What should I be doing to extend the life of my car to the year 2056?
April 24, 2014 10:17 AM   Subscribe

What should I be doing to extend the life of my car to the year 2056? Seriously, I was gifted a 15 year old car with 110k on it. It is in great shape and I drive less than 5k a year (I work at home). What I am looking for are pointers to keep the car in good shape for a long time given the infrequent use.

It is a 1998 Ford Escort wagon. Garage kept, interior in good shape, exterior with only a few paint scratches. The only big broken item is the A/C which I doubt I will fix given how little I use the car.

Because I work at home, I rarely drive the thing (which is great for insurance costs). What I am worried about is that I might neglect it too much over time. For example, there is a generally rated period (based on mileage) when one should change the oil. However, in the 2 years I have had the car, I have yet to reach that milestone. So should I switch to a timed based schedule or wait until the mileage?

I know this is a bit of an open ended question, but I am looking for pointers as to taking care of this car so it lasts me for a long time given that it does not get worked out that often.
posted by lampshade to Home & Garden (18 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Here's a list linked to from CarTalk.

For sure, get oil changed regularly. Take it in for servicing periodically.

While it's nice to keep a car a good long time, at some point you may want to get a different car because of safety improvements, environmental improvements or technology improvements.

Sure, you'll occasionally see a 50 year old car on the road, but remember, that it's probably hideously unsafe, polluting up a storm and you need the muscles of a linebacker to turn a corner due to the fact that there's no power steering.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 10:25 AM on April 24, 2014

Yes, change oil on time rather than mileage. For your location I'd suggest 6-9 months (depending on your budget). You could stretch it to once a year if you wanted to.

Key to the car's health if it is kept in a garage will be keeping it clean, to be honest. Wash salt off it in the winter regularly, get the underside treated (there are various oil type treatments) and make sure your garage is dry. Storing a car in a damp atmosphere is not good for it.

Also if there are long periods of no use of the car, invest in a battery tender (a solar one would be perfect if your garage has natural light).

With good maintenance and care, your car may well last another ten years. That's probably your realistic limit, though, because while you do see 50 year old cars, they were built a LOT more sturdily back then and cars are designed to last much closer to their designed life (10-15 years) so stretching that out past 25 is very, very unlikely.

Also, it's not so smart - safety and cost to run will change significantly over the next 10 years compared to your car so while it may be cheap to keep this older car running now, it will get progressively less reliably (even just statistically) and it will be worth upgrading. Consider a nominal sum per month for a maintenance fund and leave it alone unless the car needs it. It then becomes your down payment for your next car (in 5 years or so, would be sensible).
posted by Brockles at 10:34 AM on April 24, 2014

Make sure you get it regularly serviced and inspected. Many of the car's consumables (oil, for example, and brake fluid) and parts have a maintenance/replacement schedule based on time as well as mileage. Not performing regular maintenance is the biggest thing that will reduce the life of a car.

You'll want to develop a relationship with a competent mechanic (fortunately it shouldn't be too hard to find one for a '98 Escort) who knows that you're trying to keep this car for the long haul and will look at it with an eye to keeping it in good shape indefinitely, rather than just for the next ten years. You'll want to replace parts before they wear out; things like brake pads, hoses, pumps, etc. will often give plenty of warning that they're getting old and tired (at least to someone who knows what he/she is looking at) and replacing them early will greatly reduce the chance that something will actually break and cause real damage by failing.

Also, keep it clean. Letting filth build up on it will shorten the life of the paint and the interior, and more importantly the frame and underbody will rot away if they are never cleaned, especially if you live somewhere that salts the roads in the winter. You should clean it yourself frequently, and maybe have it professionally detailed once or twice a year. Maybe even look into protective underbody coatings, though I don't know if any of them are worthwhile. Those windshield shade jobbies will help keep your dashboard from cracking, though.

