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According to Top Gear on the History channel last year (yes, we know the Brit version is better; move on) you can grab a $500 ride almost anywhere that looks like crap but has a heart of gold. Some car shows do, and it’s good TV. But when these guys tried it two years ago they got about as far as you might expect. Jalopnik posted the “totally awesome” carnage from YouTube that may actaully be funnier than U.S. Top Gear’s attempt.

Our question is, can you even grab a $500 car than runs reliably? Normally after hearing that question everyone will wax poetic about a cheap-ass car they got on the super deal “this one time.” That’s not what we’re talking about. Most people stumble across a deal or two like that eventually, if given enough time. The trick is, if you had to go out today and find one, could you, and where would you go for it?

Sure, most people under thirty or forty will head straight to Craigslist and hope for the best, but that’s really not reliable. What if it’s a no-go? We had some thoughts on that, most of which led us to bad parts of town, junkyard piece-togethers, and auctions.

Surprisingly, the most reliable way around here in North Texas is the “down home” word-of-mouth deals. We found a ragged ’88 Monte Carlo with a 350 V8 that is actually running at this moment for $475, and only about 50 miles away. So what works best around your little corner of the automotive world?

Totally Awesome Car Rally 2010 [YouTube]


34 Responses to $500 Cars in the Real World

  1. Les says:

    Not quite the same thing, but htese guys are goind strong….


    • Marcus says:

      The LeMons racers cost much more than $500. Thety’re allowed to make up money by selling parts off the car they buy. you could buy a $2000 car and sell $1500 in unnecessary parts off it. also, that $500 doesn’t include “safetly features” Roll cage, etc. (i think brakes and tires may even fall into that category) You’re really looking at a couple grand to field a car.

      But just think of all those nickels you could win!

  2. paul says:

    I remember les than 10 years ago it was possible to find cars in the $500 range fairly easily. Unfortunatley where I live a junkyard may give $350+ for a junk car, and they are advertising on TV; they’ll even pick it up free of charge.

    So we have this problem, at the $500 range you may be giving someone more than the junkyard will give them, but I’m guessing there are a lot of people that’ll just take the $350 and forego the hassle of selling the car.

    In the past I had bought up a number of older german cars to either work on to resell or drive myself as a second car until I was tired of it. I rarely see cars in this category anymore. People feel they are worth way more than they are actually worth and want $1500 for a damaged non-running car, or will just send em to the junkyard.

    Its hard to find a $500 deal that is something worth owning.

  3. pmbard says:

    I bought a 96 F250 that served time with the Virginia DOT before it was purchased and beat to hell by landscaper in Statesville, NC. When I drove it the gas station after paying for it gas poured onto my feet from a cracked filler hose (missed that one when I inspected the truck on my test drive). I paid $1500 for it and it has been my daily driver for 2 years. No radio, no carpet, no headliner, crank windows, holes in the roof from the siren/lights. That said, everything under $1500 was in much worse shape and terrifying to drive.

  4. Chris Parker says:

    So, this is one of those “wax poetic” stories, but it’s a goodie. One of my friends had an early 90s Cavalier (this story takes place in 2007), the interior of which was in great shape, but the engine had always given problems. Mechanic after mechanic apparently could not make this thing run. It would lose power, spontaneously stall at lights, etc. Well, when it shredded its accessory belt (unrelated to the other engine problems, btw), they’d had enough, and they offered it to me for $50. Well, I figured that it was worth that to try and get it running. I already had a ’94 Cav’ that I really liked, and if I could fix this one, it would be a great car for my wife. After checking the usual suspects, I purchased an ODB reader/scanner off of EBay for a song. When I plugged it in to the car’s computer, everything looked normal, except that the computer was reporting that the battery had only 4 volts on it. Since the computer needs at least 7 V to run, that’s like a corpse telling you they’re dead! After looking up which GMs of that era shared the same computer, we went to the wrecker and dug out a replacement computer. After swapping out the old one, the car roared to life. If you count the rebate on the broken computer that we traded in, the new part only cost us $20! All in, the car cost about $100 in total, and we drove it all over North America for the next 5 years. It finally died this past Christmas, with over 300,000 km on it. Given that it was 20 years old at the time (and rusting badly due to west-coast rain), we’ve decided to let it rest in peace this time 🙂

  5. Dan says:

    I think the cash for clunkers program a few years ago had a big impact on this. Cars traded in under that program were never resold on the used car market where they could eventually become these $500 deals, they were scrapped instead.

    If I were looking I would check the local car message boards. Drag racers, car audio guys, “ricers” and “street racers” usually have a website setup in most medium to large cities. Find their for sale section and put up a “Wanted $500 beater” ad. If you look in the spring you might find them selling off their winter beater cars cheap.

    • rg says:

      Ouch. Never, EVER buy a “ricer”. If the rims are more expensive than the car, that’s a dead give-away that the some moron has done God knows what to it, and it’s finished.

