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At what point do you throw in the towel with your car? As a card-carrying stubborn gearhead, I haven’t found the line yet. A few months ago I refreshed the top end of my 1990 Oldsmobile — a terrible old slushbucket — to fix a coolant leak from the cylinder head. The transmission no longer moves the car, even though it shifts, and this is after I did two wheel bearings and replaced a broken climate-control computer. Considering that the car has about 240,000 miles on it (I’m not sure because I replaced the cluster to fix a broken speedometer a while back), and has a Kelly Blue Book retail value of less than $700, why exactly did I bother? Because as long as I’m around, it’s not dead yet.

Some of you out there can see what’s coming and others probably think I’m a lunatic, but that car has so many stories wrapped in it, and I’ve learned so much from it, that it seems a shame to get rid of it. I’m sure others out there have that ratty old pickup you just won’t allow to die, while others are junkies for that new car smell. Both get the job done, but only one way leaves a hunk of sheet metal and castings with a personality. Sure, Olds isn’t even around now that GM has gone splat but what of it?ย 

Who’s with me on this? Are you better off, in general,ย keeping one alive or sending it on its way? Let us know in comments.

(Thanks to Flickr user dave_7 for the great CC-licensed photo.)

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32 Responses to Hot or Not? Fix It Instead Leaving It For Dead

  1. berettaguy says:

    Out of my fleet of 5 vehicles, the newest one is a 1998. The oldest one is an 89. Never say die! If you live in a kind climate, there is no reason why a car or truck can’t last 20 years. Now if you don’t spin your own wrenches though, I’d probably recommend you give up somewhere in the 7-10 year range.

  2. NatF says:

    As the owner of three vehicles with an average mileage over 175,000 I clearly fall in the keep it as long as possible camp. Putting more than 50,000 miles a year between the three vehicles pretty much requires that though. That said New England driving conditions have made my high mileage vehicle (’94 K Blazer with ~280,000 miles) junkyard bound due to rust. It likely won’t pass it’s next inspection without thousands of dollars of work, well beyond it’s replacement cost.

    It’s tough to let go though, there are a lot of stories tied to that truck. Still it’s been spending more time parked than driving and just isn’t worth fixing. Perhaps it will become cash for clunkers fodder.

  3. Toolaremia says:

    It is *always* cheaper to repair a car than to replace it with a new one. ALWAYS.

    The factors to consider are reliability, availability, and safety. If you need a car that’s highly reliable and/or available (if it breaks down somebody is going to die), then it’s worth replacing at some point. Same story for safety; if the seats are going to drop out of the rusted floor pan, can it be unavailable long enough to get a new pan welded in, and will it then be safe enough to drive? Also factor-in if you have the time to deal with doing the work yourself or schlepping it to a shop.

    I’ve kept a few vehicles past the point any reasonable person with a paying job would have ditched them. But I’ve also always had other functioning cars in case one of them crapped-out. Most of my cars are over 20 years old.

    I did just trade in a truck with under 100,000 miles for a new truck. My reasoning was that rust was just starting to bubble up on the fenders (and I don’t want to deal with that right now), I wanted more towing capacity, and Dodge was slapping thousand-dollar bills on the hoods of new ones. I bit and love the new truck. But I’ll probably keep this one well past what a reasonable person would…. ๐Ÿ˜‰

  4. BJN says:

    Not me. That car’s really a 1990? Looks like the same junk they were cranking out in the 70’s and memories of breakdowns, slashed knuckles, timing lights and rust don’t really bring a nostalgic lump to my throat. I’ve driven too many miles in unsafe crapmobiles in my life already.

  5. Toolhearty says:

    BJN Says: …Not me. That carโ€™s really a 1990?

    Car in the photo is a 70s era Pontiac GrandAm.

  6. Jim German says:

    Hello, This is the year 2009 calling, Did you know that today cars can go around turns? Survive a rollover/headon/sideimpact crash? Accelerate from 0-60 in under 10 seconds? Get over 30mpg? Have an exhaust cleaner than the air thats coming into it? Go 15k miles between oil changes? Brake from 70mph in less than 160′?

    Stop mucking around with repairs. Take a picture of the Olds for the memory and promptly head down to your local dealer for your $4500 government handout.

  7. russ says:

    I believe the picture is a Lemans about 1973. I don’t think Lex was saying the picture was a 1990.

  8. Lex Dodson says:

    Nah, that’s just a car I’d see in a yard and think “fixer-upper.” Old cars don’t have a lot of the modern advantages, but eventually, they will inevitable be replaced, and then, Mr. German, we’ll come around to your way of thinking. In the meantime, we’ll keep turning bolts on our old rolling stories.

