By on August 14, 2008

Not changing cars is always the easiest option. Until it isn\'t. (courtesy 33 years Jane Hoyt has been driving her baby blue 1975 VW Beetle. Is it love? Madness? A '70's thing? When I asked her about the appeal of her longtime automotive companion, it was none of the above. "It's a story of inertia. Really, it's a metaphor for my life. I always stay too long at the fair." That last word struck me as kinda funny. If a car ownership is a metaphorical "fair," can you get a lifetime of kicks from a four-wheeled Ferris Wheel? 

Yes, the Ferris Wheel. It's a nice, simple machine. Like the Model A, VW Beetle and 1960's Chevy Pickup. While reliability-crazed motorists tend to focus on things not going wrong, it's important to remember that simplicity means ease of repair, and that's the real key to longevity

Simply put, if a mechanic working on a vehicle can quickly figure out what fig-a-ma-jig needs to be replaced, the car in question can usually be repaired in matter of hours, rather than days or weeks. It's going to be easier for an aspiring lifer to tolerate the problems that come along. Because once you pass a certain point in a car's lifespan, come along they will. 

Thankfully (for you if not the manufacturer), that point of plenty of returns is stretching-out further and further. Six Sigma, lean production and a variety of manufacturing standards and practices that you've likely only heard in passing have enabled all carmakers to move towards incredible heights of build quality and mechanical robustness.

At the same time, there've been steady improvements on the repair front. For example, mechanics– be they shade-tree or franchised– now use an OBDII scanner and Alldata (the name says it all) to diagnose and repair vehicles. Identifying electrical problems has never been easier.

Well, at least post'95 or so. From the mid-90's back to time memoriam, each manufacturer had their own unique way of doing things. To wit: most pre-'96 Volvos had little plastic inserts that looked like a magic wand which went into little holes of a diagnosis system. Toyota's diagnostic system was completely different from GM's, and Honda had their own system. 

In fact, cars often had several unique "languages." A mid-1980's Jeep Cherokee may have been given a computer system from AMC, an engine from one of three automakers and a transmission from one of six completely different companies. Throw in a multitude of carburetors and a diagnosing system from a long-ago defunct AMC, and it's no wonder motorists longed for cars that never, ever broke.

It was an automotive Tower of Babel, that forced mechanics to specialize. Which kept both labor and parts prices high. So how come there are still "lifers" out there that stretch back to this pre-historic times? 

As I perused the web in search of lifer stories, I found that most of the cars were those made by companies that churned out the same powertrain for as long as possible. Mercedes and Volvo are the two mantle holders of many elderly lifers. Daimler offered very long model runs for the S, SL and E-Classes; the Swedes finished a 20-year run for the Volvo 200 series.

The thinking back then: if a car model made money and customers kept coming back for new ones, keep making the same thing. Only do it a little better every time. Improving the design, making the parts more durable and maintaining the language of diagnosis and repair kept more of these vehicles on the road past the average life expectancy of their rivals.

And then we have to consider the owner. Lifers tend to have what I call a 'blue jean' mentality when it comes to cars. That is, if the basic shape and design of the vehicle fits their needs, they just keep wearing it regardless of the current fashion. They realize that holes can always be sewn or patched, tastes change with time, and that in the end what really matters in most daily driving is that you're comfortable.

But they also don't "let things go"– as most owners do. If they sense a problem with the vehicle, they make sure it gets taken care of by someone who can be a good steward for that vehicle. That makes a huge difference in their overall happiness with that car. In the end, 'knowledge' and automotive excellence enable them to do what they want to do rather than what society, friends or the modern media encourages them to do.

So, if you're looking for a lifetime automotive companion, you're a lot better off now than at any time in the past. But the rules still apply: simple is best, mainstream is cheapest and regular maintenance is critical. With a bit of luck, you'll avoid the roller coaster of high monthly payments, rapid depreciation, repair and hassle. 

[The three best comments on this post (as chosen by the author)

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72 Comments on “Lifers...”

  • avatar

    I think i’m turning into a lifer, I’ve had an 88 Samurai i bought 5 years ago, and i just keep fixing little things here and there.

    Its easy to repair long run, parts are fairly easy to come by, and i can still go to a dealer and buy anything i want for it. (granted some things are $$$$$$)

    I really have no desire to get a complicated car. New cars are over-rated, and reliability is boring

  • avatar

    Wow. Sounds like the translation is “Go buy a Yaris”.


  • avatar

    The key to knowing when to get rid of a car is to anticipate when the “killer repair” is coming: the repair that costs more than you could get for the car on the open market once that repair is complete.

    Ten years or 150k miles (whichever comes first) is a pretty good amount of time to keep a car from a cost/enjoyment perspective. A $24,000 car stretched over 10 years costs just $200/mo, or more like $160-175/mo if you can sell it for several grand when you’re done. You get rid of the car before the costly repairs start piling up, and you’re in something new – hopefully having saved enough money for for a hefty down payment.

  • avatar

    I can recall being able to purchase almost an entire Beetle from the JC Whitney catalog about 20 years ago or so…sheetmetal, engines, you name it.

    And the best part was, you could fix it yourself without a lot of special equipment.

    I can plug my notebook with HP Tuners VCM Suite into my LS2 powered TBSS and do and tell you all sorts of things. Not sure I’d want to fix some of it, though.

