Five ways to keep your beater car on the road forever

George Thomas via Flickr
George Thomas via Flickr

I am driving around town in a 15-year-old beater these days. The ride is...pleasant. The premium sound system still offers that healthy escape from the rigors of the road, and the leather seats are in better shape than the den sofa I bought brand new five years ago.

I could take this car across the country tomorrow without a care or a concern. It does everything I ask of it. This blue Buick Century has never left me on the side of the road. The paint still looks great, and whatever I need maintenance-wise can be had for a reasonable price via the Internet.

We owners of older cars haven't always been so fortunate when it comes to our daily drivers. I remember the bad old days when a "beater" was not just old but a vehicle that would routinely break down with no warning at all. In 1998, my future wife had a 15-year-old Lincoln we called "The Steenkin' Lincoln." Duct tape supported the interior door panels. Thumbtacks and staples held up the headliner. The car came with fuel economy lower than my woeful GPA, and a diagnostic system that could only be read by a mechanic who always charged at least $50 for the privilege.

Even if your car is half the age of this Century, most of us inevitably get that irritating little itch to test drive something brand new. That $30,000 average price tag for a new vehicle often doesn't seem to be "that bad" when your payments can be spread over seven years, or even longer.

I say avoid that debt trap. One of the dirty secrets of the business I see as a car dealer is that nine out of ten new-car shoppers don't actually need a new car at all. I routinely see customers curb cars that are worth keeping.

Here are the top five things you can do to make an old car drive new.

Replace suspension components

The number one reason why a beater wears out its welcome is because the owner doesn't take care of their suspension. Tie rods, ball joints, CV axles, shocks and struts all wear out over time, yet don't get mentioned as a routinely serviced or inspected item.

The trick here is to avoid dealerships that charge near-extortion prices for these items, and go to a well-established independent repair shop instead. Invest in quality components (go to an enthusiast forum for your specific model if you want guidance), and your old ride may suddenly be comparable to those $30,000 debt barnacles sitting at the new car store.

Invest in tires

A good set of tires not only improves fuel economy. It also makes a night and day difference in terms of ride and the wear on your suspension.

Owners routinely think that cheap tires will simply last the 40,000 miles without adding hidden costs to the price. The truth is that tires made out of high-quality materials shield your car from blunt impacts with road debris. Look for quality first instead of price whenever you shop for tires.

Look beyond the motor oil

Motor oil is probably the most exhaustively studied fluid in a vehicle. However it's those other overlooked fluids that make a big difference. Coolant, transmission fluid, brake fluid and other related fluids and filters, will usually have a far greater impact on a vehicle's longevity than just motor oil alone.

In certain cases you may be stuck having old tranny fluid due to internal wear issues. But if you haven't replaced the coolant, brake fluid and power steering fluid, do it. They are the cheapest insurance against maladies that push you into buying a new car such as blown engines, expensive brake repairs and steering rack replacements.

Yes, your car needs wax

A lot of folks invest in a detail and wind up with nothing more than a decent interior cleaning and a cheap glaze of chemicals over their paint.

If you want your car to look new and eventually, classic, nothing beats a good quality wax that you put on yourself. Take an afternoon and try to learn the basics by practicing on your hood and other areas of your car. Once you get the hang of it, you'll never want anyone else to wax your car again.

Invest in the interior

Most people think of a nicer stereo system or a back-up camera can bridge the difference between an old car and a new car. These options, along with Bluetooth capabilities, usually cost less than $200.

However, it is often better to start with your seat and the steering wheel instead, since that's what you touch during most of your daily journeys. Most seats will wear out over time, and steering wheels are particularly sensitive to sun exposure.

The auto recycling world is a literal heaven for these parts. Cars in severe accidents early on in life usually get totaled, leaving a perfectly nice driver seat behind along with door panels, storage bins, and minor interior and exterior parts.

As for a steering wheel cover, buy the more expensive ones that require professional installation instead of the cheap rubberized WalMart specials. With seats and steering wheel covers, you can always opt for the work of a professional upholstery shop.

Your old ride can usually look and drive like new for anywhere between 3 percent to 10 percent of that new car price — or basically what you lose in depreciation the moment you drive a new vehicle off the lot. Is it worth it? Most beaters of the modern era can last over 250,000 miles if you stay on top of maintenance and invest in the little issues so that they never become big problems.

The question is whether you are willing to spend that time and money up front. So weigh it all in, and see if you can stay debt free.