Winter was past approached and my daily driver for spring and summer had been my lovely 1973 Mazda 808 Coupe. It would be criminal to drive the well preserved vintage Mazda in the snow so I needed a winter beater. Not a bad thing as many of you have undoubtedly found out in this series I enjoy the character of older, cheap cars.
My current searched started out a bit late that year, with warmer than usual weather allowing me to ride the bike to work well into traditional winter months. My requirements were pretty modest:
1. Must be able to pass a safety check with minimal work. I don’t mind replacing a set of brake pads but don’t want to be rebuilding an engine.
2. Must be cheap. On the road for well under $500 is the goal. We’ll see how it goes.
3. Decent parts supply in the local junkyards to keep running costs to a minimum.
A few other factors would help as well, like simplicity, which limits the number of things to go wrong and helps with the ease of fixing them. Fuel economy concerns probably take out any big land-barge style cars or full size pickup trucks. There were a number of reasonable candidates locally, with most being late 80s to early 90s economy cars or small, rear wheel drive trucks. This is in the sweet zone for my requirements as anything older has usually disappeared from the junkyards and the newer stuff often is more complex and expensive to buy.
Initially, I think I did the semi-reasonable thing and bought a 1987 Toyota Corolla sedan. Dull, potentially reliable, with a still decent parts supply in the junkyard. The car ran reasonably well and with a price of $80 left lots of room to fix a few issues and still be comfortably under my self-imposed budget. I actually spent a decent amount of time and a very small amount of money fixing and cleaning it up but soon came to the realization that oh my gosh this is one dull automobile. I soon realized that I’d rather own something with a little more character than play of a game of getting the cheapest possible car on the road price. So I sold off the Corrolla for $180, netting, after parts costs, perhaps $0.10/hr for my time.
With the Corolla cleared out of my garage, the hunt resumed again. When shopping at scrap value prices you need to be a little lucky and a more so, quick. After scanning the local classified ads for a couple of weeks a nice contender appeared. It was outside the city in a smaller town which was good. For some reason people ignore the ads that are even minutes outside the city even when it is a great deal. Odd, but their loss.
The contender was a rather sad looking 1989 Nissan Micra,a car that is interesting, at least to me, as they were sold in Canada but not the US. And on the plus side, it was equipped with the five speed manual gearbox. The Canadian Micras (and a few other smaller markets like Malta) feature sealed beam headlights unlike ones sold in other markets like the UK or Japan. Like a lot of Canadian market cars not sold in the US they have largely disappeared due to parts supply issues. Most chain stores here carry US market catalogs so parts aren’t impossible but it does take a bit more work. A co-worker from years ago had a series of Micras and swore by them as “only add only gas and drive cars”.
I made an appointment with the seller, and as usual I’d pretty much sold myself on it even before I got there. The car itself ran well, was reasonably clean and the asking price was only $200. On the flip side it had some front collision damage, non-working horn and four bald tires. Three others were thoughtfully included in the hatch and rear seat but were a slightly different size than the spare so still one short of a full set. Given that 12” tires are not easy to source any more I figured a used set of a 13” ones already on rims would be in order. A common bolt pattern of 4x100mm made this task a little easier.
After agreeing to $160 cash price I came back the next day to very carefully drive it home. Unfortunately by the time I got a plate and the family to give me a lift out, it was night time. Combined that with bald tires, high winds, unknown car and a winter conditions on the highway it made for a white knuckle journey home.
The Micra itself has always reminded me a bit of a 2/3 scale Volkswagen Golf. That same iconic two box shape, but made with some of the thinnest sheet metal around. The aluminum hood flexes about alarmingly when open. According to the Canadian market brochure I found the two door model like mine weighs in at 1,490 lbs, and probably the best size scale I can give you for comparison is a first generation Chevrolet Sprint (or any other variant on the Suzuki Cultus).
Canadian market cars were only offered with the larger MA12 1.2L engine with a five speed manual or three speed automatic. Other markets had a base MA10S 1.0L with four or five speed manuals and the three speed automatic. The all aluminum engines still featured an electronically controlled carburetor, and the larger engine managed 59hp. That doesn’t sound like much but it is quite zippy around town although it does run out of steam on the highway if you attempt to exceed the posted speed limit.
