Home » Is The $1,200 Beat-To-Death Pontiac Grand Am For Sale In Every Town Worth It? I Found Out.

Is The $1,200 Beat-To-Death Pontiac Grand Am For Sale In Every Town Worth It? I Found Out.

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Back in the summer of ’16, I fell into a common trap that many Autopians have surely found themselves ensnared in all too often: I needed  to buy a cheap beater shitbox car to get around in while finishing a project car (which also happens to be a cheap shitbox).

I had found a $220 Stratus Coupe in “Indy Red” (one of the best colors for that car other than “Deep Evergreen Pearl,” which is a killer green) on Nashville’s Craigslist with a blown head gasket. The vehicle was headed to the crusher and calling my name to be rescued. I raced over to the seller’s trailer park and handed over 11 $20 bills with zest. Not long after that, the Mitsubishi 2.4-liter inline-four’s head bolts were coming out in my then-apartment parking lot (the landlords were lenient regarding such matters) and the multi-week project was underway.

Vidframe Min Top
Vidframe Min Bottom

Here’s where I introduce myself. I’m Stephen and I rescue cars from being scrapped unnecessarily. I’ve rescued over 100 moribund cars and found them good homes and a second chance to hit the roads. It’s fun, environmentally beneficial, and rewarding.

[Hi, David here. You may remember Stephen from this story I wrote while working at that old lighting company:

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Screenshot: Jalopnik

Stephen is a musician in North Carolina who buys total junkers, wrenches on them, enjoys them, then parts ways with them. His Facebook is filled with posts in which he excitedly writes about crappy motorized machines:

He also writes a bunch of musings about cars that I get the feeling his friends and family don’t really care that much about. Yet he still posts them:

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I figure, instead of this car-nut writing into the void of his Facebook page, why not give him a place where people get him. Where his musings about weird old cars can have an ear or two, and where he can comfortably complain about the dumb intake manifolds on Pontiac V6 engines.

-DT]

Ok, enough about me. Back to the Stratus. Or not. You see this article isn’t about rescuing a Stratus with a bad head gasket, it’s about the car that one has to drive in the meantime while one’s own “Stratus” is under the knife.  It’s about “The Needed Cheap Temporary Backup Car.”

And there are few better examples of “cheap temporary car” than the $1,500-$2.500 Grand Am for sale in damn near every town in America (inflation/current market adjusted — these were going for $1,200 all day just a few years back). You see them everyday in your Craigslist and Facebook Marketplace searches. You mostly scroll past them as commonplace ~20yr old GM plasti-junk — vehicles that seem to always be busted in some way, especially now that they’re on their third decade.

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Grand Ams Used To Be Cool, Now They’re Far From It

Due to various life events occurring at once, I found myself willing to take a chance on a burgundy (the worst color, of course [Editor’s note: I think the color is great. -DT]) 2001 model mostly due to its price and proximity. This was the fifth (and final) generation of the Grand Am and shared a platform with its corporate sister car, the Oldsmobile Alero. Both of those cars were absolutely everywhere in the 1990s, and honestly, still are more common than you’d think.

If I had to guess why, I would venture a guess that all those young folks in my high school days who drove these were enticed by the styling (admittedly cool for the time) and price, though not so much by the performance. The supporting logic for my purchase in 2016 was a bit different: I figured there were so many of these cars sold (1,104,509 from 1999-2005!) that parts would be cheap, there would be huge aftermarket support, and there would be high numbers of Grand Ams in parts yards.

(Sidebar: This was a couple of years prior to David purchasing an Alero for $1 which serves as a valid and additional example of just how cheap and easy these cars were to find. Granted, David’s car needed painstaking brake work, but its owner was willing to part with it for 50% of the price of a can of soda from a Wal-Mart front lobby vending machine.

Interestingly enough — and a sign of things to come for Oldsmobile — the mechanically identical Alero only sold 565,877 units during the same period. Pretty much a 2:1 ratio in favor of the side-cladded Pontiac. Added together, that resulted in 1,670,386 copies over the 6 year model run. Them be Camry-fightin’ numbers).

