In 1991, I bought a 1975 Chevy Nova four door for $75. It had a 262 cubic inch V8, a rear defogger, power steering, manual brakes, a two barrel carburetor, vinyl seats and an automatic transmission. I put in a battery to get it home, an exhaust system when I got it home, plus the tie rods, center link, idler arm, radiator, body mounts, valve cover gaskets, and a used carburetor before the front subframe finally broke in half in front of Lansing City Hall. I was forced to sell this for a ride home. I saved the radiator and the battery and sold these to a family friend. $300 was spent in parts and hours of my time trying to fix this wreck that lasted me six months. The gas tank still leaked and the tailpipe kept falling out of my makeshift exhaust system, threatening to inundate my bloodstream with carbon monoxide. It would be the last car I would have my name on the title for two years, but this is a different story.
Admittedly, $75 was nothing for a car back then. Anything that started and ran was going for a minimum of $500. Even with that, you were going to have major mechanical problems. Back then, you could get by with used parts and save a ton of money if you were so mechanically inclined. Electrical systems, engines, transmissions, fuel systems and the like were fairly simple. Electronic engine, body controls and OBD 2 systems were a nightmare that hadn't arrived yet. Electronic fuel injection and front wheel drive were also on primarily later model cars post 1980.
Today, OBD 2 is 20 years old as of this writing. This means more complexity and a lot more cars with the check engine light on. There is also multiplexing of wiring, as well as electronic controls for every system and subsystem on a vehicle. Body styles, save the 1996 to 2016 GM vans, change nearly every two or three years. This also adds cost, complexity and makes used parts availability a bit tougher. While vehicle quality and reliability have improved significantly since the 1970's (it had nowhere to go but up, believe me), costs and mileage have also gone up significantly. A car that starts and runs is going to be over $1200 and it's going to have rust. It will also need some work mechanically. What's more is that these cars are going to be over 15 years old, and will have over 200,000 miles on the clock with a few exceptions.
The other issue was in 2009, the Cash For Clunkers program took a significant amount of used cars off the road. While it was a great deal for those buying new cars, it also cut down on a lot of then late model used vehicles. This is keeping prices for models of this vintage stubbornly high. I looked at a 1998 Ford Expedition with 145,000 miles that had been sitting nearly a year for $3300. The tires were nearly bald and the owner admitted the battery was also flat from sitting. The blue book value on this was $1750 from a dealer in good condition. This one had rocker rust and was probably going to need some other work for sitting there. From my experience, brakes are usually the first things to quit when a car or truck sits for more than a few months. I also looked at a 2003 Chevy Astro (van) that the owner posted for $500 and it looked great from Facebook, but the engine was locked up. A look at the dipstick confirmed this as there were flakes of metal in the oil from the Babbitt on the bearings. While I could have freed this, the fact is that I don't have a proper lift and this would be done in a trailer park with no garage. A new engine for this about $1500, plus my time.
Finding a suitable beater is going to be harder than this writer imagined, but giving up is not an option, Maranatha!