No Fixed Abode: You Gotta Be Rich to Own a Cheap Car.

Jack Baruth
by Jack Baruth
no fixed abode you gotta be rich to own a cheap car

If you’re a fan of automotive personality Matt Farah and/or his show, “The Smoking Tire”, you probably know that Matt recently bought a 1996 Lexus LS400 with 897,000 documented miles on the clock. That’s right. Do not adjust your television. That’s nearly a million.

You might also know that “The Driver”, Alex Roy, and I took the Lexus from Long Beach to Texas and beyond, finally coming to a halt in my hometown of Powell, Ohio. If you’re really up to speed on the adventures of the Million Mile Lexus, you know that it’s currently in the hands of Jalopnik contributor “Tavarish”, who drove it from Upper Arlington, Ohio to New York.

Take a minute and read the above paragraph again. I drove it to Powell; Tavarish drove it from Upper Arlington. And thereby hangs a tale.

My new friend “Tavarish” is well-known on Jalopnik for writing articles on used cars that manage to combine honest advice, shameless clickbaiting, and hurricane-force trollin’ in neatly-wrapped little packages. He’s a big fan of paying cash for old cars and being personally able to fix your own car no matter what, kind of like the TTAC reader whose response to Bark’s article on subprime buyers was to straight-facedly suggest that a working father swap his own minivan transmission in his apartment parking lot. If you check out Tavarish’s stuff, there’s a lot of “DID YOU KNOW THAT YOU CAN GET AN S65 AMG FOR THE PRICE OF A FORD FIESTA?” and whatnot.

Prior to meeting the guy I thought he was engaged in some elaborate Exit-Through-The-Gift-Shop hoax at the expense of the notoriously stupid Jalopnik commentariat. I mean, nobody really thinks it’s a good idea for someone with a $15,000 car budget to spend that money on a Maserati, right? Having worked on a few different sides of the car business for nearly a decade in my misspent youth, I believe that I have a thorough understanding of why people buy the cars they do — and I believe that the market is remarkably efficient when it comes to pricing used cars. Nearly-new Civics often sell for close to their original dealer invoice price because the risk of purchasing one is exceptionally low.

A Mercedes S65 AMG, on the other hand, can be had for one-tenth of the original MSRP because owning one past the warranty is an invitation to enter a Boschian nightmare — and I mean Robert Bosch, not Hieronymus Bosch. The number of ways in which you can spend fifteen or twenty grand in parts on one of those cars has to be experienced to be believed. Hell, even my R107 560SL, which should have been about as thoroughly debugged as a car design could possibly be, was chock-full of stuff that was NLA (no longer available) from dealers or the aftermarket but RFN (remarkably fucking necessary) to the vehicle’s satisfactory operation.

For that reason, I consider Tavarish’s “Hey College Students! You Should Consider A Six-Cylinder Jaguar XJR As A Right-Priced Alternative To A Honda Ruckus 50” articles to be simply invitations to spend a pleasant evening strolling through eBay Motors. They’re fun to read, and they’re fun to write. They’re also a good way for him to demonstrate his talent to the audience. As many a would-be famous auto-blogger has found out, it’s tough to consistently churn out new content about cars if you don’t have much access to new cars. Most of the people who try to break into the business have enough personal experience for about five worthwhile articles. Maybe ten. After that you’re either making up stories about how you (insert ridiculous story here, leavened with enough self-deprecation to make it vaguely believable) or you’re second-guessing billion-dollar corporations on the strength of no education or business experience other than watching your helicopter dad bail out your West Coast lemonade stand. Compared to that stuff, telling people they can own a LaForza for the price of an ’06 CR-V is relatively harmless and entertaining.

Nonetheless, when I saw the steam exiting the LS400’s left headlamp on State Route 315 last Saturday morning, I permitted a slight smile of satisfaction to appear on my lips. This would be a chance for Tavarish to eat his own dog food, so to speak. I’d been on my way to Tim Horton’s when the Million Mile Lexus decided to experience a temporary interruption in Toyota reliability. This was doubly ironic because I’d just driven the thing across the country, right into the teeth of a major Southwestern winter storm, without any mechanical issues besides an increasing reluctance on the part of the transmission to shift properly and a slug trail of oil drips stretching some 2,190 miles. I considered the trip a bit of a vindication of the Tavarish philosophy, actually. The Lexus has been serviced correctly since new, and Matt spent about $1,500 on preventative maintenance prior to my departure. A V-8 Toyota with all the stamps in the service book and a solid check-out by a respected mechanic? Every know-it-all on the Internet will tell you that such a car is as good as — nay, better than — a leased 2015 Ford Focus.

And so it had proven to be, right up to that moment. I pulled off the freeway and fancy-parked in an apartment complex. My breath froze in the air as I indulged in the time-honored masculine ritual of popping the hood and taking a look. Oh. Upper radiator hose popped off. Not a problem. That’s twenty bucks and ten minutes. Wait… there’s something in the hose. Oh, that’s the plastic tube to which the hose attached, fragmented and roasted.

