Ran When Wrecked: How to Save a Totaled Car

By Staff Writer
Jun 21, 2018 | Mazda, Subaru | Posted in Features | From the May 2015 issue | Never miss an article

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Story by Norman Garrett • Photos as Credited

Broken cars whisper to me. I’ve owned some 60-odd cars in my life, and fully half of them did not run when I bought them. Of course, most of them were European sports cars from the ’60s and ’70s, so they had died of self-inflicted wounds due to poor build quality, poor materials, poor design, or the like. These cars would call to me from behind garages and under trees in backyards all over the South, and unless they were hopelessly terminal, I would generally answer their cries for help.

The modern era has provided the ultimate enabler in the form of the internet: I have taken to searching eBay and local Craigslists using “projects,” “broken” and “dead” as my search keywords, with great results.

Imagine my joy, given this predilection, when I discovered tens of thousands of broken cars online at various websites dedicated to auctioning off insurance companies’ salvage vehicles. There, from the comfort of my sofa, I could lust for hundreds of special-interest cars and bid on them against other bleary-eyed, like-minded souls.

The addiction returned immediately, and I’m now three years into a bad habit.

These cars, I justify to myself, suffer from externally inflicted wounds and have one leg up on my earlier projects: Every one of these was recently operating and on the road. And not only were they running recently, they were running well enough to achieve some level of speed–enough velocity to get into an accident, at least–so they have a modicum of momentum, mechanically speaking.

Thus many of the salvage wrecks offered for sale fit into the Urgent Care rather than Emergency ICU category. Rust, decay and rigor mortis have not yet attacked their core components, so with a bit of work, many of them can be brought back into service. The best part? They sell cheaply enough to make it make sense.

First, A Word About Insurance

Relax, I’m not going to get all Marlin Perkins on you, but if you want to play this game, you need to understand the rules. Insurance companies will total a car when the repair costs exceed 50 to 60 percent of the current value of that car. According to my experience, that pre-accident value gets rated near the Kelley Blue Book “very good” value by the adjuster. When the cost to repair it reaches a pre-determined percentage of this value, the car is totaled and sold for salvage.

This means that the higher a car’s pre-accident value, the more work you are signing up for to repair it. Put another way, it takes a whole lot more damage to total a 2010 model car than a 2000 model, or a more expensive brand instead of a less expensive one. So if you really want to rebuild that wrecked five-year-old Porsche, realize that the repair bill needs to have been estimated at tens of thousands of dollars.

Contrast this against what it takes to total a 1999 Miata. If the car is worth just $3000, then a mere $1200 worth of damage will deem it as totaled.

Let’s talk about “acceptable levels of damage” from a practical standpoint. That $1200 in damage to the Miata could represent one air bag and a front bumper cover, or it could be a smashed-in door panel. The average reader of GRM could handle these repairs fairly easily.

My absolute favorite is when one or both air bags are set off by a borderline front-end crash, but the front bumper appears undamaged. This is a pretty typical failure, as an 8 mph impact into a stopped car will often trigger the airbags.

Now, air bags are very expensive for a shop to fix–think “liability” and “lawyers” and “all new parts” and you’ll get it. However, at least in my home state of North Carolina, you don’t need to have working air bags to register or operate your own car–my kind of place. (This is not true in all states, so check your local requirements before you get ahead of yourself.) Of course, if you’re building a track car or race car, then things can be even simpler since you’d be removing the air bags anyway.

Another favorite find is a car with a lightly dented rear quarter panel. In today’s modern world of unibody cars, the exterior panels are often structural, so no insurance company wants to take on the liability of just putting some body filler into a rear fender dent and calling it good. If a repaired car gets into a subsequent wreck, it has to crush just like a new one, and that means a new panel has to be welded in. This is so costly on most cars that they get totaled when they may still be structurally sound–for example, when only the outer sheet metal is damaged and the actual crush zones and/or stress beams in the floorpan are unaffected.

Insurance companies are very risk-averse and also have very strong profit margins (count the number of expensive television ads some evening), so why should they chance a bodgy repair? They’d rather write off the car than take on any more risk.

Insurance companies also have to repair cars to a cosmetic standard. Loading up a paint gun and shooting a base-coat/clear-coat color on a panel involves hundreds or thousands of dollars. However, if you have some body filler and some paint skills of your own (or if you can spell Maaco), you can save lots of money and get an acceptable finish for a driver-quality car.

