Cheap and Fun Vehicles

Cheap and Fun Vehicles

If I am going to be a credible source of information for affordable fun vehicles (not daily drivers), then it is only right that I share the story on six of my past purchases.  You are going to see a trend with most of them–I like to buy older vehicles that need a little bit of work, not full restorations. While I would love to do a full restoration, I do not have the space for that AND it is hard to recoup the cost of a restoration when selling the car.  More on that in another article…for now, here is my vehicle story in order of ownership:

1989 Jeep Wrangler just before I sold it

1989 Jeep Wrangler (2.5L 4 cylinder, 5 speed manual)

This was my first true “toy,” meaning this was not a daily driver.  I found this in Ashland City, TN in early 2000. I was living in the Nashville area at the time, and found it in the Truck Trader magazine (this was before vehicles were really advertised online–back in the “dial-up” days).  The Jeep was in decent shape, except for some tailgate damage.  

The Rationale Behind the Purchase

Since this was a “YJ” Wrangler, Jeep purists did not consider it a real Jeep because it had rectangular headlamps vs. the traditional round ones (1987 – 1995 Wranglers came with rectangular headlights).  I never understood that stigma, as this was an extremely capable off-roader. It worked out for me, as I got a great deal on it when the new round-headlamp Wranglers were new in the market. I paid $4,000 for this “oddball” Jeep that had 130,000 miles.

Repairs/Modifications Performed 

Since this Jeep never saw a snowy, salty winter road, I did not have to deal with any rust issues.  This means I did not need to do any body work or spend extra hours trying to free up any rusted bolts.  Bonus! I did a lot of maintenance work because the seller was unsure when anything was done (translation:  it needed maintenance!). Here is the list:

  • Oil change
  • Spark plugs, spark plug wires, distributor cap and rotor
  • Shock absorbers
  • Tailgate straightening
  • Transmission and transfer case fluid change
  • Clutch, pressure plate and throwout bearing

I wasn’t planning on replacing the clutch, but on the day I sold this in 2004, the hydraulic line that goes to the throwout bearing fell out on my way to meeting the buyer!  This was extremely bad luck as the repair required the removal of the transmission. I had to cancel the sale as I could not get to the repair for a couple of weeks (this happened in December in Michigan…COLD).  I enlisted the help of two good friends to help me drop the transmission. Since it was out, I replaced the clutch and pressure plate. I relisted it for sale in February and sold it within two days (that new clutch was the kicker!).  I sold it for what I paid for it, which means I enjoyed the Jeep for four years for about $300 in parts.

1984 Chevrolet Corvette (5.7L V-8, Automatic transmission)

Like the Jeep, the “C4” Corvettes (1984-1996 model years) are the red-headed stepchildren of the Corvette world.  I am not entirely sure why that is the case, but I was able to get another inexpensive fun car for little money.  

I found this one on eBay in April 2004, and it was located in Jackson, MI (about 1.5 hours away).  I was new to eBay at the time, and took a big chance with this purchase. During the seven day auction, I traded a lot of messages with the seller.  I could tell from the way he talked about this car that he put a lot of his heart into it. My son, Will, was standing behind me as I was placing bids for this car (he was 10 years old at the time).  I was bidding against one other guy (probably the seller’s buddy), and I remember Will yelling “put another hundred on it, Dad!” Luckily, I knew my limit, and was able to buy it for $5,800 for this pretty nice 75,000 mile car.

The Rationale Behind the Purchase

If you read the “Who’s Your Nanny?” article, you learned that I started working at Chevrolet in 1984.  At that time, the C4 Corvette was just launched and it was a huge leap forward in technology and performance from the previous generation Corvette. I had a chance to visit the Bowling Green, KY assembly plant in 1985 for business.  I was so impressed with the car after that visit that I knew I wanted one someday. It took nearly 20 years, but I did it! The fact it was a relatively fast and great handling car was a big plus!

Repairs/Modifications Performed

Overall, the car was in really good mechanical condition.  The owner took great care of it and installed a custom exhaust system (he worked for Tenneco, who makes Walker exhaust systems).  The pipes were custom bent and the system sounded good. Most of the work needed was cosmetic, which is my favorite kind of work to do on a car.  Here is the list:

  • Paint repair to rear bumper (the corner was scuffed leaving a softball sized area to repair)
  • Seat material replaced along with carpet in the rear cargo area
  • Steering wheel leather replaced
  • New mufflers (to make the exhaust more “throaty”)
  • Oil change and transmission fluid change
  • Digital gauges in the instrument panel repaired

There is an interesting story to go with the seat repair.  The car came with a red interior (red carpet and seats). It was overwhelming, so I welcomed a reason to change the seats.  The leather was cracked and worn on the seat bottoms, so I found some black leather replacement covers on eBay for $225.  

