What to Look for in a Drive it Forever Car

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Some people like to clip coupons – I like to shave my car ownership costs to the bone. Note that I didn’t say car buying costs. Because that’s only half the equation. It does you no good if the inexpensive car you bought ends up costing you a lot of money to drive. Sometimes, people don’t take this into account. They should.

Here’s how:

* Buy something rugged –

Most modern cars are very crashworthy but also fairly delicate. They will protect you in a crash, but even a minor fender-bender (or pothole) can result in expensive damage to both their thin-gauge metal (or plastic) exteriors and – more significantly – their running gear. This is especially true of front-wheel-drive cars, as anyone who has accidentally run up over a curb or hit a bad pothole in one can probably tell you. This is why most cop cars and taxis are rear-wheel-drive cars. They typically have girder-like cast-iron rear axle assemblies that are all-but-impossible to damage, let alone break. They are also largely maintenance-free (other than the occasional gear lube change). In a front-wheel-drive car, the front wheels do double duty – steering the car as well as putting the power to the ground. This means more parts and complexity – and expense. Front-wheel-drive transaxles are also less sturdy (not being made of large hunks of cast iron firmly bolted in place) and so easier to damage if you have a minor accident or hit a bad pothole.

Rear-drive cars are also usually much easier to work on because there’s more space in the engine compartment. The engine is mounted longitudinally (front to rear), which makes it much easier to get at things like spark plugs (especially if the car has a V-6 or V-8 engine). In a FWD car, not only is the engine mounted transversely (sideways) it is “packaged” together (and much more tightly) with the transmission and axle (the transaxle) into a single “assembly” that often makes accessing even routine maintenance items such as the oil filter or spark plugs an epic challenge.

Another long-term advantage that RWD vehicles have over (most) FWD vehicles is body-on-frame (or at least partially body-on-frame) construction. There is a heavy-gauge frame that the engine, transmission and body panels bolt to vs. being (in the case of body panels on a unibody car) welded together. What this means is that if you have a fender-bender, you will probably be able to unbolt the damaged panel and bolt on the new part. Even if you don’t do this work yourself, the repair cost will be cheaper because there’s less work to do – and the work is easier to do. Heavy steel frames are also much harder to damage (even in the event of a major wreck)  and don’t suffer as much over the long haul from structural rot caused by rust.

* Keep it Simple –

There is an engineering axiom that says the more complex a system, the more likely it is that system will eventually fail – and the sooner it will fail, too. Some of the electronic systems found in many new cars are essentially peripheral,meaning if it stops working you can either do without it or work around it. For example, ABS brakes. If the ABS stops working, the brakes will usually still work normally. It just means the anti-lock function won’t (and the wheels will skid if you lock up the brakes during a panic stop). But if you have a car equipped with an air-adjustable suspension and the compressor or some other critical part fails, the car may be undriveable and very expensive to repair.

On 4WD equipped vehicles, I prefer a system that uses a handle you pull vs. a knob you turn. The former is a simple, physical interface that is less likely to malfunction or break – and if it does, the fix is usually straightforward and inexpensive. In the latter, the 4WD is controlled electronically, and if the electronic controller craps out on you the fix will probably be neither straightforward nor inexpensive.

Avoid to the extent you can things like digital-displays and drive-by-wire; turbos and multi-setting/auto-adjusting suspensions and transmissions. Such things can be great fun when a car is new – and still under warranty. But no so much fun when the car is 15-plus years old and the “warranty” is your wallet.

* Avoid vehicles that have been made deliberately hard to service –

Not to pick on them, but BMW is a case in point. Current models don’t even have a dipstick to check the oil level. You have to consult a computer.  BMW’s computer. And BMW’s software, too.  The automaker makes it difficult to impossible for owners to do their own service and also independent (non-BMW) repair shops, which don’t have the proprietary BMW diagnostic computers/software. It is a good idea to do a little research into the make/model vehicle you’re considering to find out whether this is an issue.

In some cases, it’s not deliberate per se, just difficult to service the thing because of the way the vehicle was built. As an example, my father-in-law used to own an early ’90s-era Cadillac with the Northstar V-8 (mounted sideways). Getting at the oil filter – which was mounted in the valley of the V-8’s “v” – was extremely awkward at best and potentially impossible if the previous person who changed the oil had overtightened the old filter, since getting a wrench on it was not physically doable.

A quick Google search of owner forums will often turn up such potential nightmares before they become your nightmare.

* Use your eyes –

As you drive around, take note of the make/models you see that are more than 15 years old. I see ’90s vintage Toyota Corollas every day. Coming across a same-era Dodge Neon occurs far less often. Just an example. The point being, steer clear of makes/models that seem to just disappear from the roads after about 10 years or so – and focus on the makes/models that seem to just go and go and go.