  9. Jim K. says:

    I’ve coddled and nursed cars along well past their perceived lifetime, and thrown in the hat on others well before others might have. It’s a mix of sentimentality and practicality. Right now my stable includes an ’02 Toyota Tundra, a ’00 Toyota Echo, and a ’69 AMC Rambler. Guess which one is being coddled along? ๐Ÿ˜‰ 2 practical, 1 sentimental. If one of the practical vehicles gave me the same sort of troubles that the sentimental one does from time to time, I’d be off to the dealership looking for a new one in a heartbeat. That’s not to say that I won’t wrench or repair practical rides, I just draw the line differently.

  10. Jim says:

    I have a Honda Civic w/ 140k on her. She’s just warming up. My goal is to get to 250k and see where we are. By then, I may want to upgrade. Cars by then will be worth it to upgrade. Better performance, gas mileage, reliability, quieter, better ride, better braking, better crash protection, better tech. I could go on, but I “upgrade” in very long intervals. I plan on running windows xp on my comp for like 12 years, in computer terms that’s an eternity. I don’t get sentimental, so that’s not a problem for me. As long as it’s not constantly breaking down and the upgrade is overwhelmingly worth it to ugrade, then I do it.

  11. HM Bemis says:

    Toolaremia Says:

    It is *always* cheaper to repair a car than to replace it with a new one. ALWAYS.

    Your statement may be true for a NEW car as a replacement, but not necessarily for a USED card as a replacement.

    My 1972 Buick Skylark had a cracked frame that failed while in motion, the result besides the frame damage was a damaged gas tank, ruined fuel/brake lines, torn trunk floor and a seriously messed up pair of undershorts ๐Ÿ˜›

    I was told that fixing the frame was essentially impossible as it had considerable rust even in the areas not cracked, a replacement tank could not be located, etc… I was able to buy a suitable replacement for $1000.

    My 1978 Cadillac suitable replacement ended it’s life due to a combination of failing state safety inspection (the floors and rear bumper were rotted to pieces), at the same time that it failed that it developed a very loud rod knock–spending the money on a replacement bumper and floor repairs, only to then have to spend $1000-1500+ on engine repairs? I was able to buy another suitable replacement for $3500.

    My 1987 Olds Custom Cruiser ended it’s life @ 256K miles with a failed engine–it had been rigged by a sympathetic mechanic who removed most of the engine based emissions equipment, a reman’d engine at the time was quoted as a $3200 replacement, but at that point I had over 80K on a rebuilt transmission and knew it would be a mistake to repair.

    …there was a dark period of 2 years where I then drove a 1986 Mercury Colony Park Wagon won in a poker game… we won’t speak of it any further.

    I’m still waiting to find out what kills the 2000 Ford Taurus ๐Ÿ™‚

  12. Matt K says:

    I’ve had a variety of cars over the years, and my best advice is to really think about it, sometimes it’s worth it, sometimes it’s not. I see no point in ever buying a new car again. I currently drive a 89 Toyota truck with 211000 miles. I bought it for 500, had the motor rebuilt for 1200, a few odds and ends, but I couldnt come close to buying a good runnig small truck for that price. It fits my needs perfectly. I drive it to work in town, and out of town getting 22 in the city and 30 on the highyway. I lug more crap around in the back of it in a month than most trucks will see in their lifetime.

    I searched out this exact vehichle because in my price range there is nothing like it available today. I will continue to keep it running as long as possible. This weekend I need a power steering pump. Other than that I have put a cap and rotor in it, degreased the alternator, replaced the AC fuse, and out of good habit only replaced the original toyota plug wires.

  13. Brew says:

    I have never really been the one to keep an old car, my wife drives them in to the ground though. I got handed the keys to her ’98 malibu and have been driving it for about 2 years. The motor died this year at around 250k, but a buddy who is a mechanic threw a different one in for $350. I wasn’t going to fix it, but it sure is nice keeping the miles off my truck and getting 30mpg instead of 12.

  14. Tom says:

    I just put a new head on a 90 Dodge Shadow. I may be nuts, but it works for me.

  15. Old Donn says:

    Never thought I’d ever get to this point, but I’m with Jim German on this one. There’s a lot to be said for just having to change oil and do the occasional brake job. Spent most of the 90’s honing my skills on the aging family fleet, all over 100k, a couple over 200k. Problems with old cars are like roaches. For every one you see, (and fix), there are 10-20 more hidden, waiting to put a dent in your debit card. I’ve had my fill of late night phone calls, (My car won’t start), and thrashing on Sunday night to get the car running for work on Monday morning. Unless it’s a classic Camaro, Road Runner or Mustang, it ain’t worth the time or the dough.

  16. Kurt says:

    I learned the hard way once that the point to abandon all hope is when you need to dump more into than you will be paid by your insurance company if it is stolen the next day.