In my older years, I have become much less interested in “perfect” and am more attuned to “performance.” Not only do I get a lot more track time in my life when I don’t obsess with having a concours car, I have found that my perfectly painted cars are no faster around the track than my 20-footers.

I’ve taught myself to paint with an Eastwood HVLP system, have practiced my panel-beating and filler-skimming skills, and have even created some acceptable welds along the way. If you select the correct car and wisely scrounge for parts, you can bring it back to life. The key is to get a car that is not too far gone–more about that later.

So, at the great risk of creating more competition for myself in the online auction game, I’d like to share some lessons learned from my experiences in buying salvaged cars online. Here are nine steps to guide you along this addictive path:

1. Carefully Choose Your Provider

There are a number of different insurance auction sites that you can search; Copart (copart.com) and IAA (iaai.com) are two of the largest and most active.

You will need to register at the site and put down a deposit, typically 10 percent of the maximum amount you want to be able to bid. The site will hold this money and apply it to any bids that you win, though it is refundable if you don’t find anything to bid on. Copart does not charge a registration fee, while IAA charges $200 (non-refundable) to register as a public buyer.

I have used Copart for a handful of purchases with good success, and I like their system because they allow you to search pretty specifically. They also have many, many locations around the country–I have eight to choose from within a four-hour drive from my home in Charlotte. IAA has a similar amount of locations and an equally good search engine, with the added benefit of showing transmission type in their listings.

The fees each company charges are basically the same, so making a choice comes down to how convenient is it to bid online and actually get the car to your house so you can work on it. In addition to wrecked vehicles, these sites also sell cars that have been totaled for flood damage, vandalism or poor previous repairs (rejected by the customer), and often list vehicles of the “dead car in the backyard” variety that have been donated to charities.

2. Search for “No License Required”

You can search for cars that you can bid on as a private citizen, but even if you are not a licensed dealer, you can pay a broker (typically a few hundred dollars) to use their license to get a car for you.

I have found the selection of public-sale cars to be pretty good, but a gem hiding in the license-required section can make it worth the extra fees. The professional shops lurking in these waters are looking for either parts donors, or for cars they can fix and flip. In both cases they are limited as to how much they can pay for a car and still make money.

We, however, are most likely looking to keep a car and will do a lot of the repair work ourselves, so we can justify paying a bit more. This means we can win some auctions against the pros.

3. Look for “Pure Sale” vs. “On Approval” Vehicles

I am usually watching multiple cars at multiple locations at once–and I am impatient–so I need to know right away if I’ve won or lost an auction. Bidding on a car “On Approval” means that a representative from the insurance company must approve your offer; if they don’t like your bid, you may lose the sale even if you won the bidding process. I generally only bid on “Pure Sale” items so my post-auction transactions don’t enter this purgatory.

4. Search for “Runs and Drives”

Most insurance auction sites allow you to search for these important criteria. If a car runs and drives, a lot of the risk is removed, particularly if you can’t inspect it first, since having a running engine means that it probably won’t need driveline repairs.

Understand, however, that this does not necessarily mean you can drive it home from the lot. Selecting this filter is merely a time-saver, not a guarantee, since you could probably learn about as much from looking at the pictures and seeing if the damage appears to have affected any mechanical components. After all, the car was running when it was wrecked.

It is important to note that some transporters will not ship a car that does not run. So if you don’t plan on getting it yourself, it may be difficult and/or expensive to get a dead car delivered to your door. Keep that in mind.

5. Study the Photos

I have inspected many cars on-site prior to bidding on them, but I have also bought some at auction sight unseen. My luck has ranged from fair to excellent in this regard (see the sidebars for actual examples).

When the photos are all you have to go on, understand that these are dangerous waters for an optimistic enthusiast such as myself. It pays to be very realistic about what you are looking at.

Begin your photo study with an overview of the general damage. Move on if it’s too extensive–like the roof is flattened down, or one whole side of the car is creamed. Front bumpers and even headlights can be easily replaced if the underlying structures are not too damaged. Lightly damaged rear quarter panels often can be pulled out and set right without cutting and welding.

