In Search of America's Cheapest Car
With gas prices surging and tax returns returning, one man answers the question you're afraid to ask: How much machine can you really get for $600 these days?
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The average tax return here in Wisconsin — land of the broke, home of the brave — is about six-hundred bucks. Which can get you a nice new flat-screen, or an iPad, or a 700-square-inch, four-burner, steamer-meets-the-pan, meat-immolating barbecue limousine. But what if your kid's turning sixteen and he needs, you know, an actual automobile? Can six-hundred bucks still buy a car in our post-recession-but-everything-still-kinda-sucks, four-dollars-a-gallon-is-coming-back times? And if so, can you actually drive the damn thing?
These are important questions. But ask a car dealer any of them, and he'll laugh you off the lot. One guy, who specializes in low-cost used cars, told me there's no such thing as a $600 car; anything retailing for that much, he reasoned, would require at least that much again in repairs. And Car Soup, which contracts with newspapers as a new kind of classified section, offered only one car for sale anywhere near me at $600 — a 1987 Mercury Grand Marquis LS described as NOT STREET SAFE and RUSTED BEYOND REPAIR. All caps, it would appear, is the warranty of beater-car shopping.
And then, of course, there's Craigslist, whose ads for cheap automobiles are not unlike their ads for middle-aged divorcées: "I'm not going to lie to you" and "body is shot" are recurring phrases. But, hey, there were options.
The variation of available vehicles for $600 is, shall we say, extreme. One ad shills a mangy-looking Chevy Corsica 500 with "lots of play in the wheel;" another features a 1994 Corolla that "runs but has no acceleration." A 1999 Oldsmobile Intrigue is listed as "still drivable" despite requiring "a new hood, bumper, and driver side headlight... due to it being in a recent accident." Also, "the radiator has a leak." There's a 1992 Chevy Cavalier convertible — for $450! — and the top actually works... except the windows don't.
One man, apparently following the "start high" strategy of Craigslist salesmanship, is currently offering a rusty old Ford truck chassis for $500. Or best offer, but just the chassis. He tells me there's "been no interest yet," but he remains optimistic. And so do I. Enough for a couple of test drives, at least, because a man has to blow his tax return somewhere.
1993 Ford Probe ($500 "Firm")
Why anyone would want to drive a car named after what aliens do to human rectums is beyond me. Just imagine saying it to your date, or your son to his: "Yes, I'll pick you up at eight. I'll be the one with the Probe." And yet, here I am in what Ford once saw as a potential replacement for the Mustang, which might have been an indicator of that whole temporary-bankruptcy thing coming some twenty years later.
All of which didn't go unnoticed at the time: A June 1988 Boston Globe headline reads FORD PROBE: ONCE YOU GET PAST THE NAME, IT'S A GREAT AUTOMOBILE. And it was, even if it was a little too futuristic and expensive to nab a mainstream audience in the States. (By 1997, the Probe was the worst-selling model of the year.)
Not that the Probe has aged all that well: Aside from the mechanical problems, its bumper stickers — GEORGE W. BUSH and THE BEST PARENT IS BOTH PARENTS — were matched by two spare-tired donuts up front.
Turns out, though, that the 1993 Probe was a second-generation model and — more Mazda than Ford and, with a light frame and four inches added to the wheelbase, more dirt-track than work-and-back. Which makes it popular with racers today, at least according to one Mister Arvin, who appears to have come to Wisconsin with his mullet and his gold chains from an alternate reality where Talladega Nights is a documentary and not a Will Ferrell movie.
Arvin says he bought the car for $300 to fix up for his teenager to race but that his son then "developed an interest in racing lawnmowers instead." Hence the mismatched headlights and a window replaced with duct tape and plastic. Sad as it is to say, you can't pick anyone up at eight with duct tape in your window anymore.
1990 Chevrolet Lumina ($500)
If the Probe, in its heyday, was a statement of individuality, then the Lumina was probably the opposite of that. Throughout the 1990s, GM made a ton of them — coupes, sedans, and minivans, all under the Lumina tag — in a manufacturing decision that pretty much says, "This car is for people who need a car." Which sounds pretty perfect to me.
