By on November 26, 2015

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Editor’s note: This article originally ran February 4th, 2015 and will likely be one of the all-time most read TTAC editorials for years to come.

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.


LATrip2015 035

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.

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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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25 Comments on “Giving Thanks: You Gotta Be Rich to Own a Cheap Car – No Fixed Abode...”


  • avatar
    Arthur Dailey

    Hate to say it but I agree with Jack on this.

    Just last month spent nearly $800 to replace parts on a 10 year old, low mileage, relatively well maintained, supposedly reliable vehicle. It needed the parts as it left me stranded on the side of the highway. Luckily, I too had someone close by to help out and a membership in an auto club that provided free towing.

    The car itself is worth maybe $2,500 as a trade-in. Black book value of about $4k tops on a private sale which I refuse to even contemplate.

    And now, it looks like I need to replace another $85 part, plus new winter wipers.

    I can trade it, pay about $285 a month for a zero interest loan on a new vehicle with an extended manufacturer’s warranty. And then not have to worry about any of my kids or my wife being stranded on the side of the road, in the winter.

    • 0 avatar
      RideHeight

      This.

      Drive old if you have to, buy new when you get to. Especially if others in your family may drive the car.

      • 0 avatar
        matador

        When you don’t have much money, it’s all you can do. Blown shocks? Not a problem. Stalls sometimes? Turn it back on. Tire has a slow leak? Refill it every Tuesday.

        I’ve gone through this with vehicles before. It’s because I had to. When you’re in High School with a couple of hundred dollars, you do what you have to do.

        I’ll keep my Buick, because I can. I have plenty space to keep it, and it’s worthless on value. If I drive it 4 times a year, it’s worth it to hang onto my first car. I drive it right now (Among other “clunkers”), because they’re what I have. I can wrench, and need something to do between football games on the weekend ;)

        I’m saving up for better, though. As someone a lot wiser than me said, “I’ll do today what nobody else will, so tomorrow I can do what nobody else can.”

        • 0 avatar
          RideHeight

          “I’ll do today what nobody else will, so tomorrow I can do what nobody else can.”

          Beg pardon, but *I’ve* pipe-strapped cobbled exhaust to an underbody with self-taps, too!

          Brrrrt! Brrrrt!

          • 0 avatar
            matador

            Um, my 1987 Chevrolet truck doesn’t have an exhaust behind the point of the fuel tank. It sounds “manly”- I once set off some guy’s car alarm in a parking lot with that truck ;)

            I’ve drilled holes into the side of the bed to fabricate fuel tank mounts, though. Does that count?

            New cars will never have this personality!

          • 0 avatar
            RideHeight

            I see your bed-mount and raise you a small snowblower gas tank pipe-strapped to the cowl of my Civic wagon to gravity feed the carb so I could get to work and then to the NAPA store for a fuel pump.

            Pipe Strap. When Duct Tape’s Not Enough!

          • 0 avatar
            matador

            Gravity feed. Completely a viable solution!

            I haven’t done that, but I’ve done crazy repairs. On my 1997 Ford E350 box van, the fuel inlet tube to the tank rusted through so there was a hole. I did what any logical person would do: went to O’Reillys and bought an upper radiator hose for an AMC Eagle. With two hose clamps, it worked great!

            That van also had an issue with the shifter- it was loose, to the point that I couldn’t engage park. What I did do, though, was carry a couple of pieces of firewood in the cab. Keep your foot on the brake, and stick one in front of or behind the front tire.

            Oh, to be younger and dumber again….

          • 0 avatar
            RideHeight

            “Keep your foot on the brake, and stick one in front of or behind the front tire.”

            OK, I don’t have a chess set handy so:

            *k-tank..roll..roll..roll*

            this is me knocking over a deep well socket.

            You win.

  • avatar
    Jeff Weimer

    I realized it when my 1998 Audi A4 began eating me up for repairs, and I was driving 650 miles per week to boot. I needed a reliable car and was staring at $3000 in *preventive* maintenance (clutch, timing belt) in the next year. Spending that $3000 on car payments (roughly) in the next year for a car that didn’t have an ignition switch that might catch fire (precipitated the decision, actually) was a logical choice.

    So I bought a new Cruze Eco. Best part about that? I saved so much money on gas between far better mileage and regular instead of premium gas, it nearly covered the monthly note.

    So if I buy another “car lust” vehicle, it will be *strictly* a third car.

  • avatar

    Yup, you could do a find/replace inserting BMW and this describes my 300k mile 3 series.

    The whole new car market is aimed at those who can’t fix for whatever reason (ability, space, restrictive land rules/associations) and need new with a warranty. There’s a kia (?) commercial where a mom with kid in stroller does a victory dance on just that comment. The cash extraction and marketing fascinate me to no end…and when the car breaks down, the parts prices are all calibrated to “help” you make the buy new ? decision. Add a hint of planned obsolesce and parts designed to “make it out of warranty” and there you go. There are several studies that show a significant percentage of the population can’t suffer the $1500 blown tranny without major problems.

