to good use.

The fellow who bought the 240 was already driving another 240. His 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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  • Phxmotor Phxmotor on Jan 03, 2013

    Its goota be the post 86 Volvo 240s and 740's. As an Arizona then California kid I knew nothing of rust... nothing. when my wife and I moved to the "rust belt" between Ann Arbor and Toledo a couple years ago...ho boy!..did we learn about the idiot rust issue! An old lady rancher from Toomstonet took her 31 Model A and literally painted it (with a brush) every year since 1955 when she bought it...rust free... and with careful driving and replacing whatever it needed is still driving the dang thing!... but back to logical forevers... the 240-740 probably is the best... the early 240's with CI were OK, but bad mpg and hard to diagnose vacuum issues that rendered the CI system inoperable, make the post 86 240s and 740s by far the best choice. Its just a darned shame that even the 240-740's are becomming less and less available thru wrecking yards... just like the original VW bug. wow! its hard to believe the VW bug is literally a thing of the past except as a novelty car. I've always believed...and tried to pass down to my kids... that its best to own cars that are between 8 and 20 years old. Maybe 25 in certain cases. It just isnt worth it to have to special order parts. When cars drift out of the real wrecking yards... and then drift out of the U-pull-its... then its time to let go already. Best car as a forever nowdays? Obviously a "non-bling" LS400... and then Subaru Legacy-Outback-Impreza-Forester... as long as it doesnt have the stupid DOHC 2.5 that is... and so what if it needs a trans? Who cares? Its cheap enough to find used and easy enough to replace... and the dang things really are as good as a Jeep... and the jokers who insist they are not "real off roaders"... are just ignorant. I live in the real snow... over 500 inches a year...and all I drive is Subarus and V8 explorers. And I never buy eother with less than 100k. Why? I never get stranded... I always have warning if something needs to be replaced... and they are dirt cheap. 8-20 years old... proven reliability...and throw nostalgia to the wind. In the next few decades we will be reminising about the now unknown Chinese makes that we don't even know about yet. The tough ones will win our hearts... and we will have a whole new generation of "car stories" to tell. But if Ford keeps making I-4s with valve seats that fall out, it wont be Fords that we will be reminising about. Heck they even retired the funky 5.0 pushrod... Too reliable? Too problem free? I get sick when the thought of a Volvo 240-740 is a memory from the distant past... but I guess all things have their time. When I begin to think sad thoughts, I just remember the Toomstone Model A and laugh about the 1/3rd of an inch of exterior house paint that is on it, and try to keep in mind that no matter what... if you really like a car... you will find a way to keep it on the road.

  • Phydo773 Phydo773 on Jan 08, 2013

    I recently bought a '93 240 wagon in better than good cosmetic condition, especially inside (rust on the tailgate of course) and the engine/tranny seem pretty solid so far. What I've already replaced: engine/transmission mounts and driveshaft (knew about that when I bought it for $1000 in October.) Still need a new exhaust, not sure how extensive it is beyond whole tailpipe and muffler, and struts/shocks and possibly some other front end stuff but I don't think so. There are a few quirks, notably the reverse lights only flicker on when you first put it into reverse, right side of defrost seems to be clogged, heat is so-so, rear window washer doesn't work and the damned SRS light on the dash is annoyingly large and bright, plus a couple other minor things, but hey, it's a 20 year old car, right? I've always been attracted to the old bricks (especially the wagons) though never owned one, but I could be falling in love with this one. I'd appreciate any advice, tips etc. One last thought--should I try to sell it and find a 740 or 940 before I get too invested?

  • Oberkanone Installing immobilizer is the answer. It's not hard. It's not expensive.
  • MrIcky Out of the possible Jeep recalls to bring up on this site, I'm surprised it's this one and not round 2 of the clutch recall.
  • Dukeisduke I saw a well-preserved Mark VII LSC on the road not too long ago, and I had to do a double-take. They still have a presence. Back when these were new, a cousin of mine owned an LSC with the BMW turbo diesel.
  • Dukeisduke I imagine that stud was added during the design process for something, and someone further along the process forgot to delete it after it became unnecessary.
  • Analoggrotto Knew about it all along but only now did the risk analysis tilt against leaving it there.