Top 10 Best Dirt Cheap Beater Car Models?

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In 2006, Jay Lamm organized the first 24 Hours of LeMons (official site, Wikipedia) in which cars picked off the street that cost under $500 (not counting safety equipment) raced each other for 24 hours straight. The name and format parodies the legendary and prestigious 24 Hours of Le Mans racing series. A penalty might involve welding a huge metal sculpture on your roof to increase weight and air drag. Racing accessible to the masses and a sense of humor? Awesome.

In a recent Car and Driver article, they listed the most successful models after 8 seasons and 104 races. I figure, if you want to know if a car model is durable, race it for 24 hours straight. Here are the top 10:

  1. Volvo 240
  2. 1984–1993 Mercedes-Benz 190
  3. ’90s RWD Lexus (SC300/400, LS400)
  4. Alfa Romeo Milano
  5. Mazda Miata
  6. Acura Integra
  7. 1984–1991 BMW 3-series
  8. Ford Taurus (mostly SHOs)
  9. Ford Festiva
  10. Mazda B-platform (Mazda 323/Protegé, 1991–1996 Ford Escort/1989–1994 Mercury Capri)

The Volvo 240 has gained a near-mythological reputation for reliability, with many claims of 300,000+ miles and 20+ years. (Start noticing how many you still see on the road, even though the last model year was 1994!) Forget owning a Prius, roll up in a 240 and you’ll have some frugal cred. No longer Swedish-owned and losing market share, Volvo’s most recent commercial is still trying to live off the reputation of this model:

I’m not familiar with the Alfa Romeo listed, but otherwise these are older cars that appear to have been designed and engineered with tolerances such that they can take a lickin’ and keep on tickin’. Older Benz and Lexus models were known for this. Given the race parameters, perhaps it also means that they can be fixed with a standard tools and parts that don’t cost a fortune.

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  1. Not a shocking list, save for the alfa. The Lexus SCs were exceptional cars for their day. And Miatas and Integras were near bulletproof.

    We’ve owned and beaten on Mazdas and B-platform cars. Nearly unbreakable.

  2. Surprised there isn’t an old Honda on the list. I see so many 15+ year old Honda Accords on the road still humming away. Think of per year cost if you drive the same vehicle for 20 years. Put that into your savings plans. Nice article – thanks!

    • That’s probably because it’s so hard to find any Honda under $500. Even one that doesn’t run is probably worth at least $500 in parts to go in other old Hondas. I was looking at used Honda Odyssey minivans and a 6-year old one can cost more than a brand new Dodge Caravan.

  3. Wow, my parents purchased the top three cars on this list! They should be LeMons racers 🙂

    The 190E and LS400 are out of commission, but I still have the old 240. It’s doing fine at 350k+ miles.

  4. The 24 hours of LeMons is an exceptionally cool event, but I disagree that it has anything useful to teach average car buyers.

    Keep in mind that these $500 race cars are prepared and maintained by people who are far more able to deal with mechanical problems than the average reader of this blog. The cost of paying a professional to replace the exhaust system of a thirty year old Volvo will bring you to tears.

    Any popular make ten year old car should last at least another ten years without needing expensive repairs if it hasn’t been abused. It is critical to find a trusted mechanic to inspect any candidates for purchase first. Finding that person might be the hardest part for most people.

    Years ago I believed a two year old car with 20,000 miles and a perfect repair record was a better bet than an unproven new car. Now, the cars of the past decade are so much better that the least reliable of them are far more reliable than any car of years past.

    My 16 year old daughter bought a 1975 Volvo 245 wagon in 1992 for only $600 because its heater blower didn’t work and the weather was below freezing. A $400 part and $800 labor at the dealer. We spent $200 for the same part and it took days of freezing work in my driveway for me to do it. She drove it for two years and then left it at home when she went away to college. I drove it for another ten years or so until it finally went to the scrapyard – still running – with over 200,000 mile on the odo. I used to tell people “They call it the Swedish Mercedes. But it’s not anything like a Mercedes except for parts prices.”

  5. Interesting article. Thanks for not making us do a slide show to see the cars.

    BTW, find a copy of Drive it Forever by Robert Sikorsky, 1983. Out of print, but lots of great ideas along the same topic.

  6. Joel Berry says

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