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.
I’ve never been a fan of either the Taurus or the Sable. They’re both good looking cars, and they’re reliable cars, but they’re front-wheel drive. I’ve always been rather old-school. I prefer rear-wheel drive.
The last part reminds me of when I traded in my 97 Ford Ranger XLT on a 2009 Civic. I only received $500 and in retrospect, I should have kept the truck and gave or sold it to my brother. Then again, there’s no way that he could afford the suspension work that it needed.
Who was the dealer that stiffed you. And did you report it to the BBB?
I should have but didn’t at the time.
“…they already shipped it off to auction..”
Likely story. Too bad you didn’t have a second set of keys at home, you could have gotten it back 🙂 Sorry to hear those weasels got the best of you.
It’s been my experience that those “minimum XX trade-in” ads are horse crap; they just mark up all their used cars by whatever amount they are advertising as a “trade-in.”
I reported carparts.com to the BBB years ago, before they were owned by JC Whitney, because they charged my credit card and never sent me my order. They didn’t even bother giving me a tracking number. I called and e-mailed at least a dozen times. I even threatened to take them to small claims court. They promised to refund me several times, but never did. I reported to this to the BBB and they claimed to have successfully closed my case, even though I never did get my order or a refund. I doubt the BBB would have done anything.
Hmm, why didn’t you unleash the power of VISA/MC/DISCOVER upon them?
Back in 2011 my brother’s girlfriend was in need of a car. I noticed that my neighbor had a 96 Taurus sitting in his driveway with no plate on it so when I saw him outside I inquired about it. He said it ran fine but overheated occasionally. I told him about my brother and his girlfriend (with two kids) and that his single cab 92 F150 was inappropriate transportation for the four of them. On the spot he offered the car to me for free to give to them, but I negotiated the price up to $300 (what I perceived to be scrap value) and a deal was struck. They were happy to have the car for $300. The overheating was due to the radiator which my brother replaced. He cleaned it up really well, got the a/c going for minimal cost and over the years he replaced the shocks and struts and other minor stuff. She really liked the car and they took it on several multi-state road trips and the car never skipped a beat. Last summer they had a baby and the car became tight for 5. My brother found a really clean 2002 Pontiac Montana for $650. It needed the intake gasket replaced but was great shape. I lent him the money to buy it, with the promise that he would pay me back when he sold the Taurus. They put the Taurus on Craigslist but the pictures they took were crappy and three weeks went by with no takers. So to get paid I went over to their house, drove the car to a fancy neighborhood, parked the car I front of a nice house and took a ton of pictures of it. I made a detailed ad, even describing it as being “the 1996 exclusive Rose Mist Metallic”. Their phone blew up and the car was sold the next day for $1000 and I was repaid.
Lazy neighbor, eh? Maybe he involuntarily fell into the car or something, but judging by the picture that car was in very good shape for its age.
You give me ideas!
It is amazing how few people know how to clean up and present a used car for sale. No need to be dishonest about it, but no need to display in in a shabby light, either.
Nice story. The car looks in really nice shape considering it is old enough to vote. Good pictures really do help to sell stuff. The only thing wrong I can see is that the bumpers seem to be a different color than the rest of the car.
So how many miles did this bull have? I feel like after 150,000 miles the Taurus shows its true colors. You either have one that blows up or lasts to 200k. The 3.8 doesn’t help with the odds either.
I recall exactly as it was a long time ago but I want to say something like 180k kms which would make it right around 100k miles. Our vehicles don’t generally last as long – winter is hard on the mechanical bits.
When I see a Taurus wagon, I can’t stop thinking of Grisworld’s “Taurus Squire” in “National Lampoon’s Christmas vacations”
I always think of Jack Ryan driving a Taurus Wagon in Patriot Games while his wife drove the Porsche.
“Hey kids, look, a deer!”
Woody Taurus. Oh the irony. Rumor has it they shaped the roof so no one could put a vinyl cover on it. They did not think of preventing woody flanks.
