CC Mail Bag: When Life Gives You Lemons


Recently a reader sought some advice about a predicament he was in.

Seems he had purchased a 1997 Lincoln Town Car long-distance, sight unseen, for $600 plus shipping. It was clean, straight, looked well-kept, and only had around 125,000 miles on the clock. But once it arrived, he found out it wasn’t quite the cream puff he’d been expecting:

…the alternator was not installed and the serpentine belt was shredded.  The alternator was not the right one for the car so I bought a new alternator and belt which I installed. At this point I thought I was done but the engine would crank over but no start. My mechanic checked it and said that there was no compression on all cylinders. He guessed that the engine had severely overheated. His suggestion and estimate was $2k to drop in a used engine. Do you have any advice for me?

My response? If you trust the mechanic’s verdict, and if have the time and the space, I’d whip out the wrenches.

I buy a small handful cars each year, which means I end up selling a few as well – gotta keep the ol’ cylinder index from getting too ridiculous. Most of the cars I take on were given up on by their owners, for one reason or another. Sometimes it’s mechanical, sometimes it’s body damage (accident, etc) – but it’s always something. I almost never buy a car that I can drive home… that’s why I get them so cheap. But it also means that I have to get dirty and put in the time. It’s not always fun, but the results make it worth it.


From the details in the reader’s email, I assume he has about $1000 in this car as it sits. Book price is a shade under $2500, best case (unless it’s got options or provenance I’m not aware of) – so if it were mine, all said and done I’d plan on asking $2250 and taking $2000.

Now, myself, I’ve never actually bought a car sight unseen. I like to look them over first. Had I encountered the no compression situation, knowing what motors are worth and what I could get out of it, I would have limited my total outlay to $500, $600 tops if it was truly immaculate. But sometimes you end up with lemons and need to make lemonade; it’s happened to me once or twice too.

Since the reader says he’s “flipped” cars in the past, I assume he’s no stranger to working under the hood. If you’re willing to take it on, I said, the good news is that 4.6 V8s are every-freaking-where. You can’t swing a cat without hitting a 4.6, no matter where in America you are. Around these parts, $400 will buy you a strong runner, ready to drop in, any day of the week. I would guess prices to be similar in his area. is a good place to start.


You will need basic hand tools, possibly a few specialty tools (such as fuel line removal tools – I’m not a Ford guy, so I don’t know exactly), a basic “cherry picker” style hoist (aka shop crane), and the patience and determination to spend a few evenings on the garage floor. I assume you have access to tools. The hoist can be had for under $200 at Harbor Freight or your local equivalent, less at a pawn shop or on craigslist, or perhaps free if a friend can loan you one.

After that, it’s just a matter of getting the information and getting to it. Your local library will likely have Chiltons and/or Haynes manuals to help guide you, and I’d also look in some of the enthusiast forums online. There might even be videos on YouTube that could help prepare you for what to expect. It all tends to be pretty simple; some of it might be slightly frustrating, but in the end it’s just a series of steps. Make note of everything you disconnected and removed (or take pictures!), re-apply it the same way, and you’ll be golden.


BUT – it is important to note that disabled vehicles are something of a “pig in a poke”. Sure, you may be able to put in a new engine and have it running and moving under its own power… $500 profit at least, right? Maybe not. If you can’t drive it, you don’t know that the transmission is good, that the suspension isn’t loose as a goose, and so on. Another disadvantage to buying cars long-distance is that you can’t size up the owner and look at the clues which might guide you here.

If you don’t believe it’s been hooned, if you have reason to think it’s been well cared for up until the incident that killed it, I’d say go for it. Likewise, if you’re not afraid of eating up more of the potential profit on issues you might find later, then no worries. But you have to be the judge.


If you decide to press on, I told him, I wish you the best of luck. But if you decide to punt it, I can certainly understand that too. Especially if knowing what it’s going to take to finish has left you no longer in love with the car, I’d say throw it on craigslist for $750 (assuming you have title for it) as a fixer-upper, and call it a lesson learned.