Why Drive a Beater?

It has a grill only a mother could love.

“I know a lot about cars, man. I can look at any car’s headlights and tell you exactly which way it’s coming.”
–Mitch Hedberg

“Driving a brand new car feels like driving around in an open billfold with the dollars flapping by your ears as they fly out the window.”
–Grey Livingston

I drive a beater. For those of you who don’t know what a beater is, it’s a car which can be given a name. If it were totaled in a wreck, you’d get far more in insurance proceeds than you would ever get selling it in the open market. Your friends laugh at your vehicle and, when offered a ride, suddenly profess the need to get in shape and run the 20 mile distance to your destination.

I’m also not the type who brags about how cheap he is. I don’t make deodorant out of baking powder and dirt, and I don’t try to be the McGyver of household items. We travel quite a bit and we frequent restaurants much more than the average person.

I have, in the past, owned one very nice car. It was a brand new, 1997 BMW 318i convertible, and yes, it was a sweet ride. If I had Warren Buffet’s net worth, then I would buy a convertible BMW. I thoroughly enjoyed driving that car, except when the governor kicked in while I was on the Autobahn, keeping me from going faster. Who knew that a BMW would hit its max speed at 117 mph? Suddenly, vans were passing me, putting paid to my notion of having a car blessed with power and speed.

Why, though, as a professional adult, do I insist on driving a hoopty?

Ah, allow me to name the ways that, O Hoopty, I love thee.

  • It’s paid for. For those of us who at one time or another in our lives have experienced the anchor of a car payment, once it’s gone, it’s an experience you never want to revisit.
  • Cars are almost always going to go down in value. Think of the graph of y=1/2^x. This is the value of a car over time. Why buy at the top of the curve?

    The equation above

  • I’d rather tie up that money in either investments or in experiences. If I buy a new-to-me car every 5 years and spend $5k on the car – being careful to buy a mechanically sound car so that I don’t find myself as penny wise and pound foolish as I pay for the fifteenth new transmission – rather than every 3 years and spending $20k on the car, I’ve freed up approximately $5,333 per year to spend on other things.
  • Who do you really think you’re going to impress with that car? If someone makes a permanent judgment about you based on the car that you drive, then you don’t really want to associate/befriend/love/do business with that person, do you?

If you really, really, really love cars and want to buy a nice one and have room in your overall investment and spending plan for one, that’s great. However, don’t just buy a nice car because you think that you have to impress someone. You might blow me off the line at the red light (beware, though, I have lightning reflexes!), but by the time you’re a speck in my forward vision, I’ll have forgotten all about you. Your pocketbook, on the other hand, may not for a long time.

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Jason Hull was the co-founder of Broadtree Partners, a firm that acquires $1-5MM EBITDA companies. He also was the co-founder of open source search consultancy OpenSource Connections, a premier Solr and ElasticSearch firm. He and his wife FIREd (financial independence retire early) at 46 and 45, respectively. He has a BS from the United States Military Academy at West Point and a MBA from the University of Virginia Darden Graduate School of Business. He held a CFP certification from 2015 - 2021. You can read more about him in the About Page. If you live in Johnson County, Texas or the surrounding areas, he and his wife are cash buyers of Johnson County, Texas houses.

12 thoughts on “Why Drive a Beater?

  1. I *don’t* drive a hoopty…but my last car, a mighty Corolla, was a car I purchased used when I was 23. I paid it off early and by the time I traded it in it was 11 years old and had 160k miles on it. Because I took good care of it and it was a Toyota (which hold their value better than a lot of others) I got ~$1500 for trade in — not too shabby for a car that old with high mileage! =) I then bought, what I consider, my first adult car: a fully loaded VW Jetta. I paid it off in 2.5 years (5 year loan at 3% interest) and I plan on driving it for at least 10 years. Because I take mass transit to work my car is 4 years old and only has 31k miles on it so I’m confident I’ll have no problem driving it for many years to come. =)

    1. I drove a hoopty from 2000 – 2013. Well, hoopty is probably a strong term for the 1999 Honda Civic I had, but it did have 160k miles as well (though it only got $1,000 in trade-in). We finally recently upgraded to one formerly owned by my wife’s step-grandmother – more on that story in a future article – so now we drive two “old lady” cars, both at least 8 years old with < 50k miles on them. Any hope I ever had of street cred is shot.