Thanks to some good instructions found in a Corvette forum, I was able to strip the old material off the seat frame and installed the new material.  They looked great! I took the old seat bottoms and backs and listed them on eBay for $0.99. Someone must have really wanted the seat backs (which were in new condition), because they bought them through the auction for $142.00!  The net cost to change those seats was about $80.

The attention I spent on the interior really paid off–I sold the car for $6800 in 2007.  Nice little profit for those fun three years.

1970 VW Beetle 

OK, now things got interesting.  After the Corvette, I got the itch for an older Beetle to customize.  I found some cool forums online that highlighted the many opportunities to customize a Beetle–including extending the front axle forward to create a hot rod look.  If you are curious what that looks like, go to www.VolksRods.com.  

It did not take me long to find the right Beetle.  A guy from GM was selling this 1970 model for $4,000 on a VW enthusiast website (www.theSamba.com).  He already fixed all of the rust and rebuilt the engine.  Sweet deal!

By the way, those pictures above are all of the same car.  It had a few different looks in the 5 years I owned it.  Details below.

The Rationale Behind the Purchase

At this point in my automotive journey, I was yearning for a car I could perfect my painting skills.  This car was mechanically sound, but the seller did a half-assed paint job in pale tan. Yeah…PALE tan (as if tan wasn’t already pale enough!).  Anyway, I got the car home and started disassembling it within a week. The trunk (which is in the front of this rear-engined car), engine cover and fenders unbolt easily.  I went through FOUR color changes in the five years I owned this car.  

Repairs/Modifications Performed

I’ll start with the paint combinations, as that was the most ambitious part of this ownership experience:

  • Orange and Gray two-tone (orange on top, gray on the bottom) with NO FENDERS!
  • Orange and satin black (the gray was painted black) with no fenders and a lowered front end to give it a real hot rod look)
  • Grabber Blue with the fenders back on
  • Grabber Blue with gray two-tone (this is the combination shown in the top picture)

I did not need to do much else mechanically, but did put a crazy looking exhaust on it.  This was a great looking and running car, and I sold it to a friend from GM for $5,000 in 2012.  He still owns it to this day.

1975 white Corvette sitting by the curb

1975 Chevrolet Corvette (5.7L V-8, 4 speed manual transmission)

OK, back to a Corvette!  As much as I am not really a Corvette guy, there is no mistaking that they are great performance bargains.  It is interesting that a lot of people don’t react well to people who drive Corvettes. One female friend (who shall remain nameless) said only douchebags drive Corvettes.  I’m no douchebag, and I had a pretty good reason for buying this one, which will be covered below. I found this Corvette on Craigslist near Flint, MI (about an hour away) for $6,000 in July 2013.  The seller was an anal retentive engineer, so the car was mechanically excellent (engine, transmisison and axle all rebuilt, along with new suspension components). He wasn’t much on the cosmetics, but that is something I really like to fix.  

By the way, when it comes to third generation (C3) Corvettes, the 1975 is least popular because it had the “plastic” bumpers (versus chrome) and an anemic engine.  Half of that deficit was erased by the seller when he rebuilt the engine with the go-fast parts.

The Rationale behind the Purchase

My son, Will, was doing an internship with College Works Painting in 2013 (he was finishing his freshman year at Michigan State).  He had $3,000 saved from this job, so he wanted to buy a fun car. After looking around, all he found was junk. Seeing an opportunity to engage him in the hobby, and give me a new creative outlet, I offered to put $3,000 into the pot so “we” could have a car to work on together.  

Repairs/Modifications Performed

After we found this Corvette, we started the repairs needed (front and rear bumper covers were made of urethane, which does not age well).  As I began a pretty intensive tear down of the bumpers, Will realized this was going to take some time so disappeared on me! In fairness, he was still working the College Works gig 12+ hours a day.  I bought replacement fiberglass bumpers, painted them and installed them on the car.  

Fun story:  when I had the rear bumper off, I was able to see the fuel tank.  Why is that a big deal?  During vehicle assembly at the plant, they typically put the build sheet for that car on top of a fuel tank or under the carpet in the back seat.  That build sheet tells you everything about the car as it was built.  For mine, I reached in to the top of the tank and felt paper.  Could it be?  YES!  I found that precious build sheet, which was in pretty good shape for being 40 years old.  I was pretty excited, and rushed into the house to tell my wife.  She rolled her eyes and wondered why this was such a big deal.  Ugh!  I’ll remember that reaction the next time she uncovers some hidden gem.  😉

In addition to the bumpers, I replaced the carpet and steering wheel to give the car a fresh interior.  It looked really good at this point. I also installed a larger front stabilizer bar to improve the handling.

