Time to Throw it in the Woods?

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When does it no longer make economic sense to pay for new repairs to an old car? When is it time, in other words, to throw it in the woods  – or just sell/trade the thing?

Here are some guidelines:

* You can’t depend on it anymore – 

Is it realistic to expect that the car will be reliable again after whatever’s wrong is fixed? Or will you merely have fixed the latest thing to go wrong?

Some cars start out better-built than others and so last longer than other cars. But eventually, all cars reach a point where problems due to age and the wear and tear associated with long use become general in the same way that as we age, isolated, individual problems that resolve on their own or which can be treated effectively become chronic and systemic and there’s nothing you can do about them except crutch them with pain meds or other palliatives. The aging body can’t really be fixed anymore.

An aging car can be fixed, of course – if money (and time) is no object. Even a complete basket case car can be restored to as-new condition if your wallet’s deep enough. But that’s neither here nor there when we’re talking about cars as appliances – as a means of getting from A to B. And when money – and time and hassle – are the deciding factors.

Like our physical bodies, cars are really multiple different systems operating in concert. When it’s just one thing that’s gone wrong and once that one thing’s fixed the car can be counted on to run reliably for some time to come, doing the repairs makes sense. But when the entire car is getting obviously tired and several systems are on the verge of collapse, it’s probably time to say your goodbyes.

* It’s no longer safe –

Rust is the major factor here. Not cosmetic rust – structural rust. The frame (and critical mounting points on the frame). Structural damage to the frame/mounting points due to corrosion takes longer to manifest nowadays because cars built since the late ’80s are much better protected (and have better body integrity) than vehicles built before that time – when it was common to see cars only a few years old with significant rust problems. But that doesn’t mean your later model car is impervious to rust. If you keep it long enough – especially if you live near the sea or drive in an area where road salt is used in the winter – you’ll have to deal with rust problems.

Any car that is more than 10 years old that has ever been driven in an area where it was subjected to road salt or sea spray should be inspected on the underside very thoroughly at least once a year by someone who knows how to spot potential safety issues related to structural rust-through. The inspection should also include a close look at (usually) steel brake, clutch master cylinder and fuel lines. Rust-weakened lines can easily break – and can be expensive to replace.

If  structural rust is found, it’s time for Last Rites. The only way to fix this sort of problem is by cutting out the bad section(s) with a torch and welding in new metal – which is neither easy nor inexpensive. And then you’ve only fixed one cancerous area. If you’ve got one, odds are you’ve got more.

* It’s becoming hard to find essential parts –

My father-in-law had (until recently) an otherwise nice early ’90s-era Cadillac. The car still ran well but when the AC stopped working he found out that the part he needed is no longer being made by GM. Eventually he found a good condition used part from a salvage yard – but scrounging junkyards is not something many people want to deal with. Even if you succeed in finding the part you need, it’ll be a used part that comes with no guarantee it will work any better than the one you’ve got. Or it might only last for a few weeks/months. There’s no way to know – and no alternative.

As a general rule, if the car is more than 20 years old – especially if it’s a “modern” car with electronics, such as a digital dashboard or electronic climate-controlled AC – some critical parts may be unavailable new – and hard to find used. They will probably also be expensive, too – which leads to the biggest consideration of all:

* You are putting more money into the car than the value of the car  –

Here’s the Catch-22 you don’t want to find yourself facing: The transmission in your 16-year-old car fails and a new/rebuilt replacement will cost you $2,000. But the car itself is only worth about that much much. If you spend the $2k on the new transmission, the car will not be worth $2k more. It will be worth about the same as it was worth before the old transmission failed.

On the other hand, if you don’t put the $2k new transmission in, the car (not-drivable and needing a major repairs) will be worth… nothing. Or almost nothing. You might get a few hundred bucks for it as a parts/scrap car. Maybe.

You can’t win.

Even if you’re thinking: Well, I’ll spend the $2k on the new transmission and then just drive the car for another couple of years. The problem is that if something else goes wrong – and it probably will go wrong – you’ll be throwing more money down the well … and facing the same Catch-22 all over again.

This is your cue: It’s time to cut your losses – and throw it in the woods.

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26 COMMENTS

  1. My second estimate, from a tire chain rather than an actual award winning mechanic, came in $100 less than the first one. $37 for the part, $57 for the alignment and $40 for labor. Being on SSDI, that’s a huge difference.

    I don’t understand why, in addition to food co-ops and bicycle repair collectives, we didn’t evolve car care groups. Keeping the knowledge of car care arcane and hidden reminds me of the guilds during the Middle Ages…

    So hopefully I will be able to get the tie rod fixed AND eat next month. Thanks so much for helping me learn about things I’d prefer not to know relatively painlessly.

    Then I will have to decide between a wheel bearing and engine care. The engine is becoming a bit labored and could use more zip. What is “dirty throttle body?” Is MotoFlush real or a car care fad?

