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Good, Cheap Beater Cars & Inexpensive Commuter Cars - how to find one?

if there's already a board for this, I'm sorry... I searched and couldnt find one. so anyways here it is: say you have, oh, $1200 to buy a car. it has to be some semblance of reliable (no early 90s Hyundais), some semblance of fun to drive (no Buick Centurys or pickups), and some semblance of economical to own (no Camaros!, or Benzes). I know the best thing to do is scour all classifieds and ghetto car lots for the best deal, but if anyone has any experience with buying these suckers I'd love for you to share your wisdom!

ideas: older Jettas/Golfs/Rabbits, any mid/late 80s Honda, VW Beetle (!), older Corolla/Prizm/Nova, Mazda 323, MX-3, K-cars, Escort/Protege, first Saturns, 80s Celica, Stanza... ? I think the older Benzes, Volvos, and Saabs are too expensive to keep up at that age, but I could be wrong.

As much as I'd love a late 70s Camaro with a 350, I'm afraid that wouldn't be practical. Oh, and happy driving, and enjoy your nice cars; one day you may not be able to make payments and you'll be in my situation!!!



  • andre1969andre1969 Posts: 21,593

    I have some experience with old beaters, so maybe my insights might help. If you want something cheap and more-or-less reliable, I'd say just about any Chrysler product with a 225 slant six or 318. The bigger engine cars are pretty reliable, too, but would be anything but fuel-efficient! My cousin just bought a '75 or '76 Valiant for $1200, and it only had about 50,000 miles on it. I've seen the car, and my grandmother told me how much he paid and the mileage, but I don't know all the details. Unfortunately, my cousin tends to tear the hell out of cars, so it won't be in pristine condition for long :-(

    Most GM RWD cars from the 70's and 80's are pretty reliable, too, and when they do break, parts are plentiful. I've heard bad stories about the Buick 231 from that era, but then I've also heard of plenty of them that have lasted hundreds of thousands of miles, so I guess it mainly depends on how well it was taken care of. I had one that lost all oil pressure at 73,000 miles, though. There was so much debris in the oil from the engine wearing out, that the shavings tore up the oil pump gears! A friend and I changed the pump gears, but I knew it was on borrowed time and got rid of it. I've also heard bad things about the Pontiac 301, but otherwise, most of these cars were pretty reliable and predictable.

    If these cars are too big/old for you, then I'm sure a Honda or Toyota would do fine. Just remember, the further back you go, the more prone to rust they are, and I think the older engines needed frequent valve adjustment because of solid lifters or something like that. I think an older Japanese car would also be harder to find parts for than an older American car, and when they do break, will probably cost more.

    As for K-cars, they're not TOO bad, if you get one of the more basic models. We had an '88 LeBaron turbo, though, and it was totally shot by about 108,000 miles or so. Among the problems: trip computer, paint, a/c compressor, power antenna, radiator, engine compression, turbo, head/gasket, major suspension work, leaking tranny fluid, etc. It was a good looker and performed well, and got good gas mileage, but after the first 65-70K miles, it started causing plenty of trouble. Somehow, we trusted it enough to drive it from DC to Washington State and back, when it was in the high 70/low 80K range. They are fairly easy to work on though...the distributor and spark plugs are right up front, so tuneups are a breeze.

    I understand your situation, too. When I bought my Intrepid, I was delivering pizzas 20-25 hours a week in addition to my full time job, and the prosperity of the stock market seemed like it would go on forever. On a good week of delivering pizzas, I could easily make the monthly payment on the car. I could make the car payment, make the mortgage payment, not worry about budgeting, and still have money left over.

    Well, that came crashing down a few months ago. I finally got sick of delivering pizzas and having no social life, so I quit on the spot one night after they got me mad. Well, suddenly, I had to budget my money, the monthly payment on the car started taking a bigger chunk of my income, and, well, let's not talk about income taxes ;-) So I'm back to delivering pizzas!

    Trust me, there's no shame to driving a beater...check out my profile and you'll see that I've had plenty of 'em! Good luck to you!

