If you're ever browsing the classifieds for a used car, you may come across all sorts of cars – anything from 3-year-old CPOs to lifted trucks with chrome Truck Nutz™ hanging from the undercarriage. You may have also come across some really, really old cars – ones that are 30+ years old, and selling for $2,500, less than 1/20th the cost of USC's tuition.
If you have even an ounce of common sense, you'd most likely ignore all of these cars, due to the high possibility of one of the pistons flying out of the engine ten seconds after you've given the seller all of your money.
One of my best friends, Leland, decided to ignore this possibility and made an impulse purchase for a 31 year old BMW. The 318i sedan had been originally listed for $2,500, but Leland talked the owner down to $2,050. Before I could ask if he was actually serious, he was on a bus to San Francisco to pick the car up. He then drove it back to Pasadena, which assured me that the car could move under its own power – the most important thing for any car to be able to do.
After about three weeks of not hearing a single peep about the car, Leland rang me up and asked me if I wanted to drive it. Keen to see what a car that old obtained for that amount of money would be able to do, I said yes. Although I wasn't able to tell much from the photographs he had sent me, seeing the car in person told a different story.
As I pulled in front of Leland's car, I took my first real glimpse at the car. To my surprise, the car actually looked like it was in fantastic shape, but I was standing about 100 feet away. As I walked closer toward the car, my "oh!" turned into "oh…"
The first thing I immediately noticed is that one of the car's headlights had been removed. The reinforcement plate for the missing headlight had rusted, proof that it had been a while since the botched surgery. Upon closer inspection, I discovered that the headlight next to it was mounted slightly sideways. Looking at the grilled, I saw that one of the kidney grilles had fallen off, proof that this car is a certified organ donor. As I walked around the car, I noticed little patches of rust pocketed around the car like bacterial colonies.
As I opened the door, a thick stench reminiscent of an unwashed coat was ladled into my nose. The vinyl seats had held together decently well, with no rips or stains in them. The dashboard had some cracks in it, but the interior was mostly in one piece.
Other than the aftermarket stereo which powered what little speakers still worked, the rest of the car was completely original, which meant no cup holders. Leland had fixed that problem by using old shoes as cup holders (hey, it works).
Still, despite the missing parts, I couldn't see why the car was so cheap. The interior was in great shape, the exterior needed a bit of work, but overall the car looked good. I couldn't figure out how he had gotten it for so cheap until I got behind the wheel and drove it.
Right away, I discovered that the seat adjustment had broken, which meant that I had to drive the car like a grandma – legs way outstretched so I could push in the clutch all the way whilst leaning forward so I could grab the awkwardly positioned steering wheel. The electric mirrors whirred into their new position at the speed of icebergs, but at least they still worked.
After the 4-cylinder engine shuddered to life, I put it into gear and drove off, really not knowing what to expect. This is one of the oldest cars I've ever driven, so I expected very little electronic mumbo jumbo. There was no traction/stability control, drive-by-wire, or even ABS. There was power steering and power brakes, but the assistance was very little on the steering.
As I approached the first corner, I began to depress the brake pedal. After moving the pedal down a good two inches, the car hadn't started slowing down. I then jammed my foot down harder and the brakes began to bite, causing the car to slowly rock back and forth as the car lost speed. I was careful not to give it too much braking as I didn't want to lock up the brakes on accident.
Instead of the razor-sharp snap gear shifting I was used to in more modern cars, each gear change required you to be slow and deliberate, as if you were handling a newborn child. The clutch's bite point was very high when compared to the more modern manual cars I've road tested, resulting in jerky shifts and stressful hill starts.
Because the car was so slow, Leland recommended that I never got above 3rd gear on Mulholland to stop the car from bogging down. The whole experience felt like I was re-learning how to drive stick all over again, minus the constant stalling.
As I worked my way through the gears, I noticed that even though we were moving, the speedometer wasn't. In fact, the coolant temperature, MPG gauge and odometer were all broken.
When I asked Leland about the broken speedometer, he said that it "always works when you're not in the car. The car just hates you." The speedometer apparently starts working if you hit a bump in the road or a pothole, but on the smooth ribbon of tarmac that is the western portion of Mulholland Drive, we couldn't find any.
The gauges and seat adjustment weren't the only things that were broken. The front passenger window worked, but only just. Most of the speakers didn't work, and under exhaust, there was a constant, loud ticking which indicated that the exhaust manifold gasket needed replacing. Despite all these shortcomings, the air conditioning actually worked, something that surprised us both.
After pulling over, we opened the hood to inspect the engine bay. To my surprise, the air intake was bolted directly to where the missing headlight was. In this way, Leland's BMW is just like a Hellcat, except for the mental horsepower. Or the green paint. Or the supercharger. Or the age of the car.
It's easy to see why the car is so cheap – it's old, and it feels just so. There's a feel of arthritis throughout the whole car, but that's to be expected with a car of this age. It's no garage queen, and has been well used over the years. When all's said and done, I'd say Leland got his money's worth for his car.
As the days went by after my drive all seemed well until I got a text from Leland notifying me that the clutch was completely gone. After he had spent some time driving around, the clutch began to slip severely, providing uneven power delivery and lots of revs but little power transfer to the wheels; I recommended he get that taken care of ASAP.
After Leland's car was taken to the shop, they were unable to find anything wrong with the clutch, dismissing it as another issue, possible front engine mounts. When I asked him if he regret his purchase in any way, he said "no, not at all," but added, "please for the love of God don't ever buy anything that isn't warranted."
So, to answer our original question – is a $2,050 Craigslist BMW any good? It really depends. You may end up with a cross-eyed, arthritic, slow but mostly operational car like Leland's 318i. Or, you may end up with a rolling shell.
Who knows? Maybe next week Leland's car will have thrown a rod, or it may keep going for another decade or two with minor maintenance – only time will tell.
The one question I have for Leland is why and how the $50 was negotiated into the final price. Couldn't it have just been a flat $2,000? Even Leland couldn't answer that one.