In Praise of Beaters

I’m going to let you in on a little secret: all cars are the same. The same handful of people design them. They’re made in the same factory. They have the same engines. All that’s different is the ads and, maybe, the plastic on the glove compartment.

You see, years ago, I discovered the secret car companies don’t want you to know. 2020 BMW 8 series? No better than a 2002 Pontiac Aztek. 2020 Land Rover? No different than any Kia. They’re all just a hunk of plastic and metal with an inside full of rubber tubes, greasy metal parts and other thingies that I don’t know what they do. Zero to 60 in 6.8 seconds? Who cares. There’s so many other idiots driving around in hunks of metal and plastic that you can’t go fast anyways, especially in trashy old Los Angeles.

The difference is just in the surface details. How do I know this? I’ve been lucky enough to be a passenger in a few fancy pants cars over the years. I’ve mooched rides in Teslas, BMWs, and even a few Mercedes. I discovered that these “luxury” cars are to real luxury what the flooring and wall treatments of the breakfast bar at the Marriott Suites are to the Palace of Versailles. It’s all just plastic.

Here’s the other big secret: since all cars are the same so you might as well own a crappy beater. Allow me to break down the economics of this. Buy and drive a beater until its last gasp and you can take the savings, walk it to the bank and by the time you’re 60 the interest alone will be about a bazillion dollars. Take just the issue of unnecessary body work. With a beater you want dents. You should, in fact, drive your beater in circles at a Whole Foods to purposefully acquire dents. The more dents you have the less you care. This is what’s called “beater detailing.” With a lifetime of money not spent on auto body work you’ll be soon be kicking back on a beater yacht in the Cayman Islands.

There’s another benefit to driving a beater especially in this town. LA’s the kind of place where a lot of people measure status with the brand and upkeep of your car. These are exactly the sort of people you don’t want to hang out with. Your beater will act as a kind of filter for vain idiots.

I gained all this secret knowledge during my years as the proud owner of a 1994 Nissan Senta E. How I obtained this car is worth reviewing. A coworker told me about a little secret in the new car business. I don’t know if this loophole still exists, but car dealerships used to advertise a low price for a specific car in newspaper ads. When you went in to the dealership you’d have to ask for the car mentioned in the ad (there was a reference number in the fine print). What you’d find out when you asked for this car is that it had no features at all and I mean so few features that it didn’t seem street legal. My Sentra had no radio, no air conditioning, not even a right side view mirror. One of Kelly’s relatives, a former used car salesman, told me that in the biz they refer to such cars as a “heater and keys.”

What you’ll also discover is that the dealership really does not want you to buy this car. You will spend hours while they attempt to up-sell you on features and/or switch you over to a different car. I even had to fend off multiple sales people who came to outright resent my cheap-ass presence in the dealership as the afternoon dragged on. When I insisted on paying cash they really poured on the hate. But I outlasted them and walked out of the dealership with my brand new $4,000 Nissan Sentra E. There was one problem. It had a manual transmission and I didn’t really know how to drive stick. Somehow I got the car to an empty parking lot and practiced shifting in the dark until I lurched it into 5th and hobbled on to the freeway for the long drive home.

I drove this car for years and the Sentra earned the ultimate beater status when the ceiling upholstery came lose from the roof and developed what Kelly calls an “upholstery udder.” That and years worth of fart smells in the seats meant that a ride in this car was a trip to cherish. I even had an unlicensed mechanic who rode around on a bicycle with a sticker that said, “question internal combustion,” a clever pun if you think about the context.

I still remember the sad day she just stopped working and I had to coast off the freeway into the lot of a storage facility on San Fernando Road. I fantasize about finding another 1994 Nissan Sentra as a sort of 1990s time travel machine to recall the days before pandemics and Instagram influencers. I imagine getting behind the wheel, spraying myself down with CK1, downing a Zima and shoving a Pearl Jam cassette in the car stereo. Except, of course, there’s no car stereo. Just your cheap, existential little self and the sound of the not at all empty road.

But why buy just one 1994 Nissan Sentra E retro time machine? They’re so cheap you might as well get ten, park them around town and have your own personal car share service. Why get on the bus when there’s a 1994 Nissan Sentra E waiting for you a few blocks over?

