Friday, November 21, 2008

A New Beater With A Heater

(This picture was taken with my camera phone. It's a pretty lousy phone and, as you can see, an even worse camera)

Here in New England, and probably in other areas prone to serious winter weather, we have a unique type of car. It's called the "winter beater".

You see them advertised something like this... 1996 ________________, High miles, some dents, runs perfect. Good winter beater.

A winter beater is the car you drive in the winter because:

  • Your everyday car is awful in the snow.
  • You don't want somebody to lose control of their car in the snow or ice and take out your pride and joy.
  • Your everyday car is rust prone and road salt only makes the problem worse
  • All of the above

To be a good winter beater a car must be:

  1. Good in snow and on ice - 4WD or AWD is preferred. FWD with traction control is a distant second. ABS is also preferred.
  2. Cheap - This is going to be your sacrificial car. There's no point in spending real money for it.
  3. Reliable - It needs to start and run everyday. No questions asked.
  4. Easy to repair and get parts for - If something does break you need to be able to get the part at a junkyard or local auto parts store and get it on the car quickly (It's cold outside). Waiting weeks for a part to arrive at a dealership or bashing your knuckles in -10 degree weather is out of the question.
  5. Warm - Self explanatory. This is your winter car. A serious heater is a must.

For many years my winter beater of choice was the Jeep Cherokee. I've had three. I didn't like the first one very much as it was one of the older V6 models. The engine (GM sourced) wasn't very powerful and it only had part-time 4WD. Still, it went through everything and served me well for the 3 years I kept it.

The second one was probably my favorite. It was a 1987 Cherokee "Wagoneer" edition. It had fake wood on the side, but it had the unbreakable AMC straight 6 engine and the semi-rare full time AWD transfer case. It went through everything and never failed to start. It had 175,000 miles it was still going strong when someone stole it. It was recovered about a week later, but it was in pretty rough shape. I had no choice but to junk it.

After looking at several, I bought a 1991 Jeep Cherokee "Briarwood" to replace the 1987. The Briarwood also had fake wood on the side (much to the amusement of my friends), but it too had fulltime AWD and the 4.0 liter 6 cylinder engine. It had 230,000 miles on it and ran perfectly.

Rust is the big enemy of vehicles in New England and Cherokees rust with the best of them. By the summer of '08 my Cherokee Briarwood had 285,000 miles on it and was still running strong, but it was apparent that it was not going to pass the Massachusetts safety inspection because of all the rust. It was time to give it up.

I wanted another Cherokee, but they are getting harder to find. Jeep stopped making them earlier this decade and all the ones I looked at were either priced more then I wanted to pay for a winter beater or were in no better shape then the one I was getting rid of. I decided to look for something else.

Even though they broke winter beater rules 2, 3 and 4, I wanted some kind of Land Rover. I looked at a few classic Range Rovers. They all had serious rust around the rear window, and, for the most part were over-priced. I looked at a number of Discoverys. They, too, were overpriced and the few that I saw in my price range were obviously not well maintained.

I decided to go back to looking for a Jeep. I expanded my search to include the Jeep Grand Cherokee. Once again, I looked at every poorly maintained, over-priced piece of crap on the market. I was getting frustrated and coming close to selling my beloved BMW and buying an AWD Audi Avant. -- Which, according to most of my family and friends, would have shown some sort of uncharacteristic automotive common sense on my part. A new automotive maturity. I didn't succumb, though -- I looked at a few Audis, but decided to keep the BMW and continue my search for a Jeep. After looking at a few more awful vehicles, I saw a 1995 Grand Cherokee listed on Craigslist about a mile from where I used to live and where my son and his mom still live. It was dirt cheap, $750.00, and I was going up there to see my kid that day anyway, so I decided to call on it. The Jeep was still available - it had only been listed for about 15 minutes when I called - and I set out, not too optimistically, to check it out.

I was amazed at what I found. The owner was honest in his description on the phone. I test drove it and gave the guy the full asking price. I didn't want to lose this one.

So here's what I got for my $750.00 - A 1995 Jeep Grand Cherokee with 196,000 miles on it (Give or take - Lately the speedometer has taken a few short naps while I'm driving. Other times it will show me doing 100MPH - sometimes while I'm in a parking lot or stopped at a red light. - I guess I could change the speedometer head, but it doesn't do it very often and it's kind of amusing when it does) It has a V8 that runs strong and burns no oil. The transmission has some weird shift points, but a bottle of Lucas transmission goo has made it much better. The A/C has no charge (not a big deal in the winter) and the front end seems to be missing almost every bushing (I knew that when I bought it and will have to deal with it soon). It starts and runs everyday. It hasn't snowed yet, but I see no reason why it won't go through as much of the white stuff as mother nature throws at me.

So that's it. I'm now the proud owner of a new winter beater.

I still want a Land Rover, but maybe that's what I'll get when it's time to sell the BMW. That's not too practical, right?

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