Look at that guy in the picture. Short shorts, matching vest and a cowgirl hat. That my friends, is a car owner. Do you think I could’ve got away with that ensemble on a public bus? Do you think a Western Australia hire company wouldn’t have been furiously bashing the button under the desk (not a euphemism) if I’d bounded into their offices looking like an Alabama rent boy and demanding their “finest desert wagon”? Hell no, they’d have set the dogs on me.

Even if the ability to cruise the outback dressed like a menopausal Jessica Simpson isn’t a decision maker for you, you should buy a car purely because it will give you the freedom to take as long as you like doing whatever ever you like, wherever you like. It allows you to see the absolute best of this stunning country, and that’s a game changer.

Of course, freedom isn’t free, and buying a car will almost certainly be the most expensive purchase you’re likely to make during a working holiday in Australia. However, it also the most worthwhile. It could get you work, and if you’re lucky, you might even be able to get all your money back when you sell it.

So to make sure you do it properly, here’s the ultimate guide to buying a backpacker car in Australia:

What To Buy?

Option #1: Campervan

Campervans are a fantastic way to travel. They look the part, and not only do they come fitted with proper beds, extra storage space, and the ability to open out the back into a shelter or gazebo, some even have built-in stoves, fridges and sinks. Which means you’re not just ‘travelling’ the sunburnt continent, but you’re travelling it in what could very nearly be described as…’comfort’. Almost.

Mazda E2000

The downsides? Well, where campervans flourish in stationary mode, they struggle somewhat on the move. They burn fuel faster than American troops in an Iraqi oil field and they’re not exactly pacey. In the desert you might find yourself being overtaken by even the least sprightly of emus. And for the luxury of nights on a real mattress you’ll be paying about twice as much as you would for a regular car.

However, they’re much hardier than they look, can survive with a lot more miles under their belt than your bog-standard saloon, and frankly you simply can’t put a price on a hot curry and a cold beer when you’re spending the night shitting yourself in a dusty lay-by outside Wolf Creek.

So which campervan? There’s an undeniable romanticism to backpacking across a continent in a banged up VW kombi (to be fair, they are as cool as fuck), but it’s a romanticism that might have to stay in that little box marked ‘hippy fantasies’ unless you’ve got  15-20 grand to throw at it.

It’s expensive being an icon, and even more expensive owning one. Yes you’ll turn heads, yes you can pretend it’s California in 1976, yes it’ll almost certainly get you laid. But in reality there are no heads to turn in the outback, it’s not 1976 and in 6 months you’ll have to try and sell that beautiful 40 year old rustbucket to people who also can’t afford to buy it, and not even Errol Flynn could get laid if he broke down 100 miles from the nearest human genital.

Luckily there are some wonderful other brands of camper out with far less painful pricetags. Mitubishi Starwagon, Mitubishi Express, Toyota Hiace, Ford Econovan and Nissan Urvan are all great options that you should be able to find for under $5000. Try and avoid anything that’s done more than 300,000 km (350,000 max) and although they are hardy buggers, it would have to be in great nick for you to consider a van that’s more than 20-25 years old.

campervan backpacker car in australia

Campervans: they may be slow, they may go through diesel like Chelsea goes through managers, and they’re generally pretty useless off road – you should probably avoid taking even the 4WD vans onto beaches or dirt tracks if you can help it – but if storage and sleeping space is important to you, and if you’re going to be camping a lot then an old school camper should be a serious consideration.

Option #2: Saloon/stationwagon

If all you need is a cheap set of wheels to get you from A to B and beyond, you’re not hoping to sleep in it, camp extensively or venture off road, then you could easily pick up a reliable Holden or Japanese runaround for less than a grand.

Wander Off Buying a backpcker Car in Australia

Holden Commodore (with homemade roof rack/sack)

But for any road trips lasting longer than a week or so, then I’d highly recommend shelling out a few hundred more dollars for an estate car, or as our friends down under call them, ‘stationwagons’. More than likely this will be a Ford Falcon or a Holden Commodore. These Aussie-made motors are more common than the Irish in Bondi, so are usually very cheap (like the Irish in Bondi) – you can pick a good model up for less than £2000. They’re also reliable and easy to repair if the arse falls out.

