View from the Hammock: When Your Car is Officially Classified As a Clunker


Hello all.

Holly here.

I figured I’d take a minute away from my vacation mindset to drop in and say hello.

Yes, yours truly is “officially” on my usual August publishing hiatus, although with all the work I had put off doing until I had a break from publishing, I’m not sure what a real vacation looks like anymore.

One of the more distressing issues I faced in the last week or so was the fact that I am driving an official “clunker.”

Yes, that’s right. My “vintage” automobile as I prefer to call the Black Beauty, was on the government’s official list of clunkers. Not only that, but the $4500 I would have been entitled to — had I opted to go deeper into debt for an automobile that I am convinced would not be built nearly as well as mine is — is probably $1500 more than what I would get today if I tried to sell her on my own.

Let those numbers sink in and then think about what I am driving.

A 1991 Lexus LS400. In its day, a revolutionary car. Today? The damn thing still holds up very well to whatever competition you want to throw at it.

Yes, my car has all the usual 1991 LS400 quirks — a power steering pump that is going bad, brakes that have that unmistakable “soft” early Lexus feel to them, an a/c compressor that costs as much as a down payment on a small house to replace when it decides to stop working, and speakers that have finally, for the exception of two sets on the driver’s side, seen their seals rot out from old age.

But it also rides great, gets good gas mileage for its class, only has 130K miles on it — yes, after 18 years — and still looks great, both on the inside and the outside. Just two days ago, someone came up to me and starting raving about how great that particular year was. And how he wishes he still had his. (He now owns one of the much more young and nubile models. Oh, and much more expensive.) Yet, for all of these “improvements,” he told me he wished he had never traded in his 1991. “Too much crap on these new ones that can go wrong,” was one comment he muttered as he walked around the back end of the car, gazing at it as one would a prized painting. Or horse.

Unfortunately, the Black Beauty goes in tomorrow for a thorough “20 point” evaluation by a garage that has been recommended to me here in Dallas. They specialize in taking care of prized possessions such as mine. I say unfortunately because I suspect I am looking at some expensive maintenance repairs here shortly. I know the front brakes need repair. It’s time for an oil change. But then there is the power steering pump that I have continued to nurse through its dying days. Not to mention more than one “import” car center that knew nothing about the care of feeding of elder Lexii.

But back to my anticipated outlays. There is also a front suspension that needs some care and feeding. You know. Control arms. Ball joints. Bushings. Struts. The kind of things that when they need to be replaced, dollar signs begin to ring up like a pinball machine gone wild.

Then there are those speakers.

Do I pay to replace them? Or do I not?

Do I pay to repair the car? Or not?

Worse yet — do I call one of the ads I saw in Craigslist for “parted-out” LS 400s? Could I bear to go see one in pieces? Much less pick my way through the carcass to pull out the parts I need?

Is it time, finally, to bite the bullet and start looking for a new “used” car? (I long ago stopped buying new vehicles. It’s just too much money lost from the get-go in my opinion.)

The problem is — I don’t know of any new “used” cars that I would like better than this one.

While I contemplate my clunker dilemma, I suddenly realize that I am thinking about airlines again. Specifically, I am thinking about MD-80s. (I know, I’m supposed to be on vacation.)

But I would be crazy not to see the similarities to my situation and the Allegiant business model. You know — the airline that defies conventional wisdom and flies aging, maintenance-heavy MD-80s. The same MD-80s that cost next-to-nothing, resulting in ownership costs that are also next-to-nothing.

When I look at my “clunker” in that respect, while I may be looking at some hefty maintenance expenses on the horizon, and while I may pay more for gas then someone who gets 30 miles to the gallon, I have no car payments. And I haven’t had any in 10 years. (Yes, I am the Black Beauty’s second owner.)

For my purposes, the Black Beauty gets me from point A to point B quite well. Quietly. And in style.

Taking this “Allegiant” approach, the answer is obvious. I think I’ll keep her. Then again, I haven’t seen the results of the “20 point check list” I’m going to get tomorrow.

Nah, I still think I’ll keep her.

Heck, maybe I’ll even call one of these guys back who are parting out some of her siblings. Yank out a few tweeters and woofers. Oh, and an instrument cluster as well. (Another legendary weak point.) And maybe a power lock switch for the driver’s door. (I broke the top off mine a few months ago.) Maybe I need to look at the process as the equivalent of performing an “organ transplant.” Or stem cell renewal. As opposed to picking the carcass of similar vehicles in an effort to keep my official “clunker” on the road.

Yep, I’m game. Better yet, I’ll still be much better off, financially, than had I sent her off to the equivalent of the automobile slaughter house. Even if I do have to spend a few bucks on getting her back into shape.

Thank you Allegiant. You’ve helped me make my decision.

Fie on the “Cash for Clunkers” program.