Monday, October 31, 2005

The Thousand Dollar Car Theory

Even though I do want a new car at this point, I have nevertheless always been a great fan of the Thousand Dollar Car theory. Here it is in a nutshell:
Cars cost money to buy and run. The more expensive a car you buy, the more money you will lose on it, by depreciation alone if nothing else. A good way to save money on a car is to buy an old beater for a meager sum, usually not exceeding the equivalent of USD1,000. If it is still capable of moving under its own power, it is statistically likely to stay mobile for more months than it would usually take you to spend $1k on payments for a new car. Once it requires anything more than a trivial sledgehammer-and-WD40 fix, you scrap it and get something new.
The assumption is that $1000 is just short of non-money, so the car will actually have some life left in it. You don't need to spend money on maintaining it, and you don't need comprehensive insurance. Plus, at that point the price of a car has very little to do with its class or prestige; you can buy a Mercedes W123 for the same money as a same-year Corolla. True, the Merc will use more gas, but other than third-party insurance it really is your only cost.

The obvious downside is reliability, but it's really not that bad. Unless you really don't pay attention when you buy the car, you'll probably get a fairly decent example - the ones that had major issues wouldn't have lasted this long. You don't need to worry about squeaks and bumps and grinds; get a RWD car and you'll eliminate one major source of trouble (front CV joints). Get a car with chain-driven cams instead of a belt, and you're rid of another.

I'm on my third car right now, and all of them have cost appreciably less than $1000. The first was a Volvo 245; a lovely machine by all accounts. It's something you fall in love with, and while some car nuts may ridicule it, anyone who's owned one will know just how special a Volvo 200 is. Mine was a 1977 estate, dull blue with the round headlamps. The tailgate wouldn't close, it just kind of hung there; the driver's door was opened and closed with a pocket knife instead of a key. The engine, a scrapped 2.3 injection unit from a later car (a 700, I believe) was retrofitted with a vertical carburettor; and the gearbox was a four-speed manual with electric overdrive. You simply pushed a button on the gearlever to swith from 5th to 4th, which was immensely useful when overtaking. Repairs for it were limited to 10 Euro for resetting the ignition tolerances; it also had an oil change and some new coolant, but that was it. Alas, I drove it into the back a panel van one morning.

The second was a 1982 Mazda 323 three-door. It had a 60bhp 1.3 engine with a carburettor that kept getting clogged up. I spent a bunch of money getting it cleaned, although the eventual fix was as simple as a fuel filter replacement. It also got a new battery, and a set of winter tires. It kept getting broken into, the rear hatch lock was torn out, so I just filled it with that hardening mass stuff - the one where you mix together two components, and it eventually becomes tough as stone. The carb thing was a proper pain, but otherwise it did a good job. At one point it got loaded up with five crates of spare parts for inflatable dildos! (Long story.) Oh, and it was nigh-on impossible to find windscreen wipers that would fit - it had this useless 80s Japanese attachment system with a pin that connected the blade to the arm. Anyway, the first proper snow day, I was driving it from Capital City to Campustown, saw a dog in a turn, swerved, lost control, slid down the Armco on the outside of the bend, and crashed head-on into a Mondeo. Thanks to seatbelts and the fact that the impact was on the passenger's side, I had no permanent injuries other than a bit of a recurring neck ache that limits my headbanging abilities somewhat. The Mondeo's driver, an older lady, had to spend over two months in the hospital, despite both seatbalts and airbags!

And now I have my third, a 1988 Honda Accord EX. Costs to date include welding the exhaust back together (it fell out twice, once on the highway), plus a new battery. Other than that, an oil change, new air filter and new brake pads. The oilpan has a leak in it (gasket, apparently) and it smokes a lot when cold, but hey - as long as it runs...


antyx said...

Hey - I felt bad about it, and I got an administrative conviction from the police. I wasn't drunk, I wasn't speeding, and her car was much safer than mine. The jolt probably triggered some long-existing medical problem, and while I was responsible, my guilt is mitigated.

Unknown said...

You should take a gander at the lyrics for 1000 Dollar Car by the Bottle Rockets, they are so true to life.


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