A lot of people pay a lot of money for cars with status, so they can see themselves as global explorers, urban sophisticates, retro-studs, bad girls - you name it. And all they need is either a buttload of cash, or more likely, an unlimited line of credit (in other words, eternal debt).
I want only one thing from a car - reliable transportation. Its job is to get me from here to there and back again - no more, no less. Thus I've evolved several ironclad rules of car ownership.
First, I buy only used cars. The issue here is pretty simple: Let some other fool pay for its depreciation. You buy a new car and as soon as you're off the lot, it's worth a whole lot less than it was only minutes before. Then if you keep driving it, say for ten years, even if it's in tip-top shape, you've lost your total investment. And this doesn't count all the interest you dumped into it, never to be seen again, except by some CEO as part of his trillion dollar bonus for that year.
Of course, the car will hold its value if you'd trade it in for another new car, for another exorbitant price, for another cycle of debt and depreciation, and so on till death do you part.
My car is a 15-year-old Honda and I'd keep it for another fifteen years if two things weren't stopping me.
The first is all the salt on our roads, so much of it that every winter I think they should change My Home Town's name to Salination Lake.
The other is the grim prediction made for me by the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company. According to their life expectancy charts, in fifteen years my only forms of transportation will be either downy wings, if I'm lucky, or cloven hooves if I'm not.
Such morbid musings aside, I'm going to keep both my car and me alive as long as I can.
This doesn't mean I fuss over the car's cosmetics, because I don't. Dings and dents season its rugged exterior; detritus and dog hair give its interior a homey, lived-in look.
But don't think because I'm apathetic to the car's aesthetics I've got the same attitude about its functionality. I worry a lot about how well my car runs. My attitude toward it is like my attitude toward myself: I'm far less concerned with how I look than how I feel. So while I'll never whiten my teeth, you can bet your bip I'll floss them every day.
Similarly, I keep a close eye on my car's maintenance, and not merely the routine stuff either. Of course, I change the oil, hoses, batteries, as well as the bigger stuff like brakes and the exhaust system, when needed. You can't save any money there, since new cars need those things replaced routinely too.
But beyond that, since my cars are so old, I need to replace stuff you'd never replace on a newer car, like shocks, brake lines, alternators and the like. But if it's still dependable and has years to, I'll gladly spring for that stuff, because no matter how you cut it, it's still cheaper than paying off a new car.
Q's and Q's
Because I've always had old cars, I'm keenly tuned into their quirks and queernesses, so when a new one presents itself, I immediately take notice. This happened last week when I suddenly noticed a strange squeaking when I turned the steering wheel and a weird creaking when I hit a bump or pothole (which in town is all the time).
It was one of those horrible metal sounds, like what I imagine a bridge girder sounds like before it suddenly collapses.
And beyond the squeak and creak, if I was turning the steering wheel AND hitting a pothole, there came from under the front end a horrific SHRIEK!
Last year I heard a sound very much like it. It - like the trumpets announcing Armageddon - heralded the death of my ball joints. I had them replaced and it only cost a little less than a week-long, all-expense-paid vacation in Acapulco - airfare included. But that was OK - I've been to Acapulco enough.
No matter - my car was up and running with no shrieking and creaking from it, and no freaking and peaking from me - till this latest "disturbance."
What to do?
I did the only things I could: First I made an appointment with the boys at Evergreen. Then I considered taking out a second mortgage.
Ever the optimist, by the time I'd pulled into Evergreen, I was pretty cool; I'd already accepted the worst. All that remained was knowing exactly what was wrong and how much it'd cost me.
After handing Dave my keys, I wandered into Brother Steve Sullivan's office.
Being in a salesman's office when your car's up on the rack can be like being in an undertaker's office after the doctor just gave you the thumbs-down, but I refused to surrender to such defeatism. Instead, Br. Steve and I chatted amiably about going to the Democrats' pancake breakfast, a couple of weeks hence. Neither of us lives in the village so we can't vote for them in the upcoming election, but we agreed we sure could eat their pancakes.
Then, mid-flapjack jaw-flapping, Dave popped in.
"Well?" I asked, with a heavy (but palpating) heart.
"It's the struts," he said.
"OK," I said. "So how much would it cost to replace 'em?"
"Hmmmlessee," muttered Dave, eyes screwed up, adding the prices of that work order in his head. "there's the struts themselves, the m-clamps, the fragilatorstwo pairs of kazzersgotta replace the gomer plates too"
Finally, he reached the end of his list.
"Ah, it'll run ya somewhere around five hundred bucks," he said.
"All right," I said, in acknowledgement, not agreement. "And what'll happen if I don't have 'em replaced?"
"Nothing," he said.
"Whattaya mean, nothing?" I said. "They're screwed up, aren't they?"
"Yeah," he said. "But that doesn't affect anything."
"Uh-uh. They're a sealed unit. They won't hurt your ride, your steering, your tire wear or anything. They'll just keep making those horrible noises."
Five-hundred simoleans to get rid of horrible but harmless noises? Not only was it not a lengthy debate - it was no debate at all: The noises were going to die when the car did.
And in the meantime, they wouldn't bother me at all. And you want to know why?
It's due to the two things God invented for just such a problem - a car CD player and rock and roll.