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Beaters, Part 2
Evan Reisner

Based on my last article, we have determined that the "beater" is a sub-$1000 car that still has some useful life left in it. And since you have returned to see this installment, I can assume that you have some use for a beater and need further information to make your purchase.

Finding a beater:
Let's start with the obvious: friends, neighbors, relatives, and co-workers. We are at an advantage on our quest due to the longevity (and therefore easy recognition) of the 240 series Volvo. Ask any lay-person to identify a Volvo in a crowded parking lot, and surely they will point out a 240. Ask an average five-year-old to draw a picture of a car, and you can bet it will come out looking like a 244! People you know tend to drive around a lot; you can never tell who will find your car for you.

Next, we should consider various publications. Luckily, my local newspaper has a section of the classifieds called the "Bargain Corner," which lists all manner of items for under $500. I have found several cars there. Here is a general rule for used car publications: the more it costs to place an ad, the less likely you are to find cheap cars there.

Also, talk to your favorite European car mechanic. Perhaps he or she has a customer who owns a car just like the one you are seeking, and is about to sell it. I've picked up two cars that way. Actually, these are wonderful cars, because you can already make two assumptions about them: 1) they have probably been serviced with some frequency, and 2) these cars may have a few new parts recently installed. One $750 car that I bought had a new all-metal radiator, water pump, and hoses installed -- that allows me, the buyer, to have about $400-worth fewer worries about my new purchase.

By the same token, talk to the used car manager at your local Volvo dealer. These folks are responsible for taking new and used car trade-ins. I have a deal worked out at my local dealer: any stickshift 240 that comes in (and that the dealer doesn't want on the lot) is mine. It helps to grease the wheels here -- my offer gives 10% of the purchase price to the manager.

Checking out the prospective purchase:
So now you have found the car and made arrangements to see it. Hopefully, you will be meeting with the current owner, not a third party. If you are, talk to him or her before you even look at the car. As the great Yogi Berra once said, "You can hear a lot just by listening." Ask questions about the history of the car, recent service, and why the owner is selling. Of course, unscrupulous sellers have been known to occasionally "stretch the truth," but by paying attention to the seller's mannerisms, you can learn a lot more about reality. Also, ask the seller if he or she has any recent receipts you can look at.

Next, take a long, slow walk around the car. This is part of the buying game, as well as a cursory inspection. Look at the rust. Trust me, on a $1000 car, the rust is there, but you need not worry about it unless it is structural. Opening and closing the doors is a fine test for structural rust; as long as they don't bind or sag, the car is fine for your purposes. The door test also gives you a good chance to study the rocker panels for rust as well. The other things to examine on this walk-around are the tires. Don't let bad tires ruin the deal, but do prepare to figure in the replacement cost in your offer.

Now reach into the car and release the hood. Under the hood, you need to look for three things: obviously new parts, bad wiring harnesses (or evidence of repair), and cleanliness. A clean engine compartment is usually a sign of reasonably good maintenance, but be wary of an engine bay that is too clean relative to the overall condition of the car. It's an old trick to fool novice buyers, but you should not fall for it. Carefully check the wiring harnesses for rot. Volvos of the early '80s have a real problem here, and the three key places to check are the area of the alternator and oil pressure sender, the (usually gray) connector at the firewall, and the two or three temperature senders located under the intake manifold. If any of these are bad, make a note of it; later on, you might find that the engine cold starts poorly or has general running problems. You know where the problem is, but the seller probably doesn't. I know of many cars that were purchased in a barely running state that became perfect beaters with a few cents worth of wire. The final check under the hood is to feel the engine's temperature. If the engine is warmed up, a deceitful seller is probably trying to cover up a cold-start problem. Be very wary of this.

The next step is to open the trunk or cargo area and take a quick look. A very bad sign is a lot of empty bottles of oil, transmission fluid, or power steering fluid! Also look at the spare tire and tire changing equipment. Tidiness in this area is a sign of careful upkeep; conversely, a mess often indicates an overall lack of caring for the car.

Now you can open the door and sit down in the driver's seat. Keep an eye open for broken or missing interior parts, check the odometer reading, and again, look for signs of cleanliness and care. Now turn the key to position II, but do not start the car. Check all of the electrical accessories -- wipers, turn signals, power windows (if equipped) et cetera. The main thing to check in this phase is the heater blower -- any 240 owner knows that this is the ultimate nightmare to replace. Even if this car is otherwise perfect, mentally deduct at least $200 from your offer of the blower doesn't work. I have actually walked away from cars because of failed blowers.

