Cranky About Clunkers

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I have a car here on campus, and I didn’t pay a dime for it: my dad gave it to me. Pretty great, right? My dad has actually given me a few cars, which I know is really, really generous. But here’s the thing: the reason he’s had to give me more than one is that these things keep giving up the ghost, sometimes at really inconvenient times.

See, my dad is a shadetree mechanic, so he’s fixing up old clunkers and rebuilding engines and then passing his projects onto various members of the family. The whole family is driving really old cars, and all of us deal with frequent breakdowns and, occasionally, rides that are unexpectedly totalled by some mechanical problem while we’re on the road. I don’t want to be less than grateful, but I’m really frustrated by my dad’s obsession with working on really old cars. Is there a tactful way to push harder for him to fix up a more modern vehicle?

Written by Martin J. Young, former correspondent of Asia Times.

While some older cars can run well, it can certainly be frustrating to drive on that’s really past its prime. The complex systems and moving parts of cars can run into trouble as they age: according to Consumer Reports, power equipment tends be be the worst offender in cars 6 to 9 years old, though other areas of the vehicle are also likely to start acting up. The average age of a car on the road in the United States is 11.6 years, but not all cars age equally gracefully. If your father is buying cars that don’t run and rebuilding their engines, they may not run as well as cars of the same age that have been properly maintained and have never stopped running in the first place.

So why doesn’t your father work on newer cars? One possibility, of course, is price: a car that doesn’t run is a lot cheaper to purchase than a new car. But the parts needed to repair a vehicle like that may start to eat into that cost, so perhaps there’s another explanation.

The automotive experts at WheelArea, who can tell you about everything from the finer points of RV maintenance to all you need to know about racecars, point out one possibility: car technology is moving quickly. Sure, cars still have four wheels and an engine, but the stuff going on under the hood has never been tricker. The auto pros at CMSNA agree: in addition to newer, stronger materials, cars have seen a revolution in on-board computers and monitoring systems. More and more about a car’s inner working relies on automation and computer monitoring, meaning that being mechanically inclined isn’t enough: shadetree mechanics need to be tech-literate, too. Extra wires and sensors join traditional elements in an increasingly crowded engine compartment (it doesn’t help that newer cars tend to be a bit more economical about space, too). You father’s skills with older vehicles won’t necessarily translate to newer models, so your task may not be as easy as asking him to make the switch.

So what can you do? First and foremost, you should be tactful. You seem well aware of how generous your father is being, and that’s good. Perhaps it’s best to focus on the problems you’re having, rather than the specific solution you envision. If your father understands that things aren’t working the way they are, maybe he’ll have another solution. Maybe he’ll buy you a membership in AAA, the car owner’s lobby that helps its 56 million members with services like 24-hour towing. Or maybe he’ll offer to sell his next project and put the proceeds toward helping you purchase a car of your own.

Ultimately, though, it’s best to maintain your good relationship with your father. After college, you’ll be free to invest in a car yourself (and can politely decline any offer your father makes). Until then, a gentle discussion of the issue is probably as far as you should go.

“Cars and bumper cars are two very different things. NEVER sleep in a bumper car.” — Craig Benzine

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