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Turn your beat-up ride into a ‘road warrior’

What does it take to keep an old car running that long? Here are some tips from folks who know a thing or two about auto longevity.
Model w/ Ford GT Torino in desert, 1960s.
Is your car old like this Ford GT Torino? It’s not necesarily a wreck.R. Gates / Getty Images
/ Source: The Associated Press

Maybe you or someone you know has an old junkheap of a car with 150,000 miles on it. Maybe you think that's a lot.

It's not.

Meet Peter Gilbert, who drove a Saab more than a million miles through 17 Wisconsin winters.

And Clifton Lambreth, a zone manager for 600 Ford and Lincoln Mercury dealers around the South, where he's seen plenty of Ford pickup trucks with 800,000 miles. He calls them "road warriors."

And Michael Dennison, whose Bavarian Professionals auto shop in Berkeley, Calif., routinely works on 20-year-old BMWs — including a 1987 with 784,000 miles and a 1982 with 550,000 miles.

"In our disposable culture, a car is one of the few products you own that rewards your attempts to keep it going," said Dennison. "There is a puritan satisfaction that comes with squeezing all the juice out of a car."

Michael Wright of Port Angeles, Wash., drove his Toyota SR5 pickup well past 300,000 miles before finally replacing it — with a 1989 model of the same car that had "only 150,000 miles."

"If it's got 150,000 miles or less on it, it's just getting broken in. There's still a lot of miles on it," Wright said. "It was in good shape. I feel like I'm driving a new car!" New compared to his old truck, that is — which didn't have a radio or air conditioning or a working windshield washer.

What does it take to keep an old car running that long? Here are some tips from folks who know a thing or two about auto longevity.

Be high maintenance
You probably know that changing the oil every 3,000 miles or so is critical, but so are other small maintenance tasks.

Don't forget to change the filters and rotate the tires, said Lambreth.

Dennison advised changing the automatic transmission fluid every 50,000 miles; changing the spark plugs every 60,000 miles; flushing the brake fluid every two years, and putting a new battery in preventively if the old one has lasted five years.

Dennison said it's also important to keep cars from overheating. "If your car has a low coolant indicator and it comes on, wait half an hour to let the car cool off," Dennison said. "Check the level — if it's low, get your car towed." He recommended getting the car towed if the temperature gauge goes beyond the two-thirds point, and draining and refilling the cooling system every two years to inhibit corrosion.

Keep your car clean, inside, outside and underneath.

Wash and wax frequently. Hose out wheel wells to flush out dirt. Vacuum inside to remove grit that could corrode the upholstery and carpets. And garage the car or park in the shade when possible.

Dennison said that rust due to rain, snow and salt on the roads "is not nearly the issue it once was" due to improvements in rustproofing. "The sun, however, is extremely hard on a car's paint and interior," he said.

Gilbert's million-mile car, a 1989 Saab 900 SPG, is now in the Wisconsin Automotive Museum. But he said washing it twice a week by hand was crucial to keeping it going.

"Seventeen winters in Wisconsin is brutal," said Gilbert, who has become a celebrity among Saab devotees, making appearances at auto shows and Saab conventions. He got a brand-new Saab from the company for free, and a video on YouTube shows the odometer turning from 999,999 back to zero.

Do the math
If you're facing a large repair, do the math.

What would the monthly payment for a new car be over several years compared to the cost of say, replacing a transmission? If you think you can get a few more years out of the old car, it might be worth the investment, Wright said.

"I would look at a Kelley Blue Book guide," Lambreth said. "If a repair exceeds 120 percent of the value of the car, it's probably not worth it - unless you really love the vehicle and you don't want to give it up."

Dennison said "it is almost always much less expensive to maintain a car than to buy a new one — unless very expensive items fail, such as the paint, the interior, and the engine."

Your old car may also save you money on insurance, because you probably won't bother with collision insurance. But before you decide that the old jalopy is perfect for the teenage driver in the family, remember that many older models don't have air bags, so there are safety considerations as well as financial ones.

Don't worry about being cool
Don't worry about impressing your friends.

Kristen Bergevin's 1990 Lexus has a few scratches, scrapes and tiny dents. "It has about 250,000 miles on it and still runs great," said Bergevin, who does public relations for The Phelps Group. "I live and work in L.A., where image is everything, but I love my 17-year-old Lexus."

If you need inspiration for keeping your workhorse going, consider Cuba, where tens of thousands of old American cars built in the 1950s and even earlier make up as many as a third of the vehicles on the island's streets. Shipped here before the 1959 revolution that brought Fidel Castro to power, the Chevys and Fords were later joined by Soviet vehicles such as boxy Lada sedans and military-style four-wheel-drives.

Many of the old American cars are on their second, third or even fourth engines, and have turned over their odometers numerous times - that is, the ones with odometers that still work. They are lovingly maintained by their owners, and a majority are still working vehicles, collectively known as "maquinas" or machines. They serve as peso taxis for average Cubans who pile in and call out their stops along the way.

The median age of passenger cars on the road in the United States was 9.2 years in 2006, a record high, according to an annual survey by R. L. Polk & Co. "This is more evidence that vehicle engineering and durability continues to improve with each new model year," said Dave Goebel, a consultant for Polk's Aftermarket Solutions, in a statement.

"The quality of cars today is incredible," agreed Lambreth. "If you follow the manufacturers' maintenance, most of those cars will surprise and delight you."

Or, as Dennison put it, "they don't make cars like they used to. They make them better."