By on October 8, 2012

TTAC Commentator nickeled&dimed writes:

Hi Sajeev,

How does one keep an old car going on a shoestring budget? I do repairs myself, which helps, but sometimes I don’t quite pull it off correctly, as my power steering belt loudly proclaims every morning when I cut the wheels to pull out of my parking spot. With a list of items that are showing wear, how do I prioritize, and how do I know when to start shopping for another 10-year used car?

I like to do my own wrenching, and have a basic tool set, decent mechanical knowledge, and neighbors that don’t call the cops when I work on my car in the street outside my house. Actually all repairs take place in the street outside my house with hand tools only. This last piece, however, means that absolutely no involved repairs can take place at home.

My 2000 Subaru Legacy GT Wagon has got to be one of the better cars I’ve owned. It handles nicely in the wet and snow (which has decided not to appear this winter), and it invites a lead foot. It is, however, starting to eek up into the “high mileage” bracket, and I’m concerned about keeping it going. A bit of history – I bought the car four years ago from a curbing operation (before I knew what that was and to run away quickly). The car had a sprightly 102k on it, was nice and clean, and only had a teensy bit of trim that had gotten caught and bent back, which I wrote off as “just aesthetics”. It should have been a sign of general neglect. One of the first things I did, after the purchase, was to take it to a Dealership, who informed me how woefully I’d checked out the car – they ended up replacing the rear main seal and timing belt, and an 02 sensor that tripped the Check Engine light 10 miles after signing the check. Shortly afterward I replaced a leaky valve cover gasket myself, and discovered a stripped hex bolt on the side that wasn’t leaky… preventing me from doing the job on both sides. This other side has a slow leak now. I’ve also replaced the plugs and wires, and paid out the nose to have a leaky A/C system fixed. I’ve replaced tie rods, steering knuckles, boots, and brakes as those each wore out, and keep the car aligned and shod in decent all-seasons. At 160K I noticed the belts looked pretty bad, and when I replaced them they fell apart along the bottoms of the V-grooves, I guess I should have caught that sooner.

But, as the car has just reached it’s 170K oil-change, the maintenance items are starting to pile up. I’m not sure why the engine shakes so much, possibly just a trait of the H-4? The check engine light comes on intermittently, but is never on when I finally decide to take it in to see what it’s about. Thankfully it was off when getting inspected, too. It never lasts a full tank’s worth of driving. The aforementioned valve cover gasket with stripped hex bolt is leaking slowly, which gives a faint odor of burned oil from the engine compartment (I think, or else the smell is from a more serious problem). I’m concerned about the condition of the hoses, as I’ve had leaky fuel lines under the hood, at a connection, that I’ve had to re-tighten a few times. Part of why the car invites a lead foot is that to merge onto the highway you bury the accelerator and wait, and eventually the transmission will downshift and you’ll take off. The same trait makes it a bit of a struggle on West Virginia forest roads, mountain passes, or hotshoe passing maneuvers.

I use this car like a small pickup truck, it hauls plywood, sheetrock, lumber, construction debris, dogs, camping gear, costco runs, friends, beer, and takes me to work every day. I’ve totally wrecked the interior. I’m wondering what more I should be doing to keep this going. The little things I can take care of myself – I’m getting ready to tackle a transmission fluid replacement, with the next oil change. The hesitating and lack of power are things I’m not qualified to fix, if the fluid change doesn’t help. Things like shocks – it’s starting to wallow a bit in corners – maybe because of repeated overloading – might be more than it’s worth to fix, since it’s definitely beyond my shade-tree skills.

So, do I spend a few thousand dollars over the next two years fixing the Subaru, or do I sell for $1000, and browse the bottom of craigslist for a minivan with maintenance records, that might be able to fit the next sheetrock run inside, vs. on the roof? The thing I’m afraid of – not knowing what sorts of problems I’m inheriting, like accidents that didn’t make it onto the CarFax. Also, the car shows clear signs of total neglect now that I’ve used it like a pickup, and I’m not sure $1000 is even reasonable to dump it.

I hope this helps stock your Piston Slap Pipeline. I’m in no hurry. Unless, of course, I do something to the car during my untrained wrenching sessions that makes it stop being reliable.