That ought to get you started!

Throw it in the Woods?

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61 COMMENTS

  1. I love older 4 cylinder rear wheel drive Volvos. Keep it simple with no turbo. Drove an ’85 740 from 94k miles when I bought for $4k until 335k when I gave it away because I moved across country. Original clutch! Never serviced the fuel injection system or anything else on the engine or tranny except for ignition parts (plugs, wires, distributor cap). Bullet proof. Little things on the body and the interior deteriorated slowly while the running gear just ran and ran. And the AC no longer worked.

  2. I drive an old school BMW 535i. RWD and good solid frame. M35 motor that they used for 25+ years means cheap parts and simple design. I love straight 6 motors. 216k miles and it just passed emissions like it was still new. Tires are cheap too. 5-speed means no automatic failures.

  3. My wife drives a 2000 Civic. I like it because it uses an an old-fashioned ignition key and that doesn’t have GPS, power windows, DVD, or a bunch of gee-whiz computer crap on it. Just the engine processer to generate trouble-shooting codes. There’s less stuff to fail and diagosing & fixing it is simpler (and cheaper). I have to get a car for my daughter now. Is there any car currently sold in the US that has these same qualities? If not, what would be the latest make & model used car that could still be considered as a “simple car”?

    • Hi Vince,

      Older Civics rock – for just the reasons you list. Ditto same-era Corollas.

      In a new/current car-year car, probably the closest thing going would be something along the lines of the Nissan Versa. It starts just over $10,000 and can be ordered with “just the basics,” no over-the-top computer crap or electronics.

  4. Eric,

    Although I would be hard pressed to ever part with my 2001 Toyota 4-Runner that I love so much (still built on a truck chassis back then) if I had to choose a vehicle that best meets the description that you’ve laid out and matches closest to my own preferences I think that I would have to go with the second generation Dodge Ramcharger (1981-1993).

    I have had several Chrysler cars with the 318 cubic inch V-8 and they were all good. Well, almost – that `72 Plymouth Fury III was a real piece of junk, but it had all sorts of quality issues.

    Getting back to the 318 though as long as you are conscientious about changing the bypass hose every year and remember to keep a spare one in the trunk they run reliably and with very little maintenance. I would opt for that tried and true 318cu/5.2L engine and stick with the two-wheel drive for simplicity.

    That series Ramcharger was available with a removable second row seat too. I probably wouldn’t need it, but it would be nice to have it on hand if I did.

    Those old Ramchargers were great – built like the proverbial brick outhouse. A Ramcharger was one of those things that I always wanted, but never did get.

    For a ‘Forever Vehicle’ though it would fulfill your very nicely done outline and fit my needs nicely.

  5. A few years ago I ran across plans for adding a modest electric blower to the RX-7’s air filter housing which is supposed to provide a small supercharging effect. The blower is activated when the gas pedal is depressed a certain amount.

    The RX-8 is turbocharged and perhaps more than two seconds faster than the stock RX-7 in 0 to 60. Mazda has poured over a billion into rotary (Wankel)development.

    One shortcoming of the 12A is difficulty to start in frigid weather without plugging in the engine heater for a good eight hours but I never drive the RX-7 during the winter anyway. Do you happen to remember who makes that manifold you had mentioned?

    • Keep your money and don’t buy the “supercharger fan.” If you wanted to help the intake put in a performance air filter and cold air intake. I am going to do some research on that company I mention in my previous post now.

      • dom, thanks for all the info. No, I never pursued the supercharger thing.

        The car is a million dollars worth of entertainment just as it is standing still and even more so when I’m driving on curvy rural roads.

        I will take a serious look at the link you provided. A measurable improvement in the 0 to 60 range is appealing to me. One of the nice thing about rotaries is that they are hard to over-rev although there is probably some theoretical limit beyond which damage can occur. I’m a pretty conservative driver so I’m not too worried about that possibility. The “serious ignition system” you mentioned in conjunction with a higher performance carb almost sounds like an irresistible combination.

        • Hey, no problem. I used to love my RX, but had to make way for college and got rid of it. I think putting a bit over a grand into it would wake it up. Intake, carb, exhaust, and ignition. -ready to go That unit would be mean! If I had to take a guess I would say all that might add an additional 30hp.

          • That’s a serious boost. The stock 12A only puts out 100hp. Talk about screaming!

            Ya, I know what it’s like having to sell things dear like cool cars and bikes for a little (usually too little) quick cash. You end up mourning and kicking yourself forever.

