I have a hypothesis: when it comes to finding a cool older car for sale, nice ones with higher mileage are where it’s at.
The key word there is “nice.”
As cars age, their values tend to drop while their maintenance demands rise. Even the most “reliable” cars will inevitably have more frequent failures as their odometer readings get higher; plastic and metal and rubber can only withstand so many vibrations and heat cycles.
That’s why mileage is a big factor in the price of a used car, and why well-used cars often end up being neglected, pushing their value and condition into a downward spiral that leads to the junkyard.
That doesn’t always happen, though. There exist plenty of high-mileage cars that have been fastidiously maintained. They’re not exactly common, but if you can find a car that’s both well-used and well-loved, you can sometimes score a great deal on something you might have thought you couldn’t afford.
By the sacred rules of depreciation, higher mileage cars are cheaper, even if they have been maintained. And significantly, once vehicles get to be 10, 15, or more years old, mileage becomes a lot less relevant to a car’s actual condition than its maintenance history.
Put it another way: let’s say you found two 1988 Toyota 4Runners, an example with 15,000 miles would invariably sell for a lot more than one with 150,000 miles. But if the high mileage one had a new timing belt, new tires and a complete service history while the low mileage one didn’t, it could well be the better buy.
And they are out there. As the owner of two 200,000 mile cars, and a third on pace to join the club in the next couple years, I can promise you, some people are indeed maintaining their cars to the distance of the moon and beyond.
This 1988 Toyota 4Runner is a great example. In fact, it inspired me to write this story. Over a quarter-million miles and it looks nearly perfect inside and out? Whoever owned this was a true enthusiast.
The person who just bought it must’ve been a true enthusiast too, or at least somebody who heartily agrees with my thesis that “condition matters more than mileage,” because they paid a king’s ransom of over $14,000 for it.
That contradicts my assessment that high mileage cars are cheap, but I think that particular 4Runner was an exception. That particular model is just so desirable, and the spec and graphics were so perfect, more people were inclined to overlook the odometer reading.
While we’re using Bring A Trailer as a market barometer, this 2002 4Runner in a great color, with good options, including the coveted hood scoop might be a better example of “ good condition, high mileage, good price.” It’s not perfect, but it was clearly an exceptional specimen for $4,100:
Great lighting and good photography go a long way to making a car look better than it is, but if I saw that picture on Los Angeles Craigslist I’d have guessed the asking price was $8,000 or $9,000. And I never would’ve guessed it had 310,000 miles.
Now let’s go the other way–the most expensive Toyota 4Runner sold on Bring A Trailer to date was this 1995 model with a tantalizingly low 14,000 miles. This brought $25,000 in the summer of 2018:
The ’95’s odometer reading makes that truck more collectible and it’s undeniably in better shape. But is it six times better than the silver 2002 that people weren’t clamoring for because had clocked over 300,000 miles?
All the plastic and rubber on the 14,000-mile truck will have suffered a lot less abuse than the components on 300,000 mile one, but guess what, those bits are still over two decades old and a lot of the same stuff is going to need to be replaced or serviced on either truck if you really want to use the vehicle.
Speaking of using it, owning an ultra un-driven old car presents you with a painful dilemma every time you turn the key. Do you let it collect dust and stay valuable, or enjoy it on the road and eat into the low-mileage premium you paid all that money for?
I’m not really here to piss and moan about pristine low-mileage cars being expensive, though.
A preserved car is always going to be cool as hell, just, because. The point of this post is to open your eyes to the idea that good, well-used cars exist and more importantly, that there can be good value to be found in desirable pseudo-classics (like older 4Runners) that don’t attract the attention of big-buck collectors because of their high mileage.
At the same time, if a specific car is cool and clean enough, mileage doesn’t even matter much, as evidenced by that $14,250 1988 V6 five-speed. Although I have to imagine that thing would’ve sold for even more with a five-digit odometer reading.
The point remains the same, regardless: don’t sleep on cars just because they’ve been around the block a few hundred thousand times. A high-mileage car that’s been well maintained is still worth your attention, and even if it’s not a collectors item, could be just as great or better than an equivalent that wasn’t driven as much but wasn’t as well-maintained.
As far as spotting a high-mileage car that’s been cared-for enough to be worth your time, you pretty much just apply the same principles you do when shopping for any used car, with a little extra scrutiny. Is the car clean? Does the owner have service records? And equally important when something out something with moon mileage: does the owner seem to genuinely give a shit?
A high mileage car that someone has just bought, cleaned, and is looking to flip likely won’t be as solid as something that has been lovingly looked after.
I’ll wrap this up with the origin story of my Acura TL. When I bought it in 2012, I paid $7,800 at a wholesale auction before fees. That was a lot for an ’05 TL with 158,000 miles, which it had, but a great score for an ’05 TL with navigation, a six-speed manual and an A-Spec body kit, which it also had.
I gambled a little and trusted that the car’s immaculate appearance and clean Carfax indicated that the Acura had been cared for, and it paid off. I still drive it and have looked after it for the last seven years. Today it’s at around 225,000 miles, and if I were forced to sell it, I think somebody would still be getting a solid vehicle.
Over the last few years we’ve seen “modern classics” from the 1980s and ’90s ripening into, well, I think at this point you can just call them “classics.” Sorry fellow ’90s kids; welcome to Old status. But it’s not all bad. While the last generation’s collector cars, Bel Airs and Mustangs, were less likely to hit 200,000 miles, some of the stuff we grew up with can go that far (and much, much farther) without much more than scheduled maintenance.
We might not be in Aggro Crag-climbing shape anymore, but with a bit of luck and some good decision making, you might be in a position to buy yourself a hobby car these days. I hope this has helped you realize you might be able to afford a cooler one than you thought, if you’re willing to look carefully for a high-mileage hero.