By on April 22, 2014


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.

 (<— nice video)

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 [email protected]



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28 Comments on “New or Used? : This Musician Wants An Escort (Wagon)...”

  • avatar

    I owned a 1997 Escort LX wagon, power everything, no cruise control, 2.0 SOHC and four speed automatic. Purchased used from Avis Ford when the car was 5 years old but had merely 21,000 miles on it and a title that indicated the owner had been a resident of one of the local retirement villages.

    Not a bad little car, replaced the shocks/struts at 60,000 miles, rebuilt the trans at 70,000 because I had never serviced the cooling system (which the transmission cooler was integral to), and drove it till 2009. Exwife got it in the divorce and I still see it around town (though she got rid of it.)

    As Steve said, get an independent mechanic to look the Escort over well. As old as they are my concern would be condition.

    • 0 avatar

      You’re taking me back to my road warrior days in the late 90’s … I always prefered the Escorts and Contours as rental vehicles to many of the other standard offerings, despite the low rent interiors – esp. the last escorts.

      Despite the obligatory rental slushbox, they could actually manage to bring a smile to your face ocasionally by going around corners with the fear induced by the driver, not the suspension.

      • 0 avatar

        Handling was the best part. The Escort and Focus are likely the two most underrated handlers of the late 90s into the 00s. I remember that a few folks recommended scooping up a deal on the last of the old Focus before the new one debuted, just because of handling prowess.

  • avatar

    You may always want to look for an early 2000’s Focus Wagon. Yes, they made them in wagon form and no, they were not particularly popular but they are out there.

    • 0 avatar

      Focus Wagon is fun to drive and can hold an amount of stuff that would stretch the fabric of space-time.

    • 0 avatar

      And came with leather and heated seats in ZXW trim.

    • 0 avatar

      We bought a 2006 a couple years ago, well-maintained and gently used. We got it to be an efficient runabout with lots of practical space (more than the suv it replaced, in fact). The nice surprise is that it’s actually a zippy car with better than expected handling. My only real complaint would be that Ford skimped badly on sound absorption. Other than that, it’ 109,000 miles of nothing but routine maintenance.

      While I can’t speak to hauling band equipment, I can testify that it’s a better hunting vehicle than expected, too. I think of the 7 deer my family got this year, at least five were hauled to the processor in (or on top of in the case of a good sized buck) the Focus. It’s also just the right height for resting the rifle while feral hog hunting.

  • avatar

    Five sticks sitting around unsold? Sounds like a failure of imagination to me. Come on, you’re the hero of the weekly payment genre. Hike ’em up and think of a low-key promo for the shifting set. Your flooring will thank you.

  • avatar

    Underbody frame rust is also a BIG problem with the Escort….
    If it’s sold in snow areas Beware….

    • 0 avatar

      Yes, my daughter’s ’98 had a large hole in the driver’s side floor that I missed at purchase. Look hard underneath. Floors can be patched if you’re handy (and don’t mind a hack job), but rockers are fatal. I see Escorts here in Ohio with the entire outer rockers missing and it makes me shudder. Got to be one flexi flier.

  • avatar

    I would think the escort would be more reliable and cheaper to maintain opposed to the BMW. But you won’t have that “I drive a BMW” poshness of owning a bmw . Even though its probably going to cost thousands a year to keep running. How about selling the BMW. It does not matter what shape its in. Some fool just wanting a BMW will have no problem fixing it for a couple years then selling it. You can take the money from the BMW when you sell it “yourself” and put it down on a new car. You can get a new 2014, safer, better gas mileage, more reliable. Take a look at the Hyundai Accent 5 door, great warranty avg 35+ mpg. Ford Fiesta, Toyota corolla and yaris could also be great options.

  • avatar

    Avoid Ford Escorts if you live in a state that puts salt on the roads in the winter, which you do. You’ll find that the rear springs always fail, which isn’t something you want if you’re going to be loading it up with music gear.

    If you want to stick with Ford for whatever reason, then get a 2003 + hatch or wagon Focus. A ’98 to 2001 Subaru Impreza with the 2.2 engine would also serve you well.

  • avatar

    An old clapped out CR-V or Escape might be in the cards versus the similar cargo holding Escort wagon.

  • avatar

    High mileage late model domestic, like every other musician drives.

    Quick search on autotrader I found a 2006(!) Buick Allure with 150K miles for under 3 grand. Looks nice enough that I kind of want to buy it.

  • avatar

    I was in a wreck once with an Escort wagon…
    It was rear-ended by a SUV and pushed into my lane (2-lane road) where I was oncoming in my ’93 Bronco. (NEVER turn your wheels before you’re ready to make your turn)
    The back bumper was in the back seat, and the front crumpled like a tin can. It took two hours to extract the passengers, who had suffered pretty serious injuries.