In Japan the Micra was known as the March, and there was even a performance version called the Super Turbo. Larger wheels, mild body kit with fog lamps give it a distinctive look.
That pocket-rocket was equipped with the MA09ERT 930cc four cylinder engine that featured both a turbo and supercharger as well as fuel injection. The supercharger helps with low end torque while a relatively large turbo produces the peak horsepower at high rpm when the supercharger disengages. The Super Turbo engine produced 108hp and even features a limited slip differential.
Perhaps even more wild than the engine was this very odd kitty-cat key that was standard issue for all Super Turbo cars.
I always start with a decent clean on any car I buy. Most cars at this price range are pretty dirty and giving it bit of a clean gives you a good chance to see what you are working with. I like to think of it as bonding time as well. The engine was absolutely filthy and I had briefly considered sending the previous owner an oil funnel for Christmas as well as instructions on its use. The interior wasn’t too bad, and as a nice bonus I found $5.12 in change cleaning it out. Not bad and it worked out to slightly over a 3% discount off the purchase price! The interior is definitely bare bones, which exactly how I like it. No toys mean no toys to go wrong.
I was able to straighten the front bumper a bit. I used the sophisticated method of attaching the tow hook on the one side to chain and then wrap around a suitable cemented in steel pole. After that all you need to do is just reverse back and forth a few times. With some minor whiplash it was much less lopsided looking.
The previous owner nicknamed it “The Dragon” after this and another decal (spells out Dragon on the rear window). A rather grand name for an unassuming little car. It is a brand of snowboard/ski goggles. A little bewildering to me that a brand of goggles can inspire such loyalty, but practising minimal cost motoring likely seems odd to other folk. I’m was tempted into keeping both the name and the decals.
I have to admit the car grew on me as it was indecently fun to drive. One can toss it around in the corners with abandon as well as zipping in and out of small spaces. Probably too much body roll to be an auto-x contender, but the larger 13″ tires made a massive difference by helping it feel more planted. Around town you flog the engine by driving it flat out all the time. No traffic laws are broken and the engine seems to love being pushed. Rather similar to what I’d imagine a classic Mini is like to drive.
I had a great time driving my little Micra with its cheeky and willing character. Soon my old nemesis, the safety inspection, loomed darkly overhead. I took it to a local garage which made a list of demands including a new ball joint (that it did not need). The bill was more than the price of the car but likely less than what I would face taking it to a couple more garages in search of a reasonable inspection. I decided to bite the bullet and get the work done figuring at least that nightmare would out of the way. Wrong.
First off, there was a great deal of complaining and hand wringing about sourcing the ball joint from the shop. The bill escalated as they had to source a part from British Columbia. I figured I was out of woods when picking up my Micra and paying the blood money to the garage. Wrong again. It had run like a top before going in, but it stumbled badly as I drove away from the shop. It managed about two blocks before dying. The shop claimed that it was an old car and could experience troubles at any moment. Absolutely true but the timing was more than suspicious. I am sure they were banking on the fact that no one retains a lawyer for a cheap banger and were hoping that I would pay them even more to fix it. The shop went out of business a couple years later so there is some karma for them.
I wanted no more to do with them as I had essentially paid them handsomely to destroy my car. It might be a cheap piece of garbage car but I enjoyed it. I towed the car home were I was able to diagnose a no-spark fault. The Micra had a strange computerized coil for the Canadian market only and no wiring diagram existed. I tinkered with no success on and off for a month. I even took it to a (different) shop but they had no luck. I eventually found that certain years of Sentras shared that same coil and sourced one (and a matching rotor for good measure).
Swapping it over did nothing to help the situation. I eventually traced out all the wiring and found a ignition relay type device. Suspiciously it looked like some had messed about with it. Again I searched the local supply of Nissans in the scrapyard and found a similar one in a Nissan pickup truck. I swapped this and the Micra again ran but not well. By this time my patience was wearing thin and my wife’s had long run out. Reluctantly I listed the Micra for sale and took a loss on it. An ignominious and unnecessary ending for such a fun car.
You have some real bad luck with usually bullet proof cars,
I sold a friend a cheap 89 Corolla 12 months ago its run reliably until last Sarurday when I harvested the battery and the rest went to the wreckers my friend bought a really nice diesel Peugeot cheap,
Ive got an old 93 Sentra on the lawn that starts just by reaching in and turning the key its done that since it arrived here Ive barely openned the bonnet just checked the oil and coolant occasionally its used none 342,000kms and it runs like new I will likely end up getting it roadworthy and selling it or driving it to tow my trailer rather than making my old Hillman work hard any more.
