By on August 5, 2019

1982 Chrysler LeBaron in Colorado wrecking yard, LH front view - ©2018 Murilee Martin - The Truth About Cars

This first week of August finds us in the thick of summer, battling heat and mosquitos in equal measure. One summertime treat that has faded from your author’s life now he’s knocking on his fortieth year? The purchase of a summer car.

You know exactly the kind of summer car I’m talking about. It’s a beater, bought for peanuts and likely ending its life at the end-of-summer demolition derby. In between, though, full-throttle blasts and the lack of concern for dents and bumps (in both the car and myself, if we’re honest) lend themselves to the creation of a roster of stories to be told and re-told at the local bar that winter after the car is long gone.

There is actually a decidedly odd but fun computer game on Steam called My Summer Car, a bizarre first-person program in which the protagonist finds themselves with a knackered old beater and the summer months to themselves. The parallels between some of this promotional video and your author’s late teens and early 20’s is alarming.

We’ll leave you with a brace of fun facts: yes, it is possible to get air in a Crown Vic despite it being rusted to the point of having the structural rigidity of a week-old salad. And it is difficult to gauge one’s speed when the only thing illuminated on the dashboard of a rough-but-ready 1986 Bonneville is an angry red warning light that reads “Engine.” Allegedly, of course.

Was your summer car a rusty Detroit barge from the ’60s? Was it a knackered and forgotten old minivan into which you could fit all your friends? Whatever it was, we are certain you lot have a story or three upon which to reminisce.

[Image: Murilee Martin/TTAC]

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20 Comments on “QOTD: Your Most Fun Summer Wheels?...”

  • avatar

    I had a bunch of beaters. But if were talking short term ownership The samurai I bought senior year was entertaining.
    Pay $500 kid at the school offer 1K for it dumbly turn it down. Bring it to a friends house that backs up to woods and a development that never got built. Beat on it in the woods for several days almost roll it over but instead got it wedged in a tree halfway rolled. During one entertaing jump off a pile of sand from the development the horn get’s stuck on, rip the wire right off it.
    In the end after much fun in the woods something in the wiring harness fried (fusible link?) ended up giving it to a buddy who killed it in tough trucks.

  • avatar

    Lol, that one car I bought “just for summer fun” is exactly the same LeBaron convertible pictured. By the time summer was over that “K”-car was becoming more trouble then it was worth, so I said good-bye to the last convertible I ever owned, I then discovered the joys of a nice big sunroof and never looked back

    • 0 avatar

      Re: a nice big sunroof, the pillarless Mercedes coupes are really appealing to me in that regard. (Without checking the M-B website, I think it’s the E- and S-based two-doors that are that way; I think the C has B-pillars.) That said, I think I’ve seen only one in the wild being driven the way God intended, with the sunroof open and all windows down. Too rich for my blood, though, at this point in my life.

      I’m always surprised at how few people make use of their windows and sunroofs. Unless it’s blistering hot or raining, if I’m going less than 45 mph, windows are down and sunroof (if there’s one) is open.

      I do have one eye on a convertible. An older relative is inching toward giving up driving–as we all are, I suppose–and I may come into her 9-3 Aero at that point. It would be an expensive (in my world) toy, but it’d be a case of buying the car’s history as much as the car. An orphan brand from a used car lot would make me nervous, but this example has been owned from new and well-maintained by the relative and her late husband. (Jinxing myself there. If/when I acquire it, it’ll probably suffer multiple organ failure.)

  • avatar

    Is this a thing that people do?

    The only times I’ve ever owned a car for less than two years were 1) when I decided to go to law school and sold my Acura TSX for tuition cash and 2) when I discovered that the cabin air quality of my LX570 was poor, without an exhaust leak in sight, and traded it.

    • 0 avatar
      Arthur Dailey

      @ Dal and @Audiman: I have the same question. Is this a real thing?
      Here in Ontario in order to license a car, it needs to pass a safety inspection, it needed to pass an emissions test and insurance is mandatory.

      Used cars are more expensive here due to the smaller supply.
      And older cars that are rotted due to our use of salt, generally will fail the safety inspection.

