I recently did a piece for Car Talk on some of the worst cars I ever owned, and it's true that in my younger days I had a penchant for $50 cars with more than a few challenges. But the same process also yielded me some surprisingly good, durable cars that lasted me for years. It helped, actually, to have a budget that even switched to $500 sometimes. I could be a big spender when I had to be.
One car that stands out is a 1966 Volvo 122S that I bought for $300 circa 1978. What I remember is that the couple who sold it to me were very genteel, lived in Wilton, and just wanted their baby—which they'd bought new in Sweden—to go to a nice home. The car came with a cartoon from the New Yorker: A guy is nursing a drink at a cocktail lounge, telling the bartender, "The only thing I love is my Volvo."
The car, a white two-door with red plastic seats, had something like 75,000 miles on it, and there wasn't anything seriously wrong with it, maybe a little rust. Cars of the '60s rusted as soon as you looked at them. I took that car home and drove it daily for something like three years. The rust got worse, the seats deteriorated, it aged. But it never stopped running well. I finally sold it for approximately what I paid for it, and bought the first in a series of successor Volvos. None were quite as good as that one.
Here's another story. In high school, my brother and I bought a 1963 Dodge Dart four-door sedan for $100. The rear window was broken, and the trunk was full of wet hay because the owner used it for feeding his horses. My next-door mechanic took pity on us, helped us install a piece of junkyard glass, and supervised as we unloaded the hay. "You did OK," he said.
And we did. That $100 car, with a bulletproof Slant Six under the hood, was on the road night and day for two or three years, and it never gave us a lick of trouble. Its premature demise was a result of severely deferred maintenance.
Now here's the moral of this story. If you go to my garage now, you'll see a 1967 Volvo 122S and a 1963 Dodge Dart convertible. Yes, decades on I still have examples of these two trusty and rusty steeds. I am not the first and certainly not the only person to nostalgically buy back the cars of my youth. It's just that in my case I didn't own some wildly impractical muscle car, I owned two of the most dependable cars on the road.
The cars I have now get an occasional tune-up and oil change, but they rarely ask for anything else. I don't sink all my cash into them. They're not a hole into which I pour money. I made the right choices back then, and I'm still making them. But do read that Car Talk story, because there's a darker side to all this.