Is it too late to buy myself another car for Christmas?
Now that my 2008 Chevy 3500HD Duramax is mobile again after the catalytic converter episode from hell, I’m left wondering if there’s time left for me to use the resurrected truck as intended. Maybe I should tow home some cheap, highly-questionable, dead, or needy car?
A search like this quickly separates into two main categories: vintage cars and daily drivers. The big dividing line, at least in my world, is that of physical space.
My vintage cars are kept out of the weather, either in my garage or my rented off-site storage. And as I’ve described previously, the garage at my house is a 17 x 31-foot shoebox attached to the rear corner of the house. All access is through a single-width roll-up door. While it’s possible to fit four cars if you put one on wheel dollies and slide it sideways, that packs them in like sardines, making it impossible to move either of the two cars on the left without reversing the roller-dolly stunt. (Plus, the open floor space that would hold the fourth car naturally gets filled up with tools, parts, and junk.) For these reasons, the garage usually houses three cars. Unless, of course, I find something I can’t live without.
So, what can’t I live without? First, recall that I’m an inveterate bargain hunter, so I’m looking for cars that are, ahem, affordable. I have a never-ending attraction to needy BMW 2002s, but with appreciating values, they’ve become considerably more difficult to find in said condition where the “need” isn’t bodywork on an utterly rotted basket case. I’d love another vintage Lotus, or even a more conventional Brit like a GT6 or a TR6. These, of course, are even more legendary rust buckets than my beloved 2002s, so anything solid is typically pricey. I’ve had a craving the past couple of years for a 1970s type BC Fiat 124 Sport Coupe, but I blew my one chance at buying the only affordable one in this part of the country last winter.
Since I often still search for Fiats, a solid-looking and well-priced 1987 X1/9 showed up on my Facebook Marketplace feed. I spoke with the seller, who’s a guy like me except his poison is ’60s-era muscle cars. He wound up with the Fiat for a song after seeing it at a local swap meet. He got it running, but it’s really not his jam.
The car looks decent for the $3200 asking price, and the idea of having two little mid-engine 1970s cars in the garage (the X1/9 and the Lotus Europa) is appealing, but ultimately it just doesn’t fully heat my car-passion furnace.
A few years back, I had a serious jonesing for a BMW 850i—the 12-cylinder-powered successor to the 635CSi two-door coupe. When they were new, they developed a reputation as boulevard cruisers, not sport coupes, and their value went into free fall. For a while, there seemed to be no bottom to their depreciation curve, and Craigslist was full of $3000 neglected money pits. Over time, though, the market began to appreciate them, and values rebounded. A decent-looking 840i (the eight-cylinder version) appeared on my Facebook Marketplace in Patchogue Long Island in sitting-for-two-years ran-when-parked no-I-won’t-start-it-you-take-the-risk condition and a five0-grand asking price.
It was gone in 12 hours. Damn, I’m getting slow in my dotage.
For the aforementioned garage space reason, as winter approaches, newly-purchased non-Hagerty-insured daily driver cars are a bit easier to contemplate. They can sit outside without me feeling like it’s an act of violence. Of course, nearly any cheap car I buy is cheap because it needs work, and unless it’s a very simple very quick repair I’m willing to do in outside in the cold driveway, that means pulling a car out of the garage and temporarily letting the new patient reside inside. Even still, all that beats sourcing an over-wintering indoor space.
What would be a good candidate cheap daily driver winter project? Well, I’ve been driving my E39-generation 2003 530i five-speed Sport package sedan for nearly six years. I’ve written about how it’s been the best daily-driver BMW I’ve ever owned. It’s not, however, a stellar winter car. It’s adequate—it performs well enough in the snow as long as I’ve got deep-tread snow tires on it—but it certainly isn’t in the same league as something with four-wheel or all-wheel drive. Of course, the Chevy 3500HD has four-wheel drive, but its sheer size makes it a poor choice if I just need to run to Trader Joe’s for eggs and milk. With the fat utility body on the back, it barely fits in the parking spots.
Before I had the 530i sedan, I had two BMW wagons. The first was a 1999 528iT. Despite it being an E39 5-series car like my wonderful 530i, it was the worst daily driver I ever had. It drove great and had oodles of room, but for some reason it was one of those repair-of-the-week cars. I sold it and got an E46-generation 325XiT wagon. Reliability-wise it was better than the 528iT, and the all-wheel drive made it great in snow, but I never really liked the way the AWD made the steering feel. And when the front CV joints started clicking, and replacing them meant having to pop the front axles out, the job was so onerous that I decided I never wanted another AWD BMW again. The winter performance simply wasn’t worth the maintenance on the parts driving the front wheels.