It might have been possible to emergency-fix it by Dremeling the remaining part of the tube on the radiator smooth then reattaching the hose, but I knew that Tavarish would be driving it to New York and I didn’t want him to do it on a jury-rigged radiator. So I called home to get a ride, and I called Advance Auto Parts. Upper hose, lower hose (for good measure) and a new radiator for a Lexus LS400, plus a gallon of full-strength coolant? Just $197.56, and it would be available within five hours.

Come Sunday morning, I picked Tavarish and his friend Al up at the bus station. We grabbed my Craftsman tool set and went to work. The two of them had the radiator swapped in less than an hour. It was no trouble whatsoever, even in twenty-degree winter weather. Nine hours later, they were safe and sound in New York. Clearly, this was further proof of the Tavarish philosophy, right? You pay cash for a well-maintained used car, and when problems come up you fix them yourself, and situations like this are only a minor bump in the road of financially-savvy used-car ownership.

Except.

There’s such a thing as “privilege”. If you read the Gawker sites you’ll hear about it all the time. Privilege is what allows rich white cisgender straight men to do whatever they want in this world while everybody else takes it in the shorts. Metaphorically speaking, of course. Normally I consider the use of the word “privilege” in a conversation to be the brilliant peacock plumage that identifies a third-rate pseudo-intellectual from ten paces away, but in the Case Of The Million-Mile Lexus And Its Low-Stress Repair, there was a whole lotta privilege goin’ on. Let’s recap my experience and point it out:

  • I was on the way to see a friend when the radiator blew up. I wasn’t traveling to my second McJob where I’d be fired for being late. I don’t have jobs where you get fired for not punching a clock on time. Therefore, this didn’t affect my livelihood. Privilege!
  • My son wasn’t in the car with me, because I don’t have to take the risk of driving him around in a crappy old car. We use my Accord or my 993. The former is nearly new, the latter is in outstanding repair and has low mileage. However, were this not the case, I’d have been placed in a situation where my five-year-old boy would have been exposed to fifteen-degree temps, maybe by the side of a dark freeway somewhere. In reality, he was at home, playing Minecraft on his iPad. Privilege!
  • I was able to immediately call home and get a ride, because the other person living in my house doesn’t work weekends and has an expensive SUV that is available at a moment’s notice. Were I a single mother, I’d have been forced to call around until I found someone who had the time and ability to get me, while my children froze. Privilege!
  • Because I live in a decent neighborhood and drive in safe areas, I didn’t have to worry that my car would be towed or broken into while it was waiting for parts. Privilege!
  • I was able to put two hundred bucks on a credit card without planning in any way for this eventuality or taking the money out of my food budget. Had it been two thousand, I’d have been fine. Had it been twenty thousand… well, I’d have lit a match and burned Matt’s Lexus to the ground. But the important point was that I was financially capable of getting whatever parts the car needed. In the America of 2015, very few families can say the same. Privilege!
  • Tavarish and his friend are both skilled mechanics. They have an understanding of auto repair that cost them money and time and effort to acquire. Al, in fact, was a former Lamborghini tech. What’s that training worth? Do most poor people have it? Of course not, so they’d have had to pay to have the car towed ($100 at least) to a mechanic and have two billable hours put in (~$170 in Ohio, more elsewhere), raising the price of the repair to nearly five hundred bucks. Not us! We just fixed it, because we knew how. Also, I had a $400 toolbox available. Privilege!
  • The three of us had the time and the inclination to handle it. We weren’t responsible for children or parents or animals or anything, really. If it had taken all day… well, it would have taken all day, and nobody would have been any the worse off for it. Privilege!
  • Last but not least, I had the ability to just let the car sit. I didn’t need it for anything. It wasn’t the way I was going to make my rent money that month, it wasn’t the way I was going to get my child to the hospital. It was just a car that I was driving for fun. And that’s the biggest kind of Privilege! I can imagine.

On the Internet, everybody has a six-figure savings account and a seven-figure retirement account. Everybody pays cash for everything while simultaneously dumping massive amounts of money into investments. They’re all the Millionaires Next Door and they know more about money and investing and prudent decision-making than Warren Buffet and Sam Walton combined. In the real world, people are victimized by everything from economic downturns to poor decisions they made when they were too young to know any better. In the real world, most families are just getting by and the rainy-day money they’ve saved rarely measures up to the endless tide of rainy days.

For those families, a new-car payment is a burden — but it’s one they can predict and live with. It sucks to “throw away” $300 or $400 every month, but it’s never a surprise and in exchange they have freedom from surprises. They have freedom from the surprise of losing two days of work or being stuck with their children by the side of a fifteen-degree freeway all night or having to diagnose mechanical issues using a cellphone flash and whatever conventional wisdom their parents bothered to impart when they weren’t off doing their own thing. They know that every month they are exchanging a fixed sum of money for certainty and reliability.

Viewed from one perspective, this incident absolutely validated the cash-for-used-car-and-learn-to-fix-it mentality. Viewed from another perspective, it was a damning indictment of a philosophy that requires plenty of time and flexibility to make work. To own and run a million-mile Lexus, or any other car where the maintenance and repair is your sole responsibility, requires that you have time to deal with the breakdowns, resources to cover the gaps in your life when problems occur, and the ability to pay for and install anything from a radiator to a differential. Which means, when you think about it, that a million-mile Lexus is something that it perhaps wasn’t quite when it hit the showroom back in 1996.

