Wednesday, December 19, 2012

On driving an old car

Cars are freaking expensive to own.  The only way around the expense is to drive an old car.  The downside of this strategy is that now you are responsible for maintenance beyond what's specified in most owner's manuals.  And then there is always the possibility something breaks that leaves you beside the road with all the hassles and expenses that involves.  And there comes the day when something breaks that is WAY more expensive than the car is worth.

But I got hooked on the process of caring for old cars while driving a Saab 900 296k miles (476,000 km).  My strategy was if, for example, a rubber hose needed replacement, all the rubber hoses needed replacement.  I never was stranded and the poor car was still running fine when it died in a tennis-ball-sized hailstorm.  The other rule was care for the paint.  Replacing the engine is easy compared to fixing damaged or rusted sheet metal.  Paste wax, friends.  The BEST investment you can possibly make.

Gave my old Lexus its fall paste wax job on Thanksgiving Day.  Not bad for a car 17 years old with 165k miles—note the reflections of the trees. This is Minnesota—it was 61°F when I started, 39°F when I finished two hours later.

I am still learning to care for my 1996 Lexus.  A low beam goes.  I toy with the idea of replacing it myself.  I went to the Sylvania website and download their replace your headlight video.  They want to make you believe it is easy.  Not on the LS.  Lexus of Maplewood wants $65 (plus the 50+ mile drive to Maplewood).  So while I contemplate my options, I notice one tire is low.  I drive past several gas stations with no noticeable air hoses and wind up at the local Goodyear store where I know the location of the air hose.  I run into my fave mechanic taking a break.  He says he'll replace the bulb for "$15 if it's easy, $25 if it's hard."  He has to pull the air filter to get to the back of the headlight housing.

Now, every time I got my oil changed, someone has told me my air filter was fine.  And since I drive on paved roads with nothing especially foul in the air, I just assumed they hadn't found anything.  Wrong!  Taking off the air cleaner housing isn't hard, but there is something of a trick to it.  You need to want it off—for more than just an opportunity to sell an air filter which because of its round shape, the oil change stores probably don't stock anyway.  So since I got the LS, guys have been just waving at the air filter.  See below the ugly sight of what happens when an air filter is not replaced for at least five years.

Kid showed me the old air filter and just said, "I'm pretty sure you want to replace this!"  So he replaced my low beam, the air filter, fixed my tire and I was back on the road in 45 minutes.  It's fun to hang out with guys who know cars.  He considered the bulb replacement "easy" for billing purposes.  The good thing about the kids is they never knew cars without multiplexed wiring, or complex emissions controls, or oxygen sensors.  If they understand these systems, new cars aren't intimidating to THEM.

Drove the car on a short trip today.  Not surprisingly, it runs MUCH better.  I almost felt like I needed to apologize to my car.


  1. Indeed! Having buddies who are car fanatics is pretty cool! It’s definitely going to help you understand cars a lot better, since you’ll be sharing what you know with each other. And that’s definitely going to help strengthen the bonds of your friendship!


  2. As a Veblenian who subscribes to the notion that teams sport are what the Leisure Classes use to teach the "arts of force and fraud", I occasionally wind up debating the folks who somehow believe that organized team sports teach virtues like teamwork. "Bah!" says I, "You can learn teamwork just fine by working on a car with your friends—and you don't need to learn how hurt people on purpose. Try lying on your back guiding the transmission shaft while your buddy gently (!) lowers a 650 pound engine assembly into the engine bay from above."

    Back in the 1960s when I learned to work on cars, they were simple and unreliable so you got to work on major systems fairly often. But engine swaps were the most fun because you always had to do it with friends. (I had a friend with a 1964 GTO and we pulled the engine on that thing twice!) Good practice because the Producer classes must be masters at teamwork to organize large projects—and while the teamwork taught playing sport may produce effective armies, the teamwork necessary to build the complex and difficult is better learned in a garage.

    Oh, and if you live in a country (USA) where car ownership is nearly inescapable, you can never have too much mechanical knowledge. Knowing cars makes a huge difference in how you live your life. It's real economics in action. If you don't know cars, you are a fat target when you buy, sell, or have them maintained. Messing with cars—one of the great and most practical hobbies ever.

  3. Having just acquired a pre-owned car, I can totally see what you meant by taking responsibility for the maintenance. You’re lucky you don’t have really troublesome matters despite its age. You see, I didn’t just get to shoulder maintenance but also replacements the first week I got mine. Turned out, the previous owner didn’t disclose the problem about the turbocharger. -->Sandy Gonzales

  4. “I almost felt like I needed to apologize to my car.”--- Oh yes, there really comes the time when our car deserves to get an apology from us owners. We take advantage of them most of time so in return, we must give them the proper care and maintenance they need. If you really want it to last for a long time, you have to make sure that you take good care of it.

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