  • avatar

    Around here I still see a LOT of:
    * Old VW Beetles and Busses. (I’d still have my ’73 1303 if I didn’t get moved overseas in 97!)
    * Mercedes S and E class Diesels of the 60s-80s. Those things are literally bullet-proof.
    * Mercedes 450sl (and the variant 380sl & 560sl) of the 70s. They were “Doctor cars” back in the day and people kept them forever. Amazing given that they are also fairly good performers!
    * Original VW Rabbits, especially Diesels. Go figure.
    * Old F150 Pickups. They never die… well at least not the ones from the 70s.
    * Volvo 240s.
    * Oddly enough a LOT of Datsun 280z and 300zx cars… another “go figure” given how they were trashed when young!


  • avatar

    Another aspect not mentioned in this article is the sustainability factor. Keeping a car well maintained for years, rather than buying and selling over the same period also means less materials/waste. The financial aspect is nice as well, of course. I have a ’93 BMW 525i with almost 200k miles. Sure, thousands have been spent on maintenance over the past 7 or 8 years to keep everything perfect, but I have still come out ahead financially. And except for the paint finish it runs, handles, and looks like a new bmw.

  • avatar

    I am amazed how many people “can’t believe” I’m still driving my 91 Dakota. Bought it new, maintained it, only 100k miles on it. “Surely you need a new one.” Why? It runs. Fix something myself occasionally, get 31 mpg on the highway, paid for in 1995! Who needs a new one?


  • avatar

    re: “…Six Sigma, lean production and a variety of manufacturing standards and practices…have enabled all carmakers to move towards incredible heights of build quality and mechanical robustness…making the parts more durable…”

    perhaps. but haven’t you overlooked the ‘planned obsolescence’ factor here? it is my understanding that both mercedes-benz and bmw in particular – and probably many other manufacturers as well – now have engineering and design capabilities so sophisticated that they are able to know, in advance, precisely just how durable each component should be made, to ensure that none of them last so long that they hinder a steady stream of customers coming back for replacements.

  • avatar


    You didn’t say where here is, but you must not live in a northern clime. Most of the vehicles you mentioned (with the possible exception of the Benzes) are also rust buckets, and have mostly disintegrated in my neck of the woods (Ohio).

    In fact, I would say one other prerequisite to being a lifer is to live in a moderate climate. Few cars could hold up to 20+ years of winter road salt. For that reason, it is rare to see a car that old being used as a daily driver in this part of the country (unlike California or Arizona).

  • avatar

    * Oddly enough a LOT of Datsun 280z and 300zx cars… another “go figure” given how they were trashed when young!

    At the end of the day we begin to see the benefits of a over-enginerred, over-weight car. If you can avoid the rust on a 280zx it will last for ever. The 300zx appears to be one of the few Japanese cars of that era that did not have the dreaded rust problem. Outside of the rust these were some very sturdy cars.

  • avatar

    I bought a ’77 Corolla in ’85 with the 1.2 liter, and drove it until ’93. At that point, 1) I wanted a car that was more fun and 2) the rust had gotten to the point where it was very hard to jack the car, and due probably to rusty wheels, I had to jack it a lot (I had lifetime tire warranties from Merchants so the flats were always fixed). The third owner drove it for another year until his brother totalled it. It had 160k-plus

    Nice editorial.

  • avatar

    I think that the era of the 30+ year old car is dead.

    Computers and electronics fill today’s average car. These components do not age well, particularly when subjected to drastic temperature changes as cars are routinely, and they will be too costly and difficult to replace.

    Today’s cars may far more reliable and hassle free during their useful lives, but over the long run, they are less durable. There is virtually no 2008 model car that you’ll want in 2038, the thing would surely bankrupt you.

    With proper maintenance and treatment, that old Beetle will outlast whatever you buy new today. The new car will need less work, but it will die a nastier, expensive death.

  • avatar

    So many used vehicles out there were not taken care of. I’ve bought several (as we all probably have), which is what made me buy my last vehicles NEW so that I can take care of them.

    I’m looking at adding another vehicle soon, and I’m playing around with a used one? But so far two that I was considering both suffered from a lack of maintenance (and one owner claimed that it had been). (sigh)

  • avatar

    Anyone see that bit of news out the other day, about the guy in the Midwest with 1.3 million miles on his old Lincoln? He’s definitely a “blue jean” guy.

    Bunter1 : That might be true. A few of my friends have Yarii and upon examination, I concluded that you could steal one from the Toyota factory in three trips with a trolley and wheelbarrow.

  • avatar

    My dad maintains a fleet of French 2CV that he tricks out and tinkers with constantly. For repairs, he simply cannibalizes parts, as he can buy working 2CV for less than the price of an engine fan for a German sedan.
    And they keep going forever, even though each of his car has parts from 4+ other cars on, and even some parts he and his friends built themselves (turbocharger to increase engine out put from 32 to 38hp, for example :-)

  • avatar

    “From the mid-90’s back to time memoriam, each manufacturer had their own unique way of doing things.”

    I had a mid 80’s Chrysler product and with a turn of the ingition key you could count the flashes of the dash light and read any fault codes stored in the computer. Look it up in Haynes manual and you knew more about what was going on with the car than your mechanic.


    “Computers and electronics fill today’s average car. These components do not age well, particularly when subjected to drastic temperature changes as cars are routinely, and they will be too costly and difficult to replace.”

    There are exceptions. I had LeBaron convertible with the digital instrument guage. When I was nearing 200k miles (I purchased it used with 108k) the guages went dark. Getting a rebuilt one (apparently new ones were no longer available) was more $ than I was willing to part with. So I went to the local salvage yard. They had one available. I had to take it out of the car myself. I put it into mine and it lit right up. It had been sitting in the salvage yard for years in a convertible that did *NOT* have a top anymore in the rain and hot Florida sun. I have read stories of others fetching the travel computers out of boneyard Chryslers with the same results.

