Welcome back to another week of bargain-basement automotive silliness! Today is all about choices. Well, I guess every day is all about choices on here, but today’s choice is between two real cars, and a toy car. We’ll get to that in a minute. First, let’s find out how Friday’s roundup went down:
Interesting! I expected the Lincoln to do better, from the support it seemed to have in the comments. But that Benz is an awfully nice car. Or at least, it could be, if you dragged it out of the ditch and washed the poor thing.
Now, as many of you know, I have a serious interest, bordering on obsession, with radio-controlled model cars. I’ve been involved in the hobby for thirty-seven years now, and I don’t see myself stopping any time soon. I’m not the only Autopian writer who has been bitten by the RC bug, either: Adrian Clarke, our favorite grouchy goth, races a Tamiya touring car at the club level, and has some other RC models as well, I believe. And Peter Vieira, our social media and art guru, was once the editorial director of RC Car Action magazine. And aside from RC, I think all of us have sizeable model and toy car collections of some kind or other.
I’m contemplating another RC purchase, and it’s a bit on the spendy side: Kyosho’s re-release of their legendary Optima Mid 4WD buggy. I’ll spare you what I could turn into a very lengthy history lesson, but this car was A Big Deal in the RC world in its day, and has become a highly sought-after collector’s item these days. I had an original one about fifteen years ago, stupidly sold it, and have been drooling over the re-release since it came out.
One of the more irritating comments that non-RC people make about RC cars is that “You could get a real car for that much!” But can you? And more to the point, would you want to? It seems like a worthy thing to investigate. The Optima Mid kit is $389 without any running gear; figure $500-600 to get it up and going if you’re starting from scratch. I found two kinda-sorta-running “real cars” that need a little work, and could probably be back on the road for not much more than that. Let’s check them out.
Engine/drivetrain: 2.6 liter overhead cam inline 4, three-speed automatic, FWD
Location: north of Hillsboro, OR
Odometer reading: 46,000 miles
Runs/drives? Ran when parked, will start if you pour gas in the carb
This car has been for sale for quite a long time. I’ve almost featured it a couple of times, but resisted, usually because it popped up again for sale right after I had already subjected you all to some other K car. But now, since the theme is $500 cars, this old LeBaron’s moment to shine has come. It’s the first-generation LeBaron convertible, featuring the worst engine – the Mitsubishi-built 2.6 liter four. This boat anchor somehow seemed to work all right in Monteros and Mighty Max trucks, and a turbocharged variant powered the beloved Starion and Chrysler Conquest coupes, but for some reason when it was turned sideways and stuck under the hood of the K cars, it decided to suck.
This one ran when it was parked, the seller says, and will still start up if you supply it with fuel directly to the carb. My guess is that the fuel tank and lines are all gunked-up from sitting, and cleaning everything out would help matters a lot. Of course, there are all kinds of other systems in cars that don’t like downtime either, so I would imagine there’s quite a lot of work to do here.
Unfortunately, during all that sitting around, the top has been in tatters, and if I’m reading the ad right, the driver’s side window is also broken, leaving all sorts of points of entry for our soggy Oregon weather and all the flora that it brings with it. I can imagine the smell inside this car, and it’s not pleasant.
Outside, things are much better. It appears to be rust-free, and all the trim is intact. But the paint is shot, and the chrome is peeling off all the plastic parts. You might find some rust in the floors if you pulled up the carpet, depending on how much water actually got in. But that little crystal hood ornament is still present and accounted for, so that’s something.
You might be saying to yourself, “This guy has finally lost his mind! What possible use could I have for a nasty old LeBaron convertible?” I’m glad you asked! Paint it green, apply some woodgrain shelf-paper to the sides, burn the interior (which you might have to do anyway), dress up in a parka, and you’ve got a perfect Planes, Trains, and Automobiles -themed Gambler 500 ride. Just make sure the radio still works.
Engine/drivetrain: 1.9 liter overhead cam inline 4, five-speed manual, FWD
Location: Beaverton, OR
Odometer reading: 206,000 miles
Runs/drives? Yes, but overheats, and also needs brakes
Not buying it, huh? Figuratively or literally? All right, then, how about the pride of Spring Hill, Tennessee? Here we have a late-run first-generation Saturn SL1 sedan, featuring the single overhead cam version of the “Saturn Power Module” (that’s an engine, to the rest of us) and a five-speed manual transmission. It’s a ways north of 200,000 miles, but still starts and runs. Unfortunately, it can’t go far before overheating, and the seller says it’s going to need brakes soon as well.
The tags are only just about to expire, but the thickness of the dust tells me that it has been sitting for at least a while. They’ve also dropped the price from $600 to $400, which tells me they’d take even less. It’s parked at an apartment complex, where the property managers generally don’t like extra cars hanging around, especially ones with expired tags. All of this information, taken together, leads me to ask only one question: Where’s Stephen Gossin when you need him?
Surprisingly, the inside is not half bad. Everything looks intact, and for whatever reason that Saturn industrial-gray interior cloth wears like iron. The seller notes that the CD player in the aftermarket stereo doesn’t work – it looks like the same Pioneer unit that was in my old Corolla when I got it. That one didn’t work either.
Mostly this car just looks old and tired, and in need of some freshening up. These aren’t great cars to drive, but they’re acceptable, and they do seem to hold up well to neglect and high mileage. The seller suggests that it would be a good car to teach a younger driver how to drive a manual. I’ll add to that notion, and say that the mechanical repairs would be a good learning opportunity as well. Buy this for your kid, and spend a couple of weekends with them whipping it into shape, and then they’re invested in it , and might be less inclined to just trash it.
I’m old enough to remember when functional, if not exciting, $500 cars were easy to find. Those days seem to be gone. I’m also old enough to remember that Tower Hobbies originally sold the Kyosho Optima Mid for $169, which seemed like an unattainable fortune to a high school kid. Nowadays, I can swing the Optima Mid, and I have no need for a $500 car, so I know which way I’m going. But what about you? Which, if either, of these appeals more to you than a 1/10 scale toy?
(Image credits: Craigslist sellers)