General Question

GloPro's avatar

I want to buy a cheap clunker. What things are essential?

Asked by GloPro (8238 points ) July 20th, 2014 from iPhone

I’m in the market for a piece-of-shit van that I can spray paint all hippie-dippy and take to Burning Man. I need for it to get me 3.5 hours away from my town to the high desert in Northern Nevada salt plains and back. I intend to donate it to charity as a tax write off almost immediately after Burning Man.

When looking for a cheap clunker, what things are vital in order to not waste my money or have a money pit? I’m hoping to spend around $600—$800 total, and expect it will be a 78–80s year…

Cosmetics aside, what specific things should I pay attention to when shopping? Please don’t be so generic as to say “an engine” or “one that runs.” I imagine something that old and cheap will have issues, I just don’t know the difference between a major issue and a minor one. Think mechanics, as one that old won’t have a lot of electronic components. Thanks!

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27 Answers

ARE_you_kidding_me's avatar

Well I’ll be generic anyway. Have a mechanic you trust look at it before you buy it. That said what you don’t want is one that’s been sitting. While you may see it run and there don’t appear to be any problems there will be, cars don’t like to sit. Things like seals, hoses, belts and gaskets will fail without warning and sometimes catastrophically when a car that has been sitting gets going again. This has been my experience with old motorcycles time and time again but I expect it and I usually take several months to sort one out. Basically anything above this is beyond the scope of what you’ll get in a web forum.

If you sell it after you may be surprised but you’ll likely get all your money back out of it if not more if you play your cards right. The hippy-dippy shit will probably give it a non-rape van appeal.

I wish I was headed to burning man

SQUEEKY2's avatar

A few little things first when you show up, wear clothes that you wont be afraid to get dirty in, pull the dip stick smell the oil make sure it doesn’t smell burnt, do the same to the transmission, next crawl under it make sure all rubber boots are not ripped, and nothing seems about to fall off, listen to it run make sure it sounds ok,then drive it, your not asking a lot from it and going to donate it when done so have fun.

Dan_Lyons's avatar

Turn her on and after a bit look under her for leaks. When you start her and while she is running pay attention to smoke from exhaust.

stanleybmanly's avatar

The BIG burning question is the extent of your mechanical skills, and from your question itself it is clear that you should have someone with expertise take a shot at the impossible. What you’re looking for is probably out there. Even experts can’t “prove” that the passenger pigeon is extinct. It would be better if you had more time on your side. Have you considered trying to find an individual with a working well maintained van who is indifferent to a “paint job”, yet willing to “rent” you the thing for 800 bucks?

LuckyGuy's avatar

Ooooo… Burning Man!!!
In addition to the good comments above:
Push on the brakes – hard. Then look for leaks.

Do you have mandatory inspection in your state?

GloPro's avatar

@LuckyGuy Old vehicles are exempt from smog in California and don’t exist in Nevada. I could register in either state.

LuckyGuy's avatar

Perfect! In NY we have 10 days to pass inspection. The police use automatic license plate scanners to—raise money- weed out cars that are not inspected. Those sworn to “Protect and Serve” drive in shopping mall and grocery store parking lots with their scanners on looking for criminals. Surely we all agree a person driving with an out of date inspection sticker is a criminal. ~

Meanwhile there are fights and drug deals going down 15 miles away in the city.

rexacoracofalipitorius's avatar

The following mechanical tests should be done, by you or by a trusted mechanic. If the seller won’t let you test the rig, don’t buy it.
1 – Compression test. This tells you if the engine’s top end is worn. If compression is lower than normal, a little oil in the cylinder will tell you if the leak is rings or valves- but you won’t be doing this test, because if the van needs valves or rings you aren’t buying it.
2 – Put a voltmeter on the battery at rest. It should read about 13 volts. Test the alternator leads with the engine running, that should read a little higher than the battery at-rest reading. If the battery is reading below 11 volts at rest you will probably need a new battery.
3 – Get underneath the van, where you can see the front suspension. Have a helper turn the steering wheel, and observe the tie rod ends, lower ball joints, and other pivots in the steering and suspension. Look for things flexing in ways they shouldn’t. A separated ball joint can kill, and it will mess up the handling. While you’re underneath, look for leaks. The underside should be dry. If it’s not, wipe it clean and then check again after your test drive.
4 – Check the engine for vacuum leaks.