Rear hatches can be replaced, but you need to be careful about damage to the metal that holds the weather-stripping underneath. If it’s mangled, this can be a bear to repair. (Also remember that your passengers will be more annoyed than you are by any wind noise that lingers after a bad repair. Trust me on this.)

Look closely at any door damage; if the sills still look good, you might be looking at just a simple parts swap, since doors are pretty easy to source and re-hang on a car. Front fenders are also inexpensive and easy to replace. True story: You can buy a brand-new front fender for a Ford Mustang for like $75.

Front grilles, fenders and hoods are easy to bolt on if the underlying structure is not too torn-up. I’ve had good luck using a come-along and a tree to pull back hood and truck latch mounts to get them back into alignment. (Yes, I can be a redneck when needed.)

We could spend pages discussing what is fixable and what is not, but this really comes down to your experience and skill levels, your resources, and your ability to learn on the job. In some cases, I have subcontracted small parts of a job to a professional body shop–as when I need a pro (and his machine) to check and fix a frame or do some welding–just to get me past the hard stuff. Then I’ll do the rest of the work at home.

Again, my standard of work is to create a functional vehicle that is presentable. If you are a concours type of customer, rebuilding a wreck may not be for you. Perfection costs money. Once I’ve determined that the body damage is acceptable, then I look to see if it is a manual- or automatic-transmission car. If you have nothing else to go by, you’ll have to discern this from photos of the interior.

I look at all the photos and try to get a general feel of the car’s condition prior to the accident. Was the car kept clean? Are the tires good? Are the wheels clean? This will tell you if the owner was above average or an abusive slob.

Stains on the seats and junky carpets are giveaways that a car was ridden hard and put away wet most of its life–not what I’m looking for. Copart shows a close-up photo of each car’s speedometer, and I look for trash/food/dog hairs/junk at the base of the clear speedometer cover. Cleanliness in this area often reflects a well-tended car. (Look closely at your own and see if you pass the test.)

I have physically visited numerous lots to inspect these types of vehicles and I can tell you that even though the companies generally clean the cars up a bit, a lot of people are slobs. Or, perhaps more accurately, a lot of people who get their cars totaled are slobs.

Some cars smell so bad that you would not want them, so look for signs that the owner was at least a member of the human race. If you can’t stand a car that’s been smoked in, examine the photos for stains on the headliner and around the ashtray.

A photo of the underhood area can reveal a lot, too. What color is the brake fluid? Clear and clean in both the brake and clutch master cylinder show me a car that is well cared for. If the car has an OE-brand battery, I rejoice–this usually shows the owner was going to the dealer for all the services and may have followed all the maintenance schedules.

I inspect the bolts that secure the top of the shocks or struts, too. Rust here can reveal a car that lived its life in the dreaded salt belt or near a large body of salt water.

If the car has front-end damage, look at the radiator core support. Did the damage go all the way into the structure of the car, or was it limited to the front bumper?

If the car you are eyeing is at a remote location, keep in mind that there are local inspectors you can hire for $50 to $100. The auction websites list links to these sorts of services. Going this route can take a lot of the risk out of the equation.

6. Set Your Price

Don’t fall in love with a car that will need too much work. I realize that all of us are in recovery when it comes to buying cars we shouldn’t, but do be very careful about your total budget.

Do go for it, within limits, if you find exactly the car you’ve always wanted–color, options, etc.–and the damage is not too severe. There is no such thing as a used car factory, so getting a model that exactly fits your list of requirements might be worth more to you.

Be aware that when the pre-bidding starts to climb out of your comfort zone, you will probably use a couple of justifications to cloud your judgment. Mine are “Nothing has to be invented here, it’s just work replacing parts until it’s fixed” and “Hey, this car’s going to be less work than that kit car I wanted to get.”

The best strategy is to avoid attending the live auctions online. Live auctions can be exciting to the point of being stressful, and I prefer to set my limit objectively, so I put in my maximum bid and then go about my business. If I get an email after the auction that says I’ve won, it’s a great surprise.

The key for me is to keep the emotion out of it. On my second auction I was outbid on the car I wanted for my daughter; then I wrongly chased another guy up the bidding tree on a lesser car, just to get something out of the auction.

I ended up spending about $500 too much for a car I would have not considered before the auction. This is why auctions work and make money for the house–emotions can cloud your judgment and cause to you to overbid, 50 bucks at a time.