      I’ve noticed at auctions, nobody will touch those things with a ten-foot pole, not even for parts.

    • Charlie says:

      THIS. Cash-for-clunkers totally f’d the “$500 car” market for some time to come…

  6. rg says:

    Going to auto auctions is a good place to get a cheap beater.

    About a month ago I went with my friend to an auction where he picked up a ’97 Bonneville SE, completely loaded. It had about 280,000 km on it, but aside from a bit of rust around a back wheel well, and the usual wear and tear, every single thing works on it. Tires are acceptable, and even the remote starter works. It’s been well maintained, by the looks of it. It runs and handles great.

    Price? $450.

    And that car was just one of several likely candidates he bid on for less than $1000. There were lots of older, boring Ford Tauruses (Tauri?), GMs, etc. going for nothing. The ones to avoid are Japanese later model cars — they get bid up quickly.

    The nice thing about the auction house is that they do a lot of the leg-work for you. Before you bid, you already know it’s clear of liens, not stolen, whether it had any significant insurance claims against it, and if it’s an out-of-province vehicle (I’m in Alberta, so it matters). You don’t get that from Craigslist or some curbsider.

    I’d advise you check with your insurance company first. Often they require a safety inspection if the vehicle is beyond a certain year, generally 12-15 years old. That could add to your cost significantly if they find something. Adjust your search accordingly.

    From what I’ve seen, I definitely recommend checking out auctions. Any used vehicle is a bit of a crap-shoot, but for $450, you definitely limit your risk. Also, auctions are pretty fun and entertaining.

  7. george says:

    i think the days of the v.w. bug are gone.

    • Sean says:

      Pretty much. The few that come through now have had at least a half million miles on the belly pan. A tribute to durability, but their time is well gone.

      • Blair says:

        There is still a pretty avid collectors market, and there are plenty of enthusiast clubs out there for the air cooled marvels!

        My first car was a 65 Beetle, and I have had a fondness for them since. Still looking for a fixer-upper drop top & would gladly use it as a daily driver. One of the best “snow day” cars ever….lol.

        • Sean says:

          My introduction to working on cars was holding tools while my father worked on his 1959 VW.

          As we live in rather mountainous terrain, it was severely underpowered, till he stuffed a Porsche 356 engine into it. We had a local dealership and a large number of the Bugs infesting the roads here…

          And were the owner’s of the one that left all the other Bugs and Transporters in the dust while flying along in 4th gear on the hills.

          Family growth finally made us trade it out for a larger vehicle in the mid 70’s. Ferdinand Porsche’s dream of providing transport for the family that otherwise couldn’t afford a car definitely was realized in that little beast.

  8. tgood says:

    I bought a 1971 Ford Pinto for $125 and drove it for 8 years. In that time I changed the oil once. It had started knocking so I figured it was about time. I drove it a couple more years and sold it for $400 with it still knocking (one of the cam lobes was worn flat).

  9. gough says:

    I bought a ’67 International Travelall for $600 and used it for 15 years as my main work vehicle. I was feeling nostalgic on the day I drove it to the salvage yard, but after 12 miles of steep, winding, gravel mountain road, the amount of free play in the steering, the fading brakes, and the refusal of it to stay in gear cured me of my nostalgia.

  10. Gary Z says:

    I remember the good old days when you could buy an old car for 25 bucks and drive it for a couple of years then upgrade to one that cost 50 bucks…..wish I had a couple of them now.

  11. Harry says:

    24 hours of lemons anyone?

  12. Don says:

    In 1992 I paid $400 for an 81 Mercury Lynx station wagon. In 18 months I put 40,000 miles on that car. It was butt ugly, but, ran like a champ.

  13. Brau says:

    HEck yeah! I paid $30 for an Austin and drove it for 2 years. 0-50 in about 30 seconds, barely burned any oil and got over 37MPG. Twas beautifully ugly and had that famed Lucas ignition that could leave you in the lurch at any time … which is why I got it so cheap.

  14. AndrewC says:

    Any good deals publically advertised (via craiglist or other method) go quickly. Whats left are cheap cars that are worth what you pay for them. If you want a good deal on a cheap car that isn’t a clunker, you have to go beyond Craigslist.

    Find neighbors with old cars they don’t use anymore. Make offers on forgotten cars in driveways. A car doesn’t have to have a “for sale” sign on it for you to make an offer.

    Hey, I told a 1995 Lincoln Mark VIII in good condition for $400 simply because I didn’t drive it anymore and wanted it out of my driveway. I never posted an ad anywhere, someone just came up and made an offer. My brother picked up a 12 yr old honda civic for $400 from a neighbor that hadn’t ran it in a year. Added fresh gas and a battery and he drove it for years without a problem.

  15. John says:

    My first car I bought in 1986 for $500. It was a 72 Dodge Dart with a slant-6 and factory AC. Had only 60k miles on it. I bought it from a Grandma who literally only drove it to church on Sundays. Totally awesome. I can’t find one now for under $5k.

