The unending joy of beaters

As Antti recently demonstrated, it’s entirely possible to buy a running car in Britain for £250 or less, and then drive it at least as far as Finland before beating the living shit out of it. Or, if you prefer, you could take it on as a daily driver instead. Having served time as a salesman, I could list dozens of trade-ins that I’ve taken in for that amount or lower, which had served dependably before their owner chose to upgrade to a newer car.
This sector – the very bottom end of the used car food chain – exists in a bizarre twilight world that few choose to acknowledge, and I’ve never fully understood why it’s treated with such disdain. The estimable James Ruppert coined the term ‘Bangernomics’ for buying the cheapest possible car, running it on a shoestring and junking it when you’ve worn it smooth – a principal that has always appealed to me. My daily driver ’98 A4, while probably not quite falling into the bangernomics sweet spot, has me wondering why people spend such enormous sums of money on car ownership.

The Dacia Sandero Ambiance sCE90 is among the cheapest real-world cars you can buy new in Britain today. It costs £7,395, and most people buy theirs on Dacia’s finance scheme. This three-year scheme consists 36 payments of £99 per month, after an initial deposit of £1,316. After three years, you have the option to buy, and for £3,205, you can. It’s one of the cheapest ways to buy a new car, and it appeals to thousands of drivers. Hell, it appeals to me – a brand new car for barely any more than double my monthly cellphone bill.
After three years, you’ll still have paid just over £8,000, though, once interest charges have been taken into account – and you’ll be left with a three-year old copy of Britain’s cheapest car. Not exactly the most enticing position you can be in. Or, if you choose not to make that final £3,205 payment, you’ll need to lay another £1,316 to do the whole thing again with a brand new car. So, we’re talking almost £1,600 per year for the privilege of driving a Dacia Sandero. Add to that the need to retain value with a proper, stamped service history – you’ll need a three-year service plan at £575.

I bought my daily driver ’98 Audi A4 1.8T as a stopgap – and ten years later it’s still, somehow, my daily driver. It cost me £1,100 back then, when it was ten years old. At that age, main dealer stamps rather lose their allure in a middle-order car like an old A4. I’m just about a skilled enough wrench-twirler to handle routine servicing and perform the two cam belt changes needed during its 80,000 miles in my care so far – complications in the cooling system were tackled at the same time as the latter of the two belts, too.
Of course, not everybody has my extraordinary DIY abilities – nor the time or inclination to get greasy while contorting into tight spaces. I’ve actually tendered work out myself – I’ve paid to have wheel bearings and a CV joint replaced. I reckon I’ve paid perhaps £450 on professional maintenance. The cambelts (including water pump replacement) would have been £450 each, and routine servicing might average £250 per year. Stripping out all the labour from my DIY efforts has a dramatic effect – I don’t reckon I’ve spent more than £600 in parts over ten years.
Proper Bangernomics is even cheaper. Buy a car for £250, ideally with a fresh MoT (inspection) pass and try to get a year out of it. If it fails the next test, the scrap value will get you most of that back, and you rinse and repeat with another £250. There’s an almost endless supply of potential £250 beaters out there, so you really can afford to avoid costly repairs – the moment an expensive repair comes knocking, call the scrap yard, not the workshop. Of course, this means you mustn’t get attached to your car.
Like a fool, I grew attached to my Audi. It’s the ever-dependable ying to my Rover’s highly-strung, fragile yang. It’s infinitely superior, yet infinitely less interesting than the 825, and it’s almost entirely the fear of the unknown that sees me sticking with it in favour of switching to something else. If I sold it today, though, I suspect I’d get back at least half of the £1,100 I paid for it. That makes for a decade of seriously cheap motoring.
Some website called The Truth About Cars (one to watch, it’ll be big some day) once ran a piece under the title “You gotta be rich to own a cheap car”, but rather weakened its case by using a semi-hooptie Lexus LS400 to illustrate the point. A £1,000 Lexus is likely to need multiple investments of the same figure to remain a £1,ooo car for very long – cheap out on maintenance and you’re left with a parts donor. Loathe as I am to admit it, such a car simply isn’t sustainable for penny-pinchers like me – but how does it really compare to a new Dacia Sandero?
Assuming you pick your Lex up for the £1,316 a Dacia deposit will set you back – unless maintenance and repairs cost you more than £99 per month you’re rolling in silky-smooth, technically perfect Japanese V8 style while remaining quids in (putting aside an appetite for fuel that comfortably out-drinks the Sandero). The two cars are poles apart, though, of course – nobody will ever choose between two machines from such wild extremes. Yet, with a typical model-life cycle of seven years, millions of drivers buy a new car, run it for three years, having sacrificed up to two thirds of its value, and then trade it in for a brand new example of the exact same car.

