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Finnish Line – Adventures in Beaterland Part 1

Brace yourselves. The Shakespearean shakesbeater quips are coming.

Some time ago, I decided I had 1500 euros of car funds at my disposal. It was a weird decision, as I already have two cars parked on my street and a third one would be completely unnecessary. So, I needed to come up with a few reasons. One: I hate driving the little Mazda in wintertime as it freezes and rusts and jitters, despite handbrake turns in snow being brilliant fun. Two: I hate driving the large Mitsubishi in wintertime as it freezes and rusts and leaks fluids, despite the ride being top class. There, third automotive purchase justified. I also figured out I could SORN at least one of them, so I could save on insurance and other on-the-road costs; not having to deal with freezing frameless windows and creeping road salt inflicted rust would just be a bonus. The best for the Mitsubishi is that I wrap it up and tuck it into a garage or shed somewhere affordable and transfer my no-claims bonuses onto whatever I happen to buy.

In this uncharacteristically wordy two-part article, I hit the classified ads and actually attempt to buy something to while away the winter months.

But, what about the cars available for the aforementioned sum of money? At first, there was the issue of getting to know a good Saab. I had tried to get comfortable with a 9000 earlier, but somehow was left cold by them. With the first turbo example I tried (Italian import), it was the tendency to overheat; with the latter, the sun-wrecked leather interior due to the car being USDM (pictured above). Even earlier, I had spent time in an old-generation 900, but that one was automatic and finished in a dreadful period blood color that had no place in my possession.

So, the Saab 900NG it was; a German import in green, it had sat on the dealer forecourt for over six months. The first time I came a-knocking, it didn’t start. Bad battery, water in fuel, whatever the reason was. Second time around it was brought to life for me, and I found myself surprised by being entertained by the idea. Sure, there wasn’t that much power and the handling was best described as staid, but the package felt attractive. A solid body, a well-designed cabin; the only problems were a loose dashboard under trim piece that kept catching on my clutch foot, and the price tag that at 2600 was pretty much one grand over what I was willing to pay. And with 220k on the clock, the 1996 car could never fetch anything close to that when it would be time to part ways. Something’s rotten in the state of Saab.

The second car? A Citroen of all things, a Xantia to be exact. A Xantia Turbo Activa to be perfectly clear; with a two-litre turbo four, the car also had the trick active suspension to cancel out body roll. With a black leather interior, it looked fetching in the photos; with a 1800eur price tag it was not unattainable. I drove down to Vasa to check it out, but was saddened to find rust creeping inside its rear flanks, only now breaking the surface. The car had been imported from Sweden, and while that is not exactly synonymical with rust, the Xantia had trapped mud inside it as it’s wanton to. This, in time, means business for bodywork professionals. And as the car wasn’t as perfect as it looked in the photos, I was eager to let it go.

The third car was quite a bit closer. A 2000 model Alfa Romeo 156, it had no price tag affixed as it was a private seller with no rush to sell the car. I arranged to go check the car out; the Alfa turned out to be dirty around the edges and with stuff here and there in the cabin, as the seller hadn’t had time to freshen the car up. Issues that arose were peeling wheel arch paint, which didn’t reveal any rust, and stone-chipped rocker panel paint that did. The sills would have to be sandblasted and resprayed, which adds a couple hundred to the purchase price, so the price had to be assigned and haggled. The guy wanted 2k for the car, but I offered him 1500; a price that later on was countered by a 1650 eur offer.

What about the engine? 1.8 litres of 16-valve goodness, a perky Alfa Romeo Twin Spark unit that was coaxed by a five-speed stick; no Selespeed here. Some enthusiast web forum sherlocking turned up an ignition coil modification by the seller, to enable twin-spark trickery for some placebo low-rev grunt. Whatever the modification does or doesn’t do, it may either clog the cat later on or ruin the emissions at inspection time; I sure hope it would be easily reverted. The suspension on the Alfa Romeo had been upgraded, with a mixed-bag set of fresh lowering springs front and rear. I was fine with the improved suspension, as the car looked a lot meaner having been brought some 30mm closer to the ground, and with its seven-hole alloy wheels suiting it well. But were I get the car, it would definitely need a lick of paint here and there and some dashboard illumination repaired.

A run of the car’s history data revealed two lease owners at first, a long-term owner for five years and later a few short-term ones; the seller had had the car for six months and had replaced the starter, the battery and the rear springs and treated the underbody with oil. Inspection would be valid until summer, the winter tires bearable studless ones. Cambelt had been done in 2010, so it would last another year; 227k on the clock isn’t too attractive but brings the price down – without being a total dealkiller. I was firm with my offer, and 1500 would give me the car most likely, when the seller would find himself a replacement car. Alfa Romeo, where art thou Alfa Romeo?