If the car is a stick-shift with a pushbutton in the knob, depress the clutch and put the car in fourth gear. Press the overdrive button and listen for the relay to click. If it doesn't, mentally deduct $50 or so; as stated in the last article, this is usually an easy fix, but the seller probably doesn't know that.

For the final part of this phase, turn on the headlights, including the high beams. Get back out of the car and check all of the lights. Do the same with the low beams and the hazard flashers. Burned-out bulbs are not a major issue, but again, they are a sign of poor maintenance.

At last, you are ready to start the car. Depress the clutch (if the car has one) and turn the key. The car should start within a few seconds. If it takes any longer (or if it needs a restart) it could mean a myriad of fuel or ignition problems, some minor, some not. For the most part, cold-start problems are merely an annoyance; this is especially true with a manual transmission, where a proper slip of the clutch can keep the stumble from becoming a stall. Once the idle has stabilized, depress the clutch and put your right foot on the brake, put the car in first gear, and let the clutch out slowly. The engine should start to bog down about halfway through its travel. If it starts grabbing too much higher, you might be looking at an expensive clutch repair. Now put the car in neutral and engage the parking brake. Hopefully it works, even if the car is an automatic. Parking brakes can come in awfully handy! Step out of the car -- it's time for more engine tests.

Primarily, you should be looking for anything unusual: engine shaking, leaks, or smoking. Shaking can mean either an idle problem or worn engine mounts. While neither is catastrophic (usually!), you should be aware of these potential problems. Now loosen (but do not remove) the oil filler cap. It should sit there and jiggle. If engine vacuum is holding it firmly down, or completely blowing it out of the hole, this is a sign of poor flame trap maintenance. In either case, take a careful look at front engine seals - make sure they are not leaking.

Finally, it is time for the test drive. For our beater, we are really only concerned with three things: going, stopping, and turning. After all, that's what a car is for! Pay attention during this phase to shifting (automatic or manual), and especially the overdrive, if the car is so equipped. Also, feel for any unusual vibrations. While driving, vibrations usually indicate worn shocks, struts, bushings, or a center driveshaft bearing. The first three possibilities are not major problems, but the center bearing can be, so if you feel a vibration, place your hand on the floor between the seats. If you can really feel the vibration there, expect that the center bearing needs to be replaced. Vibrations under braking indicate warped rotors. While rotors are expensive to replace, they do not necessarily need to be. I have driven many miles on cars with warped rotors, but you should be advised that such habits cannot be condoned -- the brakes are the most important safety item on a car.

Also pay attention to the steering. While driving down a smooth road, the car should not wander or pull too much. As always, you should know your own comfort level with steering problems. Parts that are showing some wear may still have a lot of useful miles left in them.

Once you have a grasp on the condition of the car, its time for...

Closing the Deal:
At this point, you should have a reasonable idea of what this car is worth to you. This stage of the purchase is really a psychological game; even if you think the asking price is fair, the seller probably expects to receive less that the posted price. Remember the beater motto: "A good $600 car is a great $500 car!" Even a price listed as "firm" usually isn't -- cash money talks! Make an offer $50-$100 less than you want to pay, and the seller may gladly agree to your real offer.

Here is an example from my most recent purchase: The '84 245 was offered for sale at $600. Upon my inspection, I felt that the car was worth at least that amount: it had been well maintained, and having spent most of its life in Florida, it was quite rust-free. But the seller obviously did not carefully research her asking price, and I was more than happy to take advantage of that. Judging by the late-model Honda in the driveway, it was obvious to me that a car dealer had offered her a ridiculously low trade-in and she just wanted to make a few more dollars. The wagon had no plate, and since her city doesn't allow non-plated cars to sit more than 30 days, I knew she felt pressure to sell. I guessed that the dealer had offered her $300, so I offered $350. She countered with a $450 price. I responded by pulling four $100 bills out of my pocket, and fanning them out. She took my offer. Remember that beater buying is a game -- the less you pay, the better you do.

Some final notes:
Please do not be afraid to walk away from a bad deal, a lousy car, or a shady seller. There is another, better car. Be patient. Never be (or at least appear) overly anxious -- it will either cost you money, or leave you stuck with a bad car. Even if the car is a great deal, never let the seller know you feel that way. I will often mutter loudly about the negative points of a car, even if they really aren't all that bad.

When you have found your beater, proudly drive it home. Visit your local licensing agency, get your title and your plate, and stay tuned for the next installment, "Now That It's Yours", or "What to Fix First".

Part 1 | Part 3 | Part 4

Recommendations in this article represent the opinions of the author and are not necessarily endorsed by the VClassics editors.

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