You Just Can't Afford 'Em AnymoreI needed another winter beater. You know what I mean; a cheap but fun car to drive through the winter months while your "real" cars slumber safe from slush, snow and road salt. Another move, even further north has me living just outside the Twin Cities, Minn., a state with a reputation for real winters. My philosophy on winter beaters is they have to start every time, have a real heater and be fun to drive in the snow and on days when the roads are clear.
Oh, and cheap. They need to be cheap. Usually, I look for something with front-wheel drive, like an older Saab or VW, but my new house has a long uphill driveway so I figured I would find something with all-wheel drive. Because a used BMW 325ix or Mercedes-Benz with 4Matic would be too expensive for a beater, and VWs with Synchro are too hard to find, I went looking for an Audi.
All-wheel-drive PioneersAudi was truly a pioneer with high-performance all-wheel-drive road cars. Its original Quattro Coupe in the early 1980s upset the world of professional rallying, bringing about an all-wheel-drive revolution that continues to this day. Later in that decade, Audi dominated SCCA Trans-AM and IMSA GT racing with outrageously fast versions of the Audi 90 Quattro sedan, and the company is a powerhouse in touring car racing with its all-wheel-drive wonders. Okay, the company won Le Mans a few times too, but not with all-wheel drive.
Anyway, aside from all of this success on race and rally tracks around the world, beginning in the mid '80s, Audi also built a bunch of all-wheel-drive sedans. These included the Audi 4000, 5000, 80, 90, 100 and 200. The engines for these cars included inline four- and five-cylinders, V6s and even a V8. Some were turbocharged while many were normally aspirated. With so many models to choose from, it seemed like I should be able to find a reasonable winter beater.
Looking for My CarI began my search for an Audi winter beater in the usual way. First I checked online. I ran through all of the cars on eBay, finding a few Audi 4000 models that would easily meet my needs. But most of them were pretty far from home and adding travel expenses or shipping costs to a beater can make it pricey very quickly. Next I checked the classifieds on www.audifans.com.
I like this Web site as it has a high turnover of Audis for sale in every price range from all over the country. Again, the possibilities seemed endless, but most of the cars were still pretty far from my mid-western home base. Then I checked the local want ads. Bingo! Here was a 1988 Audi 90 Quattro, with five-speed and leather interior, less than 50 miles away. The asking price was a beater-friendly $875 and the ad said the car "needed some work." What could be better? I called the owner and made an appointment to have a look.
Break All the RulesThe car was in a garage in a suburb on the west side of town. We've all seen the checklists and rules you're supposed to use when you go to look at a used car. Things like asking for maintenance records, looking for leaks under the car, listening for funny noises when you drive it and making sure everything works as it is supposed to. These are all really good suggestions, but if I applied them to the Audi 90 Quattro sitting before me, I would have left right then and there. Perhaps I should have. Three of its tires were flat. It was covered by a thick coating of dust and grime. A battery charger was humming away, as the owner desperately tried to put enough of a charge into the battery to get the car to start. His father, who hadn't driven it in several years, owned it. It was taking up space in the garage and the son wanted to park his own car inside.
The odometer said 177,000 miles, about middle-aged for an Audi five-cylinder. The car was missing its ring badge from the front grille and the faceplate from its factory installed radio. Still, the body was very solid, with no rust and the black leather interior was intact and in good shape. The engine oil looked clean and the underhood was tidy. The battery had enough of a charge to run things such as the electric windows and the directional signals, but nothing happened when the key was turned to engage the starter.
I should have walked away. But I liked the lean look of the Audi 90 sedan and that this car was in such good shape. I figured with anti-lock brakes and heated seats, along with the legendary Quattro all-wheel drive, this could be a pretty good beater. Finally, I offered the owner $600, expecting and even hoping that he would reject it. Don't try this at home. I hadn't even heard the car run. Looking relieved that the car would be gone from his life, he accepted. Damn. I went home and got my trailer and air tank and winched the poor old Audi aboard.
Costs Spiral UpwardWhen you buy a $600 car, you have to figure on spending a bit more to get it running. In the old days, a bit more was $50 here and $20 there. Not anymore. A new starter was $149 from my local auto parts store and a new battery was $60. The Audi started on the first twist of the key and settled down to an idle. A very loud idle as a hole in the muffler was making itself known. Still, the good news was there was no smoke from the tailpipe and the engine ran happily. Four new all-season H-speed-rated performance tires cost me $350. I put them on the car, allowing me to take my new ride for a test drive. The car vibrated terribly under braking, and the rear brakes were sticking, but I now knew that the clutch and gearbox were okay.
The loud exhaust, with its distinctive five-cylinder note, made me think of Audi rally cars hammering through the woods in the mid '80s. As nostalgic as that was, it was way too noisy. I went to a muffler shop and had them repair the problem. Nothing fancy, just replace the stock muffler with a generic one and join onto the tail section. The price was $434. I really needed to fix the brakes. The front rotors were only $16 each at my local parts store and the rears $20 each. This was more like it. I needed a pair of rear brake calipers to replace the seized ones. They were $92 each via mail order along with a pair of new brake hoses to ensure reliable braking. Thus far, I had spent more than twice my $600 purchase price for new parts for my "cheap" car. What was going on here?
The New MathI bought an Audi 90 Quattro for $600 and spent twice that making it driveable. I should have spent $1,800 buying a better car to start with. But then I probably would have had to spend $600 to make that car safe and reliable. Okay, so I should have bought a $2,400 car. But that might have needed the same $600 to make it the car of my dreams, meaning I would have had to spend $3,000. That's crazy, I don't want a $3,000 beater! In reality, I didn't really want an $1,800 beater either. It turns out that an older Audi is an easy car to work on and its parts are reasonable.
But there are still things that you need to farm out and the costs will kill your attempts at building a cheap beater. Repair shops have become much more sophisticated for modern car repairs, so when I brought my old Audi in for a muffler, the overhead costs of the place meant they had to charge me $434 instead of the $100 they might have charged 10 years ago. That's a different kind of inflation than the economists talk about, but one that has real relevance to car enthusiasts like you and me. The sad reality is even starting with a $600 car, it's almost impossible to build a beater for less than $2,000. I know. I tried.