Should Laura's first car be a '93 Olds Cutlass that doesn't run?

Dear Car Talk

Dear Car Talk | May 01, 2010

Dear Tom and Ray:

I'm 17 years old and trying to buy my first car, without fiscal help from my parents. I have about 4,500 dollars to spend, but I'm trying to keep it under that. A neighbor is selling a 1993 convertible Olds Cutlass Supreme. It's in fantastic cosmetic shape, there's not a dent in it, it has a brand-new top and it looks fantastic. The problem is that it doesn't run. It needs a new timing belt, which I know can lead to other problems. However, the owners have all of the records from when it was bought new in '93, including every oil change. It was garaged for 11 of those years. They're asking about 2,000 dollars, but will take anything above 1,500 dollars. Should I buy it, knowing that nothing else is currently wrong besides the timing belt, and that I have the money to fix things that go wrong?

-- Laura

TOM: Maybe. It has a few things going for it. Buying a car from a relative or family friend can be a great way for a young person to buy a first car, because you know the car's history, and presumably, a friend or relative won't withhold crucial information from you.

RAY: It's also a great way to start a family or neighborhood feud that can go on for generations!

TOM: But let's assume the neighbors are honest, and are telling you what they know about the car.

RAY: That still leaves one major downside to this deal: The car doesn't run.

TOM: Right. And since it doesn't run, it's really impossible to evaluate it. Even if your neighbors are honest, there may be things wrong that they don't know about. So you're buying a "pig in a poke," as they used to say.

RAY: Or an "Olds on a lawn," as we say nowadays.

TOM: Here's what I'd do. Since these folks presumably haven't had a lot of offers for this beauty, offer them this deal: Tell them you'll pay them 2,000 dollars minus the cost of the repairs it needs.

RAY: And get them to agree to let you take it one step at a time.

TOM: As a first step, you pay to have it towed to a mechanic. If it passes a visual inspection (the mechanic doesn't see a crack in the transmission housing or a rusted-out undercarriage) and he thinks it has a chance to be a decent car, then you take the next step.

RAY: The next step is that you pay to replace the timing chain and get it running. By the way, I think both available engines on this car had timing chains rather than timing belts.

TOM: Once it's running, then your mechanic can do a real "blue plate special" on it. He can drive it. He can do a compression test. He can pressurize the cooling system and check for leaks. He can really evaluate the car and try to identify everything that's obviously wrong with it.

RAY: The best-case scenario, then, is that all it needs is a timing chain. Say that costs you 800 dollars. You give the neighbors 1,200 dollars, and the car is yours. And that's a good deal.

TOM: But if it turns out that the radiator won't hold water, the cylinder head is cracked, the transmission doesn't shift and the steering rack is leaking like Old Faithful, then you give them the car back and walk away.

RAY: But you'll be out the money you spent on the towing, the mechanic's evaluation and the timing chain. Which means you'll have only 3,500 dollars to spend on your next nutty idea, Laura!

TOM: So it's a calculated risk. But if the sellers are willing to share the risk with you -- and I'm guessing they're dying to get this thing off their front lawn -- it could be a risk worth taking. But take it a step at a time. And let us know what happens.

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