I start every day the same way: with a search of all the main car sales platforms for cars under $2000. This cheap car search has been a ritual since the late ’90s, when the internet was new and one “surfed” on something called an EarthLink. I went to the “Computer Lab” (that’s right, a lab for computering) daily on campus when I was a hopelessly broke college student; I was searching for cars the only cars I knew I could buy: cheap broken ones.
Unsurprisingly, those bargain-basement cars (like pretty much all cheap cars) were all in need of replacement parts. Sourcing those parts (also on the cheap) taught me valuable lessons about what works, what doesn’t, where to spend, and where to save.
And so, here’s a little background on my journey of discovery and how I learned which parts for which cars get the job done, and which parts (and cars) will ruin your life.
How A Decades-long, Bottom-Of-The-Barrel-Car Obsession Begins
Back to the Computer Lab. I’d sit there, literally every day, with headphones on listening to such Mark Tucker-approved masterpieces as The Golden Age on CD until my AA batteries went dry, searching and learning about everything I could in the deep, dark, bottom end of the used-car market. I had an average of about $60-$160 to my name (maximum) back then, so any car I could afford was almost certainly destined for the junkyard, and the seller was merely hoping to do better that the pittance they’d make by junking the heap.
You’re probably thinking my 200-bucks-or-so budget was tragically low. You are correct. But my junkyard-worker friends from that era (the best kind of friends to have in a bar fight; they’re crafty and resourceful) regularly told me of cars the yard purchased for $50, then got the $50 back when they charged the seller to tow it off their property, so the car was essentially given away for free – some folks just “want that shit gone!”
I could not believe there were cars out there, albeit worst-condition examples, that people wanted out of their yards so badly that I might score one for nothing, or close to it. I absolutely needed to get in on this action! This was an integral part of my car-culture Backyard Auto Rescue origin story, as I recognized there needed to be a better outcome for these cars (the savable ones, at least). I was attracted to reducing the waste and impact on the environment that junked cars create, and there was money to be made. And cool cars to acquire, yes. That too.
I jumped in headfirst and continued my wrenching education on cheap, broken cars I could afford. Was I an ASE-Certified mechanic or a Top Wrench in any fashion? Hells no, son. But I could wrench (within reason) better than the Average Bear (Boo-Boo notwithstanding), and I learned to use cheap, attainable parts to get the job done out of broke-ass necessity. If certain cars could only be fixed via expensive parts, well then those were the cars that didn’t get rescued by this guy [points to self] and are now serving as an I-beam somewhere in some warehouse.
Back then around 1998, here in The Cape Fear many locals were running out of time and options, and were offered by the local junkyards such a terribly low sum for their busted-up non-runners. Many accepted such an unfortunate ending for their cars — $50 back then is just $94.41 today.
Heck, I was one of those folks! When the Midnight Regatta Blue ’85 V8 Cougar I had purchased was found to have a crankcase full of sawdust, I was a broke-ass college dude with not a lot of options and no place to store or to do heavy wrenching on a broken car. I think I was given $150 for the car minus a $50 tow, so the car was gone for a hundred bucks. I believe the only reason that I was given that much for it was due to the modular nature of the Fox platform; its parts were easy to resell to folks looking for bits for other Fords of the era.
Fun, Way-Too-Early Side Note: Minimum Wage in ’98 was $5.15/hr, and yes, it took me an entire hour of folding t-shirts of bands I couldn’t stand at Hot Topic to get enough money to buy some greasy rice and fatty, fried chicken at the Asian food place in the Food Court of Wilmington’s Independence Mall. Everyone needs a college job; that was one of mine. Every dollar from your labors represents an amount of your finite time on this planet; minimum wage dollars more-so.
Broken, cheap cars need parts. And when you’re working with the absolute bottom-of-the-barrel, you need ’em cheap. This is where the foundations of the main tenets of “Gossin’s Gold: Graveyard Garbage & Grievance” comes from; when parts and repairs get too pricey, cars get crushed. Being able to identify parts that can ruin your cheap car pursuits can serve as a priceless skill in the waters that slosh around at the bottom of the used car barrel.
