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



  • ghuletghulet Posts: 2,628
    ...could be a money pit, but they're rare and desirable in Volvo circles, so fix the clutch, drive it a while and you'll get your money back.

    Mathias, is that wagon an LX or EX? Old Hondas sell really well, as you know, and the wagons are kind of rare. I'd say they could eeaasily get $2k minimum for that thing, even as is, here in Chicago. I'd definitely spend a few bucks and have it looked at, it's probably the thermostat (if radiator, gaskets, hoses are all OK).
  • rroyce10rroyce10 Posts: 9,359
    .. a thermostat too me .. but it's worth $2,0 or more if fixed. Some Ann Arbor kid, might go $3,0 or more with school startin'...

  • jlawrence01jlawrence01 Posts: 1,828
    With the economy as bad as it is, if you want to find a beater, hit the road.

    This afternoon, I drove 50 miles in the northern Chcago suburbs. I saw at least 100 FSBO cars on the side of the road, in shopping centers and in driveways facing the streets. It looks like there are a lot of folks who have taken advantage of the 0% financing and are selling their cars rather than trading them in. While the cars were not all beaters, some could be had for a decent price.

    One warning. Some of the owners have delusions of grandeur. I have a neighbor who is sitting on a car that is worth maybe $3200 at market who will not budge after 6 months off of $5k.
  • ghuletghulet Posts: 2,628
    What kind of car is it, jlawrence? Does he think this car is getting more valuable as time passes, LOL?

    I agree on doing a 'drive around', check the streets, there are cars all over for sale here.
  • rroyce10rroyce10 Posts: 9,359
    ***** I have a neighbor who is sitting on a car that is worth maybe $3200 at market who will not budge after 6 months off of $5k.

    He must be related to my neighbor .. l.o.l...

    He has had this vehicle for sale since "May" .. it's a 99 Maxima GXE, almost 60k, no options except auto, no Leather, no slider, no Bose, just a hi mileage cloth interior GXE that needs tires and some paintwork, it's in his driveway for $14,9 - was asking $15,9 back in May .. l.o.l...

    I have tried to "Splain" to him (Hey Lucy!) .. but it's his driveway and I don't see it but once or twice a month, cuz I go the other way ..

  • steine13steine13 Posts: 2,585
    '98 Prizm, black, 5sp, 130k miles... stripper, cruise, radio, rr defrost, that's it.... the guy already has a buyer, should go through tomorrow, he's asking $2900 and it looks like they left it at $2600 or so.
    He drives 125 miles to work and back every day, says no paintwork at all, clean, 3k oil changes... and he's taken a deposit, so waving $$$ in his face won't do any good... wow, a princpled seller.
    I hope it goes through, I need another Prizm the way I need mumps... just sold one of those last year... but sounds like a heck of a deal... I should get about that much for my '93 Corolla LE w/ 178k miles...
    East Lansing, MI
  • mpynempyne Posts: 120
    there was a 1995 prizm with 54k for $2000

    didnt get a chance to look at it or ask if there were any major problems. hey rroyce what would you recommend in the $1200 (maybe a little more) range?? i saw a 1992 prizm with $129,000 for $1400 seems a little high.
  • ghuletghulet Posts: 2,628
    At this point, almost anything running is worth a thousand, so here are my suggestions (not that you asked ME, but I am a seasoned beater driver now):

    90-94 (1st generation) Mazda Protege (the LX is actually fun to drive and well-equipped, too)
    88-91 Mazda 626 (nice car, good size, nice engine)
    90-92 Geo Prism (perennial fave around here); you're unlikely to find a 93+ for that price
    86-89 Honda Accord (I have one, good car); the LXi (fuel injected) is nicest, but the carb models are less trouble prone, apparently
    86-96 A-body GMs (Ciera/Century/6000/Celebrity) seem pretty durable, and are all over the place
    Cavaliers and Escorts aren't the best cars on earth, but are pretty durable, plentiful and CHEAP (if you get an Escort, get a 5-speed, the autos are dogs)
    90-94 Nissan Sentra, if you don't mind really small
    87-90 Toyota Corolla or Camry

    Any others?
  • jlawrence01jlawrence01 Posts: 1,828
    Again, I think that picking specific models of beaters is rather futile because the make or model is less relevant as the condition that the car is kept in.

    Also, mileage is less relevant. Some of the worst headache vehicles are the cars that some grandma drove where the car is 10 years old and has 20,000 miles. The dry rot on those are incredible.

