Dear Tom and Ray:
I found an AMC Gremlin for sale in Seattle, where I used to live, for $300. Going on the pictures and the owner's word, it has very little rust, runs well, needs interior work, and needs a brake job and a rear wheel bearing. I want to buy it because it is cheap and cool, but my dad, who does the repairs in our house, says the Gremlin was a piece of crap. Was it? Would it make it from Seattle to Indiana? Any advice? -- Emily
RAY: Well, if you live long enough, you hear just about everything, Emily. The Gremlin is cool. Go figure.
TOM: Actually, I don't agree with your dad. It's easy to criticize this car now, because just about any car from the early '70s would look bad next to today's cars. They had no fuel injection, no independent suspension, no air bags, no anti-lock brakes, no nothing! But compared with the other cars of its era, the Gremlin wasn't bad.
RAY: I agree. I remember doing a fair amount of front-end work on Gremlins, but that wasn't unusual back then. The six-cylinder engine and automatic transmission were both pretty bulletproof. We know, because Gremlin owners often tried to shoot them.
TOM: So if you're looking at cars from that era, I think you'll do OK with the Gremlin. However, don't take our word for it -- or the word of the owner. Get it checked out independently.
RAY: Here's how you do it. Go to our Web site (cartalk.com) and look for the "Mechan-X-Files." That's a database of mechanics personally recommended by our Web site's visitors. Look for someone in the Seattle area who knows his way around older cars. If you call the shop and the proprietor sounds like he's missing some teeth -- he's the guy for you!
TOM: Then make arrangements for him to check out the Gremlin for you. Be prepared to pay $50-$100 to have it thoroughly checked out.
RAY: Have the seller drop it off for an afternoon, and then call the mechanic for a full report. After a complete exam, he'll be able to tell you whether the frame is rusted out, the transmission is operating on sawdust or the engine last saw compression during the Carter administration. Then you can figure out what it will really cost to make it safe and drivable, and you can make your decision from there.
TOM: Even if the mechanic finds nothing else wrong, though, you'd still have to do the brake job and the wheel bearing before driving it to Indiana. I'm sure you already know why you need working brakes. But that rear wheel bearing is just as important. Wheel bearings hold the wheels on. And if one breaks while you're driving, the axle could easily slide out, and your rear wheel could pass you on the interstate. It's a chilling sight, Emily. Trust us.