Some of my favorite cars are the ones that just keep going, no matter what
My cheap runabout Toyota Corolla passed a milestone a couple weeks ago: 250,000 miles. To celebrate, I treated it to a suspension overhaul: new struts and springs at all 4 corners, as well as front lower ball joints and tie rod ends.
The effect on its handling was immediate and astonishing. It didn't drive too badly before, at least on smooth roads, but bumps had a tendency to unsettle it and make the whole car sway and wobble, especially if you hit a bump mid-turn. All of that is gone now. It drives and behaves like, well, not a new car, but one with half the miles on it.
While I was doing the repairs, I had a good long look at the rest of the car, trying to find other things that were worn-out or about to fail, and found nothing. It was a similar story when I replaced the water pump and timing belt back when I first got it: everything looked fine. Under the valve cover, I found no visible wear on the camshafts, no sludge on the inside of the cover, nothing. It does seem to burn a bit of oil, but not enough to produce visible smoke, and it only consumes about a quart every 1000 miles or so. It starts right up and has plenty of power (well, "plenty" for a mid-1990s 1.6 liter, anyway) and the gearbox goes into every gear smoothly and without complaint (except reverse, which is a little crunchy at times). The shift linkage is a little sloppy, but nowhere near as bad as I was used to from the Saturn that preceded it, which had 100,000 fewer miles. Even the interior has held up well; the driver's seat is worn out and has some tears in the upholstery, but the rest of it is in fine shape, and everything works as it should, including the AC.
The original springs and struts were so hammered, I also gained back an inch and a half of ground clearance with the new ones. Useful for our potholed roads around here.
A few days ago, as I was driving home, I started thinking: barring a crash or a totally unforeseen major mechanical failure, there's no reason I couldn't drive this car another ten years. A remarkable thing to think about a 26 year old car with a quarter of a million miles on it that has had several owners, irregular and indifferent maintenance, and, judging by the minor body damage all over, not led an easy life.
Of course, an "easy life" is relative; the western United States isn't nearly as hard on cars as, say, rural Africa, which has always seemed to be the real test of indestructible cars. And some cars have become legendary for their durability and toughness in those conditions: Mercedes W123 and Peugeot 504 (especially the diesel versions of both), early Land Rovers, Toyota's own Land Cruiser and Hilux pickup. But cars in Africa lead harsh lives out of necessity: terrible roads, enormous distances between the car and any garages or mechanics, no money for "proper" repairs or maintenance, and low availability of replacement parts all mean that a car has to be extraordinarily tough to keep moving under its own power. A good strong car is prized, and maintained, because it can withstand such use.
Gonna take a lot to take me away from you... (sorry, couldn't resist. Image found on Pinterest)
In America, cars lead rough lives for a different reason. We love them when they're shiny and new, like to show them off to our friends and neighbors, but the only things we maintain on a regular basis are the monthly payments; the car gets dropped off at a dealer service department or a Jiffy Lube once in a while, where the mechanics are instructed to do the bare minimum to keep the car running. Most places in America don't have vehicle safety inspections, so it's common to see cars with one (or more) burned-out lights, bald tires, obviously bad alignment, "Check Engine" lights left illuminated for months, or other signs of neglect and carelessness. We COULD take care of them properly; we often just... don't.
Most cars can stand up to this for 100,000 miles, maybe 150,000, but after that whatever inherent weaknesses there are in the design start to show, and mechanical failures that would be repaired in more remote parts of the world will send cars to the junkyard at an early age, often still looking fine.
Poor little Hyundai. Only 13 years old. I wonder what did it in? (image: Pick-N-Pull)
Even if the car still runs, often times it just feels used-up; we had a Ford Explorer for many years that was game up until about 180,000 miles, and then everything started failing at once, and no matter what I fixed, it still felt tired and ready to fall apart. When we sold it at 193,000 miles, it still ran, but not well, and still looked just fine.
Still, there are some vehicles here that seem to be able to withstand this sort of treatment, even thrive on it. My Corolla is one, as is its larger sibling the Camry. Both can regularly be seen with a 2 or a 3 (sometimes even a 4) as the first digit on the odometer. Toyota pickup trucks, obviously, have a similar reputation for invincibility, although I myself don't really like how they drive. (I prefer Nissan trucks, which are at least as durable, and don't feel or sound quite so agricultural.) Ford's Ranger pickups, especially the 4 cylinder ones with a manual transmission, are also in this category; they are by far the most commonly-seen trucks to be overloaded with rocks or gravel or sod or something, sometimes riding on the bump stops, and yet still somehow able to (slowly) pull out into traffic and putter away down the road.
A way more common sight than you'd like to imagine. (image: Ranger forums)
And sometimes, the engine and transmission soldier on undaunted while the rest of the car disintegrates around them; this is often the case with '80s-90s GM vehicles, particularly those equipped with their family of V6 engines. These simple, cast-iron, pushrod units, usually backed by sloppy but durable automatic transmissions, have their design roots in the 1960s, but have been refined and perfected over the years, and while having low power output relative to displacement, have enough low-end torque to propel a vehicle in a signature lazy, low-revving way for decades. Interior pieces may break, trim may fall off, the underside of the car may rust away to nothing, but the engine just keeps spinning, rarely topping 4000 rpm, without a care in the world. (Chrysler's K-based cars once had a similar reputation: looks like crap, everything is broken, but it just keeps going. But most of those have finally succumbed to age and entropy.)
She may not look like much, as the man once said, but she's got it where it counts. (image: Iowa Buy Sell Search)
As you would expect, these sorts of "indestructible" cars are ideal cheap used cars, and because they're "boring" or "ugly," don't often command a premium, especially at 20-30 years old. $2000 can buy a lot of used car, if you focus on reliability and durability and aren't trying to impress anyone.
1996 Toyota Camry, currently for sale in Tacoma, WA, for $1800 with 280,000 miles. You could do a lot worse. (image: Craigslist)
I didn't used to appreciate cars like this. For many years, I loved to see the new models roll out, see the styling trends change, ooh and aah over each new feature. But as I have gotten older, not only do I see the appeal of a tough vehicle that can withstand hard use; I actually prefer them. While some members of my generation are paying unimaginable sums for 30-year-old Japanese cars with only a few miles on them, I'm celebrating having two regular-use vehicles with 458,000 combined miles that don't show any signs of giving up any time soon. There is a kind of beauty in a simple machine being used hard, a satisfaction that comes from tending to such machines, and a feeling of trust and security that comes from a car that has already proven itself reliable and durable, even before it got to me and I started caring for it properly. I wouldn't hesitate to jump in either my Toyota or my truck and drive it cross-country tomorrow if I had to, and I wouldn't trade them for anything newer, or flashier, or "cooler."
(By contrast, I hesitate to jump in my MG and drive it to the store without worry, but that's another story. And I love it too, though obviously for different reasons.)
And yes, some people manage to put hundreds of thousands (or even millions) of miles on all sorts of different cars, with careful maintenance. But there are those vehicles that are just known for taking abuse and neglect in stride, shrugging it off, and carrying on. So here's to the indestructibles, the champions of high miles and hard use, the sort of car that has been there and done that and is still game for more. The ugly, unloved footsoldiers in the traffic wars, doing what needs to be done. You aren't pretty, you aren't cool, you aren't fast, but you are noble, and I salute you. Long may you run.