Hammer Time: The Real Cost of Being a Car Guy

Steven Lang
by Steven Lang
hammer time the real cost of being a car guy

Forgive me father, for not only have I sinned (at least for right now), but I’m going to make a sordid confession about my daily work life that will tick off 99 percent of the people here.

I find that auto enthusiasts — that’s you — are completely irrational. In fact, sometimes you’re just plain nuts.

It has nothing to do with conspiracy theories, the federal government, or the fact that every manufacturer wants us enthusiasts to become mindless traders and renters instead of long-term keepers. What it really comes down to is that most auto enthusiasts I know simply act like emotional fools.

The enthusiasts of today don’t exactly have to contend with low quality cars that prematurely self-destruct. The modern day car is designed to last well over a decade and hundreds of thousands of miles. You want a car? There are now over 230 million of them in the United States alone and most of those are perfectly capable of performing the basic job of transporting our species to and fro. Tens of millions of them are a good fit for the enthusiasts among us.

The problem we have with all these cars depends a lot on our emotions. Unlike our fictional Vulcan brethren who sees all of life’s problems as a logical exercise, we humans of the auto enthusiast bent have this unusual desire to enjoy what we view as “the good life.” We buy a lot of cars. We drive a lot of cars. We even spend an enormous part of our time enjoying all manner of things automotive, from enthusiast forums that provide the seeds of wisdom and debates, to expensive tool sets and complicated repair guides that give us the scars we wear as “car guy” Boy Scout badges. We’re car people — with a few truck, SUV and other motorized enthusiasts of the two, three, and four wheel variety thrown here and there into that eclectic mix.

We get a healthy advantage in the knowledge side of car ownership and yet we have a bit of a marketing problem within our culture that makes us constant traders and gawkers. As an auto auctioneer, car dealer, and former part-owner of an auto auction, I see this crushing reality whenever it comes to the majority of enthusiasts. They get creamed when it comes to the almighty dollar.

A real estate maven can move up from a hovel to a nice house if they learn to fix and sell their property the right way. The auto enthusiast? They have a 15-year-old Maxima that was worth about a quarter of the new car price when it was first bought, and it’s now worth around a dime and a few pennies. New car enthusiasts? They take it in the shorts and pay far more in all those nasty ways that make new cars a rolling spreadsheet exercise for the automotive apathetic.

Speaking of the apathetic, let’s go ahead and look at the massive grouping we collectively call “the rest.” They are the majority of folks who look at cars as an unfortunate intermission between doing the things that they really want to do.

Go to the park? It’s a 20 minute drive. A visit downtown? 35 minutes.

Believe it or not, these seemingly oblivious drivers do have a valid point, cursed as their mode of transportation may be. Every time a car is used, there is a price to be paid in terms of time and money. And here’s the surprise: Enthusiasts almost always pay more regardless of what they know or think they know. That tangled web we weave between our driveway and the destination ahead could be as backed up as a Chinese traffic jam, and we would still pay a stiff premium to sit in a nicer seat with a nicer dashboard and a dazzling instrument cluster that shows us in thirteen different ways that we’re going nowhere fast.

When you own a Volkswagen, these lights come standard.

Why is this a reality? To me, at least, the answer is obvious — and it’s not just depreciation. The math isn’t what kills the joie de vivre of car ownership. It’s that most enthusiasts have a genuine fear factor when it comes to maintaining and improving today’s cars. It’s as simple as that. We think but we don’t do because there are greater physical and cultural barriers than there were only a generation ago.

Kinesthetic learning, the act of learning by doing things, is not seen as a way of getting ahead in the world of higher education. This deficiency for the enthusiast, and non-enthusiast, makes us suckers for a marketing pitch that promotes the financing of new cars over a seven year period as the safe bet; while the older car that can be bought for a small fraction of the price, which is often times more fun to own and drive, is portrayed as somewhere between a beater and a ticking money bomb. Today’s devices, big and small, are becoming increasingly sealed and disposable. It’s actually killing the economics of becoming an auto enthusiast, which used to be one of the main attractions of enjoying our automobiles.