    Some of the cars that I like in this category include:

    Older Chryslers (1970's era) that are pre-Kcars)

    Ford Escorts - the later models automatics are a simple and very easy to maintain

    A-body GMs (Ciera/Century/6000/Celebrity) - there are lot of them around. The Olds are a steal right now as they dropped in price substantially when GM discontinued the brand.

    The GEO cars seem to last forever although most consider them "throwaways"

    Cars to avoid:

    Any Neon
    Most Hyundais and Kias

    Cars with power seats, windows - those darn motors fail giving you a 200+ repair

    88-92 White Oldsmobiles - major rust problems

    I guess that my preference is for simple cars with few things that can go wrong.

    I see so many great deals out ther right now in the under $2k market. Unfortunately, I have a 1996 that won't reach 150k miles until 2007 and my wife has a company car so I am out of the market for another 5 years or so.
  • ghuletghulet Posts: 2,628
    The care and maintenance a car has had is a lot more relevant when it's ten or fifteen years old than the actual brand. I do agree, jlawrence to stay away from Neons especially. They're temptingly cheap and not super old, but their quality is bad in general, and head gaskets tend to fail (repeatedly, sometimes).
  • jsylvesterjsylvester Posts: 572
    I would include the 89-95 Acclaim/Spirit/LeBaron, if you can find one with the 2.5liter and 3 speed auto.

    Also like an early 90's Crown Vic/Grand Marquis, and the GM intermediates mentioned above.

    The Horizon was decent the last few years it was built as well.
  • zueslewiszueslewis Posts: 2,353
  • jlawrence01jlawrence01 Posts: 1,828
    Believe it or not, I still see quite a few of the old Plymouth Horizons even though it was one of the worst cars made. And they are in better than average shape. I see more Horizons than I see K-cars at this point.

    My biggest gripe with them was not mechanical as much as all the surface issues - the name plate fell of in months, the door handles, the carpet wore through in 3 years, etc. They were fun to drive and were great cars in the winter snows.
  • lemkolemko Philadelphia, PAPosts: 15,294
    ...had a 1987 Dodge Omni. She really loved that car though us kids thought of it as a joke. True, the assembly and material quality was a joke and the paint came off in flakes, but that little car held up extremely well mechanically and could endure the worst a NE winter could throw at it. These cars are dirt cheap today and parts are plentiful and cheap. Maintenance and repair is a snap. If you aren't too proud, this could be the beater car of your dreams.
  • boredbored Posts: 300
    Also had a '87 or '86 Dodge Omni. It was Red. Bad decision on her part.

    She kept until it was totaled. Some high pothead decided to drive, and hit her from behind, and pushed her into another car. This happened on a freeway entrance ramp, going downhill, so it was at a pretty high speed.

    She was pregnant........................with me. She was able to walk out of the car, no injuries. No injuries to me, either. Darn good cars, IMO. She took the money the INS Co. gave her, and used it to buy another one. This time around, it was blue. They couldn't find one with similar mileage.
  • jrosasmcjrosasmc Posts: 1,711
    Any of the old GM full-size B-body "woody" station wagons (1977-90 Caprices, Safaris, etc.) would make excellent beaters. You can purchase them for next to nothing.
  • ghuletghulet Posts: 2,628
    Although I wouldn't want to park or maneuver one in the city. I do see them constantly for like $500-1500, while the sedans carry a bit of a premium (they're big in the 20"/vogues/ghettoish circuit).
  • zueslewiszueslewis Posts: 2,353
    That is definitely a new one!
  • steine13steine13 Posts: 2,585
    I'm gonna post this over in Real-World too, but check this out, guys:
    Saw an '88 Audi 90 quattro Sedan today.
    121k miles, gold, good body, good tires, 5sp (yay!), sunroof, leather, locking rr diff, the works. It looks "OK"; the interior needs a cleaning, but there's also a baseball-size rip in the side bolster of the driver seat, and the exhaust looks like it's coming undone very soon. The car's been sitting for 3 years in a garage, being driven by the son when he comes home to visit... now they want to sell it. Engine starts up okay, the typical valve clatter but not much... exhaust is clean (no soot or oily residue), like all VW/Audis I've seen. No evidence of oil in the coolant or coolant in the oil. Tires are good, on nice alloys. No drips, but slight leaks/seapage around the head gasket and the steering rack. Dunno if the AC works, let's assume it does. They're "asking" $2,200 but are beginning to see the error of their ways... this is in a wealthy new subdivision where the houses are big square empty boxes, everyone has 3 garages and keeps the doors open so the neighbors can see the benz/lexus/whatever... I'd sooner live in a trailer park, I think. Anyways, I'm talking to an old buddy of mine who's an Audi nut; he may agree to work on it for me for an hourly rate; otherwise forget it... the driveline on the quattro has ten (10) cv joints plus a center bearing, and they DO need fixing.. but theyre' magic in the snow... So someone slap me silly and talk me out of it....
    East Lansing, MI
  • ghuletghulet Posts: 2,628
    Please see my post in Real World. Old Audis are typically nightmarish. Those with five cylinders and Quattro are even worse. Unless you're going to have outrageous amounts of snow, a good FWD car with decent tires should suffice. If you must have four-wheel drive, buy an early '90s American SUV, they're a dime a dozen used ($2-3k should buy you a decent '91-93 Exploder or Blazer). Or how 'bout an old AWD Suby wagon, early Legacys run $1500-3000, Loyales even cheaper, and should actually be reliable and cheap to own.

