Wednesday, 20 April 2016

An Essay on Car Wisdom

After thirty-odd years of being associated around military people, bases, and posts.....I can say with certainty that I've probably had about 25,000 conversations with colleagues, associates, co-workers, and friends on the subject of cars.

It's an odd thing being in the military because it's lab of sorts for car experiences, brilliant deals, sorrows, and lost passion about a 'wonder-car'.  People will come to work and lay out their soul on some loser car that their wife wants to dump and they just don't want to pull the trigger.  Some people are search of an absolute fix which must not extend past $400.  I've probably conducted 1,500 discussions just on junkers and how to buy junker.  So, here is my ten bits of wisdom.

1.  When to buy a car.  (1) Anytime. (2) When junker #16 dies finally. (3) Tomorrow.   To be truthful.....any of these will work.

I worked with a contractor and a Captain in my office once.  The Captain came back from the Orderly Room one day, with an assignment in his hands....to some Pacific Island where there's only leaded gas.  He had just bought a brand-new Volvo for thirty-five thousand and had barely 2,000 miles on the car.  I asked him what he would do with the car, and he just shook his head.  My contractor asked if there was a price attached to the car, and the Captain realized he might have a buyer.  So he spent five minutes analyzing his purchase price, the Blue-Book value, and came to a buyer's price-minus eight-percent.  With roughly three months of ownership, it made some sense.  You have to remember, this is one hour after getting an assignment, and selling the car wasn't on your mind at 7AM this morning.  The contractor went and looked over the car, drove it around, called his wife, and concluded the deal.  To be honest....he didn't need the car but it was a deal he could not pass up.

I put a value on a regular car of X-amount, and if over a year.....you've spent more than a quarter of that cost on anything beyond the tires, lights, or battery.....it's time to put the car up for replacement.

2.  Fixing the old car.  Once you reach stage two of this.....you need to clean your old car....making it absolutely tidy.  Wax it.  Shine it.

If you know someone who has a steam-cleaner....have the engine steam-cleaned ($50 for a cheap decent cleaning).  If you get some quote of $150...that's for the special detail job and it's typically a waste of money unless you got a really oily engine.

The clean-up and steam job?  It ought to add $150 onto the value of the car.

3.  Research.  Ok, why are you dumping the old vehicle, and what lesson did you learn from that ownership?  Is gas mileage important?  Do you want more reliability?  Do you want more room for the kids?

You need to know the value of your vehicle (low-medium-high), and you need an idea about your next vehicle (low-medium-high).  Write the facts down.

4.  The condition of the next vehicle.  Most folks like a used vehicle....two or three years old....unless they've got extra money for a new one or no money....in which case....they are looking for a $5,000 replacement car.

Has the new vehicle been in an accident?  You can buy these reports now which tell you that little bit of information.

5.  This reliability game.  Some cars are maintenance "whores".....they bleed you year after year....$500 here, $200 there, and you just stand there and take it.  So doing the research matters.

Honda, VW, Mercedes, and Audi all have great reliability numbers.  Hyundai has climbed up in the past decade and become a reliable maker of cars.  Ford has regained some of it's reputation.  Nissan?  Avoid.  Chrysler?  Avoid.  Dodge?  Avoid.  GM?  Avoid.  Suburu?  Avoid.  Jeep?  Avoid.

The thing on statistical averages is that if you are buying a two to four year old car.....it's probably got a year or two where nothing bad will happen, and around year four.....you start to get back into real repairs again.  So, the averages play better with Honda than most other brands.....at least on reliability.

6.  How much to spend?  How much do you have?  You can spend $8,000 and get a pretty decent car.  You can spend $20,000 and get a lousy car.  It's all up to you and your master-plan.

7.  Extras.  Some extras are worth the money......most aren't.  Some people like the heated seat business......some don't.  Don't anticipate that the extras will matter in five years or add value to the car.

8.  The color.  There are seven or eight regular colors to pick from.  Typically.....on reselling.....weird colors subtract value (dark green, purple, etc).  If you pick some weird orange color.....and in six years come to sell it.....don't be surprised if the guy offers you $500 less because it's just not a color that he can market or resell.

