While it became clear instantly that delivery driving at a busy restaurant would be the most lucrative form of income for a college undergraduate (full time drivers at good restaurants net between $30,000 to $40,000–about the average starting salary for my major), it also became painfully clear the brand new car I was diligently working to make monthly payments on was becoming a well-worn used car much too quickly.
With over 20,000 miles in the first year alone, multiple dings, thoroughly abused suspension and brakes, interior stains, and bumpers damaged in multiple places, I realized that my strippo Jetta was going to become one of those sad appliances that ends up at the Pick-and-Pull before its tenth birthday (aka: the fate of most Pontiac Sunfires ever built). Forget the cheap monthly payments… why spend $16,000 over all these years on something that will be edging close to beater territory by the time I finish grad school and get my first full-time office job?
Many of the other delivery drivers drove similar cheap, late-model cars, mostly from defunct brands with no resale value, bought from shady dealerships that specialize in 84-month financing to drug addicts with credit scores south of 550 (I hope none of them ever read this, although they’ll probably just laugh as they snort coke off the dashboards of their damaged Impalas with one hubcap–even more motivation to finish my degree!).
Seeing the horrendous condition of the five-year-old Pontiac G6s and Mercury Milans my coworkers owned–who will be making monthly payments on their sad, badly damaged sedans until they’re junkyard material, then start the cycle all over again–was all the motivation I needed to buy a sub-$1000 work beater to preserve my “nice” car.
Thus begun the Craigslist search. What can you find for under $1000, in 2015, that is fully functional and runs… aesthetics be damned? Cavaliers. Sunfires. Luminas. Any older Kia. Camrys and Corollas carried a significant premium, unless there was something seriously wrong with them. Basically any marginal compact or midsize from the 1996-2000 year range would’ve fit the bill.
But the Luddite in me kept telling myself that these cars were complicated. The had ‘modern’ electronic engine controls, glitchy theft-deterrent ignitions, complicated ABS systems… so many expensive things to go wrong for an $800 investment. Plus, they were boring. If I was going to buy an old car, I was going to buy an OLD car. I had a trouble-free experience with my rear-wheel-drive 1986 Fleetwood Brougham as a winter beater a couple years prior, why not go that route again? After all, gas is $1.85 a gallon for probably the last time in history thanks to the wonders of fracking–mankind’s last resort to maintain the status quo.
Unfortunately, those Cadillacs have appreciated in value somewhat as their numbers have dwindled, so I went south on the old-school Sloan ladder. “Chevrolet Caprice” yielded many results, one of which, a brown wood-paneled wagon owned by an old man who hardly drove it, looked like the perfect match.
I called the owner and test drove the car. Brakes? Brand new front discs and pads, smooth and grabby. Steering? Pinky-finger light, no squeals or hitches, lock to lock. Suspension? Smooth but durable, B-body style. The carbureted 305 came to life with minimal stabs at the giant gas pedal, even in the deep depths of the ten-degree Michigan winter. The transmission shifted through its four gears with that typical GM ease. All the lights worked, interior and exterior–and as soon as I popped in the cassette adapter for my smartphone and the crackly 30-year-old speakers belted Drake with surprisingly decent bass, I knew this old woody was The Car.
Reactions to this giant old woody wagon in 2015 showed it to be more polarizing than any car I’ve owned. People love it or they hate it. Objectively, I understand both perspectives. The hate camp sees it as an embarrassing, ugly, clunky, obsolete transportation machine in the same way Windows 95 is no longer a desirable operating system (although to be honest, I wouldn’t mind getting an old PC and installing that operating system just for the childhood memories that would instantly flood back).
I’ve noticed most of these people fall in the Generation X age range. Technically, I can’t disagree with them. The love camp view the wagon as a unique relic that is no longer produced or seen on every block, and which has a charming, nostalgic sort of cachet, especially in its semi-worn state (it has many nicknames at work, but one of my twenty-something coworkers always calls it the “Vista Cruiser”). These people are usually fellow millennials or, weirdly, baby-boomers with fond childhood memories. Funny that when you were born in history can have such a huge effect on what body style of car you find appealing or not.
Owning the car is a bit of conundrum because while it is in pretty solid condition for its thirty-year age and drives very well (I’d equate it to how the average ’85 Caprice looked/drove in about 1995–exactly the kind I saw bobbing down my suburban streets as a toddler), at its core the wagon is an $800 beater that is destined for the junkyard within a relatively short period of time. Yes, despite the fact I threw fuzzy dice on the mirror, adorned the tailgate with a sticker proclaiming my appreciation of it, and even bought a five-dollar custom front plate (wow!), my investment in the car is minimal and shall continue to be. They sold millions of these and I wouldn’t call them rare even in 2015, so I don’t feel bad driving it into the ground.
Still, it does make me sad when random people at gas stations say things like “take good care of it!” because that’s not the purpose of this car, even though I wish it could be. Someday, I’d like to own a genuinely pristine version–preferably from the late-1960s–but I don’t have the funds or the time at this stage in life.
Not surprisingly, the giant wagon has proven to be the ultimate delivery vehicle at the restaurant where I now work (for reasons I don’t want to get into, I no longer work at the shady Chinese joint where I began working last year). Scads of room for $400 catering orders. Spill a milkshake on a hard turn? Who cares? Accidentally back into a “no parking” sign? Genuine metal bumpers have got you covered.
The car is now the go-to vehicle for errand running–no other driver has a vehicle that can restock eighty two-liter pop bottles in one trip. Surprisingly, the fuel penalty over the Jetta is only about $10-$20 a week at current prices, considering the VW dips down to 22 MPG in the frigid Midwestern winter. Despite the lack of any safety features, the wagon is amazing in the snow, with ground clearance unheard of in a modern compact and surprisingly good traction from the relatively new tires.
If it starts to spin out (which it rarely does), it’s ridiculously easy to control, because all the body mass over the rear wheels creates a balanced weight distribution and the steering wheel can be whipped back and forth with one finger. Ironically, I drive more safely in this car than in the Jetta, because I’m very aware there’s no ESC or ABS to save me in an unexpected event.
The car could puke its transmission any day or simply not start, and unless it’s something I can do myself or it cost less than $100 to fix–it’s straight to the junkyard. I’ve driven 4000 trouble-free miles so far (the engine has burned hardly any oil–about half a quart), and if I get a few thousand more, I’ll consider my investment paid off, considering every harsh delivery mile I put on the Caprice is a mile I don’t put on the Jetta.
If gas shoots back up to $4.00/gallon, it’ll also be straight to the scrap heap. In that case, I simply junk it, get $500 back for scrap, and drive the VW into the ground for the remainder of my college career. In the meantime, I genuinely enjoy watching the stand-up hood ornament bob along the snowy winter horizon as I deliver steaming deep dish pizzas to my fellow residents in the frozen Midwestern tundra.