How We Move

How My Old-School Ride Broke Me

Driving Until The Wheels Fall Off Costs More Than You Think

BY Thom FainAugust 15, 2019

I was raised to believe that buying a car and driving it until the proverbial wheels fall off is more than just a smart financial strategy; it’s a way of life.

Strictly adhered to in my house growing up in Texas, paying off your car wasn’t the point at which you traded it in for a spiffy, new one. Instead, it marked the beginning of an extended vehicular bonus round, unlocking month after month of no-payment (if not judgment-free) driving until your car declined to the point it was no longer road-worthy.

This mindset reigned in my psyche even as I struck out for California, where I suspected my general “okayness” with driving a car that was slowly degrading like Jeff Goldblum in The Fly would likely not be shared by my cohort of newly arrived, gig-hopping, recession-raised millennials.

Too bad for them, I thought. Because while they were stuck trying to wedge car loan payments in alongside their impossibly high rents, I’d be rolling payment-free in a vintage Jeep Cherokee charitably sold for a pittance to me by a friend in the Pacific Northwest. I even nicknamed my not-so-new ride “Indy” for the banged-up-but-never-beaten adventurer himself.

It turns out, however, that even Indiana Jones never faced off against a nemesis like the California DMV, whose strict emissions rules made no allowances for the antiquated standards of my new-to-me Jeep. Combined with the car’s other numerous automotive ills, the result was nearly a year of legal limbo that left me without transportation for weeks at a time and officially killed my buy-and-hold vehicular philosophy.

And since I’m not one to let a hidden cost or hassle go forgotten in the financial education that ensued, I decided to go back through old emails and document the whole ordeal as reminder to myself and others that “driving the wheels off” isn’t the soundest of mobility plans after all.

Thom Fain Vintage Jeep Wherein our author learns the significant downside of driving a payment-free, decade-old Jeep.

February 23, 2018

After getting my ride checked over at a trusted auto shop in Seattle, I was given the green light for the long trip to California. But while I was still on the first leg of my trip, I spotted green fluid underneath my front axle. It was immediately clear that I would need a new radiator, which set me back a few hundred bucks.

Headache: Acquire new radiator, delayed departure from Seattle. Price Tag: $400

March 1, 2018

After an extra week spent underneath the gray skies of Seattle that I’ll never get back, I finally hitched a U-Haul trailer to the back of the Jeep with everything I owned inside. Driving down I-5 with Mount Rainier in my rearview mirror, Indy’s old engine roared with pleasure, taking little effort to get up to its max of 60 miles per hour. Blasting music all the way, I visited with friends in Portland and eventually made it to Hollywood, Calif. There, I unloaded the Jeep into storage under a bridge and said hello to my new surroundings—even though I began to seriously question Indy’s fuel efficiency.

Headache: A larger-than-expected gas bill. But considering I drove 1,200 miles without issue in a vehicle built in the last century, I’ll take it. Price Tag: $100 or so I might not have had to pay with a more fuel-efficient vehicle. But, hey—no harm, no foul.

April 10, 2018

Prices in Los Angeles were a little higher here than what I was used to, but the new job was going well. The windshield in my Jeep was already cracked, but now that I was generating a real income, I decided to get it fixed lest it become a serious safety hazard. While I’m at it, I get the oil changed since the shop tells me it’s been burning the stuff this whole time.

Headache: Install a new windshield, replace the oil. Price Tag: $300

June 22, 2018

After staying with friends for a couple months in Hollywood, I decided go legit and strike out for an actual apartment on the Westside. To save up for this transition, I’d been putting off a visit to the DMV, but figured the time is finally nigh. And while the Jeep was still running fine, my DMV visit confirmed that the state wanted more than $200 for title & registration fees. So yeah… I’ll be skipping that for now.

Headache: Driving on the down-low with out-of-state plates really tends to crimp the L.A. local vibe I’m trying to put out. Price Tag: Nothing for now. I rock.