  • avatar

    thalter :

    In fact, I would say one other prerequisite to being a lifer is to live in a moderate climate. Few cars could hold up to 20+ years of winter road salt. For that reason, it is rare to see a car that old being used as a daily driver in this part of the country (unlike California or Arizona).

    Or to live in a very cold one. Vehicles here in Saskatchewan are the oldest, on average, in Canada. Part of the reason was the relative lack of wealth here compared to other parts of Canada (something that has changed rapidly in the last couple of years; we’re now one of the richest provinces in the country), but the other part is that our winters are too cold for salt. Salt works if your temperatures don’t go below about -18 C (0 F), but it gets well below that here so, except in the shoulder season, salt is only used in tiny doses to keep road gravel from sticking together. That helps to prevent a lot of corrosion.

    Vehicles have gotten a lot better at resisting rust than they used to be, but I see road rust a lot more when I visit Toronto (which has a much warmer winter climate than Regina does) than I do here. The lack of salt really makes a difference.

    The severe cold probably isn’t all that good for cars, but using engine block heaters here is routine, which probably mitigates the problem nicely.

  • avatar

    My mom’s Chevette was a crude and wretched vehicle that rode like a shopping cart and had an interior designed by a 12 year old… but its one redeeming quality was its simplicity. It could take a lot of abuse and maintenance was simple and cheap. She had it for years.

  • avatar

    You forgot to mention Saab’s pre-GM. Particularly 900’s and 900 turbos with that slant inline-4. Those things would last forever. Not as easy to work on as other car’s due to the engine mounting, but once you figured out what you were doing they were eay to maintain. A lot of fun to drive even at 20+ y/o.

    PCH101 has s good point about the modern electronics, they just make things too complex and costly to repair in the long run. It will be interesting to see what cars being sold right now we still see in numbers on the road in 20 or 30 years. Any guess which they will be? I have a feeling after all I have said the Prius will be one of them, the Honda Fit also.

  • avatar


    Be thankful you have a Father who is brilliant enough to recognize the masterpiece that has always been the 2CV.

    If everyone was driving one, it would be a better and happier world.

    Just the sound of a 2cv accelerating is enough to make anyone smile.

  • avatar

    The best cars for true “lifers” don’t have a computer at all.

    My daily driver is a 1994 Dodge RAM2500 pickup that’s coming-up on 200,000 miles. It has the 2nd generation Cummins 12-valve turbodiesel, which is one of the most reliable diesels ever put in a light truck. There are no electronic controls on it, except for the intake air heater screen which is turned on by the ECU. The transmission is still based on the venerable 727 Torqueflite. This isn’t electronically controlled either, except for the torque converter lockup and overdrive. The only other thing the ECU does is turn on the air conditioning compressor.

    I live in the rust belt with all the wonderful winter road salt. I maintain the truck well, and plan to keep it for many more years still. Besides, if I was to sell it, I’m sure I wouldn’t get a price that reflects how well it is maintained, even if the pickup truck market hadn’t collapsed. I had it repainted at 10 years old, I touch-up any stone chips and scratches promptly, and get it oil sprayed every fall. People are starting to take note at what good condition my truck is in.

    My 1966 Chryslers were built before “planned obsolescence” so most wear items are either easily overhauled or replaced. I’ve converted to electronic voltage regulators and electronic ignition, but they’re otherwise free of computers. Getting harder to find some parts now, but the chassis was essentially unchanged from 1965 to 1973. My Chryslers spend their winters in a storage garage, so no road salt worries. I intend to own them forever.

  • avatar

    Another factor in all of this is a dedicated group of owners who can share their knowledge. I have a friend who has an Audi 80 B3 north of 200k.

    Interesting you should mention the Jeep Cherokee (XJ) platform. You can just about order an entire car by the pound from the after market. The 4.0L straight six had a long production run.

    I could see running a 2006 Wrangler TJ out to 2036, but in many ways it is a low tech, no frills hold over from another era.

  • avatar

    I can see older VW diesels still being on the road in the future. The engines are fairly simple to work on and the cars generally last a while even in places that use road salt. Even more modern TDIs will probably still be on the road because the 1996-2003 engines were basically the same as the old IDI engines, just with some electronics added. My Jetta is paid for and now 5 years old, but I plan to keep it for 15 years, the same as my older Jettas.

  • avatar

    I’ve read that the energy it takes to produce a new car would keep an existing one on the road for 80 years.

  • avatar

    I have a 2006 Jeep Liberty CRD, a diesel without AdBlue / urea injection or particulate traps.

    I’m religious with Mobil-1 5-40, and upon start up don’t move until it is circulating, and generally let it idle at least 30 seconds before shutdown (letting the turbo cool a bit).

    I’m cautiously optimistic that I can keep it for the long haul, the Chrysler components will hold up.

  • avatar
    Stephan Wilkinson

    Since it looks brand-new. I love to tell people my 911SC is a quarter-century old when they say “nice car!”

    Also, I would disagree that the “killer repair,” as posted many posts above this one, is the one that costs more than the car would sell for. If you have to spend $2,000 to replace the engine in an otherwise excellent car “worth” only $1,800, is that worse than paying $20,000 to buy a new car?

  • avatar

    My neighbor has some crappy old Buick sedan, its a 1997 with north of 500,000 miles.

    How does he do it?

    I suspect him being a race car engine manufacturer has something to do with it.

    But still, 90’s Buicks were Sh*t!! And his is still running! Plus we live in New Hampshire and the car gets used 5 days a week to travel 60 miles each way to his work.