    Call Michigan State and tell them to bust those plows out if it gets too bad, OK?
  • andre1969andre1969 Posts: 23,044
    ...if you can find one with a non-Chevy V-8 (and definitely a non-Pontiac 301!), they're virtually bulletproof. Especially engines like the Pontiac 350/400 and Olds 350/403. I'm personally a bit squeamish about the Buick 350, although others say they're great engines too. It's just that the 231 V-6, which was based on the Buick 350, was a piece of junk back then. The Chevy smallblocks back then were known for premature crankshaft failure and early valve-guide wear caused by faulty EGR valves. IIRC, Chevy engines were also more likely to get stuck with the under-sized TH-200 tranny, which was under-sized for even V-6 engines, let alone V-8's.

    GM's RWD intermediates from '78-88 were also pretty good, being based on the B-bodies, but in a much more nimble size. The '78-83 Malibu is about the size of a modern Accord or Camry. The main downside is that the rear windows in 4-door models are stationary, so a working air conditioner is almost mandatory in hotter climates!

    If you're going to get an old car with lots of power options, GM is the way to go. While all that power stuff like seats, mirrors, windows, locks, antennas, etc, will all fail eventually, GM's stuff just seems to hold up better. My mechanic said that Fords have the highest failure rate for power windows, with Chrysler somewhere in between.
  • steine13steine13 Posts: 2,585
    Friends don't let friends drive old German luxo cars, eh? Your point is well taken.
    I'm just flailing while being pulled ever closer to that maelstrom that is the Toyota Sienna minivan...
    As far as beater GMs are concerned, I agree... I had an '83 Malibu wagon for quite awhile; sold it to trade "up" to an '87 Audi 4000 in early '97. The 4000 is long gone, my Malibu is still running around town; see it occasionally. AC was cold, the electronic carb was actually working, and the engine computer could correctly diagnose faulty sensors (it does not matter how I know).
  • boredbored Posts: 300
    "The main downside is that the rear windows in 4-door models are stationary, so a working air conditioner is almost mandatory in hotter climates"

    I heard about this. GM said something about there not being enough space in the door because it was so small. If that was true, then why today are windows going alll the way down these days??? Just lazy.

    Was the B-Body the Caprice? Come to think about it, it wasn't really that I could handle it. But it's hard to find one in good driveable condition.
  • ghuletghulet Posts: 2,628
    If you don't mind so-so gas mileage and biggish size, old RWD GMs are great cars. They're sturdy, cheap to buy and easy/cheap to maintain. As Andre said, the power stuff doesn't fail much either, and the a/c is strong. In the three or so years I had my '77 Caprice, I think the only things I had to replace were the alternator ($200 or so, IIRC, this was in 1986) and the transmission, which was my fault ($500 installed, LOL). In general, their looks have held up pretty well, too.
  • andre1969andre1969 Posts: 23,044
    They could have made those things roll down if they really wanted to. Instead though, they hollowed out the door panels to make room for recessed armrests, so there was noplace inside the door for the window lift and guide, and noplace for a window to roll down into. On the plus side, this gave the intermediates about the same amound of elbow room as full-sized cars. On the downside, they were hot and stuffy and made a/c a requirement. As it was, GM's '78 intermediates had more shoulder room than the Ford Fairmont and Granada, and Dodge Aspen/Plymouth Volare, and the LeBaron/Diplomat models that they competed most directly against. But those cars were still considered compact, and the Malibu & company were supposed to compete against much bigger cars, like the Ford LTD-II/Mercury Cougar, and Dodge Monaco/Plymouth Fury.

