New Car or Refurbish an Old Car?
Merkel Weiss has been there and understands the problem.
Our Editor, Will Owen, posed the question of whether he should keep his older car and try to smog it, or if his money might be better spent rehabilitating an even older, more compliant car (or a pre-’76 that needs no smogging at all). Now, that’s a very interesting question you’ve posed, Will. We all love that old dog of an Alfa that currently resides in your driveway, but as it gets along in years the Bosch L-Jetronic fuel injection doesn't permit sufficient adjustability for it to pass smog. I’m sure that we all know how that feels.
The one rule that I have found to be most relevant is Peter Egan’s One Good Car rule. This means that every one of us who needs to go someplace by car needs one currently registered example of a reliable modern vehicle with functioning climate controls. Reasons beyond the obvious include the simple fact that if you don’t have to worry about how you’re going to get to Point A tomorrow, you’re much more likely to go to work on your project car and turn it into something roadworthy in reasonable time. I take it as axiomatic that due to the often oppressive heat of SoCal summer, everyone needs functional air conditioning. More power to you if you don’t, but you should if you want to arrive looking like anything other than an old dish rag.
Therefore, our One Good Car needs reliability first, followed by good A/C, good acceleration and brakes, a comfortable set of seats, and you should like to look at it in your driveway too. Failing any of these crucial characteristics, our good car fails too. It really doesn’t matter too much what the car is or when it was made, so long as it has the qualities necessary to perform its intended function of ferrying us around SoCal without any fear of breakdown, smog failure, or being confiscated by the authorities. How much one spends on it, what year it was made, how many doors, or fuel economy are all subjective and fall to the discretion of the buyer and his ever-changing priorities. It could be a 1967 Mercury Cougar XR-7, or a 2008 Toyota Corolla.
Buying a new car or even a fairly recent one is a whole different can of worms, requiring some real thought as to what I like, who I need to fit, how much do I need to pay, to whom, when, and ultimately, can I afford all this? A newer car is for most of us the most expensive thing that we will ever buy, with the exception of our home. A huge amount a research and shopping usually ensues and that means that we’ve already answered the big question of whether or not we can actually afford it. This is no small thing. I have never been a big fan of onboard electronics, because of their ultimate fragility in use. As I pointed out last month, electronic glitches can total an otherwise completely functional car. I’ve seen the replacement cost of a deployed airbag total a nice car. And although I fully realize that the electronic subassemblies are getting much more reliable these days, there are so many of them that it’s only a matter of time until the choice between repairing many nonfunctional systems or a buying a new car needs to be made. I don’t particularly like to be backed into that corner by some engineer’s decision that the manufacturer will save more money if he eliminates certain design elements intended to prolong product life.
That seems to make a pretty good case for an older car except for a few other hidden difficulties lurking out there. The biggest of these is the relative ease of parts acquisition. There would be a lot of reliable Oldsmobile, Pontiac, Plymouth, Saturn, and soon even Mercury cars if it were not for the fact that the parent company has sold them down the river. To all of us car guys, that means nothing less that a life full of parts acquisition challenges. I hear it every day: “Oh, they don’t still make that, do they? Must not be a very good car, you know.” Correct or otherwise, if there’s no longer a showroom with attached parts department, we’re searching through the Ebay and Craigslist and boneyard sources. This isn’t a fun endeavor for many people. I have found over the years that it’s always better to choose your one good car by the price and availability of brake rotors. If they are easily located for not so much money (as an example, less that $100 each), then you’ve found a car that can be fixed for reasonable money.
How do you know if a car is reliable if you don’t own it yet? That’s a question that has continued to elude some of the best, but conventional wisdom dictates that you first discuss your choice of make, model and year of car with someone sufficiently familiar with that exact car to tell you whether or not the choice is a rational one. Next, you hunt down a number of possible candidates from sources of your choice, and have a few examined by an independent mechanic, skilled in (again) that exact make, model, and year. He’ll tell you everything that’s wrong with the car in a prioritized list, sufficient to make an informed choice. Consider always that the asking price is just that. Bring up to the seller that the prioritized list of problems supplied by the independent mechanic still needs to be fixed. Offer to split the cost with him, taking half from the asking price. The worst the seller can say is no, and you can always walk away after paying the mechanic.
Generally speaking, it takes a fair amount of time and cash to do all of this in organized fashion. Finding a good used car that hasn’t been hit too hard, repaired too many times improperly, or costs too much is no small thing, especially since the used car market is thriving due to the extravagant prices of new cars. But hang in there. It’s not impossible, and looked at the right way it can even be some fun.
Finally, the credit problem that we see right now, by all expert accounts, is about to change. Loans will become more available very shortly and, as the credit strings begin to loosen, we should begin to see loan acquisitions returning to near normal in only a few months, some sooner. Don’t be overwhelmed by the difficulties. Hold fast. Having a well loved car that won’t pass smog is a situation that, believe me, you do not want to find yourself in.
That said, Will, keep your beloved Alfa Romeo and turn it into a project. You can even get a non-op on it from DMV if it’s not up to the task in short order. You might be paying off a loan but you’ll get where you’re going without being stuck somewhere.
For the record, the Owen driveway is graced (or disgraced) with TWO old Alfa dogs, both new enough to require smogging (which is a problem), and both constantly moving in and out of Project status (which really isn’t). There is also One (Very) Good Car, a 2001 Subaru Forester. If that one ever threatens to become a Project, it’s outta here! – Will Owen