  • avatar

    Also, I would disagree that the “killer repair,” as posted many posts above this one, is the one that costs more than the car would sell for. If you have to spend $2,000 to replace the engine in an otherwise excellent car “worth” only $1,800, is that worse than paying $20,000 to buy a new car?

    That’s a classic worth fixing. Most cars aren’t that special, and would need to be thrown away when such things happen.

    That being said, I think that you’d need to spend a lot more than $2,000 to get a decent rebuild installed for a 911. It could still be worth it, but it wouldn’t be cheap.

  • avatar
    Stephan Wilkinson

    Not talking about the 911SC, which is worth way more than $2,000 and would require a $30,000 engine as a replacement anyway. What I’m saying is that if somebody owns an ’85 Volvo–or whatever–and it’s running just fine but is “worth” only $1,800, is putting a rebuilt $2,000 engine into it a huge mistake? I don’t think so.

    And forgodsake let’s not argue the exact numbers and years. I’m just pulling them out of my Abarth.

  • avatar
    Steven Lang

    Thank you very much folks. At the dealer auctions you always see late models in plentitude. But it’s the well maintained older trade-in that’s truly a great find. Volvos and Mercedes are actually my favorite models of yore, and I’ve probably had more of them than any sane soul would ever want to drive.

    Case in point… I bought a 1994 Volvo 940 wagon a few weeks ago for $600. Other than a few small scratches it still looks showroom now and has been an absolute pleasure to drive and own. I took it yesterday on a 300 mile trip through North Georgia and the Athens area and to be honest, I actually liked it more than my 2002 Mercedes S-Class.

    It has 244k miles and was taken to a Volvo specialist 48 times in the last 4 years (lots of highway miles and oil changes). In this day and age, it can be crushed for more than the price I paid. But for now we’re just going to use it to transport the family and dog. Oh and speaking of dogs, there’s a 1996 Stratus that will likely be recycled at a nearby crush yard within the next day or so.

  • avatar

    Stephan Wilkinson: What I’m saying is that if somebody owns an ‘85 Volvo–or whatever–and it’s running just fine but is “worth” only $1,800, is putting a rebuilt $2,000 engine into it a huge mistake? I don’t think so.

    It depends on how much you like the car, and how much you want to spend. If your limit for a new vehicle is $2,000, or you just don’t want to spend any more money than that, and you REALLY like that car, I say, “no problem.”

    It’s nice that people can keep old cars running, but there HAS been considerable progress in safety, comfort and all-around driving pleasure for most cars over the last 30+ years (especially within the last 15 years). For a daily driver, I’d prefer a new car more often than every 30 or so years.

    I had a 1972 Cutlass Supreme Holiday coupe for a few years in the 1990s. It was stylish, relatively powerful and sturdy. But driving it every day would have been a chore.

  • avatar

    What I’m saying is that if somebody owns an ‘85 Volvo–or whatever–and it’s running just fine but is “worth” only $1,800, is putting a rebuilt $2,000 engine into it a huge mistake?

    In most cases, I wouldn’t do it. Engine and tranny rebuilds are often done quite poorly, and a car like that probably has enough else wrong with it that the money would be good greenbacks after bad.

    If you were a mechanic who could and didn’t mind doing the work himself or herself, that could be a different story. But paying retail to have someone else do it wouldn’t appeal to me, unless the car was near and dear to my heart.

  • avatar
    Steven Lang


    I’m willing to bet that said Buick has the 3800 V6.

    Everybody else…

    My dream has always been to offer a nice place where folks could sit down, have a nice cup of coffee, and more or less do all their automotive perusing. Give them a computer with good links, a few well chosen magazines, and most folks should be able to figure out in less than an hour what usually takes weeks to thrash out.

    Let them get a near-new car at the auctions for cost plus 5%, and have a policy that if they drove they drove it for at least 10 years they could get the next one for cost plus $100.

    What says you?

  • avatar
    Andy D

    I drove bugs exclusively for almost 20 yrs. I smile every time I see one today. My current stable is 3 88 vintage vehicles. 2 BMW 528es and a Grand Wagoneer. I have parts cars for each. BTW, with decent maintenance an E28 can go 350k miles on its original drive train. I transplanted the current engine into the Grand Wag. It is a remanned longblock I paid 2k$ for 10 yrs ago. This is the 3rd GW it has been in.

  • avatar

    I say if you’re going to keep a car for over 10 years, try and make sure that it was either best-in-class at safety or was on the bleeding edge of it. That way, 15 years later, you’re not driving a Beetle that has nothing but a flimsy sheet of metal to keep the pick-up from smashing into you.

    That’s one of the reasons why I like my ’95 E320 wagon so much. It was $50k back in the day and has almost every safety component available today along with an ultra stiff frame. It makes for a wonderful daily driver and a good project car because as has been pointed out, once you reach a certain age of vehicle, there’s always something that wants attention.

    But the basic facts are that you have to really like the car in order to be willing to keep putting time into it. And it does need that time, don’t kid yourself. Not everyone has that kind of time, which is why they have (had?) leasing.

    As far as the “killer repair bill” fear, there’s really no such thing as long as you’ve owned the car for a while before a serious breakdown. If you know what you already have spent for the vehicle and you have a good idea what else may need to be repaired in the next few years, it’s easy to determine where you draw the line. The longer you own the vehicle, the higher this limit gets because your monthly costs are generally very, very low.

