May 30, 2015

The Spare Car

For two months I had a spare car, a second car standing by in case my first car stopped working. Ordinarily, I wouldn’t recommend having a spare for anything so large, but on the other hand, you can often find a better deal if you go shopping when you’re not up against a deadline. That thought is especially significant with a car. It is easier to go car shopping if you have a car already. I wanted to do my car shopping before my car actually died at the side of the road somewhere, and I didn’t want to risk missing a critical appointment with a dead car. My old car had just passed 208,000 miles and the roar of the engine was getting louder by the week, so I wasn’t sure how much time I had before I would have to replace it.

Having two cars was not as easy it might sound. I quickly worked out that I could park one of the cars on the lawn next to my front porch – not a completely happy arrangement, but the best I could do with the space I had. I also realized I would have to drive each car at least once a week to keep it from getting soggy. In the rainy climate where I live, the brakes and wiring in a car can decline enough to notice after just a week or two of sitting idle. In practice, that meant driving the new car on Mondays and driving the old car on all other days. As I discovered, it costs almost twice as much to have two cars. A car has to be maintained and inspected whether you drive it a little or a lot. I was eligible for a “multi-car discount,” so my auto insurance premiums didn’t double, but they went up 70 percent. I realized I didn’t get much benefit from having the new car at this stage. I could only drive one car at a time, after all. I told my friends they could borrow my car (the new one, of course) if theirs broke down, but that never actually happened.

As it turned out, my old car gave me only another 2,000 miles. The engine ran hotter than it used to in the last few weeks and I risked stalling if I drove very far. The excess heat, I was told, came from friction in the engine. The moving parts inside were old and wearing out, probably rusting, and particles that came off one part of the engine might scrape away at another part. After my car stalled a few more times, it was time to drive it to a junk yard while I still could. I was pleased to find that my worn-out car was still worth 2 percent of what I originally paid for it 18 years ago. As I walked away, it was a relief to have the old car safely in the hands of the junk yard that bought it from me, and out of my hands.

Now that I have one car again, I am glad I bought my car when I did. The cost of having an extra car for two months was small compared to what I saved by buying a car when I wasn’t under pressure and could take my time shopping. However, with the benefit of hindsight, I would have done about as well to leave my previous car with the dealer when I bought my current car. I saved 2,000 miles of wear and tear on the car I have, but when I weigh that against the extra costs, effort, and inconvenience of keeping up with two cars, I could go either way. As with most kinds of extra possessions, having a spare car wasn’t quite the advantage I had imagined.

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