Papa's Auto Opinion

          Recently a friend's dichotomy regarding her car purchase stirred thoughts from mental-compost-heap depths to my mind's surface, my keyboard, my screen — now it's on your screen ... in your mind.  This electronic artifice of passing along thoughts, replaces the decades-old verbal guidance my grandfather gave me.  Papa's wisdom is as vital today as it was when I was first-car shopping (only the dollar amounts are somewhat more than quadrupled).
          "Kiddo, there are four things everyone must keep in mind when owning and operating an automobile."  He used longer words rather than some of their available shorter equivalents and his voice carried decades of unfiltered Lucky Strikes in it's timbre.
          "Most important is maintenance and operating costs, which includes gasoline, oil, replacement rubber and repairs when the goddamn thing breaks down."  He said the word goddamn without emphasis.  Just another descriptor.  As if he was really saying, 'when the rusty-metal thing breaks down'.
          "And the insurance premiums, which for someone your age is gonna be a kick-in-the-nuts unless you can convince your parents to include you on their policy."
          He never called either of them by name, leastways never that I recall.  Only pronouns seemed to exist in his dialogue.  He even called his own wife the same thing everyone called her, Nana.  I never noticed it until thinking about him after he died.  When I asked her about it, Nana said, "Of course he called people by their names.  You're mistaken.  You were young, Sonny."  Yeah.  Sonny.  The pronoun used by both of them for Uncle Milt, their son.  But I'm the mistaken one.
          "And then, of course, there are the annual registration and license plate costs.  And in this state there is an excise tax, as well as a fee for getting an inspection sticker."  He raised his voice a little at this point.  He didn't seem to be at all pleased with government-directed costs.
          "The very last thing to consider is the payment price. When I say price, do not get confused and think I mean the amount listed on the sticker unless you are paying cash on the barrelhead — and even I'm not walking around with seven grand in my pocket.  Price means: the amortization of the interest and the principal amount you borrow, all wrapped together into a monthly payment.  All the money you pay the bank, over the years you pay, is the price tag on your automobile.  The ONLY price tag."
          When I asked for his advice in selecting an affordable car, he responded with questions about my income and current expenses, did some calculations and said, "You can afford to spend about two-hundred a month on an automobile, give or take a few dollars."
          I immediately forgot almost everything he told me.  My mind clicked through current interest rates and how much I could borrow to keep my payments around two hundred.  Maybe he suspected what I was thinking, but his laugh-lines didn't show it.  Instead, he asked, "How many miles a week do you think you'll drive?"  I said, "To and from college a couple weekends a month, to the movies once in a while, in the summer I'd drive to work and around town; maybe a hundred miles a week or so?"
          Then he did some murmuring and thinking out loud for a long minute.  It sounded like, "...rate at that...per gallon...a year...seventy cents...every three...maybe quarterly..."  Then he looked at me and said, "You might be able to afford a $1,300 car as long as it gets over twenty miles to the gallon."
          I must have looked crestfallen or even crushed, because he laughed. "You paying any attention to me?"  I said, "Yes, Papa."  "Well, do the math.  500 miles a month is 6,000 miles a year.  If you get 20 miles to the gallon that's 300 gallons of gasoline you need to buy next year.  An easy way to predict the rest of the maintenance costs — hoses, windshield wipers, fluids and the like — is to figure 100 dollars for every 1,000 miles.  At the current cost of gasoline, your maintenance costs will be around 900 dollars a year.  Liability-only insurance, on your parent's policy, should be around 500 a year and taxes and shit should be no more than 150 or so.  Now, that's over $1,500 a year on an automobile you have yet to put a price tag on.  If I co-sign, you might could get an 18-month loan for about $1,300 at a reasonable interest rate, and that is a $75-a-month payment, which would bring your monthly costs to the two-hundred mark."
          I told him I would think about what he said.  I went away and did my own calculations.  The result looked like this: $4,500 at ten percent interest for five years is $95 a month (I could afford the extra $20, he was being too conservative). I knew I could get a really great car for forty-five hundred dollars.
          When I talked to Papa on the phone later, I explained my calculations.  He said, "Why don't you borrow your mother's automobile and do a price comparison on automobiles with $4,500 stickers and then on similar cars on the same lot, but which are five years older.  See how your newer car fares after five years in the value-department.  Don't forget that your tastes in automobiles will probably change over the next five years as well."