    In fact, unless if I have to get an entire engine shipped to me from Germany (not bloody likely) it will be impossible for my wife’s Toyota Rav4 to be cheaper to own simply because we paid almost twice as much for her car. It never breaks, but every car needs fluids, tires, etc so the costs add up.

  • avatar

    Oh sorry… ‘here’ is indeed a northern clime… in fact I’m living at about 48° N Lat, which is farther north than Chicago, Minneapolis, Ottawa, Toronto, and Montreal. I live in the Pacific Northwest… northwest Washington state to be exact. Our climate is cool and moist, so pretty conducive to long life of automobiles.


  • avatar

    A few months ago, I gave away the 1984 RX-7 I bought used when it was one year old. It was getting pretty seedy since I lost interest in the car about five years ago and began to “let things go”. Its replacement is an Infiniti G37S which I intend to take better care of. (Hope I don’t make a liar out of myself.)

  • avatar

    To add to Pch101 – As the owner of a 69 VW Bus and a 71 VW Westfalia, this isn’t a game that everyone can play. Long production runs help keep it sane, but at some point there are bills to pay, which are substantially lower if you can do your own maintenance.

    It isn’t just the engine that needs to be replaced after 37 years of use. How many folks are willing to replace every door and window seal when comes time to paint the car?

    If you don’t paint it after 30 plus years, there soon won’t be a body for the engine to push around. Driving a motor vehicle costs money no matter how you look at it.

    Modern cars will be a pig to keep on the road that long. The safety equipment alone adds a whole new level of components. The added amenities and electronic engine management systems will make keeping up with a 60’s or 70’s Porsche 911 seem trivial.

  • avatar
    Stephan Wilkinson

    Kendahl wrote something very meaningful, just above, about long-time car ownership: it’s the moment when you lose interest and begin letting things go that is the start of a rapid decline in the car’s reliability and usability.

    It’s amazing what it does for you as an owner to keep the interior clean–I never let anybody eat or drink anything in any of our three cars, and I thoroughly ShopVac it every month or so–and to keep up with exterior maintenance, which to me means two serious polish-and-wax sessions per year, maybe-monthly washings to keep it looking okay and underbody-hosing during the winter. I’m definitely not a Q-Tipper, since we don’t even have a garage out in the country here, but I’ll never let the car even begin to look like a beater.

    Now, this probably sounds like ridiculously minimal maintenance to the SoCal Griot’s Garage crowd, but I really think occasional but comprehensive attention to a car does a lot for long-term ownership. It’s not going to make this or that transmission or valve-gear part last longer, but a clean car without Big Mac cartons all over the back-seat floorboards and dribbling baby-juice cartons strewn here and there will, for a variety of reasons, last a lot longer.

  • avatar

    There is no such thing as a “lifer” car here in Nova Scotia. The amount of salt on the road makes it nigh impossible.

    That being said, it’s amazing how many GM “dustbuster” minivans I see in people’s yards. They all look great with their plastic panels, but everything underneat is kaput.

  • avatar

    Thank god we’re not all lifers. The economy would die and the roads would be filled with ugly, inefficient cars!

    On the other hand, I think it’s important for people to realize how much energy and thought it took to build and design each car, and that it’s worth taking care of, and not meant to be thrown away every 4-5 years.

  • avatar
    Steven Lang

    In the horse country of upstate New York, we used to always say that, “It’s not the horse that makes the difference, it’s the rider.”

    When it comes to cars… the same maxim holds true.

    It’s not the car, it’s the driver.

    I’ve seen 1970’s T-Bird’s still on the road as daily drivers here in Georgia, and I’ve seen three year old repos that were ratted out to the hilt with smoke and oil spewing out of the tailpipe. In virtually every case between these two extremes, it’s the owner that really has the long-term impact on the quality and longevity of a given car.

    In the game of ‘cars’, it’s the owner who is the pitcher.

  • avatar

    I searched everywhere for a 4th gen base model 3800 engine Firebird ragtop with low mileage.I’ve been driving her for 6 summers now,and I believe with care and a few repairs there is no limit how far it wiil go.

  • avatar

    I’d still be driving my Corolla now, if the water pump hadn’t seized in the middle lane of the 401 Express. It took the last life the poor thing had to make it to to the breakdown lane. I could’ve probably had the engine checked over and repaired, but the car had about five hundred thousand kilometers and just flat wasn’t worth it.

    I’d like to drive the Saab to it’s worthwhile end as long as the transmission doesn’t start slipping again; it’d be really hard to justify extensive transmission work on a high-mileage European car. But damn, is it ever a nice car, even if it sucks three to five grand in parts and labour per year.

    As things stand, the car is running the razor’s edge of cost-justification.

    Again, I want to be lifer, but there’s a cost/benefit point where it you run the numbers and it doesn’t really work out. Maybe when I don’t have mortgage payments or suchlike, I’ll be better-equipped to swallow big bills and/or do the work myself. Right now, at the kids-and-long-hours-at-work stage, the allure of set payments on a vanilla sedan is really appealing.

  • avatar
    Paul Niedermeyer

    As I’ve documented in the Auto-Biography series at TTAC, I’ve had my ’66 Ford F-100 (purchase price $500) for 21 years, and my ’77 Chinook camper ($1200) for some six years. Both have been on-going research projetcs in keeping them servicable for as little as possible (yes, I’m a cheapskate, at least with cars).

    I find this old Detroit iron to be very rugged and easy to keep running with a minimum of repairs. I just came back from four days at the beach with the Chinook, learning to surf. After not using it for the last couple of years, we fell in love with it all over again.

    I hate depreciation; I shudder to think what I would have paid in depreciation if I had bought several new pickups in the past two decades and a new Chinook ($80k). I figure I’ve saved well over $150k.