      Buying a car to ‘beat up’ over a summer would therefore be a very expensive hobby.

      • 0 avatar

        Depending where you live a “summer fun car” can cost as little as just getting plates ($75 where I live) No inspection where I am, so a summer beater isn’t all that much. Although when I bought the Le Baron I had every intention of keeping it long term, it just became too much trouble

      • 0 avatar

        @ Arthur – I think it definitely depends on budget and where you live (i.e., on inspection, insurance, and registration issues). I have a friend who’s done it twice:
        1 – a well-used early ’90s LeBaron that he had for a summer or two.
        2 – a–this one’s especially amusing–PT Cruiser GT convertible that he’s had this summer.

        For their “real cars” his wife and he have a minivan and an E90 M3. (The latter was bought used but in very good shape. It is used as a non-commuter daily driver, if that distinction makes sense. I.e., it gets use as a year-round family sedan and not just as a toy.)

        The rule for the 3rd car always has been a budgetary cap of $5,000. I’d guess their amortized costs are about $1750 per year for a cumulative three years of convertible use. Not cheap in my world, but well within their budget.

    • 0 avatar

      I think winter beaters are more common. But I have and know others who have bought cheap but interesting cars with the plan to only use them for a few months. Here in CT we have emissions issues but if you buy a car with the emission still good you can get by just registering it no safety inspection required. Or if you live a state where reg is an issue Maine will issue a plate to out of staters thru the mail.

      Here is a list of vehicles my friends have done this with before (we were mostly into 4 wd at the time) in our teens and 20’s

      78 Blazer
      88 Samurai
      87 Fire bird
      C30 pickup (don’t know the year)
      first gen ranger
      Cavalier convertible
      Subaru Brat.

      All were under a grand

  • avatar

    Summer beater raised my eyebrows.. We have WINTER beaters here in Ontario. My nice car (S4) goes away for the winter and I drive a 2004 Camry which I love to hate. Lol

  • avatar

    A different kind of summer fun, but a month ago or so a friend and I went in on a ’98 Dodge Neon R/T Sedan that we’re turning into a track car to run at our local “Speedrome” paved oval. The car was already stripped of its interior and glass and lights when we got it, we’re continuing with more weight reduction, repairs, maintenance, and a few allowable modifications and safety things to try and hit the track next spring/summer.

  • avatar

    I’ve owned a pair of old Rangers subsequent summers, bought in the spring once the roads are clear, sold towards the end of summer once my projects are complete but other buyers might not be thinking about winter time old-RWD truck traction woes.

    First was a ’97 XLT reg cab short bed, 2.3L Lima, 5spd 127k miles. Presented very well but was quite rotted underneath. Used the heck out of it, then spent too much money fixing things in preparation to sell. All in, I was about $1k in the hole once I added up all my expenses. Oh well, I hauled a TON of stuff in it, enough to make a substantial 16ft squared paver patio, a raised bed garden, etc.

    Second was a ’94 XLT, reg cab, long bed same 2.3l Lima 5spd, 104k miles. This one was rougher in terms of dents and scratches with a very well worn bed and tailgate, but underneath was VERY solid in terms of minimal rust, and just felt much less worn out in terms of how it rode, despite being used as a farm truck judging by the corn stubble stuck in the suspension. Charged up the A/C with a $5 can of R134a and I was set, commuted all spring and summer, hauled a bunch of stuff again, sold later in the summer for $200 more than I bought it for.

  • avatar

    Oh, I have a bunch of those stories. My buddies and I used to pool our cash and buy a beater super cheap, usually during the winter or early Spring, then have a bunch of fun with it before finally turning it into a demolition derby car at some county fair by Summer’s end. The next year was lather, rinse, repeat. Usually the cars were old Domestic Malaise-era fullsize hoopties like the Pontiac Parisienne, Oldsmobile 98, Lincoln Mark V, occasionally a rusted-out Cordoba/Charger with a 360, and so on. Usually, modifying for demolition derby entry was simple: remove all glass, duct tape padding (old blankets!) on A and B pillars, remove the rear seat, remove the gas tank, bolt a fuel cell to the rear seat floor and run gas lines to it, and IIRC we also had to replace coolant with just water.

