We Love Our Old Cars. But Sometimes They're Just No Fun to Live With.

Everybody knows that there is risk involved in owning and driving a car that is a quarter century old or older. It's great when it's great - and we like to talk about that a lot. But it can get bad. Really bad. And we don't talk about that so much.

In the best case scenario, one is dealing with a car that is just getting old. But often you're dealing with a car that beside getting old, has also been subjected to neglect, amateurish tinkering, or ham-fisted repairs and botched maintenance. Most cars generally reach their lowest value at about the same age they start needing major repairs. That means they get bought by people who don't have money to waste, right about the time the car starts needing money spent on it. This often leads to neglect which sends the car to the crusher in short order, or cheap repairs just meant to get the car to squeeze past inspection for another year, or the car being parked in storage and forgotten.

Unfortunately, none of those situations is particularly good. The car which gets mothballed may have the advantage that it has been the least molested. But it will also suffer from a myriad of problems associated with long terms of disuse. Frozen brakes, dried out seals and gaskets, rotted tires, rust in the gas tank. Fortunately if one knows what they're getting into, this is usually the easiest sort of car to put right. However many are fooled by a car that looks great, not knowing how quickly all those dried out rubber bushings, brake hoses, and crank seals will fail if they think they can get away with putting some gas in the tank and changing the oil.

A new brake hose which replaced a dried out, cracked original.

A new brake hose which replaced a dried out, cracked original.

The car which has been kept on the road by last minute maintenance may run and drive fine for a couple months - maybe even a couple years after you buy it. But when it breaks, you or your mechanic might be in for some terrible surprises. When you start taking things apart you might begin to notice problems. Sometimes these are minor annoyances, like one tail light lens being held on with flat head screws, and the other with Phillips head screws. But you may also find botched wiring, shoddy rust patching, or incorrectly assembled mechanisms, or worse. This can really do you in as you might have gone in to fix one issues, and then ended up needing to buy parts or tools to fix some other serious problem you discovered.

My newest project has already come at me with a bit of both of these scenarios. The car had been owned for over twenty years by a mechanic. So I assumed it had been maintained decently well, even if it did show some evidence of needless tinkering. The bigger worry to me was that it had been parked since 2007. Although the previous owner claimed to have started it every month to keep the battery charged and the gaskets from hardening, he hadn't driven it for ten years, until I came to look at it.

It seems at first to be in remarkably sound condition. The bushings and hoses were free of cracks, it wasn't dripping any oil - and I bought it, then promptly drove 200 miles through the rain to get it home. It took its first long trip in nearly a decade in stride. But then the problems began to manifest. The brake pedal went to the floor. Culprit: leaking wheel cylinders. Then an oil leak appeared, and grew larger with each drive. Culprit: leaking crank seal and oil pan. Then the car began to pull hard to the right. Culprit: suspension bushing had started to crack apart. None of these are fun projects for a home mechanic. But none of them are unexpected when resurrecting a car that's been parked for nearly a decade.

These had been suspension bushings.

These had been suspension bushings.

So I had to set about pulling the car apart. Replacing the crank seal and tightening up the oil pan requires pulling the engine out. Not a task for the timid, even in a simple car like the SAAB 95. Replacing the bushings was a pain, even if the old ones had rotted enough they could be pushed out with a screwdriver. Getting new ones in is the real pain. However, the biggest pain is the time it takes. If you own a common old car like a Ford or Volkswagen, you can pop down to the local auto parts store and likely get the part or tool you need. If you own something a little more arcane, you might have to wait a week or two for the part to come in from across the globe. You spend even longer, simply locating a part if your car is a real rarity. Further don't discount the possibility that you might also mess up when putting it back together either. I destroyed a suspension bushing pressing it into the A arm. I was lucky enough to have an extra, otherwise I would have added several more days to the job waiting for another one.

And you better have a back up for when your old car goes wrong. A second car. A scooter. A carpool. Maybe you have a convenient bus stop in front of your house. Whatever allows you to carry on with life while your car exists in little piles around the garage. This is the situation which turns the nostalgic car life into old car hell. Be prepared. I'm not saying it is inevitable. I reason old cars are likely more reliable than new cars. Although they may be more maintenance intensive, they have fewer parts, and fewer complex systems to go wrong. But if something major does need work, you can't just drop the thing off at a dealer and pick it up the next day. You or your mechanic may not have ready access to the parts or special tools an archaic automobile may require. And that means time and convenience killed. So always have a plan B in mind in case your old car does need to spend some time off its wheels.

Whether you're pulling a forgotten car out of an old garage, or buying a restoration, this is always a potential problem when daily driving a vintage car. It's not the fun part, so it's the part we don't talk about. But it does happen, and it's best to know what you're getting into. But if you're prepared you can avoid falling into old car hell, and get on living the nostalgic car life. It's definitely worth it, keeping these old cars going and enjoying the going in them.

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