Buying one of these also means you can get involved in Aussie culture and finally declare your allegiance to one of the oldest and most violent rivalries in the Southern Hemisphere, Holden vs Ford (“HOLDEN TIL I DIE!!!”).

Not only do stationwagons give you extra boot space for all your camping stuff, cooking gear, food, and of course the water and spare jerrycans of fuel that are absolutely vital if you’re venturing away from the East Coast, but you can also sleep in it!

If you lay the backseats down flat in a stationwagon you’ll create a space into which a inflatable double mattress should slot perfectly. Then simply knock up some basic curtains for the windows with some string and a torn bedsheet, and you’ve made your very own Japanese hotel style sleeping pod! Put all you gear on the front seats or on the roof in a couple of plastic boxes and cover them with a tarp (see picture above). Now that’s king living!

Backpackers Car Australia

The Ritz Holden

Of course, when the hot Australian sun rises in the morning that trusty Commodore will soon become a very effective oven. Slowly roasting you alive until clamminess outweighs sleepiness and you burst open the side doors and inelegantly slide your sweaty gasping form out of the awkwardly small gap between the mattress and the roof onto the dusty floor. It looks a bit like the car’s giving birth to you. If you can handle this daily indignity though, then you’ve got a secure, comfortable alternative to a tent that requires little to no assembly. There’s also a handy little light switch right above your heads for every time you mistake the wind for a serial killer.

Option #3: 4 Wheel Drives

There’s 900,000km of roads in Australia, and only 300,000 of them are sealed. So if you’re planning on doing some serious cross-country road tripping in Australia, you shouldn’t be looking at anything that drives with any less than 4 of its wheels. 2 wheel drive? Forget it! 3 wheel drive? Get out of here you animal! The icing on the cake of Australia is away from the vanilla sponge of its highways. It’s found down those red pindan tracks trailing off towards the horizon. And to get there you need a no bullshit, spit ‘n’ sawdust, clunkin’ ‘n junkin’ 4×4…which is why so many locals own them.

Nissan Patrol

The best parts of many of the country’s jaw dropping national parks are only accessible by 4 wheel drive, especially in the north and west of the country. On average a 4WD will of course cost more than your standard stationwagon, although deals are always available if you’re lucky and it’s not unknown to pick up a nice little Nissan Patrol for £1500 if someone is leaving the country and desperate to sell. But without a 4WD you’ll be stopping yourself from seeing great swaths of this country you’ve travelled halfway around the world to get to.

You’ll deny yourself spectacular gorges, lush primal rainforest, hot springs, cool waterfalls, remote aboriginal communities, entire peninsulas hiding the most beautiful beaches, and of course that unique anus-tightening experience that you only really get when slowly trundling through a suddenly very wide creek whilst flanked by half a dozen 5 metre saltwater crocodiles, one of whom you could swear just mouthed the words “Shotgun the tubby one in the camp cowboy hat if they stall.”

Where To Buy?

There are a few places you can pick up your new shiny metal friend. As with anything, the cheaper options are more of a gamble in terms of reliability, but they are cheaper. So it’s swings and roundabouts. Here they are in order – risky to reliable:

Cheap & Risky – Car Auctions

Wander Of Backpacker car auction

Auctions are a fantastic way to grab yourself a cheap as chips bargain motor. Which is why used car dealers usually get their stock from here. The catch? You really have to know your cars, because you can’t test drive them, or even give them a good inspection usually.

Wild weather can be your friend when it comes to auctions. Freak hailstorms are a more common occurrence in the land of sunshine and surf than you’d expect, and when hail falls, it falls hard and it falls BIG. Hailstones the size of cricket balls have been known to fall in this country and they wreak havoc on car lots. Searching online for hail damaged car auctions or sales can be a great way to pick up a reasonably new car at a incredibly reasonable price.