This is where I shine through as a colossal hypocrite. My day job sees me writing about the latest and greatest cars on the market, delivering sound advice to new car buyers and providing objective verdicts. And, though I remain emotionally glued to the contents of The Carchive, and covet a certain E39 BMW 540i as my next ride of choice, I’m passionate about every brand new car you can buy, and hope that people’s unquenchable appetite for all that’s new doesn’t abate any time soon. Not least, because those who throw away massive sums of cash on depreciation at the beginning of every car’s life, do so to the benefit of people like me.
You’ll occasionally meet somebody at a party who will boast about the ‘great deal’ he got on a new car, and he’s probably not lying. Discounts of 30% aren’t unheard of, but even that will only partially offset the depreciation a car will suffer over the first three years. On a four hundred mile round trip I made over the weekend, I’d say that fewer than 1% of the cars I saw or passed were older than mine, and the vast majority were less than five years old. That’s a whole lot of money tied up in cars – and we’re talking about dull, run-of-the-mill stuff like three-year old Peugeots. Where’s the pleasure in owning a car that’s lost any new-car appeal, but is far from done appreciating?
Owning a new car has become ingrained in the human psyche. Small, cheap-to-run models like Vauxhall Corsas and Renault Clios are actively marketed at first-time-owners, with promises of free insurance. But surely an 18-year old can put £129 per month, plus whatever deposit, to better use than to pay for a new supermini’s depreciation? Of course, it all comes down to personal preference, and there’s no doubt vanity and the appeal of warranty cover are a considerable draw, too, but there seems to be a disparity between the number of new cars on the road and the proportion of people who can genuinely afford them.
Everybody, though, can afford a £250 BMW 323i or Mercedes E200K. And with nothing but the threat of having to find another £250 car if it all goes horribly wrong, everybody should.

(Images from The Haining archives)

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28 responses to “The unending joy of beaters”

  1. wunno sev Avatar
    wunno sev

    some people can manage it, but i decided to stop relying on cheap cars after being without a car for about two weeks in smallish-town Central Texas. while both my old beaters were broken, all i could do was walk to Wal Mart, wait for parts in the mail, and bum rides to and from work. a few months later, i sold one of the beaters and bought a brand-new car. granted, part of those cars both being broken way my fault, but i know me. it’d happen again.
    i could afford it, ’cause it was cheap and i’m single, and the levels of stress in my personal life have dropped precipitously since i bought it. i’m acutely aware of how much money i’m throwing into the depreciation pot every year, but if i get five years out of this thing and sell it for $7,000, i’ll have spent ~$2,000 per year to not ever worry about having a working car. totally worth it to me.
    every time i think of selling it and buying some cream puff NB Miata, i go through that math again and put the idea aside.

    1. Preludacris Avatar

      Agreed. When I got sick of replacing car parts once every couple weeks, I jumped to a car 15 years newer (still almost 15 years old). It was like quitting an unwanted, very low-paying second job.

    2. nanoop Avatar

      Keeping it and buying the cream puff NB would be a solution? When the NB breaks, it may sit for quite a while until you have parts, time, motivation gathered. Until then, you keep your first job because you’re showing up on time, every day.

      1. wunno sev Avatar
        wunno sev

        already got two project cars. trying to work my way back down to one but I’m always this —> <— close to making that third car perfect and ready to pull in that high, high asking price.
        it's a disease. i told myself after selling the previous third car that two was enough. i need help.

        1. nanoop Avatar

          You have come to the right place, we’ll take care of you. Doctor Harrell, your patient!

        2. Alff Avatar

          You’ll find no help here.

  2. srx6 Avatar

    So, you can resist the pretty gal in the Audi ad, handing keys to the service advisor?

    1. Rust-MyEnemy Avatar

      I don’t think I’ve seen a pretty gal in an Audi ad for years.

  3. outback_ute Avatar

    A guy I spoke to years ago has it nailed. He would buy a new Hyundai Getz (now it would be an i10), which cost $13k on the road ”driveaway” as the term is used here, then trade it in after a year. No servicing, not even renewing the registration which was then $700 per year because it includes 3rd party injury insurance. The Getz was a perfectly fine car for running around town and driving to work, and the changeover cost to get a new one was just $1,000. The guy would not have been putting a lot of mileage on the car and it was spending most of its days in the employee car park at Holden so would have been in perfect nick at the end and a very easy sale.
    Plus if he got the same colour the neighbours wouldn’t even notice!

    1. Alff Avatar

      That’s a remarkably rich trade in value.

      1. outback_ute Avatar

        Agreed, not sure how the sums would add up, but I suppose they would use it to make money on finance.

