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The Unexpected Durability of High-Mileage Cars

Noise Vibration & Harshness

Jamie KitmanwriterTim Marrsillustrator

If Galileo Galilei had lived to see his once controversial 17th-century theory about the Earth's rotation around the sun proven true, I expect he would know something like the joy I'm experiencing today.

Back when I started testing cars in the late 1980s and early 1990s, I developed, against all convention and everything I'd been taught and told, a special regard for Peugeot 505s and Alfa Romeo 164s. In that faraway world, mine was a kind of heresy, too.

Of course, my affection for the offbeat European numbers with cosseting chassis and steering au naturel didn't send me to a papal dungeon like the Italian astronomer, forced to renounce my findings in exchange for freedom. But it is safe to say that a strongly held belief that they were worthy cars with decent value made me a distinct rarity among U.S. automotive journalists and an even scarcer commodity among actual car buyers. But so smitten was I that I actually bought a 1987 Peugeot 505 STX and a 1994 Alfa Romeo 164LS, brand new.

People laughed at me then, and they often smile now when I pass them by driving my 1993 164L or my son Ike's 1992 505 station wagon, both cars bought in the last couple years for next to nothing. And I'm smiling, too. With close to a quarter of a century passed and more than 370,000 miles clocked between them—181K and 192K, respectively—these cars are still tactile delights to drive. Though their makers withdrew from the American market by 1995 (Alfa has lately returned), I believe these models' continued existence proves that the obscure objects of my former desire were actually good cars. Better yet, in a market that remains largely uninterested in either, this pair of oddball family beaters cost a total of $3,200 to buy.

With their zesty engines and exemplary ride quality, these Old World charmers muddled their way underfunded and unloved around a burgeoning American near-luxury market in the early '90s, yet for all their charm they did not rule the day. They were fun and practical enough, however, for me to talk myself into buying new. Sold off within a couple of years of their initial purchase, they lived on in memory, as I suspected they might. What I wouldn't and couldn't have guessed is that they would continue to live on in reality. All these years later, it turns out they run and run and run.

I could go on about the sweet sound of the Alfa's injected V-6 engine—nicer than the Maserati V-6 I experienced recently in a Citroën SM. I could write monographs on the sublimity of the long-wheelbase Peugeot's ability to soak up bumps along the way. Instead, today I'll just note that odometer readings like their current ones were once unheard of outside the realm of fastidiously maintained Mercedes-Benz diesels, Mopar slant-sixes from the Sun Belt, or the occasional old Beetle scuttling around on rust, dust, and a ninth rebuilt motor. Near total attrition among aging European cars was the norm. Any car that reached 100,000 miles back in the day was either Japanese or presumed toast, while many were ready for full rebuilds at 50,000 or fewer miles. And yet as I drive around New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, and other cosmopolitan centers, I still see Peugeots and Alfas working, not as collector cars but as transportation, often with shockingly high miles.

Part of it may come down to the regular maintenance and generous repair allowances these cars received with previous owners. Part is likely proof they never ran on leaded gasoline, which appears to have enhanced engine life significantly, just as the EPA predicted it would when it ordered lead's removal from automotive fuels beginning in the 1970s. And credit contemporary improvements in rust prevention.

But one also has the sense that while cars of the late 1980s and early '90s weren't perfect, they were also the beneficiaries of key engineering insights. Along with growing numbers of other old cars of that bygone era, my used high-milers make the argument that a kind of golden age of durability quietly occurred when we weren't looking, one whose scope we are only now just beginning to comprehend.

I mean, seriously. I'm driving an Alfa with nearly 200,000 miles on it. Once upon a time, that would have been an oxy­moron. Or science fiction. Today it is a fact.

I'm no Galileo, but for those whose worlds revolve around older cars, vindication when it comes is blessedly sweet.