Playing the long game
Contemplating what it takes, and what it means, to just keep a car "forever"
I love looking at ads for cars for sale. I think most car enthusiasts do. It's fun to click through Craigslist, or Autotrader, or Bring A Trailer, and see what's out there, and even share your finds with like-minded enthusiasts, so you can decide whether or not you would part with your hard-earned cash for that car, or whether you'd rather have this one. When it's all theoretical, it's a blast.
Actually shopping for a car, with intent to buy, is a royal pain in the ass, topped only by the hassle of trying to sell a car. When it comes time to do business, all the armchair fantasies go out the window, replaced by missed calls and texts, belligerent or dishonest sellers, flaky buyers, finding out what wasn't shown in the photos, confirming that the VIN on the title matches the one on the dashboard, and a million other details that take all the joy out of buying and selling cars.
So what if you just... don't? What if you only replace a vehicle when it's dead as a doornail and simply can't (or shouldn't) be fixed any more?
Clunkers for Cash
I've junked cars before, of course. I've owned so many old cheap cars that it would be surprising if a few of them hadn't ended up in the junkyard. But most of those were $500 beaters to begin with: a Honda Accord that was more rust than sheetmetal, a pair of ill-fated Chevy Cavaliers, my beloved old Scirocco. Never have I taken a car that was still in decent condition (or new) when purchased and run it in to the ground.
The only car I ever bought new: a 2002 Mazda Protegé DX, shown here on the day I moved to California in it.
I did set out to, once. In 2002 I replaced a well-worn Ford Escort with a brand new Mazda Protegé, spec'd out exactly how I wanted it: DX to avoid power windows, manual because manual, and no options except air conditioning and the good stereo. I loved it, put almost 70,000 miles on it, but never got over the "newness" of it, and so I was always nervous about it. I ended up trading it for a Ford Focus, in what was without a doubt the stupidest automotive transaction of my life. I have regretted it ever since, and often wonder how many miles would be on the little white Mazda by now, had I kept it. I think I'm closing in on around 250,000.
A Study in Scarlet, like they all were
A different Mazda has so far been the car I owned the longest: a 1991 MX-5 Miata. It was also a base model, and already had 205,000 miles on it by the time I got to it. I kept it for eight years, and only put about 25,000 miles on it, in that time, owing to a short 2-mile commute to work for several years of its tenure, and a parade of "winter beaters" taking over for it when the weather turned bad. In that time, I took apart nearly everything on it, replacing worn-out parts from the clutch to the seats, installing a roll bar and coilover shocks, and basically just enjoying the hell out of it.
Early in my ownership, 2010 or so. If you have never had the pleasure of owning a scruffy old Miata, you are missing out.
I probably would still have the Miata, actually, if I hadn't gotten an urge to do vintage rallies and tours and bought my MGB. No regrets, but damn, that Miata was a great little car.
The current fleet
I own 3 cars, and I don't see that number changing any time soon. I have the 3 archetypes: the daily driver, the project car, and the truck, and all have their place, and I like them all, and I have room to park them all and can afford insurance on all of them, so why not? Two of them are sticking around probably until they fall apart at this point, but one is just not quite right as a "forever car."
The Truck: My old green Chevy is well-documented on here and elsewhere, and there's not much more to say about it, really. It's just a good solid workhorse, and a fun truck to own and drive. And currently at 206,000 miles, it's running just fine. The gearbox could use some attention; it has a very sloppy shifter and worn synchros and may or may not have a bearing that is starting to whine. But a rebuild kit for that old cast-iron SM465 four speed is about $300, so someday I'll freshen it up, and then it will be good for another 200,000.
The MGB GT: Obviously, Maggie May isn't going anywhere. She's just too perfect of a project: not nice enough to be truly valuable, but sharp-looking enough to get positive attention, and a blast to drive, with lots of room for improvement. I've already had her five years and it feels like I just got her, so the next five will probably fly by too. And the next five...
The Toyota: I like it. I really do. But two things keep it from being the sort of car that I just want to keep around forever. First, there's the mileage and its associated wear and tear. Yes, it still runs and drives quite well for a car with 253,006 miles (as of today), but you feel every one of those miles in the worn-out seat and the slack controls and the rattly air vents in the dash. It'll keep running forever, but it'll never be nice. And second, I just haven't formed an attachment to it. And if I have done as much repair work a car as I have on that one, and put almost 10,000 miles on it, and still haven't imprinted on it, I'm not going to. I'll happily keep driving it for as long as I need to, but I won't mourn it when it goes, and that's the difference.
What makes a "forever car?"
So if the Toyota isn't it, then what might be? Like so many things, I think it's a case of "I'll know it whenI see it," and maybe not even realize it until it's been around for a few years. But there are some cahracteristics that make certain cars more desirable for the long haul:
Mechanical and structural straightforwardness: not necessarily simplicity, but straightforwardness. A car that you work on many times over several years should never be something you have to fight; even if a lot of disassembly is required to get to certain things, that disassembly should make sense. It shouldn't require a special tool for every little thing. Opening the hood should feel like checking in on an old friend, not preparing to do battle with an adversary.
Manual gearbox: sorry, automatic fans; we win this round. A failure in a manual gearbox means a worn clutch or a noisy bearing or a bent shift fork. And sometimes you can even limp a "broken" manual along for ages, if you know what you're doing, and then it becomes part of the car's character, part of what makes it yours, if you're the only one who can shift into third without grinding, or whatever. A failed automatic means a repair bill that can be as much as the value of the car, and doesn't usually make sense unless you really really love it.
Parts availability, knowledge base, and community: it's easier and more fun to keep an older car going when there is a wealth of knowledge and a supply of parts around. Some cars, like my MG, have their own ecosystem that has sprung up over the years; if something can happen to an MGB, it has already happened, and someone has documented how to fix it. And that's worth a lot. Weird one-offs are cool in their own way, but I'd rather drive than scour eBay or dig through bins at swap meets just to get my car running again, assuming I can even figure out what broke in the first place.
"Je ne sais quoi": As mentioned above concerning the Toyota, some cars just "do it" for you, and some... don't. And it isn't always easy to predict such things. Maybe a car you've never paid any attention to comes up for sale, and you test drive it, and realize that it fills that hole in your spiritual garage that you didn't even know was there. Maybe you finally get to "meet your hero," and drive the car you thought you always wanted, and it ends up leaving you cold. Love for cars is like love for anything else; we don't always get to choose. Sometimes the choice is made for us, and all we can do is go along for the ride.
I've always loved these old Alfas, but would I end up hating one if I owned it? You can never be sure. (image: classicdriver.com)
So where does that leave us? Right where we started, I guess. It's stupid, in a way, that these mechanical devices, intended for no other purpose but transportation, should so completely occupy our imaginations, and make us wonder what a long-term relationship with them would be like. In the grand scheme of things, it's not an important decision, what car to buy, or when to sell it.
Except that it is.