February 20, 2004

In Praise of The Old Car

WILLIAM McGURN HAS A fabulous column in today's edition of The Wall Street Journal, in which he informs readers of the delight in owning a perfectly functional yet ancient and unsightly automobile. We agree entirely with his argument, and encourage readers to give his words much thought.

The benefits of doing so are not merely financial. Mr McGurn, who owns a 1992 Subaru Legacy wagon with 146,000 miles to its credit, notes there are also emotional benefits to running one's automobile into the ground. He writes:

These are not the cars in the TV commercials featuring drivers gliding through deserts, mountain roads and even urban jungles cocooned in their little bubbles of luxury, not infrequently soothed by strains of Mozart emanating from a stunning sound system. Such ads are selling purity and perfection. But those of us who drive vehicles that have long ago surrendered their virginity and endured their dings and dents have our own satisfaction: the almost Franciscan liberation that comes from owning something of little or no monetary value.

What a wanton sense of freedom this evokes. Amid parking lots of Volvos and BMWs, with their little red security lights flickering on their dashboards, my car sits unlocked and unmolested. At supermarkets it rests completely indifferent to the threat of errant shopping carts. While others suck in their breath when they hand over their keys to some 17-year-old garage attendant, I remain unperturbed. And on those days when I must drive in Manhattan, I drive with something better than Fahrvergnugen: the security of knowing the minor fender bender can do me no real harm.

One point Mr McGurn does leave out, but which is worth noting, is that owning an older vehicle will generally save an American rather a lot of money at tax time.

Consider: here in Manchester, we had our yearly encounter with the Government today. Since the tax system in New Hampshire is generally based on one's wealth, as opposed to one's income, we get off quite lightly in this regard; for we do not own property in land, and our other wealth does not meet the rather high thresholds for paying tax to the authorities. As such, this year, we are paying just $115 in tax to the city and the state, and this is based on our automobile. It will be even less next year, and even less the year after. (By the way, this process -- including paying off two parking tickets -- took all of twelve minutes. In dealing with the Government of California, it took us twelve minutes just to find out which line in which we were supposed to stand).

Admittedly, that $115 figure is not completely representative. For the laws of New Hampshire do not allow us to operate our vehicle were it considered dangerous to ourselves and others. This is why we had to pay $24 this past weekend to have the car inspected by a state-approved inspector. As one might have expected, we found the $24 rapidly turned into $250, as our vehicle -- a 1997 Ford Taurus with about 100,000 miles on it -- was lacking a few chi-chi fou-fou luxury items (working brake lights) that needed repair. Also, something called the "left front inner tie rod" was failing, and if we didn't fix it, it would soon result in that wheel falling off. Still, this was only the second repair -- aside from preventive maintenance -- that we have ever done. And since the car is ours outright, there's no way we're going to buy a new one before we absolutely have to.

Hence, we share Mr McGurn's wanton sense of freedom. For instance, when we came out from the theatre one day to find some punk-ass, clap-addled little hellion had keyed our phat ride, we didn't mind one jot. True, had we caught him at it, we would have done the fellow grievous injury; as the movie said, it is fundamentally wrong to screw around with another man's car. But, as he had fled the scene, we merrily got into our vehicle and simply told ourselves we'd put his unmentionables in a frickin' vise should we ever meet the fellow*.

OK, so we don't exactly share Mr McGurn's carefree sentiment. Our Ford Taurus is still an asset of ours, even if it is highly depreciated and the leather is wearing off the steering wheel and one of the stereo speakers no longer works. But, that said, we also know that the time is drawing near for us to get ourselves a new car. Hence, we are able to drive our automobile with absolute impunity.

Potholes? No problem. Bumps in the road? No problem. For that matter, who needs a road? For did not the car survive when we took it up to Malibu that one day with Simon From Jersey, and went up and down all those dirt tracks on the hills to catch the views? It did indeed. Not that we would do that again, of course, for we are now much older and wiser. But we did it once! And that means we could do it again! If we absolutely had to.

We would also note that owning a relatively older car frees us from the psychological burdens many face vis-a-vis automobiles.

For instance, some people believe that they must purchase the latest and greatest automobile every few years. Now if one "is into" cars, this would be fine; but in many cases it is due solely to ego. This latter rationale is rather silly in our opinion, as unless one is rich this is a recipe for financial disaster. Meanwhile, other people will look down upon those who do not own the latest and greatest automobile, for reasons that we truly can't understand. Even when we lived in Los Angeles, we couldn't understand it. The city is very much in love with the automobile, yes; but it was more likely there than anyplace else that one's car would get wrecked by an uninsured driver, stolen and chopped up into its component pieces, or end up as Exhibit Q in the prosecution of some citizen who led the police on a freeway chase from Van Nuys down to Torrance.

Hence, as we find both avenues of conduct reprehensible and classless, we have voluntarily taken ourselves out of that game entirely. Oddly enough, it is a good feeling. And so, we look forward to driving our Taurus a good 100,000 additional miles before it is sent to the Giant Dead Car Lot, presently located in Sheboygan. We do not look forward to that final day, but we know it will come, so we may as well acquiesce to that. But we will do so only when we absolutely have to.

* We are, of course, kidding in that regard.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at February 20, 2004 05:07 PM | TrackBack

Mr. Kepple-

I myself am soon to drop (by soon I mean an hour or so) 600 ducats on a new exhaust system, new belts, a front headlight and an oil change. 600 seems like a lot, but really, its 1 to 2 car payments. My car has 172,000 miles and I take great pride in driving that glorious ride to Florida, New Hampshire and Mt. Washington's famed summit, Rhode Island, Minnesota, and next Charlotte, NC.

I am, like you, not a "car person." I hope to drive to atleast 250K on this focker.

Only then, will I give into buying a preowned, not new car. (Why take the initial depreciation hit, no?)

Got bless VW.


Posted by: Simon at February 21, 2004 02:09 PM

Viva el Taurus! And long live the Clippers bumper sticker!

Posted by: Scott at February 21, 2004 09:44 PM

Scotty: It's still there, I can assure you -- despite the wear and tear these New Hampshire winters apply. I remain convinced it kept the car safe from the predations of thieves during my time in Los Angeles.

Simon: Glad to see the VW remains in service. I remain ever grateful that we took YOUR car up to Mount Washington this past year, as opposed to the Ford. I don't think the Ford's brakes could have hacked it on the way back down -- I will have to take it in for that eventually.

You are, of course, right in that 600 ducats is cheap in comparison to buying a new car: most repairs, unless we are dealing with Replacing An Actual Engine, are cheaper than a down payment!

Posted by: Benjamin Kepple at February 21, 2004 10:35 PM