Exactly. Favorite movie ever, and I love the Griswold Taurus wagon.
I’m a Taurus wagon fan myself, but to each his/her own.
I’ve seen lots of older TW’s used for rural mail delivery, and the platform does seem to have a pretty good reputation in the trade:
/Not that I can get a bet down somewhere, but I do believe the wagon will eventually have CC status–perhaps another dozen years down the road.
I think it already has CC status. Generation 1 and 2 certainly do.
I also think that everyone is entitled to picture Griswold every time a TW enters the field of vision.
I have the super TW called Windstar with the 3.8 for almost 9 years now. I am getting tired of it though. But something real strange is happening to me: I consider a Sable or Taurus to replace the minivan. My situation is such that our nest has pretty much emptied. Both boys have their own vehicles and one moved out, leaving the dog behind. My yearly miles driven dropped from 20 K to 10K due to the eliminated soccer and activities schedule.
Looking at the used car market it is really hard to find something this cheap and this good as a Taurus/Sable. Someone, please talk me out of it.
Further I think that the gen 4 looks good and the Sable looks half a grade better. But there are so many of them that no one takes notice.
By the way, my 3.8 L Windstar has 170000 miles on the original head gasket and tranny.
Wolfgang, it’s my experience also that if the 3.8’s head gaskets hold, those engines can indeed roll up LOTS of miles.
And I totally understand your cheap/good analogy. Perhaps Ford wishes that Taurus/Sable had depreciated less over the years, but it does translate to some great values in the used car market–roomy and reliable cars on which you can roll up a lot of miles at a low cost/mile, even when fixing is necessary. Ebay has the occasional Gen3 cream puff at tempting prices, even the BIN oftentimes.
But I asked for someone to talk me out of it, not into it! (wink)
Another fan of the original Taurus wagon, here. The originals are getting hard to find in the midwest, as these turned out to be not quite as rust-resistant as they could have been.
I have always been enthralled with the idea of a beater, but have only had a couple in my life – my 63 F100 and the 93 Crown Vic that was a nice old car when I got it, but after living through three teen drivers as daily transport, it has attained that status.
Mrs. JPC is not one to drive beaters either. She has put up with my habit for older cars, and will drive them sometimes, but prefers a newer, nicer ride.
One of my favorite beaters was a 50k mi. 1988 Nissan Sentra two door which I picked up from a coworker for $200. It has a nasty rod knock and their mechanic told them it wasn’t worth fixing. The car had blown the head gasket between two cylinders so it’s 1.3L four was functionally a .65L two with some extra parts going along for the ride. A new head gasket and replacing some wiped rod bearings set me back about $100. I put 80k miles on the Sentra over the next three years. And then sold it to a neighbor for $500.
I was loaned a near new Sable wagon when my ’95 Concorde went in for service. It got some surprising compliments and I immediately ran to Menard’s to buy lawn furniture while I could haul it. I rather liked it.
A friend of mine is a real beater connoisseur. Some samples: Geo Prizm 230K not running. A timing belt from the pull a part fixed it. Grand Am, bad fuel pump. Saturn 200L: bad body control module. He bought it for $900 and it compares to vehicles offered at 5 to 6 grand.
My best attempt: Mazda B2300. The previous owner had trouble putting the timing belt in. $800. But there are a few more issues that will cost maybe another $800.00.
There is a local 05 Lincoln LS V8 for 2 grand o.b.o. It is tempting but too much of a gamble.
My very best 2 wheeler without an engine: early 80’s Raleigh Gran Prix Professional, Reynolds 530 tubing and Campagnolo Nuevo Record: Picked up at the curb including a sign that said “free bike”.
I’ve run quite a proper beaters since but not sure if I’d fit a junkyard timing belt!