  17. MeasureOnceCutTwice says:

    I nursed a ’73 Ford Country Squire station wagon to 18 years and almost 200K miles, and was truly sad when a corroded brake line broke, and I decided enough was enough. The rust was so pronounced the fenders flapped, the outer door panels flapped, and certain doors wouldn’t open. I had to add a quart of trans fluid and a quart of engine oil for every tank of gas, and each tank didn’t go very far. There was more broken than I had time to fix, but I still loved that car. Every now and then I have daydreams about restoring one with a proper engine/trans/suspension/brakes/etc.

  18. Bob The Drywall Guy says:

    I think the math is simpler then you folks give credit. if your annual repair costs exceed a given amount, which could be the cost of the vehicle, or as kurt referenced, what your insurance company would give you for it, then your ride should be cubed.

    It’s got to be about cost effectiveness. Simply run the numbers down, it’s nuts to spend more then you paid for the vehicle on repairs for it, annually. My last beater didn’t last 6 months, it cost me an average of $600 a month, between regular maintenance, cost of the vehicle, and cost of various repairs, including safety and emissions testing. For that coin, I could have driven a sweet new vehicle and squeezed free oil changes for a couple years out of them.

  19. flarney says:

    I’ve got a ’95 Dodge Colt [Mistubishi Mirage] with 200,000 K on it, and aside from burning a quart of oil every thousand K or so it runs like a top. Rustproofing, the dripping kind, has kept the body in good shape. A tiny bit of almost unnoticeable rust will get the Dremel treatment and less than an ounce of primer and paint next weekend. I love this car, 35 mpg in mixed driving, only the battery has ever let me down. Got home both times with a boost. Alas parts are getting tough to find. Its my Energizer Bunny, it keeps going and going and going…..

  20. Joe C. says:

    @ Jim German–Exhaust cleaner than the air that goes in? Then why not just run that pipe into the cabin and call it “heat”? 15K between oil changes? Not me buddy, although there have been advances in oil technology and metallurgy, I’m not convinced that we can suddenly increase the service interval five-fold. It’s only been in the last few years that I’ve been willing to go from 3K to 5K.

    And my favorite–the “government” handout. Cash for Clunkers is funded by you and me, we’re helping people get more for their trade in and further “bailing out” the auto industry.

  21. Jim German says:

    @Joe C. – You’re paying for the CARS Bill regardless of if you use it or not, so you might as well take advantage of it if you can.

    Just because its cleaner doesn’t mean its good for you, the Oxygen has been replaced by CO2 and CO, I suppose you might say thats not clean, but whatever, thats not really the point.

    The 3k oil change interval is decades old, and the only reason its still around is because lots of people have stand to make alot of money buy having you change your oil so frequently.

  22. Chevy_Man says:

    Yes, I would say its a 1974 Pontiac Lemans or Grand Prix.
    A great road warrior! Don’t have to worry about anyone scratching it! ๐Ÿ™‚

    Really, any car can be driven for a very long time provided one has the patience to work on it and if spare parts are available!

    I always see old domestic vehicles on the road, but hardly ever see old Japanese vehicles. Where do ten year old Toyotas and Hondas go?
    Or do Gearheads prefer working on domestic vehicles?

  23. Dave says:

    I’ve got you all beat, I think. Instead of extending my car’s life beyond what anyone else would consider reasonable, I bought a car that was _already dead_ and have kept it for nigh-on 20 years without having it log more than 10 total miles under its own power. First I dragged it to college with me, dead. Then I dragged it back home after college, dead. I got it running for a month in 1993. Then I stored it — at a commercial storage place — for years. Then I moved it from borrowed garage to borrowed garage for more years. Now it sits in my garage under a thick layer of dust, just as dead as it was the day I bought it. The car is a Corvair that was not worth the $200 I paid for it in 1989, and if it were in showroom condition (which it definitely is not) it would not bring what I have “invested” in it for storage and insurance (yes, I keep it insured – brilliant, no?). The economic logic of the whole affair is unquestionably idiotic. And hey, I don’t even like it that much. Has my taste in cars changed in 20 years – oh yes. Would I buy it again today – no way. Will I ever get around to restoring it? Probably not. But at this point I have simply owned it far too long to get rid of it. So there. And that logic, my friends, is the kind of logic we have in abundance on this forum, and which we should all strive to spread across our great land, especially to our wives and girlfriends.

  24. Toolaremia says:

    @Kurt and Mr. Drywall Guy — If your insurance company will pay you *anything* if your car is stolen, then it’s not old enough or you are a fool for carrying comprehensive insurance on a car you can afford to lose. Modern auto “insurance” is mostly a sucker’s bet. I have a 2005 RX-8 that I’ve already dropped the comp and collision on. It’s a small gamble, sure, but insurance is for things you CAN’T afford to replace. I can afford to replace this car.

