Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Goodbye, Old Paint

Had to sell my old 1989 Nissan Sentra the other day. Actually, I didn't sell it so much as betray it. The car would no longer pass a smog test without about 300 dollars worth of catalytic converter and other parts. While the car ran excellently, it wasn't worth the additional investment. Especially since I bought it for 375 dollars at an impound auction almost four years ago.

Trust me, this is the "good" side.

The State of California bought this car off me for 1,000 dollars. Yes, that's ten hundred bucks. How does a dented old 375-dollar car turn into a thousand-dollar machine four years later? The California Bureau of Automotive Repair (BAR) wants older, more polluting (Their opinion. More on that later) cars off the road so badly, they pay 1,000 dollars to retire your car. Of course, "retire" is the shiny happy euphemism for "crush the living snot out of it." Hence the term "betrayal." I felt like Werner Klemperer as Eichmann repeating, "Don't worry. It's only a delousing shower" to my car as we approached the salvage yard where they inspect the cars for the BAR.

Yes, your car must pass an inspection so it can be crushed. One can't drag in any dead player and get a grand. One must prove three years of ownership with a recent registration. The car must move under its own power, start and stop on command, have all the smog gear present, an intact windshield, at least one door glass and make the drive to the salvage yard without being towed or pushed in. The car must have at least three years worth of life left in it. How they prove that is beyond me.

Oh, and if another name is on the title with yours, grab a Power of Attorney form from the DMV. One woman was turned away in tears at the thought of talking to her ex-husband about their huge old Chevy Suburban, not to mention the eighty gallons of gas consumed going back and forth to the salvage yard. Retiring that behemoth offset all the soot from the last three local wildfires.

I'm taking a moratorium from visiting that particular salvage yard for parts. The thought of seeing my dowdy but reliable steed partially disemboweled by hordes of jackals before meeting the final end in the crusher disheartens me.

So what's the fascination with these rolling wrecks? There are a couple of forces at play here. First of all, I am frugal. I am not cheap. Frugal means buying a 375-dollar car knowing that a couple of hundred well-placed dollars and a time investment will result in a car capable of good service for a number of years. Cheap means buying a 375-dollar car and expecting it to be perfect.

My wife thinks I take perverse pleasure in owning the unownable. She's right but postponing a car's trip to the crusher helps the environment without cost to taxpayers. Squeezing all the life possible out of a consumer product before recycling means less demand for a substitute. If I buy used cars all my life, at least six new ones don't get built.

While a new car has fewer emissions, the greater amount of raw materials required to construct those new cars more than offsets the difference. Coke provides the fuel for steel making; huge amounts of electricity from coal-fired power plants powers aluminum forming and the plastic materials are petroleum. Does the world need any more plastic?

My old manual transmission Sentra weighed about 2200 pounds. A new one similarly equipped weighs 2885 pounds. The extra 685 pounds means the new car uses more fuel than the old one. I don't expect the country to adopt my hair shirt environmentalism, but I have the knowledge and tools to make it work for me.

Besides, why would I want to buy something for twenty-five grand that becomes twenty grand the minute I sign the contract? Remember, a car can only be sold as new once. People think a new car depreciates upon leaving the dealership lot. Actually it depreciates while the Finance Manager beats you over the head.

For most people, buying a three-or-four-year-old used car is the cheapest personal transportation alternative. Insurance and registration costs are far less, plus the original owner takes the major depreciation hit. A modern three-year-old car with 30 thousand miles on the clock has at least another 175 thousand more miles left in it with any care at all. Unless the first owner used the car to haul logs.

My wife rolls this way. Last year, we went to the LA Auto Show to see what she'll buy in two years.

Meanwhile, I took part of my filthy state lucre and purchased another fine piece of automotive craps-manship. This beautiful 1989 Toyota Camry!

Hey I'm going upscale. This car has air conditioning. At least, all the air conditioning stuff is present. The car followed me home from the impound auction for a mere 225 bucks. That's roughly 12 cents a pound.

Good thing, too. While always vigilant for wear and tear, this car was tortured. With the limited time and space of an auction, I couldn't tell this car was hurt in ways I never saw before. The previous owners (plural because one person could not be this inept yet still have the wherewithal to drive) were neither skilled nor well tooled. Every nut and bolt touched by them is either snapped off or gnarled to the point where no wrench will fit. So every typical ten-minute disassembly requires an hour. Per bolt.

For example, the plastic window crank wore out on the driver's side window so instead of spending five bucks and replacing it, some genius used a vice grips to roll the window down. Not only is the mechanism destroyed but they tore up the "door card" upholstery too. The rear wheel brake cylinders leaked for at least a year but they repaired that by replacing all the front brake stuff instead. Unfortunately, they screwed that up in ways I can't even describe so all the front brake stuff had to be trashed as well. Leaving out all the retaining hardware means the front caliper hoses carrying the brake fluid were almost sawed through.

Replacing the front McPherson struts requires two nuggets of knowledge; install them on the proper side and tighten the large retaining bolts really tight. They did neither. So if the car wasn't impounded, would these jokers die due to brake failure or because the suspension fell apart? If either happened, would they be the only victims or would some innocent bystander buy the farm as well?

Believe me, I understand "survival mechanics." There's a right way and a wrong way. It's not hard to acquire the knowledge, especially when motivated by lack of funds. Knowledge is the price paid for poverty. Judging by what was in the trunk, there was enough money to do the job right.

Buying a car from an impound auction entitles the buyer to everything in the trunk too. I bought a Toyota Starlet from auction a few years ago for 200 bucks. In the hatch area was a man's leather jacket and a child safety seat. I sold the jacket for 35 dollars, the safety seat for 20 bucks. Hello 145-dollar car. Drove it for almost three years.

The Camry came with about 60 bootleg DVDs in the trunk. Most were boots of Beverly Hills Chihuahua. All but two were made by bringing a camera into the theater and shooting the screen. Okay, I can see how a person gets away with sneaking the camera in but what about the tripod? There's no way someone shoots the screen without one.

So yes, I take frugality and environmentalism to its extreme. Many years of freelancing and voice-talent-ing made me this way. It's a tough habit to break. With the economy in the toilet and employment opportunities spotty, I'm not sure this is the time to break it.

1 comment:

Jesse K said...

Hey there Jerry...its Jesse (curly haired kid of your college bud)

Great article.. Ive been enjoying the blog from time to time.

Good luck with car!