    No, my old but loved 3, battered but mechanically almost perfect (till the next rubber part rots out, or expansion tank #4 pukes) is a toy now. It goes on nice days, with me, to places where if it dies, it is in a safe place (not NYC on one of the bridges).

    The “buy a used XX instead of a new corolla” only works if you have this level of support…otherwise, it’s $349 per month, run the dealer gauntlet, and “least crappy car for the money, new with a warranty”.

    If you don’t have space + ability to fix + other car with 100 % uptime, it may not work. I note all my friends with interesting cars always have a boring box in the driveway too…usually “moms car” but new-ish.

    I personally never crack bolts on any of my cars unless there is another one for the inevitable tool/part run. That is a luxury and on this T-day, I am grateful for it. I’ve been on the other side….I’ll never forget installing an exhaust system on a car, in the driveway, while being cold rained upon, night falling, no garage, because the car had to be ready for a work commute monday am…..we couldn’t really afford it, but bought a new cheap car soon thereafter….

  • avatar
    Waftable Torque

    This article probably had the most clicks because The Truth About Cars is at its best when it talks about socioeconomics, status anxiety, and industry insider insights.

  • avatar
    mchan1

    For the most part, I agree with Jack.

    Not everyone knows how to fix their own vehicles and not everyone has the finances to afford newer vehicles.

    It would be nice to afford 2 or 3 vehicles to ‘play with’ but in reality that’s not the case.

    Even if you ‘had’ a ‘stable’ job, it does Not mean that you’ll be stable for years. Knew some people that lost their jobs when the economy took a dive and those people thought everything would just continue and they’d keep living in their spend-spend world. Well, reality came and bit their ashes! Been in a similar situation so I know but at least I saved up for emergencies!

    Had an old 2005 car that lasted >10 years until the last 2-3 years in which the maintenance/repair bills were ~$2k-3k/year.
    That car was a rust bucket and needed new shocks/suspension towards the end of its life so it was time to trade it in for a newer vehicle. That car lasted well for all those years esp. when I relocated from NE to TX and back. Thank goodness!
    Luckily, it still had some value left for the trade in :)

    At least now I have a newer car that I’ll keep for many years though the monthly payments are relatively hard now when you’re used to not paying them for the past few years. Not everyone has Cash to pay for a car upfront esp. a newer, not used, vehicle.

    Pray that you have a job, good health and consider yourself fortunate for what you have ;)

    Peace!

  • avatar
    Oberkanone

    Enjoyed this post very much. Thank you Mr. Baruth. If it was on Jalopnik I would not have bothered to read it because it would have began as “You Gotta Be Rich to Own a Shitty Car” and then would have continued with minimum of 8 & 3/4 more profanities in the post. Filthy mouthed Jalops.
    Reflecting on the past I remember driving around in 76 Buick Electra two door that had a spare transmission in the trunk and I had to collect cans for deposit and mow yards to try to pay for gas for that hog. Changing the transmission in the driveway with a couple of cinder blocks was an experience when the trans finally failed.
    I’ve come a long way.

  • avatar
    formula m

    I’m single just turned 32. I drive a 07′ Toyota Highlander limited. I can’t afford a new $55k + 13%tax cdn SUV + interest. I can drive an older vehicle since I only need to look after myself. My sister is a nurse at the Canadian Heart Institute and needs to be at work at 6am not matter the weather or the state of her vehicles condition.

    I hooked her up with lease takeovers previously and now she has a full lease on a 2014 Corolla. She did not want to lease but I explained that a 3-4 yr lease is a known variable. Are you good with $300-$350/month? It’s a payment but she knows what she has for that amount of money. You spend $3k over a year in repairs and that’s 10months car payments for the year. You can fix your old car but $3k doesn’t guarantee you anything. All you have is your old car that could break and need $1000 tomorrow.

    • 0 avatar
      matador

      A 2007 should be a reliable vehicle. I’d think that rust would be more of a killer in Canada than age.

      I think area matters the most. Out here, I drive 80 miles to work, and it’s all highway. Cars with 250k miles on them aren’t rare.

      • 0 avatar
        JuniperBug

        I agree: area definitely matters a lot. Harsh winters are car killers, especially for particular makes (Mazda, I’m looking at you). That said, rust is less of an issue now than in the past – the ’04 Concorde I mention further down has 145k miles and is essentially rust-free – but I’d still rather have to deal with a blown engine in a pristine body than a rusty body with good mechanicals.

        Cars which live in the city won’t survive nearly as many miles. Between terrible road quality, lots of stopping and starting, lock-to-lock steering, and the aggressive driving required, city driving is much harder on a car than cruising at 55-80 MPH for hours on end.

