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Keeping Your Elderly Car in Tip-Top Shape

Emily Guy Birken

My first car was a bright yellow 23-year-old Volkswagen Super Beetle, purchased in 1995. While I had some great reasons for purchasing this car — I could afford the $3,500 price tag, I have always loved the VW’s happy silhouette, and my parents hoped that the simple engine design might give me an opportunity to learn a little bit about car maintenance and repair — I have often been considered either eccentric or reckless for driving such an elderly vehicle.

Although owning a car that is more than two decades old is still somewhat out-of-the-ordinary, current drivers are much more likely to drive older cars than previous generations were. Improvements in the quality of new cars have helped drive the surge in older cars in the American fleet. Cars built as of 2005-2006 were much more likely to reach their 11th birthday (and beyond). In 2016, the average age of passenger vehicles in the U.S. rose to 11.6 years. And, considering that’s an average age, there are plenty of much older cars still on the road.

However, there are still some very important issues you should know about when it comes to keeping an elderly car on the road, whether you drive an old classic or just an old beater. Here is what you need to know to help make sure your older car stays in tip-top shape for years to come:

Understand the Changes in Safety

While I was still using my Volkswagen Beetle as a daily driver, I once overheard a friend refer to it as “a death trap.” I was offended, but my friend had a good point. Since 1995, when I started driving the VW, there had been huge advances in safety design that left classic cars like mine in the dust.

For instance, although my Beetle was manufactured in 1972, well after the introduction of crumple zones that keep the cabin safe during an accident, it still followed the 1930s design that did not include crumple zones. In addition, there were no air bags; nor were there any three-point shoulder belts in the back seat. Suffice it to say, if I had ever gotten into a crash, I could have been in pretty serious trouble.

According to an automotive engineer familiar with vehicle safety, “Cars continue to get safer and safer over time. It may not be universal, but you may generally count on car manufacturers to make safety improvements with each and every model change, such that two-year-old cars are safer than 10-to-15-year-old cars, which are safer than 25-year-old cars.”

That being said, don’t assume that driving older cars is foolhardy. Anything with side-impact reinforcements, air bags, anti-lock brakes, and crumple zones — that is, anything built after the mid-1990s, when regulations went into effect that required these safety features on all cars — is generally safe enough for a car you drive daily.

If you are driving something older than that, it is generally a good idea to keep such an old car as your hobby vehicle rather than your commuter vehicle.

Maintaining an Older Car

Once your car gets to a certain age, it may start to need (much) more maintenance than a younger vehicle. In a perfect world, you would have the money, time, and ability to take care of all of the maintenance on your elderly car, but sometimes you have to pick and choose how to spend your money.

Some car maintenance can be put off, while other maintenance should be taken care of right away. In general, you need to follow the manufacturer’s recommended service schedule for maintenance to keep your car purring like a kitten. This is definitely the best course of action for things like oil changes, timing belt replacements, and other regular and necessary maintenance tasks.

But there are some maintenance tasks that you should prioritize ahead of others. Here are the specific maintenance tasks that are vital, and the ones that may be easily deferred:

Vital Maintenance

You should always prioritize the maintenance of any vehicle system that could hurt you or others if it is not kept in good working order. This includes the usual suspects, like brakes, tires, and steering, since all those affect your ability to stay in control of your vehicle.

This also includes your suspension system — which, in addition to absorbing the bumps on the road to provide a more comfortable ride, is also responsible for keeping your wheels on the road as much as possible. Problems with the suspension system can make it more difficult for a driver to maintain control of the car.

You also need to prioritize any maintenance that affects your visibility. Windshield wipers may seem like a low priority when it comes to maintaining your car, but they allow you to see in inclement weather, and they should always be replaced when they have worn out. Similarly, you should quickly address any cracks in your windshield that affect visibility.

Finally, if you live in a colder climate, you will need to rust-proof your vehicle. The snow-melting salt that keeps roads clear in the winter also causes rust on your vehicle if you do not work to prevent it. Rust is not just unsightly: It can also cause bolts to disintegrate, making it all the more difficult for a mechanic to get to and fix a problem on your car, and, worst of all, affect the integrity of the car’s frame. Mechanics refer to rust as “car cancer” for good reason. To protect your vehicle from rust, commit to getting it washed regularly in winter, and look into getting the vehicle coated with rust-proofing.

Deferrable Maintenance

The kind of maintenance you can defer on your elderly car is often the stuff that shows the age of the car. For instance, the interior of an older car will often look a little less than fresh — with missing trim pieces, cracked leather or plastic, or worn seats. These issues are largely cosmetic and, so long as they do not affect your ability to drive the car, you can safely put off dealing with them.

Similarly, you can defer some body work. There are few elderly cars on the road that have not gotten a dent or two and, depending on where the dents are, they can stay put. You can think of these cosmetic issues as battle scars.

How to Know When to Repair and When to Replace

One of the most frustrating aspects of driving an older car is the difficulty of determining whether expensive repairs are worth it. Will the money you put into the car today end up being the tip of the iceberg or all that you need to happily motor along for years to come?

