(Editor's note - this was written in 2001. Three years on, we'd be looking at much newer and better cars for the same money.)
Bangernomics has been out and about to have a look at a few cheap cars for sale in the classifieds. The aim? To find a cheap baby hatchback as a first car for the next door neighbour's daughter, who has just passed her test and has about £500 to spend. Allowing a reserve for any repairs that need doing, this means looking at cars in the £300 - £400 range, i.e. right at the bottom end of the market. What we are after is something solid, reliable, cheap to run, easy to drive and reasonably smart looking. A full year's MoT is essential, and a stereo would be nice. Impossible? Not at all. Here's what we found....
First up was a 1979 Ford Fiesta 1100L, up for sale at £325. With 60,000 miles, new exhaust and tyres, 12 months MoT and 2 months tax, it sounded promising. Mk1 Fiestas are tough little cars, parts and insurance are cheap, and they are easy to drive. First impressions of this one were good: the bodywork (finished in a very late Seventies shade of gold) was almost entirely rust free, although there were a few dents and some patchy paint on the doors. The interior was a bit tired, with the seat material wearing through in places, and the doors dropped noticeably when opened, due to worn hinges. If this car had only done 60,000 miles, it must have been used for an awful lot of very short journeys....
Under the bonnet everything was a bit grubby, but no evidence of major oil leaks. There was antifreeze in the radiator (always a good sign on a cheap car), but the engine oil looked about due for changing. There was no service history with the car; budget £50 for a service. The tyres were all as new, as was the exhaust, and the extra heavy duty battery was only a year old. So no major bills there. The spare, however, was flat.
The engine fired up first try with a typically gruff Ford sound, and idled smoothly when warmed up. On the road it pulled well, with plenty of bite from the clutch, and trundled along quite happily at 55-60 mph. The steering felt fine and tracked in a straight line, and the brakes were more than adequate (although a bit dead by modern standards). A couple of worries though. The suspension felt very soft and bouncy (tired shock absorbers - budget £25 per corner) and the temperature gauge rose alarmingly, although it never actually went into the red. This could be a faulty thermostat, a blocked radiator or a worn out water pump - a new radiator would take us well over the £500 budget, so we walked away.
The next car we looked at was a 1983 VW Polo 1050, advertised at £450. Again with a full year's MoT, and three months tax left to run, but 106,000 miles on the clock. Polos are mechanically strong and rust resistant, and unlike most vehicles this age, they all run on unleaded. This example, however, was horrid. Virtually every body panel was dented, and surface rust on the doors and wheelarches had been hastily painted over in a not-quite-matching shade of green. Inside, the seats and carpets were threadbare, and various cables and bits of trim panel hung down under the passenger side dashboard.
The tyres were all about half worn, and of four different makes. The exhaust was new, but so badly fitted that it rattled against the floor. Perhaps predictably, the battery was dead. The vendor eventually got the engine fired up with a set of jump leads, but it sounded a bit clattery and was reluctant to run on anything less than full choke. By this time my neighbour's daughter had lost interest, so we didn't even bother test driving it. Thanks, but no thanks. Next.
A 1987 Citroen AX11 sounded promising at £400. Only ten months MoT and no tax, but 85,000 miles, a full service history and a Pioneer stereo. Brilliant fuel economy (on unleaded) and a comfortable ride, but a bit noisy, and with a flimsy, cheap looking interior. Still, at this price you can't have everything.
After the Polo, the little Citroen was a revelation. Unmarked, rust free bodywork with no evidence of accident damage or bodged repairs. The paint was very flat, but would respond to a T-cut and polish. Inside, trim was all present and correct, with no tears or cigarette burns. A good set of tyres and newish-looking exhaust completed a rosy picture. The service history was fully stamped up to the last service, only 2,000 miles previously, and the all-important cambelt change had been carried out at 72,000 miles as scheduled.
The engine fired up instantly and quickly settled down to a rather busy-sounding idle - not uncommon on old AXs, which seem prone to worn valve gear. The clutch felt a bit soft, only biting in the last couple of inches of pedal travel, but it refused to slip even when provoked, so probably had a bit of life in it. The suspension and steering felt fine, with no funny noises, and the brakes pulled the car up in a straight line without drama. All the electrics worked (worth checking carefully, as cheap French cars don't have the best quality wiring in the world) and all in all, it seemed a better car than anyone has any right to expect for the money.
Still, we bargained hard, pointing out the less than fierce clutch, a barely legal spare tyre and the lack of a tax disc. £360 changed hands, and ten minutes later the little Citroen was loaded onto a trailer and headed for a new home.
One month later it is running beautifully and nothing has gone wrong yet, so there are worthwhile cars to be had at the bottom end of the market. Just remember, don't rush into a purchase, or buy the first car you see (unless it is an obvious bargain, like the Citroen). Check everything carefully, and always leave enough in the bank to fix the faults you can see, plus a bit more for the faults you have missed.