It’s called Bangernomics, a term coined by a man after my own heart, journalist James Ruppert. Buy a smoky old motor, particulately one that’s big and wafty, drive it into the ground and buy another. That’s the economics of banger motoring, and I’ve unwittingly become a bit of a convert.
My journey to the far corners of motoring orphan-hood has been a long one. Until 2007 I’d never bought a car, a succession of gleaming company hacks kept me a long way from the harsh realities of car ownership. Then the cracks began to appear. I opted out of the car scheme and bought a 3 year old Audi A6. Two years later I was made redundant. The Audi went, at a loss of £5k, and self employed impoverishment beckoned. I bought a ’94 Jaguar XJR for £1500. Of course I did.
Unwittingly, of course, I had jumped hook line and sinker into the world of Bangernomics. Because there nothing is more Bangernomic than an old Jag, especially one caught between new Jag and classic Jag.
I had, however, made a classic Bangernomic rookie error. The X300 XJR is quite a long way from being an economical or indeed inexpensive car to own. That it has four fuse boxes should tell you all you need to know to walk away. So I sold the Jag and bought a Saab 9-5 estate. Big Saabs like the 9-5 are Bangernomics heartland, hefty, unloved but numerous barges that can be bought for peanuts. The 9-5 is a very good bargain smoker because it’s solid, pretty reliable and parts are plentiful and cheap, particularly compared to similar Mercedes and BMW saloons. Although I’d learned from my rookie Jag error, I hadn’t learnt enough. I bought the Saab 9-5 that intelligent people avoid the unreliable 3 litre diesel and I bought it sight sight unseen from ebay. That in itself wasn’t the real problem, but I failed to check out the seller and ask him the right questions.
Next up was another Saab estate. By now I was beginning to learn. I found a low owner 3 litre v6 petrol auto being sold by a Saab specialist as a part ex. This car ticked a lot of boxes – low owners usually means it’s been looked after and coveted, a specialist has a reputation to uphold and the 3 litre motor crucially wasn’t made by Saab. This rare GM unit is known for its durability, but its rarity also makes this model generally overlooked and therefore cheap. I bought this car for £500, drove it 30,000 miles in 2 years and then someone drove into it.
It should have been a write off, but Bangernomics pundits know better. Parts are so cheap for the Saab that I was able to source everything the car needed for less than £200. It’s all been refitted and the car has passed a MOT easily, despite being off the road for 7 months. I might not even bother getting the panels resprayed.
With the Saab off the road I faced a bit of a dilemma. What to do next? I limped through summer by using other cars but as winter loomed I knew I needed another luxubanger. The Saab was caught in insurance limboland so I began delving through the darker corners of ebay. I rediscovered the illustrious Alfa 166. Once feted as the fastest depreciating car ever made, the big Alfa is rare and largely ignored.
I found my ideal spec quickly – a 3 litre v6 ‘Sportronic’ Lusso in dark metallic blue with cream leather. Low owners, low mileage, full service history, cambelts done and long MOT, the Holy Grail of Bangernomics. This car also had the magic ingredient – it was miles away. Cars located at the outer reaches of the UK tend to be cheaper and sell more slowly, for obvious reasons, than better located cars. If you don’t have the facilities to collect it then you lose out to someone who can. Sad to say, that is me as I have access to trucks and trailers. I quizzed the seller over the phone and identified a few issues – airbag warning light, faulty stereo, that sort of thing. These problems are common on Alfas and can be cheap to fix.
The warning lights were cured for £50 at my local auto electrics specialist and the faulty stereo cured by a call to an Alfa dealer. With MOT and four new tyres the car owes me £600. Ok, so the central locking plays up and the centre armrest is broken. I can live with that. 1,000 unruffled miles later I’m happy.
Bangernomics, of course, isn’t for everyone. If having a newish car on the drive and the virtual guarantee that it will work first time every time is your thing, look away. But if you want to wave goodbye to burning up thousands of pounds in depreciation and you enjoy a little frisson of risk in your life, here are my top tips for buying a banger.