Even though it's one of the most common sub-$1,000 cars on the market, "a car" is pretty much what the Lumina is. Even the Craigslist posting for the Lumina was the shortest of any I investigated. It had been "my grandmother's" and it "runs good, but needs rear struts" — a car. But seeing as how a strut is a fundamental part that forces the wheel to maintain contact with the road, that's a pretty big "but."
It looked pretty good, though — no rust, no spots, nice blue paintjob, probably even a wash sometime in the last year — probably better than any of the cars I almost bought. And did Jeff Gordon really place fourth at Daytona in one of these things? Sitting in the Lumina amidst what I can only call That Really Cheap Car Smell — and which I can best approximate to a recently cleaned swamp-animal trap that also hung in a tobacco shed — it's nearly impossible to believe.
But do enough shopping for a cheap car — a really cheap car — and you will discover the inverse relationship between what a car looks like and how safe it is to drive, between impossible stamina and the realities of modern technology. Sometimes a car is only a car for so long.
1988 Ford Festiva ($550)
I feel like an ogre inside a pregnant roller skate, sitting in this thing. But if your tax return needs to buy a car and two-weeks-worth of gas, this thing is your ticket. The 1988 Festiva had an EPA-rated MPG of 38 in the city, but most Festiva owners today boast something closer to 45 or better. And considering gas prices are above $3.50 a gallon in all but one state, you might consider being an ogre for that.
Now, even brand-new out of the box, the Festiva was neither feature-rich — Car and Driver's review noted that it was "remarkably well outfitted" because as it included "an AM/FM stereo radio with a clock," standard — nor a relative pleasure on the road. And, hate to say it, but the Festiva's suspension hasn't exactly gotten smoother in the four subsequent presidential administrations. It's a little like driving a vibrator — you feel every piece of gravel, every crack. And it's not bone-shaking so much as potentially bone-destroying; the 1988 Festiva received one of the NHTSA's worst-ever ratings for passenger head injuries.
Still, you gotta love when a speedometer maxes out at eighty-five on top of tires approximate size of the new Ford F-150's steering wheel. It's sounds like a party, looks like a land monster, and ends up — not unlike most twenty-year-old pieces of machinery that ought to sell for twice as much — somewhere on the upside of disappointing.
The Ride Home
If you're a parent shopping for your kid's first car on your tax return, well, get a bigger tax return, or wait 'til graduation, or something. Because my kid is two, and I'd feel safer putting her behind some Power Wheels — only seventy bucks on Craigslist! — than strapping her into the car seat with one of these things. I mean, the Probe was probably the safest of my three (and a half) test drives, though that isn't saying much. And even putting money into new struts, I'd worry about all that backseat space inside the Lumina. One mention of that head-injury report to the wife and the Festiva's gas mileage would insistently improve "infinite," because it would never leave the garage.
Contemplating all this on my drive back from a polite "no thanks" to the owner of the Chevy Lumina, I got passed in my 1997 Jeep Cherokee by a driver whose backseat passenger was, in fact, the entire crumpled backend of his car.
My first reaction was to wonder how much he wanted for it.
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Entertaining read. And c'mon people - we all start with the cheapest POS we are brave enough to start. If you haven't then you haven't lived. It gives you a certain freedom. Most people slow down for potholes. In a clunker you try to get air.
I agree wholeheartedlly that the son or daughter should pay at least half the cost of the car. When my son turned 16, I bought him a Ford Bronco II - can't recall the year, but he thought it was just what he needed. If I recall, I paid about $3,000 for it. It wasn't long before it needed a new $1600 transmission and of course, he didn't have the money. After putting all that money into it, he ended up trading it for an old pickup.
Lessons I learned: Don't pay for the kid's first car - they need some of their own hardearned money into it, and always have your name on the title.
harry, most people don't have access to "socialized transport" and have to resort to a "death trap" . just dont get into an accident, thats all. not very hard.
and ya know? you really dont need abs, or power steering, or airbags...