  • avatar
    John Horner

    I’m skeptical about the lifer potential of most current automobiles. Electronics and plastics are both multiplying by the day in modern autos and do not have a good track record once the years and miles pile on.

    BTW, I agree with Stephan that the common “killer repair” calculation often is the wrong one to make. Just because you couldn’t sell the repaired car for more than the cost of a repair doesn’t mean it isn’t worth doing. Also, in many climates rust has indeed been the great killer. This in one way where modern vehicles are much better than those of decades ago.

  • avatar

    Another interesting aspect of car longevity I’ve discovered is owning a car with an engine that ricers like to tinker with. Knowledge and parts for the engine are plentiful, and it’s easy to find people to tear down and rebuild the engine and transmission much more cheaply than you’d expect.

    On the downside, I’m a rolling theft magnet.

  • avatar

    My first car was a beetle. Drove it for some twelve years with a minimum of problems.. The beauty of the car was that I sold it on for more than I paid for it origionally to an avid collector of VWs. Class

  • avatar
    Martin Schwoerer

    Very interesting and satisfying article.

    My take is that a lifer should not only be robust and easy to service, but should also have acceptable fuel economy, and be pleasant to drive.

    That’s why I sold my ’64 P1800 Volvo after a few years of fun mixed with misery: it was a pig to drive, and neither fast nor easy on the fuel. That’s why I would also not consider a 2CV Citroen to be a lifer: they’re pleasant to drive in many situations, but altogether too damn slow.

    From a European point of view, here are some lifers I could live with (and as a matter of fact, I have some friends who do).

    – Mercedes 190 (smooth, compact, traditional Mercedes quality)

    – Mercedes W124 (P Niedermayer wrote about this one…)

    – VW Golf MK2 (don’t rust, good for 300k miles, can be extremely parsimonious. Tens of thousands are still running here in Germany)

    – Citroen DS (if you’ve tackled the rust and have a good mechanic who has fixed the hydropneumatics, these are beautiful cars that drive like a dream and don’t let you down)

    – Citroen Xantia (a surprisingly reliable, economical, comfortable car)

    – Ford Transit (hundred of thousands of Turks know what’s good).

    – Volvo 240 and 940 (a bit rustic to drive, but mechanically unburstable).

  • avatar

    What’s different nowadays are not only increased complexity in cars, but also bying habits in general. I can’t put figures behind my claim, but it seems that brand loyalty is down all over, in search for “the next big thing”. People who stubbornly refused anything but “their” brand can now be seen running around in whatever is considered the car to have at the moment. Hot cars like the Chrysler 300 or Ford Mustang are bought across the demographics, just to be almost dead the moment the next big thing comes out.

    When I grew up, my childhood friends parents were Ford-people. They only drove different kinds of slighlty used Fords, and they always had a couple of wrecks for spair parts in the backyard. I asked him once why, and he said that it was easy for him, as they were built up more or less the same way. Seen one, you have seen them all. Common parts, platforms configured the same way, and so on. And they were common, and they were cheap, and they were easy to repair and mend with for a DIY mechanic.

    My uncle is an Audi-man. Since the late 60’s and the first generation Audi 100, that brand and model is the only car he has had. Every three years, he leases the newest verison of that car, up until the latest Audi A6.

    I don’t see people like that anymore. When I grew up, in Sweden, there was the Ford man, the Volvo family, the Volkswagen man, The Citroen-freak, and so on. Every now and then, you could see someone that was into Porsche or Jaguar or Mercedes. You not only bought a car, you bought a brand, and it was for life. The wars at school between Saab and Volvo families was notorious, as it was common cars and so disparetely configured. A FWD Saab-owner wouldn’t touch a RWD Volvo car with a ten-foot pole.

    Now, it seems, a car has only a window of opportunity at 3 months tops. The car sells for three months, and if it hasn’t picked up a following, it never will. Ford Flex is an example of that. Whatever is new and hip sells the best, and in three months, something else will be even newer and hipper.

    The qustion of today could be, Is brand loyalty dead? Who keeps a new car nowadays for life?

  • avatar

    Seems like ’90s Buicks may not have been “sh#t” after all, westhighgoalie — time to reconsider the preconceived notions. They die hard; I know.

    Someone here mentioned seeing lots of still-running late ’70s T-Birds around. I’ve noticed this in NH, too — not as many over the past two or three years, but every one I do see seems to be a daily driver. I’ve also noticed many mint examples of a Lincoln Town Car or Mark V. It seems to me that Ford in fact made a few very durable vehicles at the height of the malaise era.

  • avatar

    I have to admit that I have a hard time keeping my cars for a long stretch.

    At work, there are the usual newer cars. One car stands out, though. A late 80’s/early 90’s Metro. It’s in rough shape. At one point, the guy’s hood must have popped open because I saw it in the lot with a busted windshield and the hood in the trunk! He drove it like that for a few month, cracked glass and nothing to cover the engine bay. One day, he car finally showed up with a new-to-him red hood (on a blue car).

    I admire this guy. The pressure he must feel every day, when he pulls in and sees much nicer and much newer cars around him. It’s sooo much easier to go out and buy a nicer car rather than stick with it. The guy’s job pays well for sure, yet he’s made the decision to suck it up and save his money.

    I applaud his self-control.

  • avatar

    In 2001, I traded a perfectly servicable Saturn SW2 in for a brand new Chevy Avalanche because I fell in love. Call me crazy, but the plastic-clad, midgate boasting TruckUV spoke to my childhood love of Hot Wheels AND Transformers.