Generally though, auctions are few and far between, and if you want a car ASAP this might not be your most convenient option.

Cheap & Everywhere – Private Sales

You can get some real bargains buying privately from other backpackers for two reasons:

1) They don’t know what it’s worth
2) They usually need to sell quickly

Of course, this also means you won’t have much of a reliable history on the vehicle, it’s probably not been looked after or serviced, and they’ll probably have disappeared if it falls apart 20 miles down the road.

It helps if you know something about cars when you’re buying privately. Take it for a test drive, and check as much as you can (see ‘Important Things To Look For When Buying’). If you’ve managed to make friends with a mechanic or knowledgeable petrol-head, take them along to check it out. The other main advantage is that it will probably come with all the camping gear and backpacking accessories you might need. Even food sometimes! Remember, you can always barter as well.

PROS

  • The cheapest vehicles. From someone in a rush to sell you can get cars for a 4th or 5th the price of dealership wheels.
  • Available all over the country, anywhere backpackers might venture.
  • Usually comes with maps, camping gear, mattresses, aux cables, anything you might need or want for a long trip.

CONS

  • No warranty, no receipt, nobody to go to if it all falls apart.
  • Someone desperate to sell might drop the price, but they might also by lying about it’s condition and servicing.
  • Unlike authorised dealers, private sellers won’t necessarily have given it a full service and mechanical inspection. And backpackers don’t tend to look after their cars.

Where?
Private sellers are all over the country. You’ll find adverts on every noticeboard in every hostel, convenience store and supermarket in the country, Facebook groups, and on several websites like Trovit, Cars 4 BackpackersGumtree or Trading Post.

Car Car Boot – Backpacker Car Markets

All the benefits of private sales, but with dozens of cars right there for your perusal. Like a car boot sale, but the car boot is actually for sale…and the doors, and the wheels, and the engine. There are staff on hand too to help advise you about legal stuff and which car to buy. The downside is that with plenty of other buyers in the car park sellers are less likely to be bartered down so easily, and more importantly, these markets are rarer than full sets of teeth in Darwin. There’s only a couple in the whole country, the most famous being Sydney’s Traveller’s Car Market which is open every day. If you’re in the city though, it’s a fantastic option.

PROS

  • Private sale prices.
  • Staff on hand to offer advice without biased opinion.
  • Usually comes with the same backpacker road trip and camping gear.
  • Lots of options all in one place.

CONS

  • You need to be where they are. Sydney, really.
  • Less chance of bartering and it’s more difficult to take for a test drive out of the busy car park.
  • Same lack of guarantees and servicing as regular private sales.

Most Reliable – Backpacker Specialising Car Dealers

Professional car dealers offer the most reliability, have registered and serviced the car, ran mechanical inspections and some sort of warranty, however short, this at least means you can be sure you’re covered if it all collapses after a few miles or you notice anything that you didn’t during your initial test drive.

Backpacker specific dealers such as Travellers Autobarn and Backpackers Auto Sales offer all this but know the needs of backpackers, and won’t think less of you for turning up at their offices smelling like goon and musty hostel. They also offer a buyback service, so if you end your road trip in a city where they have an office you can guarantee a sale to them at an agreed price (which is lower of course).

The catch with all of this is that you will of course pay more for your car, and it won’t come with all the backpacker gear. Although they often offer to sell you that stuff at a discount.

PROS

  • Serviced, mechanically inspected cars specifically for backpackers
  • Uncomplicated sales from a reliable source
  • 2 week total warranty, 5000km engine and gearbox warranty and roadside assistance membership (from Traveller’s Autobarn, others offer similar)
  • Guaranteed buyback service and advice of selling it privately for more

CONS

  • More expensive
  • Only available in the major cities
  • They don’t come with all the camping, outback and road trip gear

Where In The Country To Buy & When?

For most backpackers, there won’t be a lot of choice in which city or when you buy a vehicle. You’ll simply buy it when you plan to start your road trip from the place you plan to start it.