After three years of ownership, I felt it was time to sell it to make room for my next project.  Will agreed, but held firm that this was still a great partnership car. He observed that I liked working on it and he liked driving it, which he classified as ideal.  We sold it for $8,000 in June 2016 through an employee classified website at General Motors.

1972 Chevrolet C-10 Pickup (5.7L V-8, Automatic Transmission)

With Will on his way to bigger and better things, I took my proceeds and bought this pickup.  I bought this truck for $10,000, making it the most I have ever spent for a fun car. I found it for sale on Craigslist about an hour from my house (hmmm, that seems to be the pattern with me).  It was in really good shape overall (it showed 121,000 miles, but looked like new) and spent most of its life in Oklahoma (no snow or salt), so it was rust free!

The Rationale for the Purchase

Remember in the “Who’s Your Nanny?” article when I told you about my Dad being a truck engineer for GM?  This truck reminded me of the trucks my Dad spent time with, so this was a purchase based on pleasant memories.  This is usually the reason a lot of people buy classics, so it is good to know I am not too far from normal!

Repairs/Modifications Performed

Since this truck was in such good shape, repairs needed were minimal.  I ended up making changes to dress it up more than to make it run better.  Here is the list:

  • Carpet in the cab replaced the rubber flooring that originally came with the truck
  • Smaller diameter steering wheel (improved steering response)
  • Power brake booster (it failed while driving in the Woodward Dream Cruise–not cool having manual brakes in stop and go traffic!)
  • Dual exhaust (replaced the single exhaust for better sound)
  • Oil changes and rear axle fluid change
  • New wheels and tires

What I did not change was the seat cover.  It came from the factory with a green/black/white plaid cloth.  It was still in great shape and irreplaceable. Nothing says 1970s like plaid!

Around the summer of 2017, my nephew got the bug to buy a classic car.  He was going to look for a 1969 Camaro, but only had $10,000 to spend. You really can’t get a decent Camaro for that amount, so I offered my truck at that price.  I lost a little on that deal, but it’s family!

1976 GMC pickup posing for its sale picture
interior of 1976 GMC pickup

1976 GMC C-15 Pickup (4.2L inline 6 cylinder, “3 on the tree” manual transmission)

I made it a whole year before buying my next vehicle!  After owning the 1972 C-10, I wanted to move into the next generation of GM pickups.  This GMC fit neatly in the 1973-1987 “Squarebody” GM truck era. I found this one on Facebook Marketplace (FBM), which is my new favorite place to buy and sell vehicles.  It was in Flint, MI (about an hour away).

It is nice to be able to deal with a real person who has a profile on Facebook, versus some of the characters that use Craigslist.  I can’t tell you how many Nigerian princes make offers on my vehicles on Craigslist! FBM also allows you to follow a listing and shows any price changes.  In my case, I watched this truck go from $8,000 to $6,000 in a month. When I went to look at it, I negotiated the price to $5,500. Thank you, FBM!

The Rationale behind the Purchase

Like the 1972 C-10, this was a truck I grew up with.  It reminded me of a truck that I learned to drive a manual transmission on, so another “memory truck” for me!  I bought it from a family member of the original owner, and it only had 31,000 miles on the odometer. The interior was like new, but the underside of the body and frame looked like it was sandblasted.  As it turned out, the truck was used on a farm during the summer and put in the barn in the winter. All those dirt roads “sandblasted” the underside.

Repairs/Modifications Performed

I did not have much work to do to this truck.  The six cylinder engine was quiet and smooth, and the clutch felt like new.  I installed a new water pump as the old one was starting to make some noise, a new exhaust system and front brakes (including calipers/rotors and brake lines) That’s it.

I just sold the truck in August 2019…I had just retired and wanted the cash to do some fun stuff.  This was listed on both Craigslist and FBM, and got some very interesting shoppers. Everyone had a story about how they learned to drive on a truck like this one, but no one had the money to buy it.  Within 3 weeks, a buyer from FBM snatched it up. Unfortunately, I lost a little bit on this one due to the unique color and equipment (or lack thereof).  Had I kept it a couple of years, I feel I could have at least broke even.  Good lesson learned–if the intent is to buy and sell a vehicle, don’t buy one you personally love.  Buy what sells.  

As you can see, I was able to buy and sell a number of vehicles that satisfied my vehicle cravings without breaking the bank.  Overall, I might be at break-even or maybe even a little in the black after all of the purchases and repairs.  I don’t have any other real hobbies (no golf, bowling or gambling!), so I justify these purchases to my wife with that logic.  She is a good sport and knows that my frugal nature will not get me into any trouble. And as my Dad used to say, “it’s cheaper than going to the pool hall.”

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