    • This is not the same company, but this is the manifold I was talking about.

      http://www.racingbeat.com/RX7-1975-1985/Weber-Intake/16482.html

      Put that unit on, get a down draft carb, clean up the exhaust, and you’ll be ripping it up. If you have the cash I suggested getting a spare engine and rebuilding it. If you could fit a 13B in that unit and have it bridge ported you’d be a bad mofo. I am not sure of the transmission configuration between the newer and old units though.

      When I was back in Okinawa, about 16 years ago, there was an older style rx-7 like the one you have. It had the 12A with the same setup I mentioned above, but also had a serious ignition system on it too. Just listening to it idle scared me! It was a monster. Did 240 kilometers per hour! Which was fast in Japan. It’s about 150mph.

      My ex-girlfriend’s brother had an rx-3. Now that was hot shit. Only had a 10A engine though.

  6. Good advice. Is it still possible to get parts for old Beetles?
    Six years ago I bought a mint condition 81 RX-7 from the original owner. The car had just been repainted and new seals had been installed in the 12A rotary engine. He included a stack of documents indicating all the little repairs and adjustments that had been done over the years. I think it was the best $2700 investment I ever made.

    • Those little 12A engines are pretty neat. There is company that makes a manifold so you can put a down draft Weber/Mikuni/Solex carb on it. Then you can bridge port it and take off the heat chamber (whatever it’s called on that unit, it’s the first portion of the exhaust) and your talking fast high revs. I think the one I had was an ’82 and the stock 4 barrel carb on it was more complicated than a space shuttle.

    • Yes- every nut and bolt (just about) is either available as a repro or NOS or used. Body parts, mechanical and electrical. No sweat. It is probably possible to build an entire “new” one using mail-ordered parts!

  7. Eric, I think you had said something favorable about old Beetles. While in town today I spotted a restored yellow 72 with a for sale sign on the window so I pulled into the parking lot where it was sitting and checked it. Almost everything appeared to be in top notch shape. The tires and vinyl interior looked new. The only problem I could detect was possible damage to the bottom of the steering wheel. The car allegedly has only 38,000 original miles. The owner is asking $3,500. 715-866-4456 for anyone who might be interested. The location is Siren WI which is approximately 60 miles northeast of Dennis Kirk (Minnesota) or 60 miles due south of Superior, WI. The yellow color might have a slight lime tint.

    • That sounds like a steal! I wouldn’t worry about the steering wheel, either. That’s a cheap and easy fix. The thing I’d want to check out would by the floor pans, especially under the rear seat (where the battery is). Most of these older Beetles are either rusted out or have had the rusted out areas replaced by now.

  8. Ya, the old stuff is definitely better even if the gas mileage sucks. My 83 Dodge Ram 150 van still runs like a top. I’m beginning to think that the slant six is immortal provided one is anal about oil changes. I just started using synthetic oil so it’s likely the engine will outlive me. The northern climate eats metal so every two or three years I devote a couple of days to patching holes in the body with fiberglass cloth and resin. I’ve also replaced all four springs, one lower control arm, and had some creative welding done on three leaf spring mounts. I purchased used Arizona parts over the internet so the total for everything mentioned above including local professional labor charges was somewhere in the neighborhood of a grand. Some other minor repairs include one brake line, gas tank mounting straps, and several cargo bay door hinges. For some reason the pins wear out and they can’t be removed – at least not easily. The plastic gas tank is immune from corrosion. In my opinion it may be one of the smartest features ever offered by Dodge. I’m sure that I would have gone through several steel tanks by now. OK, even if I include things like mufflers, tires, batteries, oil changes, bulbs, wiper blades etc. I doubt if maintenance and repair costs combined would be much more than $150 per year averaged over the twenty years I’ve owned the previously owned beast. My only complaint is the heater. I’ve been told that Dodge heaters are very good but this one has never delivered adequate warmth during the winter months and I have no idea why.

    • I agree with you Marc. The 225 slant six was one of the best engines I ever had in a car. I remember being 16, driving a three-speed column shift Valiant and having to blip the throttle just before the light turned green to make sure the engine was still running! I have never experienced an engine so smooth before or since.

      • I’m glad to hear that you had good experiences with the 225. I sometimes wish that I didn’t have to push a heavily laden half ton work van around with gas still in the plus $3.50 range but at least I know I’ll always get to a destination and back with no problems.