Car number four? A BMW. Excellent. A BMW E34. Wonderful. A BMW E34 518i. *audible groans from the audience* But soft! What light through yonder window breaks? It is the service book, and three owners as its sun. The 230k km BMW is originally a Lapland car, where they do not salt the roads. The last owner since 2003 has been an elderly lady some way up north from where I live. The engine isn’t the troublesome M40 with a 40 000 km cam belt interval, but the improved M43 with a cam chain and a bit more power (115 horses to be exact. Yeah, you can probably name them.) In white good white, with cloth interior, the car has zero equipment and no grunt, but the attractiveness stems from the applianceness. Lower insurance, less stuff to break, what’s not to love? Judging from the photos, the car looked solid but had a set of super heavy duty Tammer-Suoja Samantha seat covers; this meant the state of the seats could not be seen from the pics – unless one were to deduct the seat covers were in place to cover a split under the driver’s derriere.

The mega jackpot of the BMW, as well as the small number of previous owners, was that it had valid inspection until the end of November 2013. That’s right, I could hoon all winter long with it, do a trip to Central Europe and *still* have valid inspection left to help me sell the car to someone else. That’s a big bonus. The minuses? Some rust starting to creep on the rockers and wheel arches, but nothing more that the Alfa would need done. Also, some bushings were in dire need to be replaced, but as a dynamic driver I’m not a demanding one, those could stay where they are at least at first. The seller had brought the price down to 1800 from way over 2000, and probably would bring it down even more if it meant getting rid of the car; the lady wouldn’t need it any more and a BMW does cost you something even when it’s not doing anything. There was also the tempting possibility to drive it south and sell it directly to a friend in need of an RWD winter machine to substitute his Renaultsport Megane Cup for the freezing months.

So, here’s the juice. The bone, to speak of. Will my winterbeater be a quick, darty, maniacal, fragile, FWD Alfa Romeo that could use a better history book and a little less modifications? Or would it be a totally straight, strict, no-funny-business but RWD BMW that would justify itself to my doorstep? It was time to pick up my co-driver and partner in crime from the train station and drive deeper into the middle of North Ostrobothnian heartland to go see the BMW…

[To Be Concluded]

  • Number_Six

    RWD donuts > FWD handbrake turns. Problem solved.

  • skitter

    Alfa vs. BMW? This is Redusernab. Buy the Citroen.

    /Activa!Activa!Activa!

    • Jay

      Seconded!

    • McQueen

      No buy the Crown Vic 😉

    • facelvega

      That Xantia is too beat to make sense even to a hoon. The Alfa would be fun and nearly as unreliable, while the BMW would be sensible and would help get the total number of unnecessary cars in the household up beautifully. So the only conclusion I see is, surely this isn't the only CItroen for sale in Finland?

  • MVEilenstein

    Isn't there a Top Gear episode about this?

    • McQueen

      Ha I just laughed , read Skitter comment and replied , scanned down and there you where

  • aastrovan

    As always I advise ditch the foreign crap and find a Ford.

    • McQueen

      Read Skitters comment , scanned down , and found another man of thinking

    • TurboBrick

      He could do very well by ditching all the foreign crap and buying a domestically assembled Lada Euro-Samara. Those wouldn't be expensive either and when the temps drop to -40 it will start just fine in the morning.

      • aastrovan

        looking back,and seeing as Antti is in Finland,I guess the Ford is foreign crap.

    • Euro101

      Fool. This is Finland. Detroit ford is foreign crap

  • Van_Sarockin

    All that to seemingly be partial to a fine but gutless 5 series? Which will get eaten by the road salt. The SAAB should be fine, unless the perceived lack of performance relates to a turbo problem. Imported from Italy and it shows an overheating issue in Finland? Something's rotten in Denmark. And to contemplate flogging an Alfa though the snows? Likely quite entertaining. And foolish. Alfa it is!

    In the US, winter beaters tend to be rusted out old pickup trucks, maybe with four wheel drive – so you can get stuck where it's truly inconvenient. Or you get a big old US sedan, with a big soft h velour interior that's like a comfy old blanket. In both cases your hoony thrills come from the ease of exceeding traction and permissible slip angles.

    • McQueen

      Oh contarair my friend , license plates work quiet well as shovels when needed

  • TurboBrick

    BMW is the safest bet. Easy resale is a big bonus, there's ALWAYS some idiot that wants a cheap Baader Meinhoff Wagen.

    The Citroen might be the biggest surprise of the bunch. Kind of a high-risk high-reward proposition, and resale will be tricky. Forget the Alfa, italian cars make french cars seem like great winter beaters.

    Write-in candidate: Mitsubishi L200 NA diesel pick up truck.

  • Dean Bigglesworth

    The obvious answer is 240 or 740. Even the slower ones have plenty of power for winter, and nice ones can be had for 1500EUR. If not then difinitely the BMW. Nothing beats a cheap, modestly powered simple RWD car for wintertime fun.

