It's easier to fix old stuff than accept the challenge of new technology

Paul Studebaker discusses the benefits and drawbacks of buying and maintaining older cars versus purchasing new, more expensive ones.

By Paul Studebaker

One of the ways I entertain myself and keep my wife happy on our modest household budget (now in its seventh year of ravaging by university tuition payments) is by buying, fixing and driving middle-aged fancy European cars. Yes, I know it can be less expensive and much less trouble to buy a new, $20,000-30,000 machine that gets better gas mileage, has the latest technology and needs nothing but oil changes for at least five years. I’ve done that and the proof is my 1992 Honda Civic, purchased new, now sporting 315,000 miles and nicknamed, “One More Year.”

But $20K or $30K is big bucks, and all I have is used-car money. Sensible cars like Hondas and Toyotas depreciate slowly. so it only makes sense to buy them new—by the time they’ve depreciated 50%, they’re half used up, and the first half is the best. Expensive, complicated cars like BMWs often depreciate faster, I think at first because people who can afford expensive used cars generally buy new ones instead, and later because the cars are stuffed with things that break, which makes them annoying and costly to keep up.

For example, I recently found my wife a 2001 BMW 530i with 70,000 miles, and paid $7,500 for a car that sold new for around $50,000. The people who bought new “E39” BMW 5-series cars between 1997 and 2003 got great machines, but by the time they reached 100,000 miles, they endured a list of common problems ranging from bad pixels in the dashboard displays to sudden disintegration of plastic radiator fittings, loss of coolant and destroyed engines.

Despite my best efforts to discover and correct any problems before they result in a no-start, stall or crash, there’s a larger chance of trouble than you’d have with a well-sorted new car.

Cheap plastic links inside the self-leveling headlights break, and let the lights flop around. Fluid-filled thrust arm bushings in the front suspension still look good, but start letting the wheels vibrate. Seals harden in the variable-valve-timing mechanism, so the engine doesn’t run right, the air/oil separator in the crankcase ventilation system fails, and the soft alloy wheels are easily bent.

The original owners who first experienced these problems fought for warranty coverage or spent thousands of dollars to get them fixed. Now, some 15 years later, the weaknesses and cures are well documented online, and cottage industries around the world offer new and used parts, instructions, tools and services, so anyone who wants to can keep them on the road. For me, it’s an interesting hobby that lets my wife drive a nice car with anti-lock brakes, traction and stability control, a dozen air bags and heated seats, that has amazing power and handling, and gets 28 highway miles per gallon at 80 mph on regular gas.

Much like a legacy process automation system, E39 BMWs are now well known, the bugs are worked out, there’s documentation and a ready aftermarket. I like it because I can understand it, and I already have the needed tools, a great shop manual and the inclination to use them.

Of course, the car lacks technology commonly found in today’s intermediates. It has no Bluetooth, iPod or cell phone integration, Wi-Fi or (thankfully) navigation system. No road hazard detection, lane departure or warning, or collision avoidance systems. No rear-view camera, no touchscreen, not even an in-dash CD player. It’s not electric or even a hybrid, so I’m fully exposed to the vicissitudes of global oil prices.

And relying on any machine this old means accepting a certain level of unreliability. Despite my best efforts to discover and correct any problems before they result in a no-start, stall or crash, there’s a larger chance of trouble than you’d have with a well-sorted new car.

But maybe the most interesting question is, what would I be doing with my time if I weren’t spending it keeping up the aging equipment? What would I do if my car were state-of-the-art, with current technology, connectivity and safety features? I suppose maybe figuring out new and better places to drive it farther, faster and more efficiently.

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