All-wheel drive is funny. I live in suburban Boston (Newton), which means my house is not on a hundred acres off some windy dirt road through the mountains. Really, I just need to be able to back out of my own short driveway, which is occasionally troublesome as it slopes down toward the garage.
Nonetheless, a few years back I bought a 2005 BMW X5 with the unicorn-rare combination of six-speed manual transmission, Sport package, and factory tow package, figuring that it would be like the Swiss Army knife of vehicles. I could daily drive it and use it to tow. Unfortunately, I never really warmed to the car. It was simply too big and bulky for what I wanted as a daily driver, and I was relieved when I sold it the following spring and went back to driving the 530i.
But I’ve kept my eyes open for another BMW wagon. The successor to the E46 wagon is the E91-generation wagon, based on the 2006–2011 E90 3 Series platform. Like the E46, the E91 was available in both rear-wheel drive and all-wheel drive configurations, but here in New England, nearly all these wagons on BMW dealer lots were AWD, and most were automatics. RWD six-speed manual transmission wagons exist, but they needed to be special-ordered that way, making them exceedingly rare.
As E91 wagons are moving along their depreciation curve, high-mileage needy examples have dropped substantially in value. If I take the unicorn-rare 6MT RWD wagon off the table, I see numerous AWD-automatic examples for under $4000. I could drive the truck up to Burlington, Vermont and tow this one (below) home for $1500. Of course, it’s got 225,000 miles and is throwing Bank 1 (cylinders 1 through 3) codes. And with the cost of diesel for the truck, the round trip from Boston to Burlington is nearly $300 in fuel. But it would be a nice winter beater (or, as we say in Boston, a wintah beatah).
For a $3500 asking price, this E91 wagon (below) two hours north of me in New Hampshire even has the six-speed manual and the Sport package, but the “runs but needs work, good parts car” description is always a bit ominous. I messaged the seller asking what its exact needs were. He listed an oil leak from the valve cover onto the exhaust manifold (common on these N52 engines), the ABS warning light being on, the need for front struts and a front wheel bearing, and a few electrical issues. Doesn’t sound too bad. If it was closer, I’d look at it.
With both needy cars being two hours and four hours north of me, respectively, we get into the issue of the logistics of showing up with a truck and trailer. On the one hand, nothing says “I’m here to play” like showing up with cash, a truck, and a trailer, fully prepared to cut the deal and drag your prize home. I own a truck, but unfortunately I do not own a trailer. I’ve been back and forth over this for years. Although renting a U-Haul auto transporter is cheap—only $65 a day with insurance and taxes—whenever I need to do it, I’m reminded what a pain in the butt it is. In the first place, even though there are U-Haul dealers just 5 miles to the east and west of me, it’s astonishing how much time it adds onto the day to have to drive there, wait in line, pick up my reserved trailer, and drop it off at the end of the day. It easily adds two hours onto whatever drive I’m making. Second, it seems that whenever I need to rent an auto transporter on short notice, these two dealers are usually out of them and I instead need to go to one farther away, adding even more time on both ends.
Now, finally, I can tell you about the thousand-dollar 2005 BMW X3 six-speed.
I wasn’t really looking at X3s. I didn’t really like the X5 that I had, and I’d much rather get a wagon. But as part of a search for a well-priced standard-transmission BMW wagon, I happened into this ad for a 2005 X3 with 170,000 miles for $1000 in New Bedford, Massachusetts, on Facebook Marketplace:
“I’m selling this suv/truck for parts clean title it has differential or transfer case problem but the engine is good lots of new parts and it runs. It’s a mechanic’s special please do not ask too many questions. The price is firm. As is.”
Transfer case problems on these vehicles are usually due to a failed plastic gear on the transfer case actuator—a relatively easy and inexpensive repair. The three small photos appeared to show an intact vehicle. And it was a six-speed, which is rare. (Like the wagons, most of these cars were automatics.) The seller was difficult to get hold of, but he eventually responded. I could come down anytime, I said. He replied that he was available between 4 and 6 pm on weekdays. That’s not a great time to be driving the hour and a half south from Boston to New Bedford, but I committed.