Research the particular vehicle before testing it. Some tests are more important on some models than others. Discolored coolant is never a good thing, but on 1980s era International diesels (like those found on Ford trucks of that era), it means the engine is dying soon.

When you drive the vehicle, look for the following:
1 – Steering “wanders” or van suddenly lurches to one side without steering input. Very Bad.
2 – Engine temperature erratic, or temp gauge not working. Consider bringing an IR thermometer to test independently.
3 – Transmission slipping or “hunting” between gears.
4 – Engine idle too high, vehicle does not slow down when you take your foot off the gas.
5 – Smells- rotten egg, burning rubber, maple syrup or hot metal all are bad.

Since you intend to take this rig on a trip to the desert, DO NOT neglect the cooling system. Overheating in the middle of nowhere really sucks. Ask Me How I Know.

Haleth's avatar

I don’t know a thing about cars, but dude, your plan is so great!

Hypocrisy_Central's avatar

Buying a vehicle, especially previously owned, and assuming it is from a private party. Some of the things are a crossover if buying from a dealer but from a dealer there are usually less to check.
Before you even start the engine, look under the vehicle, do you see anything dripping? Is there water, tranny fluid, oil etc. on the ground under the vehicle? Look at the tires. Are they wearing evenly? Is one side wearing more than the other? Check all the windows to see if they all go up and down, and also listen for squeaks or gears binding. When the windows are up hear any wind whistling through it? When the windows are down, check the condition of the seals (the rubber) around the glass. Walk the body with a magnet, if it stops sticking, it is a good chance they had body work done (there is Bondo under the paint). Check the corners of the body and under the corner of the trunk; see if there is any rust there. Also see if there is any rumples under the paint, could be rust also. Check to see if the paint on the body matches that in the doorjambs, and inside the trunk and under the hood. If different, maybe it was repainted after a collision. Check all the lights, turn signals, etc. Make sure there is no short. Check all the keys; make sure they work. Check the wipers.

Then check under the hood. See what look like rusted water sprayed on the underside of the hood? It could have an overheating problem. Are the hoses brittle, frayed or bulged? Is the wiring harness loaded with electrician’s tape repairs? Is there a lot of oil leaking from the valve covers? Any moisture around the freeze plugs? Check the tranny fluid, any metal shaving in it? Burnt smell? Does it have a dark molasses color? Check the oil, does it look like café au le, or a milkshake? See any beads of water? If you can grab the fan blades and give them a shake, does it wiggle? If it does, you may have water pump problems. Check the radiator if you can to see if you see any leak.
Now you start it up. Does it start quick or do you have to lean on the ignition to get it to fire? Once it starts do the idiot lights on the dash go out or is any still on? While it is idling, is it a smooth purr, or is it loping? Do you hear any knocks up top, or down deep? Could be a bad cam, valves, valves hitting a piston top, or worse, it will need new rods. Is the exhaust clear? Do you see anything when you stomp the gas? When you let off the gas does it return to the idle you started with?
On the road, take your hands off the wheel (keep them real close) does the vehicle run straight, or does it pull to one side? Does it want to pull when you brake? Does it go into passing gear easy without hesitation? Is there excessive wobbling up front at speeds over 45 mph? Listen to those windows again, any wind whipping through them? Does the heater get warm? Is the A/C cold?

If it passes those things, the major ones anyhow, I would take a chance if the price was a really good deal.

jerv's avatar

“Sweet” smells are a deal-killer as that means some sort of cooling issue that you don’t want to deal with. It may be a simple blown head gasket, but if you were the type of person who could replace that yourself instead of paying $700—$1600 for a garage to fix it, you wouldn’t be asking this question. And it may be a cracked block; something there is no real repair for. Lack of heat is another sign of potential cooling issues.

Transmission issues are a deal-killler. There is no cheap way out, and the only way that is remotely easy is to pay someone else massive money to deal with it. Transmissions are often replaced rather than repaired, and that rarely runs less than a couple grand.

Suspension issues are a deal-killer. Like the transmission, it’s rarely cheap to get out of. Not as bad, but still easily $200+.

Brake issues…. not always bad. Sometimes it’s a simple matter of pads/shoes, but the pedal is still firm and consistent. How the pedal feels and whether or not it veers under braking are the important things.

stanleybmanly's avatar

It just occurred to me that you intend to drive your $800 van through the Sierras. You need the help of a serious mechanic to determine the road worthiness of whatever vehicleyou come across. Unless he or she is prepared to check out your prospects for free, you cannot win. To begin with, you should be prepared to look at a LOT of vans in the price range you’re talking about before you find anything decent, and a mechanic can whittle that $800 to nothing in checking out 5 vans or fewer. The roads you will be driving are challenging. Were someone to offer me an $800 vehicle to cross the Sierra Nevada mountains, I would regard the offer with the same enthusiasm due a $10 parachute.