The man is fearless. In his youth he outran the Chicago PD on his motorcycles and with his T’bird 5.0
RE the free bike: I wish I had your karma. You must have been really good in a previous life or something. What a great frame, and not only is that NR beautiful, but it may well be worth more than any of the cars discussed on this post.
I run a Campy Rally long-cage rear derailleur of that vintage on my ‘cross bike. Who needs indexing?! (I don’t race, but I love the looks I get from young hardcore mountain-bikers when they see me on what appears to be a road bike on a single track at the top of a mountain…)
Campagnolo NR are mechanical pieces of art. I have no intend to sell it. I’d rather hang it over the bed and listen to my wife’s nagging.
What Reynolds did was a stroke of genius. The nice thing is you can combine British metallurgy with Italian precision mechanisms and it looks like it belongs. Try that with your food on the plate: fish and chips combined with pasta Alfredo and Chianti? Where is the barf bag….
My son rode this bike to school until he outgrew the very small frame. Guess what: I found a Panasonic road bike of the late 80’s in the proper size on the curbside. After new tires and oil on the chain he rides another curbside classic! He also likes to stand out from the mountain bike crowd and he realizes what he had/has with these bikes.
If I only knew what I did right in my former life.
I’ve found the Taurus/Sable wagons to be comfortable and practical. I hauled all the materials for rebuilding the decks on the back of our house, three raised garden beds, numerous exterior house repairs, decades worth of garden soil, and who-knows-what-else in them. Since our first 1986 Taurus L wagon, through a 1987 Sable GS, a 1992 Sable GS, and a 2002 Taurus SE, we have never been without a Taurus/Sable wagon (the 86 and 87 were simultaneous until the 87 was rear-ended by a gravel truck). The only complaint I’ve got is that in 1986 the new upper body resulted in a slightly smaller liftgate opening, even as the floor of the wagon remained the same from its debut as a 1986 model to its demise after a short 2005 model year.
My father has a Mercury Sable. He had a first gen Sable wagon, and then later bought a second generation Merc Sable.
Running a beater is a great way to save on automotive costs. First off, buy in is low. Second there are no payments, liability only insurance is low, and yearly registration is less.Think about it. A year’s payments of only 300.00 a month is 3,600.00 a year. A considerable savings. Depreciation is not an issue, the car wasn’t worth much when you bought so what does it matter, what it’s worth when you dump it. If something major goes wrong and you don’t want to fix it, just junk it or donate it for the tax deduction. To my way of thinking, a car is worth a hundred dollars a month, to me, in utility. So f I can get two years out of 2,000.00 dollar car I figure the rest is gravy. You do have to buy carefully, with your eyes open. You’ve also got to have good DIY skills to handle the inevitable repairs.
I don’t blame your wife on not wanting to drive and be seen in some clunker. Two ways around this. One, buy a slightly more expensive car in good cosmetic shape and fix what it needs. Two, keep the beater for yourself and get a better car for your wife, you can drive the “good” car when you go out together.
Out of my current fleet of six cars, four are twenty years old, bought for an average of slightly over two grand a apiece but none are “junkers”. Yes three are technically “hobby cars” bought because I like having interesting cars that I can afford, so they are Better Beaters.
I’ve lived almost my entire automotive life like that. I have bought two new vehicles, in 87 and 92, and both times got a rude awakening to the fact I’m not built for half a decade of payment’s. And a car to me is a lifelong purchase. I still have the first one I bought for $625 back in 83. My current DD are a 79 T-Bird I bought in 02 for $900 and a 76 Maverick bought in 99 for $800. The T-Bird has had zero breakdowns and the Maverick has only had one when the DuraSpark box went bad in ’12. However, I had a spare in the trunk and had it swapped out in 15 minutes.
And the Maverick.
I wish G1 Taurus wagons weren’t so hard to find these days. I’m looking for a 1986 Taurus LX Wagon in medium canyon red and not a single one hasn’t popped up for sale. I hope I find one. I don’t want it to be years and years before I find it.