What in the World: The joy of driving a beater

I adore beat-up, used-up cars. Ask anyone who knows me and they will likely be able to muster a memory of a time where they found me on my phone lusting after the image of a dented Volvo 850 or rusty Toyota Camry. I cannot help myself: there is something about these mangled machines to be admired. In fact, I think everyone who is able should own and operate a beater car. The benefits are near limitless. They are humbling, have merit whether you are politically left or right-leaning, are eco-friendly and will make you a responsible person. 

Definitions first: what do I mean by a beater car? A beater car is a vehicle of yours I can hit with a shopping cart and you would not be very upset. Beaters can differ from person to person. For instance, I own a 1999 Toyota Camry I bought for $1,000. The car has gone 254,000 miles and I hope to take it to 300,000. It creaks at odd times, starts more often than not and three of the four door handles work. You could take a hammer to my trunk lid and I really would not care. However, if you had done the same to my 1995 Lexus LS400 worth maybe $2,000 I would have been apoplectic with rage. It is not the cash value of a vehicle that makes it a beater as much as the owner’s viewpoint; a beater is a car where the owner sees the vehicle in question not as an extension of their ego, but as a tool to get themselves from point A to point B. 

It is difficult to put on airs when one steps out of a 1999 Camry with a zip strip for a door handle. In an age of Instagram perfection, Facebook family moments and the elusive chase to have the grandest of all “flexes,” we could all stand to acknowledge our flaws. I have enough ducats tucked away that, if I were so inclined, I could go and lease myself a flashy Mercedes C-Class with options — the kind of vehicle that says, “I’m at least middle management at a fairly profitable company.” However, owning such a car would be a lie and a horrible financial decision, throwing away thousands of dollars to appear like I have a modicum of wealth. 

As a kid, I expressed to my mom amazement at the money this fellow must have as he drove past us in a Ferrari. She chuckled at me and said, “What you saw was a poor man trying to look rich.” Confidence cannot be gained by acquiring goods. Instead, practice humility and get yourself a beater. Beaters keep one grounded and away from financial hardships that new or high-end vehicles come with.

So you think Bernie is a cool sort of dude and you think he will usher in the age of equity and prosperity for the proletariat? Get you a beater. Why? Because you will be sticking it to “the man” 10 ways from Sunday, that is why. Corporations make jack squat from your purchasing a 1997 Geo Metro on Craigslist. 

Then, because your Geo is long past its warranty, you need not have it serviced at another large corporate entity like Bergstrom. Instead, you can go down to Pat the Proletariat’s Collectivized Auto Shop and have them fix it up, supporting your fellow worker. What is more, the vehicle is so long past being beautiful that you are at liberty to slap as many “Bernie Bro” or “Feel the Bern” stickers on there as you wish without harming the value of the vehicle — an admittedly strange concept for Marxists.

Conversely, if you think Ted Cruz should have been named the Sexiest Man Alive in 2015 and you land squarely on the right, boy do I have the car for you! What do conservatives like? Limited taxes, small government and tradition. What if I told you that all three of those things can be had by owning a beater? Get you a hot and ready 1996 Honda Civic and you can slap a collector plate on that bad boy, ensuring that after a one-time fee the government cannot take any more of your hard-earned dough on per annum basis for ridiculous “Title-ing Fees.” 

All good libertarian conservatives know General Motors should have never been bailed out, that they made and make a poor quality product and survived as a company only by the benevolence — or malevolence — of big government intervention. Why support such a company by purchasing a brand new vehicle from them? Get you a square-body Chev from the ‘80s from Dan in Illinois. You get your truck and those shmucks at GM get the nothing which they so richly deserve.

In the words of the greatest musical of all time, “Tradition!” Nothing says tradition like a car that refuses to quit being passed from generation to generation. Do you know who quits? Commies, and you ain’t no commie, by gum. Before computers and other baubles and doodads were introduced to vehicles, all you needed were a working transmission and an engine and that thing could run forever. Imagine your kids and grandkids driving the same 2000 Lincoln Towncar you did, putting the odometer up near 500,000 miles. What an incredible gift to your family — a true group accomplishment. Preserve the past and get you a beater, oh young conservative.

For the eco-mentalists in my readership, you should get a beater as well. But why not a brand new Prius or Tesla with their planet-friendly marketing and great mpg/range? Because the production of either of these vehicles is an environmental disaster on the scale not seen since the widespread 1980s Aquanet abuse. Each new vehicle you purchase increases the demand for nickel and lithium mining due to the battery-dependent nature of these vehicles. My 1999 Camry has already been manufactured, making my acquisition a net-zero impact on the environment. Compare that to the devastation that occurs to make your new “eco-car” and even after 200,000 miles I am far and beyond superior in limiting my environmental impact. Want to get great mpg and buy a beater? Buy a 2009-2012 Prius, as their battery packs should still be relatively healthy compared to the older models.

To conclude, owning a beater makes you a better person. Due to their vintage, most beaters are mechanically simple to understand and much of the work can be done yourself, aided by a bevy of make and model-specific resources on YouTube. This keeps down costs and fosters your DIY capabilities. You will save oodles of money compared to your classmates who purchase new vehicles post-graduation, and you can use that money to travel, pay back student loans and enjoy life. Do yourself and the world a favor, get you a beater.

If I have convinced the reader of the virtues of the beater, I would like to make specific recommendations. I suggest automatic Toyotas between 1996 and 2006, manual transmission Hondas between 1997 and 2005, auto or manual Volvos between 1996 and 2004 and the Pontiac Vibe from any year because it is actually a Toyota Matrix with a Pontiac badge. 

For car-buying advice, or to tell me you think I am a plum fool, email me at abell@lawrence.edu. Cheers!