Expensive Parts: Lessons Were Learned.
Expensive parts are wicked scary! They can bring insurmountable financial barriers to the table, spelling the end of your relationship with a certain car.
I experienced this with the $1900 Mercedes SL500 I rescued a while back. Yes, getting the suspension modified to ride on coilovers wasn’t too pricey, but I had this bad feeling that something else was going to happen to the vehicle — something that would greatly drain my bank account; so I quickly sold it. After all, the previous owner was quoted $8,000.00 by the local Mercedes dealer to have the ABC suspension replaced. That was why I got the car so cheaply, and also why I ended up cutting the ABC system out for good ‘ol steel springs. The conductor plate is a known issue on those cars, the AC didn’t work, the top hydraulics had already failed once, and I just couldn’t shake the feeling that holding the car for any extended amount of time would be a rather expensive affair.
I tried getting over my fear of cars of that ilk by helping my best friend get a ’08 Mercedes C300 shortly after the SL500 rescue. I figured that by having this car in my life at an ownership-adjacent arm’s-length, I could increase my comfort level.
She was initially over the moon to have such a nice, newer Mercedes after having recently let her beloved Mazda3 go during COVID. That initial feeling of happiness didn’t last long though, as this cars’ evil ways began to surface soon after she got behind the wheel.
Within the first few months of ownership, the “ESL Module” went bad, which is a part of a security system associated with the ignition cylinder. This module not only affects the ignition switch, but also locks the steering wheel and prevents the transmission from shifting out of “Park,” while also engaging the Security system.
This required a $1,019.24 part and a Mercedes-OEM certified repair facility to flash the Security system with parts shipped in from Germany during COVID. Add in a $130 tow, and an additional $2,037.33 for a transmission valve body that was found to be faulty while in there, diagnostics charges and a $684.80 (!!) ignition switch, and you’ll never see this guy (or Reina) behind the wheel of a Mercedes ever, ever again.
Keep in mind that these repairs were on a 13yr-old, $2500 car that would otherwise be a warehouse I-Beam. There is no other alternative to having either a Mercedes dealer or an independent shop with up-to-date Mercedes software do the repair. Reina even had to provide photo ID and proof-of-ownership before she could get the VIN flashed into the the new parts/security system. The worst part was that I couldn’t do any of the wrenching or diagnostics myself. I felt utterly hopeless while having others do the repairs for me. I do not like feeling un-empowered; it’s not my style.
Look, I know David and Matt are going to remind me here that we’re “pro-car” here in Autopia. And for all intents and measures, I whole-heartedly am exactly that. There’s a big difference between celebrating a cheap $2500 car that’s good to you and and celebrating one that requires potentially life-altering repairs that can only be done at certain subscribing locations. Luckily, David and Jason pay me enough to cover the costs, but for other folk in the same scenario, the way Mercedes designed this setup could be catastrophic for the person who doesn’t have access to a cool $4K at moments’ notice. Depending on the owners’ finances at the time of an ESL-type failure like that, it could potentially scrap the car. I’ll say it again for those in the cheap seats: Expensive parts can kill a cheap car.
Interestingly enough, a video posted recently on a popular YouTube wrenching page on this exact issue (see above). I highly recommend watching this video if you’re interested in getting all pissed off at Mercedes’ dumbassery.
There’s no way in hell Gossin Motors Backyard Shitbox Auto Rescue is going to binge for top-end Mercedes software and scanners in the <$2000 Backyard Rescue game. Those cars can be junked, and I won’t shed a tear; I’ll instead feature them on an upcoming episode of “Gossin’s Gold: Graveyard Garbage & Grievance.” That’s the last time I’ll ever take a chance on a cheap German luxury car as it burned me badly. It was one of the worst cars I’ve ever owned, and you’ve read about the others that are in the “worst!” category.
