Hammer Time: Not All Cheap Cars Are Beaters

Steven Lang
by Steven Lang

One dollar of depreciation in four years.

Fifty-five miles per gallon.

Forty-eight thousand miles.

I may have very well owned the cheapest car in America a few years ago. Back in 2009, I bought a 2001 Honda Insight with 145,000 miles for all of $4001 at an auction. After four years and with 193,000 miles, I sold it last year for exactly $4000.

That’s all well and good, but let’s face it folks. I’m in the car business. Plus, a first generation Honda Insight is pretty much a cheat when it comes to cheap cars. It was designed with stingy bastards like me in mind who use the edge of the technological envelope instead of individual ingenuity and improvisation.

That Insight was a cheap car… but definitely not a beater. Why? Too much money and too few stories about personal travels and other unique mayhem. To me, a beater is a concept that has far more to do with the owners than the actual car.

Three qualities define the beater.

Personalization: Murilee’s 1992 Honda Civic may outlast the Crown Vic dinosaurs that find their way to government auctions and taxicab companies. But his 1965 Chevrolet Impala was a rolling embodiment of the glories that come from a beater that has true inner beauty. He made that car whole in every sense of the word.

Parsimony: Beaters must always remain cheap when it comes to cosmetics. A 1983 Lincoln Mark VI that drools out liquids on a daily basis and has duct tape on every seat and door is more of a beater than a Metro bought new and maintained with someone’s obsessive compulsive disorder.

Stories: Rolling sewing machines that spend their days droning around on traffic-laden roads are not what beaters are about. To me at least, I want the really out there stuff. The Volvo wagon whose ten foot headliner meticulously chronicled the unique exploits of two young female lovers who traveled the country. The other Volvo wagon that was bought cheap and proceeded to financially emasculate one of our writers. The other, other Volvo wagon that was rescued from the crusher and brought back to the loving hands of a brick enthusiast.

An ability to outlast other cars to the point where it contradicts all known levels of applied physics should be spiritually welded with the stories that inevitably come with a good personalized car.

So what about your story? Did you one day find a lonely old 1980’s Subaru wagon that was used as an official beer car for your local hash events? Did an old family car help you more fully understand the pharmacological events that come with attending Grateful Dead concerts? Heck, did you take a Renault LeCar in the woods and chase wild animals with it?

We all have our moments of high weirdness with a beater. So feel free to share yours.

Steven Lang
Steven Lang

More by Steven Lang

Join the conversation
2 of 35 comments
  • Guy922 Guy922 on Jun 03, 2014

    1992 Camry V6 LE. I have 174k as of yesterday. I bought it 2 years ago with 152k. It looked like it should have been taking its final tow truck ride. Faded green paint, filthy interior missing all kinds of trim pieces and a general air of hopelessness all conspired to make her the car of my $1000 dreams. It was a labor of love for me, as I have a very soft spot for the gen 3 Camry. They were the only sedan/wagon that I actually wanted and pined away for as a kid reading car mags and growing up in 90s suburban America. The fluid good looks have always looked good to me. I remember a girl I went to school with who lived on my block. in 1998 her mom came home with a red 1994 Camry V6 LE sedan with gold trim, tan interior. That was the one that really hooked me. It was sooooooo quiet at the time. I guess it still is. My Camry has had some work done but again: labor of love here. C/V joints early on, rear brakes, tune-up, replaced power steering pump, shocks, all belts including timing, water pump, left front caliper. Honestly, its been worth every dime, not to mention that with the help of pick n pull my interior has been fully rehabbed. The car provides smooth and competent transportation. it has proven to be reliable even for its age. It will be with me until its dead. Its been my favorite of all my cars.

  • PandaBear PandaBear on Jun 09, 2014

    93 Escort that I inherit from my inlaw. This car has broken everything when they toss me the key. The interior fuse is blown, the tires worn funny and 4 mismatch tires, dry rot rubber hoses everywhere, dielectric broken down plug wires and 4 way over worn plugs, leaking radiator, battery acid boiled over and rusted all sorts of stuff, bad interior, missing hub caps, bad wipers, bad wind shield spray nozzle, dirty MAF sensors, etc. It is fixed with a grand total of $200 junk yard parts and rockauto closeout. It still has 4 blown struts but for local errant it is great. I'll probably keep it around instead of crushing it any time soon.

  • Kosmo Love it. Can I get one with something other than Subaru's flat four?
  • M B When the NorthStar happened, it was a part of GM's "rebuilding" of the Cadillac brand. Money to finance it was shuffled from Oldsmobile, which resulted in Olds having to only facelift its products, which BEGAN its slide down the mountain. Olds stagnated in product and appearances.First time I looked at the GM Parts illustration of a NorthStar V-8, I was impressed AND immediately saw the many things that were expensive, costly to produce, and could have been done less expensively. I saw it as an expensive disaster getting ready to happen. Way too much over-kill for the typical Cadillac owner of the time.Even so, there were a few areas where cost-cutting seemed to exist. The production gasket/seal between the main bearing plate and the block was not substantial enough to prevent seeps. At the time, about $1500.00 to fix.In many ways, the NS engine was designed to make far more power than it did. I ran across an article on a man who was building kits to put the NS in Chevy S-10 pickups. With his home-built 4bbl intake and a 600cfm Holley 4bbl, suddenly . . . 400 horsepower resulted. Seems the low hood line resulted in manifolding compromises which decreased the production power levels.GM was seeking to out-do its foreign competitors with the NS design and execution. In many ways they did, just that FEW people noticed.
  • Redapple2 Do Hybrids and be done with it.
  • Redapple2 Panamera = road porn.
  • Akear What an absurd strategy. They are basically giving up after all these years. When a company drinks the EV hemlock failure is just around the corner.