I Barely Broke Even Flipping This Derelict Ford Fiesta
On paper, the Fiesta looked ripe to make a killing. In practice, it flopped.
When I applied to work here at Car Bibles, I sold my skills hard in the cover letter. “Oh yeah, I’ve flipped more than 35 cars and only lost money twice,” I said as I tap danced and backflipped, in an effort to win a paying job bringing you the content of me royally fucking up. I don’t know whether the blog-o-sphere is cursed or what, but my recent cars have not been great, even though they were solid on paper. I did manage to make a profit on this Ford Fiesta, but it wasn’t easy.
Flush with cash and ready to bring you content, I found a 2011 Ford Fiesta for sale about a week after I bought an eighth-gen Honda Civic named Miss Dent. Maybe a bit overconfident, if not cocky, I figured that the 2006 Honda’s problems were fairly minor, and it would be fun to manage two cars at once again. This went against one of my basic rules. I typically don’t touch small late-model Ford cars, mostly because the resale value isn’t great, and they tend to have major failures. The Focus and Fiesta were saddled with that class-action-lawsuit-worthy dual-clutch automatic. Those units are horrible to drive, break often, and typically cost more than the value of the vehicle to repair.
But this one was different. It was a manual transmission, it only had 119,000 miles on it, and it was fully loaded. It was complete with SYNC, leather, heated seats, a sunroof, and more. The owner said it spent most of its life in Arizona, so there was minimal rust, which is a huge selling point for an Ohio car.
One catch, it needed an engine.
Why the Fiesta Blew Up in the First Place
The Fiesta’s automatic transmission is a known point of failure, but the rest of the car, aside from Microsoft Sync, isn’t very mechanically complex. The naturally aspirated 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine is an older design, part of Ford’s Zetec lineup that debuted way back in the early 1990s. The Fiesta has variable valve timing and variable camshaft timing, but overall it’s not exactly the cutting edge of mechanical design. A motor replacement was anywhere from $400 to 600 for a gently used 1.6-liter replacement engine. In my head, the math was mathin’, and the Fiesta looked like a quick, easy, and profitable flip.
According to the previous owner, the Fiesta’s stretch-to-fit serpentine belt broke, somehow slipped under the timing cover, got tangled in the camshafts, and caused the motor to ruin its timing. It’s all reminiscent of that time I accidentally vacuumed up a pair of my mom’s pantyhose and broke a Kenmore vacuum. The Fiesta’s engine is an interference design, and the resulting piston and valve collision left nasty gouges in all the pistons and bent most of the valves, so the cylinder head was ruined.
Initially, the previous owner had the idea to rebuild the engine himself. He had already taken half the engine apart but quickly ran into time constrictions and COVID-related supply problems. No local shop could rebuild the head on the Fiesta for months, and the owner needed reliable transportation to get to work and get his kids to school. Out of options, he sold the car to me for $1000. In person, the Fiesta was mostly blemish-free, but I could see that it needed two tires and a windshield in addition to a motor replacement. Still, the math looked good, so I jumped at the chance to buy the car.
From what I could see, the initial cost outline looked something like this:
- Purchase price: $1000
- Labor: $650
- Engine: $500
- Tires: $150
- Windshield: $200
Total Investment: About $2500.
Kelley Blue Book (KBB) said the car was worth at least $4400 in “very good” condition, but I know that local folks tend to run out of steam above 4K, no matter the car. I didn’t think a stick-shift Ford Fiesta would garner more than $4250, which was my goal, and I had plenty of wiggle room.
There’s kind of an unwritten rule in car enthusiast circles: Never buy someone else’s project. The Fiesta was in pieces, the head was off, and most of the motor was disassembled. The previous owner said the car was complete (it wasn’t), and most pertinently, my mechanic didn’t quite know where everything went. Disassembling a complete car is reverse of assembly, but how do you assemble what’s already been assembled?
Eventually, my mechanic got the car together, but not without some gentle social media ribbing.
While the motor was out, my mechanic took a gander at the clutch. “This thing looks a bit worn, man,” he texted me moments after he dropped the engine out. Eh, a new clutch would be a great selling point, and he wasn’t going to charge me much additional labor since the engine was already out of the car. Why not?
After the clutch was installed and the motor was running, I met the mechanic at his shop for its maiden test drive. I put the Fiesta in reverse, and the car moved backward. I turned the wheel and heard a clunk clunk clunk, an omen of the problems to come. I immediately knew what it was.