You think I’m exaggerating? Consider the enthusiast community we live in at this point in our own unique culture. Most of the car lovers I know aren’t like the gearheads of 20 years ago because the curriculum has changed. The car has become far more sophisticated and yet most cars of today have the infirmities of planned obsolescence built straight into their designs. Engines are covered with multiple pieces of plastic and enshrouded with sensors. Transmission fluids are sealed in metal and almost impossible to inspect. Lifetime fluids aren’t only mythical, they’re legally non-binding and used as a psychological crutch to keep owners away from their cars. The old screws, bolts and wrenches have been replaced with a small army of sensors, hidden compartments and special tools designed to make an enthusiasts curiosity an expensive undertaking.

I have learned not to blame. It just is. I think it’s just a terrible shame that we can’t marry the ease of use of yesterday with the technologies of today. But enough of the practicalities of car ownership. Let me ask you: What’s the most irrational and emotional thing you’ve done involving a car? I’m not talking about cutting a cop off or chasing furry woodland creatures at the neighborhood park, which is what I used to do with an old Renault LeCar. I’m talking about what you wish you hadn’t bought, kept or sold. Whether it be a car that you kept for 20,000 miles too long, or a time when you decided to invest in a rolling turd, let’s hear it.

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3 of 152 comments
  • Mor2bz Mor2bz on Sep 13, 2016

    I am tired of owning $1000 cars, so I bought a $400 one. (OK, $600 with fluids, O2 sensor). My sickness is mid 90s Camrys and Previas. Usually I can fix them and I like the way they look. Nobody wants them and I cannot imagine that new cars are built better. I am on my fifth Previa (the son loses, has wrecked or stolen, or overheats because he cannot screw a radiator cap on right) and the last one has 292K on it. These cars are getting long in the tooth and becoming hard to find in good shape. I get a perverse satisfaction out of making a beater run and seeing how far it will go. The latest Prev is a total rust bucket but I would take it down to the tip of Baja tomorrow. God I felt like a smart feller when I figured out it needed an O2 sensor to pass emissions (my mechanic said catalytic convertor). Double bonus for getting the rusty nuts off the thing and getting another bolted in. Drove perfectly straight after I aligned it myself with a piece of string. Gas is dirtcheap but still I try to hypermile, coasting in N in the 5 spd. Camry. yes, car enthusiasts are crazy. I get pissed when my partner does not record the mileage on the tripmeter when she fills up so I can figure the mpg. Funny, the gas mileage does not get any better after I make the calculation. . http://www.theonion.com/article/toyota-recalls-1993-camry-due-fact-owners-really-s-50480

    • Marsden Marsden on Sep 14, 2016

      Actually mor2bz, I salute your parsimony and masochism. I couldn't do it. But you have many, many thousands more in the bank than you would have had otherwise. Not sure how you pass state inspections though, or how you deal with the nuisance factor of breakdowns, but it's possible that being Toyotas your cars have no issues with either. I wouldn't coast in neutral too much. You can save nearly as much fuel coasting in gear--just keep your foot off the pedal--and still maintain full control over your car. JMHO.

  • Dan R Dan R on Feb 24, 2017

    My 2000 XJ8 is no appliance and requires careful tinkering. It makes me smile when I approach it and when I drive it. Bizarrely, in a household with a Volvo and a Ford Ranger it has sometimes been the only vehicle that is working. I am currently changing the heater core in the 960; not fun.

  • NormSV650 I had a 2014 Vsport back in the day. It have a quiver feeling over some bumps in turns. Currently have a 2018 CT6 it is very solid and a great driver's car for the size.
  • NormSV650 I had a 2014 Vsport back in the day. It have a quiver feeling over some bumps in turns. Currently have a 2018 CT6 it is very solid and a great driver's car for the size.
  • MaintenanceCosts I saw my first IS500 out in the wild today (a dark-grey-on-black example) and it struck me that it was much more AMG-like than this product. (Great-looking and -sounding car.)
  • ToolGuy https://youtu.be/Jd0io1zktqI
  • Art Vandelay Props for trying something different. EVs should work well in this sort of race. The similar series running ICE run short distances like that