Of course there’s the car free option. I’ve spent exactly two years of my life since coming of driving age (which, in Southern California, is 9 years old–they start you out young here). During those two years I had no desire to own a car again. It was like being deprogrammed from a religious cult. I’d laugh at traffic reports, insurance bills, and repair problems. But, at the end of these two years someone would offer me another beater (sometimes they come for free) and I’d be back slouching towards Bethlehem in a dented sedan.

To contradict myself a bit there really is one car that is different: the Morgan 3 Wheeler. But that car has a bit too much of a cosplay vibe to me. No, the next car might just be a Camry. I’ll leave you with the best used car ad ever written:

Image: Wikimedia.

Leave a comment

30 Comments

  1. Amen to the beater! I’m still driving the 1992 Toyota Previa “heater and keys” that my parents bought new just the way you described. Still going strong…

    One note, for those of us who spend time in snowy and/or muddy places, all cars aren’t quite the same and 4WD is mandatory. But what I’ve discovered is just renting a 4WD vehicle for the few times a year when I actually need it, instead of having an expensive & over-the-top 4×4 vehicle all the time. Best of both worlds, and still super frugal.

    • Sorry, I grew up in serious snow country & no one in my family ever owned a 4×4. My grandparents both owned farms and as long as you had good winter tyres you got home.

  2. This is one of my favorite topics and I love the passion with which you write about this subject! My 2003 VW Golf has the upholstery udder (a term I’ll now appropriate; thanks) and I just spent $500 to get the windshield wipers to stop running constantly, a hilarious problem. Long live the beater car! Literally!

  3. My husband and I have owned and driven a lot of cars in a lifetime and driven them in many different circumstances.

    If you’re happy with the car you have, that’s all that needs to be said. But when you describe all cars as the same I think you’re limiting that statement pretty much to the interior fittings. There are enormous differences in the performance and driving experience.

    Again, you and everyone else should get what they’re looking for and hooray for everyone that does.

    I drove a Lexus for 12 years because when I’m happy with a car I’m happy with it and I’m not worried about anyone else’s standards. When I was done i it I gave it to my high school age son. He drove it until he was ready to buy a car and then we gave it to my housekeeper. At 16 years and multiple hundred thousand miles that car wasn’t going to impress anyone but it wasn’t giving up either. And that speaks to the quality of the engineering and manufacturing in that car. I’m not sure you’ll find a Kia or a Buick that someone will say the same for

    • Gonna differ with you here; Buick sedans don’t die, either, and if you’re looking for a car Grandma drove once a week, that’s where you’ll find one. A 3-speed with overdrive isn’t the most gas-efficient transmission, but Detroit has made a *lot* of them so they’re reliable, and they’re kinda fun when you floor the engine from a standstill.

  4. I knew that my car (an almost 20-year-old Honda sedan that had been totaled by the insurance company due to damage from baseball-size hail—but still ran just fine) had achieved beater status when I was followed in a parking lot by 2 guys in a pickup truck who were pointing to an ad (on the truck) for a body shop.

  5. When I finally decided to part ways with my 99 corolla a few years ago, it was videos like [this](https://youtube.com/watch?v=TikJC0x65X0), plus a bit of first hand experience, that finally convinced me. New cars are safer and you are much more likely to be seriously injured or killed during an accident in an old car than a new one.

  6. This is probably the funniest and truest post you’ve ever written. After I finished wiping tears of laughter from my eyes, I realized the absolute brilliance of your post. I am the proud owner of a 1999 Honda Accord coupe, nicknamed the Millenium Falcon. I bought it two years ago from my mechanic, who sells cars in addition to repairing them. He would completely agree with everything you’ve written here. I paid cash for my car, take it in to my mechanic for regular oil changes and any necessary repairs, and rotate the tires as needed. The radio currently only works when I bang the cassette (!) cover a few times and there is a mysterious rattle that no one has been able to identify. My insurance is low, I drive like an old fuddy-duddy (because I AM an old fuddy duddy) and I am perfectly content. Thank you for the best post I have read in a long time! It made my day.

