A History of the Used Car
40 Years at the Parts Counter
It was a four door, two-toned, white and cream, and the left rear fender was flattened from the accident I had when I first got my license.
It was not my car, really, but my Dad's, a second car that my brother used until he went to college, and then mostly mine for my last two years of high school. It had a six cylinder engine, a 235 cubic inch, I think. It had a three speed on the column and was an awkward car to drive, though I liked it fine once I got started. I was not a wild driver, but I did like to remove the air cleaner for a while and keep it in second, keep the rev's up, which may be why . . .
When I finished school Dad said my friend Tom and I could take it as we left for Wisconsin and Michigan. So we bought a case of oil and hung a canvas water bag on the fender and set out. As we were gassing up in Albuquerque the radiator spilled water all over the apron of the gas station, which should have been a bad sign for us, but we went ahead, and it ran cool on the highway and didn't boil over until we hit traffic in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. The oil was a different matter. In Tucumcari the rocker arms began to click, and after that we stopped every 80 miles and added two quarts, and we used 33 quarts before we reached Madison.
Once in Wisconsin the Chevy didn't get much use, and after the summer was over it broke down and was turned over to a gas station owner.
Before I got the Chevy, cars were all Dad's domain, and recently I looked back a little to ask if my father, who was born in 1917 and was kept from the war by a defense industry job (Lindy Air Products), managed to have a car through the war years. He did. He had a cool Roadster when he was a teenager, not suffering too much in the Depression because Grandfather's drug store kept on supplying essential needs; then he had a 28 Chevy, a 40 Dodge coupe, a 37 Pontiac, and a 46 Nash. He and Warren discussed this at a visit in 2003, and they got their memories up to date and made this list.
Dad's next car was a 51 Nash, and this was the first of the family cars for me. By the time I was 5 we had moved up to 52 Hudson, a rounded cruiser where a little boy could spend some of his happiest hours leaning over the backrest of the front seat between his parents--in the bad old days when accidents were as terrible as ever but not so visible to us all. We never had one, it seems, until we kids began to drive.
In about 1957 we got a glorious 56 Buick, emerald-green and peach, fat and bold and cushioned and smelling delicious, though it was not quite new. It was Roadmaster, top of the line, a 4-holer, which, in my time, meant you get to kiss your girlfriend, though I was too young then to enjoy that feature. The Centuries and Specials were 3-holers, and she gets to hit you. That car went from Massachusetts to Virginia, and in Virginia Dad bought a second car to use and for Bobbi to drive later, a 51 Pontiac, I think. Something happened to the radiator, and water was added without antifreeze, and the block got cracked. How that happens in Virginia's mild winter, I am not sure, but Dad worked in the garage to replace it.
In 1959, Dad bought the famous Chrysler, an often written about chapter in our family saga, a midlife story for Dad and a romance for Bobbi and new boyfriend and future husband of many years, Bill. It was a big V-8, a 413, with, believe it or not, two four-barrel carburetors and a speedometer that went to 150. It was a long, sleek two-door hardtop, burgandy red, with fins that only that era dared to build. So that was the other car I had to drive, now and then, as a kid. I only got it to 115, on a long, high road near Taos and the Rio Grande Gorge. Closer to home, I loved it when the transmission failed and it would scream and roar in low gear as I went up and down the street just a block from here. In the same place I once made the Chevy do donuts in the snow and mud of the empty lot where, now, line after line of new Chevy cars and trucks and Suburbans stand. (We live behind Car Alley in Albuquerque.) The Chrysler died a sudden death in 1965, shortly after I drove off to Wisconsin in the Chevy, while our family was splitting up, when Mom drove back from Wisconsin and collided in Kansas City.
After that, Mom got a Corvair and then other cars I can't name, ending with two Dodge Aspens. The last one went to the junkyard at the end of her driving career, just 18 months before her death in 1999, after she broadsided an 83 Mercedes coupe (180?). About the time of the demise of the Chrysler, Dad had a Volvo 1800S, which I never got to drive. Then he was gone to Amarillo and there were a couple of Mercedes Sedans and some small trucks, and now, I think, an Oldsmobile 98 and a little truck. Meanwhile, my own adult career as a car owner had begun.
About the time the Chevy got hauled off the gas station lot to be junked, I was in the dormitory and suddenly found myself owning, on credit, a Suzuki motorcyle, a tiny little 50 cc. bike that spun all over Madison with one or two of us on board, to the delight of all. But Japanese bikes proliferated rapidly, and the following year I had a 250 c.c. X6 Hustler with acceleration and screaming six-speed shifting sounds to thrill me as well as I could be thrilled those days. Before long, though, I was married, and we had 61 Volkswagen bug ($800, on credit). It went to Albuquerque and back in the winter of 1967, 68 mph on the level, 72 downhill, 45 uphill, on the long rises and falls of Interstate 80 in Iowa. It broke down at night in Iowa for a minor electrical reason, and we were towed into Newton, Iowa, and stayed in the Maytag Hotel. You don't understand the real loneliness of the Maytag repairman until you've been to Newton. A week later, we returned in snow and ice on the scary, curbed highways of northeast Iowa while the famous Ice Bowl was going on in Green Bay. Now it seems amazing that we would drive that far in something that small and old, but it was no big deal, then. A couple of years later it needed major engine work, and then after that it failed on the road, popping and snapping on a long downhill freeway ramp in Milwaukee. We abandoned it at a gas station there, just short of our destination at a lakeside concert (Judy Collins?) , where there would be family to help us home.
