O’Connor: Roadmaster’s end puts savings plan in gear

Brian J. O'Connor
Detroit News Finance Editor

It’s been a momentous week in the Funny Money household, thanks to the fact that my (t)rusty 1995 Roadmaster Estate Wagon — aka “The Deerslayer” — turned 200,000 miles on the odometer. I was so excited I nearly knocked my Fleetwood Mac tape out of the cassette player.

And before you ask: Yes, it has air bags; no they don’t have to be manually inflated.

Despite achieving this milestone, the Roadmaster is definitely on the downhill side of its life, but not because parking on an incline is the only way it starts. While I feel the engine could easily run another 50,000 or 100,000 miles, I have to disagree with Indiana Jones, who famously quipped, “It’s not the years, honey, it’s the mileage.”

The problem with a 20-year-old car is the years. Sure, the engine holds up, but the little stuff starts to go, and fixing it comes with a big price tag. And once the car hit 15 years of age, replacement parts became as rare as Faberge eggs — and nearly as expensive. My mechanic recently looked for a replacement distributor cap. The cost? $700. If Dr. Jones wanted to unearth some real antiquities, he could’ve skipped searching for the Holy Grail and tried finding me an air-conditioner relay.

If the fuzzy dice go, that’s it

My goal is to coax another eight or nine months out of the Roadmaster to keep the Funny Money family transportation plan on track. After ending up with two paid off but old, high-mileage cars, we decided to buy Mrs. Funny Money something we could pay off in 36 months, then bank that payment for a year or two as the down payment for the Roadmaster replacement. After that new(er) vehicle is paid off, we’ll save the cash to eventually replace her car.

The goal is to always have one newer, dependable car while making only one car payment. Paying off a car in three years then banking the payment while you drive the vehicle to death is a way to amass a consistently bigger down payment over the purchase of two or three vehicles. The savings allows you to lower your next payment by putting more cash down, or to buy a more expensive car.

The only tricky part is balancing when it’s worth fixing your old beast and when you need to abandon hope. One rule of thumb is that if the cost of fixing the car is more than its value or one year’s worth of new car payments, it’s time to consider giving up on the old heap. Or, if a single repair will cost 20 percent of the car’s value, that’s also time to consider your options. Since the Roadmaster’s value is about $1,200 according to Edmunds.com, that means the Buick goes if it needs much more than a new pine tree air-freshener.

Winterizing = wear extra socks

So far, however, the Roady is hanging tough, even if it has traveled more than 80 percent of the distance to the moon. I deal with the various rattles and squeaks that are natural to a car built during the first Clinton administration by simply turning up the radio. The rear-window wiper arm fell off last summer, the side view mirror shimmies, and the heater wheezes like a tubercular basset hound. I’ve learned to live without and wear extra socks during the winter.

What’s more distressing is that now that age has left the car cosmetically challenged, it’s begun to cloud how people treat me. Valets flatly refuse the thing at fancy restaurants, telling me, “Dishwashers park around back.” When I drive the Boy Scouts to campouts, the wary expression of my passengers suggests those kids clearly drew the short straws. On the other hand, drivers at four-way stop signs always yield when they get a look the Buick’s hulking, oxidized visage, fearing that I’m clearly a driver with nothing left to lose.

Eventually, however, I will need to replace the Roadmaster, even if it is the scourge of whitetail deer west of Woodward Avenue. Two of the critters left hoof prints in my radiator, which is what happens when you tangle with a 4,200-pound GM product. As Mrs. Funny Money once quipped: “When it comes to deer, that car really puts the ‘Bam!’ in Bambi.”

Brian O’Connor is author of the award-winning book, “The $1,000 Challenge: How One Family Slashed Its Budget Without Moving Under a Bridge or Living on Government Cheese.”


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Twitter: @BrianOCTweet