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Let’s focus on the fifth-gen here since prior generations are all going the way of the Spectacled Cormorant and aren’t as common vehicles to see for sale anymore. Notice that I was interested in this particular car due to it being cheap and close. I already had a pretty good idea of what it was bringing to the table with its “3400” V6 engine putting out 170HP through a four-speed auto gearbox. Answer: not too much “scoot” (as is said here in southeast North Carolina. Note that the GT model had a “RamAir V6 that made a whopping five horsepower more). The gearing meant my car didn’t feel slow, but anyone in the cabin knew intuitively that they weren’t accelerating quickly no matter how hard they’d press that right pedal.

Not Pretty, But Could Be Worse

Upon first seeing the car it was immediately apparent that it had been sucker-punched from behind. The deck-lid and rear lights were puckered inward as one would do if trying to run to a restroom after bad decisions at Taco Bell. This was left out of the pictures posted in the ad (of course). The clearly-replaced deck-lid (shown above) did close though, and it was water tight (mostly), so I accepted this condition, remembering that I only paid $1,200.

That rear-end issue was unique to this car, but another issue that was also left out of the ad is endemic to fifth-gen Grand Ams located south of the Mason Dixon Line: a peeling, warped dash pad — commonly called the “curling dash.” My car had a particularly bad case. The defrost vents on the dash pad are usually situated/positioned to blow air upwards and onto the windshield glass. My dash pad had curled back, towards the driver, at a 90 degree angle so that the driver was looking through the defrost vent holes when looking straight out the windshield.

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On the plus side, the stereo sounded pretty decent, with factory component tweeters and mids in the front. Honestly, the rest of the interior was in okay shape, especially considering that this era was one of the worst when it came to GM cheap plastic interior cost-cutting. I wouldn’t be surprised if a few Roger Smith acolytes were still at GM in their near-retirement years during this vehicle’s development.

Beyond the noted busted deck lid and warped dash pad, the headlights were clouded and performed poorly and there seemed to be a slight exhaust leak (probably from the rear impact). The car had about 170K miles on it. But, well, that was it. The rest of the car was…fine. Somehow.

In fact I was feeling pretty good about it even before I turned on the HVAC and found the AC to be ice cold. Then I was sold. This was in 2016, so the whole world of used cars was still somewhat normal back then and this type of car didn’t really hold much value, mostly due to the body damage; I guess driving a banged up car makes you appear fast and loose to other motorists? I dunno — seems like a good thing to me.

After forking over 12 Benjamins, I piloted that cranberry Pontiac throughout the sweltering summer that year, cruising on I-40 around Nashville in cool AC comfort while soaking up the potholed side streets with the ample sidewall on the stock wheels and soft suspension. I drove it to work and back. I cruised to get groceries. I got decent gas mileage. I ferried drunk friends in and out of downtown Nashville in mouse-fur comfort. I noticed many drivers steering clear of my path, avoiding what looked like a poor driver in a banged-up 14yr old car.

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I finished the Stratus head job and ended up selling my Pontiac for exactly what I had in it. It ended up being free transportation and provided great memories and experiences that bring a smile even six years later. 

Believe It Or Not, The Grand Am Is A Great Choice For A ‘Beater’

Is every Grand Am in this price range in this good of mechanical shape, or this trouble-free? Of course not. Some are, some aren’t. But the problems are such that they can be dealt with through excellent parts availability/pricing, being so commonplace that repair knowledge is widespread and relatively simplistic design.

Here’s the thing about cheap Grand Ams. They fall squarely in the “A-to-B” category. The type of cars that can “get you there.” In fact, they practically define those terms in this day and age of motoring. The six cylinder engine is in the GM 60-degree V6 family that’s known to be basically unkillable as long one replaces the failure-prone lower intake manifold gasket. Browse the web and you’ll see dozens of folks lauding the 3.1 and 3.4 engine from that family. The engine is hooked to a four-speed that’s in the GM “4T40” family, and those are also known to last a while if properly maintained.