9.  Buy from a reputable dealer.  If you see some great deal on Ebay, and the guy wants to sell a Corvette for $2,000.....there's probably something wrong with the VIN number business or some illegal activity underway.

10.  Never refer to a vehicle as your dream vehicle.  It'll become some boat-anchor and a problem later when it starts to go south and be a problem.  It's just a vehicle....not some wife, kid or pet.  You can let go of it easier later.

Loser Car Number One And Two

I owned two loser cars in my life.  Both have stories, and this is over car number one.

Somewhere around 1993 (Feb, I think), my wife needed a car.  I talked into buying a $1,000 car from the base 'for-sale' lot.  It was a 12-year old VW Rabbit.  There was some rust but overall, it was decent deal.....I thought.

The first issue occurred three weeks after the purchase.  She'd taken the kid and driven to Trier (a 20-mile ride), and discovered while pulling into a parking lot....that the brakes were gone.  Absolutely gone.  Somehow, she brought the car to a stop, and was able to call me.  I came down with the good car.  The brake cylinder was 'gone'.  If you pushed the brakes absolutely to the floor, you could get 20-percent of the braking value.  I made the silly decision of driving the car back to Bitburg (that was really stupid but somehow I made it), while she drove the good car.

All total to fix it at the base garage?  Roughly $600.

Six weeks would pass and a radiator issue occurred.  A hole, to be precise.  I had a cheapo mechanic that I found....that would put a new radiator into it.....from some non-official source.  That was roughly $200.  Later, I would figure out that this replacement radiator was used.

At this point, there was bad karma with the car and my wife refused to drive the VW, and took my car instead.

Two weeks would pass, and then I'd have these carburetor issues.  With a two-hundred dollar visit to the mechanic.....he said there was rust in the gas tank.  He put a extra filter between the tank and the carburetor, and gave me two spare filters.  He simply said.....I might need the spares.

Two weeks would pass after that, and I had to put in the next filter....because of clogging issues.

By the 5th month, I had a flat tire.  I was lucky.....that was only $25 for a brand new tire.

Over the course of June, July and August.....I had it towed to the base garage twice....because of clogging issues related to the rust.

By October, the mechanic at the garage suggested that I go and get a used tank off some junker and just replace the whole thing.  I wasted three hours looking for the right model, but the junk guy discussed the matter with me and suggested this was all a wasted effort.

In November.....I added up the whole year in cost for a $1,000 car.....I'd spent near $1,800 in various expenses for this junker.  I had violated one of the prime rules of when to dump a junker.

My boss was leaving in December and talked me into buying his car.  The deal was $200 for the car and a satellite receiver.  The receiver was worth $125, so you can guess the actual value of this Mercedes I was buying.  It had sat in a barn for six years.....had loads of rust on the right fender....but was a 12-year old luxury model Mercedes.  I dumped my VW at the base junk yard and felt happy with the new junker.

From the interior prospective, this was the dream car.  Big, bulky, automatic, tons of power, and you could cruise the autobahn at 160 kph (110 mph) easily.  The trunk was big enough to cram 40 cases of beer (my best estimate).  The seats were the million-dollar seats that you dream of.....and the engine barely made any real noise at high speeds.

The issue in the beginning?  The inspection of the vehicle.  You see....when I say rust on the fender....it's not a little bit.....it's MASSIVE. So I spent almost $300 on a whole new fender, which was unpainted and just tossed on in 16 minutes by some mechanic for cash.  The inspection went great and I was given two more years on the vehicle.  I felt happy.

For five months, I drove the ugly green colored "Beast".  I was happy.....no maintenance issues.

Then one day.....a slight thump-thump-thump noise occurred.  My new mechanic in Ramstein looked at it....cracked axle.  If I could find a junker axle at the yard.....he'd do the job for $600.  I just shook my head....it made no sense.  I loved the car and probably would have kept it for five years but I wasn't going to violate the quarter of the value for repairs in one year rule again.  So, I dumped the Mercedes at the local junk yard (I had to actually pay them $25 to take it).

Oddly, these are the only two losers that I've come to own in my life.