Hello CEP readers! As has become tradition for me, I’m here to offer you another dose of Tristan’s Deep Thought TM. This week’s deep thoughts spring from a discussion I had with my dad (who has been a guest writer for this blog before) on the merits of a new car versus an old car. It came after watching one of the episodes from the most recent seasons of The Grand Tour. I know we try to distance ourselves from that here at CEP and not directly rip content or ideas from them, but it was just the trigger for a discussion. In their episode, they talk about resto-modding vintage cars.
For anyone unfamiliar with that term, resto-modding is the process of restoring a vintage car with all of the cosmetic or aesthetic elements in place while replacing the important safety, performance, or everyday convenience bits with new ones. The Grand Tour made the argument that that is the best way kind of car to drive, ever. All the reliability, safety, and performance of new mechanicals with the far more interesting and storied shell and interior of some classic car. That statement isn’t something that I disagree with. However, resto-modding can be VERY expensive to do. Most of these cars end up in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. That’s just not attainable for most people. That got my dad and I thinking. Would it be worth buying older cars anyway? Even without the resto-mod?
My family has a very long history of buying cars and keeping them forever or buying used cars and... also keeping them forever. We received this advice (probably slightly self-serving, now that I come to think of it) from our local mechanic of choice: What are else are you going to get that’s better for the price of the repair? Let me give you a little bit of an example to clarify. In 1992 my dad bought a 1989 Merkur Scorpio. Merkur was Ford’s attempt at giving a little European flair to the Lincoln/Mercury dealers of the time. It was based on the German pronunciation of Mercury and was meant to attract buyers of European “Executive sedans” to the Ford family of brands. The cars were even mostly built with parts sourced from Europe, and the car was assembled in Germany. My dad purchased his Scorpio for $9000, and couldn’t have put more than $8000 in repairs over the course of it’s 100,000+ mile life. It retailed for $30,000... in 1989. That's more than the MSRP of my base model WRX today. Before accounting for inflation. For about 50% of the price that the car was going off of lots, my dad got and drove what, in his words, was “a really nice car!” for 100,000+ miles, just repairing it as it broke. He was able to purchase a car that would have been well out of his price range, had he bought it new, and have that experience every day instead of buying some econobox.
Even when my parent's finances exited the post-college stage, things didn’t change. Although they were purchased new, the Audi A4 and Audi A6 that you might have heard me talk about in our first episode “You Never Forget Your First" were cars that were around forever. In fact the last one just recently left the family fleet. That longevity was driven by the idea of “What could you get for the same money as a repair that would be a better car?”. In fact, the same thought is currently working for my 2004 Jeep Grand Cherokee. We probably got three or even four cars worth of use out of the cars we bought new instead of always trading them in for new ones. That also allowed us to save up for huge periods of time to buy cars, so the ones that we bought were real gems.
The same rationale of “what could you get for the same money” can be used when looking at purchasing old, good cars. The question just comes to bear on a later part of the life cycle. My dad now owns a mid-90s Mercedes SL that was freshly purchased just last year. He’s always dreamed of owning a SL. Sure, my dad could have (theoretically) plopped down nearly NINETY THOUSAND dollars on a new SL (the styling of which he doesn’t even really like as much) instead of spending the few thousand he did on his mid-nineties one. You can buy a NEW car, but we all know the costs of that. If you enjoy your current car, why not fix it? You’ve always wanted to drive that dream car? Why not buy it used for a VERY low price and fix it when it inevitably breaks? You could even do a little, light resto-mod yourself like I did with the Jeep. I replaced it’s old, tired suspension with one that was MUCH better than the factory would have likely even had access to at the time. There is a dark side to all of this, however: Downtime.
Just recently, I’ve leased two new cars in succession: my Outback and my WRX. This action was driven by the absolute, ever-present fear that my car was always about to need a wrench applied to it. Or worse... it would be something terminal, unfixable. It seemed like we were always down a vehicle, in one way or another. Cars were at the mechanic for work, they needed work and couldn’t be driven too far, or they were strewn across the garage in a storm of parts (that, by far, was my mom’s FAVORITE state for them to be in... ehem...). This atmosphere is, quite frankly, a little oppressive. The consistent air of uncertainty around the question of “will my car start today” or “will a wheel fall off on this road trip I’m taking” can cause you to lose your mind a little. That’s why I’ve made the decision to go new this time, but... I don’t think that’s the fully the best way to go either.
What I’ve come to as the perfect balance is some wisdom imparted to me by my mother. Her mantra has always been “Why choose?” I think this is the best way to own cars. Currently, I have my relatively shiny, relatively new WRX that is still under warranty and doesn’t give me nightmares about trips to the dealer or shop. I also share ownership of the old Jeep. This is the way to live. I have the joy of having an older car to work on, that I couldn’t pay full price for alongside paying for my new car, and I get to experience many different joys of driving. I can rip along in the WRX or I can rumble off-road and carry large objects in my Jeep. My hope for my future when the Jeep inevitably and sadly goes ashes to ashes, rust to rust, is that I will be able to relegate the WRX to the older, hobby car and I would replace the Jeep with a new Jeep, truck, SUV, whatever. I’ve enjoyed having both worlds. One paid off and the other under warranty. Now, I’m able to sustain this due to having enough garage space, disposable income, etc. That may not be the case for everyone. So, much like my last blog, that leads me to ask you, reader-friends, what would you do? How do YOU live your car life? A boneyard of fun but only half working cars? A gleaming example of automotive ease replaced every three years under lease? The sensible, certified pre-owned vehicle? Some combination? None of the above? Let us know in the blog comments or shoot us an email. I want to know!