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The Pleasure of Owning an Old Car

Updated on May 27, 2013
The Millennium Falcon
The Millennium Falcon

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!

Your new car...
Your new car...
will soon turn into your old car.
will soon turn into your old car.

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

Still a great car today
Still a great car today

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.

Kinda wished I had kept her
Kinda wished I had kept her


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.

Red flags plus
Red flags plus
a slimeball equalled =
a slimeball equalled =
An expensive mistake
An expensive mistake

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

Sharp 1998 AWD Volvo Wagon for the Snow
Sharp 1998 AWD Volvo Wagon for the Snow
Old Ford Trucks Run Forever
Old Ford Trucks Run Forever
Shiny 1994 Toyota Camry
Shiny 1994 Toyota Camry

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.

Would You Believe This is a 1978 Chevy Caprice?
Would You Believe This is a 1978 Chevy Caprice?
1992 Honda Accord, Kinda Funny Lookin'
1992 Honda Accord, Kinda Funny Lookin'
A 1977 Suburban for Only $1100!
A 1977 Suburban for Only $1100!

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.

(1995) Saab - the Classy Choice
(1995) Saab - the Classy Choice


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    • Alexander Mark profile imageAUTHOR

      Alexander Silvius 

      2 years ago from Portland, Oregon

      That is a great endorsement Sulabha, thank you, I hope it will add to your son's research process!

    • Sulabha profile image

      Sulabha Dhavalikar 

      2 years ago from Indore, India

      Interesting. In India, this concept has recently come in. Earlier in India pre-owned cars were called second-hand cars and so were really looked down upon.

      Like your truck, we too had a problem with our second-hand car. The fuel would get over fast.

      But now we have showrooms selling pre-owned cars and so buying such a car is no more hazardous. So dangers you have pointed also get checked.

      Thus, I'll ask my son to read your article.

    • Alexander Mark profile imageAUTHOR

      Alexander Silvius 

      5 years ago from Portland, Oregon

      True enough, if I compare my wagon to a 1972 Ford station wagon, I would lament the use of computers and fiberglass and fuel injection in my 89. And in my opinion a mechanically driven vehicle is more reliable than a more modern vehicle with hundreds of relays, sensors and computer components to muck up the running. Back when they had carburetors, all you had to do was tune that thing and if you knew your stuff, you could make it run smooth as butter. But I know my wagon is very unlikely to leave me stranded and no doubt there are plenty of modern cars that can be just as reliable over time as my old beast is.

      As far as safety, I would say that a larger car like mine is just as safe as any other new car on the road, but your probably thinking about brake, seatbelt and airbag reliability and it's true those are not easily evaluated.

      But I completely agree on the conservationism front, it is one of the reasons I love my old car (but admittedly not a decision making factor). A good engine will run 300k miles (even V-8s) if properly maintained and driven, and rebuilding engines and transmissions is less harmful to the environment than casting an entire new tranny case or engine block (I think).

      Anyway, just echoing your sentiments, but I can't argue over safety unless we find a sure way to test a vehicle's safety systems and are able to weigh the differences of old VS modern safety tech, so I'll have to agree with your take on this one.

      Thanks so much for the great comment Zollstock.

    • Zollstock profile image


      5 years ago from Germany originally, now loving the Pacific NW

      It's funny how our older generations always proclaim that in the olden days, they just built things to last and that today, everything is meant to be disposable. After what we've been through with our cars (and home appliances) over the last few years, I'm almost ready to admit they are right. What's deterred us from older cars are concerns about safety, especially given how modern traffic patterns have changed, as well fuel consumption/environmental impacts. That said, there are some good remanufacturers of older engines out there that can breathe new life into an aged vehicle; and by not supporting the fast turnover in new cars, we may be saving junk yards and - yes - dumpsters - from overfilling. Glad you've taken the long view on this matter and shared here!

    • Alexander Mark profile imageAUTHOR

      Alexander Silvius 

      5 years ago from Portland, Oregon

      Hello Gypsy! Thanks for taking the time to read this one. I must admit that my good experiences buying used cars has been learned partly because of my bad experiences. I think familiarity with the practice helps. But if you need a used 4x4, I definitely recommend an old Bronco. I'm sure you would rather drive a nice Tiguan than get oil and gunk on your hands changing a starter and I can't blame you.

    • Gypsy Willow profile image

      Gypsy Willow 

      5 years ago from Lake Tahoe Nevada USA , Wales UK and Taupo New Zealand

      Interesting points you bring up Alexander. I would be scared to buy an old car as I don't know enough about them. I had a second hand Isuzu Rodeo that ran flawlessly for ten years. An Isuzu Axiom followed for another ten until its transmission blew up. It was eagerly snapped up on Craig's list for $1000 which was a deposit on a much younger VW Tiguan which I love. We'll see how that works out. I'll keep you posted. Where I live 4 wheel or all wheel drive is essential.

    • Alexander Mark profile imageAUTHOR

      Alexander Silvius 

      5 years ago from Portland, Oregon

      dahoglund, sorry it took me so long to read your comment, I had an email mix up. I have heard of the concept of "throw away" cars, and it does seem like good advice, a car is meant to be used to get us around. And I know some people that see a car as nothing more than a tool, but I have never been able to disassociate myself from my cars that way. Just for the depreciation alone, a new car is a bad deal - I think the new car smell is just too powerful an allure for most people.

    • dahoglund profile image

      Don A. Hoglund 

      5 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      I also like station wagons. The best advice I've run across is to buy a car about three years old with low mileage and then drive it into the ground. I don't think a new car is a good value because of the depreciation the first years. If one is buying the car for business reasons, it is a different story.

    • Alexander Mark profile imageAUTHOR

      Alexander Silvius 

      5 years ago from Portland, Oregon

      That is a great story and endorsement of big old cars (especially wagons). It's a funny thing, I remember my dad was always working on our last wagon and complained about it, but he drove it to work in the the Bay Area (an hour's ride from where we lived) no problem. Wagons are fantastic haulers, thank you for sharing and reading phdast7, I love to hear about this.

    • phdast7 profile image

      Theresa Ast 

      5 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      Great article - I don't have it anymore, but I bought an older used (but solid well built car in its prime) big old station wagon and drove it for 11 years with minimal problems or repairs and no monthly payments. What a blessing that car was when money was tight and I was hauling three sons (and their friends) around all the time. Sharing. Theresa

    • Alexander Mark profile imageAUTHOR

      Alexander Silvius 

      5 years ago from Portland, Oregon

      I do too, I love the square shaped cars with minimal computers under the hood and simple amenities. I dream of getting myself a little Mitsubishi Precis like the one my dad commuted in, it felt like you were in a cockpit flying a fighter jet - and it shifted nice too, lol.

    • krisaclark profile image


      5 years ago from California

      I personally love just about all early 1990s/late 1980s Japanese cars, be they sedans, sports cars, anything. I love that era of styling, and not to mention the heaps of money there is to be saved if you can find a good running deal!


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