  • Through graduate school I was dependent on a series of beaters--an '82 Accord, '79 Monte Carlo (Buick 3.8 V6) and '85 Monte Carlo (4.3 V6). Of the three I liked the Honda best--it handled well and was generally pleasant and adequately powerful despite being a 4 cyl/automatic combo. I would've preferred a 5-speed, but it was a hand-me-down so I took what I could get. When the car was new it was terrific, but after 100k miles it was not as cheap to maintain as I hoped. Two major issues: (1) not everybody knows this, but the timing belt MUST be changed every 60,000 miles in order to keep the engine from self-destructing, and the water pump should be changed at the same time; (2) as the miles add up, Hondas have a tendency to eat the little bearings that hold the distributor shaft. Pull the distributor cap off--if there's a fine gray powder inside, the distributor's toast, and it WILL leave you stranded. I sold mine when the distributor was going bad around 150k miles. I also had carburetor trouble, but I've been told that's unusual for Accords. A handful of little problems showed up--the switch that controls the engine cooling fans died, as did the fuel pump, the alternator, and the starter, but none of these disabled the vehicle because I got to them in time. And the power steering leaked, but that's manageable if you just look under the hood regularly and top it up. Yes, parts are VERY expensive if you buy new ones, but rebuilt parts will do for most folks and will save lots of money.

    The Monte Carlos provide an excellent example of the two extremes GM cars can reach. Both were one-owner cars when I got them, and both had been generally well maintained. But the '79 was never "right"--the valve cover gaskets leaked oil and had to be redone twice, and there were a lot of nickel-and-dime repairs. In one 18-month period we spent $150 a month on repairs (at the rate of one repair a month, regular as clockwork). Oil leaks, starter, alternator, water pump, rear springs (one broke), motor mounts, transmission mounts, etc. All cheap, but rather inconvenient just the same. On the plus side, the only time it actually had to be towed was when the starter died. I got it at 97k miles, and sold the remains at 150k.

    The '85 Monte Carlo was much more reliable--despite what folks will tell you about GM cars from the '80s having flaky electronics, the only such problem I encountered was a stuck knock sensor on the electronic spark control system. Just add premium fuel and no sweat. I bought it at 56k (!) miles and sold it at 120k. I spent nothing except for tires, brakes, and shocks. By the time I had it set up right, it actually handled well, believe it or not. Looked like Granny's go-to-church car, of course, but it cruised comfortably at 75 mph and got 24 mpg in my mixed commute. I wasn't crazy about the car, but it DID work quite well. I guess I got lucky with it.

    somewhere in south Georgia and looking for another good $2000 Honda
  • raybearraybear Posts: 1,776
    4WD stick shift. Paid $300 for it 4 years ago, had to put $600 into it right away. Not real powerful, but has low range 4WD so I can take it in the woods. My fishin' car.
  • cutehumorcutehumor Posts: 137

    I'm looking at purchasing a beater car for basic transportation only. Can anyone recommend reliable makes for this purpose especially those not asking for a premium price? I'm looking for a car or truck under the 5k range with low miles if possible up to 5 model years old. Do they exist? Does anyone have any experience with these kinds of vehicles? How should you look for one? only buy from someone with maintence records? Especially since reliability is the most important factor for me. Some people think I'm crazy, but I love low insurance costs, no car payments, and regular maintence is a plus which you would have to do with a new car anyway.
  • afk_xafk_x Posts: 393
    Buy a used Saturn. Private party you should have no trouble finding one in your price range.
  • rroyce10rroyce10 Posts: 9,359
    .... You might try a Toyota .. Ooooop's I mean a Chevy/Geo Prizm, perhaps a 96 or a 97, or a Mazda Protege' .. also a 96/97. These are great little vehicles, will run 150k+ with little or no headaches ..

    Should be in your price zone .. !

  • ghuletghulet Posts: 2,628
    That's hardly a 'beater', at least not to me. Finding a good $5000 car isn't difficult, finding a decent $500 car is, LOL.

    I agree with what Terry said above (and has said countless other times). Also, you might do OK with a Ford Escort or Chevy Cavalier, especially with a 5-speed; they're not exactly glamorous or state of the art, but you can find one (probably 97-99) for around $5k, and it should provide years of low-cost transportation.
  • hudraheadhudrahead Posts: 169
    trot on down to your local Daewoo dealer (if you can find one open)they have a large selection of instant beaters. You will really be in the "cat bird" seat if you are a cash buyer. Locally A new Lanos can be had for about 5K !!

    hud :):)
  • ghuletghulet Posts: 2,628
    Drive around a marginal neighborhood, there should be some cars with 'for sale' signs in the window. Read ads in the local 'freebie' papers (usually found on the way out of the grocery stores), check the classifieds in a local newspaper (the one with the worst demographics, LOL). Check,, etc. Also, quite often there are cars for sale at local gas stations and repair shops. These cars are usually those with owners who can't afford to fix them, or pay for the repairs after they've been fixed.

    I was shocked at how relatively easy it was to find beaters (a true 'beater' costs under $1000, IMO). I wanted a Honda, Toyota or Mazda for under $1000 recently, I found probably two dozen that technically fit the bill.

