Cars built in countries with low labour costs used to have an image problem. They were cheap, old- fashioned and badly built, and only people really desperate for a new car bought them.

They still have an image problem, but many cars from the same old manufacturers (Skoda, Lada) and newer ones in South-east Asia, are now well-built and reliable - and fantastic bargains when second-hand.

What makes them so good is the combination of Western or Japanese technology with Third World wage rates. It was Fiat that first unloaded obsolete designs on low-wage Eastern bloc countries which then inflicted them back on us at remarkably low prices. The Fiat 124 became the Russian- built Lada; a hybrid of the 124 and 125 models metamorphosed into the Polish FSO; and Fiat's smaller 127 and 128 were transformed into Yugoslav Yugos. They were tough, but their ancient origins made them slow and crude, and indifferent build-quality meant that bits often fell off.

Not all Eastern Europe's cars were Western derivatives. The Czech rear-engined Skodas have always been unique (and fun to drive), and Lada was first into the 4x4 fray with its Range-Roverish Riva.

But while we sniggered at most of these efforts, things began to stir further to the east, where Koreans and Malaysians started building Japanese cars. Hyundai of South Korea has been the most innovative. Since the mid-Seventies it has combined Mitsubishi engines, Italian styling and - in the case of the Stellar - a Ford Cortina chassis. Another Korean company, Kia, has rebadged the superseded Mazda 121 as its Pride model.

In nearby Malaysia, they put a new nose and tail on the old Mitsubishi Lancer and called it a Proton. Even South Africa jumped on the bandwagon with the old-shape Mazda 323, now known as the Sao Penza.

When it comes to shopping for the old ex-Eastern bloc bangers, you can afford to have a laugh at people who bought them new. Depreciation is huge. At King's Garage, a Skoda franchise near Dereham, Norfolk, I was offered a 130 GL saloon owned by a man who lived two doors away. A 1989 model with just 24,000 miles on the clock, it had been serviced on the dot, garaged and clearly loved, but the price was only pounds 1,995. Few new cars look as good, or go as well.

For pounds 1,000 more, there was a 26,000-mile, one-owner Favorit - the 130's successor - parked on the forecourt. This is probably the best model to come from Eastern Europe so far: the engine is in the right place (at the front), the styling excellent, the performance lively.

But not everything at King's Garage was such a bargain. A 1991 Yugo Sana with 1,500 miles on the clock, priced at pounds 3,995, might have appeared to be one; the Sana looks a Fiat Tipo, thanks to the Italian styling, but an ancient engine and indifferent assembly mean that it is a dog. Yugos are built in Serbia; the UN embargo prevents them from being imported, and the company that brought them here went bust. Only the seriously stupid would buy one.

Unfortunately, some owners of cheapo East European cars adhere to the J-cloth principle: use until ragged, then throw away. As a former FSO owner (for two months), I found out that the cost of getting the tired old Pole through the MOT exceeded what it was worth. I had paid pounds 80 for it, and I got pounds 10 from the scrapyard. The general rule for these cars is: anything over five years old and 40,000 miles is not worth the bother.

Which is why I popped into the Norfolk Trade Centre to look at a useful Lada Riva Estate. You cannot argue with a price below pounds 3,000 for a J-plate car with a 15,000 mileage that did not show.

Lada's greatest hit, though, has been the 4x4 Niva, and at Fourdrive in Holbeach I found a top-of-the-range Cossack cabriolet for pounds 2,995. It had 53,000 miles, and all the bumper-bar bits comfortably to outpose - as well as undercut - the Suzuki Vitara.

The same cannot be said of the Romanian Dacia Duster, a crude Renault-engined off- roader whose only virtue is that it is cheap: I managed to find a 1990 example at pounds 1,500.

However, if you do not want too many compromises on quality and performance in your bargain, you have to look further to the east. This is precisely what the flat-cap over-50 brigade has been doing. The Proton has effectively taken over where the Japanese left off: while Toyotas and Hondas have gone profitably upmarket, the gap has been filled by this dull but superbly built and reliable version of the Mitsubishi Lancer. Private sellers are holding on to them, so prices of Protons are firm.

At Lambourne Motors in Goodmayes, east London, I found a flash, limited-edition 'Prism' version with a sunroof and plenty of spoilers which almost tempted me. A 30,000-mile 1.3 GL at pounds 4,595 made more sense. Both cars were unmarked and drove like new: the best argument for picking up one of these sturdy saloons second-hand.

Just as hard to track down as the Proton is the Kia Pride: people who have bought these small hatchbacks are holding on to them. I could find none for private sale, but Greenways, the main agent for Norwich, did have one. This was a 1991 metallic-blue three-door model with 30,000 miles on the clock, but it was impossible to distinguish from the new, unregistered examples nearby. At pounds 4,995, why would anyone consider a tired old Metro instead?

Even when these Asian cars get on a bit, like the Hyundai Stellar 1600L I found for private sale near Reading, they are invincible. It was D-registered, with more than 80,000 miles on the clock; the paintwork was fading and the interior sagging slightly; but it drove as though it would last for ever, it had a full MOT and tax, and it cost only pounds 795. If only all bangers could be like that.

Bangernomics: buying and running a car on a budget, by James Ruppert, is pounds 5.99 from bookshops or, including p & p, from Action Automotive Products, 27 School Road, Bradenham, Thetford, Norfolk.

(Photograph omitted)

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