Finally, don’t overlook fees when you’re setting a target price. Every auction house charges for the right to win a bid on a car; fees are similar for both Copart and IAA. These include a charge for bidding online (about $50) and one for getting the car moved from the lot to the front of the building for you to pick it up (around $30).

Also, note that percentage-wise, fees are higher on lower-dollar cars. Figure about $250 for a $500 car, but only about $400 on a $2000 hammer price.

7. Make Sure You Can Title It

Getting your salvage vehicle titled and registered can be ever so simple–or nearly impossible. Know your state’s laws: In my home state of North Carolina, you can register a car with a North Carolina Salvage Title instantly once you’ve won your auction, and be legal that day, no inspections are required.

Registering a car in North Carolina that has a title from another state requires the vehicle to be examined by a state inspector. This involves playing phone tag with the two or so people per county who are paid to do inspections, setting an appointment, and getting them to fill out a form that says your car can be made road-worthy again.

Other states may require you to tow your car to an inspection station, show the before and after photos, and/or pay a fee to get clearance to put the car back on the road again. Check with your state’s requirements, as the burden can be quite onerous. In many cases you will have to have your ducks in a row and pay fees that you need to anticipate.

Be aware that some states (Florida, for example) issue a Certificate of Destruction for any salvage vehicle that they deem irretrievably damaged. It appears to be impossible to legally obtain a title for a car with this sort of black mark on its history, so a donor vehicle with a clear title would have to be found and used as the chassis for a complete swap-over of the usable parts.

Again, this may not be an issue if your purchase is going to be a track-only or race car that you will not be registering for street use.

8. Get It Home

Once you win your auction, you will have around three days to pay (which can be done online with a credit card, in the case of Copart) and then pick up your car. If you don’t get your car within five business days after you win the auction, a $20 per day fee is charged to your account.

These companies are only open on weekdays (and take holidays), so you have to work out getting to the lot before 5 p.m. on a weekday to pick up your car, or else arrange to have it towed for you.

One nice feature that most auction houses offer is the option of paying your winning bid at any of their locations in the country, then having a friend (that you designate) pick up your car along with the paperwork at another location. That gives you some flexibility in getting the car home.

I have found this works well because A, friends usually love to help you buy something new–it’s not their money, after all–and B, misery loves company, so they can commiserate if it all goes to heck in a handbasket once you’ve actually seen the car.

I have been lucky enough to drive some of my winning bids off the lot and all the way home without incident, but others needed to be towed. I expected it in those cases and accounted for the towing fees in my target bid.

If you’ve won a car that fits in the Runs and Drives category, ask them to drive the car out to you. Otherwise, it will be unceremoniously delivered by a forklift doing who-knows-what to your undercarriage. Remember, to most customers these are parts cars, and they are treated accordingly.

9. Fix It

At Georgia Tech we have many sayings, including this one: “An engineer can do for a dollar what any dang fool could do for 20.”

So think like an engineer and be strategic with your repairs. Discover which parts were affected by the accident. Fix the structural components first to make sure the suspension is well supported. Then fix the suspension, which generally takes a hit in a wreck.

Make sure the wheels didn’t suffer damage during the collision. Go through the brakes, and make sure the drivetrain is not damaged.

Get all of this done before you tackle the bodywork. Don’t forget to change all the fluids (every one of them) for a fresh start. This is an anonymous car and you got it inexpensively, so don’t be stingy.

Generally speaking, it costs less to replace a part than repair it. If you search correctly–your local pick-and-pull, eBay, Craigslist and so on–you might even luck into the correct part in the correct color. Another great source for used parts is Car-Part.com, an excellent network of wrecking yards.

If you find yourself in over your head with a particular task, farm it out. Since you are a reader of GRM, I bet you can get the car running and drivable so you can put it back on the road. The final touches to make it pretty can be sub-contracted to a body shop, but I’d encourage you to do the work yourself.

Most skills can be mastered with a little practice, or at least learned to a level that will let you create a presentable result. If you want to do the paint yourself, get the equipment and go to your local automotive paint store for advice–these folks have always been a wealth of knowledge for my projects. Ask a lot of questions. And remember, the good thing about paint is that you can always sand it off and try again.

Buying a totaled car can be a great way to start a project. Just keep in mind that if you find yourself bidding against a guy from North Carolina for a first-generation Miata, back off. That will be me.