  4. P161911 Avatar

    While we currently have 2 newish vehicles in the fleet (2014 Volt and 2011 Silverado WT), at least new enough to not be paid off yet, I’m considering adding a third sub $3,000 car. My truck is soon to be paid off and my new job is about 50 miles from home. I would like something that gets better than 17mpg for the commute and is more fun to drive than the truck. To keep the wife happy she drives the Volt and uses it for kid hauling duty, something about the lack of power locks, rear half doors, and the carpool line not going well together with the truck. I have been eyeing early to mid 2000s Saabs, non-convertible only. There seem to be some deals out there. The later ones are basically Malibus mechanically.

  5. Alff Avatar

    I’ve got a couple of cars that once fell into this category – my college age kids drive them. They were both acquired for free from generous friends/family. The cognitive dissonance came only after I invested the time and money in repairs necessary to send them out into the world with peace of mind. After that, they are no longer disposable beaters.
    I could only embark on this strategy – buy shitbox, minimize repairs, drive ’till dead, replace with another – for my personal transportation. I’d be far too worried about breakdowns on a dark cold shoulder to allow the other people in my care to do so.

  6. mdharrell Avatar

    There’s still a long way to go before hitting “the very bottom end of the used car food chain.” I don’t believe I’ve arrived there yet myself.

    1. Victor Avatar

      Bringing it back from the dead ?

    2. Rover 1 Avatar
      Rover 1

      ” I don’t believe I’ve arrived there yet myself ”
      But surely you can see it from there?

      1. mdharrell Avatar

        With that windshield sometimes it’s hard to tell.

  7. Victor Avatar

    I have never bought a brand new car . Worked 2 high school summers @ a Ford dealership . Prepping new cars for delivery. Never paid big money for used ones . Always been a fixer . Had a running car in the yard when I was 15. So all my cars have been ” Beaters “.

  8. Zentropy Avatar

    I regularly drove beaters during college and through my 20s (prior to marriage). Once when I was home on winter break, I found a $250 1971 AMC Matador sedan for sale and impulsively bought it. I beat out the caved front fender, gave it a quick respray, covered the torn rear seat with a blanket from Walmart, and hung an old boom box from the underside of the dash for tunes because the radio didn’t work. I drove it back to school hoping to make it to summer, but ended up driving it for the next two years (it was still going strong, but I got bored and moved on to another beater).

  9. Michael Melvin Avatar
    Michael Melvin

    I bought a 150,000 mile 94 Volvo 940Turbo Wagon 5 years ago for $1000. Since then I have traveled the country in it acquiring an additional 170,000 miles. $130 a year for insurance, $350 in tires and only $2-300 in other assorted parts, It has a tow hitch for my small boat or jetski, roof rack for paddleboards and a memory foam mattress in the back for lazy, over the road camping. I couldn’t ask for more. Still going strong with 320,000 miles on the old girl. It’s cost me less in the last 5 years than my cellphone!

  10. Sjalabais Avatar

    Ask me two weeks ago and I was ready to replace my beater Honda Stream with another beater. But, as it turns out, there are super few cars that meet my criteria: I want a sports car dressed as a 7 seater, with a huge loading capacity (the Stream can take up to 1120kg on the rear wheels) and stellar reliability. Also, The Mighty House Council, aka my wife, uttered the magic words: “Next time we should buy a proper car”, which is car buying kryptonite.
    Since I grew up in a family of accountants (yay, we’re fun), and narrowly avoided that fate myself, I think it’s totally not a waste of time to keep a spreadsheet about all my cars exact expenses. Our current crop are both below the magical threshhold of 4.15kr/km, which is the money I get paid per kilometer if I drive at work. The Camry is the cheapest car to own I have ever had, at barely above 2kr/km. A new car is widely accepted to cost 8kr/km.

    View post on

    In Norway, electric cars are supposedly hard to beat (no tolls, no ferry or parking expenses, basically no taxes, ultra cheap or free electricity). But a friend who owned a Tesla for four years and had the purchase price baked into his house loan – yes, he’s having a 20 year downpayment plan – lost 50k kr per year. That’s the beater threshhold locally and pretty much what I paid for the Honda. Every year. Running costs are low and, of course, you get a new car, but there are other limitations that I can’t live with + we can’t keep the cars close enough to the house for charging in winter.
    The British marked is pretty special, too. I have given up surfing the Irish and English Craigslist equivalents. Like that other RHD country Japan, beater prices are just fantastic. For Norway, you need to at least add a zero to the £-value.

    1. gerberbaby Avatar

      My math is simple I need to arrive at less than 10 cents a mile including purchase and any major repairs if there are any. 5 cents is really the goal. So if you invest $30,000 you need 300,000 miles which is tough to do without a tranny or something. Let alone 600,000 miles. 2 years ago I bought a toyota sienna for a work van. paid $3400. nothing major needed. I’m at 51,000 miles and going strong with 266000 on the clock. Key is having a spare vehicle which I do. (Acura MDX with 325000) and ability to wrench when needed.
      Wife’s $7500 S80 (which she adores) is well on its way to its own 10 cents a mile

      1. Sjalabais Avatar

        5 ct/mile is basically impossible in the high tax environment I am in, but the 4 kr/km threshold above would work out to about 80 ct/mile, I guess. Is your number all inclusive, with insurance, taxes, depreciation (if any) etc?

