As Jalopnik’s resident car buying expert and professional car shopper, I get emails. Lots of emails. I’ve decided to pick a few questions and try to help out. This week we are discussing a new dad wanting to buy a vintage car as a daily driver, and making sense of all the 911 variants.
“Here is the situation: My wife and I live and both work in downtown Minneapolis. Currently, she has a new-ish Toyota Rav4 in good condition and I don’t have a car. I suppose you could say we share one car, but I use the Rav4 maybe once a month on my own. This situation works great for our current lifestyle, but we are expecting our first baby and are in the process of buying a house that isn’t downtown. We both agree that it would be smart and practical for me to finally buy a car. In theory, I’ll still use a combination of bicycle and light rail to get to work so it won’t be a daily driver per se, but it will still be a primary car for me.
Here is my dilemma: I want a cool old car. Specifically, either a W123 Mercedes (like a 300D) or a Volvo 240. It doesn’t have to be in perfect collector car condition, but would need to be fully functional. My wife has expressed concerns that given the age of the cars, reliability will be questionable, maintenance will be unreasonably expensive, and safety will not be adequate (especially concerning given the baby on the way). I certainly see her point but I’ve countered that these are two of the most and durably built and reliable cars ever, despite their age.
I’m pretty sure there isn’t a right or wrong here, but I also have no experience being a dad, owning a home, or owning an old car so I’m certain that there are things that I’m not thinking about or even aware of. Given all that, would it be irresponsible of me to buy one of these cars in my situation?”
Congrats on the growing family. My colleagues and folks in the comments will likely provide a different perspective on this since many of them can actually fix cars, and I’m not terribly handy with a wrench. But as a dad of two young kids, I don’t know how comfortable I would be shuttling them around in something that old on a regular basis. As a project car or something fun on the side, it would be ok, but I wouldn’t be super keen on the old Benz idea as a daily driver.
I agree that there really is no right answer here and I tend to be pretty risk-averse when it comes to this stuff.
Rory Caroll - Also a car-dad and EIC
Most of the cars I’ve daily driven in my life have been 20+ years old. None of those have been particularly nice. Both of the cars you mentioned should be easy enough to maintain, parts are available, they’re well built and there are specialists if you find yourself out of your depth. I would recommend budgeting for basic maintenance and the occasional bigger repair whether you plan to work on the car yourself or find a mechanic. I haven’t visited a mechanic in 15ish years, save for two wheel alignments. That’s been a big part of my ability to own older cars, both because you save money fixing things yourself and because you develop a deep familiarity with your car that allows you to spot big issues before they ruin things.
That said, since becoming a dad my spare wrenching time has diminished to near zero. 95% of that is that if my kids are awake, I would rather be hanging out with them than doing anything else. Which brings me to the last consideration: safety. Both of the cars you mentioned were incredibly safe for their time, but they are not remotely safe by modern standards. If you say, get t-boned or rear-ended by a modern pickup, the odds of you or your kid being badly hurt are much higher in an old car. As I got older, my ability to imagine gruesome injuries to my loved ones has blossomed and I’ve become much more cautious than I was even a few years ago.
Opinions vary on this stuff and part of being a parent is assessing the risk vs fun equation. Personally, I’m comfortable putting my kids in an old car depending on the circumstances. I have a ’48 Willys Jeep that I’d put my whole family in for a ride up a dirt road, but that I won’t let them ride around Detroit in. That car has no doors, no rollover protection and no seatbelts. My old 911 has no airbags, no modern crash stuff, abs, etc. but I’d happily put kids in the back in their car seats, though I’d be extra attentive to my driving and to other drivers. My dad used to let us roll around on the floor of our old caravans and sleep pressed against the back hatch on a homemade parcel shelf. It was totally safe because we never got in a bad accident. All that said, no car is going to provide perfect protection. I’d say driving an old car is a little riskier than a brand new one, but that’s just one of thousands of totally agonizing risk calculations you’ll make as a dad!
Jason Torchinsky - Also, also a car-dad and maybe a fool
I’ve always driven fairly ridiculous old cars, and I didn’t stop when I became a dad. In fact, we did buy a more modern car right before we had the kid as a way of preparing, and then right before my wife gave birth the fuel pump on the modern, safe car died so the baby ended up spending his first week on Earth being driven around in a 1973 VW Beetle. Clearly, fate wants this kid in old shitboxen.
I still take my kid around in older cars, but we also have a more modern car as well. Those old W123s are good cars and safer than what I tend to use, and while they’re not as safe as a modern car, they have a huge advantage: They make you happy.
A happy dad is a better dad, period. It’s not easy having a kid, and having things in your life that bring you joy is good for father and kid.
Is there more risk? Sure! But there’s risk every time you take a kid on the sidewalk or to a park or anywhere. Risk is part of life, but the odds are still in your favor.
I managed it by setting some basic rules—keep the old cars for mostly around-town stuff, long, fast highway trips, use the more modern car. That was enough, for me.
Also, as far as reliability, the W123s are well-understood. You can take care of all the problematic bits and stuff that age takes a toll on and end up with a plenty reliable car, and even when there are repairs, I guarantee they won’t cost as much as paying a car payment every month.
Buy the car you want, and be happy in it with your kid. That’s it.
“I’ve never bought a Porsche 911, but I’ve always admired the car. I’m finally in a position where I can get myself a new one but when I visited the configurator it is just overwhelming in terms of the different models. There are so many. Is there a cheat-sheet of sorts to make sense of all these variants?”
The 911 is an iconic car, and there does seem like Porsche offerers a million different versions of the same car. The hardcore Porsche people are probably going to get mad at me for oversimplifying this but you did ask for a cheat sheet on the models, so here we go.
Basically it’s like this: Carrera (fast), Carrera S (faster), Carrera GTS (a bit faster), Turbo (really fast), Turbo S (stupid fast), GT3 (really fast for a racetrack), GT3 RS (stupid fast for a racetrack). Within most of those models you have a choice of rear or all-wheel drive, then you get into body styles like coupe, cabriolet, and targa depending on your preference.
What most people don’t realize is that the base Carrera has more performance car than the average person will ever use in any normal driving situation. The S and GTS cars are great, but you are going to spend a lot more money for a performance increase that isn’t super noticeable on regular roads. If you have crazy money to burn by all means go for a Turbo or a GT series car, but if this is your first time in the 911 pool, I would start with the basic version and upgrade down the road.
Got a car buying conundrum that you need some assistance with? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org!