An Old VW For Everyday Use?

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My friend (and web ninja master of EPautos) Dom asked me the other night what I thought about getting an old VW to replace his modern car as his everyday driver. He hasn’t owned an old Beetle before. I have owned two – and drove one of them (a ’73 Super Beetle) in DC traffic (the Ultimate Test) as my everyday commuter for several years back in the early ’90s. Here are some thoughts about the pros – and cons – of driving an old Beetle as an everyday car:

The Pros:

* Even today, old Beetles are still pretty cheap to buy. No doubt, prices have gone up (I paid $700 for my ’73 circa 1991) but relative to the cost of buying a new (or even recent vintage used) car, they are still very low. The sweet spot for a solid “driver” – which means, basically sound (it might need a tune-up, or minor brake work, but not major engine or transmission repairs) and with a decent (not rusted out, structurally sound) body – seems to be in the vicinity of $3,000-$5,000 dollars.

If you watch Craigs list like a hungry vulture – and keep your “car-dar” on for opportunities locally – you may still able to snap one up for less than $3,000. (I’ve seen one in my area recently that looked good with an “1,800 or best offer” sign on the windshield.)

You’ll pay more for a convertible, of course – and a lot more for a restored example. But solid, get-in-and-drive ‘em Bugs are still obtainable for about what you’d pay for a high-miles, 8-10 year-old used economy car. And the upside is that unlike a high-miles, 8-10 year-old used economy car, an old Beetle is not reaching the end of its economically viable life. Because they are simple, basic cars – without computers, without elaborate emissions controls – they can be kept running at reasonable cost almost indefinitely – the chief limitation being the body(which is vulnerable to rust) rather than the drivetrain. This is the opposite of modern cars, which may not rust out for decades but which can become junkyard fodder when cost-prohibitive drivetrain repairs (usually related to the electronics or emissions systems) render the car not worth fixing.

Related to the above is you won’t have to worry about emissions inspections – which in most states aren’t required of cars more than 21-25 years old. The last new Beetles were sold (in the U.S.) in 1979 – almost 35 years ago. And even if your state still requires that a car pass “smog” in order to register it/keep the tags valid, you won’t have to spend $500 on a new catalytic converter (or $1,000 on major engine repairs) to do so. Usually, adjusting the timing and cleaning the carb – maybe a new set of plugs – will do the trick. Shouldn’t cost you more than $25 – or take you more than half an hour.

* The Beetle will not depreciate.

Unlike almost any new or late-model used car, whatever you pay for your Beetle today, you’ll probably be able to get back two or three (or five or seven) years from now, should you decide to sell. Beetles are classics. Their value has plateaued – or increased. Only if you seriously abuse a Beetle and render it in obviously worse shape than it was when you got it will it be worth significantly less than what you paid for it.Beetle cut-away

This makes it a true investment – unlike almost anything new, which will lose value every day you own it.

* It will cost you next to nothing to insure a Beetle – assuming you go for the bare minimum legally mandated liability-only policy. I am assuming you’ll pay cash, of course – which is another money-saver all by itself, since it means no car payments every month. You may have to spend $30 here, $15 there every once in a while for things like a fan belt or a new set of plugs. But recurrent – and significant – monthly drains on your wallet will be a thing of the past.

* A Beetle can be easily – and for the most part – cheaply maintained by its owner. If not by its owner, then by any competent independent mechanic, whose services ought to cost you a fraction of dealership hourly rates.

This, perhaps, is the Beetle’s biggest draw.

Assuming you get one that’s mechanically sound, the car’s routine maintenance requirements are extremely basic. You can, for example, change the oil with nothing more than a crescent wrench. It is not even necessary to jack the car up. There are just four spark plugs and a single fan belt – all easily accessed with very basic tools. Being air-cooled, there is no radiator to worry about, no coolant leaks to sweat, no thermostats to get stuck, no water pumps to fail. Replacing bake pads/shoes is simple (and cheap). Ditto tires – which are not “low profile” mounted on fancy aluminum rims, but el cheapos fitted to durable, inexpensive 15×6 steel wheels. I just checked Tire Rack and they stock a set of 165/80-15 tires (factory size) for $272 ($68 each). See here. That’s cheap, chief.

The one hassle with old Beetles, maintenance-wise, is checking/adjusting the points in the distributor – which you’ll need to do about once every six months or so if the car is driven regularly. But by now, many old Beetles will have been updated with a conversion kit that eliminates the points. If your particular car hasn’t been, you can buy the kit (about $100; see here and here) and install it yourself in about 10 minutes – again, with basic hand tools. I have done this job several times; it’s very easy. Anyone who can remove/install a doorknob can handle it.

* Beetles are great in the snow.

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