By on May 7, 2020

1984 Dodge Ram pickup in Colorado wrecking yard, RH front view - ©2018 Murilee Martin - The Truth About Cars

It’s a situation a good many of us have found ourselves in — and one we’d all like to avoid going forward, if at all possible. Alas, fate isn’t known for its even-handed distribution of fairness.

Sometimes we’re forced to make a painful choice concerning something we love, with neither outcome a good one. In the case of aging vehicles, that choice is one repair bill away.

Speaking to a friend last night, I heard a familiar story. (I’ll have to keep things vague out of respect for their privacy.)

This friend owns a workhorse of a pickup. It’s a loyal, noble vehicle that soaks up everything thrown at it, and make no mistake, it gets a lot thrown at it. But time and wear has taken its toll, and, while still functional, it needs considerable work.

Seems the jurisdiction where said friend lives requires safety inspections every two years to keep a vehicle plated and on the road, something yours truly finds horrifying. Nevertheless, that’s the situation. And in these fraught financial times, money’s tight. Fixing the laundry list of defects (steering, suspension, brakes, tires) on this vehicle would probably cost what the vehicle could fetch as a safetied used vehicle, even with a “friend’s coworker’s brother” kind of mechanic on the job.

Thing is, my friend uses this vehicle for truck things. Its absence will be felt, and getting into something new? That’s a laugh. Meanwhile, offloading it for a song as an as-is parts vehicle/fixer-upper prevents my friend from recouping (or retaining) its true value. Yet sadly, financial considerations mean the repairs that could keep the relationship alive for another two years (or more) just isn’t a viable option.

You have to feel for someone in such a situation. This writer harbors fond memories of that vehicle — a plucky pickup that never shrugged off an assignment, even if we sometimes asked it to bite off more than it could chew.

Have you ever found yourself in possession of a good vehicle, with basic bones and drivetrain still in good shape, but with a financial situation and a repair bill that forced you into a choice? What was the outcome — offload it for whatever (still useful) peanuts you could get, or keep it around, collecting dust and rust under a tarp, until happier days returned?

[Image: Murilee Martin]

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37 Comments on “QOTD: Torn Between Two Terrible Options?...”

  • avatar

    I get emotionally attached, good or bad to ALL my vehicles. Like an ex-lover I’m either glad to see them go or parting ways brings a tear to my eye, but like leaving a former lover you’ve got to sometimes move on to better things least we drown in love’s debris through financial ruin.

    I need more coffee :(

    • 0 avatar

      Exactly what he said!! I’ve had ford rangers and Audi A4 s that I kept too long for those reasons, just too proud of them! Lol. all the while paying $$ to still make them look like new at any cost. Yeeesh.

      • 0 avatar

        Yes, I’m a detail nut, no matter how old my cars they always look their Sunday best. My theory is I wouldn’t leave the house in worn or dirty clothes, why would I drive a worn or dirty car?

        • 0 avatar

          I’m with you. Even my oldest car is clean and damage free, save for a few scratches. I even waxed and detailed my company car when I had one. No dirt for me, thank you.

  • avatar

    My first “modern” car after a series of old beaters, bought well-used with college-kid summer work savings. I learned things like basic maintenance and repair on that car. In Year 6 of ownership, a bushing in the transaxle gave it up – otherwise the car was doing fine, other than a leaky radiator and more tinworm. Throwing minimum wage dollars at fixing it didn’t seem wise. But its replacement led me into some very interesting adventures I wouldn’t have otherwise foreseen. Sometimes a little heartbreak leads to better things…

  • avatar

    State safety inspection criteria are not exactly strict. If it has problems with “steering, suspension, brakes, and tires”, as somebody that might be on the same road as such a vehicle, I’m relieved that an inspection will be sending it to the boneyard where it belongs, or to somebody that can restore it to safe operating condition. And it sounds like it needs enough work that “fixer-upper” near-scrap value is pretty much what it’s worth.

    Sounds like it’s time to let this reliable old friend go; with luck it will be to someone who can fix it, or maybe somebody that will reserve it for “never leaves the farm” use. (The summer camp where I worked growing up chewed through jalopies like this every year, with strict rules that they were to never touch public roads.)

