A few years ago I was picking up A 95 Nissan Maxima off the side of the road that was given to me by the friend of a friend. The car was free thanks to its inability to start, and the unwillingness of the owner pay to fix it; it has been troublesome up to that point. She was told that I knew a thing or two about cars, so she looks at me and asked me for my advice on her new automobile selection. Instead of asking my advice on her vehicle choice based on her driving styles or automotive needs, she asked my advice based on the about of money she wanted to spend. This began a years long search, looking for where value and cost of automobiles meet.

Let’s get something straight, I am absolutely one of those old guys that will say with a straight face they don’t make cars like they used to. At some point after the magic of fuel injection became the reality in consumer vehicles, automakers were forced to listen to the stupid governments, who stupidly were bribed decided to listen to GM, and began to standardize and regulate the computer control systems that cause the little fuel nipple spray fluid in the port neck. Between these periods of incredible engineering innovation, and crippling nearsighted regulation, the most incredible four wheeled, folded tin, methods of conveyance the world has ever seen were created. This is the era of cars I live in, one with blinking lights for diagnostic procedures, where ignition systems have one coil, one o2 sensor was what you got, and that was enough goddamnit.

So these are the cars I buy, the ones I lust for, the place where I find value in automobiles. From shed to shed I go, peering over all manners of 1980-ish to 1995 (ODB2 was introduced/mandated/foisted upon us in ‘96) rusted out Japanese and occasional German shitboxes. No carbs, no autos, no problems. And it is in these strangers sheds that I come across the first of value questioning issues; people generally want an outrageous sum for garbage, and occasionally give away things they have no idea the value.

Story time: I’m looking (as I always am) for a mk2 Supra I can afford. Rust and mechanical condition don’t bother me, but I not someone who will overpay for junk. I respond to an online ad for a supposedly rough condition but sound example. Its 10 minutes away, so I jet over to have a look. It looked good from the street, but upon approaching it was evident it had spent the better part of a decade parked on someone’s lawn. The body was right rusted up, pretty much everything to the bottom of the doors was a kick away from a pile of oxide. The tire had recently been awoken from laying on the ground with water marks and dry rot cracks freshly evident. but the frame rails looked okay-ish, the car was whole and there was both a place to sit and turn a key, so test a drive had to happen. Me and my significant other hop in and drive away, noting the tires, suspension, and probably engine had not operated since a white guy led the US. In response to these barbs the Supra promptly overheated in a shorter time than most cars get to temperature, so we flipped around and returned to the owners house. We tell the owner what happened, confirmed the rad was full, and went at negotiations. Well, kind of. Because for this rotted, mechanically compromised, neglected piece of j-tin, the former (and original) owner wanted no less than $3000. I had recently owned a comparable example that didn’t overheat, and purchased it for the unnegotiated sum of $300, when broached with this information the owner started saying nonsensical words like “hard to find”, “ original purchase price”,”low kms (close to 200,000)“ and “no accidents”. What does any of that mean when your describing a half-rust, half-boat anchor derelict piece of yesterday no one remembers. So we bid them adieu, convinced they really didn’t want to sell anyways.

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Story time 2!: I had a friend that picked up an Audi A6 at an auction for a song (danger Will Robinson danger). Remarkably enough he was able to drive it for about 2 years trouble free. 2 years in a twin turbo v6 Audi with awd purchased for $3000 I though was remarkable, a good value for money, better than payments. Which is what I told him when he said reverse and low gears were slipping when the transmission got warm. I told him to advertise it for parts or scrap it, he got his money out of it, after all.

2 weeks later I’m visiting and he tells me he sold the car. Cool I said, what did you get out of it? $5000 he says. I’m stunned, even with a blown transmission that Audi was worth $5000 to someone? Well no he says, just when he took the new owner out it wasn’t slipping.

