Moving a $300 VW Cabrio 20 Miles Turned Into a Three-Hour Saga

When a heap comes your way for cheap, fun stories materialize.

When it comes to getting your hands on a cheap car, it can be awkward to make someone a really low offer. I mean, like, pocket-lint low. You don’t want to offend people, and you don’t want to be in a really awkward situation. But sometimes the planets align and somebody’s eager enough to unload a car that they’ll take a few hundred bucks. At least, it has happened, once upon a time.

In 2011, my friends and I were all living in Chicago, and my one buddy Chris got himself a Mk3 VW Cabrio for $300. The subsequent saga of getting it running, moving, and transported to its destination remains one of my favorite memories to date. I helped Chris port his new-to-him cheap Cabby up to a friend’s shop for an initial inspection, though there was more to it than that. Especially regarding how we got to that point. It was a day filled with laughter, fright, frustration, and more laughter; and totally worth the price he paid for it.

When Life Demands That You Receive Lemons…

Chris and I have been water-cooled VW geeks since we got our licenses. At the time this triumphant tale took place, he had a Mk5 Rabbit that he’d made into a nice little 2.5-liter beast, and I had recently parted ways with my Mk2 Jetta eight-valve. At his place of employment he came to be known as “the VW guy,” and one day one of his coworkers gave him an offer out of the blue. She explained that she hadn’t driven her Mk3 Cabrio in a few weeks, didn’t need or want it anymore, and wanted to stop paying lofty registration, city sticker, and insurance when it all came due in the following month or two. She thought of him as just the man to help her sell it.

She had recently moved out of her neighborhood on the Northwest side of Chicago and couldn’t recall where it was parked. That’s OK, she had a few photos that would pass for Craigslist and ForSale forums on VWVortex.com. All she wanted was $2,000 cash, and they’d sort out finding the thing later.

It was stick-shift, red, had around 125,000 miles, and “ran fine the last time she drove it.” Though there was a tiny, regional problem: it was late November, and nobody in the entire Midwest was keen on buying a cute little convertible. Chris gave it a bit of effort but got no bites whatsoever. Even after dropping the price to an incredibly low $1,500.

Moving a $300 VW Cabrio 20 Miles Turned Into a Three-Hour Saga
How did a company known for genius marketing create such a bland press photo? – Image: Volkswagen

This was in 2011 dollars; in wild 2021 used car pricing, that’s gotta be like $5,000 (kidding, sort of).

After no luck, the owner thought maybe he’d be up for taking it off her hands, and offered it to him for just $1,100. But he wasn’t interested. He didn’t have much space for it, wasn’t planning on taking on a project, and just wasn’t really in the mindset. But she persisted and asked what price he would pay to just get it out of her life.

Now, Chris is known among our friends as an absolute pro at bargaining and finding a good deal. He’s also well-versed in the art of flipping just about anything for a decent buck. His mind changed and figured there might indeed be some great, cheap potential.

With some quick explanation as to why he’d politely give her a stupid-low offer, he then cut to the chase: $200. She scoffed. Then, she followed up with something along the lines of “I couldn’t ever take-, what in the-, yadda yadda yadda… how about $300?” He was blown away and I laughed my ass off when he told me this. Who would counter with just $100 more? Regardless, they shook hands, he grabbed cash out of the ATM on his lunch hour, and she came into work the next day with the title.

Moving a $300 VW Cabrio 20 Miles Turned Into a Three-Hour Saga
Cheap VW Cabrio ownership goals. – Image: Volkswagen

The Mission

“Hey bud! When are you free this week?” was the greeting I received from him a few days later while hanging in my cozy apartment in Logan Square, Chicago. I was barely employed at the time. Having retired six months earlier from my brief stint as a bike messenger, I was working very part-time and had all the free time. This enabled what was about to go down.

He explained the Cabrio situation and needed someone to give him a hand finding it, getting it started, and driving it up to our friend Jason’s VW shop in Glenview, IL, 20-odd miles almost-directly-north of my apartment. Chris didn’t have much for wrenching space or time to give it a good going over himself, and figured it’d be a job best-suited for Jason’s mastery.

Why did he need help finding it? Because his coworker couldn’t remember where she last parked it and had moved out of the neighborhood a month or two prior. The photos she gave him plus Google Maps proved to be a decent reconnaissance resource; he found out that her old apartment was in my neighborhood, so that’d make our job a lot easier. Luckily, in Chicago, street cleaning isn’t a concern during winter, and it wasn’t parked on a major thoroughfare that had plowing restrictions.