Since you can’t predict the future, trying to figure this out can feel maddening, but some important questions can help steer your decision. Here is what you need to ask yourself to determine if expensive repairs are worth it:

  1. Why are you driving the car? This may seem like a non sequitur, but it is an important part of your decision-making process. If your elderly car is just a method of getting from point A to point B, then you will make different choices than if you are driving this car because you love it and want to maintain it.
  2. Do you plan on selling the car? In the lifespan of every car, there comes a point where the amount of money you will have to spend to keep the car on the road will suddenly spike and keep going up. If you plan to sell the car, the ideal time to do so would be right before that spike. While it is impossible to know exactly when that spike will occur, you can decide ahead of time on a maximum repair cost you are willing to take on, which can make your life easier.
  3. What is the resale value of the car? Knowing the Kelley Blue Book value of your car — which takes into consideration the make, model, age, and mileage of your vehicle — can help you to make the best decision.
  4. How much longer can you reasonably assume the car will last? Back in the day, this was a nearly impossible question to answer, but the internet has made it much simpler. Nearly every make and model of car has an enthusiast group online, which allows you to get a sense of when your car will become onerous to own. Chances are, someone out there has encountered a similar problem with the same car and can give you an idea of how much more drive time this repair will buy you. A good rule of thumb is to only spend about $1,000 per year of further service.

Insuring Your Elderly Car

Drivers of older commuter cars may be able to spend a little less on insurance, since it does not necessarily make sense for such drivers to carry full coverage.

Full coverage auto insurance usually refers to a policy that includes both comprehensive and collision insurance in addition to the state minimum. Comprehensive insurance pays for your car to be fixed or replaced up to its Kelley Blue Book value (minus your deductible), if the car is stolen and not recovered, or damaged by anything other than a car accident (e.g., fire, flood, or act of God). Collision insurance pays for repair or replacement (minus your deductible) in the case of a crash.

Owners of older commuter cars may feel that they can afford to drop collision coverage, since many elderly cars tend to be worth less than the sum of their parts. For instance, damage to a single, moderately expensive part can “total” a low- or mid-value car, even if the car is otherwise driveable. You might find that a fender-bender could result in the total loss of your car, and receiving just the Blue Book value from your insurer may make it tough to buy a replacement. In that case, it may be smarter to cancel the collision coverage and put aside the savings toward the purchase of your next vehicle.

As for comprehensive coverage, it does pay to recognize the likelihood of your older car’s being stolen. It may surprise you to learn that seven of the 10 most commonly stolen cars in the U.S. are more than a decade old. If you could not afford to replace your older car without comprehensive insurance, then it pays to keep it.

Insurance and the Hobby Car

Of course, some drivers consider keeping their elderly car on the road to be a labor of love. Whether you are maintaining the cherry condition of a 1955 Cadillac El Dorado or a 1993 Geo Metro, the amount of time, sweat, and money you put into your car is probably not going to be reflected in the Kelley Blue Book value. In that case, you may want insure your car up to a dollar amount value that reflects the work you have put into it.

Even if you do not insure your classic car up to a value, you do need to double check that, in case of an accident, your insurer will allow you to take the vehicle to a specialty mechanic and allow you to buy the specific parts that you will need to restore the car to its former glory.

Keep Your Chrome Heart Shining

Whether your elderly wheels are a practical method of transportation or the love of your life, you do need to understand the specific challenges and issues facing older cars. Recognizing the safety ramifications of your car, staying on top of necessary maintenance, and planning ahead for potential financial issues will all help you to safely enjoy the miles you put on your elderly vehicle.

SEE ALSO: Top 10 Classic Cars

3 Responses to "Keeping Your Elderly Car in Tip-Top Shape"
    • Theresa Shifler Nalley | October 12, 2017 at 6:49 pm

      My 1991 Honda Accord (no sun roof), was purchased by me in 2001; I have kept the oldie but goodies because I am unable in finance the personal property taxes. Yes, I have invested quite a bit of money maintaining her though. And when I walk in seeing others with their new autos, I watch while they have to fork over the accessed taxes before they may claim their yearly tags that you need to put on your license plate. I’ve lived in MD, where they hit you hard on state and county taxes, but you only need to have it inspected once — and only once — and no personal property taxes accessed. I lived most of my life in VA where there is a limit to what they charge for personal property taxes on a car older than 10 years. So, I also was very much stunned when I received the annual bill for the property taxes. With my experience with cars and personal property taxes, I applied for a reduction in the property taxes. My before personal property taxes were reduced to a little over $2.00. When you are an elderly person whose sole income is SSI, you investigate on any “reduction” you can find.

    • Richard Renninger | October 14, 2017 at 2:39 pm

      I’m usually not impressed with “advice” articles on vendor websites but this is the most thoughtful and well written one that I have come across. While it doesn’t present anything new to me, it encapsulates my own thoughts on the subject better than I could ever do. It reminds me of what I know.


    • Bob | October 15, 2017 at 10:02 pm

      We are and elderly couple and we have been driving our current car for the past twenty years. We follow the maintenance schedule, replace our tires, and keep our car clean inside and out. After 250,000 miles our car continues to be very reliable transportation for us. Our maintenance personnel tell us our car is good for another 250,000 miles of transportation and Sunday driving!

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