New or Used? : This Musician Wants An Escort (Wagon)

Steven Lang
by Steven Lang
new or used this musician wants an escort wagon

I’m a working musician from NYC. I have a conundrum.

Since 1998 I’ve owned a 1989 BMW E30 ‘vert, which has served me well as a touring artist — it just hit 160k, most of those miles mine. However, all those miles have come at a price, between 40k timing belt changes and other occasional maintenance items, I wind up putting roughly $1500 into it every two to four years.

But I’ve always loved it, and it never let me down, until recently.

It’s hit that point where everything is wearing out at the same time – seat backs (not easy or cheap to replace correctly), seatbelts, shocks, minor trunk rust, fuel filler neck, and it needs new tires and rotors–though it is still mostly intact and in lovely condition mechanically and otherwise and drives great.

I’ve been worried about having my DD be a 26-year-old car without airbags that could theoretically be pummeled by a lowly Civic or equivalent, and while it still kicks ass on B-roads, every time I drive it on interstates I feel utterly vulnerable in a way I never used to.(Other cars have gotten so heavy and big!)

But right now I simply need a car, and the BMW is safely garaged as it’s not roadworthy for the aforementioned reasons. I live paycheck to paycheck. So I need to make the best use of what little money I have to remedy the situation.

The way I see it, I have three options:

1) Spend $2k on repairing my baby and DD it, Irv Gordon-style, till I or it crumble

2) Take a neighbor’s 1998 Escort wagon that I’ve been offered for free–it is rusty and a bit long in the tooth but more or less reliable, (but again, I’m a little worried about its safety compared to new cars, even though it has airbags and is engineered for the 1997 side impact protection regs)–and repair it as a DD (needs a new muffler and other small repairs-worried it might need a head gasket as those engines blow ’em, though it seems fine now), and then insure the E30 through Hagerty and restore it slowly as a project.

3) Try to find another used car for around the same $2k that is a simple appliance and much much safer than either the Escort or my E30, and insure the E30 through Hagerty. I could also sell the E30, but I don’t feel ethical selling it in its current condition…plus it’s got many memories, and feels more like an heirloom at this point…sigh…)

I do love driving that darn thing, and it’s never really let me down. But I don’t know what the best use of my limited money is here, and if I’m just being paranoid about using my E30 or the Escort as a DD. Or even if I can get any car for $2k that isn’t a garbage heap. (I’m also 6’2″, so that too is a consideration.)

Thoughts? Recommendations?

Steve Says:

Start by getting the Escort looked at by an independent mechanic. If it’s worth keeping for a while, then it’s time for you to have one less heirloom in your life.

Yes, I loved those old E30s too. I remember one road trip where I was stoned out of my gourd, and my best friend just happened to be driving a forest green 1991 BMW 318i convertible through California’s Highway 1. We eventually made our way east to Reno where we blew our remaining cash on blackjack and cheap booze.

It was money well spent, as was your BMW. But once the party was over, we knew it was time to move on.

So move on donate your car to an enthusiast who has more money to deal with all the problems you mentioned. If all you have is surface rust, and that BMW is structurally sound, it may be worth selling for around $2000. Just make sure you disclose everything to the buyer first. You want a buyer who will pay a premium for honesty, and those folks are out there.

Escorts of this generation do have one notable weakness, and that is valve seat failure. They also tend to like mid-grade fuel. Even the non-Zetec engine, which is the version your friend owns. My wife and I had a 1997 Ford Escort LX for four years during my early years in the auction business, and other than having to put higher octane fuel to avoid pinging issues, the Escort was completely trouble free. It also had a decent safety record for that time.


I only sold it because we were expecting a second kid. Even today my wife prefers to drive compact vehicles like that Escort.

So what would I do? I would sell the BMW so long as the frame isn’t rusted out, and bum rides for a short while. I would then get the Escort inspected and have the repair costs assessed before committing to it. If it doesn’t work out, you’re only out $100.

Finally, if the Escort is worth more dead than alive, I would opt for a similar, older, unpopular vehicle that has cosmetic issues, but has been mechanically well kept. You’re a musician… so aim for something with lots of records (bad, bad pun… I know) and get the vehicle independently inspected before you buy it.

Save up. Weigh your options. Don’t be afraid to say no to both vehicles if it comes down to it.

One more thing. Nobody knows how to drive a stick anymore. I now have five of them at my lot, and a sixth at a nearby auction. So if you’re still in the market for one, let me know. Please!

Steve can always be contacted directly at .

Join the conversation
2 of 28 comments
  • Jimbob457 Jimbob457 on Apr 22, 2014

    Just a guess, but in general it is usually better to deal with the devil you know - in this case your E30 which was one of the best cars of its time - than to take on the mystery that was somebody else's problem. My son drove a used E30 for about 100,000 miles, then sold it because it was getting doggy. Turned out to be a big mistake. Its replacements offered one problem after another. If you feel you need and can afford a better used car than your E30, you might consider a Southern road trip out of the rust belt. Atlanta is good. LA is good. Central Texas and Phoenix are the best. You can scan the internet to see what is available. Be sure and review all the previous owners of any car you are considering. People often buy cars in the rust belt and resell them elsewhere.

  • Oldwheelsnewyork Oldwheelsnewyork on Apr 23, 2014

    Hey everyone, thanks for the great comments and advice! I'm putting a Taurus and Focus on my short list, and will keep eyes peeled for an Xbox. My gut is telling me to take the Escort as a beater and keep the Bimmer...but hopefully something else will come up. The Escort is in good shape but I worry about the was a salvage from New Hampshire, and it's definitely yucky underneath. I worry about those rear shock towers... And Steve, I will definitely drop you a line...I just need to get my spouse to start loving manuals. But the only reason I would want a car with an automatic though is that so many people I tour with - all over the gender and age spectrum, mind you - have NO CLUE how to drive stick. What the heck?!?! Last, the seat problem with the E30 is the sports seats- they have a latch mechanism that fails; the seat backs now flop forward under regular braking and to replace the seats costs a lot since they are E30 specific. I'm told a good welder can repair them but that freaks me out, too. If anyone knows a drop-in replacement for these seats, please let me know. And I'd love the info on that repair person in Long Island! Thanks again everyone...