CASE STUDY: 1991 Mazda Miata

This was my first purchase at Copart. It had a hardtop and looked clean enough with only 87,000 miles. The right door and rear quarter panel were dented, but the door sill and rocker panel were perfect, so I knew the structure was okay.

I won the bid at $1200, which with fees cost me $1530 out the door. I figured the hardtop was worth $800, so I was stoked.

My dad drove me to the Raleigh Copart; they jump-started the car and brought it out to us. I knifed away the blown driver’s airbag, determined that the engine oil was clean enough, and drove it 60 miles home with the top down. Much to my delight, in the trunk I found the original top boot cover plus the rare tonneau cover that we spec’d for the NA Miata. It even came with a full tank of gas.

Three weeks later I had changed all the fluids, hung a donor car’s passenger door and hit the dented area with some flat-black primer. I then drove it to Speedfest at the Classic Motorsports Mitty and parked it among the other Miatas.

I later finished the bodywork with a Harbor Freight stud welder dent repair kit and some body filler. For paint, I broke out my Eastwood HVLP system. A few hours of color sanding later, and it was a very presentable 20-foot car.

This car has been my daily driver ever since. The odometer now shows 162,000 miles, and I’ve driven it in anger at nearly a dozen track days. It remains bone-stock aside from the old Nardi steering wheel and Miata Club shift knob that I had laying around, but it’s quite quick, too. I’m still using the battery that came with the car when I bought it. Like a random hole-in-one for a golfer, this car got me hooked on salvage car auctions.

CASE STUDY: 1992 and 1995 Mazda Miatas

When my third son, who is in engineering school, intimated that he would like to get a Miata, I needed no more encouragement. I immediately started lurking at Copart and IAA for a suitable sub-$1500 candidate. You can find a $1500 Miata on Craigslist just about anywhere, but those cars have generally lived pretty tough lives. I was hoping for something a bit nicer for my money.

I found a red 1992 Miata A package at the Savannah Copart. It had 123,000 miles, a Hard Dog roll bar, an aftermarket exhaust header, and yellow paint on the calipers. These were, at first, warning signs. But the body looked very straight–only the rear bumper showed visible damage–and the low miles won me over. I bid up to $1000 on the car but unfortunately lost the auction, so I moved on to hunt other candidates.

A few weeks later, to my surprise, this same red ’92 reappeared on the Savannah Copart sales list–something must have fallen through with the first sale. I put in a maximum bid of $1200 this time around and was rewarded with a win.

I sent my son down to Savannah with his brother and a tow vehicle. I also sent them with a box of goodies to put the Miata on the road on the odd chance that it would be drivable. My son jumped-started the Miata, checked the fluids, and then proceeded to drive it home. (Okay, we are all cock-eyed optimists in my family).

The engine is tight, the soft top looks great, and all the bumper needs is a new coat of paint and some mounting clips. The previous owner had also installed racing pads and slotted rotors plus performance dampers. Total landed cost is less than $1500.

As for the other car, I pushed my luck too far on this one. When I received the notice that I had won the auction for the red ’92 Miata, I had a momentary lapse of judgment. Here’s how my brain works: “Well, my sons are going to take a tow vehicle down to Savannah anyway, so they could just as easily pick up two cars.”

So I quickly looked at the list of Copart cars I was tracking and was reminded of the super-clean 1995 Laguna Blue Miata that was on Savannah’s sales list. I have a weakness for ’95 Miatas–the best year for my sensibilities thanks to the bigger engine and brakes, chassis braces, Torsen diff option, and pre-OBDII engine management.

The current bid at that time was only $500, and this car only had one slight dent on the front-left fender. It also had a clean engine bay and the Torsen, so I was convincing myself that I needed this car. Sure, it had 288,000 miles, but how bad could it be? As the red haze clouded my vision, I bid $525 on the car, immediately hoping that someone would outbid me and save me from my foolishness.

Unfortunately, I won the auction at $525. Adding insult to injury, in my blindness I had ignored one major problem with the car: It did not have a key. I hung my tail between my legs, took a vacation day from the lab, and drove 300 miles to get my prize.

I had consigned myself to part it out. Selling the aluminum hood, doors and Torsen would recoup my money, and I could chalk it up to experience. I had visited my local Mazda dealer and, using the paperwork from Copart to prove the car was mine, had a key made for the car. (This was super easy, as it turns out.)

