By Bob Dorn
When a criminal maniac forced me off the road last December, and then rammed my 1996 Saturn on the drivers’ side with his Toyo 4-Runner he couldn’t have known that his craziness was going to make one thing clear: I have to make a choice between having a car or having a place to live.
I can’t have both.
It’s the first time this white guy born during WWII has had to face this reality since he was in his early twenties, in college. I’ve paid the rent or the mortgage and driven mostly beaters since the early 60s. In the mid-70s I even paid cash for a new Fiat 128. Its body rusted, and valves repeatedly burned, so I walked away from it less than four years later. But I was living in Cardiff, by the sea, where the life was made of privilege and entertainment was just outside the front door.
See, I can’t complain. It’s been a good run to this point, except for that maniacal blow to the Saturn. My insurance company said the damage would cost more to repair than the car was worth on the used market. They gave me $2800, plus change.
Go to Auto Trader, or The Reader Classifieds, or Craigslist and see what comes up for the price a poor person can digest. There’s Camaro muscle with 250,000 miles (exactly that number?) on the odometer, a 1995 Lincoln Mark VIII, a giant Dodge Ram with 199,926 on the odometer; at least half the vehicles at this price level drink gas as if it were $2.50 per gallon.
Two years ago my wife bought a ‘98 Civic for $2600. Today, at Auto Trader, the ’97 or ’98 or ’99 Civics range from one at $2,990 (a good deal if it hasn’t sold or you weren’t mugged by the seller) on up to $5,995, with the great majority offered at $4,000 to $4,500.
Hmmm…. why not see what’s out there at the insurance company’s replacement price of $2,800? At The Reader, there are just 26 vehicles advertised at that rate and no ad is newer than five days old. At that one the phone is answered by a woman who says the car sold right away.
“Pancho,” my trusted auto mechanic, Enrique, says to me, “you won’t get what you’re looking for (compact to mid-sized, 4 to 6 cylinder, manual transmission something or other) for less than $4,000. Everybody’s looking for them.”
That’s because those oldies, cars like my Saturn, had m.p.g. figures around 25 city and 30 highway, pretty close to what’s considered good in a new car these days. Bare minimum, you have to wonder what the engineers have been doing the last 15 or 20 years. And why, with gasoline prices having climbed, are the companies advertising troop-carrying trucks flying across chasms in the earth, or sexy Euro salon cars purring outside the opera?
But, hey, here’s a ’99 Civic sedan for $2,800 with only a little more than 180,000 miles on it (those Japanese cars, they always exceed 200K and act like fresh maidens at that, right?) but it’s up in San Marcos, and there’s no picture. It’s curious how many of the deals you’ll see in the ads are down in San Ysidro, or up in Escondido, Vista, San Marcos, even Temecula, where everything’s for sale.
I can’t do those deals without arranging for my wife to leave me the car, or renting a car, so I can get to those places and consider the ride. (It’s a little like not being able to find your glasses because you can’t see them.) And even if I manage to get to the car am I really going to drive up to northernmost San Diego County, jump in the sale car and take it 30 miles down to Enrique for him to tell me, “oh brother, this one’s leaking fluids everywhere, Pancho; you going to pay off my mortgage to keep it on the road?” You know how it feels to drive a car 60 miles round trip and accomplish nothing, don’t you? Like you’ve just spent close to $10 and the tank’s near empty on her car.
What’s pretty fascinating is, the upward creep of prices on old beaters is a very recent event. I bought the now-condemned ’96 Saturn in 2010 from a young couple who were also having a garage sale for – believe this — $1,000. Today, when I typed “Saturn” into the search field of Auto Trader, for the years ranging from 1995 to 1997, two popped up and they were both in Orange County; one for $2,300, the other for $3,300.
So, what’s happening is, the cars poor people can afford to drive appear to have gone up in price by something approaching or exceeding 200% in the last three years, a rate so intense that only a month or so after the insurance companies move their compensation numbers upwards for total wrecks, the numbers become outdated.
Inflation isn’t a problem for the rich.
John Lawrence says
I had a 1980 Toyota Celica which I bought new for $12,000. and it gave up the ghost 22 years later in 2002 with over 220,000 miles on it. I loved that car. It was the year of a major style change, and I thought it had great styling compared to the year before. To some extent you get what you pay for, unfortunately, because buying old junks means replacing pretty much every part in them sooner rather than later. Unless you are a good mechanic and can do the work yourself, it’s not worth it.
When that car gave up the ghost, I just had my work van which I used for work and used public transportation for pleasure for about 7 years until that one blew the engine. I made the huge mistake of having Kearney Mesa Ford put in a new (refurbished) engine. It never worked right after that and cost me a fortune. The price kept escalating over the original price and the time frame kept lengthening for getting it back on the road.
The only thing that saved me was President Obama’s Cash for Clunkers program. I was first in line for that and ended up getting a brand new 2009 Kia Sportage. With all the discounts I got on top of the Cash for Clunkers discount, it cost me $12,000. about half the list price. But I had put about $8000. into the old clunker Ford van so I ended up about even.
I went for a cheap car loan at the USE credit union. After leading me on for about a week, they denied me the loan. That’s why I call them the “No Use” credit union. I ended up borrowing the money on my HELOC which was probably a better deal anyway. I really like the 2009 Kia Sportage; I put it right up there with the 1980 Toyota Celica. I use it for work and pleasure. The back seats fold down so I can put my equipment in there, and it has roof racks which can accomodate my ladders.
I can take the ladders and equipment off, put them in the storage room, get the car washed and take Judy and my 3 grandchildren on an outing. I love the sound system; we turn on the Serius Sinatra channel and just groove away on out Sunday drives. Life is good.
When I lived downtown, I used to use public transportation except for work. This is a viable alternative that you might consider, Bob. You can get a monthly senior pass for some ridiculous low amount. I think it was around $20 bucks or something the last time I bought one. If you’re near a trolley stop, it might be worth it to go carless and just use trolleys, buses and trains.
bob dorn says
Everybody’s got more than one car stories, right? We’re all suckers for four wheels with blinking lights.
The Toyota (Celica) SUPRA made up until 1985 is a high demand collectors car if you can believe that. Try and find one for sale anywhere in decent shape. One of the few classic styles from Japan.
I’m currently driving a 1995 Honda Passport which is a rebadged Isuzu Rodeo built in Ohio at a former GM plant when GM owned half of Isuzu. Many parts designed by Subaru, a lot of GM stuff in the drivetrain. Confused ancestry, it’s incredibly reliable but gets just 15 mpg in town because it IS a truck/SUV. I’m attached to it because I got it cheap from my best friend who died two years later and I did some nice upgrades including a top quality sound system and a solar powered ventilation system that really does work well.
I recently looked at alternatives because of that 15 mpg. Not much out there for $2-3k is there?
Oh and in my driveway sits my 27 year old Corvette. Lucky to get $1k for it if I sold it.