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September 24, 2012
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Junky jalopy is smart buy for parents

New muffler and exhaust pipe, $400. New tires, $700. Third trip to find out why the “check engine” light is still on, $150. The mechanic is thinking the engine may need a head gasket. Estimate: $1,200. Trade-in value on old clunker? Priceless, in the sense that it has no value at all, not in the sense that it is worth a lot.

How do you decide when to trade in a car? Maybe I’ve made all the repairs and it will run for another 98,000 miles.

Or maybe this is just the beginning, and it will need the new head gasket and then a new transmission and then a new radiator, and then the generator will go out before the thing stops running altogether.

I’ll never be able to sell it with that check-engine light on. The good news is that sometimes it goes off. Maybe I’ll get lucky and the light will be off when I try to trade in the car. Would that be wrong? After all, it has a new muffler and new tires; someone would be getting a practically new car.

Why do I have to go through this every six or seven years?

“Because you’re too cheap to buy something new,” says Sue. I’m sure she meant to say “thrifty” or “value-conscious,” and it just came out wrong. Why buy something new when you can get almost the same car for much less if you let someone else drive it around for five or six years to get the kinks out?

“You’re just buying someone else’s problems,” she says. One of the problems that came with my car was a stain in the backseat that has a remarkable resemblance to the Shroud of Turin. It must have been there when I bought it, but it has slowly become more visible over the years. Is it a miracle, or did someone spill bleach back there? I say it’s sun damage; Sue’s theory is that someone died back there and the body wasn’t found for several weeks, which is why I was able to buy the car so cheap.

A better miracle would be if the check-engine light stayed off until I could sell the car, but I guess we don’t get to pick and choose our miracles. I’m pretty sure there is little or no divine interest in my automobile.

It’s odd that 50 years from now, a lot of people will want my car. They will fix it up with new and shiny parts, they’ll put in a new backseat, they’ll search junkyards to replace the transmission, and they’ll get online to find “authentic” hubcaps. They’ll show it off at antique car shows, and the neighborhood kids will sneak a peek through the garage window to ooh and ahh over its classic lines.

But this future antique has no value now. It may even have negative value. When I go to see how much its trade-in value is, I’m pretty sure the guy will say, “We’ll charge you only two thousand to take it.” Which is crazy talk.

This would make a fine first car for a teenager — some teenager who is good with his hands and doesn’t expect to have many dates with car-crazy girls. Did I mention the new tires and exhaust system? And since there is absolutely no way he could ever get a girl into that disgusting backseat, his parents might want to chip in, seeing as it’s a potential problem solver and the insurance premium would be very low.

Parents who buy their kids new cars aren’t doing them any favors. A used car will teach teens how to become problem solvers; it will teach them basic car maintenance and self-reliance. And if the car is like mine, it can’t go much over 60 mph, so there’s a built-in safety factor. And since the radio doesn’t work, it won’t be a distraction.

Face it, if you really loved your kids, you’d buy them pieces of junk. So when you see mine on the used-car lot, don’t think “someone else’s problem”; think, “a way to get back at my sulky teenager.”

Jim Mullen is a syndicated columnist who appears in the Sunday Express.


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The Union Updated Sep 24, 2012 07:41AM Published Oct 5, 2012 12:39AM Copyright 2012 The Union. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.