  9. I agree whole-heartedly! My everyday work truck is a 1966 Ford F250. I have literally seen a man sitting on the inside of the fender well, working on the engine! It has the 352 FE “Wide Block” V-8, and I can STILL see 8″ of tarmac on either side of the engine! Simple, rugged, easy to work on. I’m in love with my truck! (apologies to Roger Taylor and Queen)

    • I had a ’77 F-250 High Boy 4×4 a few years back. It had a 400 in it and it ate main bearings and seals about every 35K miles (I was told that was normal for that engine). When I got disgusted with it constantly leaking oil and was ready to sell it, some of my Ford buddies tried to talk me into putting a 460 in it. I wish I had.

      Just like Steve Valle said, it was super easy to work on. You could literally climb up in the engine compartment and you had to with 33×12.50’s on it (there’s a reason the called them High Boys). I had to put a starter on it in the middle of a peanut field one afternoon and the rebuilt starter was only $18.95. I knocked down small trees with that truck, hauled green oak piled half way up the cab and took it places a truck that size should have never gone.

      Whenever anyone would nose their Caddy or Buick into my lane whilst leaving their driveway, as some rural Virginia morons are wont to doing, I’d ease over to the shoulder, kick up some dust and “bulls-eye” their driver’s door. They couldn’t find reverse fast enough! Sometimes we look back on things we’ve done and say “that was stupid” and such was the case with selling that old High Boy. Maybe another one will turn up…..

      • Just as an FYI – my engine is at 176k original miles, and when I did a full tune up recently (a breakerless ignition is next on my list, I forgot what a pain setting points is) I replaced the original coil. I could barely believe it.

        My truck needs a few things. New exhaust headers and pipes (thank God I live in Colorado! No inspections and no emissions), and I intend to pull the heads and have hardened valve seats installed, along with all new valves and associated hardware. Down the road I’d like to update it to a TBI system, but that’s about it.

        I’ve gotten pressure from my friends to swap the motor for a 390, and to move the shifter from the column to the floor, but unless the engine grenades, I’m happy with the 352; and I LIKE three-in-the-tree! Makes me miss my ’71 Valiant… 🙂

  10. Nice article. Basically keep it as simple and low tech as possible. Pretty much leaves us with pickups, a few SUVs, and some Jeeps if you want new or late model.

    I thought that Mahindra or Tata (Indian) were going to sart selling trucks in the US. Heard something about Chery (Chinese) as well. They were supposed to be very basic, old school transportation. Not saying I’m a big fan, but what ever happened to those plans? I’m guessing govt regs.

    I’d like to see a basic, steel on steel, easy to repai and cheap truck from a major manufacturer like they used to make in the 60s and 70s. You know, the kind of thing designed to punch through an accident.

    • So you want a Chinese Chery that “can punch through an accident?”

      Pull up you-tube and search for : chinese car crash test

      You will find the Chery QQ and Amulet there. also the BYD Brilliance BS-6.

      There are cheap cars, and some are cheap for a reason. I would rather drive an older car that can “punch through an accident” rather than DIE in a new Chinese car because I was cheap.

      • Ya’ know the more I hang out here and engage in deep ‘drive it forever’ thought, something profound occurred to me (no….it’s not gas). Let put it all together: good big tires, ground clearance, simple engine design, 4WD for snow and mud like a Jeep, but with the rugged durability and diesel fuel economy of a Mercedes, but also having the hauling capacity and ability to punch through an accident of big truck, but also affordable on the used market: I think I see a Uni-Mog in my future! 😀

      • Yeah. Not saying the Chinese made cars are the ones I’d want. More like old Detroit big iron. I’m sure a Chery is about as crashworthy as its namesake.

        Doesn’t mean a basic, tough, simple, efficient vehicle couldn’t be made by someone if they were willin to forgo all the tech stuff, GPS tracking cup holders, rain sensing door locks and other such nonsense.

        • Volvo made those cars for years and years. I had a Volvo 145. The primative electronic fuel injection was a nightmare. The older carbureted version would have been better.

          One day I crossed an intersection that I thought was two lanes wide. My bad. It was three lanes wide. I t-boned a mid-sized car. I destroyed it. My Volvo was damaged, but I was able to fix it myself. Then I drove it for two more years.

          I had my seat belt on during the accident (pre-airbag) I did not feel a thing….

  11. It’s hard to go wrong with a old-school — that is to say real —
    Mercedes. If you take the time and make the effort to locate a well maintained example, the W116, W126, W123, or W124 platforms will go on forever as parts are plentiful and inexpensive. I drive a 1980 300SD because I believe that the W116 series is the best all around
    “large” car ever produced by human hands…

    “The hatred of luxury is not an intelligent hatred as it implies contempt for the arts.” — Victor Hugo

  12. I purchased a 1995 Wrangler SE new in December 1994. It was my intention to keep it forever. Unfortunately, a “piston slap” condition required warranty replacement of the short block at 1,500 miles. Damn thing still smelled new. The slap manifested itself again about 3K miles later. Still under warranty, the same dealer (who sold it to me!) wouldn’t give me the time of day.