    • 0 avatar

      I was going to make that comment as well. Were in not for inspection programs, many vehicles like this would be on the road. I never liked the surprise bill that sometimes comes with inspections, but we have to be responsible and keep things safe.

      • 0 avatar

        Same here. I wonder if the author is horrified at the prospect of mandatory inspections or the prospect that without them a dangerous vehicle can be on the road. I hope it’s the latter. Then again, I have no doubt that some would argue that they have the individual right to drive a vehicle that is dangerous.

      • 0 avatar

        All safety inspections are not equal. I lived in a state that had 6 month inspections. They checked the horn, brake lights, turn signals and headlight alignment, and that’s it. Everything else was “visual”: if it could steer into the garage to check the hedlights and stop, and the tires had tread on them, it passed.

        Today I live in California where all they care about is smog, so something would have to be obviously wrong for the smog inspector to note it and trigger a separate safety inspection, whih I’ve been told almost never happens.

        The steering, suspension, and brakes on every car whizzing on California freeways at 70-plus MPH is suspect. The police would have to stop you for a brake light/turn signal that doesn’t work, or obviously damaged suspension.

        • 0 avatar

          Lorenzo, I think back to a book I read, long ago. It was about a study of vehicle crashes/collisions done in the early 1950s. In the preface/intro the authors noted that it was common at the time to find the responsibility for a crash with the driver(s).
          In the study arrangements were made with law enforcement to leave a crash scene unaltered as much as possible. Injured people were taken to hospital, but the dead were left as is until photos and measurements were taken. Photos were grim, even with some areas blacked out.
          It was found that many crashes were caused by mechanical problems. Tires came off wheels, brakes were inop, steering broke.
          This and other studies led to the Fed Motor Vehicle Safety Act. Which mandated dual circuit brakes, safety bead wheels, head rests, and seat belts. Some of the crashes were found caused by poor maintenance or repairs, but others due to deficient design. Yep, not much safety inspection in California. AFAIK it’s required to have brakes and lights inspected when a “salvaged” vehicle is put into service.

  • avatar

    “Fixing the laundry list of defects… would probably cost what the vehicle could fetch as a safetied used vehicle…

    …offloading it for a song as an as-is parts vehicle/fixer-upper prevents my friend from recouping (or retaining) its true value.”

    If you need to put $X in repairs in it to be able to sell it for $X, then its true value is zero.

    • 0 avatar

      That may be true for “market value”, but there’s more value here that is being overlooked. That is, the value to the owner as a tool that gets used on a daily basis.
      Seems to me the options are to fix it and keep driving it for a few more years, or at least to get through the lean times, or buy something else for more money and be saddled with the financial burden.
      Personally, I’d fix the truck. There’s a lot of value in not being broke or stuck with a loan that you can’t pay on if things get worse.

  • avatar

    If the truck is needed then he should figure out how to fix it and do it on the cheap side. Tires are expensive, but used tires are usually found at reasonable prices on Craigslist or at a local auto wrecker or used tire store. With the financial hardship many are facing I expect the number of people looking to convert that old set of tires and wheels into cash.

    I did reach a point where my F-350 needed tires, it had a small radiator leak, the carb really could have used a rebuild, and the radio was toast. I made the decision to replace it because I had the money and decided that even though I only use my pickup ~4k +/- per year it was worth it to me to get something newer with modern safety features and the better fuel economy of something with fuel injection and more than 3 gears in the trans. But again I had the money to spend much more than the repairs would have cost and was willing to do so for a newer, safer and all around better truck.

    Brakes also can be expensive if you pay someone to do it, but slapping on a set of pads is usually pretty cheap and if really needed a junk yard rotor or two isn’t that expensive.

    Suspension and steering are where it is unlikely to avoid too much of the cost, but again going DIY except for the alignment will also save some money.

  • avatar

    2005 – Sold first K5 due to job out of country.
    2012 – Sold second K5 due to finances (growing family)
    2020 – Sold K30 due to finances
    My workhorse stable is currently down to one truck: a 2003 GMC 1500 with 230k that has been in the family since new. It left once, but my wife missed it so much that I tracked it down and bought it back. Speaking from experience, if you have a good solid work truck that performs its duty with few problems, but suddenly needs a large repair, dont sell it. Put enough money into it to keep it running. Then do the repairs that make it road worthy over time as finance loosen up.