  2. I DO drive a hoopty. It does NOT have a name, but when I reflect on the vehicle I realize that, were I capable of being embarrassed by my car, I would be embarrassed by this one. Though I guess everyone has some level they won’t stoop to, right? I digress. My hoopty is a 2002 2-door pontiac sunfire (silver), and if you’re thinking to yourself “man, that sounds like a college girl’s car”, you’d be right. It’s the car my wife drove during her undergrad 🙂 As she joked when I put a bike rack on top of it: “that rack thingy is worth more than the car it’s mounted on”.

    1. It reminds me of the joke that we used to hear when I was stationed in Germany. This was shortly after the reunification of Germany, and there were a bunch of old Communist era cars on the road. The East German national car was the Trabi.

      Q: How do you double the value of a Trabi?
      A: Fill the tank with gas.

  3. I own a 1997 Lincoln Town Car it’s a real Hoopty! I paid $1100 for it but it runs and drives great! Paint looks like hell but leather interior is in great shape, ice cold AC and fully loaded with more options than many new cars! Oh and yes everything works!!! It’s got 4 different tires but they are all the same size and have good tread, oh ones even white wall, adds a bit of class to that side of the car! I have been a Hoopty owner now for 3 months and I’m happy I made the jump to buy a daily driver under $1500

    1. I am fighting the tinge of jealousy! I’ve never been able to find/own/drive a beater that had ice cold AC, which is critical in Texas!

      The best thing about a hoopty is that I don’t care if someone dings me. I can park wherever I want, and if I get a nick, so be it!

  4. I owned a 1994 Toyota Celica GT that I sold with 230,000 miles. Her name was the Red Sled. (My buddy’s named her that because the felt like they where riding on the ground climbing into it…. Hey! its a sports car!) Rusty rockers, power steering didn’t work, but she still got 30 mpg, and drove 75 mph down the highway straight and smooth. Bought it for 800 dollars, drove it for three years. Only money I had to put into it was when I changed the oil myself. Loved that car. My 350z and 1968 Bronco hardly left the garage when I had it. Only sold it because I broke my hand and couldn’t shift and drive for a few months. Should have kept it. New beater is a 1996 Toyota Corolla with 190,000 that I picked up for $400 dollars. Great little car, but nothing comes close to the Red Sled!

  5. I own two used vehicles: a 1997 Lexus SC400, and a 1999 Ford E150 conversion van. The SC — with its smooth V8 engine — is great fun to drive, but it’s too nice of a vehicle to subject to the ravages of road salt or heavy highway traffic. It’s my spring-through-fall weekend car. The Econoline, however, is my beater. Paint is flaking off in large patches (Ford knows about the delamination issue with these, but never addressed it). It has dings and dents and a bit of rust. It also has really nice steel bumpers — not the crappy plastic cosmetic covers found on modern cars, so I don’t worry as much about deer or that random trash can that blows out right in front of you as you round a curve. Mechanically, it is sound. It is my War Wagon.

    1. I’m not sure the Lexus would ever count as a beater, no matter heck it’s been through! Anything that has appeared on Top Gear should be automatically disqualified! 🙂

      The conversion van, on the other hand…nice! My 1999 Honda Civic had similar problems with the paint flaking off of it, revealing a much duller under layer that I was sure would eventually be prone to rust.

      I could have used the steel bumpers on my 2001 Toyota Camry a few weeks back when I was rear-ended at 20 mph. Well, I was stopped, and she was going 20 mph. Barely a scuff on the paint, but she managed to crack the bumper in half. Steel would have showed her the meaning of yield to oncoming traffic!

    1. Unless there was something noticeably wrong (e.g. a check engine light, a bald tire, etc.), all I ever did was change the oil and the other fluids as needed. I don’t do the 3k oil change either. I definitely go 5k. I suspect the oil change every 3k message is a ploy from the same people who brought you “lather, rinse, repeat” on shampoo.

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