  7. I’ve never bought a vehicle brand new. On average, my vehicles are beaters and kept them. My last vehicle was a 2002 model bought in 2005 and it finally was put to rest last year. The same goes for my grown children. My youngest daughter had bumper sticker on her car that said, “Don’t laugh at my vehicle. IT’S PAID FOR!”

  8. Love it, and I agree with the sentiment absolutely (long live beaters and econo-boxes). But that’s some ridiculous bullshit to say that BMWs and Hondas are the exact same! Repair costs for BMWs are much higher (and if you’re getting a beater, this matters), and they require premium gasoline.

    I wish I could find a Geo Metro around here, but the gods of craigslist have not rewarded me so far.

  9. Years ago, we bought a 2-year old Subaru Outback and drove it – none too carefully – for the next 15 years. Eventually, its time was up because of head gasket failure and irreparable body rust.

    Our feelings as the wrecker loaded it onto his low-loader and drove it away were extraordinarily similar to the feelings we experienced when taking a much-loved pet on its last visit to the veterinarian. What made it worse was that we had to drive past the wrecker’s yard every day and see it there, waiting for us to take it home. One day, it was there no more.

  10. My most main beater is a 2003 Mazda pickup. When the engine died-at 245,000 miles- it made more sense to just put a new engine in it than to pay more for a truck of unknown provenance. (My backup beaters are a 1974 Bug and a 95 F150.)

  11. My car became a beater when I drove the front bumper into a pole (twice on the same day; same pole, too) and later backed into a different pole. Also, I have failed to wash it for oh about eight years or so (bad me–poor car has sorta got green lichen on the hood now), and now it has literally become a moldy oldy. But I got this heap new in 2006. Since I literally do not leave my small town, my mileage is low. Make that LOW. 32,647. Not kidding. Last week, I put gas in it for the first time since April and my full tank should last me into the New Year–woohoo 2021; looking forward to that. Laugh at my ridiculous PT Cruiser all you want. I laugh at it, too. But it gets me from Point A to Point B (that means the dollar store, a local grocery, and the PO), and that’s all I really want. And I’m still not leaving town anytime soon–I figure that anything else out there in the big wide world is probably bad for me anyhow.

  12. I just understood something about my father. And how, exactly, he came home with cars with no features and paid cash. Let me tell you about the rear-wheel drive pickup he gave to his daughter to drive around the mountains of Alaska…

  13. I HAD a 94 2 door sentra! I bought it used for 600$ out of a local newspaper. It was that gross beige color, the carpet was already stained, then the d/s door broke and i Used bungie cords to tie it shut to the headrest for 2 months til I got someone to weld the door latch back. It had 290,000 miles and was going strong til my b.f. (now husband) wrecked it. It was a real shame, bc in the world of beaters it was truly top of its class hahaha.
    I love the old hoopdies if the world!

  14. Overall I agree with this but I do disagree that it doesn’t matter what kind of car it is. Some beaters (older Volvos, Toyota, Honda) last longer and with lower maintenance costs than others (anything with a CVT)!

  15. Pingback: Why beater cars are superior » FindiWeb

  16. I keep my beater because I treat my ’85 Fiero with respect. Only she gets to cruise the classy parts of Palo Alto and Los Altos when I want. My maroon Oldsmabuick is what I roll in to Costco. Especially the Mountain View costco. The Teslas all park away from me.

  17. Pingback: Why beater cars are superior – Newssynd

  18. Although there is a lot to be said about this POV, it does overlook the safety features that are on newer models. Also as someone worried about the environment, I prefer to buy a hybrid or all electric vehicle. Now, to be fair I have always driven my cars for 150,000 miles before I buy another and when I do buy a “new” car, it will be a later model used one. It will also have all the safety warning features available, because just like my car is 15 years older than when I bought it, so am I and I am becoming more cautious in my old age.

  19. Amen, brother. I drove a Datsun 210 until the transmission fell out. It was dirt cheap and the difference between the payment on it and the payment on a fancier car paid for many trips to the beach and a LOT of beer. And it was secure. Nobody in his right mind would think of stealing a car like that. It was so disreputable looking I could have had the crown jewels of England in the trunk and no one would ever want to look.