    Some advice from one who has owned many beaters, good and bad:

    1. Know what cars are desirable and/or acceptable to you. Don't buy a beater car just because it's cheap or looks good. Even at an advanced age, a car that was a good, reliable car when new will likely be a better, more reliable car when old. Pick a car that meets your needs: reliability, gas mileage, space? Keep it simple, don't buy a 'complex' car when something basic will do the job better. From there, narrow down what kinds of cars you want to look for.

    2. If you absolutely have only $1200 to spend, do not look at $1200 cars. Remember, it generally costs about $200 in taxes and registration to 'put the car on the road', etc. Also, it is fairly likely you will have to put *some* money into the car soon after you purchase it. Leave a couple hundred dollars, at least, in your coffers for emergencies.

    3. Swallow your pride a bit and accept a car with some cosmetic problems. Last year, I bought a really nice looking Saab (avoid) for $1500 that turned out to be one headache after another. It currently needs about $1500 in repairs just to make it safe to drive. I bought the car for looks instead of for its real purpose, basic transportation. Big mistake.

    4. If you find a car you like, don't be afraid to make a 'low-ball' offer. If the seller is asking $1000, it's fairly likely they'll take $750-800, so offer $600. The worst they can say is 'no', and you can either walk away or haggle/counteroffer. It's not that painful or lengthy a process on a cheap car. If the car is too expensive or has issues you can't accept, it's OK to say 'no thanks.' Kinda like with dating, 'there will be others out there.'

    4. Have the car looked at by a mechanic, or at least bring a friend who knows something about cars, to look at it with you. Having someone along to offer a 'second opinion' isn't a bad idea, especially if you're an impulsive person or one who tends to make emotion-based buying decisions.
  • ghuletghulet Posts: 2,628
    Books and repair records are always nice to have. If it has them, great, but don't necessarily 'expect' them on a beater. Don't necessarily 'trust as law' what the owner tells you has been replaced, fixed, etc, but ask anyway. Often it's easy to see what's new on a car, and ask the owner to show you if he/she claims something has been fixed or replaced.

    Above, I said 'don't be afraid to walk away', which is fine on a so-so car. If you see a car you like, even if it's the first one you've looked at, that is remarkably good running or nice and checks out OK, snap it up. In other words, don't be afraid to buy a car that you like. You may look at six other cars that day only to end up wanting the first one you looked at, which has already been sold when you get back to it.

    Oh yeah, about the cosmetics. I just bought one beater car over another because one was factory-looking and the one I didn't buy had dark tinted windows, non-standard rims and metallic-flecked paint. Classic 'polishing a turd' stuff. Don't buy a car that doesn't fit your personality or one that you'll be totally embarrassed driving. Nobody is in love with driving a beater, but the car need not be 'all wrong' either.
  • rroyce10rroyce10 Posts: 9,359
    .... $5,0 for a beater ..?

    I remember when my 1st car was $100 .. well, we won't go there .. l.o.l..

  • hudraheadhudrahead Posts: 169
    once had a service tech that worked for me. As such they had the option of a company car or reimbursment on the "Rhumhizer Plan" for their privately owned car. This guy always went with the private plan. He favored early 60's Ford Falcons. He lived on a small farm and had plenty of room to stockpile his fleet of beater/parts cars. He could keep one going for about a year at a time all the while building up a replacement at the farm. When the current one finally destructed he'd simply pull the tags off it, jump on the bus to get back to the office and the next day show up with a "new" one. I bet the city wondered who the heck always dumped those Falcons off in the middle of town. Heck, he didn't even have to pay to get the thing towed off. LOL !!

  • zueslewiszueslewis Posts: 2,353
    I don't classify a car that is actually worth $5K to be a beater - that's insulting.
  • ghuletghulet Posts: 2,628
    I just paid $495.59 for my 87 Accord ($500 cash, minus the $4.41 collected from the ashtray, coin tray and under the seats (-;

    $5k for a car to get banged up on the streets of Chicago seems extravagant. If it's as used up as the $1800 Saab I bought less than a year ago, why bother?
  • im_brentwoodim_brentwood Posts: 4,883
    I got friends in the UK.. Land of the cheap car!

    Here's 3 that have blown me away:

    1) 1978 Vauxhall VX 2300 GLS Very clean, 60Kish genuine miles, 300pounds, only needed some minor repairs to the rear wheelarches.