Other than that, I dunno. Basically it all comes down to being totally meticulous about maintenance, I think.
posted by Scientist at 10:44 AM on April 24, 2014

As others have said, from a safety and emissions perspective this isn't a great idea. A fifty year old car today was made in 1964, the first year that seat belts were actually required (and for front lap belts only). Crumple zones, collapsing steering columns, and shoulder belts weren't even close to standard, much less anti-lock brakes or air bags. When your car is fifty years old, it will be similarly outdated, more suited for a Sunday cruise on side streets rather than driving in traffic.

But if you do decide to keep the car, you'll want to do two things. Switch to a time-based system for maintenance (as your maintenance schedule will almost certainly already lay out for you -- everything should be listed as "X miles or Y months"), and simply fix everything as or before it breaks. Your decision to ignore the broken AC is the opposite of that -- but what happens is that a few years from now you have a broken AC, two windows that don't work, and then the transmission craps out, and you say "$4500 to fix a $500 car? No way!" and send it to the scrapyard.

And as the car ages, you'll either need to find a mechanic who enjoys working on old cars and has sources for hard to find parts, or start doing the work yourself.
posted by Dip Flash at 10:48 AM on April 24, 2014

Just for clarification as to my feelings about the car: I see this car as a tool, not some investment. While there is a bit of sentimentality attached to it (it was my Dad's car up to when he passed 2 yrs ago), at the same time, it is not like a collector's item. So this question is more about functionality as opposed to auto collection. The 2056 date was a joke. Realistically, I am looking at another 10 years out of this vehicle given my current driving habits.

In short, I want a functioning machine for as long as is realistically possible while paying as realistically little as I can. Comfort, style and cruising for chicks on a Friday night are secondary. Mechanical reliability is the focus. So far, the answers above have very much answered that.

However, if cassette tapes have a renaissance, I will be sitting in the catbird seat.
posted by lampshade at 10:51 AM on April 24, 2014

Hey lampshade! I have an Escort of that era and drive it between 3-5k miles a year (it's got about 115k on it now, and the same sweet tape deck). I take mine in about every 6-9 months for an oil change and just do whatever they tell me needs to be done. Last month I dropped about $250 on it with a belt change and some other random things, and the water pump is leaking so I'll be getting that fixed soon. I've had a tie rod issue, and some weird thing with the brakes rusting relatively soon after I'd replaced them, but I'd say on average I spend about $300 a year in maintenance. Don't follow maintenance rules for the oil because it's gonna get grody if you wait that long.
posted by jabes at 10:58 AM on April 24, 2014

In short, I want a functioning machine for as long as is realistically possible while paying as realistically little as I can

If that is your primary objective, then go into this with your eyes wide open to the possibility that 5 years may be the limit to an economic reliance on that car. It's diminishing returns on a cheap car with a long life. Use it until something expensive breaks and then cut your losses.

To plan for that eventuality, like I say, I'd do basic maintenance and put the cost of a normal car loan away for as long as I possibly could - say $250 a month and take repairs out of that fund as needed. In addition, if saving money is important, then do oil changes, spark plug changes and all the basic maintenance stuff yourself (it's pretty easy) and you'll have a bigger buffer for the dramatic stuff or be able to afford a more reliable car when this one inevitably croaks.
posted by Brockles at 11:34 AM on April 24, 2014

Oil should be changed based on time, not mileage. Gas also ages poorly and leaving unused gas in the tank for long periods is not ideal. If you really want to keep the car in good running order, you should drive it every two weeks or so and try to take a longer drive (at least 30 miles) that involves freeway speeds. Cars have a lot of parts that age best when they're being used somewhat frequently. Sitting in a garage for long periods is great for preventing damage from the elements, but it's not good for engines, hoses, valves, pumps, tires, batteries, etc. You'll pay far less in repair/replacement costs if you get in the habit of taking the car out for a spin a few times a month.
posted by quince at 12:16 PM on April 24, 2014

While petrol has been known to not age well historically, it is really not a major issue with modern fuels for any reasonable time period. You can leave a car for 6 months to a year and not have any issues starting it back up - especially if the car is stored inside.
posted by Brockles at 12:36 PM on April 24, 2014

So much good advice.