  16. b. foo says:

    My work would sell off our fleet vehicles to employees for $400 – $500. Tacoma trucks. I don’t know how they determined when its time to sell but they were always in fine condition and always well maintained. Several friends still drive theirs as daily drivers and they bought them years ago.

  17. Ian Random says:

    I had a $100 Chevette I drove for a few years. It had a hole in the floorboards on the driver’s side, so puddles would hit you in the forehead. But once the timing belt broke and the local mechanic refused to work on Chevettes, it went to the junkyard. I also drove a $500 Toyota Celica for a few years until the electrical problems became too much. My neighbor helped me get rid of it, but the guy was busted for drugs and disappeared with it before we could finish the paperwork.

    • John says:

      Oh man, a Chevette! Good times, good times. We had one when I was a 16 year old kid. It was a 4 speed 4 door, white. It took like 10 minutes to go 0-60 mph. I think I could out run it to the end of my street. My Dad never had to worry about me speeding with it.

  18. J.R. Bluett says:

    The suggestion about making offers on the cars that sit forever in neighbors’ driveways is a good one. I’ve purchased several cars for less than $2000, and a couple more than less than $1000 in basically that way. The “one time” story though is about a government brown faded to orange ’78 Impala I bought from a college buddy for $500, I drove it a couple of years and sold it to another college buddy for $500 after putting nothing into it but gas and oil.

  19. Dr Bob says:

    It can be done around here in the frozen tundra, but you have to look hard, be patient, and you pretty much have to buy it from a private party who hasn’t been successful in selling it.

  20. Sean says:

    In our local market, the rule of thumb is that a minimally reliable used car starts at $2500. And as a mechanic, I have had it proven too many times that if you don’t spend that amount, you will make up the difference in repairs until you have spent at least $2500.

    I had a friend score with an $800 purchase of a Toyota station wagon with a 5R engine. The oil leak was a fuel pump with a busted roll seal. The car was used for the next 10 years on a paper route. A real case of “once in a lifetime luck”.

    No one else I’ve had buy a $500-$800 car has been so lucky.

    The worst was a girl who bought a Fiat for $650 and planned to drive it to Texas. I was told to give it a good trip test, so I took it out on a test drive and did a few reasonably heavy stops to check the brakes. The last one, the car gave a lurch and started pulling to the right. Got it back to the shop and the mount for the anti-sway bar had ripped out of the frame due to rust damage and the pull was the tire moving back till it hit the inside of the fender well. I’m lucky the original lurch hadn’t thrown me in the ditch. So, no trip to Texas…

  21. Ted says:

    Anyone heard of the “Plymouth-Dakar Rally”?

    “Participants starting in Europe normally must go to Tarifa in Southern Spain. Then the course runs through Morocco, Western Sahara, Mauritania, Senegal and finally into the Gambia. The entrants must be driving a car worth approximately £100.”

  22. snoebay says:

    Six years ago I bought a 91 Bonneville for $550.Still running strong with 268k on the odo.Had 201k when I bought it!

  23. A.Crush says:

    I got my second car for $600, a Toyota with 80,000 miles. Nothing really wrong with it, just an 80’s car some old people didn’t want anymore.

    The best bet for buying a good car cheap is people who are just selling their car the old-fashioned way- in person with a sign on it. No classified ads, no craigslist, no ebay. The online stuff makes it too easy for anyone else who wants to buy and flip. In person, you don’t have competition. If you do, I’d walk because it’s either a fake buyer helping the seller drive up the price and seem like it’s in demand, or if it is a real buyer, you’ll get a better deal if/when the other person passes.

    It’s true that it’s harder to get a good cheap used car now, mostly because the ones that were good with high mileage, the Toyotas and Hondas, are now well-known as being good used cars, so much so that the companies even use it in their national advertising. It was a lot easier in the days of import bashing when people drove gas guzzlers and laughed at subcompacts. With $4 gas, the death-trap Ford Fiestas, Geo Metros, etc. are now worth quite a bit for their 40+ mpg prowess. I think you can still get early models for cheap though, especially models with carburetors.

  24. Juandoh says:

    Picked up a 93 Geo Prizm for $300 back in 2003. I drove it to work 110 miles round trip every day for about 7 years. Drove it up and down the east coast, around the state, back home to see family numerous times. When purchased the car had 181,000 miles on it. When I bought my current vehicle it had 376,000 miles.

    It sat for about 1.5 years and now it is back in service.

    Hard to argue with 35 mpg at prices over $3.30 where I live, even when the car is old and ugly. At this point hardly anything works… no radio, no AC, heat only works when you are moving, headliner fell out, paint wore off from all the driving, but it is still running great and very reliable.

  25. Mike Vincent says:

    My record was 50 bucks for a rust bucket Buick. Crove it a good 100K miles. Every-time you stopped a HUGE cloud of smoke would surround the car like a smoke bomb… rather embarrassing.

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