Low-Budget Habits And Goofy Tricks I Use To Keep Old Cars Alive Longer

This ain’t a Radwood show. Just a couple of maintained cars, living their lives, hanging out at a mall in LA in 2019.
This ain’t a Radwood show. Just a couple of maintained cars, living their lives, hanging out at a mall in LA in 2019.
Photo: Andrew P Collins

In years of driving old cars, I’ve picked up some habits, maybe superstitions, that I’m convinced have helped keep my decrepit vehicles on the road. For the sake of everyone else’s retirement-age cars clinging to survival, I shall impart some of my secrets upon you unwashed cretins.

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Should you doubt my credentials in automotive witchcraft and dedication to keeping cars from retirement: Right now I have two vehicles with over 200,000 miles apiece (a third close behind!) and another that’s 45 years old. And they all run! Technically speaking, at least.

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If you’ve managed to keep any archaic car operational long enough to pay registration more than once, I’m guessing you’re familiar with the three most critical rules of automotive preservation:

  1. Do all scheduled maintenance on time, including fluid changes besides engine oil;
  2. Fix function-related parts as soon as they break;
  3. Always drive gingerly until the engine’s reached normal operating temperature.

You also keep your eyes, ears, and nose open for unusual sights, sounds and smells, respectively. Now it’s time to ascend to the next level.

Pull Your Parking Brake Before You Put The Car In Park

An off-road pro once told me, in the cab of a late-model Range Rover I was parking on a steep hill, to “hit the parking brake while it’s still in drive, then put it in park.” His explanation was that this way, kinetic energy from the vehicle’s weight gets transferred to the parking brake instead of its transmission.

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Is that better? Well, brakes are a lot cheaper than trannies. Any opportunity to move stress from a more expensive component to a lesser one seems prudent, I guess.

In my experience, taking this step eliminates that big clunk you might hear when you shift from P to D on even just a moderate hill. Clunks bad. So, parking brake trick good. And that’s as technical as we’re going to get because I promised superstition here, not science. (I should do that more often.)

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Shut Off Fans, A/C, Heaters And Heated Seats Before Starting

Starting a car takes a lot of your battery’s strength. Your heated seats, air conditioning, lights, and other accessories do too. Many modern vehicles have the necessary circuitry to automatically deactivate power-hungry subsystems while your car cranks over, but some don’t. And even on ones that might, like my ’05 Acura TL, I swear it starts more briskly if the auxiliary items are set to Off before I turn the key..

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It’s like Star Trek. Transfer all power to the starter, Mr. La Forge!

Pay Attention To What Kind Of Car Is In Your Rearview Mirror

Driving a truck from the ’70s around present-day Los Angeles, along with everything else from modest family cars to modern Porsches, has taught me to appreciate the immense delta in stopping distances that different cars have.

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If I’m in traffic and there’s something like a brand new Benz behind me, I know I can relax a little because even if that driver’s texting (they are), they’ll have big brakes and collision-avoidance tech to prevent them from rear-ending me. If, say, there’s a clapped-out old Scion in my rearview, and they’re texting (they are), or I come to a stop too suddenly, I’m in greater danger of being rammed.

Similarly, if you’re in a situation where you have to change lanes in front of somebody, try and wait until something with better brakes is going to be behind you.

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Look At Other People’s Blindspot Warnings In Traffic

“If you can’t see my mirrors I can’t see you,” you might have seen written in sticker form on the back of a big rig. If you haven’t, that’s a thing. So if you can’t see a person’s face in the mirror of their car they probably can’t see you either. Unless they have some kind of blindspot monitoring system, which many modern cars do.

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Swapping between the jalopies in my personal fleet and the new hotness I’m lucky enough to get to test drive, I’ve realized how much of a boon blindspot warning lights really are. Those little lights that come on in rearview mirrors might be the most useful modern-day technological perversion of the art of driving we’ve had in the last decade. Unfortunately, they’re so good that having them can get you out of the habit of watching your surroundings closely.

I always try to drive in traffic like I’m invisible, but I have picked up a habit of peeking in people’s mirrors for blindspot alert lights to get a better idea of whether or not they’re likely to lane-change into me. They usually look like a little orange or red dot in a corner of their mirror. This might be helpful anywhere people don’t like to use their turn signals. Which, let me guess, is Your City.

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Practice Tactical Parking

Pick parking spots that present the fewest opportunities to get dinged by passersby and other people parking. That’s a car-dork classic.

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Even if your car’s a beater, extra scrapes and bumps won’t make you feel any better.

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Try Not To Turn The Steering Wheel All The Way To Either Side

In 2019, many “older cars” still have hydraulic steering. That means there’s a pump pushing fluid around to translate your spinning of the steering wheel into the front wheels changing direction.

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The further you turn it, the harder that pump has to work. Pumps with easier lives last longer. Granted, that logic can be ported to many things (like if you don’t use the brakes, you’ll never wear out your pads) but steering tends to be pretty easy to be mechanically sympathetic about; you probably don’t turn to full-lock very often. And when steering’s problematic, it tends to be hard to ignore. As in: It gets noisy.

Be Wary Of Insurance Claims On Old Car

We could probably launch a dedicated research project into this matter and investigate it in-depth, but in short, if you’ve got a car that’s not old enough to be a “classic” but not new enough to be considered by most people to worth keeping full coverage on, tread carefully in the world of car insurance.

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Insurance companies will be quick to total an older car rather than repair it, and I wouldn’t be surprised if some try to reduce your coverage after your vehicle hits a certain age, too.

My blanket advice would be to double-check how your old car’s covered, and most importantly, figure out how it’s evaluated. Sometimes, a car might be worth more to you than your insurer and if that’s the case you should figure out how to rectify that before you need to make a claim.

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I like older cars. And even if I didn’t, I can’t afford new hardware anyway. I’d also rather not spend a lot of money on maintenance, I’m not really a great mechanic, so I generally have to go easy on my gear to make it last.

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It’s worked out pretty well for me so far. Give it a shot. Don’t let good cars go to early graves!

Reviews Editor, Jalopnik | 1975 International Scout, 1984 Nissan 300ZX, 1991 Suzuki GSXR, 1998 Mitsubishi Montero, 2005 Acura TL

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DISCUSSION

carsoffortlangley
CarsofFortLangley

I would add, educate family and friends on how to be in your car. As a younger millennial, most of my friends have never been in a car of the same vintage as my truck.

1) slam the door firmly, but not hard. 2) vent windows ARE the AC, 3) pull the seatbelt out slowly and smoothly, 4) that handle is called a window crank. 5) please be careful, the plastics/materials are older and scratch easily.