    Question for Steph: Can the friend just let the truck sit until finances are better? This way, the work can be done a little at a time as money becomes available. Or does the friend need cash now?

  • avatar
    87 Morgan

    I am with Scoutdude. The individual in question needs to step up their ‘I’m poor game’, not to brag, but I was pretty good at being poor back in day….

    Craigslist makes it easier for sure, but the pick n’ pull and used parts are the name of the game. Figure out what is mission critical (tires typically) and go on from there.
    I grew up in NJ, if you failed inspection you had 30 days to correct the issues so that helped to narrow down what needed done. I am working on the assumption the individual in question lives in U.S.A north, so I am not up to speed on the inspection rules. I would however try the same as NJ…fix what you know they will fail you for if possible and roll the dice on the other items. Either way buy yourself another 30 days + you may get lucky and sail through. Especially for an old truck, the person doing the inspecting may have a soft spot for them. Take a clapped out Lexus…you most likely are hosed.

    **U.S.A North was an attempt at sarcasm, I have all the respect for our Canadian neighbors**

  • avatar

    It’s better the devil you know.

    I learned the joys of having a spare-parts-car back in high school, and I’ve tried to have one for every car/truck I’ve owned. Then you’re only dealing with labor if you can’t swap the parts yourself.

  • avatar

    I bought a Mazda RX7 that was coming off a 3 year lease in the fall of 1989. 2-seater, 5-speed, manual everything. The interior was a revelation after owning a few domestics and a Beetle. I very reluctantly sold it in 1996. It was using oil beyond normal and most importantly, it failed Jersey inspection for leaky exhaust. I went to my local mechanic and he told me the catalytic converter was a Mazda only part and it was $1200. So, it went to a coworker of mine with the very clear proviso that he needed to add a quart of engine oil every week. He didn’t and the poor car was toast within 2 months after it left my care.

  • avatar
    Jeff Weimer

    I’m kinda in there right now – 1996 Ranger with a somewhat sick transmission. I paid $1500 for it, put a few bucks into repairing the few things that were wrong (ABS, heater blend door, brakes, ball joints, etc.) and a reman tranny is…about $1500. That would make it just about mechanically perfect, but is it worth $3000? It slips some from 2nd-3rd, but if I don’t hammer it, it shifts close to fine. I can baby it for quite a long time, but it still bugs me. I don;t trust it for long trips, but to Home Depot/Lowes and as an emergency backup vehicle it’s fine.

    • 0 avatar

      Get yourself 24 ounces of Lucas Transmission Fix. Put the sealed bottle into a warm water bath (otherwise it flows *very* slowly). Take out 24 ounces of your existing transmission fluid using a cheap siphon pump, and substitute the additive. [I have had very good experience with this product in similar situations.]

      A “somewhat sick” transmission demands a “somewhat fix”. :-)

  • avatar

    The market value of a vehicle is meaningless. I have a couple of cars and I just assume the resale is zero. But if the utility the car offers is useful then you can quickly calculate whether repair makes sense. Also, if there’s a long list of repairs that are needed that means the vehicle was neglected for years – these things don’t happen over night or all at once. In general it’s always cheaper to keep an old vehicle running than buy a new one. I maintain my vehicles as they go along, I don’t wait until everything is broken and then moan about how much it’s going to cost to fix.

    • 0 avatar

      The one problem with always keeping it up to snuff is you can be led down the path of throwing good money after bad. You can end up putting that $1,000 repair into a vehicle that will be worth $1,000 when fixed because you spent $500 on it in the last 6 months. If you called it before than $500 repair and sold it for $500 you would now have $2,000 to spend on a vehicle worth $2,000 instead of having $2,000 into a vehicle worth $1,000.

      In general though I agree with you when you let all those little things pile up they can be big money all at one time. On the other hand with an old pickup there can be a lot of those little things that don’t prevent it from doing what needs to be done.