    Seven years and 130,000 miles later and I realize I’m in it for the long haul. The drivetrain is still as stout as the day I brought it home. The ‘lanche tows, hauls, and yanks stuck cars out of the snow without complaint. It even does duty as an ice racer when Lake Huron starts to freeze and the local SCCA club heads out on to the ice.

    My only cause for concern is a rash of burned out bulbs that is slowly spreading through the interior. I can live without illuminated door lock buttons, but a radio missing the light from half its buttons has all the charm of a pretty girl whose smile is missing a front tooth. I hope this isn’t indicitive of future electrical problems.

    Even the body-on-frame construction can’t outlast Michigan’s obsession with salting the roads like movie theatre popcorn. Eventually the truck will rot out from under me. But in the meantime, I figure the trucks good for at least another 130K, and I hope a lot more.

  • avatar
    Matthew Danda

    My 1998 Isuzu Trooper needed a $5,000 engine rebuild at 99,000 miles. Time to buy a new car.

    With modern cars, maintenance costs can get frighteningly close to replacement costs. Sure, you can do it yourself. But that requires TIME and ENERGY and PASSION for the troubleshooting process. Most people don’t have that. And dealers and mechanics are VERY expensive and NOT NECESSARILY accurate in their assessments. Thus costing you more time and money.

    No, the days of being a lifer are over. The economics just aren’t there.

  • avatar

    Lifer here with a 84 760 Turbo. Except for a turbo with some seals that are failing, and the replacement of various interior bits that have become brittle, it’s a solid sedan that is roomy and still performs well (all relative of course).

    The Mazda3 wagon, it’ll get replaced someday…probably in 4 years when my little brother turns 16 (big age gap).

  • avatar

    I see some arguments above that when the repair cost exceeds the value of the vehicle, you should abandon it and get a shiny new one. What none of them have mentioned is that most lifers will have a much higher “value” of their vehicle than just the KBB. To me, at least, my car is worth way more to me than I could ever sell it for. Sure, I could sell it for a grand, but I’m certainly willing to pay for a $2k+ engine rebuild to keep her around.

  • avatar

    Sure, I could sell it for a grand, but I’m certainly willing to pay for a $2k+ engine rebuild to keep her around.

    The question is, when someone is depending on the car, can you put up with that? My Saab nearly stranded my wife and infant son when the transmission went into limp mode (it did this three times, probably caused by a bad sensor, but still). The repair bills, though lower than the yearly sum of payments on a new car, are unpredictable.

    Again, if I wasn’t working ten-plus hour days and I didn’t have very young children, I’d be more tolerant and would certainly have more time to wrench. But I don’t, and if the Saab throws one more major repair, it’s getting fixed, put up for sale and I’m signing up for low-rate financing on something that won’t give me grief.

  • avatar

    With the condition of used cars these days (ie. the lack of maintenance that they suffered under), I’d rather buy a new vehicle and take extra good care of it so that it will last as long as possible. I’ve had too many used cars that I had too many issues that were not build issues, but lack of maintenance.

  • avatar

    Yep, the job+kids+commute tends to put me off the older cars as well. I’ve had a few older cars, and some nights it was a scramble to fix the car so I could drive it to work the next morning. Usually, I had to change my plans, the wife’s plans, or the kid’s soccer plans or something because the car was down and I needed a ride to the store for parts, again.

    I have an anonymous minivan now. It’s no joyride but it starts every morning.

  • avatar
    Martin B

    Over a period of thirty years I drove only two cars.

    The only car I ever bought brand new was a 1977 RWD Ford Escort 1300 L, and I kept it for fifteen years. It was about as simple as a car could be: no electronics, no fuel injection, no pollution control, and it never gave trouble. I’d drive it 1000 miles from Windhoek to Cape Town without checking the oil and water; it was that reliable. The only reason I sold it was, the second time it got stolen, the thieves messed it up so badly it wasn’t worth fixing. I sold it to a panel beater who paid me MORE than my asking price (he said I didn’t know the true value and he didn’t want to cheat me.)

    Then I took over my sister’s 1981 Opel Kadett 1300 FWD and drove that for fifteen years. At one point it overheated when a welsh plug rusted through and the water leaked out. A back yard mechanic said it had a reputation for not being worth reconditioning, but I had it rebored and new rings put in and it lasted another five years but became mechanically unsound at the age of about 20. At its last breakdown my mechanic told me. “I never want to see this car again.” I guess there comes a point where fixing the car is as unrewarding as polishing a turd.

    My current car is a 1984 Ford Sierra 1600 which I bought dirt cheap. It’s had a new clutch and the head skimmed after blowing a gasket, but it’s deteriorating fast and not worth keeping for much longer. I can do simple maintenance, but anything more than topping up oil and water I have to take it to a garage,

    Keeping cars a long time is only a proposition for people who don’t mind what others think of them, or can’t afford to keep up with the Joneses. Both factors apply to me.

  • avatar

    I tend to like older cars. They seem to have more character than newer ones with a few exceptions. The one thing I often notice is pristine old jags with elderly drivers. I’m quite sure they had the car since new and just liked it so much they kept it. Either that, or they dumped so much goddamn money into it that they just can’t bear to think that money was wasted. Either way a 70s or 80s jag is a super cool ride for a geezer.

  • avatar
    Sammy Hagar

    I’ve got a ’98 Ranger w/4 cyl that I think will become a “lifer” for me. It looks practically brand new, has been mostly reliable…short of an electrical bug…and is perfect for crap duties to the dump, Lowes/Home Depot and various landscaping nurseries. I think the KBB on it would be around $2800; I doubt I could get anything similar for that price.