If you have flexibility though, the simple rules of supply and demand work here the same as they do anywhere else. The big cities where backpackers end their road trips and fly home from (Sydney, Melbourne, Perth, Brisbane and Cairns), inevitably have far more cars. So there’s more choice, and more competition makes them cheaper. Play it right with a bit of luck and you might even make a profit. I once bought a Holden Commodore in Perth for $1500 and sold it 5 months later in Broome for $3400. Ker-ching!

Time of year also plays a part. Backpackers, like sparrows, are fickle creatures who migrate in pursuit of sunshine. The southern cities – Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide and Perth – are busiest from October to March when it’s warmest, whereas the northern hotspots – Cairns, Darwin, Townsville and smaller towns like Airlie Beach, Broome and Port Douglas – are busiest during the dry season, which is from April to November.

So inevitably, you get flocks of dusty backpackers trundling into the southern cities around November/December time and looking to sell their car and settle down with a filthy bar job in Kings Cross. Apply the same formula to the wild north and the best time to buy up there is about April/May. Flip-reverse that for selling them.

Important Things To Look For When Buying

Someone who knows about cars, or if possible a mechanic, is invaluable when buying a vehicle, especially privately. The biggest fear when buying a car is that it’s going to leave you stranded, end up costing you even more money, or you’re not going to be able to sell it.

If you can’t find a local petrolhead, here are a few things you can look for to keep the chances of this happening to a minimum:

  • Makes – Try to buy commonly found makes and models. Holdens, Fords or Japanese cars are the cheapest and easiest to repair if parts need replacing.
  • Kilometres on the clock – this varies from car to car, and depends how it’s been driven and maintained. But as a rule I’d try to not buy a car that’s done more than 250,000 or a van or 4WD that’s done more than 350,000. Although of course this isn’t a science and sometimes you get a car that’s hit half a mill’ and is still running beautifully.
  • Engine – Run the engine and rev it with the hood up. Does it make any strange noises? Does it start OK? Does it seem excessively hot after your test drive? Is their smoke from the engine or the exhaust?
  • Lights – Test all lights and indicators
  • Brakes – Test brakes during an emergency stop, does it stop quickly? Do they feel responsive? Does handbrake work?
  • Steering – Drive slowly, straighten out the car and let go of the steering wheel. Does it pull to one side? Not a major issue usually but worth testing. Could be a sign of misaligned wheels.
  • Dials – Check the speedometer, odometer and rev counter all work when you’re driving. Investigate any warning lights. And of course, check the sound system. I joke but seriously, radio is a sanity saver when driving across the world’s 6th biggest country.
  • Tyres and Wheels – Check it has a spare wheel and changing tools. Then check the tread on all 5 tyres, 1.5mm is the minimum legal limit. Take a 10c coin and place it into the main tread grooves of your tyre. If the outside band of the coin is obscured when you’ve put it into the tread, then you’ve got enough left.
  • Water and Oil – Check the water in your radiator is clean and oil free, and check the oil with the dipstick to make sure it doesn’t look or smell burnt and there’s no creamy white substances in it (water from the cooling system you dirty bastards!) Foam residue on the oil filler cap means a leaking head gasket and is bad news. Also leave the car running for a while and check no oil is leaking under the car.
  • Rust and corrosion – Check all over for considerable damage. A bit of rust isn’t a car killer but holes in the exhaust, under the hood, floor of the boot, or anywhere important looking isn’t fantastic. If it’s been kept near the sea or used on the beach check for salt damage to the engine.
  • Hoses and Belts – Under the hood. They should have no cracks or damage and the hoses shouldn’t be soft.
  • Suspension – Push down on each corner of the car to check the suspension, ideally get a friend to look underneath the car for any problems while you do. Make sure there’s no damage, cracks or dislodged components.
  • Locks and doors – Obvious and often forgotten, but you don’t want a car you can’t lock properly.
  • History and servicing – Ask to see any history or proof of servicing the car might have had. Any recent all clears are great news. You can check this here too – Car History.com.au or Revs.com.au.

The Boring Stuff

The legal *yawn* stuff *yawn* you need to know *yawn* before buying a backpacker car in Australia.

