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The lasting power of Beater-mania

Published March 15, 2013

If you love your car, if you see it as an extension of your nervous system, if it’s like a suit of shiny armour you put on in the morning, don’t read this column. It’s not about you. It’s about people who regard the car as a necessary evil.

To some, the car is simply a status symbol. Bert Gordon, a cold-blooded gambler played by George C. Scott in the 1961 movie, The Hustler, bought a fancy, top of the line, new car every year. It is doubtful that he took much pleasure in the cars he bought — but he knew the riff-raff would get the message.

To others, the cheaper the car, the better. This old shoe approach to car ownership is exemplified by my friend, a retired school principal, William Ellis, and his brother-in-law, Nick Marcinkiewicz. Nick is mechanically inclined; William, not particularly. Both, however, share the view, in Nick’s words, that “a car is a total liability. It costs money and you’re always worried that something is going to happen to it.” His solution: “I always drive a beater. I swear by them.”

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A beater is the cheapest set of wheels that will get you from point A to point B. A beater may be a beautiful idea, but it can be a truly ugly car — a ride Bert Gordon wouldn’t be found dead in. It is true nowadays that prices of new cars are falling, or at least not keeping pace with inflation, a situation that tempts the average consumer to troop to a dealership and sign on the dotted line.

But as Joseph D’Cruz, professor of strategic management at the University of Toronto, points out, “A two-year-old car can be as much as 25 per cent cheaper than a new car of the same model.” Push that thinking to an extreme and you’re driving a beater.

Phil Edmonston, of the ever popular Lemon-Aid series, agrees. In the 2011/2012 Used Cars and Trucks edition, for example, he had a section entitled, “Why Smart Canadians Buy Used,” citing availability of parts, cheaper insurance, and the kind of depreciation of new cars that Professor D’Cruz mentions. “All of that pretty well holds up now,” Edmonston comments.

So we are in the realm of the used. But the cars bought by Ellis — who now drives a 1998 Saturn — and Marcinkiewicz are a subset of that realm. They are cars that often make your friends and colleagues shake their heads in disbelief.

Cars like Ellis’ first old rust bucket — a Chevrolet, a Ford, he can’t remember the make now — that his father-in-law handed over to him in the early 70s. When he drove it to his first school, it seemed to disprove all by itself the notion that teaching was a prestigious profession.

Ellis didn’t mind: “You don’t care if people are laughing at you and jeering at you,” he comments. Ellis has kept the faith. When the new cars come out every year, he rattles past the showrooms without so much as a glance.

Greater than fear of ridicule, for the owner of a beater, is fear of rust, the arch-enemy of the beater. Rust can foil your determination to drive a car for another five or 10 years. Rustproofing is a must. The annual oil spray is a beater ritual. But the number one priority is finding what Ellis calls “an honest, independent mechanic,” a mensch with a wrench who can supply good beaters, often from his customers who are moving up.

It works like this. Someone wants to get rid of a car that needs, say, a new transmission. The mechanic — in this case, Mark-Ceasar Auto Service — buys the car, puts in the new transmission, and then sells the resurrected ride to a beater believer for a couple thousand dollars. (Not infrequently a car owner will simply give Mark-Ceasar the car he is tired of, thus streamlining the process even further.)

The mechanic also services the beater, of course, and here his artfulness and diligence shine. Finding cheap parts — through wreckers’ yards, the Internet, other garages, and so on — takes a certain knack.

“Mark-Ceasar actually apologizes to me when he has to go to a dealer for a part,” Ellis remarks. Like all beater owners he has a deep suspicion of dealers. “You go to a dealership and there’s a pretty girl at the reception desk, there’s a whole show room and they’re giving you coffee and doughnuts and they have a manager of this and a manager of that,” He comments. “Who’s paying all these people?”

Unfortunately the independent mechanic may be going the way of the independent bookstore owner. Both are endangered species. “I’ve got a Turkish mechanic I swear by,” Marcinkiewicz says. “Over there in Turkey they fix everything.”

It would be a pity if they disappeared, these mechanics of the last resort. Beater owners need them. “Who has greater street cred, my beater or a new Dodge Charger?” asks Marcinkiewicz rhetorically. “If I need to make a left turn or merge into traffic, I just put on my signal lights and people slow down. No one’s honking or anything, they just figure it’s an old car.”

For an old car, a ding is just a ding. For a new Dodge Charger it’s a catastrophe. “When you’re driving a beater you can park anywhere,” Marcinkiewicz says. “You can park in that tight spot. You don’t freak out if you get close to the concrete posts on the curb. You don’t panic at the thought, ‘Oh my God, a scratch!’”

Phil Edmonston concurs. “You don’t get that feeling in the pit of your stomach when you see that first dent in the parking lot,” he observes.

Don’t get Marcinkiewicz wrong. “I’m not saying pick up a hunk of junk. But if it’s a Granny car that Granny hardly ever drove, sure.” He has his preferences for beaters — Nissan Sentra, Subaru, Hyundai, Kia. “They’re good on gas, they’re pretty reliable and parts are cheap. I look who owned it, and I stay away from high mileage cars.”

There may be a limit, even if you’re not a flashy gambler like Bert Gordon, to how ratty your car can be. William Ellis is thinking of banging out the dents on his ancient Saturn. “I’ve had a few dings on it,” he confesses. “I’d like to get them a little bit fixed up. Normally I ignore all that but lately I’ve been ashamed of the car.”

Ashamed! That is no talk from a member of the beater brotherhood! But Ellis also has a teenage son, and teenagers are quick to tell you what they think about the family car.

“I’m not backtracking,” Ellis insists. “I haven’t changed my mind. I’m just picking up my game.”

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