Sajeev Answers:

Thanks for writing. At this age and mileage, it’s no small feat to work on a boxer engine’d Subie on the street.  I hope you’re using the Subaru forums for help/advice on your diagnostic woes, and that you just forgot to mention that in your otherwise very comprehensive letter.  If not, get on the forums ASAP.

The first thing to research is how to replace most/all rubber hoses under the hood. If you smell fuel, start there.  Odds are they can help in replacing the coolant hoses too.  And a bad idle/check engine light can be just a series of fried vacuum lines…maybe a bad PCV valve too.

Then start checking codes, since the check engine light comes on…there must be a stored code!  Get the code, Google it, find a repair thread about it on the forums. And those are just the basics of any car in this condition. We haven’t even addressed the suspension wear!

Is this Subie worth keeping?  Probably not.  You have to really love the car to keep it in tip-top shape now, and I’m not feelin’ that in the tone of your note. Sell it whenever you feel the need, it’s been a fine steed but you know when to say “Uncle” better than anyone else: no one else can walk a mile in your shoes!

Send your queries to Spare no details and ask for a speedy resolution if you’re in a hurry.

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26 Comments on “Piston Slap: When To Say Uncle?...”

  • avatar

    I’m wondering if the engine shaking could be broken/cracked motor mounts…

  • avatar

    The condition as described, plus the poster’s lack of any real attachment say it is time bid farewell. 170K on struts? There’s no damping left. As am owner of the multiple car high mileage/10 plus club, the secret is replacing the wear items before the strand you or worse, do severe damage. Timing belts/ALL hoses/T stat/ belts/filters, etc should be replaced on a schedule. Obviously you can’t catch all things – fuel pumps, alternator, etc can kill your car. I never have proactively replaced these but for whatever reason they always failed so close to home I could drive. I guess that is my car thanking me for keeping it alive for so long. There is a certain satisfaction out of keeping a car alive and in pristine shape for so long. For me, if I get tired of it before it is not worth fixing, I usually give it to someone who really needs a car but can’t afford to buy one. Finding that person is a bit of a challenge, but if you have ever helped somebody in real need out of a bind it is a pretty good feeling. I lose the tax break but who cares. The days of the good car donation tax break were taken away a long time ago.

    EDIT: If I had all those problems as the OP had, I think I would have dumped the car long ago. I have never had that many repairs, even at 200 plus and over 15 years of age. That car was either a “bad” one or the victim of severe neglect and abuse.

    • 0 avatar

      “…I usually give it to someone who really needs a car but can’t afford to buy one. Finding that person is a bit of a challenge, but if you have ever helped somebody in real need out of a bind it is a pretty good feeling. I lose the tax break but who cares. The days of the good car donation tax break were taken away a long time ago.”

      Yep. Thanks to this site, I’ve found that donating a car is not the way to go. I will likely sell to a needy person for $1000 or close to wholesale value and then donate that to charity. That way, a person gets a decent car for a decent price, and the charity gets a better donation to use toward their cause.

  • avatar
    Carl in NH

    Hey 5&10-ed:

    GOod thing to invest in is an OBD reader. They sell for low money nowadays. You can probably get one that will read the engine code, as well as clear it, for less than $30. (I think your generation Subaru uses protocol ISO-9141)

    Also, there is some Subaru-oriented OBD freeware, FreeSSM, which you can download easily and use from a laptop.

    (All you need to buy is the connector, OBD port to USB. VAG-COM makes one).

    At the very least, the first thing, the OBD reader, is something you could also potentially use for checking other car’s OBD codes (Depending on the protocol used, of course). I have done this quite a bit.

  • avatar
    Andy D

    What it boils down to is how much you like the car. I have no clue as to how bad valve covers on a boxer are to work on.. But a small stripped bolt is a fairly easy thing to deal with. Provided you have room to work. If it is just rounded off, uses a hammer and a punch to give the face of the bolt some shock. Then sa spritz of penetring oil. Next, try a 6 point socket on the bolt. If it doesnt grab, go down a size using a slightly smaller socket. Try an inch size socket and drive it onto the bolt with a hammer.

    • 0 avatar

      Agreed that you should try a 6-point rather than a 12-point socket, but don’t jump right into the hammer and punch, which will be nigh-on impossible on a boxer without pulling it out first.