Back in the day, working as a lot porter in a Chevy dealership’s service department, I drove many a Cobalt or Malibu with this loud clunking. It always traced back to one thing: the intermediate steering shaft, a common failure on early Ford Fiestas, I learned. To make things even worse, the check engine light was on for both knock sensors, and a wheel speed sensor had gone kaput. I hemmed and hawed, but these were all unignorable problems that needed repairs. Whatever, I still had plenty of wiggle room.
A week later, the Fiesta’s passenger side CV axle destroyed itself, and popping and clunking in the suspension turned out to be a driver’s side lower control arm and suspension end links. Those jobs were easy. Replacing the lower control arm, CV axle, and end links took me the better part of an afternoon.
In an ideal world, this would’ve been the end of it, and the Fiesta would have been good to go.
I Got Distracted and Forgot About the Fiesta
I’m new to this disposable income thing, and during the summer of 2021, I went a bit nuts. I bought a lot of crap and did a lot of crap, too. The Fiesta was purchased about two weeks after Miss Dent, but I made sure the Accord and Daewoo were repaired first. Then, I prepped the Abarth for its track debut. The Honda Civic took longer to sell and repair than I thought it would, which ate up most of my August. Then, in September, I took a series of small trips to Pittsburgh, Denver, Cleveland, and a few other places. Finally, October and all of November culminated in the Car Bibles Exploring EV’s test, meaning I was never home or had the time to do much wrenching on the Fiesta.
So, the Fiesta sat for nearly six months. In the intermittent few times I did drive the Fiesta, it had developed a penchant for randomly stalling at stoplights, and the check engine light came on for a bad catalytic converter. The suspension developed a new pop and clatter, and the windshield washer nozzles had both broken. A used low-mileage throttle body solved the stalling, and I replaced the catalytic converter and the windshield washer nozzles. Usually, I try to replace struts in pairs, but I was already way over budget. I found a mildly used front driver’s strut, and that was enough to make the suspension quiet and compliant. It had been weeks, but the car was good enough to sell.
Is the Fiesta’s Flop a Result of the Pandemic?
Pandemic-related supply chain issues have echoed across the entire automotive industry, but for a while, it seemed to ignore basic cheap cars like my Fiesta. Now, it’s nearly impossible to find broken or inexpensive cars, and the ones that are left over are more used up than usual. Before the pandemic, I would have had my pick of the litter of broken potential flips that only needed minor repairs or maybe just an engine or transmission. Now, the stuff that’s left on the market is in need of serious repairs with big failures coupled with wear items that are in dire need of replacement or servicing. People are holding onto their vehicles longer and longer, and they’re going the distance to keep things running. It seems like when they finally do let their cars go, they’re pretty used up. Maybe this Fiesta was a symptom of a much larger problem brewing. On paper, the Fiesta should have been a win, as the miles were low, and the body was in great shape. Yet, I barely broke even, mostly because the car was much more worn than I would have been able to initially tell.
This experience has changed my tone on the Fiesta. I don’t understand why the Fiesta’s such a revered vehicle. Sure, after it was repaired, the Fiesta’s fun-to-drive sporty candor is cool, but is it worth the overall low build quality? If you’ve followed me on Instagram or Twitter, you’d likely know that I complained about the Fiesta constantly. The Fiesta’s worn suspension members at a mere 120,000 miles, destroyed catalytic converter, and other niggling quality issues made me realize that the Fiesta is kind of a piece of shit. The car may have won accolades for interior quality and driving experience when new, but 10 years later, the Fiesta just hasn’t worn very well at all. My old 225,000 mile Chevy Sonic Turbo was built like a bank vault by comparison.
Exhausted, and ready to move on, I let it go for $4,000 to the first guy who gave me cash. Could I have held out, or tried to negotiate higher? Probably, but I was tired. I wanted the damn thing out of my house.
Ford Fiesta Pricing:
- Purchase price: $1000
- Labor: $1100 (including clutch disc, intermediate shaft)
- Engine: $500
- Tires (and labor) $155
- Mats, door handle: $13
- Alignment: $89
- Windshield: $201
- Blend door: 38.90
- Cv axle etc: $130.94
- Knock sensor(s) MAF, MAF connector: $75
- Knock sensor labor: $150
- Strut, throttle body: $120
- Catalytic converter: $225 (including install)
- Intermediate steering shaft: $102
Total Investment: $3,899.84; Total Profit: $100.56
I know I’ve caught flack for my lack of profit for these Flippin Out articles. Funny, before I started writing for Car Bibles, I regularly would clear a minimum of $400 per vehicle. Now that I’m paid to give you content, my magic touch seems to have evaporated. I said earlier that flipping is half luck and half intuition, and it looks like lady luck has not been on my side for a little while now.
Maybe next time I’ll leave a better offering, and she’ll bless me with some of that sweet, sweet, profit.
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