    • That’s good news, Lynne – glad to hear it.

      On the throttle body: This is the entrance through which metered air enters the engine, after being filtered by the air filter. It can be cleaned using an aerosol throttle body cleaner (similar to carburetor cleaner). Should be a very simple thing. Cheap, too.

      On the motor flush: They run solvent through the engine ostensibly to clean out gunk. If you’ve changed your oil regularly, this should not be necessary and frankly, I don’t recommend doing it under any circumstances. Running solvent through the engine can mean lack of lubrication during the process (engine running) and the solvent could also break loose chunks of sludge that could then up being circulated through the engine, ending up in places they’re not wanted. A much safer way to “flush” the engine is just to change the oil/filter, then run the engine for 15 minutes and change the oil/filter again. But this also shouldn’t be necessary unless you’ve got some good reason to believe the engine has been contaminated, as by water or something like that.

      • For a car that’s been run on a conventional oil, synthetic oil will do a slow cleaning. One of the issues with synthetic early on was that it got a reputation of making engines leak. Instead what it was doing was cleaning away the sludge exposing the no longer functioning seals.

        Auto repair isn’t really hidden knowledge. Amazon should have a wide selection of books equal to the DITY books from the 1970s I found laying around the house and read when I was teenager.

      • Hey! Don’t Put down junkyards. The’ net is full of them and I’ve kept my 91 dodge running quite nicely on parts shipped in from JYs.

  2. This first poster had a good idea. Although I wouldn’t have dumped a grand into my old rabbit way back when, I sure as hell would today. Getting the non-airconditioned go cart back in service would be perfect for all winter and cost less than the next 10 fill ups in my current ride, to do so. That old fiat spider would have a place too in the barn. Who needs a perfectly sealed convertible top anyway? Just leave it down and make a borg mobile out of it. (star trek reference)

  3. This discussion is so timely…as I sit here contemplating what to do about my current vehicle which, given my Social Security income and absolute lack of mechanical skill, will most probably be the last I ever own…

    My 1995 Plymouth Voyager had about a 100,000 miles on its engine and about a 130000 on the rest of its regularly maintained self when it was stolen last summer. By the time it was recovered it had been stripped of everything from the rear view mirror to the sockets in the tail lights. I salvaged it out at about $1200 and was able to reconstruct and register it, but it now needs a tie rod and a wheel bearing, totaling about $575 in repair bills.

    The actual bearing is estimated at $140 with labor at $175; the tie rod is $65 plus $75 for re-alignment plus another $100 for labor. The alternative is confinement to my apartment and walking distance, because ANY used car is going to be an ongoing repair issue…

    I love the minivan. It’s paid for and insurance is $35 a month. And I would LOVE everyone’s opinion!

    • Hi Lynne,

      Very sorry to hear about the theft of your vehicle. The good news, based on what you posted, is these repairs are fairly simple and should not cost this much. Have you thought about a second opinion? The price quoted for replacing a wheel bearing ($140 for a bearing? just the part?) seems really high to me. The tie rod quote sounds better, but again, I think they’re really hitting you on labor. Shouldn’t take an hour-plus to replace a tie rod. $100/hour labor is pretty high.

      Again, I recommend a second estimate. Unless the bearing has actually seized up, you ought to be able to drive it (slowly, carefully) to another shop.

      But even if the second shop quotes you something similar, in my opinion, based on what you’ve said, I think it’s worth repairing the vehicle. It sounds as though it’s otherwise in good shape – and you have personal knowledge it’s been good to you so far, so you can probably trust it some more. And, bottom line, you probably won’t find anything remotely decent to replace it with for much less than $2,000 or so – much less the $575 cost of the repairs.

      Please keep us posted!

      • I shall definitely keep you posted. Is a wheel bearing or a tie rod something that one buys new from the parts wholesaler or used from the Pick and Pull? I have to visit the friend who helped me replace the tail light sockets but I assume that these repairs are done on a lift and not in the parking lot…

        • Hi. They are parts you purchase new. Not a pick and pull item. That quote they gave you sounds about right. What you can do is call a few other shops and tell them exactly what you need done and see what they quote on the phone. That is a lot easier than driving there. Where are you from?

          • I’m in Oregon. I just took the advice about ebay and had a quick look. I think it is immoral for the mechanic to put a service surcharge on a part that they bought that’s already been marked up by the parts house. I can understand that their insurance might not let them install a part brought in by a customer, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t obligated to search for the least expensive part appropriate. My next car will be a burro, I swear…

            • Hi Lynne,

              At minimum, a second opinion is warranted. If a second shop comes in close to the first one, at least you’ll have the peace of mind that the price, though high, is “going rate” for that job.