December 7, 2018

After six months of paychecks—and a couple of high-double-digit parking tickets in the books—I finally felt like a local. So I went to the DMV to get my Jeep all legal and my license changed over from Washington state. But my plans hit a snag when I was told my ride must pass the dreaded “smog test” before I can get anything done at the DMV, adding a new wrinkle to my plan for driving vintage in Venice. So naturally I decided to put all of this off again.

Headache: Hours spent at the DMV plus the spectre of more looming expenses. Price Tag: Still holding, but starting to feel like something “not great” is coming down the pike…

December 14, 2018

Bad news. With Christmas freeing up some time to go to the DMV, Indy didn’t pass the smog test. Even though my Jeep’s emissions levels clocked in under the level set by the state, the smog guy said I’d need a California-certified catalytic converter, which would set me back even further. From the DMV I waited in line to request a waiver, but they wouldn’t acquiesce since the Jeep is registered out of state. So instead of a waiver they issued me a brochure with phone numbers to the Bureau of Automotive Repair. After a long wait time on the phone, the BAR insisted there was nothing I could do through them, and frustratingly re-directed me back to the DMV. Instead of terrorizing myself by going through that again, I decided I’d rather have a Merry Christmas and let this whole issue stand as a New Year’s resolution of sorts.

Headache: Several more hours at the DMV and a visit to the neighborhood mechanic revealed even greater costs. Price Tag: Getting worried at this point.

January 10, 2018

The holidays have come and gone, so I finally decided to get legal to drive in the state of California. Having stashed away the requisite cash that the smog tester suggested, I drove the Jeep over to an auto shop in Santa Monica, where I found out that the oxygen sensor must be broken off and replaced before the catalytic converter can be touched. After seriously considering whether being in compliance with the law is worth it—especially considering the advanced mileage on my vehicle—I decided to continue to drive it illegally, even while understanding the risk of getting towed and potential fines amounting to hundreds of dollars for noncompliance.

February 15, 2019

I drove Indy down to Orange County and back, constantly checking my rearview mirror for those dreaded blue-and-red police lights. Thankfully I wasn’t pulled over. But the anxiety from the whole smog check situation finally convinced me to park the Jeep permanently, until I somehow found a solution that combined common sense with California’s laws. I phoned a few more auto shops in the area, and one handy mechanic suggested getting a used catalytic converter on the black market, telling me the phone number to a yard that sells them. When I phoned the place, I realized it’s gone out of business. Meanwhile, the Jeep was using up one of my two parking spaces while I was unable to use it for even basic transportation.

Headache: So now I have a car I can’t drive and am actually researching the black market for used auto parts? Something tells me the Jeep may not be the only one that has something seriously wrong with it…

March 8, 2019

Having been almost a year since I landed the old Jeep, I still had no reasonable path toward driving legally in California. So, after riding electric scooters and hitching rides with my roommate for several weeks, I made the tough decision to sell old Indy for parts. The salvage yard quoted me a bounty of $300, which is $300 more than I’d get in my alternate plan of leaving it with the keys in the ignition on the next block over. Removing my belongings from the back, I drove it one last time into the salvage yard.

Headache: I drove my car to a recycling center to get rid of it after a year of mobility-related limbo. Not a high point.

Final StopTurns out, our antiquated thinking about driving cars long after they're paid off needs to be scrapped… along with the author's Jeep.

Reading all of this back, I realize that I essentially spent a year of my life cycling between embarrassment, fear and uncertainty—all to get out of making a monthly payment whose personal cost simply came to me in the form of lost opportunities and repair bills.

I learned that, like housing and clothes, having your own car is something you’re far better paying for than looking to get for free, as the hidden costs and humiliation of the alternative just aren’t worth it.

Thankfully, I put this sad chapter in my life behind me recently when I got a gorgeous, low-mileage silver 2016 Mazda CX-5 from Fair. Each month, I happily make a payment of $227, which includes taxes, oil changes and other routine maintenance-type stuff, roadside assistance, and even a limited warranty.

Not only does my payment cover practically every expense I need to drive, but it keeps me on the up-and-up, both legally and in the eyes of my fellow drivers.

And I haven’t had to hit the black market once.

Get a car on your terms.

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