GloPro's avatar

@stanleybmanly… No Sierras. Northeast of Reno. You pretty much get out of Sierras and drive through a lot of high desert flat plains and salt flats. A lot of straight, long roads in heat during the day, cool at night. My driving hours will be 6am to noon, and return trip also around then.

@jerv If brakes aren’t actively squeaky/grinding or soft don’t you think they might make it 400 miles total?

@Hypocrisy_Central At that price I’m not concerned with the AC at all. It’s my understanding that running the heat somehow helps to evaluate the cooling system, though… Does a working heating system matter in summer for one trip?

jerv's avatar

@stanleybmanly My $500 Corolla climbed Mt Washington.

If the brakes work now, they will likely work for at least the next 1000 miles. Check the pads for wear though.

And yes, the heating system matters as it’s also your cooling system. See, the heater core and radiator are hooked together with a valve controlling how much coolant goes through the heater core. If there is a problem with the heating, then there is a problem with the engine cooling, and you are at serious risk of overheating your engine in the mountains. A bad cooling system can take your engine out in under 10 miles; like @rexacoracofalipitorius, been there, done that. Ever see a gallon of antifreeze shoot out your tailpipe?

Hypocrisy_Central's avatar

@GloPro Does a working heating system matter in summer for one trip?
That depends on how cold it gets at night. Sometimes the high desert can be quite deceptive, it might be baking by day and very cold at night. Also, I am not sure I mentioned it, you better check to see if the registration is up to snuff. I purchased a vehicle I thought was a good deal only to discover by the time I paid up the back reggies, the deal was not that great, though it still was a nice vehicle and fun to drive in the long run.

ARE_you_kidding_me's avatar

What state makes you pay all of the back registration when you buy a car?

GloPro's avatar

@ARE_you_kidding_me California does. It’s shitty if you don’t know it ahead of time. It happened to me when I bought my motorcycle.

@Hypocrisy_Central I’m not worried about the weather conditions when I asked about heat. I’ve been to Burning Man a couple of times; I’ve got that covered. You’re right that it gets cold at night. 60 degree temp swings are common.
I was asking about heat because @jerv mentioned, it was my understanding that the heater components aided in the cooling of the engine components somehow. I have been told to add water to the coolant and run it sitting still for 15 minutes or so to cycle it through, with the heater running, and then check for fluid leaks and whatnot.

Dan_Lyons's avatar

This is true @GloPro. In the summer months (or even winter) if your car is overheating, push the heater control lever to high heat (not the fan, just the heater control). This will actually help cool your engine.

ARE_you_kidding_me's avatar

@GloPro WOW, f**k California then.

The heating system is correct. That’s your engine cooling system not the A.C. Basically if your car will not heat the thermostat probably needs to be replaced or the cooling system needs work. It’s usually a stuck open thermostat. It does not happen too often now but it is possible for them to fail closed. That’ll kill your car in seconds.

rexacoracofalipitorius's avatar

In some full-sized vans, the heater core is accessible inside the engine compartment- thus if it leaks, you can easily route around it with a piece of hose. It’s a thing to check and keep in mind just in case.

jerv's avatar

@rexacoracofalipitorius The same is somewhat true of late-80s Golfs and Corollas. While you cannot actually get at the heater core, you can get at the hoses and do the same rerouting. Ask me how I know.

LuckyGuy's avatar

The transmission cooler can be bypassed if it is leaking as well. GM vehicles with the towing package all have them and they are easy to bypass if the cooler gets a rock through it. You can ask me how I know that, too.

GloPro's avatar

Great. So I can buy just about anything and you can all come over and tinker with it and Jerry-rig it. See you soon!

ARE_you_kidding_me's avatar

That depends on if beer is provided

GloPro's avatar

Good beer if the van is cheap enough.

LuckyGuy's avatar

If it is too much of a clunker, after you get there it is not much of a stretch to turn “Burning Man” into “Burning Van”.

Some day I will go to that….Some day….

jerv's avatar

@LuckyGuy Especially not if it’s a VW van. Oh, wait… those would burn climbing the mountain on the way there, not after you arrive….

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