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They Shoot Volvos, Don't They?
As I have written time and again throughout this series, a great deal of your interaction with your beater is dependent upon your level of mechanical inclination. Therefore, your decision of when your beater has reached the end of its useful (to you) life is largely related to your skills as well. The more you have to pay someone else to fix your car, the less cost-efficient beater ownership becomes.
That having been said, following this simple rule can prove very useful to the owner:
Never spend more per year on necessary repairs than your initial purchase price for the car.
That sounds like a pretty firm rule, doesn't it? Well, like all rules, it was meant to be broken, so don't take it too seriously! Let's look at some real-world examples and how they can be applied to a specific situation.
Body / Frame:
Some years ago, my wife was involved in a high-speed freeway accident in which she took impact front and rear. The 1983 244DL she was driving was within six months of the end of its useful life due to severe rust. Nonetheless, the car still absorbed the impacts in a manner consistent with the designed crumple zones, and was driveable, although not truly roadworthy.
This brings us to accident damage. This should be fairly obvious. If the structure of the car is severely damaged in an accident, junk it, and go find another beater. Cosmetic damage is easily repairable, however, especially on the front end. You can replace the entire front end of a 200-series car with just a few hand tools. I know, I've done it. I recently bought another 1983 244DL that had taken a nice front-end hit for $150. After about 10 hours of my labor (I already had the parts on hand), a very nice man offered me $500 for the car. Other than a drill, the repair used no power tools. It's just that easy.
Engine / Drivetrain:
Manual transmissions rarely fail. That's why I prefer them over automatics. Of course, clutches can wear out, but even a professionally replaced clutch shouldn't cost over $300. Automatics are another story entirely. As with engines, it is usually cheaper to swap in a junkyard unit than to rebuild the existing unit. Find a trusty supplier, though; that used tranny might be almost as bad as the one you currently have!
As for the differential... I suppose, like any mechanical system, the differential can fail. Then again, I've never seen one fail, nor have I heard of such a thing, at least under normal use. Don't worry about it.
Steering / Suspension / Tires / Brakes:
Tires are cheap. That is, cheap tires are cheap. Then again, you are driving a beater, so you don't need Pirellis or Michelins. If you keep the tires rotated, even cheap tires will last two years. Two tires, mounted and balanced, should cost you under $100. That is always cheaper than fixing the suspension so that tires don't wear out as fast.
Brakes stop the car. Nothing is more important than the brakes. Fix them. Period. The parts are not that expensive, and brake work is not as difficult as the big brake chains would have you believe. On most Volvos, you can change brake pads with nothing more than a lug wrench, a jack and stands, and a screwdriver. Please fix your brakes.
Heating and Air Conditioning:
Air conditioning... What, your $500 Volvo came with working air conditioning? And now it's broken? Roll down the windows. Deal with it.
Finally, if too many things fail at once, you will start to hate your car. Emotion plays a big part of the decision to part with your car. If you hate it, sell it. If you love it, you will put up with a little more trouble. Please don't hate your car.
Wrapping up the series...
One last note: Have fun with your beater. There's no need to worry about resale value, so make it as individual as you are. If you are an artiste or even an extrovert, have fun with a couple of spray paint cans! Glue amusing items to it! Put bumper stickers in unexpected places! Do something useful and fun with the time and energy you save by not having to wax your car!
Recommendations in this article represent the opinions of the author and are not necessarily endorsed by the VClassics editors.