    • mr. mzs zsm msz esq

      I have no idea why, but 740s are just unbelievably great cars in the snow contrary to what you would expect just looking at facts. I think it's cause they are heavy and balanced enough. I just got S90 for the price Antti is considering (beer and cash) with improved front suspension over the first 960s and independent rear suspension with LSD. I drove a 960 before in the winter and it was much worse than the 740, would just plow and want to get loose all the time. I am very eagerly awaiting the snow to see what Dale the S90 will do.

      But really this is Antti here, he really just needs to buy that CX. That or sell one car and get a good Amazon. Those are fun in the snow too. Start every time and the heater melts your feet.

      <img src="; width="400">

      • I don't suppose it could have anything to do with being built in a place where driving in the snow is an annual necessity? I've been driving bricks for most of the last 21 years, including a number of years in northern Vermont, and with a good set of snow tires & some trunk ballast, went places that many people would be hesitant to go without 4wd (and that's without the G80 LSD that some of the 940s received).

        ETA – I love that pic, and would encourage you to post it at every possible opportunity. In hi-res, if possible!

        • mr. mzs zsm msz esq

          I found the photos on computer last night, but they ARE very big. can email it if yo like. You should be able to send a private message from here: … Or just send an email to the tips email line here if you don't want to post your email address publicly.

          I agree, they must have made them good for the winter in many ways, it's just when you naively look at a big heavy RWD car with a live axle and no lsd – it just doesn't make sense how it could be so very good in the snow. My thoughts are that it was so well balanced front to rear, the engine had good even grunt at slow speeds, and it was heavy enough so that it forced the tires down well.

      • Is that a Missouri plate? Is your Amazon one of us?

        • mr. mzs zsm msz esq

          Nope IL plates, trust me you'd know before we moved if we did! Also that reminds me, I am sort of feeling like a phoney. The tags are about to expire and IL just started something new this year. A limited-use/AV plate. It's half price. I get to use it like a regular car seven months out of the year, the rest as antique vehicle. There are no mileage restrictions or anything like that. What do you think? I already got the collector car insurance too.

          • Depends. Do they specify which seven months it's a regular car or is that up to you?

            • mr. mzs zsm msz esq

              April-Oct I get to drive as I like: …

              That's about what I drive anyway, but I love that occasional snowy drive, so maybe I lose two weeks with two really fun drives a year.

              • I Missouri, antique registration doesn't mean you can't drive it, just limited to 1000 miles/year and no commuting. If IL provisions are similar, you could still get a snowy drive in.

                • mr. mzs zsm msz esq

                  Here it's only drive to/from show, parade, or shop. I guess I could say I was seeing if my carb rebuild went well and had to balance them or something like that if I got stopped. It's also I'm on here all the time telling people to get an old car and drive it, and well I'm not allowed to for half the year anymore. Seems like I'm a fraud then.

  • Jeep Cherokee

    • Vairship

      Unimog

  • TheOtherMacLeod

    On the other hand.. I just found a e30 BMW 325ix for 1400 euros in South London.. The lady is beautiful in red and, having owned a sedan version of the same car over here, I can just about guarantee a great bit of fun in the snow. AND it's an e30 WAGON!!

    • E30 longroof FTMFW!

    • Liar! There can be only one MacLeod!

  • mallthus

    I suggest you keep looking. A Saab is the way to go. Preferably an ex-police example.

    That or something insane, like a USDM Chrysler (of the sort you seem to find with frightening regularity despite being in Finland).

    • Perc

      Unlike GM and Ford Chrysler doesn't have a European model range, so they have to try to flog their USDM cars instead.

  • lilpoindexter

    The e34 is the most beautiful BMW EVER!!! but a 4 cylinder in that car???? We never got that in the USA, thankfully. GET THE ALFA !!!!! GET THE ALFA!!!!

  • RetroBox

    E34! E34! I want one. Still.

  • David Walker in NZ

    E34 or Xantia or 156 or 900. You are in Finland, not the US. Buy the BM and spend the 1000 euro that you'll save in maintenance on beer. Win.

  • owl

    As a Citroeniste please dont buy the Xantia. Buy a Xantia by all means, but not an Activa. They are collectors cars now not beaters. It will beat you, believe me, when the electrics get damp and cold in them. Dont buy the Alfa either. Just dont. My 2000 W 156 2 litre was hopeless in the snow and lacked damping even from new. You will ground it on those fine gravel roads of Finland and that will crack the sump. I know I've bin there, dun that…As for BMWs – the most hopeless car in winter weather you can imagine even if it is a sweet E34.

    Look on young man, there must be something decent for sale in all Finland…?

