Piston Slap: The Fallacy of the Low Mile Original

Sajeev Mehta
by Sajeev Mehta
piston slap the fallacy of the low mile original

Lewis writes:

So I have been debating my next car purchase and am wondering your thoughts.

Does it make more sense to purchase an older low mileage used vehicle or a newer vehicle with high miles. An example would be let’s say a 1997 Jeep Wrangler with under 30K miles or a 2007 Jeep Wrangler with 95K miles.

Sajeev answers:

Please believe it’s a bad idea to buy a “low mileage used vehicle” if it’s over 10 years old. Maybe even over 7-ish years. Because, much like a living creature, the ravages of time are no joke. Factor in the money lost if you put a dollar figure on vehicle reconditioning downtime, and such creatures are better left to speculators looking for a future classic or a weekend cruiser.

You may never see this truth on a more mainstream car forum, but if you moderated LincolnsOnline.com for the past 11 years, old cars that are “like new” show up on a somewhat-regular basis. Pristine used Lincolns, babied all their lives by older folks, are bought by younger folks foaming at the mouth for an essentially brand new luxury car for pennies on the dollar. Then the problems creep up: dry rotted tires blow up on the highway, fossilized gaskets/hoses leak, neglected fuel systems, overlooked and LONG forgotten recalls haunt the new owner. Not to mention vehicle specific problems: long discontinued electromechanical bits and rotted air suspensions get awful pricey to put right with OEM-quality parts.

None of which are present on a car with a long service history and high mileage. When I (much to my parents’ dismay) resisted new car in favor of an 8-year-old Lincoln Mark VIII as my college commuter, they were even more upset when I wouldn’t seek ones with less then 100k on the odometer. But I know better: receipts for newish tires, shock mounts, control arms, and a well exercised powertrain were key. I bought mine in such condition with 117,000 miles: 8 years and 60,000 miles later, I’m still comfortable with my decision. To put it mildly.

Of course, a 1997 minimalist Jeep Wrangler isn’t an air-sprung Lincoln with buttery leather seats. But some of the basics still apply.

Let’s bring it home: the only reasons to buy an older car with low miles are because:

1. You’re foolish enough to start a collection of masterpieces from a lost era in motoring history.

2. Newer, far more advanced, vehicles don’t exactly shake your Etch-A-Sketch. So to speak.

3. You cannot find one with higher miles with a clean interior: that’s expensive to put right.

4. You have the drive/skills to replace parts not expected on newer vehicles: the wear items mentioned above and (maybe) big ticket bits like plastic-infused radiators.

5. You know an affordable, honest mechanic and maybe have a parts car or two stashed around your property.

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

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  • Sinistermisterman Sinistermisterman on May 17, 2011

    A word of warning on low mileage and 'relatively' new. I once bought at auction a 31k mile (UK) 2001 Ford Fiesta back in 2007. You'd think that a car that was still quite young with low mileage and 'some' service history would be alright? No. It was a money pit. The previous owners were obviously morbidly obese. Evidence of this came from the grease covered seat bolsters which had been squashed into oblivion, the hidden McDonalds packaging under the front seats and the shocks which ALL blew within a couple of months of owning the car. The car needed new rotors, pads, new front suspension swing arms and the steering alignment was completely out. By the time I had got the damn thing up to scratch - including new wash wipe pump, recharge the air-con system and replaced the front seats - it had cost me as much in parts as the car did. The kicker? The River Trent flooded and took my Fiesta with it 8 months after I had finished my 'upgrades'. B*stard insurance company gave me less than half of what I'd spent on it. From then on I've only bought new. If anyone is going to trash a car in its first few years, it was going to be me.

  • BostonDuce BostonDuce on May 17, 2011

    Oh snap! That's why I've had such a hard time selling my low mileage '05 996 TTS cab. I thought $15,000 was too high since it has only 2100(sorry, that's twenty-one hundred. I know,I know)garage-queen miles on her. Even with all my maintenance receipts, I have people walking away in disgust-"not used enough" they mutter; "We're looking for something a little more rough" is the universal lament. That's it! Can someone please take this white elephant off my back-I'll GIVE you the car AND $10,000 for all the trouble you'll have replacing all the not-rotting hoses and rubber. And in the future, I promise to drive the ever lovin piss out of my Enzo and Carrera GT. Two hundred thousand miles or bust baby!! Just so you'll feel comfortable if you're looking for a good USED example of those. BD

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