As a person who has not regularly owned a car over the past 20 years, this is an eye opening thread. I am taking this all in.

Keep it coming.
posted by lampshade at 1:11 PM on April 24, 2014

and fwiw...i posted an ad on Craigslist for a "retainer" style mechanic. Maybe more of a consultant as to what I should have repaired. This is a direct result of the answers above.
posted by lampshade at 1:16 PM on April 24, 2014

Craigslist is not the way to go on this. You either want just a plain old really good mechanic (and those guys are NOT looking thru Craigslist) or a friend who's into cars (and those guys are NOT looking thru Craigslist). There's no such thing as a "retainer style mechanic" or "consultant". There are, however, people reading Craigslist who'd love to accept your money.

Finding a really good mechanic is a networking task. You need to ask EVERYONE (even strangers on line at Starbucks). Bear in mind everyone will offer at least a tepid tip (cuz everyone has a mechanic). Ignore those. Look for people passionate about their mechanics. If you get no such referrals (which is likely), my big tip, which doesn't seem brilliant, but was very very hard-won, is to start in expanding circles from where you live. A so-so mechanic around the corner is worth more than a great one 20 miles away. You can cultivate the local one. Bring chocolate now and then. Become friendly.

Finally, if you want a mechanic to love you, never pressure. At all. They feel pressure acutely. When you go in the garage, don't greet him. Stand idly and humbly, and wait for him to greet you. Makes a huge diff. Put 100% of your focus into not being in any way annoying or presuming or pressuring. If he fails to appreciate this, and takes advantage of your good nature, he's not a good mechanic. I can't explain precisely why....I acknowledge that in other lines of work you couldn't draw such a line, but among auto mechanics, it's true. The good ones really appreciate gentlemanly, easy, considerate customers. A lot. As in: you may even get free work done.
posted by Quisp Lover at 2:08 PM on April 24, 2014 [2 favorites]

Craigslist is not the way to go on this.

I totally agree. There is no such thing as a 'retainer' style mechanic. Either learn the easy stuff yourself and take your difficult jobs to a local mechanic shop or get it all done at a local mechanic shop, but you need to go to a recommended and established mechanics shop. They have the tools and equipment to do things quickly and reliably.

If you want a 'consultant' you can paypal me money and I'll read out the Haynes manual over the phone to you, if it will make you feel better. That's about as much worth as a 'consultant' is.

Cancel that ad or you will get royally hosed. Especially as you don't know enough to be able to tell when you're being hosed. Research, research, research and find a good local shop. It doesn't need to be a shiny place with a fancy frontage, but it does need to have a good reputation for fairness and quality workmanship.
posted by Brockles at 2:21 PM on April 24, 2014

Another tip for finding a mechanic. Every nabe has the bar where late middle aged guys drink in in the middle of the day.

Go there. Get a beer. Be friendly. And ask. Those are the guys who know.

Good for contractors, plumbers, etc, too.
posted by Quisp Lover at 2:28 PM on April 24, 2014 [1 favorite]

>> Cancel that ad

good advice...done
posted by lampshade at 3:00 PM on April 24, 2014

Some parts of your car will age just from sitting there - I'm thinking of tires, belts, engine mounts, vacuum lines, etc. These can be replaced but eventually doing so will be more expensive than it's worth, and it will be hard to find replacements that are actually in better shape. I have a 40 year old racing bike, and the original tires basically have disintegrated from sitting there. Also the ribbon cartridges from my 1985 vintage applewriter.
posted by mr vino at 3:53 PM on April 24, 2014 [1 favorite]

Another place to get good mechanic recommendations: the counter folks at auto parts stores. They know who's got a good reputation and who doesn't.
posted by the big lizard at 6:37 PM on April 24, 2014

I came in looking for what mr vino said. I drive my 10-year-old car about 10,000 miles per year. My tires ALWAYS wear out before their mileage, not in the tread wear pattern, but in the sides where they start to look dried out and cracked. Pay attention to stuff like that - anything rubbery or pliable is likely to age like that.
posted by CathyG at 9:27 AM on April 27, 2014

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