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Sacrificial Lambs

I suppose it was inevitable. One morning a few weeks ago I was headed north to Gaylord, MI to inspect a ’66 GTO for a client, and I stopped for a little gas on the way out of town. While fueling up, it occurred to me that it had been some time since I last checked the oil in my old Ford. With a long road trip ahead of me, I decided it was a good time to check. Oil level was fine, but my hood, which was latching securely before, would no longer latch.

For most of us, there comes a time with each vehicle we own where we can likely pinpoint the mechanical failure, broken part, or annoyance that causes us to cast a wayward eye towards something different. Standing under the buzzing industrial lights of a BP gas station just off of US-131, at about six in the morning, I mentally put a bullet in the car. A twenty dollar part I have since replaced myself in about twenty minutes time was the cause of death.

To explain this, I should probably explain my philosophy on purchasing cars I use for daily use.

Daily drivers, as they’re otherwise known- are defined in many ways. You have a daily driver if it doesn’t register that it’s raining on your car a day after you pay to have it washed. Speaking of which, any car you will cheerfully run through a car wash of spinning brushes is a daily driver. Anything you voluntarily drive through snow and salt is a daily driver. Any vehicle which doubles as your rolling office or children’s second toy room is a daily driver. It’s a car which, even as a car enthusiast, you can admit openly is just for basic transportation.

Being a person of finite resources (aren’t we all), I’ve found over the years that the cheaper the car I will voluntarily drive on a daily basis, the more money I have to enjoy things like classic cars and motorcycles. Under this philosophy, you soldier around daily in a vehicle you can hardly stand in order to play with the toy cars you really want on the weekends, making those miles count. People who race cars as a hobby know what I’m talking about.

My own preferences towards these “sacrificial lamb” vehicles encompasses one basic creed. Mileage matters. When shopping for a daily driver, I tend to be rather ambivalent on how old a vehicle is, but very interested in mileage. To explain, an analogy:

My father is about the same age as Ozzy Osbourne. He is mentally sharp as a tack, and physically fit, sailing his boat all over the Great Lakes, and hiking and biking all summer long. In the winter he splits wood and plays pickle ball three or four times a week. He had a lot of fun in his younger years, but has largely done a great job proactively taking care of himself for most of his adult life. There’s no way Ozzy could keep up with my dad on a pickle ball court, and he’d probably fall overboard were he ever a dinner guest on the boat (now there’s a thought). And the reason why is mileage.

No disrespect to Ozzy, who, whether you appreciate his music or not, has earned his success. It just makes the point. Smart money says my dad has a few less miles on the odometer than Ozzy does. Cars are the same way. Given the choice between a 12 year old car with 40,000 miles on it and a 5 year old car with 100,000 miles on it, both carefully maintained, I’ll take the older car every time. Depreciation has worked its magic, and chances are you can score an amazingly reliable bargain. It’s a must for me, as I easily drive 20-25,000 miles a year, so I basically destroy the value of whatever I drive anyway.

In fact, that’s exactly what I did. In the fall of 2011 I bought a 2000 Ford Taurus with just 40,000 miles on it. Located in Ann Arbor, the seller’s story was that he had inherited the car from his deceased aunt, who only drove it to church on Sunday’s; the proverbial “little old lady” car story that we hear all the time. Highly suspicious, I took a leap of faith and a pocket full of cash and drove two hours to see the car, which was exactly as advertised, with a file full of dealer service records from new. The seller, who was an advertising executive for Volvo North America, lived in a beautiful home in the wealthy end of town. This car was not a part of his world; he just wanted the thing out of his hair, so we struck a fast and fair deal and 5 years later, a broken hood latch spelled the end of my time with the car.

Why?

I suppose after 5 years, I was bored with the car, ready for a change and looking for an excuse. The Ford really had been surprisingly reliable, needing only some routine maintenance and replacement of wear items like suspension components and brakes. In fact, in thumbing through my repair records, in the 100,000 miles driven since I bought the car, I’ve only put shocks, brakes, tires, lower ball joints, a tune-up and a new fuel pump in the car. I did replace the rear brake lines last fall as well, as one of the lines developed a pinhole leak. That’s it. Dollar per mile, this has without a doubt been the cheapest vehicle I’ve ever owned. Still, my faithful companion is starting to look a little long in the tooth. The paint has scratches, and it has been the victim of several run-ins with parking lot monsters; a door ding here, a sideswipe there. The car is seemingly a parking lot magnet really, attracting anything to it. I recall sitting in it one very windy night at the grocery store when a runaway shopping caught in the storm came barreling out of nowhere, unobserved by me until it sideswiped my door, ripping the side mirror off and rolling away towards its next victim. I was sending a quick e-mail on my phone, and the strike sounded like a gunshot inside the car. The broken mirror casing dangled along the side of the door like the pendulum of a clock, hanging by one electrical wire.

Light bubbles of rust and corrosion are also beginning to form in a couple of lower spots on the car as well. That was my own fault; as a sacrificial lamb, the Ford had been cast out of the garage, sitting outdoors in the weather- winter, spring, summer and fall, as valuable garage space is taken by more highly regarded cars and motorcycles.

As reliable as it is, the car is about as exciting to drive as a golf cart. Equipped with the lowly pushrod OHV V-6, which in Ford circles goes by the ridiculous moniker “Vulcan”, this engine is hardly a god of fire and volcano- while reliable and smooth, the overbuilt cast-iron lump dawdles its way to a scathing 155 horsepower and 185 pound-feet of torque. It’ll shut down a 15 year old on a moped in a stoplight drag, but not much else. There is far too much weight over the front and not near enough power for handling to be considered anything other than boring, if predictable. At the limit, the front drive platform is the king of understeer, plowing nose first into any aggressive corner. As a nod to ride quality, Ford at least gave the car independent rear suspension, and the car never felt anything other than stable in most any situation. Restrained use of the throttle (and there's not much incentive for anything else) yields around 23 MPG.

So it was for many reasons that my mind began wandering towards something different. A list of desires and requirements in my next car slowly began to form in my mind. After some careful reflection, I’ve decided that a small SUV with low miles, sunroof, and a manual transmission is what I’m looking for. After years of sedans as daily drivers, I’ve grown tired of borrowing my wife’s SUV every time I need to haul something large. As an enthusiast who’s owned several convertibles, I love open air driving, and yet I’ve never owned a daily driver with a moon roof. Bob Dylan was right; the answer is “Blowin’ in the Wind”. And a manual transmission? My daily driver before the Ford was a Nissan with a manual gearbox. I can remember thinking when I bought the Ford that I was finished with manual transmission cars for daily drivers, but the truth is I really miss rowing my own gears, and I do very little city driving anyway.

And so, the search commences for the next sacrificial lamb. Haven’t found exactly what I’m looking for yet, but the good folks at Google would probably say I’m in the market for a clean Honda CRV or Toyota RAV4 that ticks off all the right boxes. Keep you posted.

Happy Motoring.

John Hansen is an automotive writer and owner of Michigan Automotive Inspection Services, which provides professional pre-purchase inspection, consultation, and appraisal services for classic automobiles located in Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio.

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