      Go to google shopping and search “bolt extractor.” They’re handy sockets that you use just like a normal socket, but they deform the heck out of a rounded bolt head to get bite and remove the bolt. Obviously you will need to replace the bolt after removing it, but a set of these saved my bacon when I was working on a 99 DOHC EJ25. Your Subie should have better valve cover access compared to a DOHC motor.

      Also you mention replacing the spark plugs shortly after buying it at 102k, but make no other mention other than you’re past 170k. If you haven’t done the plugs again, do them. 70k is more than you should expect out of plugs and that could be causing a rough idle, although IMHO boxer 4s never do idle anywhere near what I’d consider “smooth.”

      I agree that even if it isn’t showing a code, a code that repeatedly trips a CEL may well be stored and would still show on a scanner. Either Advance or Auto Zone (or both?) will hook up a scanner free, so it’s worth a check even if the light isn’t on at the time.

    • 0 avatar

      Thanks for the tips.
      I did find a 6-point socket, but the rustiness of the bolt prevented it from fitting all the way down onto the bolt. Penetrating oil, smacking with a hammer and punch, nothing seemed to want to get it free. I even tried filing a groove into the head and removing with a small wrench and flathead driver bit (not enough room for an actual screwdriver).

      I ended up with one of those bolt-extractor type things, which did get it out eventually. New one went in, all sealed up tight.

      Except the seeping gasket wasn’t the only oil leak, unfortunately. I haven’t pinpointed this next one, but it’s probably what was causing the burned oil smell all along, and it’s gotten worse since the valve cover gasket replacement.

  • avatar

    I’ve been lurking here for quite some time; this is my first comment.

    The regulars on this site seem to worship guys like this, but I wonder if you’ve ever lived near one. I live several houses down from a guy like this; always working in front of his house on one of his cars. My neighbor has 3 vehicles (all daily drivers) in various stages of disassembly. It is impossible to get through the alley to my driveway on weekends; he blocks it with his current repair as he trys to get one of his daily drivers up and running for the next week.

    BTW, he’s a middle-manager for a telecom and probably makes as much as any one of us. I understand wanting or needing to save money, but this is just silly.

    Hopefully nickledanddimed lives out in the country, where his old-car hobby won’t impact other people.

    • 0 avatar

      I appreciate that sentiment, and I try not to be much of a bother to my neighbors.

      I do live in a city, in an area where there are a large mix of populations – elderly, well-off, not well-off, those who work on their cars in the backyard, those who let their garage fall in on a 1982 Lincoln Continental that doesn’t appear to have moved in decades, neighbors who park their Acuras on the street (beaked ’09) and neighbors who immaculately maintain their 1980’s Mercedes.

      So, with this backdrop, I don’t feel bad about working on my car in the street, but I also don’t do repairs that a) take more than a few hours, or b) will immobilize the car if something goes wrong, i.e. no exploratory taking-apart sessions.

      I don’t think I count as one of “these guys” that the B&B worship – “these guys” take better care of their cars in the first place, enjoy driving more than I do, and probably don’t need to ask the kinds of questions I’ve been asking.

  • avatar

    This may sound like a broken record but I sure do recommend a small pickup with parts that can be accessed. Been driving them for years and they can roll up some incredible miles. Also easier (cheaper) to fix. I have found mid 300kmiles to be pretty normal before a junkyard engine extends it’s like. Japanese, S10, Ranger etc.

    • 0 avatar

      Found a lovely ’91 RAM 50 SportCab for sale the other day in KC. The only rust on it was on the aftermarket light-bar in the bed and the Blue on Silver paint still held a nice patina. Looking in I saw the insanely tall chromed 5 spd stick, the ‘premium’ cloth seating, and the pistol-grip-and-twist parking brake under the dash. Could almost smell the late ’80s.

    • 0 avatar

      As much as I’d like this option, my situation and wife prevent it. While we use the Prius for most of our longer trips now, there are relatively frequent occasions that we wish to carry friends and dogs, so we’re going to stay in the wagon/cuv/mini-van family. Personally I prefer the wagon first, minivan second, and cuv third… I think the utility of the cuv is worst – interior space of the wagon (if you’re lucky) with the roof height and mpg of the minivan, and higher load floor to boot, which is a deterrent rather than a bonus for me.