Completely Not-Fact-based Hot Take Alert: Mercedes cars from the past 25 years are garbage cars that are comprised of expensive garbage parts made under a garbage business model that is designed to separate money from owners’ pockets. I will defer to the multiple non-crashed, junked examples in every edition of “Gossin’s Gold: Graveyard Garbage & Grievance“ as rationale. I said what I meant and I meant what I said. To this day, only ex-girlfriends and Mercedes have taken that much money away from me so abruptly.
Some Famous Expensive Parts
Ok, I’ve cooled down now after getting all worked up by recounting that nightmare. Enough about this old man telling stories from long ago. Let’s now instead walk down The Grand Hallway of Famous Pricey Parts, shall we? The ones that are most famous in car-culture and the ones that you’ve read about on this site or on other, lesser sites. Buckle up and hold onto your wallets, cause these parts hurt.
*Disclaimer: you may be able to find cheaper examples of these parts; we’re just showing random examples from quick internet searches. I don’t have the time to find the cheapest example for sale for each of these parts on the entire internet. If the linked examples for each item have expired or have been sold, just do a fresh Google search yourself and you’ll see the horror.
Cadillac XLR Tail Lights
Price: $1600 -$1900 for OEM. About $$550-$600 Refurbished
Cadillac’s Corvette literally takes the Corvette mantra of cheap, attainable speed and reverses it into something much more expensive and much worse. The tale on the streets is that these are made with an LED strip and are basically really, really hard to fix/service and GM doesn’t make ‘em any more.
Luckily, a few refurbishment outfits have sprouted up recently, as there was money to be made from all the XLR owners who weren’t ready to pay nearly $2 grand per unit for replacements. Also, consider that today’s XLR owner is probably a retired person who is on a budget and is probably not super jazzed about spending $4k on a set of OEM taillights for their 15yr old Cadillac-Vette.
Buick Reatta Windshields
Here’s the link
Reatta’s are great but the world’s supply of windshields for them is running out. It’s easy to celebrate attainable Rad era machines such as these, but the dark side of ownership is always parts availability and pricing. The windshield can cost almost half as much as a middle-of-the-road example. I’ve always wanted a Reatta ever since my godfather Rick Gossin rescued and rebuilt a “Caribbean Blue” example like the one shown in the image for this section.
Many cheap examples have been seen over the years that I could’ve made moves on in the past, yet never did. The urban legend about the windshield always held me back. They are continuously one spidered stone chip away from emptying your checking account.
Unobtainium Jeep Parts
Sometimes I (it’s David Tracy writing this section) have a nightmare. It’s a recurring one. One that strikes fear into the very fibers of my being.
In the nightmare, my Jeep J10 gets into a fender-bender.
I know, I know: “What’s the big deal? It’s just a fender-bender.”
No, it is very much not “just a fender-bender.” You see, my 1985 Jeep J10’s “Muscle Grille” was only manufactured between 1981 and 1987, and while that may sound like a lot of model years, the issue is just how few J-trucks and Cherokees were built during that time. According to the International Full Size Jeep Association, the-trucks sold in volumes of about 4,000 per year and the Cherokees sold at around 6,000 per year. The J-trucks offered Muscle grilles from 1981 to 1988, while the Cherokees only had them between 1981 and 1983.
That’s a total of about 50,000 vehicles built with muscle grilles, if those figures are right. And given SJ-platform Jeeps’ propensity to rot out, it didn’t take long for most of those vehicles to end up smashed in junkyards. (Not to mention, the plastic is brittle, so even SJ Jeeps used as parts vehicles aren’t always useful).
These days, finding a replacement Muscle Grille is borderline impossible. You can find the aluminum grille surround for $500, but the actual grille insert and headlight surrounds are what are borderline unobtainium. You’d be lucky to find a perfect set for $1,500, though with some good networking you can probably find an OK one for a few hundred. But they’re not making these any more, so it becomes harder and harder as time goes on.