        1. gerberbaby Avatar

          No just purchase price plus any major repairs. It’s not accounting level stuff, but when I project the total number of miles I expect out of a vehicle, it helps in the decision making between competing vehicles I am considering buying. Such as comparing a higher cost 7 year old vehicle vs. a cheaper 10 year old.

  11. salguod Avatar

    I’m 2 cars into this lifestyle First was the $500 1996 318ti that I drove for 2 years and about 25K miles. I had about $1,700 into it, total, and sold it for $1450. It was a joy.
    Next, and current one, is my 2002 RSX Type S that I paid $1200 for and have pup about another $800 into so far. It’s a different kind of car and a different kind of joy.
    The common denominator is fun on little cash and I’m loving it.

  12. SlowJoeCrow Avatar

    I have run beater cars for lots of years. The 97 Saturn we got for free lasted 15 years before it blew its transaxle and while we did spend $3000 or so on professional repairs I also did a lot of work in the driveway. Since our “good” car had been totaled a few weeks earlier currently we have the fist new car we bought in 24 years and the sole beater is our son’s 2003 LeSabre.
    Before that we ran a Ford Escort for 15 years and a lot of years of self repairing other cheap cars. While a banger as your only car creates risk, if you have a second car or don’t drive to work bangernomics is a good way to go and I plan to buy another cheap ride as soon as I have some spare cash.

  13. duurtlang Avatar

    I bought my then 12 year old Peugeot 406 coupe in 2012 for €3k with 167k km on the odometer. It’s got 323k now and besides routine maintenance (including belts) and the odd sensor and exhaust part here and there nothing odd has come up. Currently it’s probably worth half of what I paid for it, so less than €0.01 depreciation per km. Maintenance, maybe €0.03 per km, everything included from tires and belts to oil changes, and most work has been outsourced. It has never left me stranded and it’s in great condition even now. Fuel (LPG) is €0.06 a km and I pay €20 a month in insurance (less than €0.01 a km). So including depreciation, maintenance, fuel and insurance I’m at less than €0.11 per km, in a leather clad Italian built Pininfarina styled French coupe.
    I ignored the brutal and frankly absurd Dutch ownership tax (roughly €95 a MONTH for this car), but a new similar car would be even more expensive anyway, as would be a diesel.
    Buying a new car really isn’t for me. Such a waste of money.
    The UK is an odd market though. Depreciation is comically brutal there, for no (apparent to me) reason at all.

  14. Luxury Lexus Land-yacht Avatar
    Luxury Lexus Land-yacht

    “…nobody will ever choose between two machines from such wild extremes.”
    Some of us have chosen from 6 vastly different machines, all viable at the same time.
    The last time I was car shopping, a couple of years ago, my list went as follows, in order of preference:
    1. 2004 Mercedes CL55 AMG
    2. 1996-1999 Mercedes SL600
    3. 1995-1996 Cadillac Fleetwood Brougham
    4. Late model Honda Fit
    5. 1990-1992 Dodge Ram, 3/4 ton, Cummins, 4×4, automatic, extended cab
    6. 1977-1978 Chrysler New Yorker Brougham, two-door only, preferably with the factory sunroof and CB radio
    The only thing these have in common are they have four wheels and an internal combustion engine.
    Then I looked at a 2008 Lexus LS 460 L and after ten minutes of driving it, I was sold. So, it wound up being “none of the above”.
    Until very recently, I subscribed fully to the ‘luxury beater’ concept. I had for 20 years, in fact.
    1973 Coupe DeVille, 1988 Bonneville, 1985 Fleetwood Bro d’Elegance, 1989 420 SEL, 1995 E320, 1998 Grand Cherokee 5.9L, none of these were more than $3K and all lasted multiple years. Still have the Grand Cherokee, in fact.
    The 2005 RWD STS, which was after the E320, wasn’t a beater, it cost too much to qualify, but it was a similar vehicle…a large(ish) RWD V8 sedan. It was replaced by the 2008 LS 460 L I have, now, which is definitely is not a beater, but is an $85K luxury ride I picked up for only about 20% of new after only 8 years and 93K miles.
    There came a point in time I no longer had the time or drive to repair a vehicle a couple times per month. I still do all but transmission work on our current vehicles, but kinda want to rebuild the 46RE Torqueflite in the Jeep ZJ. It’s a 727 with an OD bolted on to the tail…literally, but that will be a one-time thing.