Our Toyota Camry is 11 years old. It has almost 160,000 miles. Every time we take it in for its oil change, the mechanics find something new to fix: the brakes need replacing, all the bulbs in the dash have burned out, the power steering fuel is leaking and the hoses need replacement, the oil is leaking, the gas pedal is sticking because the throttle casing needs to be cleaned out. Each time for the last few visits we have had a $1000 repair bill to pay. Each time our mechanics have told us this is the normal wear and tear on a car, that the car is still in good shape and that we shouldn’t look for a new car yet.
I always feel I am in the trusting hands of the universe when we get our car fixed. Are the mechanics telling us the truth? Do we really need all they tell us we need? When they see us coming do they secretly shout, “Here come those suckers again!?” My husband is not much help. He is an artist and doesn’t know too much about the inner workings of cars. (Ask him about Duchamps or how to make a mold, however, and he’ll knock your socks off with information, skill, and insight.)
The routine is usually the same. I drop the car off and am told that the service will take about an hour. I find an appealing breakfast place in the neighborhood, settle down with a good book, and when the hour is up, walk back to the mechanic to hear the financially troubling news. One of the workers drops me off at my home because the car will take most of the day to fix and then the worker will pick me up when it’s ready. The mechanics will knock 10% off of the price because we are over 100,000 miles. And still— $1,000.
Our son has begun to get pretty mad about our clinging to the car. He says that in the last couple of years we could have had a pretty decent down payment on a new car and that we wouldn’t have had to think about any major repairs to a new car for at least 3 years. This is always a hard transition for us. We come from a generation where you repair things, not always exchange them for new when they begin to break down. But these repairs are gnawing at our resources. A new car would gnaw at our resources too.
Over the years, these decisions have always been just as difficult except for once. About 35 years ago, a friend of mine was leaving the United States to live in Madrid, Spain and sold me his car for $50. About a year after, a woman hit me in an intersection, smashing the rear quarter panel of the car. In those days you drove your car into the insurance company’s adjusters (hers) and they (Allstate? State Farm?) wrote me a check for $459.23 (They did have some trouble distinguishing which smashes were due to the lady’s hitting me vs all the other bends, scrapes, and scratches on the car.) Of course I did not use the money to fix the car. I drove that car for another two years. When it died, I sold it for $25 as scrap. It was obvious to me to not put finances in that vehicle. I made money on that car.
I have always been attached to our cars. I remember when I was small and my father drove our yellow Ford Fairlane to the scrapyard. He wrote “We love you” in the snow on the back window of the car before getting in my mother’s Chevy where the rest of us had followed in somber procession to say goodbye.
When is it time to let go of our old car? I’m really glad I have a living will for the time when I personally am beyond repair. Maybe we need a version for cars.