              Another option I thought of is to see whether your local high school auto shop has a program where they work on your car for free. The work is typically done under the supervision of a competent technician-instructor, so it ought to be done right.

        • I Google searched for tie rod parts and seemed to find that an outer tie rod at O’Reilly auto parts costs either $19 or $43 in a box of two. On my estimate it shows for parts “left outer tie rod” at $63. Could this be explained?

          Star Trek metaphors work for me, by the way — after all, I drive a Voyager (named DAX because it had an engine switch, like a Trill)

          • If you are going to locate your own parts be sure to check ebay too! That is the spot. I just rebuilt my entire suspension on my saturn, I mean everything, for like $600. If you are talking about the discrepancy between the price you found and the price they charge, that is their profit margin.

          • Auto parts these days come in roughly three tiers. “cheap”, “mediocre”, and “good”. Sometimes there’s also a “crap” and/or “excellent”.

            Decent mechanics are only going to use parts from the “good” and “excellent” or OEM. They lose money if someone comes back with a problem because the part wasn’t made right. They can pass on the cost so they don’t take the risk.

            rockauto.com often has parts across the range so the spread can be seen. What’s a chain retailer can vary. Sometimes they only have the “crap” and “cheap”.

        • A jack is all the lifting equipment needed. It’s just more pleasant on a lift. For a tie rod end you can get buy with a fork to free it from the spindle/knuckle. The rest is just wrenching. A paint marker to mark the location/setting can eliminate the need for an alignment afterwards.

          Wheel bearing difficulty varies by make and model, front and rear. Some are assemblies that are just replaced easily. Others require special hand tools. Some require a shop press and considerable disassembly.

          • I agree assuming it’s the outer tie rod. Inner one will require a inner tie rod end tool. Still gonna need the alignment, but you can get away without it. Also, if that unit has pressed bearings you won’t be doing that unless you have a press. Doh! Didn’t read your whole post before I posted!

          • I’ve been able to get away with replacing tie rod ends with care and not getting an alignment repeatedly. The parts themselves are pretty well controlled these days so making good note of the setting before hand will work. The only variation will be where the thread starts rotationally on the new part vs. the old one. Half a thread pitch isn’t worth worrying about.

  4. For many years I would buy a car for about $1000, drive it until something significant broke than junk it. I averaged about 2 years a car that way.

    About 5-1/2 years ago I bought an 89 Wrangler for 2700 (about the most I ever spent on a car). This one gets treated differently, when something needs fixing, I fix it right, better then original if possible. I have personally put 100,000 miles on it (it’s about 230K now) including a cross country trip and multiple road trips.

    My wife picked up an 87 MB SL and those two cars are our daily drivers. We have a somewhat newer Subaru as our spare, interestingly many of the repairs I’ve had to do on the Sube are parts that DON’T EVEN EXIST on my Jeep.

    • I’ve noticed the same thing about my ’93 Wrangler, Jay; there’s just a lot less stuff on it to break. The Spartan nature of the vehicle is what I like. Plus you can get every part and accessory known to man for a CJ/YJ/TJ/JK (even back to the 40’s models). They’re super easy to work on to (I can do a lot things on mine from underneath without even jacking it up). Another thing I like about a Wrangler is that cops barely even give you a glance (out here some will wave though). Nobody “hot-rods” a Jeep so they’re less of a target.

      In the summer, I drive mine “topless” a lot and if you look half a cool as you feel (and you do) it’s worth every bit of the creature comforts you give up. I’ll run mine until I have to do a frame up restore and then I’ll being running it reborn as a 4.6L stroker. 😉

  5. I’m currently driving a 2004 Ford Explorer with 320,000 miles on it. Up to 310,000, I was a company car with an expense account to maintain it. I did maintain it according to factory instructions. Lube, oil, and filter every 3,000 miles. Changed transmission fluid every 30,000 miles. I installed the expensive after market air filter that lasts 50,000 miles, then you wash it and reinstall it the first filter change. It does not use oil between changes. It does not drip. It gets up when I want it to. Except for consumable parts like battery, brake pads, tires, etc, it has all it’s factory parts. Since i didn’t run it into anything, it looks great. The interior is nicely intact. OK, the driver’s carpet has a hole, because i had a sore knee and moved my foot back off the replacable mat (changed a couople of those, too).
    The sale value of this car is 0. The fleet manager paid me $500 to take it off her hands so she didn’t have to figure out how to get rid of it. I looked at a couple of used car sites and determined that to replace this with a normal one, I’d have to pay over $12,000. OK, if the tranny goes out, I can have a newly rebuilt Jasper transmission installed for $2,600, and they guarantee it for 100,000 miles). If I do the engine at the same time, that would be another $3,000. Since the body and interior are in good shape, and I just replaced the brake pads and tires, I’m close to a new car for $6 grand, not something that already has 120,000 miles on it that I know nothing about.
    I ordered this one 2 wheel drive, V-8, heavy duty trailer towing package. I was really surprised at how great a tow vehicle is has been, compared to the GMC Sierra we had. Then I checked the specks–The GMC was rated at 5,000 lbs towing, while this is rated at 7,500. No wonder it has been a superior tow vehicle–and tow it has, probably 30,000 miles towing.
    This is the best car I have ever had, and I’m not giving it up.