I can think of lots of unobtainium “hens’ teeth” Jeep parts. The Jeep Comanche pickup truck’s rear bumper comes to mind. The plastic end-caps alone are $75 each in rough condition on eBay, but the actual steel metal bumper? Forget it. One went up for sale for $585 back in 2019, and got snapped up after forum-users called it “unicorn stuff.” At this point, it’s best to just try to fix your dented OEM bumper than to try to find a replacement, as Comanche Club forumgoer DesertRat1991 writes:
Honestly, bumper prices seem to have hit the tipping point where the labor to restore a used bumper to like-new condition is the same money (or cheaper) as buying NOS.
The economics of waiting YEARS for the opportunity to pay $700 for a bumper don’t really make sense. The bumper below was blasted and straightened for $300. They returned it straight as an arrow. Bare metal, no body filler. It would have been another $100 for powder coat or $200 for chrome (but I’m just gonna prime and rattle can it).
Try talking to the local metal refinishers directly — the guys the bodyshops go to. They have the skilled metal workers and the chrome tanks.
The crazy thing about the Jeep Comanche is that pretty much the only parts unique to it and not shared with the XJ Cherokee are the rear bumper and the rear taillights, and of course, the rear taillights are insanely pricey, too.
Look at that set of factory taillights! $575!
BMW Injectors Aren’t Cheap
This one comes from Thomas Hundal, a dude who has a savant-level of car knowledge bordering Jeopardy-Champion level. I’ve been doing this for a quarter century and this 20+yrs-younger-than me guy runs circles around me. Some are just born with it and he’s got it. Well I asked our walking encyclopedia if he had anything to add to this piece and our Compassionate Canadian Car Constable kindly reminded me that BMW N54 injectors are $3K for a set and that he’s told us that previously.
The Famous Auto Journalist, Not The Car
Not to miss out on a fun expensive parts party, our own Mercedes Streeter (who also is one of the best in the business) chimed in on our Slack conversation on this topic and reminded us that she owns a bus (Detroit Diesel Series 50) and that it contains a turbo that is $3K to replace
’93-’95 Chrysler LeBaron Parking Lamps
My good buddy and Midwestern Man of Mystery, The Bishop was pretty pumped to hear that I was penning a piece on expensive parts, and he was particularly blown away by this next one. Granted, the man owns a Porsche and mostly drives newer German luxury cars but he has excellent taste in the finer side of the hobby which contains gems like my ‘94 LeBaron.
Price: $160-$400 each, used.
Here’s the link.
There was only one of these for sale per a Google Shopping results search on the entire Google-shown internet. These lamps were only made for three model years and history has shown the face that carries them to not be at all as celebrated as the pre-facelift face of the J-Body LeBaron that has flip-up lights. They “craze” in the sun/weather and replacements are not made. Every year, the number of these corner lamps on this Earth gets less.
The big takeaway here is that most of these cars are worth $2500-$4000 in good condition. Spending another potential $800 on top of the purchase price on two plastic corner lamps to get it to pass inspection isn’t the greatest. Only the most die-hard LeBaron fans will want to do this instead of just finding another cool car in that price range.
I have a few spares in a closet in a spare guest bedroom at The Evil Wrenching Lair (underneath that volcano in Wilmington, NC). You are correct in guessing that my ex-girlfriend was not happy about losing closet space to LeBaron parking lights.
1993-2002 Pontiac Trans Am Taillights
Price: $1,000.00 for the pair (and they’re probably also cracked)
Here’s the link
Another one from The Gossin Fleet that sits in that strange No Man’s Land of being too new and undesirable for classic car aftermarket replacements to be made, but also too old for OEM parts to be available. These lamps are made with brittle, cheap-ass GM plastic and it’s hard to find one that isn’t cracked in some fashion or that doesn’t leak moisture onto the bulb sockets and rust them out.