  • avatar

    I once had an old Jeep. Well, it was a new Jeep that slowly became old. It had the emissions choked 258 6 that every now and then made a weird knock and the torque converter clutch in the TOrqFlite 999 would occasionally engage and disengage rapidly.

    Rust slowly ate it away and the ever-increasing bodywork was starting to eat me alive. I got a new daily driver and relegated the Jeep to winter snow and 4WD offroading. Eventually, frame rot made it unroadworthy so I parked it behind the house and neglected it until I could figure out what to do.

    I ignored it for about 2-3 years, 2 of which when I was living in another state and it sat neglected in a neighbor’s yard until they got tired of looking at it and flatbedded it to my new address. We got a steal on a flatbed as the driver was coming to my state to pick up a classic and he was able to pick up some side $$ not having to run empty on the trip out.

    We dropped it off at a friend’s garage. He had his own body shop and for a small fee rebuilt my rotted frame. However the body continued to rot out and got to the point where: a) I was going to get fined for littering every time I drove it, or, b) we dropped a replacement body tub on it. I couldn’t afford either, so I sold the Jeep cheap to my friend who totally rebuilt it, and sold it to a kid who promptly flipped it upside down on his first venture into the woods. Damned thing deserved better, I should have just mothballed it again until I had the funds to put the new tub on.

  • avatar

    I had a 92 Miata that was of course a great car in many ways, but after 25 years was getting tired. Rust that I had fixed was coming back, the mechanicals were going to need attention, the airbag was 25 years old, etc. I thought if I put $4k into it I would have a $4k car. Decided to sell if for about $1500 and move on.

  • avatar

    For me it’s a no brainer: fix the truck.
    This story looks like the truck is actually needed on a regular basis and is a work tool.
    The market price is irrelevant even after fixing it because you are expecting to keep the truck for a few years and get some work done with it, so the repairs would presumably pay off over time. And it’s still cheaper than getting a newer truck. Selling it as-is will not fix anything because you’ll still need a truck.
    As some others have said, the used car market is tricky; you may be able to get more or less than you originally expected based on demand, time and the vehicle’s overall condition

  • avatar

    This reminds me of when I scrapped my 1998 Dodge Caravan back in 2012. It had been a great vehicle, had a relatively young transmission and had nothing wrong with it mechanically aside from a couple old car “quirks”. However it fell victim to the notorious NS minivan strut tower rot so it was at the end of its road whether I liked it or not. To this day it remains one of the three favorite vehicles I’ve owned.

    A friend of mine also ran into this with his F-250 6.0 diesel. It was his dream truck that he drove two states over to get. However, once it was getting close to 80K miles he knew it was going to need a good investment for him to keep it (such as preventively studding the heads and replacing the head gaskets). Out of fear of it becoming a money pit, concern over how quickly it was starting to rust and generally deciding that it’s more truck than he needed, he traded it for a Silverado 1500.

    And now I’m reaching that point with my 2016 Cadillac CTS which just went out of it’s bumper to bumper warranty. Keep it and hope it doesn’t become a moneypit? (A genuine concern given all the things that’s gone wrong with it so far) or do I just cut my losses and trade it for something else? I am tempted by the new 2020 Sonata, especially if that 300HP N-Line version ends up happening.

  • avatar

    If the engine and transmission are okay how about looking for one in the scrapyard with a blown engine/trans but otherwise okay?
    A transplant would give more years and not deplete finances too much.

  • avatar

    “a plucky pickup that never shrugged off an assignment, *even if we sometimes asked it to bite off more than it could chew*”

    At old GM in the late 90’s, it was understood/assumed that the probability of a pickup truck being overloaded at least once during its lifetime was very close to 100%.

  • avatar

    I can’t say that the repair bill forced me into a “choice” beyond I evaluated the cost to repair versus replace, and concluded I wasn’t going to throw good money after bad.

    I picked up a used 2005 Saturn Relay3 minivan with the 3.5 under the hood used in 2010. I paid about $7K for it after taxes and fees, and I got 5 years out of it, and sold it for $3.8K. I didn’t have to put much into it at all, and I’ll freely admit, I abused the crap out of it.

