The Most Minimalist Car?

Not that it’s a competition, but…

I spent last week writing about how much money I’ve lost over the years by buying vehicles I don’t need. (I still haven’t sold my truck yet!) So over the past year and a half I’ve been really looking into what we really need in our vehicles. At a bare minimum: Four wheels, a steering wheel, brakes, an engine big enough to move the car at a reasonable speed, no unnecessary seats or cargo space… and that’s pretty much it.

It’s hard to get that in any new-ish car. Most cars come standard with power windows, air conditioning, a stereo, and a bunch of other features that are secondary to getting you where you need to go. These types of cars are great; don’t get me wrong. But can we do a little better? Can we get a little more minimal?

To me, all of these little features are things that will eventually break and are hard to work on yourself. I like working on cars, so if I’m given the option I’ll drive a car without air conditioning versus paying hundreds of dollars later on to fix something that doesn’t directly contribute to me getting to my destination and that, in some cases, is impossible for me to fix myself.

My solution to this problem hasn’t been to get a new car, or a slightly used car, but a VERY used car. Old enough to not have air conditioning, power steering, or even fuel injectors. It gets about 30 mpg which is reasonable, and it’s very easy to work on. It’s an old Volkswagen Beetle.

I know, I know, this approach probably isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. Not everyone wants to cover themselves in grease every weekend with the almost constant tinkering a classic car requires. But bear with me for a minute! Buying a classic car financially makes at least some sense. In most states, registration is a fraction of what a regular car costs. Classic car insurance (in some situations) is less as well. Depreciation on your asset has already happened, so you can generally sell a classic car for at least how much you paid for it, regardless of how long you own it. And “classic” generally only means “old”, so a 80s Toyota is just as much of a classic, legally, as a 69 Camaro. If you only need it to get around town and aren’t taking crazy long road trips, it might be viable!

For me, at least, I’ve found the Beetle to be a great vehicle. It’s easy to work on, it doesn’t have power steering or power windows or locks or air conditioning. It doesn’t have any luxury or frills of any sort. I’ve found that these are all things that can break, and the fewer options a car has, the less likely it’ll be in the shop. The car doesn’t have fuel injection either (it’s easier to work on carburetors) and therefore doesn’t need an ECU (computers are found in 100% of modern cars in the US, and are prone to failure… something that is not user serviceable). This car doesn’t even have a radiator! It’s so simple!

Also, the Beetle turns heads. It’s great fun to drive.

My classic Beetle aside, researching modern “minimalist” cars was actually pretty difficult. There was this great take on how to make your current car minimalist, but in general it doesn’t seem like there’s a whole lot of clamoring for small, simple, and cheap cars. I’d probably point my finger at our consumer culture which demands more features, more buttons, and more space… all at the expense of mileage. An article at autoblog.com had this great quote in it:

 “People say, ‘I only want basic transportation, I want the price to be low, and I want good gas mileage.'” said Brunner, who did market research for the smart car, “But then you ask them what they are going to buy, and it’s not that kind of car.”

Our culture proves my point. Sit in a 90s Honda Civic and you’ll be shoulder-to-shoulder with your passenger. Sit in a brand new Civic and 90s you will think you’re in a Cadillac. Sit in a brand new Cadillac and… well, you get my point.

While the autoblog.com article mentions the Volkswagen as a minimilist vehicle, and another great article called The 10 Greatest Minimalist Cars of All Time features the Volkswagen Thing (mechanically identical to the Beetle) as one of the best, what we truly need now is a return to this style of car. Four wheels, brakes, and a steering wheel. Although today’s emissions and safety probably won’t allow for something quite as spartan as an old Beetle, it’d be great to use it as inspiration.

Photo: One of the 60s ads for the Volkswagen Beetle. Along with the famous “lemon” ad, these changed the automotive and advertising landscape for quite some time. 

My Most Expensive Weakness

I have a problem. I’ve spent way too much money on cars. When I first started my adventure into living a more minimalist lifestyle I knew this would probably be a big hurdle for me. I’m an engineer, and I like getting my hands dirty working on cars on the side. I don’t want to give this up entirely, but I’ve taken some steps to make sure that I’m living the most efficient, simplest life I can without completely eliminating my cathartic hobby.

First, some background:

My first car was perfect. It was old when I got it, no AC, no power anything, a very basic car. Then I decided I’d buy a motorcycle. I had always wanted one, and I was 21 at the time, so I bought a 250cc sport bike that was cheap for a motorcycle. I crashed it (through no fault of my own) and used the insurance money to pay off some of my student loans (great idea!) and to buy myself a bright red sports car (horrible idea!). I was a college student with two cars. And a speeding ticket. How did this make any sense?