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I’m not going to lie, I was fucking livid. I’m sure I don’t have to tell you why, as every person reading this imagined themselves buying that car, probably quite a few of you have had this happen. This is the real problem with the value of cars, the perceived value, alongside everyone thinking the world owes them for buying a car that didn’t last an eon with no maintenance. For some reason the nicest people on earth will fuck over someone they don’t know; they act like every car sale should be like winning the lottery, every assembly of wheels and engine is a priceless work of art the “someone will pay good money for”. Like its a cure for a disease you may not know you have. Like its the world at larges fault you hammer on the gas like an asshole. Or you can’t possibly see yourself fixing something you caused to break, I mean that’s not your fault is it? Stupid people that design cars, why don’t they last forever? Oh well, the next guy can deal with it.

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Story time! 3: My father calls me up. He tells me he was looking for me last week. I said I had no record of his call, but I’m talking now, what’s up? Well he was trying to get a hold of me because his son in law was trying to get rid of a car, and he was going to see if I wanted it. What is it? A 5 year old fully loaded Jetta, 70,000 kms, great condition. Well what does he want for it? Well you could have had it for free. Could have? Well we couldn’t get in touch with me so we tried to give it away online, there was too much interest so we sold it. How much? $500. At this point I look around at the $500 20 year old, 300,000km rusted to shit pickup I’m driving. Well that’s good, I probably didn’t want it anyways.

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He sold it for that much because he didn’t see any value in it. When he was a kid VW’s were worthless, thrown away after your done, how could he possibly see a $20,000 car as worth anything more than $500. It certainly wasn’t worth as much as the 12 year old Impala he was driving, so get rid of the damned foreign thing.

There, I do believe, is the 3 scenarios your faced with when trying to purchase a vehicle. The person that overvalues a car based on personal connection or perceived collectability/scarcity; the person selling something broken but can’t possibly take a loss, so you will; and the person who really has no idea what the hell anything without a window sticker is worth. Any other cars that are sold are either right out of payments or have been appraised, there is no payable value in older than 5 years or non collectable cars.

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Now I know you probably don’t work on your own cars, but you do need to drive, so I am going to tell you how to get a reliable car for a good price. Firstly, nothing made after 1996 (maybe 2000) is worth it. Miles of wiring and computers upon computers assure that anything can happen if given enough time, and expensive sensors and diagnostics can bury you in repairs fairly quickly. Besides, the engineering that went into older cars is pretty extreme, its hard to match nowadays. Civic or Maxima with a true double wishbone independent rear suspension? You will find it in the history books Craigslist ads.

The next part is you can pretty much treat every used car like a pile of garbage. Even fairly well treated cars will have necessary maintenance ignored, things like tranny fluid, coolant, brake fluid, oil, and body cleaning, and as such most of those system have deteriorated to an near-unrepairable state. Besides, having been beat on for countless years makes every repair you do more like a band aid, waiting for the next link in a failing chain to break.

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So here’s what you so: find a chassis. Find a older, common car, a Civic, a Camry, an Impreza, a CR-V. Something that was once really common and/or shares most of its major parts with something that was. If the tin is in decent condition, and the car is practically free (“I tried to turbo it without tuning, now my cylinders and block are as one. $300.” “mechanics special” “I got tired of it”) you have found your box. Keep in mind paint and interior condition won’t change, try to get them in good condition. Next: go get every bushing, suspension component, steering rack, all the fluids, new tires, cooling system, injectors, and anything else that is missing or damaged. You should probably order them off rockauto the internet. The fun part of this is if you want to splurge for better quality aftermarket stuff your free to, granted you can deal with the cost. Things like wheel bearings, accessory components and CV axles can wait until they are broken, they are generally readily available and easily accessed. Now, order a rebuilt engine and transmission; most places that have one on the shelf have a 1 to 2 year warranty for a little piece of mind.

And there it is, a car that is actually worth the price. Just to break it down in numbers for you:

Chassis: $300-700

Suspension: $800

Cooling System (rad, thermostat and hoses): $150

Steering Rack: $250

Engine: $900

Transmission: $700-1000$

Fluids, Injectors, Belts, Coils, Distributor, Wires, Wlugs, Filters, hoses, etc.: $500

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So there you have it, you are the proud new owner of a slightly used 1995 Honda Civic with a 2 year drive line warranty. It cost you all of $3500-$4000, and will last countless years, possibly even as many as it has seen up to this point. And after you lose a gear or two maybe you can sell it to a teenager for $5000 on a cold morning.