        • 0 avatar
          matador

          I owned a 1997 E350 box van that came from Pennsylvania. It was cut in half around 180k miles, due to rust issues affecting the frame.

          We owned a 1992 F250 that spent most of it’s life here in Wyoming. The transmission failed around 360k miles, but the body was still pretty solid. There was a little rust in the wheelwells (Fords were known for that), but the body was solid and usable.

  • avatar
    JuniperBug

    I’m about to tuck my 3 season car away for the winter – 17 years old, and in the nearly 5 years I’ve had it, the only time it didn’t start was when the battery died, and I don’t hesitate to take it 500 or more miles from home or run it as hard as my skills allow on the race track. Admittedly, it’s a fair weather car, and I can take public transit when I feel like it.

    For the first time in about 8 years, I plan on having a winter car this year. My parents happen to be buying a new car, and the dealer offered $250 on their Concorde, which also hasn’t left them stranded in the 8 years they’ve owned it, and whose biggest maintenance/repair expense in that time was new shocks and brakes a couple of years ago. Running it until it’s no longer convenient seems to be a no-brainer for me at this point, and I figure that between my two cars, at least one of them should be functional at any given point in the short-to-medium term. My transportation needs are met on two cars whose combined retail value is somewhere south of CAD 8,000. My maintenance expense for the year was oil and filter, and $200 in upgraded master cylinder and booster, which I changed just because I felt like having bigger units. My indoor parking space is by far my biggest transportation expense.

    I could afford to go out and lease, finance, or buy outright a basic new or lightly-used car, but I haven’t reached the point where it would make any sense for my specific circumstances.

  • avatar
    Ol Shel

    This is a great article and I’m glad that the response to it (at least now) is positive.

    I notice that a number of web writers seem to be using their wealth to create stories -and careers- by spending their money on cars to write about. I don’t love it.

    And 2 out of every 3 magazines is a supercar/0-100/top speed/track battle/exotics issue. I guess they’re target demographic is 1 percenters and 12-year-olds.

  • avatar
    MBella

    Right now I have the cheap beater. My 2000 E320 wagon. I bought it cheap because the transmission wasn’t working right. It also had a sunroof that was stuck tilted down and water was entering the cabin. It was stuck in limp home mode.

    I bought it, and thought I’d be able to limp it home stuck in third gear. I’m a master Mercedes tech and new the transmission would likely only need a conductor plate. It made it worth the risk. I had a friend drive to pick the car up and then follow me. About 4 miles in, I started to get 1st and 2nd gear as well, and that made me nervous. A mile after, I reached a stop sign. Try to get going, and the engine just hits the rev limiter with very little forward movement. Pulled over and tried a few things that got me another 2 miles. I gave up, and had it towed to my dealer. The next day I was able to replace the conductor plate at work. The transmission hasn’t skipped a beat since.

    Since then I had to replace the sunroof. Once that was done I took the rest of the interior apart and cleaned the hell out of it piece by piece. I caught it up on most of it’s maintenance. I also had to get new wheels and tires because the corroded chrome factory wheels wouldn’t hold air.

    All in, I have more than $4500 into it. I’m still not done. It did make it back to Michigan from Seattle overloaded and towing a trailer. I could have about 2 years of a lease by now. I agree with Jack about the privilege it takes to drive a car like this. I know the car inside out. I have all the tools to fix it. I’m still wondering if I made the right decision. A person who doesn’t have the skills or resources to do the same would be in a very bad position. I also have my Miata spring through fall. A new car is definitely the way to go for most people, especially with how high used car prices have become.

    • 0 avatar
      matador

      The E320 is about as close to a modern version of the Country Squire/Roadmaster as you can find. Big, luxurious, and big. Sounds like a great car if you can service them.

      • 0 avatar
        MBella

        It is a great car. Even has the rear facing third row seat. I can’t see someone using it to sit in while driving, but it’s nice to be able to open the hatch, pull it up and sit back there with a beverage. I still have to replace the evaporator, and replace the tired suspension parts. After that I hope I’ll be done for a while.

    • 0 avatar
      Kevin Jaeger

      Interesting – I have a first generation Miata as my 3 season daily driver and a 2001 C240 as a winter car. My C240 has been mostly trouble-free but living in Quebec it has started to show some rust. I think a Benz and a Miata are a great combo that nicely complement each other.

      • 0 avatar
        MBella

        The 203 chassis C Class is one of my favorite cars. The 112 engine in the C240 is bulletproof, and definitely the one to get over the supercharged 4 cylinders in the C230. Keep up on the maintenance, and get the rust fixed, and it will run forever.

        I was considering a C32 or C55 before I got the Miata as a jack of all trades type of car.

  • avatar
    jthorner

    Jack absolutely nailed it with this editorial.


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