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On summer afternoons, we would park the battered '81 Buick Skylark
between home plate and the poison-ivy patch. It was the ideal backstop, and it came with air, cruise control, even a decent stereo. For a while, the kids complained about the unglued ceiling, which draped low, making the car feel like the inside of a tent. That was easily fixed with a staple gun. And when it came to vacations, this Buick was perfect. If it broke down, we would simply junk it and rent another. No headaches with Cape Cod mechanics. We owned a disposable car.

The bottom-fishers of America's car market appreciate the tremendous freedom that comes with driving a junker. You buy the cheapest liability insurance and forget about scratches and nicks. Even locking the car is optional. Transportation, it seems, is almost free--until the day the junker starts coughing a little more than usual. That's when the neighbors, struggling with their car payments, finally get their chance to laugh. And that's when America's economy drivers face the grim question: When to junk the junker?

SUNBIRD. First, some numbers. Unlike those smirking neighbors, with their $22,000 Ford Tauruses or $35,000 Saabs, you don't have much money stuck in your car. I paid $1,500 for that Skylark, for instance, and replaced it with a $2,000 Toyota. New cars depreciate more than that the moment they roll off the lot.

Still, junker owners, for all their investment wisdom, face dilemmas. Say the mechanic calls with news that the $2,000 Pontiac Sunbird you bought two years ago needs a new transmission, which will run $1,500. In this case, breathe deeply and try to forget the words ''resale value.'' You should never plow money into a junker with hopes of selling it. Simply think of the car in terms of transportation years. You've already gotten two years at $1,000 per, plus maintenance. ''If, by putting $1,500 into it, you get another two years, it might be worth it,'' says Jack Gillis, author of The Used Car Book ($12.95, HarperPerennial).

Of course, you don't want to junk the car two years from now with a gold-plated transmission. What you're looking for is something that will work for a couple of years and then, for all you care, fall apart with the rest of the car. Therefore, consider used parts. And see if you can find a mechanic who works off hours, at cut rates, as a ''sider.''

And when do you finally junk the junker? Tough call. With the improved quality of cars, mechanics say, you can toss out lots of the old rules about mileage. Plenty of cars now make it well past 100,000, and it's not just Volvos. The time to sell, which varies from car to car, is after you start getting nickeled and dimed to death--but before the car dies. Once stuck with a dead auto, you might be pressed to make a quick buy. This can quickly lead to another limping or dead wreck. Worse, dead cars are a tough sell: The number of eager buyers with tow trucks is discouragingly low.

The trick is to keep an eye out for a replacement while your junker is still purring. Spread the word to a trusted mechanic and friends. This is the soft buy approach. If it works, you skirt the expense and intrusion of doing business through the classifieds. And if you're lucky, you can use the same informal network to sell the car you're replacing. How do you price your car? It's hardly rocket science: Simply ask for what you paid, and go down from there. Don't fret much over numbers. They're small.

If the soft style doesn't work, ratchet it up: Work the bulletin boards at churches, community centers, and local colleges. Consider putting a ''For Sale'' sign in your beater's back window. One painless way to sell a car is to offer your mechanic a piece of the take and have him sell it for you. I gave my mechanic $150 for unloading a 1984 Toyota Tercel for $1,300. No one can sell a car better than the person who knows it inside out.

DROPSY. Sometimes, of course, even the canniest junkmeisters wait too long. One sad day, my rusting Skylark took to napping. Three times it shut down with a dying whir and coasted, with stiff, powerless steering, until I coaxed it back into action. This dropsy spelled the end of Cape Cod barbecues for the Buick.

When it comes to selling a snoozy, oil-dripping, ceiling-stapled rust bucket, my advice is to forget it. If you can drive your old clunker to a junkyard, they might pay you $200 or $300 for it. But an easier solution is to give it away. A host of charities accept old cars as donations. The National Kidney Foundation (800 488-CARS) even dispatches tow trucks and provides a form stating the appraised value of the donation. You can use this for a tax write-off. Sometimes, that's even handier than a solid backstop.

Steve Baker


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Updated June 15, 1997 by bwwebmaster
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