We’re talking about a vehicle at the very bottom of the food chain, better known as “the beater.” The Oxford Dictionary defines the beater as, “a dilapidated but serviceable car.”

Beaters have obvious economic advantages — like they’re dirt cheap to buy and insure, and body panel holes can often be repaired with duct tape — but they are also incredibly easy to park. When you’re not worried about acquiring a few more body imperfections, you’re absolutely free to introduce a little metal-to-metal contact, or metal to building-material contact, to get more quickly and easily into tight parking spots.

So liberating! So efficient!

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You won’t find many rust buckets when shopping for 10-year-old cars

We asked Josh Bailey, who crunches the resale and residual value numbers for Canadian Black Book, about when a vehicle reaches the end of its depreciation slide…

“The steepest part of the depreciation curve levels out around year nine and ten. At that point, they are down to 10 to 15 percent of their original value.”

So, for a vehicle originally selling for $20,000 that would be $2,000, which seems to corroborate with anecdotal evidence and the current adage: “If it runs, it’s worth $2,000.”

“It’s amazing what you can get for that price,” notes Bailey. “You could easily get a 2000 model-year and newer Honda Civic for a couple of grand, and that thing is going to run like a Swiss watch.”

In addition to modern drivetrain technology, a 10-year-old car today also offers a steel body treated from the factory to be quite rust resistant. Sure, you can find rust on most decade-old vehicles, but it is getting increasingly hard to find compete “rust buckets.”

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According to DesRosiers Automotive Consultants, the average age of vehicles on Canadian roads is 9.26 years — no spring chickens. And with Canadians driving on average about 18,000 kilometres a year, there are a lot of vehicle on the road with 180,000 to 200,000 kilometres or more under their belts. Many are still going strong.

Obviously vehicles can still be very capable when they get older and “more experienced,” but Bailey notes that when customers look for used cars, that 200,000 kilometre mark is a scary one that few people are able to stomach.

It’s one thing to run your own vehicle up to, and over, 200K, and quite another to lay down some cash (even if it’s only a couple thousand) for a 200K vehicle you know nothing about. A lot can happen to a vehicle in 10 years and 200K.

If you’re brave enough to go where others fear to tread though, bargains can be had. The trick is to find the worthy among the worthless.

To help us with the sorting process, I surveyed some of my fellow automotive journalists. Auto-journo’s are quite beater savvy because, a) they know vehicles; b) they don’t make a lot of money but just HAVE to drive; c) often need a beater as backup to the test vehicles they usually drive; and d) are often unable to resist taking home a forlorn and forgotten stray, especially if it’s a make and model “they’ve always liked.”

Justin Pritchard is big on the 1996-2000 Honda Civic, previously lauded by Josh Bailey.

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1997 Honda Civic EX Sedan – a great beater buy

“This generation Civic turns in fuel mileage we now consider impressive in pricey hybrids. Will go 400,000 kilometres without issue as long as you change the oil and timing belt and brake pucks (pads),” he said. “It’s from an era before fancy-pants computers took over everything, so it won’t give you frustrating electronics issues as it gets old, and you can pick one for a grand or less. Drive it into the dirt, and repeat.”

Michael Banovsky prefers Volvos, older ones that you can get for $500 or so. “Drive it until it breaks. Sell to Volvo fan for $400. Repeat,” he says.

His other, more general advice is to accept the fact that “you’ll win some and lose some,” and that well-maintained high-mileage cars are way more desirable than low-mileage cream puffs that have been sitting for some time.

He’s absolutely right, the worst thing you can do for an older car is let it sit around getting more senile and arthritic.

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1993 Volvo 940 Turbo

Dan Proudfoot’s favourite beater is a certain 1988 Toyota Corolla his son Mark gave him. After a bit of initial engine work, it never failed to start and was reliable and cheap to operate, but just as importantly, the heater worked!

“Heater/defroster performance is the only performance that matters,” says Dan, especially for a “winter beater.” Otherwise, he says he’s not afraid of rust on a beater, as long as the rust resides on non-structural places like fenders, hoods, doors, etc.

Bailey is actually driving his favourite beater right now — a 2001 Dodge Durango with 215,000 kilometres and counting. He notes trucks make great beaters, because they are so handy, and because their body-on-frame construction is going to last until the cows come home.

Some Other things to keep in mind…

• Buying a beater is no different than buying any other used car. Research the reliability record of the various makes and models. Get it inspected before you buy.
• Rusted brake lines are probably the most expensive and most common old-age vehicle ailment so be on the lookout for signs of this problem.
• Look for “high abuse” signals, like tow hitches, performance equipment, and dirty engine oil.
• The fewer pieces on a vehicle, the fewer things to break when they get old, so stay away from high-end luxury models with lots of pricey bits.
• Don’t automatically shy away from vehicles with accident history. They will obviously be cheaper than their non-accident counterparts, and if there was no structural damage, or the structural repairs were done properly, they will be perfectly fine. But have them inspected, to determine what was fixed and how.

Beaters can be found through the usual channels, and some non-usual channels.

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There are professional used car lots that specialize in the $2,000 to $5,000 price range. Realize you’re paying “full retail” but you get to leverage the manager’s expertise and experience in sourcing and selecting low-end units that are proven to be good high-mileage runners.

Online ads?, whether private or commercial, are another obvious source.

Keep asking around. Among your friends, family, and co-workers, we’ll bet someone is harbouring an old ride they don’t have the heart to take to a wrecking yard.

The back or “wholesale” lot of new-car dealerships maybe the best place to find beaters though. For trade-ins, dealers typically take the best and newest for their own lots, and then put the rest back there for wholesalers to pick over. Get there before the wholesalers. Some dealers now have “As Is” lots, separate from the main dealership.

Some auctions specialize in public auctions, and low-end stuff, like ex-police and ex-government fleet vehicles. One such auction in Ontario is the North Toronto Auction.

If you have to have the latest and greatest safety devices and fuel emission technologies, a beater probably isn’t for you.

But otherwise they can be an awesome transportation alternative, and they don’t lock you into eight-years or so of monthly new-car payments. Even if you buy a bad beater, and it’s a bad experience, you’re still not out of pocket for what you might pay in tax on a newer vehicle.

You just can’t beat a beater!