Honestly, engines, transmissions, axles and drivetrain-related electronics are never what brings these cars to their knees; they are known to be quite durable and reliable. What always brings down these cars and their ilk is the cost-cutting and use of cheap plastics throughout the rest of the car. Sun cracked dashboards, leaking headlights and taillights, bad paint, sheared window motor/regulator gears, broken door handles, inoperable dash buttons and switches, cheap upholstery, and the list goes on.

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Type “Grand Am” into your local listings, and many look like they’ve been through hell. And maybe they have; their mechanical bits can definitely take it:

Image: FB Marketplace
Image: Facebook Marketplace

I don’t miss my Grand Am, but I certainly am glad I bought it and I’d do it again in a heartbeat.

So: Is the $1200, high-mileage, beat-to-death Grand Am for sale in every town worth it? Absolutely.

Photo Credits: S.W. Gossin unless otherwise noted.

 

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Sarah Lowrey
Sarah Lowrey
1 year ago

We had a real “beater” for a few years back in the Oughts. We really needed a second car, but didn’t have money for it, until we came across a 1984 Toyota Corolla sedan that had “slow rolled” by slipping off an icy road and down an embankment. It all held together, had over 300,000 miles on it, looked like hell but drove fine, and we paid all of $200 for it. Finally sold it to a neighbor for what we paid for it several years later.

nperreault568
nperreault568
1 year ago

Keep these type of articles coming. I have fond memories of riding in my best friends moms Grand Am in the same burgundy color. My mom drove an 04 Grand Prix which was a dream to my 6th grade self

JohnTaurus
JohnTaurus
1 year ago

My buddy just picked one up for a few hundred that had been sitting several years. He threw some new brakes and a couple other things and it became one of the cheap Grand Ams online. Didn’t take long to sell.

Dar Khorse
Dar Khorse
1 year ago

Awesome article. Just the kind of subject and style of writing I expect from The Autopian. I look forward to more of your writing. I never owned a Grand AM, but I have similar memories of a sporty-looking, underpowered, cheap 1976 Buick Century Special that was my first car in high school in the mid-80’s. Canary yellow with the famous Buick 231 V6, I cruised it down the long, straight farm roads of south Alabama at (allegedly) 100+ mph in bouncy 1970’s suspension comfort – it just took a long time to get up there. It would have been unkillable except for its susceptibility to the rust gremlins that finally claimed it. That partial landau top was a breeding ground for those little suckers. But as a first car, it was glorious.

Wavisrancheros
Wavisrancheros
1 year ago

Haha, this is a great read! My grandma had a maroon grand am in the mid 90s in new jersey… It was like all plastic. Looking fwd to more of these! Any thoughts on the mid 80s mercury cougar?

Gary Lynch
Gary Lynch
1 year ago

A find article. Welcome to Autopian comments…..

The downsized gen of Grand Ams are among the GM bottom feeder dwellers. Appreciate your efforts. But why? Harkening back to the original Grand Am. Yes,a mid 70s GM bottom feeder, but at least it tried… We need to be able to add photos in the comments.

Lastly……

3 names? Why? Maybe David Farmsworth Tracy can enlighten is ????

Fuhrman16
Fuhrman16
1 year ago

These are certainly the cockroaches of the road here in the midwest. It seems like everyone owned one at one time. They certainly can’t be called great cars, but you have to respect them for how unkillable they tend to be.

OrigamiSensei
OrigamiSensei
1 year ago

Welcome to the Autopian writing team. Thanks for a most enjoyable piece.

It’s amazing how that era of GM can keep running like crap long after other vehicles simply die. I’ve got a 2007 Suburban coming up on 200,000 miles and it may not be pretty but expect to be able to keep it running for another 100,000.

