The Pleasure of Owning an Old Car
Venerable Old Wagon
I own a 1989 Ford Country Squire station wagon, almost the exact same car as the Crown Victoria sedan, and I love it. Not everyone wants to be seen in an old station wagon but I inherited my love for wagons from my father who always seemed to find one to own every time our family was stateside.
Station wagons aren't for everybody, but I have learned over the years that some older vehicles can be a wonderful asset. I can't say that I have had many opportunities to buy a new car, but as I grew older and wiser, I learned that if you pick the right older vehicle, you could end up with reliable transportation. Old cars are known quantities, they have many years of history and you can find information all over the internet about them via car forums and auto review sites, especially if they are popular!
New Car Drawbacks
There are unsavory drawbacks to chaining yourself to a loan for a brand new car. Every year, manufacturers redesign exteriors and interiors but also change components and programming to improve on flaws of the previous year or to better performance. However, it is easy to imagine that many changes are often driven by cost cutting measures. A vehicle that gained the admiration of its buyers one year because of looks and performance, might make the next year's buyers want to vomit when they pay the monthly loan and insurance because the engineers and pencil pushers made changes that affect driveability and reliability or cause frequent maintenance issues. You never know.
Most new cars though, will perform decently in the first three to five years: reliability is hopefully exceptional while the owner hasn't racked up too many miles of wear and tear on the drive train. It probably won't be needing unexpected repairs but that's what a warranty is for right? Oh right, you can add that to the list: extended warranty costs.
This Was Once a Status Symbol
Status is Expensive
So although you may be gaining a nice, shiny, new-smelling vehicle when you drive off the lot, you also gain at least a 300 to 500 dollar a month payment plus full coverage insurance costs and maybe an extended warranty package to protect your investment. If you're one of the few who through hard work and dilligent saving are able to pay the full amount of purchase up front, the simple fact remains that in three to five years you will want to buy another new car to replace the car that no longer smells new, has a few minor problems and no longer keeps you in status with the neighbors or whomever your peer group is.
In order to realize the benefits of owning an older car, you will have to learn humbleness and accept that a car is never going to be perfect. All cars have problems, but an older car, will over time, whether purchased new or bought used, become a known factor. You become familiar with its quirks and characteristics. For a short time I owned an '89 Ford Bronco. As far as a running vehicle goes, I loved it, I don't consider it a bad purchase. But I decided to stick with the 1997 Chevy Tahoe that I realized later I never should have bought in the first place. But the Tahoe looked better (see how vanity foiled my common sense?), was roomier and newer. The old Bronco ran just fine and I discovered one of its quirks from reading online forums. The starters on the F150 body style for the V-8s had a tendency to burn out from engine heat. This included my Bronco as the cab and engine bay are exactly the same as the F150s of that year. However, I was able to install it myself with a little instruction from the auto parts store and it costed me less than a hundred dollars to do it.
Proper Planning and Responsible Maintenance
Naturally not everyone wants to wrench on their own cars, but if I had taken it in, it would only have cost me two or three hundred dollars to get the Bronco back on the road. Now, if you know about this problem, you can easily plan to replace the starter at expected intervals depending on local climate and driving habits. Many people would find this a burden and truthfully it may be easier to just write a few checks totalling five hundred dollars a month or more and not worry about it. But if you're responsible enough to take your car in for regular oil changes, then you can also plan for the increased maintenance and still drive a decent and reliable vehicle!
A Rough Cost Comparison Breakdown
Assuming your total monthly costs for a cheap new car is 500 dollars including insurance, and assuming that an old car will require about 1000 - 2000 dollars (2000 on the high side - I normally don't spend that much on maintenance anually) of repairs a year (167 a month) plus cheap liability insurance), you will save about 4000 dollars a year. That's a vacation for a family. Or college fund money. A significant amount for most people.
Of course these are rough estimates and I personally can see the benefits of buying a brand new Civic, it will probably give me reliable service years after I get done making payments. And it is conceivable that I may at some point buy a new car - but I love not having to worry about that payment, and I am thoroughly convinced my old car will serve me well every day for as long as parts are available to maintain her. But again, you do have to be careful about what kind of older car you buy. For me, it's the Crown Victoria model, or other big engine Fords of the same year. You could do just as well with an old Toyota or Honda. The trick is finding the right deal and being car savvy.
A Huge Mistake - Ignoring the Red Flags and a Sacrifice
A few years back I made a huge mistake. I was the proud owner of another Ford station wagon - this one a 1990 Country Squire. But then I got it in my head I wanted an SUV and I settled on the Tahoe model, the no-longer-produced two door version. So after months of searching Craigslist, I finally found what I thought was a good one. It was in good shape, but I noticed a few red flags. First, the owner had put in newer seats to replace the government bare bones model seats, put on Pro Comp rims, and painted the grill black and had done a good job on it too. So the first question is why did he want to sell it when he had made so many improvements? He had an answer about his son not being interested in driving the truck, but it didn't quite jive with what he said before, all the improvements were for his own benefit, not his son's. Then I found the emergency brake was disconnected and then he "remembered" he had intentionally left it that way because it was too hard to fix - but if I had not checked he would never have told me. Also the coolant was low (which, incidentally became a 1000 dollar repair later). As in good a condition the rest of the truck appeared to be, why would the owner let the water get low unless it was a recurring problem?
Ignoring the red flags, I bought the truck and soon I had to decide which vehicle to sacrifice to maintain the one I had left. Because I was committed to what I had done and I had grandiose visions of driving into the snowy mountains I sold the wagon - the vehicle that had never, ever quit on me. And for the next three years, the Tahoe broke down constantly and kept my bank account low. All because I didn't heed the warnings.
There Are Plenty of Good Deals Between 1000 - 3000 dollars
Good Older Cars Can be Found
The point of the story is that buying an old car was not where I went wrong, it was because I did not do my due dilligence when evaluating the vehicle. So if you do your research, talk to mechanics, visit the forums and learn how to properly evaluate the condition of a vehicle, you can end up with a cheap and reliable old car.
My current station wagon has never left me stranded, just like my previous wagon. It could happen. She has over 230,000 miles on her. But those high miles should tell you something about long term dependability of an old car that is properly maintained and loved by its owner. Although I am a huge fan of Fords of twenty years ago, this applies to other car brands and years too. My brother owns a 1997 Chevy Astro van with over 300,000 miles and it runs great. Another brother owns a 1989 Chevy Caprice with probably 130,000 miles on it and drove it from Tucson, AZ to Northern California and back without any breakdowns or engine problems.
Finding the Right One
So if you find a good older car (LET THE BUYER BEWARE! DO YOUR RESEARCH AND PROPERLY CHECK OUT THE PURCHASE VEHICLE), you will probably save 20,000 dollars over the same number of years you would be making payments for a new car. In fact, even if you do want a newer car, you can still buy an older car to save up for that new one and then you will bypass the headache of payments altogether. Lastly, I don't want to be misleading. You should also be prepared for large repairs from time to time such as transmission or engine rebuilds. But those repairs are worth making if you decide to keep the car for a long time. You can also choose to simply sell it as is and find another used vehicle for a few thousand dollars. There is definitely a point where you may find it more time consuming and resource draining to keep an old car on the road, but an old car can also last you a lifetime and if you take care of it. In the long run, it is a better investment than buying a new car every few years if you're willing to put a little care into it. Long term vehicle ownership is a relationship that will pay you back for your love.
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