COAL: Summer Edition – Beaters I Have Known But Not Exactly Loved


As summer has finally descended upon the Wet Coast of the Great White North, and having dug myself out of five meters of late spring snow, here is a slightly abbreviated edition of COAL. Please forgive the non-chronological nature of this story as none of the cars described here could ever be construed as classics. All three were work horses that did a job, and they all did it well.

In February of 2004, I arrived, with wife and two young children in two, in Vancouver, British Columbia. Looking back, I must have been insane to try to make it in what is the most competitive place in Canada. Vancouver is a scenic place with a mild climate; for these reason, the place is full of people with advanced degrees, loads of experience and tons ‘o cash. Really, it would have been much better to go to Calgary or even Saskatoon but I am kind of a visual junkie and Vancouver certainly satisfies that need. Anyway, soon after we arrived, I needed wheels, and fast. Problem was funds were very limited and I had no job. Our first residence was a temporary affair requiring many Ikea trips, so I went looking for a cheap schlepper.

A quick look turned up a 1989 Dodge Grand Caravan, with Ultradrive and the Mitsubishi V-6. The van had over 250,000 km on it but it ran fine, had good brakes and a valid Aircare permit. The agreed price was all of $700. I figured I could not go wrong; even if I got three months out of it before sending it to the scrap heap, I would be money ahead. The van was filthy, had a few dings but was in surprisingly good shape inside, with no rips, tears or cracks. A quick trip to rent a steam cleaning machine made it look just fine.

Sure enough, I had it for three months. It moved us into a permanent residence and hauled all our new furniture. I knew that both the V-6 and the Ultradrive were not the most reliable devices in the world so I was not eager to keep it for long. In fact, the transmission would go into limp mode if it got hot, like climbing the big hills in North Vancouver. When moving was complete, the Caravan went onto Craigslist; within a few days, I had the van sold; get this, for $600. I had driven it for three months for all of $100 plus gas and insurance. Not a bad beater buy. What was the van like to drive? Well, not that interesting at all, but it did what I wanted it. I just hate vans and I really don’t like keeping beaters around for long.

With the van gone I needed wheels again, so I went on my garage knowledge and started looking for an A-Body GM car, preferably a later Cutlass Ciera. As I have stated before, GM was a schizophrenic organization in the the late 1980’s; some good, some awful. The Ciera, the humble Roach it is, was in fact a pretty good car. The Buick 3.3 V-6 is practically indestructible, as is the 4T60E transmission. I found an SL at a rather shady beater lot; it had 220,000 km on it but the interior was mint, not a rip or tear. The car was loaded and even to this day, I have not seen a better instrument cluster; a tach, speedo and four gauges to tell you all you need to know. The stereo was particularly good and the only thing that didn’t work was the left rear power window. The silver paint was faded and because it looked awful, I arranged a transaction price of $700 and was away in a day.

I have a lot of respect for that car; with the FE3 suspension, it held the road very well and the 3.3 V-6 made gobs of low end torque. It was big enough inside for the family and all our stuff went into the trunk. The a/c blew ice cold and it was a nice highway car. The car was a little heavy on fuel, at about 13.5L/100km (17.5 mpg) in the city but on the highway it was about 8.5L/100km (28 mpg), not bad for a cheap car. I had it for over a year, and then I faced a conundrum: should I do body and paint or flog it? The body and paint would have run at least $1000 and who knows what would happen next, as it was a hi-miler. I bit the bullet and decided to sell it. That took all of one day. I got $700 for it. I had driven it for fourteen months for the price of a set of brake pads, like $25 for a Roach, which I had installed at the side of the road in front of my house. Not a bad deal, if I do say so myself.


At this time, I was working as a service adviser at a Chrysler store, so there were always trades around. I was hoping to leave ASAP as it has to be about the most stressful job one can imagine, but I would need a car that would at least look reasonably good. One day, a 1992 Eagle Summit came in on trade. It had only 90,000 km on it, was an automatic and a four-door.

It was a really plain little car but it ran and drove just fine as a grocery-getter/city car. The 1.5 litre four banger gave good pep in the light car, and the computer controlled automatic worked very well. The price was $1000, which I thought was a good deal. It was a good deal and I drove the car for over a year; it was reliable and economical, easy to park and roomy enough. It was also utterly forgettable; I don’t remember it much at all, it was so nondescript. It was a good little car that did its duty taking me to work in a reliable economical manner.

I have never been a beater driver, at least not since high school, and the Summit of Eagles just didn’t fit the image I was trying to project. When you want to start a business, looks are everything because they lead to first impressions. I need a nice car that would make a bit of a better impression on potential clients, so I decided to sell the Summit of Eagles. In fact, a friend bought it and it gave several years of good service. However, Mitsubishi cars are not Toyota cars. Around 200,000 km, things started to conk out, mostly electrical. First was a distributor, a $600 part, as parts for these cars were always expensive. Next was a PCM, which was over $1000. My friend decided to part the car out and did pretty well on it, getting back most of what he had into it.


So there ends the Summer Edition of COAL. As barbeque season beckons, Canuckistanis throw off their parkas and head to the beach to enjoy our three weeks of summer before the August snows begin!