Learn About Buying A Good Used Car for Under $100

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Buying a cheap used car does not have to mean buying from a junk yard.


A dependable used car for less than $100 appears to be a cross between a leprechaun and a will-of-the-wisp–something you hear a lot about but never see. Well, you don’t have to believe in fairy tales to believe this: sound cars, good for many thousands of miles of cheap transportation, are readily available, and bought every day, everywhere–for less than $100.

My personal limit on a car is $50 (with a willingness, thus far untested, to go to $75 for something super). For this kind of money I insist on a car that can be registered and running the day I get it. If a car has to go through state inspection, I am willing to spend up to $15 for parts and 10 hours labor to get the car a passing mark.

It’s important to have the correct attitudes. Keep in mind what you’re looking for–a car that will transport you from point to point with minimum expense. Notice that I’ve said nothing about being transported very comfortably, very rapidly, or in any sort of style.

When you’re looking for a “transportation special,” the list of things to check is radically different from that you might make up for purchase of a more expensive car. The automobile you will consider for less than $100 is likely to be at least eight years old, so there’s no sense in worrying about mileage on the odometer versus indications on lube stickers, or the accelerator pedal’s rubber pad.

In fact, an eight to 12-year-old car with 75,000 to 100,000 miles on it and still running apparently well, has passed one of the most important checks-for longevity. A running car with this kind of mileage is more likely to give 10,000 miles of inexpensive transportation than is a late model, low-mileage car to provide 75,000. Anytime you can get 10,000 miles for less than $100 you know the price is right!

Before considering where to look, let’s discuss what to look for in a transportation special:

1. Reasonably easy starting: If the car cranks briskly and starts within 10 seconds, it qualifies for further investigation. If it cranks well but doesn’t start, see if you can get it started with a minor adjustment. If you can’t, forget it.

2. Oilpressure-engine hot: If oil pressure gauge, with oil hot, reads 25-30 psi, bearings are in satisfactory shape. If car has an idiot light, about the only check you can make is to drain the crankcase with the engine hot, pour back only half the oil drained, and run the engine. If the oil light flickers on at fast idle, pressure is suspect, hence so are the bearings.

3. Windshield wiper motor and linkage: This system can be an expensive item, and difficult to get at, so the one in your prospective purchase should oscillate the blades at least 80 times per minute with the windshield wet.

4. Brakes: If the brakes don’t stop the car easily from 60 mph twice in five minutes, forget the car. Keep your foot pressed down on the pedal, and if the pedal sinks to the floor, the hydraulic system is not holding pressure. Cost of rebuilding cylinders can be low, and if the car is good in all other respects, you can chance the purchase if the price is under $50.

5. Generator charging: Immediately after starting engine, check this. The idiot light should go out at fast idle. On cars with ammeter, look for a high charging rate at fast idle with all accessories off. If charge rate is virtually non-existent, check for a loose drive belt; if belt is tight, forget the car.

6. Steering: Two and one-half inches of play is tolerable (check power steering systems with engine running). If state inspection system has steering specifications, be sure the car will comply (see item 10). Faulty steering is not worth fixing on an under-$100 car.

7. Oil-soaked or cracked chassis wiring: This is significant if any of the exterior lighting systems fails to work. True, a light that doesn’t work may simply need a bulb but unless yon can check to be sure, don’t take chances unless you know how to rewire.

8. Transmission: Unless you know how to check out an automatic, avoid one. Stick shifts can be checked out just by driving the car and seeing if all gears engage without clunking or grinding, and if the car runs without transmission bearing growls.

9. Clutch: The clutch should operate perfectly–no slipping, no gear grinding. It may be well worn but if it operates properly at the time you inspect the car, careful de-clutching technique will keep it usable almost indefinitely . . . in other words, it can be nursed.

10. State Inspection requirements: If your state requires an inspection, familiarize yourself with the specifications. A car that passes mechanical checks perfectly may have cracks in the window glass. If the state rejects cars for cracked glass, you may find it necessary to invest up to $100 before you can run the car, and the investment would be unwise.

There are many things that aren’t worth worrying about on a transportation special. They are the items that “don’t look good” but really have little effect on the car’s ability to provide transportation. For example, oil consumption is relatively unimportant. Unless the exhaust is spewing clouds of blue smoke, why worry? (Hey! That’s air pollution!)

Here’s the rest of my personal “couldn’t care less” list:

1. Noisy hydraulic lifters: As long as the car will run at 50 mph without overheating, the condition should not become serious enough to keep the car from running for many thousands of miles.

2. Minor oil leaks: As mentioned before, oil is cheap. A slow drip (about one drop every 10 seconds) constitutes a minor leak.

3. Heavy oil in the engine: If the engine will hold adequate oil pressure with heavy oil when hot, you can use heavy oil, too.

4. Heater operating: Remember, there’s nothing in our definition of the transportation special that mentions comfort, and heat is a comfort item.

5. Radiator leaks: So long as the coolant is leaking only out of the radiator, a fix is easy. There are all sorts of epoxy patch products that do the job.

6. Ride: Cars made eight to 12 years ago didn’t ride very well when new. After a number of years, the shocks and other suspension parts are worn, and the ride is worse. So long as the handling is safe at 60 mph, you’ve got all you can expect.

7. Exhaust system: This is an item that a man just doesn’t have fixed when he’s getting rid of a car. You might be able to get away with epoxy patching but even if you can’t, inexpensive mufflers are available.

8. Tires: Good rubber is not something you can expect to find on an under–$100 car because no one will buy tires that cost as much as the car is worth. But if you’re buying the car for low-speed (under 60 mph) driving, you can get a complete set of good used tires for about $15 or low-grade new ones for about $25.

9. Body and interior appearance: Some of the specials I have owned looked like fugitives from a horror movie, but they ran and ran. A car left outdoors may soon have a deteriorated exterior. A car transporting kids regularly may have a torn interior. Neither condition indicates mechanical faults.

Now that you know what to buy, here are the places to look:

1. General Auctions: They may be run by the city to sell abandoned cars, or for a small company going out of business. Car dealers avoid them because private individuals may bid the prices too high.

2. Car Auctions: Most are open to dealers only, but not all. The best way to crash a “dealers only” auction is through a service station operator with a dealer’s license. Offer to help him drive cars back from the auction if he’ll buy what you want in his name.

3. Cars on the street with price signs on the windows: The street is one of the best places to look. If a car is parked with a price sign, you know that it’s running anyway.

4. Classified ad papers: Many areas have publications that resemble newspapers, but carry only classified ads for used merchandise. Many low-priced cars are listed with this medium.

5. Overstocked used car dealers: An overstocked dealer may let the oldies go for peanuts just to get a little breathing room in his lot.

6. Wrecking yards: If you’re mechanically knowledgeable, you can buy from a wrecker a car with a bad engine (cracked block, etc.) and replace the engine.

Unlike other things you may try in life, finding good used cars for less than $100 is a game you’re playing for very low stakes. The occasional time you lose, you don’t get badly burned. And when you win, the financial satisfaction may be 10 times the expense, and the personal satisfaction is priceless.

Reprinted from the June, 1964 SCIENCE & MECHANICS at the suggestion of James D. Wayman.