Why I’ve never bought a new car—and never will
I got an email recently from a good friend who lives in Vermont. He said that both his wife’s Subaru and his daughter’s Subaru (hey, it’s Vermont—it’s the law) were nearing the end of their useful lives, so they’re looking at getting rid of them and buying new cars. He and his wife are honing in on a Nissan Leaf EV. It’s a high-demand vehicle with a roughly $38K MSRP.
Even the EV part of it notwithstanding (no value judgement either way), my knee-jerk reaction was, “Holy hell, that’s a lot of money.” It brought to the forefront something that I’m obviously aware of but don’t fixate on:
I’m 64 years old and I’ve never bought a new car.
Among the many ways I’ve been fortunate in this life is that the combination of a) being able to fix cars, b) having a short or non-existent commute, and c) having a very understanding spouse has meant that I’ve been able to get away never owning a new car.
I’ve regarded this as neither hardship nor penance. Quite the contrary. If I had the cash to outlay on something new, I’d look at the price and instantly think about what cool used or vintage car that sum might buy. If I’d consider a loan or lease, I’d look at the monthly payment and think, “OK, this month, that could buy the stainless-steel exhaust for the BMW 2002; next month, Bilstein shocks and struts; and the month after that …”
As I said, I’ve been fortunate. I’ve worked from home since 2017, but for decades I had a commute that was just five miles each way. This allowed me to limp back and forth to work in just about anything. Similarly, until the kids were born, my wife was quite content to drive our ’69 VW Westfalia camper the few miles back and forth from Boston’s Brighton neighborhood into Harvard Square, where she worked.
Once child #1 arrived in 1988, it was obvious that the camper wasn’t the best transportation for the baby’s doctor visits, so I bought a 1983 BMW 533i on the thin premise that it would do double duty as a family car and was something that I actually enjoyed driving whenever we needed to head out of town.
It worked, sort of, until child #2 came along, at which point it was obvious that the car was too small for our needs. Of course, the late 1980s/early ’90s was very much the heyday of the minivan. I went through a couple of well-used Volkswagen Vanagons. As compared with any other minivan, they were enormous inside, but their reliability was pretty poor. I eventually got religion in terms of the need for my wife and family to have something that was safer and more reliable. The newly introduced Toyota Previa caught my eye, as it was rear-wheel drive, looked cool, topped Consumer Reports’ ratings in terms of frequency of repair, and was available with a five-speed stick, which my wife, bless her, prefers driving to this day.
When I read that for the 1992 model year the Previa was available with an anti-lock braking system (ABS) and an air bag, I decided that it was time to suck it up, be a grown-up, and pay for a new car. I ordered the pricing information from Consumer Reports so I could do the “I know what it costs I’ll pay you X above dealer invoice” thing.
Armed with the numbers, I walked into a dealership for the first time in my life, and explained exactly what I wanted—Previa, rear-wheel drive (they were also available in an All-Trac configuration),five-speed, ABS, airbag.
“That’s a problem,” the salesman said. Not what you expect to hear.
“Why? I know that these options are available,” I said, rattling my papers like evidence presented by a prosecuting attorney.
“The five-speed is being phased out for the 1992 model year. And when it was available, it was part of the base DX option package. However, the newly available ABS and air bag are part of the LE package. The five-speed did overlap with the ABS and air bag for a few months, but because they were part of different option packages, you’d have to find a car that someone had special-ordered that way in late 1991 but didn’t pick up, so it’s on a dealer lot by accident.”
“So, I’m sitting here prepared to buy a Previa if it’s configured a certain way, and you’re telling there’s no way to get it?”
He sighed. “I could make some calls to other dealers to check inventory, but the chances are just about zero. Besides, why do you want a five-speed in a minivan?”
“It’s what both my wife and I want.”
He did the “if I find one, you’ll have to act fast” thing, but it was clear he had nothing to sell me. We were done.
I scoured the newspaper and the local Want Advertiser publication for the elusive loaded early ’92 Previa five-speed / ABS / bag, and never found it. I think the existence of such a thing was perilously close to an urban myth anyway. But a few weeks later, I found a used low-mileage ’91 Previa five-speed (no ABS or bag) for a fair price and bought it.