  • avatar

    What do you think of parts cost/availability on the Subaru? Do you know any reasonable mechanics that know their way around a Subaru? Does the Subaru have spreading rust?

    Unless you think you can find something with cheaper repair costs, I actually think you should fix the Subaru. A 10-year-old car should have at least 100k miles on it, so even if you replace the Subaru you will still have something that needs increasingly frequent work. Unless these repairs come cheaper or your car is starting to rust, you are back to where you started plus the cost of replacing the Subaru.

    Speaking of replacement costs, I think 10-year-old cars are still too expensive and don’t typically offer much value. It would take a lot of searching, due diligence, and luck to do well in that market. Why bother?

  • avatar

    Sell sell sell!

    My friend had basically the same car – just over 200K miles and the engine and clutch were all but gone. He paid close to $4K to have a low-mileage junkyard motor and transaxle put in, with new head gaskets, clutch, timing belt, and all new seals and gaskets. This should have given the car another 100K miles of life.

    Less than a year later, a C-clip came off in the differential and it nuked itself – the shop split the repair with him since it was a used part that was installed – another $900.

    Then it started missing and my friend was pretty sure that it was a burned valve. He traded it in since he didn’t want to sell a dud to anybody else – the dealership asked him about its condition and he said: “It is what it is . . .”

    Your Mileage May Vary (YMMV)

  • avatar

    I think it all depends on you and your ability to work on things, or how much time (and money) you want to invest in the car. My truck, which is not a daily driver, a ’96 GMC with a 350 and an automatic transmission, has 250,000 on the clock, runs and drives great, but I’ve replaced the entire front suspension, bushings, axles, ball joints, brakes, fluids (all of them), etc., etc., as maintenance things. I’ve spent a good amount of time under it, to dismay of my significant other. :)

    In the end I picked something that was heavily mass produced, nearly a million a year between GMC and Chevy, uses parts that are cheap to buy, has an incredible amount of aftermarket support, and has been known to last a very long time.

    I can tell you that the H4 is a smooooth engine since my daily driver is a late model Subaru.

  • avatar

    My beater is an outback with 200k miles that I also use as a light truck. It’s a 96 with the less powerful but more durable 2.2 liter version of the engine and a manual to make that liveable. I wouldn’t sell it for two grand, because I’ve covered the clutch, brakes, tires, timing belt, all hoses and belts, thermostat, have rust-bulleted every scrape, and freshened at least a dozen other little things. It’s good for another 60k miles before it will need much of anything, and the engine runs like a top.

    Still, from the OP’s description, I’d drop that car like a lead weight. There’s no point in fixing up one that has already been beaten to death, even if you were yourself partly responsible for the beating. A lot of old outbacks have been well cared for, and they are all worth very little after 100k miles or 10 years. So it’s a good idea to drop the stinker and start again with one that you’ve taken the time to shop carefully and stick on a lift before buying. A extra grand for the swap could save many thousands in work later, and you’ll still have a tough old AWD wagon. Just make sure that if it’s a 2.5, it’s had the head gasket done, and you’re golden.

  • avatar

    This is what I get out of your story.

    It doesn’t sound like you are expecting anything major to go wrong soon, and you don’t expect it to fetch more that about $1000, so it sounds like you will likely get more than $1000 worth of driving out of it before it dies. You don’t give me the impression that you love it but nor do I think you hate it… the fuel economy must be acceptable or you would have mentioned it, you actually almost seem to take pride in how thoroughly you have used it.

    I would keep the Subie and put nothing into it. Do the necessary maintenance (oil, headlamps, etc.) and only the cheapest of repairs required to keep it on the road.

    Now you have some time (1 year, 2?) to browse the Craigslist ads at your leisure and are saving money (versus doing the indicated repairs) towards the next purchase. Take your time. If you find something good right away, then go for it and you can still sell for a little more pocket change, but if you don’t then you can look for the perfect car while waiting for something major to die. When it does, if you haven’t found what you are looking for, you might have to settle for less than great, but if you haven’t found what you want already, then you would have been settling for less than great by buying earlier anyway.

    • 0 avatar

      X2, fix the fuel issue and drive the wheels off it. I might hesitate(pun intended) on the tranny fluid change. I have heard from reputable mechanics that its risky to do a fluid change if that car has never had one done. The logic being that putting new fluid in will dislodge all the gunk inside and cause it to fail. Personally if the fluid is anything but nice and red I would just run it as it.