Moving a $300 VW Cabrio 20 Miles Turned Into a Three-Hour Saga
Also cheap VW Cabrio ownership goals. – Image: Volkswagen

Firing Up the Ol’ Bird

He came by a day or two later and we got to looking around. Much to our relief, it was a quite pleasant 50-degree day in Chicago, so it was nice to walk around outside in hoodie weather. We actually found it quite quickly! It had no less than three parking tickets on it; a sign that it had indeed been sitting for a while, as they accumulated while street sweeping was still happening… a month prior. She might’ve stretched the part about not driving it for a few weeks. I’m not sure why it was never towed.

We had a bag of basic tools, his VW Rabbit to jump it, and a jerry can of gas. The Cabrio had all kinds of schmutz accumulated all over its body and the clearcoat had seen better days, but on the whole it didn’t look too bad. Especially for only $300.

We went about checking the oil, giving it a good visual inspection, and seeing if it had any semblance of electricity left. It took a while to juice up the battery enough to crank, but eventually, it did and fired up. However, it stumbled quite a bit and the e-brake froze the rear drums. Luckily we had a sort of runway in front of us; she left it right behind a no parking zone. With yours truly at the helm, shot-to-hell shifter bushings to try and find gears with, and a pronounced shitty gas smell, I drove it a good ten feet before the rear drums broke loose. We were in business!

We kept it running, fired up the walkie talkies, and began our short-yet-epic journey.

Sketchily Cruising Along

We stuck to local streets and avoided the expressway. The Cabrio was stumbling quite a bit, had a horrendous thud-thud-thud sound as it rolled along, the brakes were barely existent… yeah, we kept it to 35 MPH streets, max. It might have been smarter to tow it, but I was not as cautious a decade ago. Anyway, where’s the fun in that?

Chris followed behind or led in the Rabbit; either to jump it if it died, or provide a bumper if my brake pedal went to the floor.

It felt like a junior-varsity Top Gear challenge as we taunted each other via walkie-talkie. I think it was a combination of the thing misfiring like a son of a gun, the weird clutch take-up, and complete lack of gear definition in the stick that led to me stalling when pulling away from a stop sign. I bet I tried to pull away in third. The car wouldn’t actually re-start, even after running it for at least 30 minutes. Chris had to jump into action and pull up alongside me, jump out of the car with jumper cables in-hand, and give it a much-needed jump. If my memory serves me right, we did this very swiftly, as if we had practiced a few times prior.

We Finally Made It, and Why I’m Glad He Made Her an Offer

Moving a $300 VW Cabrio 20 Miles Turned Into a Three-Hour Saga
Later that day, post shop visit, with yours truly behind the wheel. Image: Chris Whaley

Around three hours after finding it sitting on the street, we finally made it to Mobile One Inc. We had given Jason the heads-up earlier that day that we’d show up at some point, and upon our arrival we regaled him with tales of our epic journey. All he could do was smile, shake his head, and laugh. 

It was a little quiet in the shop so he got right to work. We went down the street to a restaurant and feasted on a massive pizza (sliced tavern-style, naturally) as a job well done.

We hung out a while, then walked back and got an unexpectedly good diagnosis: The car didn’t really have any issues to be concerned with. Just a lot of small stuff from sitting for a long time. And the barely-existent shifter linkage. I can’t recall exactly what he did, but it was running quite a bit better, to the point of being highway-ready. When he asked how much Chris got it for, he was thoroughly slack-jawed; with a little work he figured it to be at least a $3,000 car all day. 

We then departed and headed down to the western suburbs where the Cabrio would undergo a pretty significant restoration during the following couple of months. Man, the end-result was spectacular. I should’ve bought it off him when he sold it a few years later. It’s actually popped up a few times for sale in the Midwest since, too.

Moving a $300 VW Cabrio 20 Miles Turned Into a Three-Hour Saga
After a couple months of resto work, it turned out great! – Image: Chris Whaley

The moral of the story, dear reader, is take a chance. Again, make it a fairly-well planned-out… plan, and be polite and reasonable when you make someone an offer on their cheap-yet-potential-filled heap. You never know what kind of a deal you could get or what kind of a fun adventure it could lead you on.

And if you’ve got a pal who’s barely employed or has a flexible work schedule, bring them along for the journey.

Peter Nelson
Peter Nelson

Peter Nelson has been wrenching on and playing with cars since he started driving them quickly between the cones at Chicagoland autocross events in his late teens. Nowadays, he can be found wringing out his Mazda2 at tracks all over California. His writing background includes Winding Road, Donut Media, and Autolist.com. He's also an avid cyclist and '80s/'90s action film connoisseur. Contact the author here.