Noise, Vibration and Harshness: Toward A Unified Theory Of Old-Car Ownership.

Tim Marrs

When I tell you there are institutions out there that will lend you money to buy old cars just as readily as ordinary banks cough up cash to help you buy new ones, I expect a few of you may suddenly find yourselves ready, willing, and enabled to do what you otherwise might not have done. You'll run out of the house screaming with joy, sign the note that allows you to drag home the AMC Concord of your dreams -- the one with the half-vinyl roof and opera windows -- and the sad wheels of old-car ownership will have been set in motion, all because of me.

Fortunately, I can live with this. In truth, I am happy to share some less than widely known information about a rare positive development in consumer credit -- the old-car loan, or lease. There are other vendors, but by way of unpaid testimonial, check out Premier Financial Services, some accommodating folk I know rather too well.

Appreciating the vicissitudes of the old-car lifestyle and the cocktail of danger old cars can present, mixing as they might risks both corporeal and economic, you may say I ought to be ashamed, held to account, even, for bringing old-car finance options to light. As I should were I to supply readers of a different misguided bent with contact information for their local OxyContin peddlers.

Of course, being an old-car addict, I don't really care what you or anybody else thinks about my old-car habit and whether I help others fall into it. I am an addict, remember? Irresponsibility and being really into what you're really into are two central facets of addiction. (Just the same, save any calls for Rush Limbaugh, because I don't have an OxyContin hookup for you, not actually. That was merely a form of poetic license.)

The other thing is, I've got to say, there's not much harm in my addiction. Long ago and every day since, I promised myself and those who love me and expect me to support them that I will monitor and control my old-car-buying habit, and, so far, still possessing the ordinary citizen's natural inclination against bankrupting himself, I've broadly achieved that goal.

It certainly comes at a price. Breakdowns and costly unexpected repairs aside, the need to pay attention to dozens of state registrations and annual inspections is such a huge commitment of time and energy that there ought to be a committee to oversee it. The constant need to service the fleet and its debt, to keep cash flow positive, leads inevitably to overwork. Which leads to crabbiness and the suggestion by others that one's priorities in life are fu...possibly misordered.

That may be a hard point to argue when you're spending another evening eagerly scouring the Internet in search of rear-window rubbers for your Mark 1 Ford Cortina wagon. Or feverishly readying a car you suddenly realize absolutely positively has to be sold in a week's time if the numbers are to add up.

Yet I still wonder: why all the moral opprobrium for more moderate old-car purchases than my own, such as the ones many of my friends would attempt were old cars a more widely accepted repository of money? Even if I am not well balanced, why shouldn't an old car be a part of someone else's well-balanced portfolio?

There is, I would submit, a reflexive hostility to old-car purchases so strong that it could only be the result of many causes, among them surely the handiwork of those who've spent more than a hundred years reminding us that nothing will do but a new car. And since the criticism against old cars often assumes a puritanical tone, we see, again, that perfect schizophrenic admixture of puritanism and libertine excess that defines America. Old cars bad, new cars good.

Personally, I'd also like to take a moment to blame my parents, who wanted something better for me in life. I'm pretty sure it wasn't the MGA Twin Cam coupe I wish I owned. Keeping a dog is hard and inconvenient, and it can be money-losing, too. Yet everyone is for dogs, right? And why is it the case that if I bought and sold a new Audi A8, BMW 7-series, or Mercedes-Benz S-class every couple of years -- a certain way to lose a big stack of Benjamins -- few would raise an eyebrow, but if I showed up in a 1928 Lancia Lambda touring car they'd blow a gasket? There's a double standard against old-car expenditure.

One can't emphasize enough the need to buy good old cars, the kind someone else will want to own. Danger lurks, but purchasing an older vehicle needn't be tantamount to throwing away one's money. While it's certainly possible to make a poor investment, investing -- or borrowing -- money to buy a carefully selected old car, something of fairly certain value, is not extraordinarily risky, differing hardly from many other more socially acceptable forms of investment. Market fluctuations may smart, but real estate and stocks can burn you, too. And you get to drive old cars when you buy them, which, if you've gotten this far, you'll know is its own reward.

On a strict return basis, old-car ownership is usually a better bet than going out to dinner or on vacation using borrowed money, both of which I've tried extensively with little return.

That's because you can sell cars when you need the money. Until then, you are just putting it aside, with the chance of a gain. Old cars bought right do not depreciate, historically speaking. They tend to move upward with inflation, their value rising as the dollar's value sinks. If you have borrowed the money to buy your car, you've created a layaway plan that may grow in value.

With banks paying nothing on savings these days, gold in the toilet, and the stock market as self-dealing as ever (only a fool trades without inside information and inside algorithms), the old-car market not only looks relatively transparent, it is buoyant (outperforming real estate, stocks, art, and most other indices since the recession began). By the looks of it, it's not getting any smaller, with new wealth flooding in from developing countries with burgeoning appetites for classic cars.

The market may crash, calling all bets off. Until then, the main problem with buying old cars is the rude realization that sometimes you have to sell them. But as I told myself the other day when passing off the nicest BMW 2002tii I'd ever seen to its new owner, when you've invested your life's savings in cars, sometimes you need to spend your savings on life. The car must go. Which, come to think of it, is how every old-car story must end.

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