    So, while I may not put a million miles on it (since it only gets driven once a week), it will probably be w/me for the long-haul.

    BTW: I bet a lot of SUV and large truck owners are feeling the “lifer” vibe right now. It’s amazing how residual value can make a person start thinking correctly…

  • avatar
    Steven Lang

    Here’s a site that I like to visit every now and then.

    It seems that no matter the time of year, I always have at least one ‘classic’ Volvo on the driveway.

  • avatar
    John Horner

    That is a great story of brickboard. You will find lots of 240s in the hands of lifer-minded people. My daughter has a ’93 240 which she dearly hopes to drive forever. When I bought it two years ago it needed a lot of maintenance work due to neglect. Basics like oil changes and even tranny fluid changes had been kept up, but bushings, seals, suspension stuff and the exhaust system were all in need of attention. Luckily I’m able and willing to do all that sort of work myself and over a period of two months and many dollars worth of parts I put it all right. Had I taken it to a shop ( or gasp, a Volvo dealer!) for the work I did it would have been at least a $4000 tab.

    Part of the calculus for doing the lifer thing is whether or not you are able and willing to do your own repairs, if the basic vehicle is a sturdy design and if the long term parts support is there. If the ’93 240 needs a tranny at some point I will probably put one in. If, however, this were a 1993 Chevy Corsica then I would be loath to put a high dollar repair into it.

  • avatar

    Volvo 240 FTW – even better if it’s a Diesel, like mine.

    Take all the usual reliability of a 240, and subtract the Bosch FI issues, FTW.

    Bought it 2 years and 25,000 miles ago for a cool grand. I don’t think you can buy tires for a new Benz for a grand.

  • avatar

    I’m willing to bet most Lifers attain their status incidentally, as a byproduct of standing by their ride for years and decades.

    I’m trying it the other way, as I have a Scion xB I fully intend to drive until the day I hand it over to my as-yet-unborn child.

    I’m guessing it’s a mix of a well-built product and a devotion to taking care of the things that take care of you. I just heard about a 200K xB, only four years old, so I have reason to count on the well-built product part. And if I’m half as diligent as the car is, the two of us shouldn’t have any problem at all.

    I’m going to want a mention in an article in about 30 years, however. :)

  • avatar

    “The thinking back then: if a car model made money and customers kept coming back for new ones, keep making the same thing. Only do it a little better every time. Improving the design, making the parts more durable and maintaining the language of diagnosis and repair kept more of these vehicles on the road past the average life expectancy of their rivals.”Sadly, this was exactly Henry Ford’s line of thought with the original Model T and the reason the Ford Motor Company was overtaken by General Motors as the largest US automobile manufacturer. Unlike GM, Ford reasoned that people would keep coming back to buy a steadily improved and engineered (but similiar looking) product. GM, OTOH, went with the annual model changeover, basing new sales primarily on style. GM’s method of business won, and although Ford eventually caught on (mainly due to son Edsel’s foresight, whom Henry eventually browbeat to death), the damage was done and FMC never came close to overtaking GM.

    This was actually the failing of Chrysler Corporation for years. “Extra care in engineering” was their slogan and, although true, the well-engineered (but poorly constructed) Chrysler products would never come close to selling as well as their GM and Ford rivals.

    In fact, my choice for a ‘lifer’ would be the anvil-solid sixties’ Plymouth Valiant/Dodge Dart with a slant-six engine and Torqueflite transmission. Mechanics of the era swore by them and, while the bodies might fall apart, even a minimally maintained drivetrain would last forever.

  • avatar

    There’s a 1989 Volvo 240 in my backyard that I’m too lazy to fix. It won’t start because of some computer/ignition/timing thing. I’m also not that good with this type of car repair and I don’t have any money to buy test equipment.
    For all the people who said that new cars can’t be “lifers”. Remember that 100K miles used to be an amazing feat. Now we want our warrantys that long and cars are expected to go over 200K. The electronics can also be replaced. Plastics last longer than vinyl. Plus I’m sure people told you that cars from the early 90s wouldn’t last all that long but a lot of those million mile cars you read about are from the 90s.
    The problem I would have with keeping a somewhat older car now as long as possible is the safety issue. I’d look for a newish car with full side airbags, stability control and 5 star (NHTSA) and all Good ratings from IIHS to drive forever.

  • avatar

    What are the real downsides to a crate engine in an older car that you like? My cousin had a 240z with a crate engine in it that did very well.

    I have considered getting an old series II landy and putting in a crate diesel, but I wonder about what difficulties I might run into later. Those trucks last forever, and are worth it for the nostalgia. The Defenders are simply overpriced, as a totally clapped out one still costs north of 20k.

  • avatar
    Andy D

    Davey 49 , all you need to diagnose that brick is a 25$ multimeter and a decent manual. Brickboard will point you in the right direction.
    Land crusher, this ‘zactly what I did with my Grand Wags.

  • avatar
    Jordan Tenenbaum

    Another Brick lifer here…

    I have a ’89 240 Estate that on my way home from a date last night hit 268,000. Even better, she likes my car. I think they’re both keepers!

  • avatar

    Here in the south you often see ‘lifer’ pickups and work vans. I worked with a man who’d been driving the same Ford van for 25 years. He repainted it every 4 years, rebuilt the engine every so often, and had replaced the automatic transmission once. I think the old tank had about 600,000 miles on it.
    The fix or not to fix question on pickups and vans seems to be “Would a new one do the same job any better?”. I drove my old F-150 for a LONG time on that logic.

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