I bought a 60 Falcon ($75) from a friend whose dad was the Ford dealer in the little town of Evansville, where Peggy and I lived in 1970-74. The Falcon was not much of a car, and at some point we bought a 66 Fairlane from the same dealer, for about $500. Later a friend sold me his 61 Mercury Comet. I still had this when I got to know Linda, after that first marriage had failed, and Linda called it "Gandolph," It looked funny, because it broke down on a country road one day, and I left it there, but when I came back the next day to fix and retrieve it there was a shotgun blast in the driver's door. Good conversation starter to drive a car with that feature.
Linda brought a much better car into our new relationship, a 70 Dodge Dart, which she and her first husband had bought new ($1895) . So we had that and Gandolph. Some friends gave us a very good price on a 69 Dodge Coronet Wagon, big and comfortable and the mainstay of our driving life for a while. It was a smooth car. Linda once drove across town (Burlington, Wisconsin) with a jar of pickles on the roof. It got us to Albuquerque in 1978, but barely, and yet that was only because we abused it with a six by twelve U-Haul. It was a historic trip that seemed to have ended the same day it began. But we limped here, adding transmission fluid. A year before we left we sold our Dart to buy a 71 Subaru ($700), an early front-wheel drive car. Mechanically, it was nice, but the body was painted rust, and when we sold it to leave the state we got only about $150.
The poorest I ever felt was the first years in Albuquerque, although it was the beginning of home ownership, which led to better things. We had the old Coronet wagon, and we got a 71 Datsun 510 wagon. We had a loan on that, too, but I think it was only $800. For those of you who are new, a Datsun is the real name of a Nissan. The 510 Wagon was cool little car. Orange. We took it to California, maybe twice. I remember adjusting the points at our motel in Phoenix, because worn points might keep you running but won't get you started. I put a clutch in it, on our concrete slab (future carport) in Bernalillo, and it was a piece of cake. I by then had been a practicing mechanic for 5 or 6 years. But the Datsun wore out, burned oil. One day after I got my job installing solar heating and seemed happy and prosperous there we bought an almost new car, a 1980 Plymouth Champ (Mitsubishi), with 14,000 miles. I think it was $5800. It was a bad deal, high interest rates; in the long run I felt we shouldn't have bought it. But it was cool little car to cruise the mountains and deserts in, with its 4 speed and 2 speed axle. I would use all 8 gears. Economical, air-conditioned. We had fun with it. Then we had 2 babies, and before long the Champ was in LA with Bruce and Cathy, and we had Chic and Val's 1980 Buick Century Wagon.
The Buick served us well. It never felt quite right, but it kept going. We found out eventually that it had greatly oversized tires put on it, which would make the transmission unhappy. On Christmas Day (about 1989) we got in the car, I and Linda and Mom and babies Shannon and Brie, and started for Flagstaff, where Brad and his family lived. Just outside town there was a pop and a little trail of blue smoke. I stopped, raised the hood, saw leaking oil, got back in, did a U-turn on the highway, and drove back to our house. Not too smart, maybe, from what I know now, but totally amazing in that I was able to do it. Both bolts were missing from the fuel pump, and only the steel tubing was holding it in place enough to keep on pumping. Oil was being thrown from the opening. But it was an easy fix, and about noon we were again on our way to Flagstaff.
While we had the Champ and the Buick, we also had Chic's old Dodge Truck, a 71 half-ton, whirled-peas green, with an automatic transmission and an FM radio. FM only-- I have never seen it again. It was our horse and hay truck, our trips-to-the-dump and fixing the house truck, and I loved the feel of it. Nothing like the feel of Saturday morning coffee and and old automatic transmission on a dirt road to the dump and classical music. I regret that we sold it, partly because we got ripped off by a Christian-talking "brother" who gave us a horse trailer that was broken, took it back, and never brought the cash. I think we bought that for $900 and would have sold it for about the same.
We were able to let the truck go because we got the Suburban. In 1990, I got a student loan, and we used $2800 to buy our 1978 red Suburban. It was totally comfortable and nice, and our little girls were queens back there in the huge back seats, one for each, as we did our cruising and traveling to Oklahoma and Arkansas and Denver and Arizona. We kept it for 11 years, I think, and drove it from 99,000 to 180,000 miles. We had to fix a lot of things, including the top end of the engine, distributor, several starters, brake drums and rotors, driveshaft, and more. In 1997 it got stolen and the interior was never the same again. It spent some time in the driveway, and then we sold it for $1000, but not too long after having given it a new transmission.
