The art of cheap motoring: The Reality

One reason people give for buying a new car is that they are less hassle. Well, if they don’t break down (and modern cars still do that or the AA/RAC would be out of business) that might be true. After all, service intervals can be over 20,000 miles or two years now. By comparison, my 2CV needs greasing every 1000 miles, minor service every 3000 including an oil change.

Pete Sparrow instructs Ian on track rod end removal

Older cars do need more looking after, but is that really a bad thing? Find a good garage and it shouldn’t be a pain.

But the XM has an interval of 10,000 miles, so it’s not so far off a modern. It’s pretty cheap to look after as well – I can easily change the oil and filter myself. And that’s the reality of older cars. The cheapest way to run them is to do as much work on them yourselves as you can. I only tend to farm out welding or jobs that require specialist knowledge or tools.

As for reliability, well the 2CV has occasionally required a little roadside tinkering, but she has very, very infrequently failed to get me to my destination. In the past 80,000 miles, it has only happened once, when the fan sheared and I thought it wiser to get a tow home than risk cooking the engine. Once, the alternator seized and the engine wouldn’t turn. I was in a traffic jam so I just pushed my car along at the same walking pace that the traffic was moving at and wasn’t even late for the business meeting I was heading for. Both times, it was my own fault for not having tools with me. Otherwise, I would have been able to carry out a repair and drive home.

In fact, on one occasion (alternator yet again – I stopped buying second-hand ones at this point) I had to remove the alternator entirely and was still able to drive 15 miles to my then-girlfriend’s house. Try doing that with a modern!

It’s dangerous to think it, but it doesn’t seem worth paying for breakdown cover when I haven’t used it at all since 2007 – and that was when the Citroen H van I was driving suffered catastrophic windscreen failure. In Germany. A trip on which we made a van designed in 1947 for pottering around French towns drive 3100 miles to Sweden and back. We suffered no mechanical issues at all.

My way of doing things is to buy cheap, but actually spend money looking after a car. Take the XM for example. I bought it for £375, which was ludicrously cheap. By the end of the year, I’ll probably have spent that again. Lease a modern and all your servicing may be included, so it appears to be free. It isn’t though – it’s just bundled into the monthly figure. I’d rather pay skilled specialists to work on my cars that greedy dealers.

Essential party preparation. Rear brake overhaul

Roadside tinkering is occasionally required.

It is true that running old bangers can require me to spend some of my time fettling. I fully accept that some people really can’t be bothered with that, which is why a relationship with a friendly garage is a good idea. Someone you trust to do the jobs you can’t and who doesn’t charge a main dealer’s extortionate rates. That said, out in the countryside, you may find a main dealer that still knows what customer service is. They do exist apparently, but they are increasingly rare! I will also concede that running older cars is easier if you have some idea of what could go wrong. What does that warning light really mean? Is that knocking noise something to investigate later or should you stop immediately?

Naturally, as cars age, bits do wear out. But it’s amazing what you can learn by taking an interest. A lot of garages don’t mind spending the time to tell you what’s going on and that’s all useful information for next time.

For me, bangernonics is about looking after a cheap motor. Yes, it may cost a few hundred pounds for a full service and cambelt change, but if the cambelt fails, the car is as good as scrap really. So, change the oil, check the brakes and remember to ignore whether a job is ‘worth’ doing. Ignore the value of the car. If you like it, it’s worth paying to keep it on the road.

I mention this because of the amount of people who seem to scrap a low-value car because it needs £300 of work for an MOT. Think about it. Could you go out and get another car for £300? Possibly, but what sort of condition is it going to be in? The reality is that these people spend much more than £300 on a new car. Where’s the sense in that?!

1955 Austin Westminster

One of the most expensive vehicles I’ve ever bought – a £2200 Austin Wesminster A90. It was ace.

Personally, I regard paying for servicing and upkeep far more enjoyable than either invisible depreciation – which appears to be losing money for absolutely no gain – or paying interest – which just keeps wealthy people even wealthier. It also seems to be that I spend far, far less on looking after my cars than I’d lose by either of those methods if I bought something newer.

Sure, it’d be interesting to see if I still owned cheap cars if I had more funds to my name, but the truth is that even when I was earning good money, I think the most I ever paid for a car was £2200 – a 1955 Austin Westminster. I just don’t understand why people pay more.

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