When it comes to making a vehicle last -- I mean really last -- Irv Gordon is a superhero. The retired science teacher paid $4,150 for his 1966 Volvo P1800 when it was new (at that time it was nearly as much as his annual salary as a science teacher), and over the years he’s put 2.7 million miles on the car.
Gordon said that he spends less than $1,000 on vehicle maintenance and repair each year--and that’s averaged out to include the two engine rebuilds he’s had done over the 40-plus years of ownership.
Today a million miles, or even 500,000 miles, is still extremely unusual for a vehicle. But just as Baby Boomer aging and fitness experts are saying that 50 is the new 40, passing the 200,000-mile mark is no longer the rare occasion it once was.
Consumer Reports, through its annual questionnaire, has found that thousands of people have gone over 200,000 miles in their original vehicles without catastrophic failures or major repairs. The common thread of those who kept their vehicles, happily, to high mileage, according to CU deputy online automotive editor Jeff Bartlett, is that they started with a good car and took care of it.
Over ten years, the Subaru High Mileage Club has also gathered thousands of reports from Subaru owners who have driven their vehicles well into six digits. “It helps to have a solidly built vehicle to begin with,” said founder Rich Kahn, admitting that keeping up on maintenance and minor repairs is the most important aspect to driving a vehicle to high miles without undue expense.
In Gordon’s case, along with those of many other frugal high-mileage drivers, it likely also helped to start with a vehicle that had an enviable reputation for reliability and longevity.
Fuel Efficient Vehicles
Generally the less trouble-prone a vehicle is, the higher the chance it will be kept by its original owner to high miles, confirmed Bartlett, who says that owners will put up with unexpected repairs on a late-model vehicle to some degree -- especially if they like it -- but at a certain point they’ll give up if it’s cost-prohibitive. “As cars go beyond 100,000, it really becomes a concern what the cost of those repairs are,” Bartlett said.
On the other hand, if a vehicle is very cheap to maintain and repair, it might be a good choice to keep to high miles even if it’s not a standout for reliability. For instance, Consumer Reports editors were surprised to find that there were so many Ford Ranger pickups being kept to high mileage, until they realized that despite a just-average reliability record, it has one of the lowest overall maintenance and repair costs of any vehicle.
Dan Dillon, a technician for RepairPal.com, which provides repair information and price estimates, said that if you want to keep a vehicle to high miles you shouldn’t choose a high-performance model, as maintenance intervals are not only tighter but major repairs are typically more frequent.
Million Mile Car Maintenance
When people ask Irv Gordon--the guy with the 2.7-million-mile car--what they should do to follow his example, he has some surprisingly simple advice. “I always tell people the first thing to do is read the owner’s manual,” he said. Gordon, other experts, and reports from high-mileage drivers all emphasize that you shouldn’t cut any corners on routine maintenance.
Diligent maintenance can make “profound differences,” according to Dillon, in how long your vehicle lasts and how it feels. In addition to the maintenance required by the manufacturer, he recommends regular flushing of critical fluids such as for the transmission, brakes, and power steering.
Also, choose your mechanic carefully. Dillon emphasized that a lot of what makes a great mechanic isn’t so much sheer technical prowess but an understanding of the nuances of combustion and what keeps a vehicle in peak operating shape.
Maintaining a vehicle cosmetically is also more important than you might think. Gordon, who lives in Patchogue, New York, and doesn’t garage his 40-year-old Volvo, has only repaired a few rusted areas underneath. Don’t forget to wash your vehicle on a regular basis, wax it on occasion, and keep salt and debris away from the underbody and cowl.
“Generally you don’t need to maintain it more often than the owner’s manual specifies,” assessed Kahn from his own experience and from owner stories on his Web site. But he did emphasize the importance of being pre-emptive with some repair or maintenance items, like the timing belt.
Be Proactive And Pre-Emptive
Repairing preemptively -- replacing belts and hoses long before they’re in danger of failing--and never ignoring new noises or vibrations, might be the best tip of all, and reflective of the difference in attitude of those who keep their vehicles for hundreds of thousands of miles. It’s abundantly clear that the most successful high-mileage owners are those who understand the cost-effectiveness and importance of addressing the small problem before it becomes a larger one.
“You hear a new sound, you don’t just turn up the radio and say it’ll go away,” said Gordon. “Before you know it you have a lot of things going wrong.”
Being attentive to maintenance is one thing, but taking good care of your vehicle also means not abusing it from behind the wheel. Gordon said that he drives smoothly and carefully, but not extremely so. “Some people go out of their way to see how fast they can kill the car,” he said. “I see how long I can get a car to last.”
The affect of this type of driving is undeniable. Gordon said that he typically gets about 100,000 miles between brake jobs and didn’t replace his first clutch until 450,000 miles. Both are wearable repair items that say more about his driving style than the vehicle’s reliability itself.
Whether or not you like the car and can live with it over the long haul is really important. A reputation for quality and top marks for reliability certainly isn't a guarantee you’ll love it years from now. If you’re shopping for a new car you intend to keep for a decade or more, take it on a long test drive, don’t skimp on the research, and don’t take the decision lightly.
One of the downsides of the high-miles approach is that in keeping a vehicle for ten or fifteen years, you’ll be driving a vehicle with outdated safety features. Consider safety another one of your top purchase priorities.
Drivers are much more likely to spring for those major repairs that become needed over 100,000 miles -- and more likely to have kept up with maintenance all along -- if they still feel positive about the car. How much you like a vehicle after so many years and miles “speaks in your eagerness to take good care of it,” said Bartlett.
And that leads to a final, and especially important, point: After all these years, Gordon still really likes his little Volvo coupe. Typically, owners of high-mileage vehicles still like them -- or at the very least the competitive aspect of seeing how far they can get without problems.
On the flip side, the frugal romance might fizzle or give way to the temptation of new sheetmetal. If you simply tire of the vehicle, you’re probably best moving on rather than halfheartedly letting the vehicle decline and eventually break down. If you no longer love the vehicle, it needs repairs that well exceed its value, or rust or structural issues threaten safety, then you should consider parting with the vehicle.
Even if you are feeling a case of the dumps about not driving a newer car or putting hundreds of dollars time and time again into repairs, getting a refresher on the tremendous financial advantage of taking care of a car and keeping it for the long haul might be enough to keep your spirits up. In 2007, Consumer Reports projected -- figuring in depreciation, maintenance, repairs, finance costs, fees, and insurance -- that drivers could save more than $20,000, typically, by keeping a new vehicle for 15 years and 225,000 miles versus getting a new one every five years.
Yep, that’s in some cases the cost of another new car itself. “It may hurt to put $1,000 into a car over a year, but it’s far cheaper than having car payments,” said Bartlett. “It pays to hold on to a car.”And by taking care of that vehicle and keeping it alive for another few years -- perhaps allowing room in the budget for a vacation or other toys -- you might earn superhero status in your own household.