          The following week, I did what he recommended.  I found a sporty-looking Datsun for $4,900, which was only slightly over a year old (and I was sure I could talk them down).  Then I was shown several older cars: A seven year old Toyota was marked at 1,900; an eight year old Honda was $2,000; and I found a six year old Ford for 1,750.  Papa said on the phone that night, "Seems you have learned that the car you spend almost six thousand dollars to purchase over a five year period will be worth less than two grand once you actually own it.  Why don't you see what kind of value you can get purchasing a twenty or even forty-year-old automobile?"
          I think my response used catch phrases like 'clunker' and 'gas hog' but it couldn't hurt to humor him.  I checked classifieds and drove my stepfather's van to a local farm.  The farmer was selling three antiques: a 1953 Oldsmobile tank for $750; a 1961 Corvair for $1,000; and a four-door 1949 Pontiac with one of those external windshield visors and no back seat (he said it was made that way for traveling salesmen to store their wares).  He wanted $650 for it because it needed a new paint job and the tires were in bad shape.  All three ran perfectly.  He didn't seem to be bothered at all by some teenager showing up and asking to drive his cars up and down the county road in front of his place.
          "So, those old cars seem to have gained their value back." Papa said after I told him about my test drives.  "I doubt if that Corvair cost much more than a thousand when it rolled off the assembly line."  I told him I suspected maintenance and gas would cost more, since these cars were older, probably harder to find parts for, and said they would get worse mileage (especially the eight-cylinder Olds).
          "Bullshit," he said. "That Corvair will get at least 20 miles to the gallon and I bet it is easier, and cheaper, to fix and find parts for.  But don't take my word on it.  Call any shop-mechanic and ask him.  Tell him what you are considering purchasing and what your concerns are about repairs.  Just ask how much he would charge to examine a car before you purchase it, to provide his mechanical opinion of it's condition."
          The mechanic said he loved working on old classics.  He preferred them.  They were the cars on which he learned.  Parts were always available and they cost no more than new-car parts.  He said, "There's nothing better made than Detroit-steel."  And, "all cars need repairs, but newer ones sometimes cost more in labor, because everything is jam-packed together under the hood and I always haveta move major components outta the way just ta do simple stuff, like change spark plugs.  If you want my opinion, buy a older car."
          Papa shared this wisdom with all his "grandkiddo's."  Although I don't think his granddaughters listened (or his guidance was drowned out by all the fear-based auto-industry commercials).  Now my sisters and nieces drive always new, trade-before-it-needs-tires, money-sinkholes, with the best fear-induced 'extended warranty' they can feel comfortable paying for.  Papa's grandsons did listen.  If there is one clear demarcation between the sexes in my extended family it's seen in our vehicles.
          $35K, new.  Insurance is not too bad.  Mostly garaged except winters and whenever she needs to tow her horse trailer (because it has a ten-cylinder engine which makes a fill-up cost two arms and one leg).  She only repairs it at the dealer she bought it from, so maintenance costs are not equitable to any other sane person I know.  She combats her fears by driving something that one needs a gangway to embark into and debark from.  WORTH LESS THAN $18K IN TRADE (which will happen soon).
          $5K, when it was 37 years old.  Maintenance negligible, fancy improvements and paint cost more than anything.  He drives it every day.  It's orange and that almost makes up for no air conditioner.  Rarely needed in the Midwest, he says.  WORTH OVER $8K TODAY.
          $8,500, when it was fifty years old.  Almost no engine maintenance (but it came with a new engine and new interior).  An extra car which is driven weekends, when it's raining, or when his motorcycle is in the shop (which seems to be more than just once in a while).  It is great to drive and has an after-market air conditioner.  He has already put 70K miles on it.  WORTH ABOUT $12K TODAY.
          About 20K new.  Insurance is phenomenal (because she drives as if she's the only person on the road, fast).  Maintenance is acceptable if you disregard the cost of the accident repairs.  WORTH ABOUT 11K TODAY (More, if the next owner doesn't check accident history).
           $3K, when it was 31 years old.  Almost no maintenance costs.  Liability insurance less than two hundred dollars a year.  Drove it for six years and over 30K miles and sold it for the same price I bought it.  I don't presently own a car.
          65K or more, new.  This is her toy.  She doesn't know how much anything costs because she doesn't 'do the bills'.  It gets picked up by 'the garage' for all routine maintenance, and nothing is ever wrong with it unless there is a light or a noise.  Nonetheless, IT IS WORTH ABOUT 50K TODAY (and it will be traded next year).

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