However, when I saw the car in person, I fell in love with it. This car had been in a garage most of its life. It was very clean inside and out. It also had the original top, great paint and a spare tire with its vinyl cover. Other than that dent, not a mark on it. The camshaft lobes looked new, and I couldn’t see any oil leaks.

Optimistically, I put the new key into the ignition, hooked up the jumper cables, and gave it a crank. Despite some complaining from the 6-month-old E10 gas in the fuel rail, it fired up. That’s when I discovered that the catalytic convertor had been cut off by some hoodlum.

Turns out that the theft of the catalytic converter helped total out the car. Due to the high mileage, its value was seen at only $1750. The replacement catalytic converter would have eaten up more than half that figure. I had the Copart lot man forklift the Miata onto my tow dolly and brought her home.

Like the proverbial cat lady, I guess I’ll always have room for one more Miata. I am going to get her back on the road and see just how she does. I figure this survivor deserves one more chance at life. Plus, I have some great 15-inch alloys and a spare supercharger lying around here somewhere.

CASE STUDY: 2001 Subaru Outback

Having been a Subaru engineer prior to working at Mazda, I have a weakness for white Subie wagons with five-speed transmissions–our test prototypes had this spec, and I’m sentimental about them.

I have always wanted to find one, but never could justify the cost. So I had to bid on this car when I saw it listed at Copart, even though it had been smeared all the way down its side. The front fender, both doors, and rear quarter panel were all affected. No matter, in my mind it still had potential.

I won it easily for $550, $815 out the door. When I went to pick it up, I was dismayed. Although the Subie was listed as a Runs and Drives car, I discovered that it would not start, and that the steering column cover was torn off with wires dangling underneath.

I went to the Copart office to complain, and the general manager came out to discuss it with me. I was polite in the description of my discovery, and he offered to rescind the sale, which I thought was very fair of him.

A nearby Copart technician heard our conversation and said he could help. It turns out that the car had one of those “buy here, pay here” disabling devices wired into the ignition circuit so the lender could disable the car if the customer stopped making payments. The lot owner had come to Copart to retrieve their little disabling box, and had trashed the wiring harness in the process of extracting his property. The technician climbed up under the dash, connected up some wires and, voila, the Subie started right up.

Once he attempting to drive the car off, however, the Copart techie discovered that the right-side control arms were fractured, both front and rear. Runs: Yes. Drives: Not so much.

I was about to ask for a second cancellation of my obligation, but that little man in my head who loves to restore sad cars spoke up and made me order a flatbed to tow the car to my garage. The immobile car was dropped at my doorstep for $155, and after two control arms, one CV axle, one alloy wheel, some fresh body filler and paint, we now have a “50-foot” five-speed Subaru Outback that has run for two years with very little trouble. It’s even still on the tires it came with.

Total cost to put in on the road was around $700, so we created a great driver for under $1500. And the five-speed makes it is a blast to drive.

CASE STUDY: 1999 Mazda Protegé ES

This is a good one: One of my sons was driving his 1994 GMC Jimmy one day, and the automatic transmission started to slip. Mileage at the time was 147,000, and I had been dreading that day since I knew it would total this car in the eyes of the Garrett family motor pool. (I hate paying to rebuild auto trannies–simply loathe it.)

This was a Wednesday morning, and I was going to have to find my son transportation–quickly. I immediately went to the Copart website and looked at the sales list for that day’s auction at a nearby lot. I looked quickly for a Pure Sale, Runs and Drives, No License Required Mazda, Toyota or Nissan, since I was searching for an inexpensive beater he could drive while he earned money for a real car. I also liked the challenge of finding it quickly.

I found a gem: a 1999 Mazda Protegé ES with 15-inch alloys, a dented rear passenger door and 195,000 miles. It was also red, which in my high school-aged son’s eyes made it a high-performance version.

I immediately bid a maximum of $750 and waited for the auction to happen. When I came back from lunch, I was pleased to discover an email from Copart informing me that I had won the Protegé for $500.

The next day I arranged to borrow a trailer from a racing friend, drove to the facility, and watched with great pleasure as they drove out my “new” car. It was an automatic (sorry, son), but was also relatively presentable; I spotted some peeling clearcoat on the trunk and some smelly remnants from the previous owner inside, but overall not a bad little car. I towed it 45 miles to my son’s place and dropped it off.

