Although it may seem costly, keeping an eye out for less than perfect handcars on eBay (or other secondary markets) will often be very rewarding, but not necessarily an overnight process. The figures can be scuffed or have blemishes, but the flaws can be corrected with simple model building techniques like filling and painting. Adding weight to the handcars is almost always necessary for improved traction. This site, and its YouTube channel, is full of useful information about improving the Lionel handcar.
See my article
"Halt Handcar Hang-Ups!" offered now as a free sample from Kalmbach Publishing and Classic Toy Trains Magazine.
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