While our 1996 Ford Mustang GT was quite a fun car to own, and was totally trouble free, we were forced to part with it as a consequence of our move to the big city. I’d finished my university education and what few jobs there were at the time in my field were all in the larger cities. So during preparations to move, we called our insurance agent and discovered that our rate on the Mustang would be at least triple what we were paying. Already stretched a bit thin by moving expenses and still on the hunt for a career level job, we sadly sold the Mustang. My Z28 became our only car for a stretch but that was a situation that we knew couldn’t last.
I’d always been intrigued by the possibility of buying a beater and keeping it going with minimum possible upkeep. Graduating with a computer science degree right as the Dot Com Bust occurred was not ideal and since we didn’t have much money and I’d landed only a stopgap job, it seemed like a good time to give it a try. I was by no means a master mechanic, but by this time I could do some basic maintenance so I needed something cheap but still mechanically solid. This likely meant a vehicle that was either undesirable or cosmetically challenged. As I scoured the local Bargain Finder I found something that looked to hit all these points with an asking price of $450.
The ad was for a 1988 Ford Taurus station wagon with the 3.8L V6 engine and an automatic transmission. The 3.8L V6 had a bit of a reputation for blowing head gaskets and the Taurus transmission isn’t known for its robust nature but the car ran and drove quite well. Cosmetically it was a little challenged with all the hub caps missing, a damaged front fender and some deep scratches in the paint. The seller explained that he’d had it up on ramps to do an oil change when he started the motor and accidentally knocked it into drive. The car had taken off down the road by itself miraculously not hitting any other vehicles. It did however come to a stop after plowing through a chain link fence.
I thought my wife was on board with the idea and negotiated a purchase price of $300. I have absolutely no photos of the actual car, so I’ve had to rely on what I can find online and not many people post photos of elderly Taurus wagons in poor shape.
The first thing I did was hit up the local self service scrapyard. I got a few bits of trim to replace the ones that had been knocked off and a replacement front indicator lens. I can’t remember if I got a front fender as well or managed to persuade the one on the car back into shape. A shot of “matching” paint on the front fender didn’t match all that well but still looked reasonably presentable, at least to my eyes (from twenty feet away).
The Taurus came with no hubcaps and while I dug the plain black steel wheels as it gave the car a tough vibe reminiscent of the Robocop police cars, my wife thought it looked crappy. I didn’t need much of an excuse to head back to the scrapyard and was able to find a matching set of four caps.
At this point, the car ran and drove quite well and even looked somewhat okay (perhaps it would be more accurate to say it no longer looked abandoned). The interior was not a bad place to spend some time and though ours didn’t have some of the more glitzy features like the digital dash but it certainly wasn’t a base level car either, with power windows, locks and even working A/C. For 1988 the larger 3.8L Essex V6 engine was introduced with a full 140hp and sure enough, our car had it. This was a mixed blessing however as this engine was known for blowing head gaskets and put extra strain on an already fragile automatic transmission.
We didn’t get to test the Taurus’ long term durability, however, as no sooner had I fixed it up when my wife declared she wouldn’t drive such a heap. I’d known she is a bit of princess about such matters when I married her, so for the moment, I reluctantly declared the end of the beater experiment. We ended up trading in the Taurus for a 1998 Jeep Cherokee Sport under a dealer’s minimum one thousand dollar trade in guarantee.
I should have made a modest profit off it, but unfortunately I noticed the next day that the dishonest dealer had swapped the paper work on the new car at the last second, taking the trade-in amount off. In our youthful stupidity we’d forgotten to triple check that what we’d agreed upon was in fact what we were signing. I felt they had essentially stolen the car from me as I’d neither given nor received a bill of sale, and because they had already shipped it off to auction, leaving me little recourse beyond suing them. I did spy the Taurus a couple times later, still on the road (that mismatched fender was rather distinctive), so at least someone got some use out of it.