Maintenance Pays Off On Older Cars

by Don Elliott on August 7, 2012

Taking the time to properly maintain your car can pay off when it reaches a certain age. Unfortunately, many of us drive a car longer for financial reasons, the same reason that might prevent getting the car into the auto repair shop as often as necessary.

However, a recent experience shopping for a car underscores the importance of keeping up with car maintenance to preserve used car value .

My son wrecked his car and needed a replacement in a hurry. He delivers pizza for a living, so having a car is a big deal for him. The situation was urgent for me too because he was driving my car while we looked for the replacement. Since I was financing the replacement car, keeping the costs down was also important.

Normally, I am able to go to an auto auction to pick up an older car when I need one. Because of my son’s accident, I needed something right away.

We found a couple of good possibilities on by searching private party sellers for cars listed from $500 to $2000. We expected the worst and pretty much found them. The older cars under $2000 were all pretty rough.

Late in the day, we stopped to look at a 1995 Mercury Sable posted on Craig’s List with a description that read in part, “Dependable transportation that needs a little work. Engine runs rough and the AC don’t work…” Unless you have a little car guy in you, you might have driven right by this one. The car was an ugly forest green with the paint’s clear coat peeling off the roof, hood and trunk.

The car was owned by a young gal who told us that she just couldn’t keep up with the problems and needed to sell a car right away so she could by another car that ran better. I poked around a bit and noticed that this car badly needed a day in the shop but might be salvageable.

The peeling green Sable that was advertised as “dependable transportation” wouldn’t start. The battery terminals were heavily corroded and the positive terminal cable end was holding on by a thread. There were no bad fluid leaks around the engine and the oil was dark black indicating that the engine seals were probably okay. We agreed on a price that was dependent on whether I could drive the car home.

With jumper cables, the car kicked right over. However, it ran very rough, bucking like a wild horse. This is where more time in a good automotive repair shop would have gotten this seller more money. I closed the deal and went to work to bring this old car back to life.

At the auto parts store, I bought a can of mass airflow sensor cleaner ($8), a replacement battery terminal cable end ($7), an air filter ($8), and a can of Coke ($1).

Returning to the disabled Sable, I took a few drinks of the ice cold Coke and sprayed the rest on the disconnected corroded battery terminals. With a borrowed rag and a big cup of water, I cleaned up the diluted corrosion and Coke overspray. I would degrease the engine later at home.

Then I replaced the worn battery terminal cable end and charged the battery using a jump off of my car while I worked on the air intake. The mass airflow sensor is easy to remove. With several sprays of the cleaner on the sensor wire and a few minutes to let it dry, I reinstalled the sensor assembly, dropped in the new air filter, and reassembled the air intake. When I restarted the car under it’s own power, it bucked a little until it warmed up. Then it smoothed out and began to sound like “dependable transportation”. The air conditioning blew warm, but there were no apparent leaks in the system.

When I got the car home, I charged the ac system with additional refrigerant ($50) and was pleased to have ice-cold air. I changed the oil and filter ($23), checked the air pressure in the tires ($0), and added some fuel system cleaner into the gas tank ($6).

For about $100 in basic maintenance work, I was able to get this car into good running condition. An auto repair shop would have charged another $100 or so for labor. If the seller had spent the $200 on service, there would have been no need to sell this car, particularly at a heavily discounted price.

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