Good morning! It’s time for another Shitbox Showdown, and today, we’re going back to basics and looking at a couple of cheap clunkers just to get around in. But first, let’s finish up our Route 66 tour and see where you landed on Friday’s cruisers:
Solid win for the funky Dart. A lot of you felt the Jeepster was too slow and too primitive to really be much fun except for in a parade, and I’m inclined to agree. Besides, I’m a sucker for Jet Age styling.
Now, today, we’re getting back to our roots. Cheap economical wheels are still a necessity for a lot of folks, and buying something for whatever cash you can scrape together makes a lot more sense than going to one of those predatory “buy here pay here” places in the hopes of finding something nicer. Unfortunately, $500 shitboxes are $1,500 these days, and halfway decent $1,500 beaters are now $3,000. Still, there are some bargains to be had, if you dig a little. Here are two broadly viable options I found in my neck of the woods, each well under two grand.
Engine/drivetrain: 1.5 liter overhead cam inline 4, three-speed automatic, FWD
Location: Gresham, OR
Odometer reading: 277,000 miles
Toyota’s humble Tercel deserves a more prominent place in automotive history than I think it’s going to get. This little unsung hero of college campuses and city commutes throughout the 1980s and 90s never was cool or glamorous, nor anything even approaching high-performance, but it proved a stalwart companion to millions, and nearly everyone I know who had one remembers it fondly.
[Editor’s Note: I always liked the weird, huge plastic unit for the license plate, lone reverse lamp, and tailgate handle that looks kind of like it might be an in-wall ATM machine. – JT]
This is the second-generation Tercel, which retained the longitudinal engine layout of the first generation. Most were front-wheel-drive, including this one; some wagons were equipped with a part-time four-wheel-drive system using a solid rear axle from the RWD (at the time) Corolla. The 4WD wagons command a premium; in this price range we’re stuck with FWD only.
Unfortunately, this one also has an automatic transmission. I’ve never understood the reasoning behind buying a small car for economy, then equipping it with a gearbox that eats into the fuel economy and sucks up a big chunk of the meager power available (just 63 horsepower in this case). But that mistake was made thirty-eight years ago; there’s no sense crying over it now. The incredibly cool blue plaid seats do make up for it a little bit, though.
The seller doesn’t give us much to go on regarding its mechanical condition, other than that the little 1.5 liter four just had its timing belt replaced. There’s also working air conditioning, though I imagine switching it on only makes matters worse in the acceleration department. No matter; better to arrive late and refreshed than on-time and sweaty.
Engine/drivetrain: 3.1 liter overhead valve V6, four-speed automatic, FWD
Location: Beavercreek, OR
Odometer reading: 139,000 miles
Runs/drives? Yes, but needs a little tinkering
General Motors’s N-body is, of course, no stranger to the bottom end of the used car market. Almost since they debuted in 1985, these slightly-bigger-than-compacts seemed destined to be beaters, with their cheap plastic interiors and sturdy simple drivetrains. And for decades, they’ve been a decent choice if you just need something cheap to get around in. The most common variant seen is the Pontiac Grand Am, but it just so happens that at the moment, the cheap $1,200 Grand Am for sale in Portland is in fact a Buick Skylark.
The first generation of N-bodies all looked alike, and were distinguishable only by trim and badges. In the second generation, introduced in 1992, each GM division styled their own sheetmetal, and Buick went for broke. The new Skylark’s pointy nose turned off some traditional buyers (my grandpa, a long-time Skylark owner, was one of them), but I always liked it better than the Olds or Pontiac variants. In four-door guise it looks a little awkward, but the two-door coupes were actually pretty slick.
This Skylark runs and drives fine, but it does need a few little things. The heater core is plugged; it might be able to be flushed out, but it also might need replacement. The driver’s power window needs a new regulator. And one rear wheel is bent, likely a result of a pothole – we have one or two million of them around here.
[Editor’s Note: I always thought the front end looks like a bird face. I like it. – JT]
But for twelve hundred bucks, in this day and age, it runs and you can drive it home. You’re not likely to find anything better for cheaper. A weekend or two, a trip to the junkyard, and you could whip this thing into shape easily.
Obviously, neither one of these is anybody’s dream car. But then again, if you just gotta get to work, and you can’t (or don’t want to) make a bunch of payments, something like one of these might just be the answer. Which one of these looks like a better deal?
(Image credits: Craigslist sellers)