Rego

Insurance isn’t compulsory in Australia like it is the UK and a lot of other countries, nor is there a vehicle tax, but Registration, or ‘Rego’ as our antipodean cousins have obviously nicknamed it, covers this.

It is the law that every car on the road must be registered every 6 or 12 months, and each state has different regulations.

The first rule for YOU is never buy a car that has an expired rego, as it will need a full inspection (similar to a British MOT) before you can re-register it, and this could cost you thousands. Buy with as much rego left on it as you can, personally I wouldn’t buy a car with less than 6 months left because I don’t want to have to deal with renewing it. If it won’t expire until after you hope to sell it then that’s perfect.

Remember, when you come to sell the car the buyers will be thinking the same thing. Therefore, if you think you may need to renew the car’s rego (it will be much easier to sell with 3 or more months left on it) then try and buy a car registered in one of the states that it’s easier to renew the rego in. In most states you can now renew your registration online and over the past few years they’ve all scrapped the need for stickers on the windscreens, so you don’t even need to be in that state to collect your new sticker as long as you don’t let it expire. They also vary in price, WA regos are currently the cheapest, whereas cars registered in some states will also need an annual compulsory roadworthy certificate.

The requirements and certificates that your vehicle needs, or you need to buy and sell, vary from state to territory, and have a habit of changing from year to year. Check this information at the correct authority before you buy:

What Happens When You Buy?

So you’ve finally found your rusty steed and are ready to ride it off into the sunset. So, how does it become legally yours? Well, when you buy a car, and you hand over the money to the seller, you should be given a slip which you must then take to the local Motor Vehicle Registry (MVR). The slip will basically transfer the ownership of the car; it will include the car details, the seller details and the new owner details. If you’ve gambled on a car that needs a new registration, this is also when you’ll pay for that and get your service done if required.

At the MVR they will then give you the documents that say you have the car registration in your name. You need to keep the document – when you sell the car the same process will need to be completed. The form to transfer ownership, when you are the seller, is on this document.

And Finally, Some Aussie Driving Tips…

  • Most foreign driving licences are valid for use in Australia, although some may need translations and some states require an International Licence as well. Check here to be sure.
  • When driving in the outback or in rural areas the local wildlife can be as dangerous as it is beautiful. A suicidal kangaroo is going to do a lot more damage to your car (and you) than a rogue rabbit. A good rule to abide by in the outback is avoid driving at dawn or dusk, as this is when they’re most active and likely to bound out into the road and through your windscreen. Attaching roo bars is always a good idea.

He’s just sleeping

  • In the north of the country off-road driving isn’t just dirt tracks and sunburnt forearms. You might also be tasked with crossing crocodile infested rivers in your faithful chariot. This is proper wilderness driving, there are no certainties here. If there’s been recent rain and it looks too deep, you might have no other option but to wait it out for a day or two. If you going to tackle it, take these steps to stop the local reptiles having smashed avo and backpacker for brunch:

1) If there’s tracks from a previous vehicle leading in, your safest bet is to follow them.
2) If you have a tarpaulin, tie it to your axel and up over your grill to prevent too much water coming into the mechanics.
3) Take a (slow) run up and stay in second or first gear, DO NOT change gear in the water and DO NOT stop.
4) Try not to look too delicious.

  • When all you can see is 360 degrees of horizon, driving can get pretty tiring. Pull over regualrly, stretch your legs, have a rest, look at some roadkill, make a sandwich (not from the roadkill). The outback is gorgeous, but fatigue is a killer.
  • This isn’t Lincolnshire, you can’t just pull into the services every time you fancy a Tango and a bag of Skips. This is an enormous island of mostly desert, so unless you can subsist on sand alone take as much water as you can (a 20-30l container with a tap to fill water bottles from is a good idea) carry food and one or two jerrycans of fuel. Gas stations are scarce in the outback and some of the ones that do exist only sell diesel and not petrol, because Aboriginies can’t sniff diesel.
  • And last but not least…ENJOY YOURSELF!!!