    GM also claimed that having a stationary rear window and a flip-out vent window in back actually gave better airflow than a roll-down window. What it really gave though, was a savings of a few bucks per car, and that's what really counts. Back then though, GM was really pushing to cut weight anywhere they could in the interests of fuel economy. Prior to downsizing, GM's Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) was the worst of the Big Three. It's not that their cars, model-for-model, necessarily got worse mileage than Ford or Mopar counterparts. GM simply relied much more on larger cars than Ford or Chrysler, which were just about held up by models like the Pinto, Granada, Maverick, Duster, Dart, Valiant, etc.

    As for whether a rear window can go down all the way or not, it just depends on the design. Cars like the '78 Malibu had enormous glass area, probably moreso than many cars today. Most cars today with rear windows that do roll all the way down use a stationary quarter window as a spacer, and the roll-down window is fairly small, in relation to the door.

    As for my own experience, I've had 3 GM intermediates from that '80 Malibu 229, an '82 Cutlass Supreme 231, and an '86 Monte Carlo 305. They all got about the same mileage...15-16 around town and lower 20's on the highway. The Monte had a 4-speed automatic, which made up for the fact it was a bigger engine than the other two. My family also has an '85 LeSabre with a 307. When I drive it, it gets around 14-15 around town, although I've gotten into the lower 20's out of it.
  • ghuletghulet Posts: 2,628
    My '77 Caprice (305 2-barrel) got about 20 on the highway, more or less 15 City (IIRC), which incidentally isn't a whole lot worse than the 4-cylinder SAAB I just got rid of. In any case, it was a massive improvement from my previous car (the '71 Electra), which got ~6mpg City, seriously.
  • graphicguygraphicguy SW OhioPosts: 10,285
    Well, my son has it in his head that he wants an '86 Camry from a family member. Essentially, he will be paying $500 for a car that has about 200K miles on it.

    While I don't particularly like the idea of spending money on a car with that kind of mileage, it's his money. It runs, so I guess $500 for anything that runs makes it a good purchase. What I'm worried about are the maintenance costs on something with that kind of mileage. I'd rather him save more money and buy something that's a bit less used.

    Anyone have any input as to what to look for, $ wise that he may have to pay to keep this beast on the road?

    I'll open this up even further regarding good/cheap $1,000-$2,000 "beaters"?
    2018 Acura TLX SH AWD ASpec
  • Ask yourself this question... What kind of shape is the Camry in, and was it reasonably well cared for? At least you have some insight, since the car was family owned.
    For $1K-$2K, I doubt you're going to find anything much better, and you'll be going in blindly, since you probably wil be dealing with a stranger.
    With that kind of budget limitation, IMHO I'd go with the Camry, unless you know that it was truly abused. Then again, if it's run this long, someone must have taken decent care of it.....
  • andre1969andre1969 Posts: 23,044
    like Leadfoot said, at least with this car, you should have some insight as to how it was maintained and driven.

    I'd say give it a good check-over, make sure all the fluids look decent, check under the hood for signs of anything leaking, drive it around to see if the engine/tranny act up, brakes make any evil noises, etc.

    Then, if the car seems like something that might be worthy, take it to a mechanic you trust and have them check it out and put it through an inspection.

    I've had a few high-mileage cars (My '68 Dart now has 338,000 miles on it), and have had pretty good luck with them, for the most part. On a cost-per-mile basis, I figured out that it's run me around 10 cents per mile, + gas and insurance. Just for comparison, my '79 Newport ran about 13 cents a mile, my '89 Gran Fury about 16 cents a mile, and my '00 Intrepid, about 23 cents a mile.

    In addition to the engine and tranny, I'd definitely look at the suspension. That's probably the next most expensive thing that can go wrong. Well, there's a/c, but that's not really a necessity with a $500 car!

    Also, have a good look under the hood of that car, and try to estimate how easy it will be to work on. Stuff like belts and hoses, spark plugs, the air filter, battery, alternator, etc. Does it look like something you and your son could work on together, or would you have to constantly be depending on a repair shop to keep it running?
  • yamanyaman Posts: 113
    Problem with beaters is maintenance costs.we have a 92 Chrysler with 130k miles on it.Last month we put 1,300 into it for various needed maintenance.For a young person,shelling out that kind of money every year (6 mos) in maintenance could be tough especially when you consider what young people have to pay for insurance.

    Kids want their cars but the things are money pits.
This discussion has been closed.