    • 0 avatar

      I’ve spent more time on than I care to admit. When my current ride pukes, I know what is out there and how much to spend, so when trigger-pull time arrives, it won’t be tough.

      If a real cherry comes around, you can be that guy who drives to the lot and buys it 30 minutes after it is posted online, not the guy who later finds he over paid and is missing a few desirable option packages.

    • 0 avatar

      I’m thinking this might be my approach. I may take it in for the burning oil & leak, and look into replacing shocks & struts to get it out to 200k or more, and get another year out of it or so.

      The tranny fluid is dark pink, and full. I think I will not replace it, as there are other things to work out and the transmission, while throwing a hard shift at me from time to time, isn’t slipping and is happy as long as I don’t need to pass.

      I browse CL in the evenings to un-wind. I get a kick out of the inoperable projects, page through busses and trucks that I’ll turn into custom over-the-road RV luxury (in my dreams), and seriously look at some of the other options out there. I’m sort of partial to the 2001-2005 Mazda MPV, there are some out there that might be worth while, and in my price range, with 80-110k miles… but it’s still replacing one old car with another, and known problems with unknown problems, even if it does up the space while keeping mpg even. The one thing that the Subaru has done faithfully is start up and drive to work, even if it’s falling apart and I’m not putting it back together.

  • avatar

    If the car is not a rust bucket pay what it takes to get the problems fixed. The price of ten year old cars right now is just absurd.

  • avatar

    Sell this car now–although you state that it has been “one of the better cars I have owned” I assume you are talking about the general performance and outstanding utility of this little AWD wagon, and not its miserable repair history. So you were had by curber, but think how smart you are now and how much easier it will be for you to find a truly great 10 year old vehicle. Use Consumer Reports to chose the most reliable models, and for Gods sake get your next vehicle checked by a reliable mechanic before you buy.

    Since this is a relatively spacious vehicle, and you admit to overloading it frequently, you may have been asking it to perform more than it was designed for, and wearing out parts prematurely. Given your colourful use of the vehicle, seems you would do better with a pickup or even an SUV if you need to keep the dogs dry and/or occasionally carry people in back. Yes you will use more gas, but if you start with a prime example the repair costs will be much less.

  • avatar

    Since I wrote to Sajeev this spring in his call for letters, I’ve put another 8k on the car, taken it on two more backpacking trips with four people + gear, and transported more building materials including a cast iron bathtub which I can only guess at the weight.

    I did get a bolt extractor and successfully removed the valve cover and replaced the gaskets, which were seeping, but not dripping. The power steering / accessory belt is now much quieter since I replaced the snapped tensioner bolt, which I must have broken re-installing the belt. The gasoline smell traced back to a loose clamp, which I’ve been double checking and tightening each oil change. The hoses look dry, but no cracks or crazing yet, so I’ll just keep an eye on them. I have a feeling that another type of leak will be the deciding factor.

    Unfortunately the burned oil smell was not fixed by the valve cover gasket replacement, and I’ve determined that there is now another leak, towards the back of the engine (rear main seal again?) that is actually dripping, and has become worse over the last two months. I can’t even see where it’s coming from – time to take it to a professional. I think a new rear main seal and new shocks/struts might be the last major investment into this car.

    As for the forums, I have been looking for something like PriusChat for the Subaru – the forums for these, especially GT’s tend toward modding and replacing wheels and performance tire selections. Maybe I should try it again.

    I think the B&B are confusing things breaking with repairs. I’m doing what I need to keep the car safe and drive-able, but it’s far from pristine, and I long ago relinquished the pride of a pristine automobile for the expediency of having an operable appliance (the other car is a Prius, and much better maintained), and not worry about how badly the dog hair sticks to the cargo area carpet. The little things, like body cladding and interior trim, that are time and labor intensive but cheap to fix, should be on my list, but I just can’t prioritize them over home repairs and night graduate school classes.

  • avatar
    Andy D

    Then again, the lower end maybe shot if it keeps pounding out the RMS due to excessive end play caused by a worn thrust bearing. This isnt uncommon in 4 cylinder motors and old Jeep V 8s How long does it take for the oil light to go out on a cold start? Does the motor rap until the light goes out?

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