I crashed the sports car. That one WAS my fault. I was out about $2000 from that, and ended up getting a truck. Still had that old car, though, but I towed it to my first real job in Tennessee with the new (well, new to me) truck. My commute in Tennessee was 45 minutes, one way. Mistake. Then I decided I’d buy another sports car, and also keep both my truck and my old car. I got bored of the sports car and sold it, at a loss of about $2500. Later on I found a motorcycle on craigslist for $700 that I thought would be a fun project, but right after I bought it I moved to Florida and sold it and about broke even.

When I got to Florida I sold my old car for $500 to a mechanic. I was sad to see it go but I was realizing that it was time to let it go gracefully. The mechanic took great care of it and I like to imagine it’s still on the road. But then I got dumber and decided to buy ANOTHER sports car. I got bored of that one and sold it for a loss of about $3000. By that time I just had my truck, which after spending a bunch of money on upgrades over the years was boasting a respectable 16 mpg.

At about this time I started thinking about what the perfect vehicle would be. I used to work on old Volkswagens with some of my friends, and they are truly great cars (more later). So I found a ’72 Beetle on craigslist for pretty cheap and bought it, and it’s probably the best car I’ve ever owned.

But the Beetle isn’t the greatest daily driver for me (I drive about 50 miles a day to get to my office which is in the middle of nowhere), so I bought a motorcycle. This is also a great vehicle, it gets about 50 mpg and I got it used at a great price. If I can take care of some of the underlying issues with the Beetle (water leaks, etc) then it might be a pretty respectable daily driver, and I could sell my motorcycle.

But I still have that truck. It just doesn’t fit my life anymore. Not to mention the fact that when I bought my house, it came with an antique motorcycle, and now I have four vehicles. None of us is perfect, but this is clearly not minimalist!

I was justifying keeping the truck because of all the home repairs I had been doing lately, but justifications only last for so long before you realize that you’re just fooling yourself. My truck is now up on craigslist, and I plan on using the money I get from it to buy an index fund (more on that later). I’ve probably spent $12,000 on the truck, including oil changes and repairs (and adding a huge steel bumper and winch which I’ve never really used), and in the end I’ll probably only get about $3,000 for it. It used to be fun to take offroading in the mountains in South Carolina and Tennessee, but there aren’t mountainous trails like that around here in South Florida.

I’ve owned it for six years though, and $1500/year isn’t too bad for all the adventure I’ve had in it… until you consider that I’ve put about 100,000 miles on a vehicle that only gets 16 mpg. Then if you count the ~$8k I lost on other cars, I’d love to have all of that money back, but it’s sunk now. We can only move forward, so selling it is the right decision, even if I’m a little late to the game.

I’m trying to balance the enjoyment I get from working on cars and motorcycles with my minimalist lifestyle. I’m going to keep the Beetle; it’s quite possibly the most perfect car ever made. It’s a very simple car, and I was also inspired by another blog post about turning a small car into a big one, so I’m going to make it work for me.

I’m going to keep the motorcycle too, unless my job moves to a closer location. I’d like to live closer to work, but it’s physically impossible to live any closer than about 20 miles from this office. Since I drive about 250 miles a week, it makes sense to have a simple vehicle for commuiting that gets 50+ mpg. (Filling up costs me about $7. It’s awesome!)

And, about the antique motorcycle: It came with the house, so I didn’t spend any money on it. It has a surfboard rack, so I can get to the beach (which has notoriously difficult parking for cars) and park in subtle places very easily. In Florida, you don’t necessisarily have to have insurance on motorcycles, so the motorcycle is free for me to operate (except about $15/year for classic motorcycle registration). I’m guessing it gets a respectable 30 mpg too, but I can’t tell right now because the speedometer (and trip counter) don’t work. I can sell it for probably $1500, so why not? I like working on motorcycles too!

So that’s my plan. Selling the truck will save me over $1000 a year, and that’s money I can put into my house or to paying down my student loan. I have two other simple vehicles that I have fun working on, that work for the lifestyle I have, and that are crazy cheap to own and operate. I think I’m doing better! And I also have to remind myself not to fall for the sunk cost fallacy, and also that it’s not too late to stop wasting money on vehicles. I just hope no potential buyers are reading this blog.

Photo: My 1972 Volkswagen Super Beetle, using the surf rack to carry a ladder. My truck had been in the shop for four months, and this was taken during that time.