  • Manic_King

    E34 and a bag of sand for additional weight in trunk. Alfa looks a bit risky even if it did OK in TM's winter test years ago (You should think about winter properties, too). But yeah 156 is one of the better looking cars…….so beware of Alfaism, that devilish desire which can strike suddenly.

    • TurboBrick

      Italian car + winter reminds me a of a certain Fiat Tipo DGT from many years ago. The doors would freeze shut and fuel consumption doubled in the cold.

      • double fuel consumption = double power output, amirite? (so, like, 50 or something)

  • Xehpuk

    Finally a post relevant to my experiences! I've owned a BMW e30, driven friends' e34s many many times and owned a Xantia. I now drive an Alfa 156.
    All three are excellent winter cars. Heaters are wonderful in all of them, but surprisingly in Citroen > Alfa > BMW order. -40 degrees is no problem at all. They will all start every time in any temp if your battery is ok and you're using 0W or 5W oil. Install a remote central locking system if there isn't one already.
    Alfa has the best traction due to its excellent suspension (at least the V6 model goes through deeper snow than a FWD Nissan Qashqai), but turns into a 2-door car in winter time, since the fragile rear door handles can snap if not handles extra carefully.
    Citroen has the trick suspension to help you in deep snow but handbrake uses front wheels.
    BMW being RWD may be the most fun but 518i doesn't propably have a LSD, so you'll get stuck a lot. E34 rear suspension is sophisticated enough not to be scary and the car is easily controlled.

  • I daily drive an '86 9000 Turbo, it's one of the earliest ones in the USA (12/85 build date) so it has cloth interior and no sunroof. I prefer it that way, the interior doesn't look like beef jerky and isn't water damaged. You never see ones this early anymore as they all rusted away (mine's a California car which is why it's rust free), even the later ones are getting thin on the ground.

    Have you considered a 9-5? You can pick them up pretty cheap and they're decent cars if you find one that doesn't have sludge issues. A friend of mine recently got a clean '02 wagon for $2500 USD. I assume prices are comparable in Finland.

    My wife daily drives an '01 9-5 Aero wagon (manual) and we love it.

    • Perc

      You aren't going to find a running 9-5 anywhere close to 2500. For reasons not quite clear to me, they still command high prices. Demand for the later ones (2009-2010ish) is now higher than ever since the company folded.

      • Where are you located?

      • Van_Sarockin

        I could buy older 9-5s all day long for $2,500. They'll be a bit rough, with some rust, roughed up paint, some failing electrics, maybe a chronic problem, or it may look like a dog went beserk inside. But there's plenty of them to pick and choose amongst. Especially automatic equipped sedans. Hardly driven last year models seem to be priced at about fifty percent of list, which is a substantial drop from when the company hadn't quite folded. I haven't noticed any sudden rush to vacuum up those last SAABs. It looks more like people have fled from considering them, since there will no longer be any dealer support and future parts availability is questionable and interrupted.

      • Paul E

        Ditto that, Perc-where are you? I have an '01 Aero 5-speed I'm trying to sell. One owner (me), a metric buttload of miles (all mine) but with records and receipts…

  • Synchromesh

    What amazes me is how picky the buyer is for 1500. In good old USA for $1500 you will get a complete beater most of the time. And you'll be very lucky if it moves under its own power and brakes too. It will most likely be quite rusty here in Northeast and a paint job will require way more than "a few licks of paint". Not to mention a bunch of maintenance and various parts and pieces.

  • Ol'Shel'

    Buy the BMW and part it out.

    Take the money and buy something much better.

  • wunno sev

    why ya bein' picky about rust on what's going to be a beater? it's gonna rust anyway. in fact, the reason you're buying it is so that the cars you care about don't rust. if you get something that isn't rusty, you're just gonna have one more car that you don't want to drive in the winter.

    just buy a piece of shit and junk it when it rusts away after a few years. that's what a winter beater is for, right? you don't have to love it – to the contrary, you don't want to love it.

    • mr. mzs zsm msz esq

      I have family in Norway and asked them when I was there how come the cars looked to be in such better shape there than in IL where I live. It might be the same in Finland. My uncle laughed and said I should see what they drive up north. But in the coastal lower latitudes the police are pretty annoying. They can stop a car if they think it looks unsafe and that gets to be a big pain in the butt. Also there is a regular inspection that is very thorough. The other thing is it is pretty expensive to have a car. Like when you buy one, big tax. Then to get it in your name and yearly fees to the gov. So people get cars in good shape and try as best they can to keep them that way cause it can become an expensive PITA otherwise if you live in a relatively populated place.

      • This is true – and I really really can't stand rust on a car. It'll always be a point for me if it has as little rust as possible.

  • Tazio

    there are really some clueless persons about Alfas winter capabilities, it was winner on Swedish Teknikens Värld winter test back in 1998! beating Saab, Volvo etc.

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