    I’d personally go for something stiffer and with airbags… like an 03 xB, some of those can be had for cheap these days.

    Bad News Bear

    • 0 avatar

      The Escort does have airbags. And it’s no worse than other similiar cars of that time.

      • 0 avatar

        “…of that time.”

        Isn’t that the point? That was against other cars of that time, and the OP specifically noted newer cars on the road being bigger and heavier. A late ’90s-early ’00s car with a better safety/reliability record might be a Buick LeSabre with the 3.8.

  • avatar

    When we were looking to replace our car last year (totaled by a sleeping driver hitting it) we looked for a four door with a manual and found two. One was a 1992 Accord sedan and the other was a Focus that was wrecked and poorly repaired and the seller had said it had never been in an accident. If you were closer I would trade you.

  • avatar

    The Escort sounds like the perfect vehicle for you…. working musicians definitely need space, but the Escort is small enough outside that it will be easy to park on the street.

    $2K is rough though, not a lot out there for that money. You will definitely have to stay away from the popular brands and go with something off the beaten path.

  • avatar

    Another consideration aside from the aforementioned Scion xB, would also be its platform mate the Scion xA. The xA is basically a Toyota Echo hatchback, which means it’ll be much more reliable than any of the other cars mentioned here. They’re mostly unloved, so the resale on them isn’t as high as most other Toyota’s.

  • avatar

    Take the Escort it will be a good daily beater that will allow you the funds to keep the BMW. $2K isn’t going to buy any car worth having other than a ratty looking Panther or A body.

  • avatar

    Seriously? I am the first one to say you are crazy for getting rid of the E30?

    That car is not like today’s BMWs. It is built to last, it is very simple, cheap to maintain, and will always hold value as long as you keep it maintained. And its beautiful, fun to drive, you have owned it for 15 yrs and you love it. And you basically have almost no money. And everyone here knows that its cheaper to fix your car than to replace it.

    What you described isn’t really a long laundry list of stuff. New shocks… well, you probably do need shocks but do you really NEED shocks? They can maybe wait til the next big paying gig. Seatbacks… what does that even mean, and can you live without fixing them for a bit? Because yes rust has to be fixed, along with whatever is wrong with the fuel filler neck. Rotors and tires… important. Well then again, do you really NEED new rotors? My dad has never in his life replaced a brake rotor. What is the worst that can happen if you wait on those. And you have 15″ rims right? You can survive on some cheap tires, you can usually find some 15″ price leaders for $50 each or so. And really, all 15″ tires are cheap, I just put a full set of Michelins on my daughter’s Civic for under $500. I doubt rotors will cost you more than $200, you do know not to shop at the BMW dealer by now right?

    And is it safe? Well probably not compared to a new car but you aren’t buying a new car. You are getting a clapped out rust ridden Escort. It’s not safe either. I’d bet your BMW is safer. And really any crappy car you find in New York for $2k is going to be junk. I don’t think most of the B&B realizes how expensive things are up there.

    I have a friend with a body shop on Long Island, if you don’t have a connection to get the rust fixed on the cheap, let me know and I will get the shop name from him. Fix your E30 and keep it, you will regret selling it in the long run.

  • avatar

    Let’s go with the facts, then offer opinions.

    Fact: Small cars from the 1990’s are relatively dangerous in crashes, esp. if the car is 15 years old at this point. Metal fatigue, rust (seen and unseen), lack of side airbags.

    Fact: You’re a NYC musician and you’re a tall guy. You likely do a lot of bleary-eyed night driving after gigs, which is statistically more dangerous. (I’m not suggesting you’d be drunk, of course; merely tired after gigs.) But there are surely more drunk drivers out there at night, just waiting to ram into you. Plus, NYC has lotsa illegal aliens driving unregistered and uninsured beaters. Your location therefore increases your risks. And as a tall guy, you’ll fit in the Escort. But it will leave little extra space that could protect you in a crash.

    Opinion: if you’re gonna get a beater, get a the biggest beater you can find. Look at Impalas and Tauruses.

    • 0 avatar

      The after-gig tiredness doesn’t hit me for a few hours. If I don’t hang around afterward and head right home, it’s never an issue as I’m usually wired from the experience. But then, my band tends to play short sets in showcase gigs (since we’re amateurs), so it may be different for a pro.

      A Taurus wagon is a great choice, especially with the 16-valve 3.0 V6. Just try to find one that had regular trans fluid changes, the trans is the big weak spot. I had three of the things and, while totally unexciting to drive, they were honest vehicles with cheap repair parts.

  • avatar

    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.

  • avatar

    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 rust…it 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…

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