  20. Until 18 months ago I was driving a manual 1997 Subaru Outback in something resembling British Racing Green. And loving it, no intention to change. Then I got a job in the US and sold it. Mistake. COVID came and layoffs and I’m back in NZ again. I paid big bucks (US$5900) for a 2008 Outback with 54000 miles. No intention of living overseas again so I’ll probably use it forever. It’s even got all that modern dynamic cruise control and lame departure warning (no typo) and precollision warning stuff. Only thing missing is CarPlay. I got a phone holder.

  21. I fully support the bangernomics approach but you should understand that driving a cheap beater has its own costs and requirements. For a start you need the resources to keep it running, either a good cheap mechanic or the ability, tools and workspace to DIY. You also need the funds and skills to rapidly replace your beater in the event of a catastrophic failure.
    The one good car is often a necessity and sometimes a newer nicer car is worth the cost for the warranty and reliability. I kept a 97 Saturn running for years until the transaxle blew and with no car at all we ended up leasing because cash was tight and we needed reliable wheels. By the same token I spent a month fixing my 17 year old truck in my driveway because I telecommute and have no landlord or HOA to answer to.

  22. I can absolutely relate to the “dealer doesn’t want to sell you that car.” I bought a Toyota truck that way in 1992. Paid $5995 for it, (plus tax and license). I drove it, then my daughter drove it, to 160+ K miles when someone ran a red light and hit it – totaled it. The Insurance company paid me $3K in salvage. I still miss that truck, but feel it served me well.

    Thanks for the memories.

  23. There’s a hell of a lot of good sense in driving a beater. I paid $600 for a rusty Mazda 3, and it hasn’t let me down. I do basic mechanical servicing. I’ll tell you one thing, you’re wrong about all cars being the same. Some beaters are definitely better than others, just as with all cars. Perhaps in context this realm of knowledge isn’t relevant, but for me it definitely is. I feel fortunate that I live in a small town, in a valley, with lots of lovely back roads to rip up. Exercising your car will reveal the real differences between all cars, so say the laws of physics.

    Maybe I’m different as I’m a huge car nerd, if I had the funds I’d have a collection of cars. Many of them, nice (Bear in mind, I couldn’t give a shit about status). But I’ll always have a beater or two around, because it’s definitely advantageous to have a car you don’t have to worry about.

  24. We traded in our ’88 Sentra and after an hour of humiliating begging got exactly $30.00 for it. I was so happy I wet myself. Worst fucking car we’ve ever owned. Datsun changed their name to Nissan because of that piece of shit!!

  25. Spend 10-15 minutes doing the math on buying a new car every 5 years. The cost of the car + interest on the loan (or, the down pmt + monthly payments) + repair bills (some cars are far more reliable than others) + cost of regular maintenance (is it a car where a minimally competent person can handle basic maintenance tasks or does it need to go to the mechanic for everything?) + insurance (comp/collision vs. liability only) + registration and taxes (much higher on newer cars than older cars). Of course, back out of it whatever you get selling or trading in the “old” car. Not including fuel costs because that’s difficult to figure; beaters don’t necessarily get better mileage than new cars.

    Then consider that every five years is not enough for some people, they “have to” have a new car every three years. Even if one does the semi-wise thing and buys a 1 to 2 year old car that still has low enough mileage to have the warranty still be valid (let the other guy eat the depreciation), it’s still a substantial amount of money over the course of 30 or more years.

    But wait! You’re not done, figure the opportunity cost of all that money. This one’s a little trickier because you don’t lay out that entire sum at once. But it can be done with a little extra work. Now be modest and figure that instead of spending it on cars, you’d socked it into an index fund. That’s the REAL cost of buying a new car every X years.

    Now if you’re eyes are watering at that number (and they should be), look at how much you would have had if you’d bought AAPL instead of a new car every X years plus the ongoing insurance/maintenance/repair/registration bills. It’s enough to finance a healthy chunk of one’s retirement, it’s definitely enough to pay off one’s mortgage early.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.