And that raises the age-old question of car hunting: Do you just jump in the daily driver and shoot down to have a look, knowing that if you want to buy the car you’ll need to make the drive again with the truck and trailer, or do you try to do it all in one trip— go through the effort to rent the U-Haul auto transporter and tow it down with the truck? I’ve always felt that if it’s a one-hour drive, you just have a look, and if it’s a three-hour drive, you err on the side of the truck and trailer. If it’s in-between, call it a gray zone.
I let the availability of the auto transporter dictate the answer. None of the nearby U-Haul dealerships had one, so I took $1000 in cash and drove my 530i down to New Bedford.
The sun was setting by the time I got there. When I saw the X3 parked on a side street, my heart sank. The nose, hood, and front fenders were a different color than the rest of the car, so clearly it had been hit and home-repaired. And three of the tires were low to the point of being nearly flat.
The seller showed up. He explained that he lived in Brockton (about an hour north), he had since bought a pickup, and his brother was letting him park the now-unregistered X3 in front of his repair garage here in New Bedford, where it had been sitting for three months. He rooted around in a nearby junkpile, found a piece of a 2×4, and used it to brace one of the wheels, explaining that the car’s handbrake lever was missing. We tried to start the car and found that the battery was dead. I’d brought my battery pack and hooked it up. The engine cranked, but the car wouldn’t start. “Sometimes it’s just hard to start,” the seller said, and positioned his pickup to jump it. He cranked and cranked and only got a burble out of it. This had the hallmark of a complete waste of time, but to my surprise, the X3 eventually started, accompanied by a very loud exhaust. After the incident with my truck, my first thought was that the catalytic converters had been cut, but when I crawled under it, I found that they were intact, and the noise was coming from a missing clamp connecting them to the head pipes.
Because of the potential issue of the transfer case, I’d brought my Foxwell NT510 BMW scan tool with me to see if the car had thrown a transfer case-related code. There was one (minor, an out-of-range resistance value, not a failure), but of more concern were the hail of codes related to oxygen sensors (likely related to the disconnected exhaust), misfires, operating temperature, and the cam position sensor. Even with all that, the car seemed to idle okay. However, when I sat in it, I noted that most of the dashboard warning lights were on, and cringed when I saw that the passenger-side footwell had an inch of water in it, so it was leaking from somewhere.
The seller went into his brother’s shop, came out with a portable air compressor, and inflated the tires. He explained that the car wasn’t registered, but that I could drive it up and down the side street. I did, and it drove surprisingly well, at least as well as one can ascertain in 100 feet at 20 mph. Whatever he interpreted as being a transfer case issue wasn’t preventing the car from being driven.
Tough call. Even with the mismatched color of the body panels, the disconnected exhaust, the pile of codes, the specter of a potential transfer case problem, the water on the floor, and the odd missing handbrake lever, a thousand bucks is a very good price for a running X3 six-speed. The car seemed like it fit the bill for the sort of pull-it-into-the-garage-a-few-hours-at-a-time project that might work well for me over the weekend. (Hey, these columns don’t write themselves without a continuous stream of stupid decisions on my part!)
Still, it was too much risk. I would’ve jumped at it if there were one fewer demerit, but the totality of issues made me err on the side of “no, at least not now.” Plus, even if I wanted it, there was no reason for me to commit and hand over the cash, as I’d need to come back anyway with a truck and trailer.
When I got home, I ran a CarFax on the VIN. It showed only a minor accident last March—I assume the one that required the replacement of the front body panels—with the note “airbags not deployed.”
As I write this, it’s four days before Christmas. Heavy rain is forecast for December 23, followed by freezing temperatures. Even if a trailer is available nearby on Saturday December 24, I don’t want to spend it ice skating on frozen roads towing a highly-questionable car that I’d largely be buying so I can have the bragging rights of having gotten an X3 six-speed for a thousand bucks. I’m sure the seller has more important things to do the day before Christmas as well. We’ll see what happens.
So, no car for Christmas for this guy.
Wait a minute. I have all this wrong. What I should be doing is contacting people who have had their catalytic converter stolen and seeing if they want to sell their car cheaply. You know, I hear that replacing them is a real pain in the butt …
Rob’s latest book, The Best Of The Hack Mechanic™: 35 years of hacks, kluges, and assorted automotive mayhem is available on Amazon here. His other seven books are available here on Amazon, or you can order personally-inscribed copies from Rob’s website, www.robsiegel.com.