Dead Elvis Inc.
Dead Elvis Inc.
1 year ago

Your use of “wicked” makes me think you’re originally from a bit farther north than the Carolinas, maybe closer to Massachusetts.

Dead Elvis Inc.
Dead Elvis Inc.
1 year ago

Yeah, that’s just within the bounds of the “wicked-as-all-purpose-intensifier” area.

No need to justify abandoning the land of salt & rust – I left Vermont almost 30 years ago for the Pacific Northwe(s)t, and don’t miss those aspects of the NE one bit.

Mr. Canoehead
Mr. Canoehead
1 year ago

Given a choice between a GrandAm and a Stratus for Shitbox of the Day, I’d take the GrandAm every time. “Nothing runs as bad as a GM for as long as a GM”, as my high school shop teacher used to say.

The Clutch Rider
The Clutch Rider
1 year ago
Reply to  Mr. Canoehead

i heard it that GM cars run bad more than any cars run at all

J Edgar
J Edgar
1 year ago

I’m starting to think that The Autopian should be sponsored by PB Blaster (which I love) and Bondo (which I hate) instead of fancy pantsy Optima Batteries since there seems to be a disdain for the kinds of cars that one might invest in a $300 battery for.

InTheBackround
InTheBackround
1 year ago
Reply to  J Edgar

see the thing about a good $300 battery is it can easily outlast a shitbox and be moved to the next one. Its an investment

Dave Wilson
Dave Wilson
1 year ago

This is well rendered Stephen! My ’97 Stratus is similarly humble and just . . . and seems to have been credibly and ambitiously engineered for its first-gen deployment by Chrysler Corp. I am thankful for it, and strangely, I think it thanks me back.

Christopher Flick
Christopher Flick
1 year ago

Love this article! I am looking forward to more from you Mr. Gossin.
My wife and I owned two Grand Am’s, we bought both new. One was a 98 Black GT, which we loved, and the second was a 2005 GT with Ram Air! We loved both of them.
I miss Pontiac as a whole, I never got to buy the Trans Am we always wanted, unless we go to a Mecum Auction.

Tim Stine
Tim Stine
1 year ago

Oldsmobile Alero or GTFO.
Seriously though, as someone who grew up in the Midwest, these Grand Ams were a dime a dozen in the early 2000s. They were never great nor terrible. They did serve their purpose for the rural folks I grew up with though.
Need to jump the train tracks? Grand Am
Need to drink and drive while meandering the dirt backroads on the edge of the county? Grand Am
Need to take 7 horny teenagers to the mall on a Saturday? Grand Am
Need to watch a loose air vent spin at Mach fuckin 3? Grand Am
Need a serpentine belt to be un-replaceable unless you pull engine mounts? Grand Fucking Am

David Tracy
David Tracy
1 year ago
Reply to  Tim Stine

Damn I could taste the bitterness on that last one. You poor, poor bastard.

Tim Stine
Tim Stine
1 year ago
Reply to  David Tracy

Luckily not my car. It was an Alero.

Joe Nuttall
Joe Nuttall
1 year ago
Reply to  Tim Stine

I remember jumping the tracks in my then-girlfriends Grand Am while she was at work when I was 14. I somehow landed squarely on all 4 wheels at once – and when I did, all 4 hubcaps shot off in different directions. I was only able to find 3 of them after that. To this day I’m still amazed that my GF bought my story and actually believed that someone would actually want to steal one hubcap from a Pontiac.

Mark Tucker
Mark Tucker
1 year ago

Now that’s funny – I ALMOST chose a $1350 Grand Am from Minneapolis this morning for SBSD instead of the S-10.

These 20-year-old GM cars are sort of the automotive equivalent of happy-hour appetizer specials at Applebee’s: mediocre, but predictable. For any more money you’d feel ripped-off, but for the price they’re fine. And at least you know what you’re getting.

JohnTaurus
JohnTaurus
1 year ago
Reply to  Mark Tucker

It would have gotten my vote.

