Can You Buy a Roadworthy Car for $1000? (2024)

The Bottle Rockets' "1000 Dollar Car" was released in 1994, about when I bought a mongrel 1979 BMW 323i for an even grand. I soon learned the lyrics by heart, particularly the line "Sink your money in it, and there you are, the owner of a two-thousand-dollar thousand-dollar car." Put it this way: When a cop declares, "You're a braver man than me" after looking under the hood, perhaps you should get a more reliable car.

Can You Buy a Roadworthy Car for $1000? (1)

I've always thought of a grand as the magic number for tragic automotive decisions. But a few years ago, some friends and I got into a debate about whether $1000 is still the correct baseline for automotive desperation. One camp said no: These days, all you get for $1000 is a parts car. (In fact, indexed for inflation, the Bottle Rockets' $1000 car would now be more like a $1700 car.) The other camp—me—said, sure, you can still get a roadworthy car for $1000. I had no proof, but my logic was that cars now last longer, so there are more old cars, thus the ones that are still around are worth even less. We all agreed that this was an interesting debate and then forgot about it entirely.

But eventually I decided to answer the question in a scientific manner, by which I mean looking at Craigslist to see what's available right this minute. Immediately, certain themes are evident. As in 1994, there are interesting cars with voodoo curses and mediocre cars with a pretense of reliability. There are cars that need just one thing, but that thing is the 14th thing so far this year. There are mechanically pristine cars with demo-derby bodies and pretty cars with grotesque mechanical conditions. And, man, there are still a whole lot of $1000 cars.

The nice thing about this tranche of Craigslist ads is that even scammers don't want to bother with the $1000 crowd. So the ads are not only real but extremely candid. Nobody's sugarcoating a $1000 car. The seller of a Mad Max–looking 1993 Mazda MX-3 writes, "It has no horsepower so no worries of speeding tickets, even though it's super loud." Also, the "paint looks terrible," and it has a "right fender you couldn't bolt on if you wanted to." The owner of a 1986 Pontiac Fiero notes that it "may stall out randomly at a red light," and "the previous owner tried to create a custom dash, and it's ugly." (This assertion is supported with photos that underscore the many valid reasons why GM did not originally fit multiple 10-inch subwoofers in the Fiero dashboard.) The seller of a Volkswagen Golf cabriolet informs shoppers that "This isn't a 1996 Corolla that you can buy for $1000 and spend $300 and sell for $3000," whatever that means. Of a Volvo S80 T6, the seller warns, "My cat knocked the key into a trash can and it's long gone, so that will need to be replaced." A 2001 Dodge Durango "runs smoothly (when it runs smoothly)." Ponder that for a while.

What all these cars have in common is that they run and drive and I kind of want them. I wasn't looking for an Iron Duke Fiero, but something about a $1000 price tag fires the imagination. You could take the body off and make it a dune buggy! Or put a golf-cart motor in it and call it your Testeless Roadster. Or drive it around town and start rumors about yourself. People would be like, "I heard he invented shampoo and he's superrich, but he'll only drive a Fiero with one headlight popped up."

Thousand-dollar sellers aren't picky about writing the perfect ad. Hence the listings for a 1905 Toyota Camry, a Nissan Ques, and a Volkswagen Cairo. Photos are likely to show lawns neatly mowed around the vehicle, back seats full of fast-food wrappers, and, possibly, crimes in progress. Brevity is the soul of wit, as underscored by the listings simply titled "Car."

Many of the finer machines in the $1000 collection require just one minor part, like an engine. Consider the FJ80 Land Cruiser with a cracked block, the manual-transmission Audi TT Quattro that won't start, or the 1986 Porsche 944 that won't go into gear. But these aren't really $1000 cars, are they? No. They belong to a whole other genre: the mechanic's special.

The danger of perusing $1000 cars is that some of them might actually get under your skin. I know we all hated the Jaguar X-type when it was new, but how about a good-running manual-transmission X-type for $1000? No? How about a mostly red 1995 Mustang GT convertible, inspected and ready to go? Or a fine-running 1999 CLK430 with the AMG-look wheels and a need for a front bumper? Oh, the Benzes are killing me. Especially the 1994 E420 for $999. My mechanic used to have one of those. He called it a "poor man's 500E." This one needs a blower motor but is otherwise good to go, sporting a 275-hp V-8, headlight wipers, and an original MSRP around $70,000. I mean, I could fix a blower motor, right?

I must recite the Bottle Rockets' mantra: "A thousand-dollar car is gonna let you down more than it's ever gonna get you around." Because the $1000 car is alive and well, tempting as ever.

From the October 2018 issue

Can You Buy a Roadworthy Car for $1000? (3)

Ezra Dyer

Senior Editor

Ezra Dyer is a Car and Driver senior editor and columnist. He's now based in North Carolina but still remembers how to turn right. He owns a 2009 GEM e4 and once drove 206 mph. Those facts are mutually exclusive.

Can You Buy a Roadworthy Car for $1000? (2024)


How much is a normal car worth? ›

8. Travel to find the best price
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How much is too expensive for a car? ›

How much car can I afford based on salary? A good rule of thumb is to limit your car payment to 10% to 15% of your monthly take-home pay. Overall transportation costs, including your car payment, insurance, maintenance, and gas, shouldn't exceed 20% of your after-tax income.

What is a fair value for a used car? ›

We like to think about the 10% rule. If a dealer has a used car for sale and you're going to buy it, the price should be no more than 10% over what online car dealers would pay to buy the car. We consider that to be a fair price.

How do I estimate the value of my car? ›

You can find the estimated trade-in value of a car by using an automotive industry-standard pricing guide, such as Kelley Blue Book (KBB) or Edmunds. You'll need to enter your car's year, make, model, mileage, features and current condition.

How much is enough for a good car? ›

If you take pride in your frugality, 10–15% of your income sounds about right. If you value the reliability a newer, more expensive car brings, then 20–25% is a good benchmark. This gets you $5,000 to $7,500 on a $25,000 salary. Still not a lot, but you'll have more options.

How much does a car value with age? ›

Depreciation Works on a Curve

A new car loses 9-11% of its value immediately after you drive it from the dealership. Subsequently, the average car loses 20% of its value within the first year. After the first 12 months, the car loses about 15-25% of its value yearly for five years.

Are old cars worth a lot? ›

Classic car appreciation depends on multiple factors, including the purchase price, the condition of the vehicle, the model's rarity, your restoration and maintenance costs, and how much you can sell it for. It's also important to consider the pros and cons of owning a classic car to see if it's worth it to you.


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