    It became the vehicle of choice for long hauls because – minivan, and in the “3” trim XM Radio, heated seats, rear entertainment, captains chairs, etc. etc. made it very servicable. We’d toss our kayaks on the roof after finding cross rails, which apparently are almost made out of unobtainium. I took out the seats and loaded it to the rafters with mulch, dirt, and on one occasion, went to a construction site and grabbed some of the rocks that had been exposed from digging basements for decorating my yard. Imagine filled up across the entire floor, suspension sagging like there were dead bodies over the rear suspension packed five high. It was the vehicle of choice for snow because FWD, and it did admirably.

    One time on a cross country trip, the vehicle in front of me suddenly swerved on a 70 MPH two-laner, exposing a box in the road. With an oncoming 18-wheeler I had no where to go, so I braked hard and held on. The vehicle made horrific noises on impact, the steering locked up, and I skidded to a shrieking stop drifting thankful to the right, and coming to a stop before the asphalt ran out in the emergency lane. My wife asked what happened and I told her, “I think I just killed the van.”

    I was convinced that the transaxle was destroyed from the impact. What I found was a box with a large spool of plastic bailing “wire.” The friction was so intense the plastic bailing wire had melted and fused where it dragged on the ground. It was wrapped around the passenger side front wheel, incredibly hot.

    I got in the van, put it in reverse, touched the gas, listened to horrid sounds as the semi-melted plastic yielded it’s grip. I then looked it over and decided to toss it in the back of the van. I figured if the transaxle blew apart or the wheel came off 10 miles later USAA would never believe me without some pics and the, “hey, here is the damn thing I hit.”

    Nothing do. I drove slowly for 20 or 30 miles – it wasn’t even knocked out of alignment. I kept that spool for about two-months then tossed it in recycling.

    I had bought the orphaned minivan because:

    * It had a really cool history – it was a GM press vehicle and a very early production 2005 model. Yes, those reviews you may have read saying what a steaming pile of crap the Saturn Relay was? Might have been that vehicle being reviewed

    * Because it was a GM press vehicle every early TSB you could imagine had been done to it. According to the Carfax this thing was in and out of service for every imaginable issue before GM put it out to pasture

    * The GM 3.5 “high value” V6 might have had the NVH dynamics only slightly better than the Iron Duke, but it was boat anchor reliable and got incredible MPG while providing adequate grumpf.

    * NO ONE knew what a Saturn Relay was, or wanted one, so the price was beyond right

    At about 160K miles it started to drip some oil in the driveway. No worse than the wife’s Subaru with the 2.5 does at first. As I approached 165K miles it got worse. I got an estimate – turns out replacing the oil pan gasket on a GM U-body is major surgery. I went another 3K miles. Some other small issues started popping up. The driver’s heated seat died. The headlights were hazing. The air suspension in the back had enough from the abuse. And the Satantic power sliding doors had become a massive liability requiring me to pull fuses and relays.

    In the end it was more of an issue of the power sliding doors, and the ridiculous cost to rebuild the hardware with no guarantee that it would provide a long-term solution was the end.

    I disclosed the fuses and relays where pulled in my ad, and made sure the new owners understood not to turn them back on. They were aware of the oil leak, which was really still more of a nuisance than the end of the world. It was a serviceable vehicle.

    I replaced it with a pickup truck – which seems to be cursed – but that’s another story.

  • avatar

    Either way, the prices of nicer used pickups are nuts right now. They’re asking stupid money, so I assume what they’re getting is close to it.

  • avatar

    Consider another side to this. There are many vehicles in similar condition, critical parts, suspension, brakes, steering, at or beyond the wear limit. The owners/drivers keep them on the road, only fixing things that stop them from moving.
    In the three decades that I fixed vehicles I saw some scary stuff.
    Think about that next time you make a left turn when something is coming that has “plenty of room to stop”.

  • avatar

    It is damn near always more cost effective to maintain/repair a car that it is to buy a new one.

  • avatar

    I take care of the things I have, but ultimately there is a point when you just have to let it go. All material things are replaceable. Car-wise, I’ve been good about unloading cars when they are devoid of much value, but still cosmetically presentable, yet suspect for possible expensive hassles.

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