    • We are like minded.

      My 1991 Honda Accord is reliable, comfortable, smooth riding, easy to work on and has 256,000 miles.

      Market ‘value’ is probably around $800. To replace it with an equally good vehicle would cost me $5,000.

      My favorite thing about old cars is that you laugh when they get scratched instead of crying. A bit of sanding and touchup paint, and away you go.

      I intended to buy a dirt-capable 4×4 pickup for sailboat hauling and family fun, but I will continue to drive my Accord to work and on errands around town. I love this car.

      • Amen! Here’s a story for you:

        In the ’90s, I worked in Washington, DC and commuted to my job downtown every day in an old VW Beetle I bought for $1,200.

        One day, coming home, an inattentive driver of a Mercedes S-Class wandered out of his lane and lightly side-scraped my Beetle. We pulled over to survey the damage. The accident was clearly his fault, which he admitted. I told him I didn’t care about the new crease (minor) and paint scrapes to my car and was willing to just leave it at that and not demand his insurance info. But even though he didn’t have to pay for the damage to my car, his Benz probably had $4,000 worth of body/paint damage.

        Gotta love a Hooptie!

  6. Here is the method I use when I believe it is time to sell the car that has been reasonably maintained:

    WHEN the WATER PUMP FAILS; FIX IT, THEN SELL IT!

    I find the WP usually goes out around the time equal to double the warranty period (i.e. 3 yr warranty, failure at 5 -6 years). It’s all downhill from there…friends and acquaintances report about the same.

    • Most (though not all) late model cars, if decently taken care of, can usually be counted on to run reliably for at least 150,000 miles before they start to hit you with expensive (and frequent) problems. I would not hesitate to keep an otherwise good-running car with say 90,000 miles on it that needed a new water pump – unless I just didn’t like the car, or had some other reason for wanting to replace it.

  7. A lot depends on WHO would fix the car. If someone is not mechanicly inclined, or is no longer able to, a mechanics time will need to be paid for. Since wages, taxes and overhead needs to be covered, several hours of a mechanics time will not come cheap. It would not make sense to install a (problably) good used part from a wrecking yard. If the part is not good, labor needs to be paid a second time. Only new parts would make sense. And While He is in There Anyway, he Might as Well install more new parts. The reasoning makes sense by the way. But real soon the economic reasoning Eric used becomes obvious.

    Now consider someone who IS mechanicly inclined, and has a second car to drive, and also has the tools and a comfortable place to work.

    A lot of car parts are not that terribly expensive if some shopping around is done, or if parts from a good wrecking yard are purchased. All that needs to be considered is the amount of (free) time that is involved. I figure it might take me twice as much time to do what a mechanic would to do a given job.

    By doing work on a car which still has the expensive, major systems functional, it is possible to keep a car around for another 100k miles. No car payments, low insurance.For ten years.

    When the decision is finally made to move on, a used car can be found for 5k or so. Granted, that car might need a fair amount of work initally. But for a thousand or so in parts, and (free)labor….(I consider it a hobby) It is possible to have a fairly reliable car that can be driven for ten years into the future.

    I have noticed that some makes of cars tend to hang in there, while others tend to fall apart… a lot. Some cars are somewhat pleasent to work on, while others are hateful. If a car tends to fall apart, and is hateful to work on, it is time to let it go. Now consider a car that is nice to drive, still looks good. If it tends to hang in there, and is not to hard to work on, that car is worth keeping around for a few more years.

    My 1994 Nissan pickup for example. 228k. Still reliable. I drive it on the freeway 25 miles a day.

  8. Everything you say is accurate, and well thought out. But when I look at the pictures, there’s something ironic.

    Even now, that silver K-Car has an interesting, semi “collectable” look to it. And the T Bird is only a couple of years away from that same status. Those examples are apparently trashed, and would have to be ground up restorations. Nothing intrinsically valuable about those cars…except scarcity, after most of their kind have been demolished.

    If one had the covered storage space, it might be rewarding to hang on to some of those worn out cars when they’re almost worthless. Gosh, I wish I’d been able to keep my 1974 rotary Mazda RX4 coupe. Even the car I hated more than all the rest ( a 1980 Buick Rivera) would be nearing collectable age.

    You could maximize this effect if you started with an example that was a low volume model from the get go. Like, for example that Acura ZDX. Or perhaps, a Dodge Magnum SRT. 🙂

    Just another way to look at the “aging car” issue.

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