I finished up the deal by calling the local metal recycler and getting $350 for the Jimmy. In the span of 40 hours, I had delivered a running replacement car to my son for a net cost of less than $400. That car is still on the road today, albeit somewhat worse for the wear, with a total cost per mile of under $0.16 including the cost of the car, insurance, fuel and all repairs to date.

Find your next project through Copart.

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View comments on the GRM forums
hotchocolate Reader
6/21/18 9:39 p.m.

Great article! I just tried my hand at auctions this week. I missed it by $50. (128i with sport package). This has given me great insight going forward. Thank you for sharing your experience. 

6/22/18 4:42 a.m.

This was a great article. I am going to be using some of this for a non profit organization coming along.

Tom Suddard
Tom Suddard GRM+ Memberand Digital Experience Director
6/22/18 1:18 p.m.

Love this article!

6/22/18 1:52 p.m.

I purchased a 1987 Porsche 924S with 46K miles for $900 as a totaled insurance car.  The car suffered a fuel line leak in the rubber pressure hose going to the injector rail, and the underhood wiring harness, rubber bits, and a spot on the hood were damaged.  I had to replace the bits that burned and repaint the hood - that's it.  I also replaced the front seats with matching power seats from a later 944 just for effect, although it was not needed.

In the end I got a car that was pretty nice.  The photo is from the 70th Birthday of Porsche last week at the dealership in Orlando.  There is a complete writeup on the project at https://924s944.com/2016/07/12/insurance-company-junk/


frenchyd SuperDork
6/22/18 2:45 p.m.

In reply to Tom Suddard : I’d like to blame you guys for the hours I’ve spent on Co-part and IAA  sites finding pieces of my next race car.  

I’d like to but the truth is I’ve enjoyed the process.  


ckosacranoid SuperDork
6/26/18 1:01 p.m.

damn you for giving me ideas for this. I might have to really start looking on their for the next few rides. i know I think when I read this last time I singed up for copoart....damn you guys for ruining my life when it comes to cars. I can not look at super cars or other high end stuff with out thinking about beating them challenge style.

frenchyd SuperDork
6/26/18 9:03 p.m.

Regardless of the color in the photograph  I’m surprised at how few seem to share my excitement over the chance to buy cars fresh from the wrecking yards.  

I spend far too much time  on those sites selecting, calculating, deciding, occasionally bidding. 

Looking for a particular model but often distracted and dreaming of others.  

I look not just for a car but parts for a car.  If I can buy that one I’ll take the brakes and supercharger off it and still be able to scrap it, or maybe sell the remains to the guy who specializes in that brand.  

Or maybe combine two cars into one whole car?  Take that flood car and that wrecked car use the wiring and soft good from the wreck and the body and other pieces from the flood car to come up with a really cool whole car

hotchocolate Reader
10/6/18 9:29 p.m.

So this happened.  First vehicle i have purchased without an inspection or test drive. 1997 LS400. I bid 275 and forgot about it. I ended up winning. With fees and registration it came to about 675. Not sure what I am going to do with it since i wasnt expecting to win--but I digress. It has 212K miles and moves under its own power. It needs a front fender some brake and exhaust work and a hunting idle issue fixed (iacv?). Timing belt is also due.  Heat works and AC seems to work. Interior is about a 5/10 and it has some rust on the rear wheel arches. Thanks to you all I checked another thing off my car related list. Obligatory craigslist style picture attached. 

AnthonyGS Reader
10/8/18 2:39 a.m.

If I ever go LS1 swap this seems like the best way to get a donor.  Yes it’s a lot of work but you would have all wiring, accessories etc.  

I’ve also dreamed of a hemi charger hellcamino project too using the smyth kit and donor challenger with manual trans.   A 375-707 ish hp 6 speed hellcamino would be a blast.  I bet with airbags in the rear you could tow and move things making it useful too.

dculberson UltimaDork
10/8/18 9:29 a.m.

In reply to hotchocolate :

Dude, enjoy a pimpin' ride, and when it needs more than you're willing to spend on it, you can make good money parting it out.

dean1484 GRM+ Memberand MegaDork
10/8/18 10:00 a.m.

I deleted my three posts re the photoshopped photo. After reading them they really did not add any content to this thread. 

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