You have the knack of getting the same sort of cars and having trouble with them I cant work out how you do it, though I’m enjoying the series.
Hey, the perfect companion piece to last week’s lament about the Boring Toyota, . “And the search for the perfect winter beater continues… on Curbside Classic.” I eagerly await next week’s installment, and I hope your frickin’ luck improves. Bored to death by one car, and then the next one gets screwed up by incompetent mechanics? That ain’t fair We don’t even have winter beaters down here in Seattle. On the two or three days of snow that we have in a year, people just drive the car they’re still making payments on, often with very unhappy results.
Next week’s car is my most silly purchase to date. Hardly even ranks as a car. Stay tuned!
In England, I’ve found that at the front of every line of slow moving traffic is a Micra. They tend to be the car of choice for the timid and blue haired drivers, who tend to believe that one should drive no faster than the flagman in front of you can walk. However, because of this, you can find immaculate low mileage examples for next to nothing.
I had a similar experience to you with a beautiful rust free $400 slant-six Plymouth Duster when I was younger and didn’t know much about cars. I took it in to a shop for a stalling problem, and after spending $500 on various repairs, and when it came out it still did the same thing. I sold it for $800, which was still less than I spent, and that car is probably worth 10K now if its still in the same condition.
Only later did I learn that its problem was nothing more than a $2 ballast resistor, and I became irate when I found the bill years later and saw that he ‘repaired the carburetor computer.’ This was on a ’74 Duster- way before the feedback carb was invented. At least he was kind enough to give me the muffler bearings and blinker fluid on the house.
It is always sad when a garage’s incompetence and greed forces you to part with an otherwise good car. Thankfully now, the combination of Rock Auto and marque specific forums now make it much easier to at least know what is wrong with your car before bringing it in. Now, I do most of my own repairs and only bring my car in when repairs involve machining, pressing, critical tolerances, or anything where the specialist tool costs more than the repair.
That first photo looks like a not uncommon scene in Canada since the 1970s, a shuttered military facility dating from the 1950s. The building facade looks like the standard design typically used across the country. With the buildings usually trimmed in medium green, rather than blue. They used to be thriving communities within themselves. But that shot nicely captures the remaining mood of the various bases closed up across the country. Having grown up at the former CFB Rockcliffe in Ottawa, that photo looks very familiar.
Unfortunately, I would nominate the Micra as one of the most invisible cars of the 80s.
At least on North American roads.
When we lived in Toronto, my father bought a new 1984 Micra, to replace a 1975 Civic which had finally succumbed to rust and lack of oil. As it was intended to be a winter car/commuter, to spare his beloved Rover 2000TC, it was the absolute base model. Rubber floor mats and no options whatsoever – not so much as an AM radio.
It ran with no problems at all until I inherited it for my last year of university in 1990. I then had to pay a few hundred dollars to get something repaired – can’t remember what it was now. I do remember being irked that the problem couldn’t have manifested itself a couple of months earlier so my father could have paid for it. After I graduated, it was passed on to my step-uncle’s family.
I agree that it was flimsy, and had an overwhelmingly plastic interior. It was an admirable car, but I can’t say I remember it having much in the way of personality.
That exactly what my mum did! A pale blue ’75 Civic replaced with a Micra! Her’s had nicer upholstery and a dealer installed sunroof and 5 speed. It felt much cheaper than the Civic. After my dad died she treated herself and stepped up to a first generation Altima GXE with 5 speed which was light years ahead of the Micra.
That kitty key is amazingly weird!
An example, perhaps, of Japanese “kawaii” culture, like Hello Kitty™. I would be astounded if anything like this could be found from Europe unless it was pop art or the like, & even that takes itself seriously.
Had one of these as a rental in Germany (mid 80s). Agree with your comments on the driveability, but don’t try it at “as fast as you can go Autobahn speeds.” Car started to shake and shimmy so I slowed down quickly.
Oh yes higher speeds are utterly hopeless. Very much a city car.