    Also, Mr. Drywall, if your annual repair costs exceed the costs of a *NEW* vehicle, then yes, it makes sense to replace it. But if you are spending $8000 a year ($35k+interest/5 years for a new car) maintaining an old car to operate 100% reliably *you’re doing it wrong*.

    I once, about 10 years ago, bought a car for $650. I then spent $1000 on a new gas tank, catalytic converter, shocks, speedometer and front brakes. Yes, I spent more money fixing it than buying it. But for $1650 I had a reliable and fun RX-7 that got me to work and back every day in all weather for two years until an idiot rammed his Celebrity into the back of it at 35 MPH. I walked away from it uninjured and his insurance company paid me $1200. So I paid $450 (plus gas and oil) to drive it for two years. Major Bargain!

  25. Thomas says:

    I got a ’75 ford that was my first truck. When bought it had a spring running from the brake pedal to the ashtray because the feller that fixed it didn’t know you could bend the bracket to make the brake light switch work. You could reach up through the floorboards to get the keys if you locked yourself out (that’s been fixed). I keep it because my insurance went down after i bought a car when the old truck froze up. Literally, it got down to 8 degrees :P. It has moved about 5 feet since then. Under it’s own power. I bought a bicycle and barely use either the car or the truck. Go figure. I think I get a lot more MPG that way.

  26. JB says:

    The key is regular maintenance. I have a 99 ford ranger with 175K on the clock and it runs better than it did new (TSBs taken care of). Oil change with manufacture suggested grade oil and a quality oil filter. Air filter transmission filter and fluid replacement 10K miles or sooner depending apon conditions. Fuel filter every 6K the tanks we get our fuel from are filthy. Lube chassis, u joints and inspect all belts, hoses,wiring/connectors, engine and body mounts, stearing and throttle linkage every oil service. With basic timely maintenance reaching 300K miles should be no issue in warmer dryer climates.

  27. ambush says:

    I just recently stopped driving my 1990 toyota corolla, in the nearly two years I ran it I put around $750 into it including the purchase price. probably about 3-400 was for maintenance including oil/coolant and the rest was for upgrades or repairs. Nothing major is wrong with it now I just wanted to drive something less rusty and less Japanese. So I bought a Ford Bronco, it had been abused and hadn’t been properly maintained so it was fairly expensive to get going, But It still has a lot of life left in it,

  28. Zathrus says:

    @Toolaremia:

    And, once again, who said anything about a new car? It very well be far more cost effective to buy a used car than sink money into repairs.

  29. Jon says:

    My daily commuter was a 94 Pontiac Sunbird. The radio was busted, as was the A/C. It had serious rust problems. I didn’t care – I’d drive it till it died.

    When it died, it was because the starter went out. Yes, a simple starter. Because it’s mounted above the tranny on the firewall side of a transverse engine it is COMPLETELY inaccessible. You can see it, or touch it, but never both at the same time. Engine has to be more or less pulled and there is no way it’s worth it on a car with those other problems. Bye, bye Sunbird.

  30. Toolaremia says:

    @Zathrus — I did. Twice. And so did Bob Drywall in his post where he says “Sweet new vehicle”.

    No doubt a used car is cheaper, thus the story about the $650 car.

    (And yes, I fudge the numbers. More practical to talk about a $20k car. But even if it was a $10k car, if you are spending more than $2000 a year /on average/ making an old vehicle run reliably, you’re still doing it wrong.)

  31. Old Donn says:

    No matter how good a wrench you are, you can be the second coming of Smokey Yunick, eventually an old car reaches the point of diminishing returns. It’s not just the mechanical side, reliability enters into it. Unless you’re a psychic, you can’t stay on top of everything. It’s gonna leave you by the side of the road, guaranteed.

  32. Dr Bob says:

    I think that the decision depends on a lot of factors, but three are 1) how much of the work can you do yourself, 2) can you live with more frequent failures/breakdowns and 3) do you have a good supply of used parts.

    This one with the transmission problems is beyond my skills, facilities, tools and time to be able to handle. It also would likely breakdown more frequently than I would want, especially when the temperature gets to 30 below here.

    I also have to echo Jim German’s comment about the safety of older vs. newer cars.

    For the record, the family motor pool consists of the following:

    1993 Saturn SL1 – 230K miles – youngest son’s car

    1996 Saturn SL1 – 255K miles – just sold this to a family friend, eldests son bought a used Saab 9-3

    1999 Saturn SL2 – 152K miles – my daily driver – probably will hand down to my youngest son, replacing his 1993.

    1998 Somona 2wd pickup – 112K miles

    2004 Cadillac DHS – 85K miles – wife’s car.

    ???? ?????? – Dr. Bob’s less old car – to be determined, will be used – definitely want side impact airbags, stability control/antilock brakes highly desired.

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