    2) 1989 Vauxhall Senator 2.5i 5-speed 151K miles. Dark Blue/Blue velour. A bit bigger than a Cadillac Catera. Runs and drives well, needs hubcaps, a few little bubbles on the rear wheelarches..etc.. Get this, FIFTY POUNDS! That's $75-80!

    3) 1993 Vauxhall Carlton (think Catera-Sized) 2.0i Automatic. 132K, very clean car. 500 Pounds ($800)

    THose were bargains..

  • cutehumorcutehumor Posts: 137
    Sorry guys

    I came up with 5k figure based on the new cost of cars now a days are almost 20k. My parents used to tell me they could buy a new car for 3500 bucks in the early 70's. ;)
    Anyway, how long do these 500-1000 dollar beaters normally last if you found the right one? Any out there last more than three years? How about the repair costs? How much is normally spent on repairs for a beater car in a year before you decide to get rid of it? I also think a second car like a beater car is perfect for emergency situations. How lenient are you guys with cars that have been salvage titles in considering a beater car? The only cars I found locally listed for less than a 1000 dollars were those that had something mechanically wrong like it need a new engine or transmission. Thanks for the advice so far, it's been helpful.
  • zueslewiszueslewis Posts: 2,353
    Japanese beaters - several 150K plus miles Hondas and Toyotas.

    I write reports, go to court and inspect cars for a living - I can easily put 50,000 miles a year on a car. I'll be danged if I'll grenade the value of a newer car by miling it up like that. My 1990 Grand Prix has 98,000 miles, I got it for $500 and all it needs is a paint job to look sweet. It's probably the exception, not the rule, but I have no warning signs of pending failures in any major area.
  • stubborn1stubborn1 Posts: 85
    During high school and the early years of college, I always drove "disposable vehicles". I usually spent between $300-$700 for a car. I had free time back then and was fairly mechanically inclined so I didn't mind going to the junkyard to look for used parts. I would probably dump about $100 in parts in each vehicle to keep it on the road during its lifetime. The average life expectancy of the cars was about a year.

    The best disposable car I ever had was my 78 Delta 88 2-door coupe. I bought it for $300 (in 1995) and drove it for a whole year before the tranny went out on it. When it died, my neighbor bought some parts off me for $25 and I got $50 from the junkyard. $225 cost for the year + tax, title & license.
  • tboner1965tboner1965 Posts: 647
    My beater car story:

    I bought a 1979 Ford Fairmont for $100, drove it for three years and about 60K miles. Everything worked, including A/C and cruise. Did $1500 in maintenance and repairs (this included oil changes, new exhaust and a couple of sets of tires, only one breakdown, ignition module, imagine a Ford ignition module failing, what are the chances?) over the three years and sold it for $500. Cost to drive was about $0.018/mile + fuel and insurance costs. Estimated costs with fuel and insurance were about $0.10/mile at 20MPG and $1.25/gallon and evenly dividing my $1200 annual premium for three cars into a $400/year cost for this car, over the three years. How did I do? 8^)

    I'm currently driving an 87 LeSabre I purchased for $1000, but it cost me about $2K in reparis last year (New Tranny), still it is about $0.16/mile according the the AutoMobile app on my PDA that tracks my automotive expenses.

  • lemkolemko Posts: 15,071
    My first car was a 1968 Buick Special Deluxe 6 passenger station wagon I purchased in 1981 for $650. The car had 74,000 on it, had a pristine interior, and ran extremely well. About the only thing wrong with it was the teal blue mist paint had oxidized quite badly. A few dollars worth of polishing compound, Turtle Wax, and some elbow grease and I had a very attractive car for a very modest price. The car was very basic - had an AM radio, crank windows, and vinyl interior. It was powered by a very easily maintained 350 cid V-8 with 2bbl Rochester carb. I purchased my second car in 1984 and gave the wagon to my brother and he kept it for eight more years! By 1992, the body was pretty much shot as my brother hardly maintains his cars as well as I do, but the powertrain was still still reliable as ever.

    I suggest anybody looking for a beater car these days can't go wrong with a 1977-90 GM RWD full-size car with either the 305, 307 or 350 V-8. They are dirt-cheap to purchase. Parts are cheap and plentiful. Anybody with basic mechanical skills can repair and maintain them and fuel economy is reasonable and they'll be happy with 87 regular.

    Another car to consider is the Chrysler M-Body, (Plymouth Gran Fury, Dodge Diplomat, Chrysler Fifth Avenue). The 318 V-8 and Slant-Six have legendary reliability. The Torqueflite transmission is darn near bulletproof. Maintenance and repair costs are modest and parts are cheap and plentiful.

    I'd stay away from older full-size Ford products due to transmission bugaboos.
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