Keep Your Car Going Forever

14 Sep

Most readers of this blog know that purchasing a used car and driving it into the ground will save you considerable money compared to buying a new car and only keeping it a few years. Preppers should be pragmatic with their vehicles. You don’t need a status symbol, only reliable and safe transportation.

If you purchase a used car, three important things to consider are: 1) The engine; 2) the transmission; and 3) the body.

There are four main ways cars die: 1) The engine fails or wears out; 2) the transmission needs to be rebuilt and it would cost more to rebuild it than to replace the car; 3) the body rusts out, especially structural metal in unibody frames; and 4) Some idiot crashes into your vehicle totaling it.

Purchasing a used vehicle with problems in any of the key areas is likely to lead to substantial repair costs or a shortened vehicle life. If you want your vehicle to last twenty years and/or over 200,000 miles:

1) Treat your engine properly. Regular oil and oil filter changes minimize engine wear. A clean air filter prevents air borne dust from getting into your cylinder bores. Construction dust is particularly harmful because it contains pulverized concrete. Protect your car from junk in your gas by changing your fuel filter regularly. In the winter, ISO-Heat helps remove moisture condensation as does keeping your gas tank full.

Other fluids shouldn’t be neglected either. Coolant contains rust inhibitors which degrade with age. Flush your old coolant out every 2 or 3 years. Brake fluid absorbs water. Every 3 or 4 years, replacing brake fluid is a good idea.

Follow your vehicle’s maintenance schedule. Don’t overlook things like the PCV valve.

Catch and correct problems as early as possible. Failure to replace a squishy radiator hose leads to losing your coolant. You’re on the road. Rather than stopping, you make the major error of driving just a bit further. Your car overheads and blows a head gasket. An inexpensive problem to correct becomes an expensive headache.

Engines made in the 1990s should be reliable for at least 100,000 miles and probably 200,000 miles. 300,000 miles isn’t impossible.

2) When purchasing a vehicle, many give the engine special consideration. Is it a reliable and proven design? The same should go for the transmission. What model of transmission does the vehicle have? Google it. You won’t find as much information, but if it has significant issues, a Google search could give you a heads up.

Many automotive do-it-yourselfers hesitate to do their own transmission work. It’s a big job to rebuild a transmission. You can find rebuild manuals to help you. With transmission work, the motto should be “cleanliness is next to Godliness.” You don’t want to introduce impurities into the system.

With transmission maintenance, the big question is: To flush or not to flush? Car guys debate this. Too many vehicles go in for “routine” transmission maintenance and come out with a buggy transmission. The consensus seems to be that if you have an older vehicle which hasn’t had regular transmission flushes, you shouldn’t flush the transmission. The newer fluid might lead to gears slipping or the flush process can remove build up which can lead to fluid leaks.

Another option is not to flush, but to drop the transmission pan, change the filter, and top off with new transmission fluid. The older fluid in the torque converter isn’t changed, but this partial fluid change posses less risk than a flush. Most crucially, the filter gets changed. Don’t forget to clean metal shavings from the magnet and replace it, if your transmission has one. Don’t sweat small amounts of metal shavings there though. I’m told that’s quite common.

3) If you don’t drive a lot and you live in a Northern state where roads are salted in winter, underbody rust can threaten the life of your vehicle long before the engine or transmission fails. After a couple decades, structural metal vanishes. In a crash, your car could collapse uncontrollably.

One solution to the build up of road salt is to wash your car in the winter every two weeks. That removes the salt. Give the most attention to the underbody.

The most dangerous time is when the weather warms up and built up snow under the vehicle melts. The salty mixture wrecks havoc with metal.

Modern vehicles have a “unibody” frame design. There isn’t a separate frame, which can be replaced in parts. The metal wraps back and forth, and it’s challenging to know how to make a proper repair. Inspect the underside of your potential car purchase. Are the jack points solid and intact? Is metal missing? If so, it’s probably best to pass on the vehicle. Vehicles in Southern states should last much longer because of body rust.

Cosmetic rust on the top of the body shouldn’t be neglected either. Once it starts, it grows. At a minimum, hit a dinged area with a drop of automotive paint.

If you’ve maintained your engine, prayed for your transmission, and fought underbody rust, the one thing that can still knock your vehicle out of commission is an accident. The only way to keep your car going forever, is to leave it sit in the garage.

As preppers, we should all be careful and responsible drivers. Accidents still happen. In a way, we can take advantage of this. If you drive a popular model, after it’s six or seven years old, there should be quite a few on the road. A bunch of those cars will have been wrecked and will be sitting in junkyards or insurance company salvage yards. Those unfortunate vehicles can be a source of hard-to-find parts for your vehicle as it ages.

I’m not talking about parts like shock absorbers, spark plugs, brake rotors, filters, and hoses. Those parts you’ll find produced by after-market parts companies for decades. Or the parts are so universal, they’re common to many newer vehicles. Nor do I mean parts that are easily fabricated. You can bend and make your own brake lines from coils of brake line. The parts I mean are those which are likely to be ignored by the after-market but which look likely to fail. They’re the parts you can’t easily build yourself.

Several parts come to mind. The gas filler neck on older vehicles can rust out after a few decades. Refurbished ones can be found, but there isn’t much of a market for newly made ones for older vehicles. Custom molded plastic parts, like coolant surge tanks, integral to the cooling system, are another part you’ll struggle to find once your vehicle is a few decades old.

You’ll want to be selective in what parts you stockpile. Obviously, you can’t and don’t want to stockpile everything! Don’t worry about purely cosmetic parts. Don’t worry about parts that look like they’ll never fail, like heavy-duty engine brackets.

If you plan to keep your vehicle for decades, you might want to drop by a local pick-your-parts salvage yard and snag some spares. Because rare parts aren’t any more expensive than common parts, some people make money reselling rare parts they scavenge.

Some serious do-it-yourselfers pull entire engines and transmissions from wrecked vehicles. For most of us, that’s overkill. You’d need to be a hardcore driver before you’d need a spare engine and spare transmission!

The Internet makes this market more efficient today. If you need a part and can’t find one locally look at sites like car-part.com. These used car part websites compile lists of what junkyard dealers say they have.

If you follow this basic advice, you can keep your vehicle going a very long time. You’ll save a ton of money.

Charlie Palmer -author The Prepper Next Door: A Practical Guide For Disaster And Emergency Planning

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