Neat car and I wonder what the ham fisted shop hands did? Have you found a friendlier shop that is more helpful and more forgiving (letting some things slide) when it comes to the safety inspection?
Neat little crasher. My favorite in that size range was the Chevy/Geo Metro. Had a late 90s rental Metro once and couldn’t stop laughing as i drove it. They seem to be extinct around here now. In fact only Geos of any sort on Autotrader are a handful of Prizms, the cheapest of which is a 97 with 185,000 on the clock, hit on the passenger side so neither door opens. The guy still wants $900
Amazing that the mechanical underpinnings of that sad little box of boredom are found in several of those amazing Nissan limited-production jewels like the Figaro.
“Sad little box of boredom” Love it, I’ll have to remember that when I describe a Corolla.
i love this series. thanks. what i’m confused by is your willingness to go through this ritual almost every winter. i would think that once you get a beater working reliably that you would park it somewhere during the warm months and use it for as many seasons as it lasts. or isn’t that doable in the harsh canadian winter?
Sure it is do-able but I like some variety.
Both the Toyota Starlet and the Tercel were the Nissan Micra’s chief competitors but the Starlet and Tercel were widely available especially in the US. The Nissan Micra was never imported here by the way. The comparable cars today would be like the Nissan Versa Note and the Toyota Yaris which were both five door hatchbacks.
The Micra could also be had in five door format.
When you were talking about driving it flat out and not breaking speed limits I flashed back to my 1961 40hp vw. It wasn’t flimsy though. Just slow.
That kitty kat key and the March Super Turbo are so badass. I want both of them very badly! That engine is also incredibly tiny for a four cylinder. I’m guessing that 1.2l must have been the absolute limit on this block. I’m sure I’d love driving this car – anything that you can drive flat out 100% of the time and hardly ever risk breaking the law is fun as hell.
Is this the only generation of Micra that made it to Canada? I know they’re selling the current model there once again, but did you guys get the one after this too?
Only this first generation and the current one. We missed all the ones in between. The occasional right hand drive March from the late 90s has been imported here from Japan. Mostly the convertibles.
Sounds like yours was a terrible experience with a very shady shop; I’ve heard of unnecessary repairs but sabotaging the customer’s car is a new one! Annual inspections really can be a license for the shop to print money. Sometimes you find an honest shop (my last inspection on the Vic I specifically told them to check the brake pads as they’d been squeaking, expecting that by doing so I essentialy gave them the green light to charge me for the replacement whether needed or not, and to my surprise they told me the pads were fine and passsed the car with nothing needed). But in other instances there’s much potential for mischief. When I bought the Volvo recently, the previous owner actually warned me to *never* go to the local Volvo specialty shop for state inspecton as they are enitrely too thorough and will definitely find something that needs replacement on an older car. Fine for other work but steer clear at inspection time!
Those Micras do look somewhat exotic as we didn’t have them on this side of the border. Definitely has a mini-golf look to it, also favors the early 80’s Dodge/Plymouth colt but with a slightly steeper C-pillar.
Another great write-up, even better since the car is unobtainium down here. I think the horrible luck you have with your cars is merely karma making up for the exceptional deals you get. I’m not sure which part of the equation is the preferable one…
Looking forward to next week already!
David, in what years were you buying these cars? Currently, in the GTA, one cannot get a runner without serious issues for less than $500 or so, and it’ll likely need work to pass Safety.
I bought this one in November 2011. The same is generally true here. In fact Alberta prices are higher than Ontario ones but a good deal comes along once in a blue moon – you have to be ready to pounce.
I passed on a $150 Nissan Sentra the other day because I didn’t really need. $500 certainly gets you a better crappy car.
Seems the main reason old beaters are so cheap is the inspection repairs kill the value. Do you have to have a shop do the repairs, or can you do them and then have the car reinspected? If one shop finds a problem can you go to another shop that does not find it or not think it’s a problem? Or do they put you in a computer to the state that locks you in for the found problem? The 6 month inspection that KiwiBryce and others have discussed is crazy. I could see every couple of years but 6 months. Are the inspections required when you buy a car and go to register? Sorry for all the questions, living on the West Coast smog inspections are all I’ve had to deal with. Really enjoy your articles on the complications you endure on some of the beaters you have bought for almost nothing.
Inspection only need when you buy the vehicle. A lot of junkers are worth more to their current owners than anyone else.