It’s a luxury car.

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  • Thabo Thabo on Dec 15, 2016

    I was in a similar pickle, my old 99 A8 Audi also sprung a nice radiator leak in 15F weather outside Winterpark, CO. The lower radiator pipe simply popped off (bumpy dirt road) and all the coolant drained out in a matter of a minute. So I sent wife off, hitch hiking to Fraiser to get some coolant. While I was messing with the radiator pipe our kid managed to press the remote and lock all the doors or the car. So wife comes back with shitty coolant of course while I'm filling up the radiator she's trying to get kid, 2 years old, to press the remote to open the door - double glazing makes it hard to yell and be heard from outside the car. Ended up putting my hand through the ski sack to get the keys after an hour or so. Now of course we could of taken the tractor (Subaru) but it's not as powerful, quite, comfortable or nice to drive in the snow and I would not of had a fun story to tell to complete stranger on the interwebs. Of course a super unreliable car it going to get old fast but you gotta realize when you have kids you cling on to that bachelor ride you have like a monkey going for coconuts. Of course your going to have a second more reliable car and heck your could alway get the bloody bus and mix with all those dodgy characters. A buddy of mine ones said he though American were as it put it "scared" and sometime I think its true. Don't be scared blokes, man up ..... or just lease a bloody fiesta : )

  • SuperCarEnthusiast SuperCarEnthusiast on Feb 25, 2017

    I total agree with the author's premise that the rich can afford cheap cars. I been driving both a 1991 and 1995 sedans since they were new! I done most of the repairs other then suspension and oil changes. But I going to look at buying a brand new car this year. Something unreliable maybe! I kind of like new challenges! LOL!

  • Nrd515 I bought an '88 S10 Blazer with the 4.3. We had it 4 years and put just about 48K on it with a bunch of trips to Nebraska and S. Dakota to see relatives. It had a couple of minor issues when new, a piece of trim fell off the first day, and it had a seriously big oil leak soon after we got it. The amazinly tiny starter failed at about 40K, it was fixed under some sort of secret warranty and we got a new Silverado as a loaner. Other than that, and a couple of tires that blew when I ran over some junk on the road, it was a rock. I hated the dash instrumentation, and being built like a gorilla, it was about an inch and a half too narrow for my giant shoulders, but it drove fine, and was my second most trouble free vehicle ever, only beaten by my '82 K5 Blazer, which had zero issues for nearly 50K miles. We sold the S10 to a friend, who had it over 20 years and over 400,000 miles on the original short block! It had a couple of transmissions, a couple of valve jobs, a rear end rebuild at 300K, was stolen and vandalized twice, cut open like a tin can when a diabetic truck driver passed out(We were all impressed at the lack of rust inside the rear quarters at almost 10 years old, and it just went on and on. Ziebart did a good job on that Blazer. All three of his sons learned to drive in it, and it was only sent to the boneyard when the area above the windshield had rusted to the point it was like taking a shower when it rained. He now has a Jeep that he's put a ton of money into. He says he misses the S10's reliablity a lot these days, the Jeep is in the shop a lot.
  • Jeff S Most densely populated areas have emission testing and removing catalytic converters and altering pollution devices will cause your vehicle to fail emission testing which could effect renewing license plates. In less populated areas where emission testing is not done there would probably not be any legal consequences and the converter could either be removed or gutted both without having to buy specific parts for bypassing emissions. Tampering with emission systems would make it harder to resell a vehicle but if you plan on keeping the vehicle and literally running it till the wheels fall off there is not much that can be done if there is no emission testing. I did have a cat removed on a car long before mandatory emission testing and it did get better mpgs and it ran better. Also had a cat gutted on my S-10 which was close to 20 years old which increased performance and efficiency but that was in a state that did not require emission testing just that reformulated gas be sold during the Summer months. I would probably not do it again because after market converters are not that expensive on older S-10s compared to many of the newer vehicles. On newer vehicles it can effect other systems that are related to the operating and the running of the vehicle. A little harder to defeat pollution devices on newer vehicles with all the systems run by microprocessors but if someone wants to do it they can. This law could be addressing the modified diesels that are made into coal rollers just as much as the gasoline powered vehicles with cats. You probably will still be able to buy equipment that would modify the performance of a vehicles as long as the emission equipment is not altered.
  • ToolGuy I wonder if Vin Diesel requires DEF.(Does he have issues with Sulfur in concentrations above 15ppm?)
  • ToolGuy Presented for discussion: https://xroads.virginia.edu/~Hyper2/thoreau/civil.html
  • Kevin Ford can do what it's always done. Offer buyouts to retirement age employees, and transfers to operating facilities to those who aren't retirement age. Plus, the transition to electric isn't going to be a finger snap one time event. It's going to occur over a few model years. What's a more interesting question is: Where will today's youth find jobs in the auto industry given the lower employment levels?
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