It is far from a bad idea to consider buying an older car given the “new normal” descending. But, as with most things, there are downsides as well as upsides. Here’s a look at both:
Old cars don’t always cost as much, and you will likely pay cash for it. Then you won’t need to make car payments nor higher payments for insurance and property taxes (if you live in an state where a vehicle is taxed every year). The less you have to spend, the less you have to work, which means less pressure on you if you work less, work freelance, or are unemployed.
Maintaining and repairing a really old car can likely be done by you. The line separating the truly old vs. the new is roughly the year 1980.
On the south side of that line, you will find cars with purely mechanical fuel delivery systems (i.e., carburetors and mechanical fuel pumps, no ABS or traction control, etc.) and very basic electronic systems (i.e., their distributors/wiring). With a handful of exceptions, no computer controls of any kind will be found on these oldsters, which makes it much easier to work on them yourself.
If you have a basic understanding of air/fuel/spark or are willing to learn and have a few necessary tools, you can keep such a car running when it’s really important—a plus in a “new normal” scenario.
These old cars will still usually run and drive even when something is wrong. A crude splice, some duct tape, and baling wire will often do the trick.
Most old cars, for example, have separate belts for each belt-driven accessory—not a single serpentine belt for all of them, as almost all newer cars do. If that one belt breaks, everything no longer works. You don’t just lose the power steering. You also lose the charging (alternator) and the cooling (water pump), which will leave you stuck almost immediately.
With several belts, the loss of one won’t necessarily cripple you, and you can sometimes swap one that didn’t break for one that did. You will likely be able to make it home or somewhere safe, also a desirable attribute in a “new normal” world.
Essential parts are usually easy to find or can be made. Or you can make use of what’s at hand. A huge plus in the “new normal.”
For example, an old car with a carburetor can be made to run with a carburetor from another old car even if the carburetor is a different model and from a different make/model/year of car. Parts can be swapped and made to work because in old cars, the drivetrain is not a computer-controlled integrated collective.
Old cars are under your control. Models made before the early ’80s do not have black boxes or GPS receivers under the control of someone else. They cannot be shut off remotely except by an EMP. Your travels cannot be monitored unless someone put a “bug” under the fender well. They are free-range cars.
You will have to pay cash, in full, for the old car, probably as it is hard to get financing for an old car unless it is a pristine condition/restored old car, which defeats the purpose of getting one as far as this discussion is concerned. And you’ll pay more to finance it if you can finance it because loans on older cars are of higher-interest and a shorter duration.
It won’t be as much cash, of course, as a new car would cost you or at least it doesn’t have to be. But it still means scraping together about $3k or so to find a decent condition/mechanically viable old car you can drive right now without putting in another $3k first.
Old cars need more work more often than newer cars. Not usually major work, but minor fiddling such as seasonal/annual carburetor/ignition adjustments. If you’re unable to make these adjustments yourself, you’ll need to find someone who can, which ties you down rather than frees you up.
Older cars are not nearly as well-protected as newer cars from corrosion. Finding an older car that isn’t already rusty is a challenge, and keeping it from rusting is another. Frame/structural rot is a big problem with older vehicles, especially older trucks, and while it’s fixable (if you can weld), it’s not easy. If you can’t weld, it won’t be cheap. This is one of the reasons why there aren’t that many older cars and trucks around anymore. If you find one that isn’t rusty, you will want to try to keep it from rusting, chiefly by keeping it from getting wet.
And that’s not going to be easy in the “new normal.”
But there are ways if you start with an old car that isn’t rusty. Oil-bathing the frame and other structural hard points underneath the car is an easy and cheap way to do that. And before you do that, it’s best to start with a frame/hard points that aren’t already being eaten by oxidization. You can do this by sandblasting these parts, then painting or powder-coating them and then oil-bathing them.
The object of this exercise isn’t to win a trophy at the old car show. It is to maintain mobility in the era of the “new normal.”
Eric Peters lives in Virginia and enjoys driving and working on cars and motorcycles. In the past, Eric worked as a car journalist for many prominent mainstream media outlets. Currently, he focuses his time writing auto history books and reviewing cars and blogging about cars+ for his website EricPetersAutos.com.
Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.