Hammer Time: In Praise Of The $1000 Car



“Wooden Shoe Rather Be Dutch?”

Sigh. Corny bumper sticker humor aside, the Subaru Legacy had 140k miles on the clock and a well-maintained powertrain (the glovebox was stuffed to the gills with maintenance records).

After further lurking about, I found a hardback book about Abraham Lincoln under the driver’s seat. This historical work gave me hope that the owner was equally conservative with his driving. Nice tires. Clean seats. All the fluids at their proper levels with nary a leak in sight. I slowly concluded that the old girl had plenty of life left.

Fortunately, the kicked-in driver’s door and smelly interior made the other dealers turn-up their nose when the Subie went across the block. For $500, the Legacy became mine… all mine. BWAHAHAHHA!!!!

Welcome to the wonderful world of the $500 car. From public auctions to impound lots to private sales and eBay, they’re there for the taking. We’re talking old Fords that hardly ever fail, to mondo mileage minivans with kid scarred interiors to match. The cost of today’s affordable commuter with what could kindly be called ‘cosmetic issues’ has rapidly sunk to the point where it’s nearly equal to the price of a new scooter.

Even better, as the old saying goes, “They ain’t building em’ like they used too.”  They’re building them better.

Thanks to huge advances in mechanical engineering, materials and manufacturing, the average vehicle has a remarkable ability to sustain itself well past the 200k on the odometer and double decades on the calendar– given the right owner and proper maintenance.

In my daily work as a dealer, I see the results of this every day:

Cadillacs old enough to drink in all fifty states with prior owners that bequeathed the ride to their unloved progeny.


Old Volvo wagons that you can’t kill with a Nordic stick, SUVs built for durability instead of bling that can still climb every mountain.


Even conventional family sedans that have watched an entire generation grow up and head off to college, still ready for grandchild duty.

For a true indication of the average car’s added endurance, look no further than Canada. Our neighbors in the Great White North recently reported that the number of 15-year-old vehicles on their roads had skyrocketed from just 800k in 1990 to 2.8m today. They’re not hanging onto to their vehicles longer because they’re poor. They’re doing it because they can. And the money saved is phenomenal. But the $500 car? How can that be a good deal?

First of all, understand this: the thousand dollar car always has something wrong with it.

Examples: the Subaru had a foul odor and a severely dented door. A $100 door and a $50 detail brought it back to its rightful glory. A 1993 Cadillac Seville had a coolant leak and needed a tune-up along with a shot of air conditioning. A Toyota Camry and a 1993 Eagle Vision I bought for $500 apiece needed nothing more than a cheap paint job that cost $260(called a “scuff and shoot”).  A 1993 Volvo 940 Wagon, a 1988 Isuzu Trooper and a 1991 Ford Explorer Sport needed… well… nothing actually. They were just unpopular and ‘old’. The Volvo did have 305k miles but the engine was immaculate and everything worked. Finally, a 1977 Mercedes 350SE bought for $250 needed a/c, new tires, and an alignment.

That old Merc was a freakish, right place/right time deal. But most of the others had dozens of eyes on them and nary an interested buyer in sight. A few were trade-ins that had been placed on Craigslist for months on end.

But why did all these sell so cheaply?

Most car shoppers (and dealers) judge a book by its cover. Fashion rules. A damaged door or other body panel, peeling paint or lack of functional air conditioning stops most buyers in their tracks.

In time though, most folks pretty much just treat their cars as appliances. If it breaks a little bit, but it still works, they figure why bother even fixing it? Car buyers prefer to trade-in or sell their problems instead of fixing them, predominantly because they believe the repair cost is simply too much to bear.

That’s where the challenge and opportunity lies. Paint is cheap, parts at the local recycling yard (car-part.com) or parts store are a fraction of dealer prices, and the time spent calling a few shops to get a direct quote for the labor on a specific repair costs you absolutely nothing. Enthusiast sites for specific cars are great at telling you the weak spots of any particular model, and what to look for during the test drive.

Again, this costs nothing but time and the willingness to learn.

For those of us who buy for the long haul, or just want a good cheap car to play with for a while, my advice is to look at the ‘scratch and dent’ side of the market. There are a lot of cheap old cars out there that had owners who did the maintenance, but not the cosmetics or the seemingly big repair.  A little homework and a good independent mechanic can truly give you a ‘keeper’.   It will also stave off the five figured financial scourges of depreciation, higher ad valorem taxes, and insurance while keeping your car hobby affordable and fun.