    Fun fact: Chrysler products were poor demo-derby cars because when hit they would often stall and struggle to restart. Something ignition-related. The GM vehicles had no such problem. The engines were almost always more robust in the Chrysler products we found though, even if the transmissions was leaking like a sieve (bonus – no need to change the filter if you are always adding fluid!). Their bodies also held out to damage longer than Ford and way longer than GM for some reason. We never bought wagons, though. They were not allowed in the demolition derbies because a wagon that could stay running would always win if allowed as an entrant.

    Anyway, we lived close enough to the countryside that we could usually find objects (like old refrigerators) dumped in the woods or on the side of some dirt road, that we could drag onto the road and ram for fun. A big car was also a hoot to get airborne on a rural hill or railroad crossing when full of teenagers.

  • avatar

    Really? I have a motorcycle for summer fun

  • avatar

    I have has a summer car for 25 years, first it was a Fiat 124 spider, then a 86 Saab 9-3 and the last nine years a 2004 saab 9-3 vert w a 5 speed , does not cost to much to run but I am lucky to either have a company car or get a car allowance that allows this to not be my main car, best thing about a summer convertable is you can drive it for 6-8 months if you want in metro NY , fall driving with the top down is great.

  • avatar

    My first car, the summer after high school (1983) was a ’73 Bonneville coupe, 400, posi rear. It lasted me until Labor Day weekend when the THM400 caught on fire.

  • avatar

    I thought this was going to be a question about road trip cars. So like Mike Manley, I’m going to ask myself the question I wish you had asked me, and then answer *that* question (instead of the one you asked).

    Here’s what I’d like in a summer road trip car:
    – High beltline so I can’t see any sights along the way
    – Large wheels and tiny sidewalls so I feel every bump on our deteriorating highways
    – Cramped interior, which will make me happy to be back home again
    – Decorative C-pillars which block rearward vision but serve as the 2019 equivalent of the howling wolf van mural
    – Tiny trunk and unusable storage cubbies
    – Angry grille, because angry

    Looking at this list, it’s really hard to go wrong with any mainstream offerings in 2019.

    But then again, looking at mainstream offerings in 2019, I think I’ll just cancel the road trip.

    • 0 avatar

      I’d quibble that it’s more tiny trunk openings that are the issue than tiny trunks, but on the whole I commend you for this cynical but not inaccurate take.

      The frustrating part is that I really do like today’s full sizers in terms of power, economy, and handling but I wish the packaging skewed more Fiat 128 (for front drivers) or BMW Neue Klasse (for rear drivers). Give me a greenhouse and some headroom, please. The 5th-gen Taurus and its Sable sibling probably were the last sedans I’d categorize as airy.

      “Angry grille, because angry.” :-) Yep, welcome to the 2010s. Heaven help us.

  • avatar

    Well I don’t know if it’s a summer beater, but I’m pretty tempted to go look at a low mile gold over gold velour ’75 Town Car advertised locally. Supposedly runs and drives, pristine interior, has some rust on the rear quarters. Do I need it? No, and there’s really no reason to buy it other than it’s listed for $1500 and I’d rather not see a formerly nice car rot away in a field.

  • avatar

    I’d say my FIAT 124 Sport Spider fell into this category, but I remember driving it to a party, meeting someone there that I rode to a club with, and coming back to retrieve my car only to find the interior full of snow. I’m guessing I had it outside of the summer months.

  • avatar

    My first car, a 1968 Dodge Dart with a slant 6. Bought it from the elderly lady next door who upgraded to an Aries K in 1982. It was a bucket of rust but it was mine. I can still remember the smell of the hot vinyl seats/interior cars had back then when you opened them up after sitting int he summer sun. Best part was the “fingertip power steering” or something those cars had. It was some crappy color like Butternut Gold. It’s demise was a front wheel bearing that failed and sent the drivers side wheel off into traffic while pulling out of the hardware store parking lot. Lucky it rolled off into the weeds. It was replaced with a stout 1970 Chevrolet Nova that I wish I still had.

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