    That’s it, I thought. There’s too much Chrysler in this Jeep. I bid it Buh Bye and sold it for $600.00 more than what I owed on it.

    I now drive Hondas, and ride Suzukis, exclusively.

    • A new short block at 3,000 miles… yikes!

      I have no direct experience with Jeeps, but I revere Honda and other Japanese bikes. I’ve owned numerous examples and every one has been a “good bike” – utterly reliable, easy to work on and just plain fun, too!

  13. Don’t rag on my Neon. I have a ’95 4-door manual, and it runs fine. 30+ mpg, and far more headroom than any other compact in my rock-bottom price range. Of course, it ain’t pretty with the generic 90’s paint peeling, but that doesn’t bother me.

    • Make that two 1995 Neons still going strong!

      Mine–four door Sport with manual trans, over 200,000 miles and original clutch–even with my son for whom this was his first car in 2006. (His excellent report card got him a reprieve from the 92 Dynasty he was supposed to drive.)

      Another detail–three weeks after my son got his driver’s license, I enrolled him in an advanced teen driving course at the Nashville Superspeedway; in the morning, they had alternating classroom and skid pad exercises, but in the afternoon, he went out on the track–with a licensed race instructor in the right seat, and ran with the Porsches, Mustangs, Minis and Corvettes (legally up to 107 mph!)

  14. Yes my 89 Wrangler has become my drive it forever car. I picked it up on a whim 5 years ago. Usually after you’ve had a car for several years, you pay less and less attention to it, but 93000 miles later I’m still in the process of making it better, doing tweaks and improvements… fixing things up just the way I like them.

    Solid axles, enough under hood space that I actually mounted a toolbox there, simple engine and transmission, no computer (not even a check engine light).

    I can make this run forever.

    • Dang it. All this talk about them and now I want a Jeep! I’m sure Jeeps have a huge aftermarket of parts too! Only thing I don’t like about the Wrangler is it’s 4wd. I prefer 2wd and an independent suspension on the front (like a 2wd truck). They don’t have Wranglers like that, right? Wonder if there is an easy swap to clean it up in the front end?

      • Dom, the TJ’s did at least go to a coil spring front and they don’t handle too bad with stock tires (or even up to 30 x 9.50’s). However, they have airbags, CEL, carpet, etc. The reason I own a Jeep is for it’s utility and capability, not comfort or handling I assure you. The older ones are noisy, leaky, ride rough and that’s just a few of the characteristics that I love about ’em! 😉

          • Dom, you might try looking for a Postal Jeep. They were apparently made up until 1984. It’s classified as a DJ (Dispatcher Jeep) and is basically in the CJ class. One of my coworkers picked one up for a song and it’s rear two wheel drive. Couldn’t tell you how the front axle is set up except that it’s righthand drive, but you can make up for that by driving on the left side of the road. 😉 They came with both 4 & 6 cylinder engines depending on the year. You might do a search for the Postal Jeep web ring if you’re interested.

      • Believe me, if you travel in rough terrain, it’s great not to worry about frequent wheel alignments. 20+ years and 220K miles and the tires still wear straight.

        This summer I snagged my rear axle on a large rock. I got some help pulling it off and went on my way. If this were any IRS SUV, it would have been in the shop for alignment and possibly new control arm components.

      • Ah, I should’ve been clearer: if you want to buy new, your choices are dwindling.

        The demand for panther chassis cars from the taxi/livery side (for full cars and for spares) is driving up the prices of used/govt-auction crown vics.

  15. Outside of passenger trucks and with the death of the Crown Vic I don’t think there is anything out there (new) with a full or partial frame any more. Most body off frame passenger cars died off by the mid 1980s. That said the RWD unitbody cars are generally stronger due to the need to mount more in the back, so theme is correct regardless.

    • Yep. Blame CAFE for killing off the traditional body-on-frame passenger car (it will soon kill off the traditional truck and SUV, too).

      But you can still (for now) buy a used body-on-frame RWD car….

  16. I’m very partial to my 93′ Wrangler (the YJ’s rectangular headlights aside). I’m with dom, the 4.0L straight six runs great and is very reliable. For that matter, the rest of the vehicle is about as simple as it gets for anything built in the latter part of the 20th century. Of course driving a vehicle with the aerodynamics of a brick leaves a little be desired in MPG, but it does get me to work in the snow….

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