I didn’t set foot in a dealership again for years. Until I was working insane hours in my engineering job. I was doing a lot of work-related travel, and my incredibly understanding wife gently intimated that she would appreciate it if, when I was home, I was really home and with the family and not working on the cars so much.
BMW had recently come out with the little 318ti, an entry-level four-cylinder hatchback version of the E36 sedan. I’d been daily-driving an E36 325i four-door for a few years, but with 200K on it, it was getting needy. I wondered if the thing to do was to pair the still-reliable Previa with a not-insanely-priced new BMW for me. That would leave only the vintage cars to work on, which wasn’t a must-be-done-by-tomorrow-thing anyway.
And then, I read in the BMW Car Club magazine that BMW had come out with a “Club Sport” edition of the 318ti. It had the same 138-hp four-cylinder engine but was kitted out with some of the M sport suspension components from the M3, had an M3-styled front air dam, mirrors, side sills, and rear apron, sport seats, and steering wheel, and 16×7-inch wheels. Only 200 were being built. I was intrigued.
I went into my local BMW dealer with a copy of the magazine and asked about price, availability, and delivery of the 318ti Club Sport. He poked around at his desk and said that he could not find any order information on the model. He then said dismissively, “If it’s a Club Sport, maybe you need to order it through the club you’re in.” Attaboy, there, mister salesman. Way to take a lifelong buyer of used BMWs and make him feel right at home in a dealership.
As was the case with the Previa, I searched and found an affordable 318ti. It had just 42,000 miles on it, which, to me, made it like a new BMW. And it cost a quarter what a new Club Sport would’ve. It became my daily driver for the next few years. The idea of it being a zero-maintenance car, though, went out the window when a little plastic coolant neck snapped off the back of the head, causing the car to dump most of its antifreeze.
As my kids got older, I went back to daily-driving inexpensive high-mileage cars. My wife’s driving patterns, however, changed, as she started her own business and drove to customer sites. The now-long-in-the-tooth Previa gave way to a lightly used Mazda MPV. When my oldest son crashed it, we bought a lightly used 2008 Honda Fit that a couple in Connecticut had purchased for the wife when gas spiked to $4.50/gallon. She never warmed to driving a stick, so when gas prices dropped, they sold it. When my oldest son crashed that, we bought the 7000-mile 2013 Honda Fit Sport that we still own (and I was only kidding when I was shaking my fist at it here). It was a repaired salvage car I found on eBay. The before-repair photos showed a folded-under left front strut from a curb strike. I couldn’t figure out why that would be enough for an insurance company to total a car. It turned out the curb had dragged under the floor pan, putting a crease in it. I didn’t care. For the low mileage and low price (it was less than half of new), it was an absolute steal.
The little Fit now has over 60K on it. It’s doing fine, but I like to think ahead, as I hate being put into any situation where I need to make a snap decision and it costs me large amounts of money. If the Fit suddenly dies or gets totaled, I’m not sure what would replace it. As my wife and I are now in our mid-60s, the idea of a car with the modern suite of active safety features (e.g., automatic braking, lane departure warning) is appealing. I guess that one of the positive unintended consequences of owning 13 vehicles is that if the newest and most dependable one suddenly kicked the bucket, there’s still my daily driver 2003 BMW 530i, the truck, the little RV, and the nine cars on the Hagerty policy, so it’s not negligence on my part to not have scoped out what comes next.
But it won’t be a new car. I get that many folks have long commutes and need the comfort, reliability, and bells and whistles that come with new cars, but we don’t, and without that need, it’s just too much money.
Besides, the coin that my friend in Vermont is about to drop on a new Nissan leaf would buy a nice Porsche 911SC. Hey, for $38K, I bet I can pick up the Porsche and one of his needy Subarus.
Rob Siegel’s latest book, The Best of the Hack MechanicTM: 35 years of hacks, kluges, and assorted automotive mayhem, is available on Amazon. His other seven books are available here, or you can order personally inscribed copies through his website, www.robsiegel.com.