The Buick was given away in 1993 to an elderly couple at church who got a few good years out of it. We had just the Suburban. In 1998, after the Suburban was stolen and recovered in bad condition, a missionary family leaving the country gave us a 1983 Toyota Tercel, which I am driving today, more than five years later, having rolled the odometer around from 145,000 to 174,000 miles. In 2000 we bought a 1990 Geo Prizm (a Toyota Corolla in disguise), so we had three cars for a while. About a year later the Suburban was gone, and the Prizm was our main car, but after a harrowing experience of a failed axle on the way to Amarillo, we decided to buy Linda's folks' minivan, a 91 Plymouth Grand Voyager. We flew to Burbank and drove it home. So we had a nice van and two little Toyotas. In 2002, the Prizm was destroyed in an accident, and recently the Van broke down in a very serious way. It is in the mechanic's shop as I write, hoping for a new engine. To keep going, we bought another Prizm, also a 90, but with 164,000 miles. We bought it from a friend, and with my recent luck in used cars this could be test of the friendship. We now have a van and two Toyotas again, and when the Van is fixed I will probably park the Tercel and uninsure it, since insuring three vehicles while also having a teenage driver is terribly expensive.
I forgot one on my list of 18, a very forgettable 1980 Dodge Omni, known as the Dodo, because those were the only metal letters remaining in the name plate. We got it for a paper route and sold it a few months later to a friend, who also took the route. But it failed utterly for him in about a week. Whether the friendship suffered is a little hard to judge, as he is in prison today. Possibly the car pushed him over the edge and back to his methamphetamines.
I have compiled the facts about these cars on a spreadsheet, all as part of the decision-making process regarding my $2500 van that needs $2500 in work. It turns out that our average car, these 40 years, is a 1974 bought in 1983 and kept for about 4 years, with a median age of 11 years. This average car was driven 33,000 miles, from 81,000 to 114,000, or about 8000 miles per year. We owned an average of 1.74 cars during that time, so the annual mileage overall was 14,000, and the total mileage about 578,000. Total purchase price for these vehicles was $23,670, or $1315 for the average car. Counting only major repairs like transmissions and engine rebuilds, and subtracting resale amounts or present value, this average car cost me $296 per year. Since I had 1.74 cars in the average year, my basic acquisition costs were $515 per year. This seems to vindicate my basic approach, which is to avoid depreciation entirely and experience mostly the second 100,000 miles of all these cars. The sore thumb, right now, on this list is the Voyager, showing a $1500 loss in a little over a year. But if I keep it another 5 years it will fit into the general pattern.
Of course, I did not include repair and maintenance costs altogether, just the obvious major jobs. How many starters and alternators and brake drums and radiators have I installed these 40 years? How many $50 bills went over the counter at the parts stores? There is no telling. A more important question, perhaps, is, How many hours were spent on the shoulder of the road, broken down? Actually, not that many. The VW got towed in from the highway in the middle of a winter night for a small electrical problem and eventually got abandoned at a gas station in Milwaukee. Gandolph spent a night on the shoulder and got blasted with a shotgun, and there were certainly other times like that in the days of the shaggy college student hippy on the country roads of Southern Wisconsin, though none were traumatic enough to be remembered. The overloaded Dodge Coronet deeply scared me, because everything we owned was on those eight wheels and we had no Visa cards. But we limped all the way to Albuquerque with it and sold it still running. The Suburban had bad starter syndrome in places far away from help among the trees of the Jemez Mountains, and it was an automatic and could have needed a tow, but it always got us back. The first Prizm stopped dead on the highway with a broken timing belt, but not with the whole family going to Grand Lake, Colorado in the summer, just with me, trying to go to Boulder. That episode turned into a pleasant story of God's standing-by kind of provision. It is like running out of gas in front of a gas station, as I've done a few times, or the Tercel's third fuel pump failure, right here in my driveway. The Tercel was towed in for the 2nd fuel pump failure, and the Prizm was rescued by Linda when the alternator quit, and the Voyager had Linda calling roadside service once, but these were in-town inconveniences. The long trip to Amarillo with the Prizm's failed axle was more nerve-racking, as was the slow trip back from Socorro with the Voyager's recent engine breakdown. But these make good stories, too. To use Dylan's apt song title, We got there, "Most of the Time."
Cool addition, this week (July 2004) to the running-out-of-gas-at-a-gas-station stories: Luke and Dan and Gabe had a failed alternator about 50 miles east of Albuquerque while driving here for Linda's funeral. They spoke with their Dad over the phone about it, and spoke to someone at Clines Corners (an intersection of I-40 and US 285), and they learned that there was a mechanic a few miles up the road at Wagon Wheel (a town so small I failed to notice it before now). It was Sunday, but he could fix it the next day. So they continued driving, an finally the electricity ran out, and they sputtered and stalled, and they coasted up a long exit ramp to the stop sign at the top. Then they rolled down from the bridge, around the corner, and into the driveway of the mechanic's home. He was there, and he checked it out and said he would tow it to his shop (down the road a piece) in the morning. Bill and I arrived in the van, and we all went to Albuquerque, and on Monday afternoon Todd and Gretchen fit the guys in their car and took the scenic route toward Colorado, returning Luke an Dan and Gabe to the repaired truck.
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