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A rough road

Know the true costs of owning, maintaining a classic car

Aug. 15, 2009 - 11:09AM   |   Last Updated: Aug. 15, 2009 - 11:09AM  |  
The cool factor is high -- but so is the headache factor. Know the challenges before you commit to a vintage car.
The cool factor is high -- but so is the headache factor. Know the challenges before you commit to a vintage car. (ASSOCIATED PRESS)
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Lots of people like the idea of owning a vintage car but the reality is often not what they expect. It's kind of like buying a Great Dane puppy: Six months later, you discover you may have bitten off more than you can chew.

Here's why:

It's hard to PCS with a classic car.

An old car needs a safe, secure place to stay. If you move around a lot, where will you keep it? Parking on the street is no good, especially for weeks or months on end. And a car cover won't cut it unless you don't mind coming home to a rusted-out hulk.

Old cars are very sensitive to the elements and also suffer badly from "just sitting" for long periods. Tires go flat, springs sag, rodents chow down on wiring harnesses. It can get ugly more quickly than you expect.

If you don't have an enclosed garage or time to spend keeping your old car operational you might want to wait until you do.

Old cars are finicky and maintenance-intensive.

Unlike modern cars whose tuneup intervals are measured in years and tens of thousands of miles cars built before computer controls and fuel injection need much more attention: everything from winter/fall adjustment and cleaning of the carburetor to annual full-boogie tuneups. They also tend to stall out, overheat and break down. It's just part of the experience. That can be a hassle.

And if you can't perform regular upkeep yourself, you'll need to find someone who can and that is no easy task.

Many shops won't work on cars more than about 25 years old. And even if they're willing, their mechanics who are often younger than the car may have no clue how to service and maintain obsolete systems that haven't been in production for decades. You may have to find an old-timer who remembers how to adjust a carburetor and points.

Parts for old cars are often expensive and hard to find.

If you own a modern car, finding parts is usually as easy as heading over to your local auto parts store or dealership. But with older cars especially those whose engines haven't been made in 30-plus years, or whose make has long been discontinued finding even basic things such as air and oil filters is challenging.

You may have to search online or attend swap meets that are hours away from where you live. And when you do find the part you need, it may cost much more than you expected.

Old cars can be tricky to drive.

We take so much for granted today, from power steering and anti-lock brakes to tires that can safely handle high speeds.

In contrast, most cars built before the mid-'80s did not have good brakes, let alone an anti-lock brake system. It was typical to see a 4,000-pound muscle car with a 350-horsepower engine riding on 15-inch steel wheels with 70-series tires that would be considered marginal on a modern econo-box.

It's easy to wreck one of these cars by braking suddenly and finding out you don't have enough room to stop. You may have to deal with the rear end swapping places with the front because the wheels lock up. Sometimes, the suspension or tires can give up midcorner.

People who did not grow up with these cars will be in for a surprise when they first drive one.

In sum, owning a classic car is a lot of fun and can be rewarding. But it's not without downsides and you should ponder them carefully before you commit.

Eric Peters is a Military Times contributing writer and automotive expert.

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