Sekim
Sekim
1 year ago

I had an 01 GA GT two door. I really liked it. Mine was a victim of PennDOT’s aggressive salt policies and rusted away. I wish they made more cars like this. I’d buy a three year old midsized FWD coupe in a heartbeat.

Sid Bridge
Sid Bridge
1 year ago

Me: This can’t be real. (Types “Grand Am” into CraigsList search). Holy shit.
https://norfolk.craigslist.org/cto/d/norfolk-2003-pontiac-grand-am-gt/7465895778.html

SAABstory
SAABstory
1 year ago
Reply to  Sid Bridge

Comes up in my Richmond search as well. Holy shit, exactly.

Jalop Gold
Jalop Gold
1 year ago
Reply to  SAABstory

Guarantee it is spam or a shady curbstones dealership and that is the down payment.

Space
Space
1 year ago
Reply to  Sid Bridge

That is an amazing specimen, if that was close I would buy in a heartbeat. You don’t see to many $1k cars in perfect condition.

They see me Corollin
They see me Corollin
1 year ago

I had a ’94 2-door grand am with the 3.1l in that nice green color you’ve got up there. Ignored the failing intake manifold gasket (causing occasional overheating) and it completely seized up on the side of the highway. I was young and learned a valuable and obvious lesson about ignoring things…my beater life has been much more successful ever since.

Chris Reed
Chris Reed
1 year ago

I had a 2000 Coupe that I got free from my FIL after my BIL accumulated 170k on it and left it for dead with chronic electrical problems. Turned out, replacing the battery cables cured those issues. I drove it for a few years and then sold it to my neighbor for $2500. He drove it for 2 more years before donating it. I think it had about 250k at that point. It was still mechanically sound but the interior was trashed and the suspension was worn out.

Justin Short
Justin Short
1 year ago

Welcome, good start, liked David’s introduction, hope to read a lot more similar stories.

Icouldntfindaclevername
Icouldntfindaclevername
1 year ago

I had one for about 6 months. Driving along the freeway in the summer and it would just completely die. No electronics at all. Always when it was hot out. Come to find out an aftermarket alarm system was janky installed and one of the relays was going out when it got hot. My prayers were answered when I got rear ended LOL

Drive By Commenter
Drive By Commenter
1 year ago

GM cars of this era were definitely plastic fantastic. But do even a modicum of maintenance and they would run until the body rusted out or they were crashed. Great mechanicals if you didn’t mind riding in Tupperware.

Katelyn McKinney
Katelyn McKinney
1 year ago

Woo Woot! Great review Mr. Gossin. Thank God you didn’t have to replace the clock spring. Congratulations on your new gig. You are going to crush this.

Arrest-me Red
Arrest-me Red
1 year ago

I knew a couple of people that this car and it may not have been pretty, but it was pretty hard to kill.

One example (5psd) sat for a few winters. Got bored, quick check, fresh gas, and fired right up. Ran for a few more years before rust took it’s toll.

Also for the price, it is a great “let me try my hand at this….whooopps” car. Worst case, move it along as a fix r upper.

jason1750
jason1750
1 year ago

I owned two of these cars back in the day (well 3 Grand Ams overall, but 2 of this vintage). I had a 99 4 cylinder and a 2002 GT. Loved these cars, and miss them to this day. That shot of the interior made me miss those days. Were they the fastest cars in the world, no, but they felt sporty enough and held their own with other V6s of the day.
When I bought a car for my daughter a year ago, I actually took a look at some listings. However, I decided it was wiser to go with something newer and less “used” than most Grand Ams. However, if I were in the market for a beater, and found one that wasn’t completely rusted out, I’d jump on it.

Dave Murray
Dave Murray
1 year ago

Agreed, bought a 99 a few years ago for $600. It was decent, save for needing an out of province inspection and being unable to pass without a lot of work. Kinda felt bad for stripping the engine and wiring out of it to plunk in the Fiero. Changed the aforementioned lower intake manifold gasket of course.

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