The sad thing is that these GM F-Body cars now exist as either high-dollar clean survivors or as beat-to-shit Joe Dirt examples that will be junked in the short term. Only the fiercest of the Trans Am Believers is going to buy a $3-$4K average-condition Trans Am and be ready to spend 30% of the purchase price of the car on taillights (that will also inevitably crack and leak).
Every day that passes, the number of these tail lights on this planet gets smaller and this price will continue to rise. There just aren’t enough of these cars left on the road to warrant an aftermarket company to start making them.
2004-2008 Chrysler Crossfire Headlights
Here’s the link:
Another example from The Gossin Collection shows how certain parts can cost about ⅓ of the value of the car. You can get a Crossfire for around $3K these days and a set of used headlights will cost you around $1K. This is significant since on the lower, bottom end of the market, cheap cars with expensive parts get junked. Nobody with two cracked/water damaged/yellowed Crossfire headlights on an average-condition car is going to pay a body shop $1500 to replace them with another used pair, when they can just spend twice that on a replacement car.
The Crossfire is an extreme example since it is a product of divorced parents, it was only made for a single generation and has about zero support outside of a very dedicated forum and online community. Keys (for a Security system made by Mercedes that Chrysler dealers do not support), windshield surround pieces, general trim, and even the lettered badging on the decklid go for much more than you’d expect for a car that regularly sells for under $5K. These cars will inevitably become much fewer in number as time goes forward.
Audi A5 Laser Headlight
Price: Up to $4,400.00 each, used (!)
Here’s the link
Expensive cars have expensive parts; that is something we’re all aware of, and it’s nothing new. With luxury cars costing six figures these days, an almost $4,000 headlight assembly costs about 4% of the cost of the car when it was sold. That percentage is going to go up each year as depreciation hits and the value of the car is reduced. There will eventually come a time when putting a $4K headlight into a $7K car is either a passion project or just dumb. (Though eventually maybe these will end up in junkyards, and second-hand headlights could bring prices down).
This Audi’s expensive headlight isn’t nearly as big of a deal as the Buick Reatta’s windshield or the Jeep Comanche’s taillights, because those two cars are relatively cheap. Can you imagine spending $500 on a Comanche and then having to drop $500 just because someone rear-ended you at 10 mph? That’s wack.
Part It Out
A few of you may have recently read this excellent piece from the best (and the only) insurance adjuster in all of Autopia, “Ada.” In that piece Ada states that they “…once wrote a 2020 Land Rover with a front hit where the front-end parts added up to $44,000.” Hot damn! That’s exactly why I see rows of not-that-old Land Rovers at my local Pick & Pull each weekend: expensive parts. It’s also is great material with which to rib everyone’s favorite Weekend Contributor and Autopia’s Greatest Land Rover Fan, Rob Spiteri.
Non-expensive parts made the difference in keeping all of the examples I listed at the beginning of this piece on the road versus the early demise for Ada’s pricey Land Rover. As cars become more and more digitized and software plays an ever-larger role (compared to the propulsion mechanicals), the price of parts will be key to deciding which cars will live long lives and which will have those lives cut short.
This piece just skimmed the surface, I’m sure there are many a card-carrying Autopian out there with a full-throated tale of expensive (or cheap) parts. And to those Autopians we earnestly request that you share those tales in the comments below, as we are all the wiser for sharing such knowledge.
I’m glad that I was able to share my story of the mountain of money I lost on that C300. My hopes are that there is one reader who comes across this SWG piece and decides not to buy that C300 they had their eye upon, until verifying the ESL and transmission conductor plate/valve body have been replaced. In fact, your comment may also save somebody untold hardships, once they become aware of what happens when Parts Get Expensive.
So let’s sit back, relax enjoy a Stanley Tucci Negroni and share/read the comments below about some ridiculously-priced parts. Let’s also celebrate the cheap parts that keep those wrenches spinning and those shitboxes alive, my friends.
88 mph into the future.
All photos by Stephen Walter Gossin unless otherwise noted.