1. Buy unloved
Fords, Vauxhalls, Toyotas and other familiar, popular brands are not your hunting ground. Cheap cars abound here but they’ll be the bad eggs. Opt instead for less common brands like Lexus, Alfa Romeo, Saab, Fiat and even Volvo. Generally you’ll be looking at a bigger car but you won’t pay more for it. Some less loved brands, like Jeep and Chrysler are cheap but with expensive parts, so be wary. Cars based on more popular mechanicals – like Seats – are also worth a look. But in general, if it didn’t sell well, it’s well worth your look.
2. Low owners
Forget the nonsense about low mileage – it’s a factor but much less important than buying a low owner car. Little previous generally means it’s been looked after and has been reliable, otherwise why else keep it? You also stand more chance of getting a decent history file with the car, rather than it being lost along the way.
3. Forget mileage
Unless it’s been to the moon and back, don’t get hung up on mileage. This is a car you may own for 12 or maybe 24 months at best, it doesn’t need a lot of life left. High mileage generally indicates low stress motorway miles, low mileage can suggest high stress local short trips. As long as the engine had received the tight maintenance with regular oil changes and isn’t due a big bill, don’t worry about mega miles.
4. Stick to a budget
Bangernomics is not an exact science but as a general rule I suggest anything over £2000 isn’t a banger. Over 2k and you enter a grey area of dilemma when something goes wrong – fix or sell? Under £2k there is little debate – sell or scrap. Set your limit and don’t exceed it.
5. Do the research
Cheap bangers are cheap because they’re generally misunderstood. Fiats and Alfas have a reputation for going wrong that is out of proportion to their failure rate. Most buyers buy into the myth, not the reality. Research the car you’re looking at, see what owners say, check what goes wrong and ask sellers the right questions. It doesn’t take long but will save you time and money long term.
6. Check the seller
Most bangers are bought on ebay. And most of them are bought unseen. This is fine provided you ask the right questions and look out for the warning signs. If you can’t view the car then there are plenty of clues you can collect. As a general rule I avoid listings that say too little, are in multi coloured fonts and use the words brilliant, fantastic and first to see will buy. No banger is any of those things. If the seller has taken the time to explain the car, its faults and history, with good photos, I’m interested. I don’t usually buy from dealers but occasionally it is worth paying their premium. I always email the seller with some questions in the first instance. Based on how they reply I call them to find out more. Some sellers reply by email in text speak with little or no information. I don’t bother going any further – I’m not a grammar snob but if you can’t be bothered to string a sentence together then you probably haven’t got the car I want. On the phone I am polite, friendly and indicate my serious intent. If the car sounds good I emphasise a quick, seamless buy with no come back provided it is honest. For the seller, someone offering ready cash and an easy sale is the Holy Grail. I offer a buy it now and a deposit. Ebay may bleat but this is the real world.
7. Buy a long MOT
A long MOT is absolutely no guarantee of budget motoring, but it is a good start. The MOT keeps the car on the road and suggests the seller isn’t just offloading it to avoid potential bills.
8. Look for faults
Any car 15 years or newer tends to have complicated electronics that can render an otherwise excellent car scrap. Everything from warning lights on the dashboard to a misfire can be caused by a faulty ECU. This problem can be expensive or peanuts to fix. Often at the cheap end of the market sellers can’t even be bothered to spend £50 on a diagnostic check, which may be all it needs to fix it. Research your car and it will give you a better chance of identifying how serious the issue is – if you know more than the seller you have a considerable advantage.
9. Don’t fall in love An old banger is an old banger. If bought wisely it will last to the next MOT, probably longer. But at the first sniff of a big bill, offload it. It isn’t worth investing more than 30% of the car’s value in any one bill.
9. Be prepared to take a risk
No matter how well you buy, an old banger is still an old banger. The risk of failure will always be greater than with a modern car. If you can accept that in your life, carry on. With any new banger I buy I tend to use it locally initially, until I feel I can trust it. When I can I treat it like any car, because bad new cars can fail just as easily as good old ones.
10. Find a friendly garage Whatever you decide to buy, find a local garage which can competently look after it and do so inexpensively. This generally means a local independent, whose owner actually does the work and who you can build a rapport with. If you’re not in a hurry for your repairs you’ll get them done cheaper.
Running a cheap old car isn’t for everyone. But by following a few simple rules, an old car doesn’t have to be expensive to run, unreliable or risky.
With thanks to James Ruppert, http://www.bangernomics.co.uk